|Herbert Hill, Anti
Racist Dies 2004
The New York TimesHerbert Hill protesting in City Hall Park in New York City in 1965.
Herbert Hill, a Voice Against Discrimination, Dies at 80By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
Published: August 21, 2004
Herbert Hill, who as the N.A.A.C.P.'s labor director in the 1950's and 1960's was one of the loudest and most effective voices raised against racial discrimination by unions, died on Sunday in Madison, Wis. He was 80.
His death, which came after a long illness, was announced by the University of Wisconsin, where he was an emeritus professor of Afro-American studies.
Through sharp oratory and myriad lawsuits, Mr. Hill played a pivotal role in the multidecade effort to pressure many labor unions to allow blacks and other minorities to become members.
But Mr. Hill also accused others of dragging their feet on desegregation, including Hollywood studios, General Motors, General Electric and many New York City construction companies. Acting as a national watchdog on job discrimination, he also criticized President John F. Kennedy and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as not being vigorous enough in fighting segregation.
After becoming labor director for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1951, Mr. Hill concentrated his fire on labor unions, asserting that many were oblivious to blacks' concerns and remained exclusively white through techniques like steering new positions to the relatives of union members.
Mr. Hill, who was white and once worked as an organizer for the steelworkers' union, faulted many unions, saying the carpenters, electrical workers, sheet metal workers, plumbers and operating engineers, among others, had engaged in "a broad pattern of racial discrimination and segregation'' by excluding blacks, maintaining segregated union locals and having separate seniority lines by race.
Thanks in part to the N.A.A.C.P.'s efforts, including victories in lawsuits, these unions and others eventually began serious integration efforts.
Mr. Hill told The New York Post in 1959: "The real corruption of the American labor movement is not the fast-buck boys or the racketeers who have wormed their way in. The real corruption is moral. It's when unions say they're against discrimination and then go right on keeping Negroes out of membership and out of jobs. There's your real dry rot."
Mr. Hill's blunt criticisms so angered union leaders that some of the most powerful urged the N.A.A.C.P. to fire him, saying he was sabotaging unions and sowing tensions between the labor and civil rights movements.
Broadening his efforts beyond labor, Mr. Hill criticized Hollywood in 1955, saying, "The motion picture industry still treats the Negro as an invisible man, as a menial."
In the 1960's, he led the N.A.A.C.P.'s effort to file discrimination complaints against General Electric, Shell Oil and Lockheed. He organized pickets at G.M. facilities in 23 cities and at construction sites around New York and filed an unsuccessful lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court seeking to halt many state and city construction projects because of segregation.
In 1977, Mr. Hill, still crossing swords with organized labor, expressed fury that unions had won a Supreme Court ruling that intentional discrimination must be proved before the courts would view seniority systems as discriminatory. Seniority systems could hurt blacks because they were often recently hired and were thus usually the first workers laid off during downturns.
After that ruling, Mr. Hill said, "The A.F.L.-C.I.O. has used the Nixon court to get the heart out of Title VII," the federal law barring job discrimination.
In August 1977, Mr. Hill quit the N.A.A.C.P., saying at the time, in a reference to the A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s president, "George Meany will shout hooray.'' He then became a professor of industrial relations and Afro-American studies at the University of Wisconsin. There, he met and married Mary Lydon, a professor of French, who died in 2001. He leaves no survivors.
In Madison, he developed a reputation as a serious scholar and helped to build one of the nation's largest and most successful departments of African-American studies. His books include "Black Labor and the American Legal System" (1978), "Race in America: The Struggle for Equality" (1993) and "Divided We Stand: American Workers and the Struggle for Black Equality" (2001).
Herbert Hill was born in Brooklyn on Jan. 24, 1924, and graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1942. He received his bachelor's degree in 1945 from New York University and a master's in 1948 from the New School of Social Research, where Hannah Arendt was his adviser.
In the summer of 1947, he did volunteer work for the N.A.A.C.P., helping to integrate recreational facilities in New York. In 1949, he became a full-time N.A.A.C.P. organizer, and two years later became its labor director.
In his years at the N.A.A.C.P. he became an authority on contemporary black literature and culture, writing and editing several books on those subjects. His book "Anger and Beyond: The Negro Writer in the United States" was published in 1966.
At the N.A.A.C.P., he often played the outspoken heavy, while the group's executive director, Roy Wilkins, maintained a more soft-spoken, congenial public posture, although he protected Mr. Hill from the attacks of labor leaders.
In a 1977 interview, Mr. Hill seemed to accept that his strong, blunt views had caused a parting of the ways with some onetime union allies.
"These people are no longer my friends,'' he said. "I take these ideas and values much too seriously. I cannot be friends with the enemies of black progress."