Union leader, civil rights advocate Ora Lee Malone dies at 93

Posted Nov. 06, 2012, at 5:27 a.m.
Last modified Nov. 06, 2012, at 8:38 a.m.

ST. LOUIS – Ora Lee Malone, who died last week at age 93, grew up in the segregated South and came to St. Louis as a factory worker. She became a pioneering leader of the trade-union movement who fought for equal rights for women and blacks at home and abroad.

Malone died last Tuesday in St. Louis. She had a heart attack a month earlier and had an infection and kidney failure, her family said Monday.

In Alabama, Malone campaigned against a law allowing state registrars to disqualify blacks who tried to register to vote. She carried her fight to Washington, where she and others helped win passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Voting, she often said, is the most important right.

“Ora would probably forgive me for robbing a bank before she would forgive me for not voting,” said Carol E. Jackson, a U.S. district judge in St. Louis and Malone’s niece.

Malone was the longtime international representative in St. Louis of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. She was one of the first African-American women to become a union leader here.

“Her leadership inspired other blacks to get involved and to become a part of the labor union movement,” said Lew Moye, a friend and fellow activist.

Ora Lee Thomas was born Dec. 24, 1918, in central Mississippi’s hill country. She grew up in Mobile, Ala., the eldest of nine children whose father was a railroad worker. At first, she was a housekeeper in Mobile.

She had little formal education beyond high school. Books were her teacher. She had only a few and read them over and over: books about W.E.B. Dubois, Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass.

Her favorites were about A. Philip Randolph, who founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925, the first black-led union to gain recognition from a major company, the Pullman Co.

In 1951, she moved to St. Louis and became a pieceworker at the California Manufacturing Plant, which made men’s jackets.

The owner was anti-union, Malone recalled for her oral history at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. As for the unions, she said they initially weren’t interested in organizing a predominantly black workforce.

That changed a few years later and workers at the plant elected her shop steward to fight for better working conditions.

After 19 years at the plant, she went to work for the union as a business manager and international representative. She assisted textile workers at factories across Missouri and southern Illinois.

Her impatient sense of justice led her to get involved in civil rights and the women’s movement.

She co-founded the national Coalition of Labor Union Women. During the 1970s, she helped start the Women’s Political Caucus with Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan. She worked for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and for pay equity and day care.

She helped establish the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists during the late 1960s. During the mid-1970s, she helped start the St. Louis chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute.

When Congress was about to let the 1965 Voting Rights Act expire in the 1970s, she lobbied successfully to keep it alive.

In the 1980s, she was a commissioner on the Bi-State Development Agency (now Metro), where she fought to expand and improve bus service.

In the 1990s, she was appointed to the St. Louis Regional Convention and Sports Complex, which oversaw construction of what is now the Edward Jones Dome. She helped win 20 percent of the work for African-Americans and 5 percent for women, according to Moye.

Internationally, she campaigned against apartheid in South Africa and for the release from prison of Nelson Mandella. Her efforts helped convince the city of St. Louis and the Missouri Legislature to call for the divestment of public funds from banks doing business with South Africa.

“She was a fighter – she never gave up,” said former Rep. William Clay Sr., D-Mo.

Survivors include two sisters, Annie Jackson and Manassie Williams, both of St. Louis; and three brothers, Marvin Thomas of St. Louis, William Thomas of Mobile, Ala., and Robert Earl Thomas of New Orleans.

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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