Biographical/historical: James Haughton, labor leader, social worker, and community activist, was the founder of Fight Back (originally the Harlem Unemployment Center), established in 1964 to combat racial discrimination in the building trades unions and construction industry. He was also active in the tenants rights, peace, and anti-apartheid movements. Haughton was born October 8, 1929 in Brooklyn, New York, the son of West Indian immigrants. He was educated at City College of New York (BSS, 1951), Princeton University, and New York University (MPA, 1960) and served as a lieutenant in the United States Army from 1951 to 1953, during the Korean War. From 1955 to 1960, Haughton worked with street gangs in New York and Los Angeles, serving as a counselor with the New York City Youth Board, Los Angeles County Probation Department, and East Harlem Youth Employment Service.
In November 1960, he joined the newly organized Negro American Labor Council (NALC), founded in May 1960 to increase support for equal job opportunity within organized labor, and served as assistant to its President, A. Philip Randolph. His duties included editing the newsletter and organizing annual meetings and conferences, including the Workshop and Institute on Racial Bias in Trade Unions, Industry and Government. This conference, held in Washington, D.C. in February 1961, was attended by Martin Luther King, Jr., Roy Wilkins, Adam Clayton Powell, and officials of the new Kennedy Administration. Haughton also served on the Executive Board of the New York Chapter of the NALC. After a factional dispute resulting in the defeat of his slate of officers in October 1962, he left the NALC to become civil service coordinator for the Mobilization for Youth Job Center.
In 1963 and 1964, Haughton worked as a community organizer for the Lower Eastside Neighborhood Organization and served as chairman of the Labor and Industry Committee of the New York Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In late 1964, he organized a Rank and File Cement and Concrete Workers Caucus for Equal Opportunity, later renamed the Building Trades Caucus, to work with the Labor and Industry Committee in gaining jobs for minority construction workers, which had only token numbers employed on major construction projects in New York City.
In November 1964, frustrated by what he perceived as a lack of aggressiveness by established organizations in attacking racial barriers in employment, Haughton founded the Harlem Unemployment Center to expand the work begun with the Building Trades Caucus. By March 1965, he was devoting almost full time to Center and Caucus activities, including meetings with construction company and union officials and site visits to document discrimination and hear worker complaints, although he maintained ties to the NAACP for several additional months.
The Harlem Unemployment Center changed its name to Fight Back in October 1969. Supported financially by its membership and outside contributions, Fight Back provided job counseling and placement for victims of racial discrimination, particularly in the building trades, but was also active in the rank and file movements of the longshore, utility, transit, garment, and other industries. Its tactics included negotiation, lobbying, and coalition building, as well as lawsuits, boycotts, and demonstrations. Fight Back played an important role in creating equal employment opportunity programs, increasing minority hiring at construction sites, and forcing unions to open their membership rolls, although it also experienced numerous setbacks throughout the years.
In addition to his work at Fight Back, Haughton was active in numerous other committees and groups including the National Citizens' Lobby, which lobbied Congress for job creation in building housing projects; the Vietnam Peace Parade Committee and other anti-war and anti-nuclear groups; the Puerto Rican Solidarity Committee; and the Committee for a Free South Africa. During the 1970s, he worked to establish a New York Working People's Party and the National Citizen's Party. He was also Adjunct Professor of Black and Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, a commentator for WNET Channel 13, a member of the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission, and a candidate for New York City Council in the 1973 Democratic Primary.
Haughton travelled extensively, including fact-finding visits to Africa, Cuba and Iran, wrote poetry, and lectured widely. He was married to the noted anthropologist and activist Eleanor Burke Leacock. He currently lives in New York City and maintains ties to many human rights organizations.