NEW HAVEN, Conn - When Mayor Toni N. Harp declared Feb. 23, 2014 as "Craig Gauthier day in the City of New Haven," the overflow crowd at the Peoples Center burst into cheers.
This 40th annual African American History Month event, also held in Hartford the night before, made history.
After leading a youth march to end violence and for jobs with Gauthier, the Mayor read her proclamation to this "courageous union and community leader in our State," noting his journey from Louisiana to New Haven, leading his union and in "the Communist Party USA, where he has campaigned for peace, to end police brutality, meet the needs of youth, to create living wag jobs in the community and for union rights."
Culminating two and a half years of youth organizing, the New Elm City Dream and the Young Communist League led the march with police escort. Over one hundred youth and elected officials, union and community leaders marched from Elm and Kensington streets where Tyrell Trimble was shot to death in July, 2012, to the Peoples Center to hear Gauthier's story.
Thanking the youth for marching and accepting the petitions for jobs they presented to her, Harp exclaimed, "If the demand is not placed there will be no action." The youth carried large banners created with local artists including likenesses of historical African American leaders, New Haven youth who lost their lives, and Gauthier.
At the end of the march, one mother who lost her son to gun violence explained, "I never paid attention until it affected me. Now I want to be a part of this."
Chanting "Jobs for Youth - Jobs for All," the marchers filed into the Peoples Center to the sounds of drumming by Brian Jarawa Gray and joined the crowd already assembled. As the room filled to capacity, people gathered outside the front and back doors, straining to hear the program.
Prize winners of the high school arts and writing competition presented their poems, essays and artwork on the theme, "If you were mayor of New Haven how would you work with young people to plan for the future of the city? As a high school student, what would you say to Mayor Toni Harp?"
Harp, the city's first woman and second African American mayor, promised to place the book with all the submissions into the New Haven Public Library "for posterity."
Before presenting his life story, Gauthier received additional citations from Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, elected two days later to fill the state senate seat vacated by Harp; Ald. Dolores Colon, chair of the Black and Hispanic Caucus of the Board of Alders, John Harrity, president of District 26, State Council of Machinists, Jarvis Tyner, executive vice chair of the Communist Party USA, and a poem by Baub Bidon.
The room was silent as Gauthier took the podium after giving his cousin in the audience a hug. He described racist incidents in segregationist Louisiana, in the military in the Dominican Republic, and in New Haven that had shaped his life. His mother's teaching and example led him to decide to turn his anger into organizing to bring about change, he said.
He described his years working at the Winchester sporting arms factory where he was a leader of a six- month strike in 1979 and then elected president of the International Association of Machinists, Victory Lodge 609. He also spoke of his earlier participation in the union organizing drive at Yale New Haven Hospital, acknowledging his co-workers from those experiences in the audience.
"As Communists we strive for a better life for workers and their families, those who produce the wealth of this great nation," said Gauthier. "I urge the youth today to step out of the crowd and become community leaders, become leaders on the job. Don't let other people who know us define us. Learn your family history. Learn the real history of our nation. You cannot change anything unless your first find out how it works and what role you can play to make this democracy in these United States work for all people."
Ben McManus, chair of the People's World committee that planned the event, thanked Gauthier and recalled his own first introduction to the Communist Party newspaper as a child in Newark, New Jersey. Before enjoying a home made meal, those present reached into their wallets to make a contribution to the fund drive.
The events in New Haven and Hartford also included a selection from the film Free Angela and All Political Prisoners which will be shown in full on Sat., March 8, International Women's Day, at 3 pm at the Peoples Center, 37 Howe Street, New Haven.
Photo: Mayor Toni Harp and Craig Gauthier lead youth march for jobs and against violence before the annual Peoples World African American History Month event honoring Gauthier. Art Perlo