The National Child Labor Committee was organized on April 25, 1904 at a mass meeting at Carnegie Hall in New York City attended by men and women concerned with the plight of working children. They moved quickly to form an organization, to gain the support of prominent Americans and to identify the extent and scope of the problem.
In 1907 the NCLC was chartered by an Act of Congress, and immediately began to garner support and move towards action and advocacy. One of the first steps took place in early 1908 with the hiring of a tailor’s son from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, a budding anthropologist and photographer, Lewis Wickes Hine. His photographs would awaken the consciousness of the nation, and change the reality of life for millions of impoverished, undereducated children.
In 1912, one of the first goals of the NCLC was achieved: the establishment of a Children’s Bureau in both the U.S. Depart-ment of Commerce and the U.S. Department of Labor. From 1910-1920, while publishing and disseminating the photographs of Lewis Hine, the Committee worked for passage of state and federal legislation to ban most forms of child labor, and to promote compulsory education in all states.
When the Supreme Court ruled that federal legislation banning child labor was unconstitutional the NCLC turned its focus to the passage of a constitutional amendment banning child labor and to continued strength-ening of state laws from coast to coast in the 1920s.
The constitutional amendment fell just a few states short of passage in the early 1930s; the NCLC refused to be discouraged, and continued to pursue its goals. The result was the triumphal passage in 1938 of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which contained strong NCLC-designed child labor provisions, and which passed muster with the Supreme Court.
During World War II, the Committee kept vigil to make sure that employment shortages caused by the war did not weaken the newly-passed and implemented laws, and that children were not drawn back into the mines, mills and streets. After the war, NCLC initiated the first national youth employment and training advocacy program to supplement its child labor work.
In 1954, the organization added to that initiative with a program designed to underscore the educational and health needs of the children of migrant farmworkers throughout the nation.
Legislation advocated and partly designed by NCLC at the federal level in the late 1950s and early 1960s culminated in 1964 with the passage of the Manpower Development and Training Act, the Economic Opportunity Act and the Vocational Education Act.
In 1975 the Committee published “Rite of Passage: Youth’s Transition from School to Work,” a compendium of ideas and recommendations by leading economists and educators on youth work issues. This was followed by “Promises to Keep,” evaluating the federal migrant education program, recommending substantive improvements in the education of migrant children and the outreach to migrant parents and families.
NCLC was a major player in the design and founding in 1979 of the National Youth Employment Coalition. Its Executive Director chaired the Coalition from 1983-1987, and the Coalition, now based in Washington, D.C. was housed at NCLC for 15 years.
In 1985 the Committee initiated the Lewis Hine Awards for Service to Children and Youth, honoring unheralded Americans for their work with young people, and giving special awards to better-known leaders for their extraordinary efforts. The Awards have grown to become a regular and nationally recognized program of the Committee.
From 1991 to the present, NCLC created and expanded the KAPOW program partnering elementary schools with businesses to teach young children about the world of work, and bringing private sector volunteers into the classroom. KAPOW is ongoing today as a model program in states from Florida to California.
In 2005 NCLC’s active role in youth employment and training, with KAPOW, through child labor prevention, with coalitions in both the youth work and farmworker arenas and with the Lewis Hine Awards continues. We know that the challenges that lie ahead, while often as daunting as those of the earlier century, are ones that must be met head on, and ones that can be successfully pursued.
The National Child Labor Committee’s purpose, to promote the rights, well-being and dignity of children and youth as it relates to work, working and education is as important in January 2005 as it was at Carnegie Hall in April of 1904.