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The 1963 March on Washington, Black Labor and Today

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(NNPA) August 2013 represents the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington. Publicly associated with Dr. King’s famous “I have a Dream” speech, this march brought more than 250,000 people to Washington, D.C. to demand freedom and jobs. Initiated by Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters President A. Philip Randolph, this became a joint project with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and went down in history as a powerful show of force against Jim Crow segregation.

It is barely remembered that the March was for freedom and jobs. The demand for jobs was not a throwaway line in order to get trade union support but instead reflected the growing economic crisis affecting the Black worker.

Over time this great march has risen to levels of near mythology. The powerful speech by Dr. King, replayed—in part—for us every King Day has eclipsed all else, so much so that too many people believe—incorrectly—that the March was King’s march rather than that he was a major player in a project that was much larger than himself.

As August 2013 approaches, it has been noticeable that there has been very limited public discussion regarding an anniversary march to commemorate the 1963 event. What has, apparently, been taking place are a series of closed door discussions regarding some sort of celebratory action. What has been particularly disturbing are the suggestions that any one person, organization, or family can claim the legacy of the March. But, should any one constituency claim that legacy it is a group that does not appear to be at the table: Black labor.

Randolph and other Black labor leaders, particularly those grouped around the Negro American Labor Council, responded to the fact that the Black worker was largely being ignored in the discussions about civil rights. Additionally, the economic situation was becoming complicated terrain for Black workers. As writer Nancy Maclean has pointed out, the elements of what came to be known as “de-industrialization” (which was really part of a reorganization of global capitalism) were beginning to have its effect in the U.S.A., even by 1963. As with most other disasters, it started with a particular and stark impact on Black America.

In 2013 the Black worker has been largely abandoned in most discussions about race, civil rights, etc. As National Black Worker Center Project founder Steven Pitts has repeatedly pointed out, with the economic restructuring that has destroyed key centers of the Black working class strength, much of the economic development that has emerged has either avoided the Black worker altogether or limited the role of the Black worker to the most menial of positions. Thus, unemployment for Black workers remains more than double that of Whites and hovers around Depression levels in many communities.

In 1983, I participated in the 20th anniversary March on Washington. Although it attempted to raise the issues of the day, e.g., the threat of Reaganomics, what could also be seen was the canonization of Dr. King as a central feature for too many of the marchers. One of the worst ways to remember Dr. King, and for that matter the 1963 March, is by canonizing any individual. One of the best ways to remember Dr. King and the March is to use the inspiration from that great day in August 1963 as the energizing force for another round of struggle.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. Follow him at www.billfletcherjr.com.

Voting is a Fundamental Right, not an 'Entitlement'

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“No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” – Voting Rights Act of 1965

(NNPA) During recent Supreme Court oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, Justice Antonin Scalia called a key part of the Voting Rights Act – Section 5 – a “racial entitlement.” Section 5 requires that the Justice Department or a federal court “pre-clear” any changes made to voting procedures by covered jurisdictions to ensure they do not “deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race or color.”

This act was established to fix a broken system, and it remains relevant today. As long as blatant voter suppression measures such as voter ID laws and district gerrymandering are being used to keep certain groups from the polls, the Voting Rights Act – in its entirety – remains necessary. And to clear up any confusion that Justice Scalia has or anyone who found merit in his argument: Voting “rights” are indeed that – a right guaranteed to every citizen of the United States. They are not a special privilege. They are not a gift. And they certainly don’t constitute a “racial entitlement.”

Justice Scalia’s comments are a shameful reiteration of a right-wing political interpretation of the Constitution. The Voting Rights Act was a response to an inarguably unjust and unfair system for voting in this country.

Prior to the Voting Rights Act, millions of African Americans, primarily in the South, were forced to run a gauntlet of “voting qualifications or prerequisites,” including ludicrous literacy tests, discriminatory poll taxes, and other bureaucratic restrictions. And when those measures failed, Blacks were routinely subjected to intimidation, economic sanctions, beatings and even murder. The 1964 murders of three voting rights activists at the hands of Mississippi Klansmen and the March 7, 1965 Bloody Sunday beating of peaceful voting rights marchers in Selma by Alabama State troopers are horrific examples.

While there has been undeniable progress since 1965, voting rights abuses are still sadly a part of the American electoral landscape. In fact, every presidential election of this new century has been plagued by voting problems – from “hanging chads,” to Tea Party-backed campaigns of Election Day intimidation to new voter ID restrictions. Cut backs in early voting even led to a Florida woman, 102-year-old Desiline Victor, having to stand in line for three hours to vote in November’s presidential election.

The Voting Rights Act, and specifically its Section 5 preclearance provisions, is still needed to protect against such abuses. While Justice Scalia is either confused or misguided in his characterization of the right to vote as a racial entitlement, Congress upheld this basic right in 2006 by overwhelmingly reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act for another 25 years. House Speaker, John Boehner said at the time, “The Voting Rights Act has been an effective tool in protecting a right that is fundamental to our democracy and renewing this landmark law will ensure that each and every citizen can continue to exercise their right to vote without the threat of intimidation or harassment.” We intend to hold Speaker Boehner to those words. If the Supreme Court declares any part of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, Congress will have a final chance to keep Section 5 alive.

Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.

Race, Venezuela and the Legacy of Chavez

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(NNPA) In January 2004, as the president of TransAfrica Forum, I had the honor of leading the first African American delegation to meet with the leaders of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution. It was important for us to conduct this visit in order to better understand what was transpiring but also to get a better sense of race, the Afro-descendant movement, and the revolutionary process in Venezuela.

Our delegation had the opportunity to meet with President Hugo Chavez on more than one occasion but the first real dialogue was more than memorable. Chavez gave us an overview of Venezuela’s history and what led to his winning power. I thanked him for the meeting and proceeded to describe my feelings at the time of the 2002 coup. I mentioned to him and his colleagues that I was very sad upon hearing of the coup, and, of course, delighted when he was restored to power.

What really struck me at the time of the coup, however, was looking at the faces of the crowds on television. I looked at the crowds that supported Chavez and those who opposed him and at that moment so much of what was unfolding in Venezuela clicked for me. For, it was clear that Chavez had phenomenal support among the poorer and the darker parts of the Venezuelan population while the opposition looked like it could have walked in from Madrid.

One of the most important contributions of President Chavez and the Bolivarian process has been to help to put race on the table for discussions and action. Under President Chavez, renewed attention has gone to the indigenous and the Afro-descendant populations. This attention, we should note, was not the result of Chavez alone, but a combination of factors with the most important being the actual social movements of the indigenous and Afro-descendant populations of Venezuela. It is critically important to grasp that in Venezuela, including in many progressive and Left circles, there is adamant denial of race as a factor in Venezuela’s reality. The opposition to President Chavez, we should be clear, denies race altogether. In the Bolivarian movement the recognition of race and racism within Venezuelan society has been uneven. But with the combination of the social movements plus Chavez’s support, race came to be openly discussed in Venezuela and actual steps were taken to address a very different form of White supremacy than the version with which we are familiar here in North America.

I had hoped to return to Venezuela and once again meet President Chavez. That will, obviously, be impossible. Chavez will be deeply missed by so many fighters for justice. His recognition of the importance of race and the struggle for racial justice placed him in a unique role in Latin America as a conscious ally of the movements of the Indigenous peoples and the Afro-descendant populations. His audacity alone was enough for one to love him, not to mention his humor and brilliance. We cannot afford to lose fighters like Hugo Chavez which is why it remains so critical that genuine movements for social justice and transformation are producing new leaders of his quality each day.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. Follow him at www.billfletcherjr.com.

Black Leaders Fail to Hold Obama Accountable

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By William Reed
NNPA Columnist

(NNPA) How many African Americans know that the president of the United States (POTUS) recently met with their leaders? How many among the African-American population know what the meeting agenda entailed, who was there, and what was accomplished at, or subsequent to it, regarding our plight and problems?

Late Black History Month 2013, the POTUS had Blacks to a meeting at the White House in the Roosevelt Room. The president discussed his “plan to strengthen the economy … and continue to build ladders of opportunity for those striving to get there.” In perhaps the cruelest of ironies, the president praised the participants for their “steadfast leadership on issues critical to improving the economy.”

The presidential meeting produced no programs to lift Blacks, nor their economies. According to White House, President Obama “reiterated his commitment to supporting policies that will directly impact those hardest hit by the economic crisis by making sure that America is a magnet for jobs, etc. …” Instead of informing the “emperor” that his clothing was “threadbare and worn,” people at the meeting gave a chorus of approval to the president’s agenda for Blacks and their communities.

Those in attendance included the Rev. Al Sharpton, National Action Network; NAACP President Ben Jealous; Avis Jones-DeWeever, executive director of the National Council of Negro Women along with Ralph Everett, president, Joint Center for Economic and Political Studies.

Everett and the Joint Center for Economic and Political Studies’ role in Black life in America is worthy of attention. The Joint Center has had a leading role as a Washington think tank for almost half a century. Without admitting that the Obama presidency is no more than symbolic for Black Americans and that nearly every quality of life indicator shows that Blacks lost ground during the Obama years, Everett cast his lot with the rest of the sheep on their way to the slaughter and said: “The meeting was a positive, constructive exchange of views. The president fully understands the concerns of the African-American community and has set forth a sensible plan to continue America’s economic recovery. We look forward to working with him to strengthen the economy for the middle class and continue to build more ladders of opportunity for those trying to get there.”

Who is going to tell the “emperor” he has no clothes? The only notable item to come out of the meeting was the staged photo-ops. Nothing of substance regarding an agenda for African Americans was discussed. In his post-meeting statement, Sharpton commented, “I and other leaders had a very significant discussion with the president about concerns in the African-American community and the civil rights community in general.”

Blacks can’t see Obama’s failings and are in discord over whether they should demand a more explicit commitment or refrain from doing so because it would weaken his appeal to others. The reverend insists that calling on Obama to be an “exponent of Black views” is “just stupid.” But, the financial ills afflicting the Black communities are more real than Sharpton & Company admit. The Black-White wealth disparity is more than 20 to 1, Black homeownership rates are declining, Blacks’ unemployment rates are nearly double those for Whites, and Blacks’ incomes are down. These discrepancies reflect a mixture of realism and low expectations.

Has “a second-class” mentality taken hold of this generation of Black Americans? Blacks are doing worse than everyone else, yet the man they elected to turn things around for them hasn’t. However, this has not fundamentally changed their view of American politics; almost every other Democratic president has failed them in similar ways.

Instead of devotion to White House deceptions, organizations such as the Joint Center can point Blacks in the right direction through program policy and leadership development practices. The Obama administration has little interest in supporting Blacks in the same ways it has gay and Latino groups. A Black agenda that addresses the serious problems that plague African Americans needs to be presented to Obama, rather than “picture taking moments” with POTUS.

William Reed is publisher of “Who’s Who in Black Corporate America” and available for projects via the BaileyGroup.org

Are Labor Unions Too Strong?

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(NNPA) The other day I found myself engaged in a casual discussion with someone next to me on an airplane. In the course of the conversation, I mentioned that I had written two books on labor unions. The man responded that he thought that unions could be both good and not so good. I am used to hearing such arguments. But he then added that he thought that “…sometimes, unions are too strong…”

There is something almost other-worldly when I hear someone suggest that unions are too strong. First, labor unions represent approximately 11-12 percent of the non-agricultural workforce. That means that about one out of 10 workers are in unions. That is not what one could describe as overwhelming strength.

Yet what I found most important about the comment was something that went beyond the facts. This gentleman had, in his mind, disconnected the matter of economic justice from the matter of institutions called labor unions. In other words, rather than seeing unions as organizations fighting for economic justice for workers—irrespective of whether they happen to be in unions—he saw unions as isolated institutions that look out for their members but no one else.

In fact, the gentleman on the plane was offering a criticism of labor unions that those of us who are active in unions (and/or support them) should take very seriously. It would be very difficult to believe that anyone who was not an outright apologist for corporations would have any issue with organizations fighting for economic justice. After all, can there be too much economic justice?

On the other hand, if you look at labor unions as the equivalent of a lobby, such as the National Association of Home Builders, for example, then one could conceivably conclude that the institution could, under certain circumstances, be too strong. Please do not get me wrong, I am not saying that labor unions are or have been too strong. What I am suggesting is that if they are not viewed broadly as instruments for economic justice, they can be viewed as just another lobby or special interest group.

What this gentleman on the plane was suggesting actually represents the central challenge for those who believe in labor unions and economic justice. The union, as I have raised in my most recent book (They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions) is an organization of workers fighting to improve the conditions and living standards of workers. To the extent to which it defines that fight narrowly, the union may be viewed with jealousy, envy or resentment. To the extent to which it defines that fight in terms of the interests of workers generally, it has a better chance to succeed and win broad support.

The Chicago teachers’ strike is a case in point. The teachers’ union worked overtime to interact, learn from and hold discussion with parents and other community members such that when the strike unfolded, it actually became a popular strike for the children! The issues raised by the union were perceived not as special interests but as interests in favor of the parents and students.

As a matter of fact, I raised the issue of the Chicago teachers’ strike with the gentleman on the plane. He looked at me cautiously and nodded his head. Point taken and registered.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. Follow him at www.billfletcherjr.com

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