A Saint Louis Labor and Civil Rights Icon Gets His Due

Courtesy of McFarland

–by Michael Pierce

HAROLD GIBBONS: ST. LOUIS TEAMSTERS LEADER AND WARRIOR AGAINST JIM CROW by Gordon Burnside. Published by McFarland (McFarlandBooks.com). Published September 12, 2018.

Countless Americans have been born of simple and humble means. Some of them have gone on to accomplish great things, becoming giants in their chosen fields. Some of those same people, when they’re gone, are unfortunately consigned to the proverbial ‘dustbin of history.’

Until a motivated historian steps into the picture.

Witness the women who fought, as soldiers, in the Civil War. The British and American women code breakers whose work changed the course of that conflict. The African American women who, working for NASA, helped put a man on the moon. In each case, it was the work of persistent historians that brought their stories to light.

Harold Gibbons is one of those people who, thanks to a dedicated historian, is coming back to the forefront of history.

Born in 1910, the youngest of 23 children in a coal mining family in Pennsylvania, Gibbons became one of the most important labor leaders in American history. He was friends with common workers, with mobsters like Mickey Cohen, with labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, and with entertainer Frank Sinatra. It’s been said that Sinatra, desiring to hobnob with mobsters in an effort to improve his street credit, hoped his connection with Gibbons would improve his chances of fulfilling this desire.

One of Gibbons’ most important alliances was one he formed with Ernest Calloway, the leader of the NAACP chapter in St. Louis. Saint Louis once had one of the largest number of Teamster members in the country. The city also had an African American Taxi Cab drivers union. Gibbons and Calloway worked very hard to integrate the Teamsters in the city. The work was hard, sometimes violent, but it was accomplished in the end.

Gibbons opposed racism and segregation. He spoke out against America’s involvement in Vietnam. He ended up on Richard Nixon’s enemies list. His break with Hoffa began with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Gibbons persevered through it all, but his years of drinking, womanizing, and being a night owl were beginning to take a physical toll by the late 1960s.

When Jimmy Hoffa disappeared on July 30, 1975, Gibbons worried that he would be next. Mickey Cohen told him he had nothing to worry about.

Harold Gibbons died of a ruptured aortic aneurysm on November 17, 1982 in Los Angeles, California.

Gordon Burnside has written a detailed account of Gibbons’ life and his organizing work in Saint Louis.  Gibbons comes to us as a very hard working individual who was constantly being kept from gaining higher positions by other envious organizers, by politicians, and by leaders like Hoffa, who appointed Frank Fitzsimmons to lead the Teamsters while the former was serving a prison sentence.

Burnside has brought the story of Harold Gibbons to life, thanks to some very good research, and to interviews he was able to get with Gibbons’ children and associates. Their first-hand accounts breathe life into the story.

Gibbons, like all of us, was a flawed human being. Still, he needs to be recognized for what he accomplished. As I finished his story, I was reminded of a passage from another book I’ve recently read: He was the man behind the scenes, par excellence, the one who made things go, the instigator, the organizer, and promoter all in one. Such a man doesn’t often make the history books…

I still wanted to know more about Gibbons the man. A quick YouTube search found a short film produced by the Teamsters in St. Louis, made when the McClellan Commission, known officially as the United States Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management, from January 1957 to March 1960, interviewed labor leaders from across the country, investigating ties between organized crime and organized labor. Harold Gibbons pops up at about the five minute mark, and there’s a twenty minute stretch where we get to see Gibbons at his best, refusing to bow under pressure from questioning by Robert Kennedy.

I guess you have to be strong when you grow up with 22 brothers and sisters.

 

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