NEW HAVEN, Conn. - Holding a green and white AFSCME sign, "It's about Freedom" at a solidarity rally for the rights of public workers in Wisconsin and all working people, brought to my mind the indelible contributions of the civil rights movement to our country's history. As one speaker outside the Hartford Capitol reminded us, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis at the side of striking sanitation workers who were standing up for racial equality and economic justice in 1968.
The powerful initiative of the AFL-CIO for solidarity actions across the country on April 4, the date King was assassinated, couldn't be more fitting. Today's economic freedom struggles are intertwined with and carry on from the accomplishments of the civil rights movement.
Fifty years ago "Freedom" was on the minds of young people in the north who boarded buses with the goal of enforcing desegregation of interstate transportation facilities in the south. These African American and white youth called themselves the Freedom Riders. They put their bodies on the line despite beatings and jailings. Their courage and persistence helped to galvanize the nation. The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act that resulted are in the tea party crosshairs today along with labor rights and the entire New Deal program including Social Security and unemployment compensation.
The need for organized fight back today in the spirit of the freedom riders was the mandate of this year's African American History Month events in Hartford and New Haven on the theme "A New Generation of Dreamers - Freedom Rides Yesterday - Freedom Rides Today."
The standing room only crowds that turned out to these 37th annual People's World celebrations reflect the resurgence for equality that is sweeping the nation.
Participants, fresh from two solidarity labor rallies, listened intently to the story of Freedom Rider Lula White who was moved to take part in 1961 by a newspaper photograph of an inter-racial group of young people in Anniston, Alabama watching in horror as the bus they had been riding was burned out by a racist mob.
Living in Chicago after graduating college, she paid advance rent to her roommates, wrote a note to her father back home in New Haven, and joined the next group leaving on a bus to Mississippi. She and the group were jailed in the State Penitentiary in Parchman for their non-violent resistance.
"During the time I was in jail," said White, "The Berlin Wall went up, the Soviet Union launched a cosmonaut into space, and a little boy was born in Honolulu called Barack Obama."
Now an active member of her teacher's union retirees local, White was joined on panels at the two events by union leaders, youth and immigrant activists and the chair of the Black and Hispanic Caucus of the State Legislature. "We Are One," was the clear message.
"The Dream is the foundation of my philosophy," said State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield. "Treat your neighbors the way you want to be treated. Expand your idea of who are your neighbors."
Emerging out of the deep poverty and joblessness created by decades of unrestrained gorging by transnational corporations and finance capital at the expense of working class communities, the need to set aside differences and organize for change was a theme that every speaker emphasized.
"We have to put prejudices aside, not let us be pitted against each other, and start fighting the people on the top who are keeping all the wealth," said Ricardo Henriquez, an organizer with the Connecticut Center for a New Economy which is door knocking for a giant solidarity rally on the New Haven Green on Wednesday March 30.
A highlight of both events was the participation by public school students with poetry, rap and skits. "It's time to get back on the buses," declared one middle school student in Hartford to applause. In New Haven prizes and certificates were presented to participants in the High School Arts and Writing Competition.
The Poor People's March that Martin Luther King was organizing with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the time he was killed represented a shift from having won the right to sit at the lunch counter, to being able to afford to buy that lunch.
King envisioned "the beginning of a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity'' (SCLC, March 15, 1968).
Today, unemployment is at well over 50 percent among African American and Latino youth. The struggle to protect the jobs and union rights of public workers and the services they provide is a part of the bigger fight for the rights of all workers to organize and win decent wages, working conditions, benefits and strong communities.
It is the next step forward on the road to freedom.
Photo by Henry Lowendorf. New Haven Peoples Center, February 27, 2011.