New Haven Firebirds struggle for everyone

NEW HAVEN — The continued need for affirmative action to achieve fairness and equality for everyone, and to address the economic crisis, won support last weekend at African American History Month events in Hartford and New Haven addressed by Dr. Gerald Horne and the New Haven Firebirds.

The “Working Together for Justice” events hosted by the People’s World drew large multi-racial turnouts. The New Haven overflow event also highlighted the writing and artwork of high school students about racism and stereotyping in their schools, and music and poetry for Haiti by Baub Bidon, Ras Mo Moses, Jeff Fuller and Richard Hill.

In appreciation of the Firebirds, Dr. Horne, professor of African American studies at University of Houston said, “In fighting against tests not related to the job at hand, these heroic New Haven firefighters were simultaneously fighting for a better world, where workers would not be subjected to subjective, unfair and ultimately discriminatory criteria for evaluation.”

He called the battle to protect and extend affirmative action “one of the most profound and important struggles of our time…. to attack the poison that is racism and sexism, which is critical if the class struggle is to be accelerated.”

Accepting an appreciation award and Aldermanic Citation, Firebirds president Gary Tinney, who was at the U.S. Supreme Court for the case of 6,000 African American Chicago firefighters, said the media ignored that case while giving national headlines to 19 white firefighters from New Haven whose case was used unsuccessfully to try to strike down affirmative action and block Sonia Sotomayor from appointment to the Court.

Also awarded were Ron Benson, Firebirds president in the 1990’s and George Sweeney the first African American firefighter in New Haven.

Benson recounted previous court cases in which he was involved that struck down discriminatory practices. A case in 1989 halted promotions to not-yet vacant positions. In 1998 the practice of “under filling” which facilitated promotion of lower rank candidates was ruled to be a violation of civil service laws and intentional discrimination against Black firefighters.

Sweeney, hired onto the force in 1957, was deeply moved. He recalled his first day on the job when no one would acknowledge his presence, and commended ongoing efforts to achieve equality.

In a shocking expose of discrimination against hiring of Black, Latino and women firefighters in departments across the country, Horne emphasized the need to continue organizing around this issue. Even after the US Supreme Court ruled against New Haven, lower courts have upheld correction of discriminatory test results. In New York, a federal judge ordered the Fire Department to give hundreds of Latino and African American applicants jobs, retroactive pay and compensatory damages.

In his remarks, Horne put the issue of affirmative action into the context of the current economic crisis, showing that the racist practice of redlining was a “pivotal reason” for the collapse of the housing bubble in the fall of 2008.

“In Memphis,” he said, “city officials have filed a lawsuit against the banking giant Wells Fargo arguing that this form offered one mortgage to whites and another to Blacks, leading one in eight African Americans to foreclosure as compared to one in 59 for whites.

“When these homeowners are foreclosed, this means fewer property taxes – and layoffs of city workers and more foreclosures as homeowners cannot pay their mortgages – as the economy enters a death spiral,” he concluded.

The need for special targeting of communities hardest hit by the economic crisis for job creation and federal assistance is a logical conclusion.

An inspiring highlight of the afternoon were the essays, poetry and artwork of high school students who entered the competition associated with the event around the theme “Working Together for Justice.” Teachers, parents and siblings came to hear the winning entries and see all the participants receive certificates. Prizes were donated by the Afro-American Cultural Center, African American Studies Department at Yale, Amistad Committee and Peabody Museum. The work can be viewed at along with the full text of Dr. Horne’s address.

Also on exhibit were drawings on the same theme made on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday at the People’s World table at the Peabody Museum’s event.

The 36th annual celebration raised $2500 toward the Connecticut fund drive for the People’s World.

Photo: Art Perlo