L. E. Bennett’s Typewriter
Union leader works to desegregate telephone company
Rev. Dr. L. E. Bennett (1933–2015) dedicated much of his life to his community and equal rights for Black Texans. As president of the Communication Workers of America Colored People’s Union, he played a vital role in desegregating the Southwestern Bell Telephone Company, a subsidiary of AT&T, in the early 1960s.
In June 1956, twenty-three-year-old L. E. Bennett began working for Southwestern Bell Telephone Company in San Antonio as a house serviceman, the company’s term for janitors. At the time, people of color could only apply for janitorial and garage positions and none of the higher paying positions that the company called craft jobs, like linemen, operators, or salespeople. Shortly after being hired, Bennett joined local chapter 6131 of the Communication Workers of America Colored People’s Union, the segregated arm of the Communication Workers of America (C.W.A.), and was elected Chapter President in 1961.
In Bennett’s role as President, he applied pressure to Southwestern Bell leadership and lobbied for support from his white C.W.A. counterparts. He began a letter writing campaign to company division heads and the national C.W.A. president asking for support to allow people of color to apply for craft positions. He was met with hostility from the C.W.A. president, who was adamant that the union would not integrate and refused to work with Bennett. Southwestern Bell managers were more amenable but were still apathetic to desegregation, believing that Black and white employees could not work side-by-side without conflict.
Bennett also wrote numerous letters to national civic leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. In his return letter of support, Attorney General Kennedy agreed with Bennett that Southwestern Bell was not adhering to President Kennedy’s Executive Order that required government contractors, like AT&T and its subsidiaries, “take affirmative action to consider applicants and employees during employment without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” Kennedy also wrote that the federal government would step in if the company continued to refuse to integrate, and he recommended Bennett use his letter during meetings to further pressure Southwestern Bell management into desegregating.
In the summer of 1963, Southwestern Bell conceded and allowed people of color to apply for craft positions. That winter, two linemen positions became available in Corpus Christi. After eight years of being denied promotions to better-paying jobs, Bennett accepted one of the positions, becoming the first Black lineman in the company in Texas. Bennett rose through the ranks during his 30 years with Southwestern Bell, becoming the first Black man in the positions he held. When he retired in 1986, he was a manager overseeing a five-state district.
Read more about L. E. Bennett’s story in the Texas Story Project.
Sharon Bennett and the Family of Rev. Dr. L. E. Bennett of San Antonio, Texas
Time Period: 1946 - 1970
This artifact is currently on view.