When Jimmy Hoffa Met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Growing Alliance of Labor and Civil Rights

Detroit, Michigan, March 30, 1965. Two men meet at a small press conference before the funeral of a slain civil rights activist. Their meeting seems like an unlikely pairing for us today—one a slick haired, brash, and controversial labor leader and the other a measured, eloquent, and inspirational pastor who had galvanized the civil rights movement. The former was there to present a check for $25,000 for the latter’s work on racial equality. Their stories varied tremendously but, at this moment, they intersected, manifesting all the complicated and contradictory impulses of American life during the middle of the twentieth century. Those two men were Jimmy Hoffa and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Music: “The Things That Keep Us Here” by Monomyth, “Almost A Year Ago” by John Deley and the 41 Players, “Crate Digger” by Gunnar Olsen, “Crimson Fly” by Huma-Huma, “Dreamer” by Hazy, “Eternity” by Lahar, and “I Am OK” by Vishmak

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Detroit, Michigan, March 30, 1965. Two men meet at a small press conference before the funeral of slain civil rights activist. Their meeting seems like an unlikely pairing for us todayone a slick haired, brash, and controversial labor leader and the other measured, eloquent, and inspirational pastor who had galvanized the civil rights movement. The former was there to present a check for $25,000 for the latter’s work on racial equality. Their stories varied tremendously but, at this moment, they intersected, manifesting all the complicated and contradictory impulses of American life during the middle of the twentieth century. Those two men were Jimmy Hoffa and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  


Jimmy Hoffa and Martin Luther King, Jr. traversed very different paths to national prominence before their meeting in 1965. Born in 1913 in Brazil, Indiana, Hoffa’s early life was one of poverty and struggle. His father died when he was seven, forcing his mother to support the family by cooking at a local restaurant, performing housework for others, and providing a laundry service. Hoffa and his brother helped as children, which influenced the former’s future interest in unions and combating poverty. The family moved to Detroit in 1924 to find greater work opportunitiesDue to his family’s struggles and his desire to work, Hoffa left school by eighth grade. 

His first impression of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the union he would be connected to for the rest of his life, came while he was a teen working for a local grocery store in Detroit. Working conditions were poor and job security was always threatened. He helped organize a work strike, where he gained support from the local union, quickly rising through the ranks. He was elected president of Teamsters Local 299 in 1937Over the next twenty years, Hoffa’s role in the Teamsters continually expanded, resulting in his election as international vice-president in 1952 and then general president in 1957, a position he held for 14 years. During that time, Hoffa worked to expand and improve the lives of the union’s membership. His most notable achievement was the 1964 National Master Freight Agreementwhich brought over 400,000 over-the-road truckers under one contract with better wages and working conditions. 

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s upbringing, by contrast, shared little in common with Jimmy Hoffa’s. Born in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia to a minister and the daughter of a minister, the church played a central role in his life. His father, Martin Luther King, Sr., served as the minister for the Ebenezer Baptist Church. A prodigious student, young King enrolled in Morehouse College at the age of 15, earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology just four years later. He then earned a bachelor’s in divinity from Crozer Seminary and a doctorate from Boston University. During his formative years, King developed his philosophy of nonviolence based on the teachings of Indian political figure Mohandas K. Gandhi, protestant theologian Paul Tillich, and American transcendentalist Henry David ThoreauAfter moving to Alabama to start his ministry work, King became involved in civil rights activism in 1955 when he was chosen as the leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association. He lent critical support and leadership during the Montgomery bus boycotts of 1955-56, which had been launched by Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the black section of a segregated bus. These boycotts resulted in the desegregation of the city’s bus services by a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.  

In 1957, King helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and, over the next few years, played a pivotal role in the fight for civil rights. This culminated in the Birmingham marches of April 1963, where he faced down police aggression at the hands of notorious police chief Eugene “Bull” Connor, and his iconic speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom later that AugustIn that speech, he said these legendary words: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” His efforts, along with thousands upon thousands of activists and ordinary citizens, led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which made discrimination in places of public accommodation and federal funded programs illegal. 


In contrast with Dr. KingJimmy Hoffa’s interactions with and involvement in civil rights were complicated. Within the Teamsters as an organization, Hoffa supported a non-discrimination policy as general president and outlined this policy in an April 16, 1958 letter to the membership. “As Americans, we should be opposed to bigotry and racial discrimination at every turn, and do everything in possible to make the Bill of Rights a reality for every citizen,” he wrote. This policy meant a strict non-discriminatory hiring policy at all locals within the Teamsters. However, a 1959 article in the Indianapolis Recorder noted that the Senate Rackets Committee, then investigating Hoffa, alleged that he discriminated against African Americans at his Local 299 in DetroitIn a possible effort to challenge the allegations, the Teamsters hired Augustus G. Parker as the first African American legal counsel for the union. In the Indianapolis Recorder article announcing his hire, it was noted that “a National Bar Association resolution recently praised the union for its nondiscriminatory activities, especially in the South.” Reflecting on this later in his memoirs, Hoffa wrote: “Many inequities continued to exist in trucking circles in various parts of the nation, and I had come to realize that only a strong, solid, large union could end them. I was arguing against racism long before the federal politicians were aware of it as an issue.” 

Despite the nondiscrimination policy within the Teamsters and his own declarations against racism, Hoffa did not support the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, organized by such prominent African American leaders as A. Philip Randolph of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and Dr. King. Ironically, Hoffa did call for a march on Washington in 1963, but for organized labor and without any overt references to civil rights for African Americans, the Knoxville News-Sentinel reported. In an August 22, 1963 interview published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Hoffa called pending federal civil rights legislation “a farce and a fake” and called the March on Washington “a futile gesture.” He went on: “I do not believe that picketing will solve the problem. The march is no answer to the question of jobs.” A week later, in an almost contradictory statement, the Vineland Daily Journal quoted Hoffa saying, “Only by pressure our Congress moves . . . .These people couldn’t get anything any other way so they came to Washington to show pressure.” However, by 1965, his inconsistent public attitudes towards civil rights began to change. 


March 1965 was a watershed month in the history of the civil rights struggle. Recently returned from Europe after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest person ever to receive the honor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the SCLC worked on developing a new campaign to push for voting rights. They chose the city of Selma, where “only a few hundred of the city’s fifteen thousand black residents has been able to register to vote,” according to labor historian Joshua B. Freeman. On March 7, 1965, civil rights activists attempted a 50-mile march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery where they were brutally assaulted by police officers led by their notorious chief, James G. Clark. As the Anniston Star reported, “state troopers and deputies on Horseback, under orders from Gov. George Wallace to stop a ‘freedom’ march to the capital, Sunday tear-gassed 600 Negroes bleeding under the lashing of clubs, bullwhips, and ropes.”  

After the events of March 7, dubbed by many as “Bloody Sunday,” the Newark Advocate described King as “undaunted” by the events. He said to the paper: 

In the light of Sunday’s tragic event, I have no alternative but to recommend to my close associates and the Negro people of Alabama to continue in their determined attempt to walk to Montgomery to protest the injustices and indignities that surround their lives. 

After weeks of continued clashes, court injunctions, and assaults, the civil rights activists were finally able to march from Selma to Montgomery, starting on March 21 and finishing the 50-mile trek on March 25. Sixteen-thousand people from all walks of life participated in the march. Addressing the crowd that day, Dr. King said, “there never was a moment in American history more honorable and more inspiring than the pilgrimage of clergymen and laymen of every race and faith pouring into Selma to face danger at the side of its embattled Negroes.  


While the march was in many ways a triumph, it was not without its tragedies. On March 9, two days after “Bloody Sunday,” James Reeb, a Unitarian minister from Massachusetts who came to support the march, was severely beaten by four white men and received a serious head injury. He died two days laterThe other high-profile casualty in Selma was 39-year-old Viola Gregg Liuzzo. The Detroit-based mother of five had been shot and killed in Alabama by a “carload of Klan night riders as she and a young black SCLC volunteer were driving through Lowndes County on their way to Montgomery to help ferry the marchers back to Selma.” As historian David J. Garrow noted, her murder “was a chilling confirmation that King had been right about a ‘season of suffering’ that still lay ahead, that successful completion of the trek to Montgomery did not mean the larger struggle had been won or that triumph was close at hand.”  

Condolences for Liuzzo poured in from leaders across the political spectrum, from Michigan Governor George Romney to Vice President Hubert Humphrey. But one of the most unlikely people who showed not only sympathy for her loss but publicly dedicated himself to her cause was none other than Teamsters General President Jimmy Hoffa. The fact that Liuzzo was the wife of Teamster business agent Anthony J. Liuzzo likely influenced Hoffa’s actions, as the situation was somewhat personal for the union head. While he didn’t support federal legislation that would outlaw groups like the Ku Klux Klan (he worried that such a federal law could outlaw unions like the Teamsters), Hoffa nevertheless believed in prosecuting those responsible for her death, the Bridgeport Post reportedOn March 30, 1965 in Detroit, among attendees such as Michigan Lieutenant Governor William Milliken and United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther, Hoffa and Dr. King paid their respects to Liuzzo.   

In the funeral home in front of a field of cameras before the service, Jimmy Hoffa and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. met in person. They shook hands and Hoffa presented King with a check for $25,000 to the SCLC, as a way to “alleviate ‘some of the cost and suffering’ King’s movement has experienced,” according to the Orlando SentinelHoffa also said to King, “The Teamsters will give whatever help we can give you.” Their meeting immediately became headline news. A photograph of the two together was printed on the front page of the Odessa American and articles appeared in such varying publications as the Phoenix Gazette, the Hagerstown, Maryland Daily Mail, and the Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania Times NewsAfter years of differing lives and strategies, Hoffa and King had found common ground.  

However, not everyone took their meeting well. Hoffa’s support of King caused a backlash within some of the rank-and-file members of the Teamsters. An article in the Anniston Star noted that Teamsters Local 612, led by truck drivers Johnny Lynch and Harry Lowe of Birmingham, Alabama, distributed petitions for Hoffa to ask for the check back. “Jimmy Hoffa has stabbed us in the back,” a rank-and-file member was quoted as saying in the Binghamton, New York Press and Sun-Bulletin. Teamsters local 515 of Chattanooga, Tennessee also protested the move, sending telegrams to Hoffa demanding he rescind the donation. Despite harsh criticism, Hoffa stood his ground in his support for King. As Hoffa said in remarks reprinted in the Chattanooga Daily Mail: 

I will not compromise on principles that I have had for years. This is not in regard to white people and black people. It is a question of whether we will be deprived of our individual rights guaranteed by the Constitution.  

If the right to vote can be taken away from a person because of a color, the right of a union member to vote or to participate in union affairs can also be taken away. 

Hoffa’s support of King went beyond just a donation. When King called for an economic boycott of Alabama, to push the needle on the voting rights struggle, Hoffa didn’t denounce the move but rather offered strategic adviceAs the Lansing State Journal reported, Hoffa believed that getting railroads and trucking on board with the boycott might ensure its success but was unsure of the legal pathways to make it happen. When King and the SCLC reached out for legal guidance on this question, the State Journal noted that Hoffa and the Teamsters “would be willing to meet and discuss the proposal.” While King’s proposed boycott fizzled out by the summer of 1965, Hoffa’s openness to the discussion on the matter, along with his donation to King and the SCLC, represented an evolution in the Teamster’s public persona on the question of civil rights. As for King, the Selma campaign was one of the central forces that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act on August 5, 1965, a cornerstone piece of legislation during the civil rights era. 


So, what makes Hoffa and King’s meeting so important, so relevant to understanding the dynamics of the civil rights movement? In a sense, their meeting was a real-life manifestation of the complicated dynamic between organized labor and the struggle for civil rights. As political scientist Alan Draper explained 

The relationship between organized labor and the civil rights movement proceeded along two tracks. At work, the two groups were adversaries, as civil rights groups criticized employment discrimination by the unions. But in politics, they allied. Unions and civil rights organizations partnered to support liberal legislation and to oppose conservative southern Democrats, who were as militant in opposing unions as they were fervent in supporting white supremacy. 

Hoffa’s interactions with the civil rights movement reflected this phenomenon. While he publicly supported nondiscrimination policy for the Teamsters and the work of Dr. King, he also faced charges of discrimination within the Teamsters and didn’t support the 1963 March on Washington.  

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the SCLC, and the broader civil rights movement received substantial support from organized labor, specifically the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the AFL-CIO. In 1957, the Packinghouse Workers union, like Hoffa would do eight years later, publicly presented Dr. King with a check for $11,000 towards the SCLC’s voter education programAs Draper also noted, the AFL-CIO supported Dr. King’s efforts during the Montgomery Bus Boycott and donated funds towards voter registration in 1956. The UAW and its President, Walter Reuther, donated money and logistical support towards the success of the 1963 March on Washington (something the AFL-CIO reluctantly declined to do). As the Miami Herald wrote in a detailed, 1965 piece on the relationship between the UAW and the civil rights movement, “To Reuther, perhaps more than any other national union leader, a labor union is not just a bread-and-butter organization looking out for the paychecks of its members. He views the UAW as an instrument for social betterment, committed to fight labor’s battles in the political arena as well as at the bargaining table.” 

King himself underscored this important connection between unions and the fight for civil rights in a letter to Jimmy Hoffa on April 12, 1965. In it, he thanked the Teamster’s leader for his $25,000 donation and his commitment to supporting the SCLC. As a part of his thank you, King emphasized organized labor and its central role in the struggle for equality. He writes:  

As we move ahead, we here at SCLC feel that we must keep in the forefront of our minds the necessity of strengthening that growing alliance between labor and the civil rights movement.  Labor’s problems are our problems and our problems are labor’s problems. You may be sure that we will be at your side in the great struggle to eliminate unemployment, poverty, and meeting the challenges of automation. 

 This connection of the two movements represented a long-term view, deeply held by King, that political equality could only be fulfilled with economic justice. In fact, when King’s was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, he was there to support striking sanitation workers who were fighting against unsafe work conditionsAs he said in his final sermon the night before his deathin the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done and done in a hurry to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty; their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.”  

King’s assassination in 1968 and Hoffa’s disappearance in 1975 closed a chapter of American history—one where the symbol of civil rights and the symbol of organized labor, whose divergent lives converged during a critical juncture of the era—often shared space on the front page of daily newspapers. 

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