As a young boy growing up in South Carolina, Lane Kirkland learned how difficult labor can be through his friends, who were children of textile workers. Little did he know that would inspire him to become the longtime leader of a national labor union organization.
Kirkland was born in 1922 in Camden and reared in Newberry, the descendent of cotton farmers. His great-great-grandfather signed the Confederate Ordinance of Secession in Charleston in 1860.
He lived in Newberry from age 7 until he left Newberry College to enroll in the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. He served as an officer and graduated from Georgetown University in 1948. Soon after, he became involved in the labor movement and joined the American Federation of Labor, becoming executive assistant to the organization’s president in 1960.
Kirkland became secretary-treasurer after the AFL merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) in 1969 and became president of the largest federation of unions in the country 10 years later.
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He helped the Polish Solidarity movement, inspiring workers in Poland to strike against communism. He was also known for reaching out to workers in other countries were unions were suppressed, such as China and Cuba.
This led to Kirkland earning the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994 before leaving the post in 1995. He was offered the ambassadorship to Poland by President Bill Clinton but declined.
During his leadership, union membership declined about 15 percent, in part to industry layoffs in the 1980s.
Still, several labor union leaders praised Kirkland’s leadership and vision to modernize the labor movement.
Kirkland died of cancer Aug. 14, 1999 at age 77.
About this series: The inaugural edition of The State newspaper was published Feb. 18, 1891. In anticipation of the 125th anniversary, the Palmetto section and this section at thestate.com are recounting each day how The State covered newsmakers and events vital to South Carolina’s history.