Remembering the Rev. James Orange

From the Washington Post: “The Rev. James E. Orange, who rose from foot soldier to leader in the civil rights movement and whose 1965 jailing set in motion events that ultimately led to the bloody Selma-to-Montgomery march in Alabama, died Feb. 16 at Emory Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta. He was 65.”

Washington Post writer Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb goes on to say Orange “joined the civil rights movement in 1962, largely by accident.

“‘I was a year out of high school,’ he said in a 2000 interview with People's Weekly World. ‘I had met a beautiful young woman who sang in the choir at the Monday night Mass meetings in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. We were to meet afterwards and go have a soda and talk.’”

Below is the full interview done with the Rev. Orange by the dean of labor journalism for the People’s Weekly World, Fred Gaboury, when he traveled to Atlanta in 2000.

ATLANTA – At one time or another we've all found our selves in the right church but the wrong pew when we've shown up for an appointment a day early or a day late. We feel embarrassed but, generally, it ends there. But, in the case of the Rev. James Orange, being in the right church but the wrong pew changed his life.

'I was a year out of high school,' said Orange, who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. 'I had met a beautiful young woman who sang in the choir at the Monday night mass meetings in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. We were to meet afterwards and go have a soda and talk.'

The church was jam-packed with a standing-room-only crowd except for two benches in the front. Never one to hesitate, Orange walked up and sat down on one of them.

'I listened to Ralph Abernathy's sermon,' Orange remembered, 'and the longer I listened the more intently I listened as I became absorbed in his message. It was 1962 and the movement was determined to break segregation in Birmingham, the city of Sheriff 'Bull' Connor and his police dogs.'

After the services, Rev. Edward Gardner, a leader of the Alabama Improvement Association that was leading the campaign, asked people to come forward. As they moved to the front of the church, the audience stood and started to applaud.

It was then that Orange realized that he was in the wrong pew. But there was no turning back. 'I was already up front and, a few minutes later, found myself, together with those who had come forward, in the church basement.' He said, 'Although I didn't know it yet, the trip down those stairs changed my life forever.'

After people took seats and quieted down, the Rev. James Bevel, director of direct action for the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC), began telling the group, many of whom were high school or college students, how they were to behave if they were confronted by the police or arrested.

Never a shrinking violet, Orange asked who was going to get arrested. 'We are,' Bevel replied. 'You are.'

'That's when I learned that those empty benches had been reserved for people who had volunteered to go to jail, if necessary, in the fight against Jim Crow,' Orange said, a broad smile crossing his face.

'But there was no tuning back.' And, as far as Orange is concerned, not then and not since.

Before the meeting ended, Orange found himself in charge of a group of about eight with the assignment to picket a nearby store. 'I was probably given the assignment because of my size,' said Orange, who stands better than six feet and tips the scales at more than 300 pounds.

The next morning Orange and his charges were on deck when the store opened. 'We had been told how to conduct ourselves if the police came. But they hadn't told us where or how to set up our picket line. So we decided the place to picket was inside the store and in we went, signs and all, and started marching around.'

It didn't take long for the cops - and the paddy wagon - to arrive. They arrested Orange, the first of 104 times he has been detained during acts of civil disobedience. In all probability, that total will climb even higher.

Orange chuckled when he told of the incident. 'But the movement learned something. For years after that, people would be told, 'Remember, you march on the sidewalk,' when they were dispatched for picket duty!'

Soon after, Orange became one of the first full-time organizers for the SCLC.

'Three of us were hired the same day. Our job was to turn out the youth for the movement.'

The third of seven children, Orange's father worked in the large ASIPCO foundry. Orange Sr. was fired in 1957 for union activity.

'My father wasn't what you would call an activist in the civil rights movement,' Orange said. 'But my mother was an active supporter of the struggle and was proud of my participation in it. Mother always showed up at Monday night mass meetings.'

But despite her loyalty, Orange said he 'had many reservations' the first time he had to tell his mother that he was responsible for the fact that two of her daughters were in jail.

'I was afraid to go home and tell my mamma that her daughters, one 17 and the other 14, were in jail. But that's the way it was in those days, as we waged - and won - a non-violent campaign against police clubs and police dogs.'

Birmingham was only the beginning of a career that saw James Orange develop into a respected leader of his people and later a special representative of the AFL-CIO.

In his book, Pillar of Fire - America in the King Years 1963-65, Pulitzer Prize winning author Taylor Branch devotes several pages to the events leading up to the famous Selma to Montgomery March in the spring of 1963.

Branch describes Orange as 'project leader' in the protests that saw thousands arrested and Dr. King assaulted by a member of J.B. Stoner's neo-fascist American States Rights Party.

High school students by the dozen were skipping class in order to participate in protest marches and Orange was given the assignment, in Branch's words, of devising a program for 'students who refuse to remain in school' during Freedom Week.

Orange was arrested when he defied an Alabama state trooper. 'Sing one more freedom song and you are under arrest,' the trooper warned, an order that Orange refused. Orange was arrested a second time, charged with contributing to the delinquency of minors.

Orange career with SCLC ended in 1977 when he joined the organizing campaign of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union that eventually brought the benefits of a union to the workers at J.P. Stevens textile and clothing factories. After that, he was assigned to the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Department until 1996. He is now assigned to the AFL-CIO Department of Field Services and works out of their regional southern office in Atlanta.

But it has not been all green lights. There was the exhilaration that came when, as an organizer for the clothing workers union, Orange participated in the years-long campaign that brought a union contract to the workers at J.P. Stevens. But there has also been the sorrow that often comes with struggle.

Two stand out particularly in Orange's mind: The dynamite charge, set by Stoner, that partially destroyed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and killed four young girls on Sept. 15, 1963. The other was the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968.

Orange recently returned from the 'Battle in Seattle,' where his job had been to mobilize community forces for the AFL-CIO-led march of 60,000 trade unionists, environmentalists and others protesting the policies of the World Trade Organization.

Our conversation took place Jan. 15, the Saturday before the Monday march in which 100,000 Atlantans jammed the streets to celebrate the life of Dr. King. Orange was in the thick of organizing for that huge demonstration. We were constantly interrupted by telephone calls as march organizers sought advice or reported progress.

The march capped a week of activity organized by a coalition of the Atlanta labor council and a number of organizations based in the African-American community.

'Our theme is 'defend affirmative action,'' Orange said. 'It and the Voting Rights Act are the mainstays of progress for African Americans and both are under furious attack.'

It was time for one last question: 'What changes have you seen in the labor movement since the Stevens campaign?'

'I'm making more money than when I first started,' Orange quipped. 'But the biggest change is that the labor movement has begun to stand up and do things.'

That goes double in Atlanta, where Orange is co-chair of Jobs with Justice and Stewart Acuff heads the central labor council. 'We've made 'solidarity' our way of life, not only within the labor movement but between the labor movement and the African-American community,' Orange said.

Orange credits this new level of militant activity to two things - what he called 'a more dynamic leadership' at the top of the AFL-CIO and a growing recognition in the ranks of the need for fighting back.

'The promises that propelled John Sweeney and his team of Rich Trumka and Linda Chavez-Thompson to the leadership of the AFL-CIO in 1995 have begun to filter down to the state and city central labor bodies,' he said.

'Whole programs are underway today that were not even thought of in the 1970s.'

Orange ticked off two of what he considers the most important. 'There's this emphasis on 'diversity,' of making the composition of the leadership more representative of the working class as a whole. And don't forget, there was segregation in the labor movement in the 1970s. Most of that is gone, but it's a constant struggle.'

Orange sees the election of Chavez-Thompson to a top position in the AFL-CIO as an example of the change he's talking about. 'She's not only a woman, she's a person of color. In the '70s we never even dreamed of a woman being a top officer in the AFL-CIO.'

For Orange, these changes are 'absolutely necessary' if the labor movement is going to be able to reverse corporate America's attack. 'They are trying to turn back the clock on labor just like they are doing with the gains of the civil rights movement,' he said, noting that the fight to defend one is a fight to defend the other.

For Orange, the solution is obvious. 'If we are going to make sure that this decade exemplifies what Dr. King talked about when he said he'd been to the mountain top and seen the promised land, we have to travel down the road of peace, justice and equality together.'

When asked about the 'we' in the equation, Orange said, 'It means all of us - unionists, civil rights activists, members of the religious community and members of women's, youth and seniors organizations. All of us.'

With one foot firmly planted in the labor movement and the other in the struggles of the African-American people, Orange symbolizes the unity of the labor and civil rights movements that have been the driving force in the struggle for social and economic justice.

This unity provided the shoe leather in the elections of 1996 and 1998 that prevented a right-wing takeover of the White House and left the Republicans' Contract on America little more than a footnote in the history of the struggles of the last decade.

It's been ever thus, from the Civil War days, when the entire membership of several local unions enlisted in the Union army, through the struggles of the unemployed and unorganized who, marching behind the banner of 'Black and white, unite and fight,' won the legislative gains of the New Deal and built powerful unions in the basic industries of our country.

Today we would say Black, Brown, Asian and white. Now that's a winning combination!