Jamaican born Cleveland Robinson was a key planner of the March on Washington

Bayard Rustin and Cleveland Robinson

Bayard Rustin, Deputy Director (left) and Cleveland Robinson (right), Chairman of the Administrative Committee for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Jamaican-born Cleveland L. Robinson was a key advisor, friend and confidant of Dr. Martin Luther King. He was the administrative chairman of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and served as a labor advisor to Dr. King.

Cleveland Lowellyn Robinson was born in the village of Swabys Hope, near the town of Mandiville, in Jamaica in 1914.  After serving as a local constable and an elementary school teacher, he emigrated to the United States in 1944.

Martin Luther King and Cleveland Robinson, March on Washington
Cleveland Robinson (in glasses and bow tie) next to Dr. Martin Luther King during the March on Washington

After arriving in the US, Robinson worked his way up from working in a dry goods store in Manhattan to becoming a national labor and civil rights leader as well as a leader in the movement against the war in Viet Nam and in the fight against apartheid in South Africa.

Robinson became active with District 65 of the Distributive Workers Union of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). He organized his own shop in 1947, and went on to become a shop steward, and then a full-time organizer for the union. In 1950, he was elected vice-president and became secretary-treasurer of the union in 1952. He held that position until his retirement in 1992. 

Cleveland Robinson was a close associate of A. Philip Randolph and worked with Randolph to found the Negro American Labor Council, in which Robinson served as vice-president . He became president of the 40,000-member NALC when Randolph retired in 1966 and helped to found the Council of Black Trade Unionists, in 1971, the successor organization to the NALC, and served as its first vice president.

Robinson was a life long activist for labor rights, civil rights, justice and an antiwar activist. He took part in the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in 1957, was a member of the Board of the Gandhi Society for Human Rights, and served as New York City Human Rights Commissioner during the Wagner and Lindsay administrations. 

Known for his great fundraising skills, Cleveland Robinson was a stalwart fundraiser for Dr. King and for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  

Over a distinguished career Robinson championed many progressive causes. He served as the event coordinator for the gala honoring King’s return to the United States, when King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964. 

He was vice chairman of the Spring Mobilization Committee To End The War In Viet Nam, an active member of the National Urban League and the NAACP, a director of the Southern Christian leadership Council, and a trustee of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Atlanta, Georgia. 

He also served as co-chair of the committee that organized Nelson Mandela's visit to New York City in 1990.

He was the recipient of New York State's Martin Luther King, Jr. Medal of Freedom in 1987 and the Eugene V. Debs/Norman Thomas Award of the New York Democratic Socialists of America in 1984.

Robinson never lost  touch with his Jamaican origins and often met and consulted with Jamaican leaders, and often traveled to a home he kept on the island.

At the time of his death in 1995 he was chair of the New York State Martin Luther King, Jr., Commission, which worked toward making Dr. King's birthday a national holiday. 


Sources include: The King Center and the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives