Fighting Jim Crow on the High Seas - The NMU’s Fall Strike 75 Years Later

  • 1. The Back Story
  • 2. The Meeting at Cooper Union
  • 3. Early Days of the Strike
  • 4. Everyone Helping the Strikers
  • 5. The Strike Wears On and On
  • 6. Did They Really Break the Color Line

There were “white ships” and there were “black ships.”

There were a few ships which carried both black and white seamen and they were known as “checker-board ships” but on those, Negroes could serve only in the galley crew.

That was how it was at the time NMU was founded. It had been that way on American ships since the Civil War.

~Bernard Raskin, On a True Course (1967)

The National Maritime Union transformed the lives of American seamen—black and white—against all odds. It broke the color barrier on American ships, and vastly improved conditions for seamen—at a time when Jim Crow segregation prevailed in workplaces throughout the country.

Why would anyone in their right mind go on strike in 1936—in the teeth of the Great Depression? How did it happen? Why didn’t the idealism of the new union last?

Labor Arts marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the union with a series of exhibits: the first features striking graphic art; the second features audio recordings of Paul Robeson raising his extraordinary voice in support of the NMU; and the fourth gives you audio from Woody Guthrie, a tall tale about Woody to be read aloud, and recollections from veteran seamen.

This third exhibit in the series, about the historic Fall Strike of 1936, includes 52 amazing photos and graphics, and stories told by veterans of the strike. We hope it whets your appetite, and we urge you to consult the resources page for more information—this is only part of the story.