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Our Union Heroes: W.C. Young

Berry Craig
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EDITOR'S NOTE: A national AFL-CIO website says "the AFL-CIO works to achieve one goal: A better life for working people." This story continues "Our Union Heroes" series which highlight outstanding Kentucky trade unionists whose careers reflected that goal. It is hoped that one day the Kentucky State AFL-CIO can create a Kentucky Labor Hall of Fame to permanently honor our union heroes.   


Alliance for Retired Americans

"This Black History Month, we at the AFL-CIO want to recognize that Black history is not a separate history; it’s not a single month. Black history is also America’s history, and it’s America’s labor history, too," the AFL-CIO said in a statement, which continued: 

“It can never be overstated the critical role Black unionists played and continue to play in building our modern labor movement, securing the hard-fought workplace protections that we all enjoy today, and advancing civil rights across the country. 

"Black workers have been on the front lines of so many of the most pressing labor rights issues of the times and have powerfully organized to fight systemic racism and exploitation. We still have so much to learn from the history of our country’s earliest Black trade unions; inspiring figures like A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Hattie Canty, Clara Holder, Arlene Holt Baker and so many others; pivotal moments like the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike; and the ongoing efforts of Black workers across our country who are walking picket lines, leading our unions and driving change as we speak.”

Those “so many others” include W.C. Young of Paducah. “He was an ambassador for labor,” said Jeff Wiggins, Kentucky State AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer. “When you saw him, you saw a good labor man.” 

A labor and civil rights leader from Paducah, Young also fought for justice beyond the labor movement--all the way to South Africa. When he died in 1996 at age 77, he was living next-door to his church and down the street from his old office. 

The symbolism wasn't lost on him. “I really believe what I was taught in Sunday school,” said Young. "You are supposed to love your brother and sister. That's the way it is with the union movement.”

Born in Paducah in 1919, Young was baptized into Washington Street Baptist Church in 1937, the year of Paducah’s own version of the biblical flood. The Ohio River spilled over its banks and inundated most of the historic old town where the Ohio and Tennessee rivers converge. 

Young, a World War II army veteran, was a church deacon, trustee, moderator, Sunday school superintendent and building committee chairman. 

He lacked four years spending half a century in the labor movement. He retired in 1987 as Region 10 director of the AFL-CIO's Committee on Political Education, COPE for short. 

Young pocketed his first union card in 1941 as a member of the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks at Paducah's old Illinois Central railroad repair shops. Those were Jim Crow days in his hometown. The majority white society kept Blacks separate and unequal. 

But Young, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr,. saw organized labor and the civil rights movement as natural allies. "W.C. would say that he never went anywhere without his union card and his NAACP card in his wallet," said J.W. Cleary, president of the Paducah-McCracken County NAACP branch, and a retired member of United Steelworkers Local 550. 

In his  1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos, or Community? Dr. King wrote that “the labor movement, especially in its earlier days, was one of the few great institutions, where a degree of hospitality and mobility was available to Negroes. While the rest of the nation accepted rank discrimination and prejudice as ordinary and usual…trade unions, particularly in the CIO, leveled all barriers to equal membership. In a number of instances, Negroes rose to influential national office." 

W.C. Young was among them. His last local office was in the old West Kentucky Building and Construction Trades Council, AFL-CIO, building, about 100 yards from his front doorstep. But for many years, he commuted by airliner between his Chicago office and his Paducah home.

Young traveled many miles for the union movement. He visited all 50 states. 

In 1993, Young was part of a three-member AFL-CIO team that journeyed to South Africa to find out what organized labor could do to help the majority Black population--especially union members--overcome apartheid against stubborn and often violent white resistance. 

Young was also a longtime civil rights leader in Kentucky and nationally. He was a life member of the local NAACP branch. 

In 1961, he was named to a panel that advised President John F Kennedy on civil rights legislation. Three years later, he became an aide to Gov. Edward T. Breathitt. Also in 1964, Young was in the crowd for King’s march on the state Capitol in Frankfort in support of civil rights legislation. In 1966, Kentucky became the first Southern state to pass a civil rights bill. 

In 1968, Young became director of the COPE Minority Department in Washington. He said that civil rights leaders "have always known that with the labor movement they have a strong friend with clout." 

In 1977, Young was sent to Chicago to be director of COPE Region 1, which encompasses seven Midwestern states. After a reorganization, he became head of Region 10, which included Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee. 

Young also loved politics. A devoted Democrat, he helped in many state, local and national campaigns. At age 75, he worked for then Congressman Tom Barlow, a Paducah Democrat, as a field representative. 

Young's work on behalf of his church, organized labor, civil rights, and his hometown did not go unrecognized. In 1976, he founded the Paducah Community Center, which 20 years later was renamed the W.C. Young Community Center. The multipurpose facility is headquarters for Paducah's annual Eighth of August celebration, a traditional Black homecoming and holiday. 

He received numerous honors, including a 1989 award from the Louisville chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a national organization that helps encourage minorities to vote and get involved in the political process. 

Like Young, Randolph was a labor and civil rights leader. Young served on the institute’s board of directors. 

Local labor paid tribute to him, too. The highest honor the Paducah-based Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council bestows is the W.C. Young award. Young received the first award in 1994. In addition, Young was inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2003.

Wiggins, from Reidland, a Paducah suburb, received the Young Award in 2014. “To be honored with an award  named for W.C. Young is kind of like winning the lottery,” said Wiggins, a Steelworker who was a longtime president of the Area Council.   

Listed in Who's Who in American Labor, Young was a keen student of labor history, some of which he made himself. He believed that labor history should be doubly stressed to young trade unionists. He compared them to the biblical Israelites whom Moses led to the Promised  Land: "Moses told the children they would have houses they did not build, wells they did not dig and vineyards they did not plant. In the trade union movement, we have reached the  promised land, but some of our young people don't know how hard it was to get there."