Ora Lee Malone

Veteran trade union pioneer and civil rights leader, Mrs. Ora Lee Malone died last Tuesday, October 30, 2012. For most of her adult life, Mrs. Malone was an activist and leader in the U.S. labor movement. Driven by a desire to improve the quality of life for all, especially Blacks, Ora Lee became a beacon of light and hope to the disenfranchised and the impoverished.

She often found herself many leagues ahead of the conventional practice – challenging status quo, pushing for civil rights and women’s rights, raising questions of equity and representation for the dispossessed, helping build organizations to empower the powerless, organizing the unorganized, picketing, negotiating, lobbying and working with others to free victims of oppression.

Growing up in the south, Mrs. Malone experienced the relentless discrimination and segregation of the 1930s and 1940s. She learned to resist oppression and was involved in boycotts and other activities. One that stands out in her mind was the long, well-organized campaign against the Boswell Amendment. This device which allowed registrars to disqualify Black potential voters was eventually ruled unconstitutional by the U.S Supreme Court, a ruling which strengthened her belief in organizational effort.

Moving to Missouri in 1951, Mrs. Malone found employment as a piece-worker in the California Manufacturing Company. They had no Union and workers were not treated fairly. The plant was predominantly Black and Mrs. Malone says the unions were not interested in organizing predominantly Black plants back then. 

Fortunately when the workers became interested in organizing a union in 1956, two garment industry Unions were embroiled in a jurisdictional dispute and they competed for these, up until now, undesired workers. After the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (later became the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union) won the election Mrs. Malone was elected shop steward.

In 1970, Mrs. Malone joined the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Unions (ACTWU) staff as a business representative, the position from which she retired in January 1989. As the Union first Black business rep., she encountered resistance both from management and from her ACTWU colleagues.

Mrs. Malone has placed special emphasis on the needs of Black people and women of all races. A strong advocate of voter registration and education, she organized the St Louis Branch of the A. Phillip Randolph Institute.

She was a founding member of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists and served as the CBTU Region 8 Representative on the CBTU National Executive Council for 10 years.

Ora was among the independent union women who organized the Coalition of Labor Union Women. The second organizing conference was held in St. Louis and drew 440 women. CLWU was founded in 1974 in Chicago at a conference attended by 3,000 women. Mrs. Malone said “many union men viewed CLWU as an antagonist despite its reasonable demands for day care facilities, female organizers to organize women in all industries and union affirmative action committees, etc”.

The international scope of her compassion and concern is evidenced by her years of work on behalf of Africans in Southern Africa. She was a prime resource for films and literature on the liberation struggle that took place against the oppressive Apartheid System. In union conventions, she introduced resolutions calling for support of African workers in South Africa.

In 1986 she was instrumental in arranging for 4,600 city and county high school students to view the outstanding film, Last Grave in Dimbaza, at the Fox theatre. She frequently provided hospitality and accommodation for visitors from the region, and sent tons of clothes and fabric to Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa.

Her 1981 visit to Botswana gave her a personal view of life in the region that was dominated by the South African Regime. Mrs. Malone played a decisive role in the efforts that led to the passage of bills in the City of St. Louis and in the Missouri General Assembly, calling for the divestment of public funds from corporation and banks doing business in Apartheid South Africa.

Mrs. Malone was recently hospitalized. When asked, what her message is today, she stated “keep the voting rights act alive and keep fighting for justice.”

Mrs. Malone was the oldest of nine children. She often involved her entire family in her many campaigns and struggles. Our nation has been deeply enriched with the life of Ora Lee Malone.

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