Northwest Indiana and the nation as a whole lost one of their greatest labor and civil rights leaders when Curtis Strong died on Sept. 16.

Strong was born in Westpoint, Miss., in 1915 and raised in Dixon, Ill., where he attended the same high school as President Ronald Reagan. Big for his age, he was a star on the track, basketball and football teams. After school, Curtis moved to Gary, Ind., to live with his sister and continue his education in hopes of becoming an Air Force pilot.

In 1937 he hired into U.S. Steel and became a member of Local 1014 of the Steelworkers Union. He was a witness that same year to the police riot against marching steelworkers at Republic Steel in Chicago, which resulted in ten deaths and is referred to as the Memorial Day Massacre. “I ran like hell when the shooting began,” Strong said.

Curtis was a griever in the coke ovens for over 20 years. He built a powerful Black caucus in the plant which was instrumental in changing discriminatory practices and rules not only for workers in the coke ovens, but in the rest of the huge U.S. Steel complex and eventually the entire steel industry. He put an end to everything from segregated locker rooms to “white only” jobs like pipefitters and other maintenance jobs.

Strong recognized that Black workers could not fight discrimination without the support of white workers and saw the building of Black-white unity as a key element in moving the union forward. White workers also benefited from some of the changes like job preferences over new hires.

Ruth Needleman, labor history professor at Indiana University, summarized the situation in her book Black Freedom Fighters in Steel: “You have to remember,” Strong told her, “we’re talking about a time when we had some extreme leftists in the plant. We had some members of the [Communist] Party in the plant, and progressives. Back then we had a saying: ‘Black plus white makes red!’ Because I had a white man as my assistant [griever],” Strong added, “one of us had to be a communist!”

As a leader in the National Ad Hoc Committee of Black Steelworkers, Curtis carried the fight to end discrimination within the union to the convention floor. His outspoken approach almost got him killed when he was thrown out a third storey hotel window by “union goons,” and narrowly missed landing on a spiked wrought iron fence. He was eventually appointed to the staff of the International Union where he continued a struggle for Black representation in the union.

Curtis was also active in the community helping build and lead the local NAACP chapter. His wife Jeannette, who also was a steelworker activist and head of the NAACP, traveled to Mississippi to participate in the voter registration campaigns of the ’60s. He was also a leading figure in the 1968 campaign that elected Richard Hatcher mayor of Gary.

Curtis inspired generations of labor and community activists, including retired steelworker and current Calumet Township Trustee, Mary Elgin. Elgin was a child when she first heard Curtis speaking out on the radio and didn’t meet him until the 1970s. “Curtis and I were on the same page. Being a woman in the mill and an activist in the union, he provided me courage by telling me not to worry about the consequences of speaking out and standing my ground for what I believed in.”

Steelworker Paul Kaczocha, who spent three weeks with Curtis in the Soviet Union in 1983 and who knew him for almost 30 years, said, “He cannot be replaced. Curtis helped shape my workplace, my city and my country. Few people have a resumé like his. The world is a better place because of him.”

He is survived by his brother, Archie, and four children: Curtidean Haynes, Penelope Blackmore, Erica Mason and her husband Demitrious, and a son Lawrence, now living in the Philippines.

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