When the Black Light Society Took on Ma Bell


September 14, 1991|By GARLAND L. THOMPSON | GARLAND L. THOMPSON,Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Sun.

All this touting of Clarence Thomas' life story, when he shouldbe answering hard questions about his attitudes, prompts the thought that his life was really quite ordinary. Few American blacks older than 35 missed meeting the walls of discrimination that limited our ambition, even as we struggled to burst free.

But to understand the distrust Supreme Court nominee Thomas engenders, you have to look hard at the days he remembers so tearfully. He gets all choked up, but the rest of us could use drier eyes.

Mine is only one such story.

I started in Bell of Pennsylvania's mailroom in 1963. A state senator had spoken for me -- you needed it then -- and a group of janitors, older men, gathered to cheer my hiring. ''Mailboys'' moved up to craft jobs barred to most blacks.

Six years later, after a leave to serve in the Navy, military electronics training had enable me to win early assignment to the school for computerized telephone switchgear. I had won a top-craft job in the citadel of high technology, but most blacks were still janitors, or, if they were women, switchboard operators, the Bell System's lowest-paying job. The company had not discriminated against me, but bias was spread over almost all around me.

L A small group of us formed a cabal to do something about it.

Ten men and a woman began cranking out newsletters and holding public meetings. We used our employer's extensive internal mails to reach friends in other locations. We analyzed the failures of earlier protest drives. We met with community groups and talked to news reporters. We even got Philadelphia mayoral candidates to denounce the phone company's bias.

You had to be careful with Mother Bell, whose Special Agents, licensed private eyes, would pounce on an indiscretion. We rarely discussed plans over the phone. And any tactic tried too often could be counter-punched. Vice-presidential meetings issued ''clarifications'' after our flyers, so we cranked out new ones faster than the honchos could win approval for theirs.

The Company -- everyone said it like that -- almost banned private mail. But everyone else used it, too. Then the honchos vowed to search pouches at the central mail room. We mailed from random locations, at weird hours.

We started a button drive: ''Black Light Society: Unity, Communication and Mutual Assistance,'' bold letters under a black sun shining on a white phone held up by a black fist.

The honchos tried to ban all buttons. That upset the unions, whose buttons could not be banned.

Then came the stroke we had awaited: Cooptation. A black worker who had joined earlier protests, seized a leading role and signed away all grievances, appeared to join ours. He and another man disseminated anonymous leaflets attacking the union. ''Why Are You Striking?'' they asked blacks at contract time. A national strike was in the wind, but the union had done nothing about discrimination. Why not cross picket lines, since our families needed the money? Most whites, furious, thought it was our work.

Our response, with the recognized logo and phone numbers, noted that The Company controlled the jobs, not unions. Fights between blacks and whites only helped The Company, which wanted division. Our group stood with the union, and the cowards who would circulate such a nasty, unsigned flyer must be Judases. Union leaders posted our flyer on its bulletin boards. The co-opters faded, outflanked.

Then Equal Employment Opportunity Commission probers came to us. Some people in other states had filed bias complaints. Would we help out with information?

Our group knew the plotters in other cities, especially a Detroit group assisted by the UAW's offshoot Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement. Telephone workers were not in the UAW, but DRUM's angry young blacks signed on anyway.

Three of us ringleaders, Benjamin Nolan, now a Boston psychologist; William Seals, now a Gaithersburg lawyer; and myself -- all top craftsmen -- brought three would-be plaintiffs to meet EEOC's chief investigator. We pored over printouts of Mother Bell's personnel files, demystifying the arcane language of telephone work for the prober. Of all the groups, he said, ours was the most organized.

In January 1973, AT&T, Bell of Pennsylvania's parent, signed a consent decree settling EEOC and Labor Department race- and sex-discrimination claims. The Company never admitted it had discriminated, but ended the unwritten rules barring technical jobs for blacks and women, agreed to $15 million in back pay for 15,000 and another $23 million for 36,000 whose careers could have moved faster had negotiations not dragged out. Signed in Philadelphia's Third Circuit Court of Appeals, the blueprint for change was based on the discrimination patterns shown at Bell of Pennsylvania and Michigan Bell.

The first of a series, our settlement withstood all challenges, even from disgruntled white unionists.

Clarence Thomas spent most of the 1980s dismantling the mechanisms that fashioned class remedies for the broad-pattern bias the Black Light Society and its friends fought. He gets choked up when he talks about those bad old days, but he hasn't demonstrated an understanding of what happened. And when I see his claims that affirmative action didn't really help, I get choked up, too. With unremitting anger.

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