A Proud Heritage of Civil Rights

Tracey Panek, LS&Co. Historian
Levi Strauss & Co.
January 19, 2015

Every year the Martin Luther King holiday reminds Americans of the long historical journey of the civil rights movement. Many people and organizations were part of the solution very early on, and Levi Strauss & Co. was one of them.

During World War II, the company hired African-American sewing machine operators and laborers in its factories: in San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and Vallejo, California. Although some existing employees resisted the change, and some even quit, the company did not back down from its commitment to an integrated work force.

By 1960, post war success meant opening more sewing facilities. In that year, company managers started looking beyond the West, and Blackstone, Virginia was chosen as the site for a new facility.  Once negotiations began, however, they found out that the city expected them to open a segregated facility.

Knowing that this was inconsistent with the company’s values, these managers – most notably, a man named Tom Harris – told the city planners that unless LS&Co. could create an integrated facility, they would seek another location for the plant.  Much hand-wringing ensued in Blackstone, the company prevailed, and the desegregated facility was opened. This milestone moment in our company’s history marked one of the first desegregated factories in the country at the time. In fact LS&Co. was ahead of the curve, desegregating the factory before it was federally mandated.

Company leaders applauded Tom for his decisions. Even more remarkably, this action was taken a full four years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Employees at the Blackstone, Virginia factory, early 1960s.

Employees at the Blackstone, Virginia factory, early 1960s.

By the 1970s, with Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action legislation in place, LS&Co. formalized its long-standing commitment to foster a diverse workforce.  Special recruitment programs began to bring more people of color and women into areas of the organization where they were underrepresented. In 1972 the company instituted a Minority Purchasing Program, to encourage diversity in its vendors. By 1984, LS&Co. was being recognized for its social programs, and received the Lawrence A. Wien Prize in Corporate Social Responsibility from Columbia University.

In the 1990s, the Project Change initiative was launched at LS&Co. headquarters, aimed at fighting racial prejudice and institutional racism in the communities where the company did business. In 1996, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change presented Levi Strauss & Co. with the Management Social Responsibility Award. LS&Co. received the first Ron Brown Award for Corporate Leadership for Project Change in 1998.  Then-CEO Bob Haas accepted the award for the company at a White House ceremony conducted by President Clinton.

In 2001, the Business Women’s Network Education Foundation’s first Legacy Award was awarded to LS&Co. for Project Change.

Levi Strauss & Co.’s commitment to diversity and social justice has not only continued, but has gained momentum in the last 70 years. LS&Co. never chooses easy over right and the company continues to be recognized for its leadership on the issues and events of our time.