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Sidebar: Civil Rights Leaders for the 90s Speak

600 Local Activists Reclaim Dr. King's Radical Legacy

by Will Jones

Chapel Hill - Six hundred people came out Monday, January 20, for a march and rally in celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King's dedication to radical social change. The Chapel Hill/Carrboro NAACP, in coalition with more than thirty other organizations, organized this year's march to mark recent gains by the UNC Housekeepers Association and the Chapel Hill/Carrboro Black Public Works Association. According to long-time Chapel Hill activist Joe Straley, this was the largest such event the town had ever seen.

The size of the march reflected two months of dedicated coalition work. The NAACP, the BPWA, and the HKA worked with the Carolina Socialist Forum, the Coalition for Economic Justice, the Lesbian Avengers, the Feminist Alliance and other groups to build a coalition to plan the celebration. Organizers sent over 800 letters and flyers asking community and work place organizations, churches, and campus groups to spread the word and to join the march. They spoke before congregations, on the radio, and local cable access television, and passed out thousands of flyers advertising the event.

The day before the march, Carolina Socialist Forum began the celebration with a panel discussion entitled Civil Rights for the 1990s: A Call for Economic Justice. Dr. Gerald Horne, director of the Black Cultural Center, began the forum with an historical view of the relationship between racism and economic exploitation in the United States. Lesbian feminist activist Mab Segrest followed by pointing out the need for a global perspective on social inequality in the present period. Lizbeth Melendez, who is helping Guatemalan poultry workers organize a union in Morganton NC, concluded with a local view of the relationship between racial justice and the union movement. All three speakers stressed the centrality of economic justice in civil rights struggles for people of color, women, lesbians, gays, bi-sexuals, and other targets of discrimination.

Martin Luther King Day began with a rally on the steps of the Chapel Hill post office. Dave Lippman warmed up the crowd with songs, and the Internationalist Bookstore displayed a selection of books on Dr. King and the civil rights movement. As the crowd grew from 50 to 75 to 150 people, Hank Anderson of the NAACP called them closer for a series of speeches.

Speakers included Joe Straley, John Herrera, Gerald Horne, and other Chapel Hill activists. Alley Murphey brought greetings from the Housekeepers Association at Eastern Carolina University, and Chris Smith of the UNC Housekeepers read a poem. By the time Ange-Marie Hancock of the Feminist Alliance and the Coalition for Economic Justice introduced the chants for the march, the crowd had grown to 400.

The march began with a short walk to Silent Sam, a confederate war memorial on the UNC campus. There NAACP president Fred Battle and Yonnie Chapman of the Internationalist Bookstore spoke of the need to acknowledge the history of racism at UNC. Silent Sam, they explained, represents the hypocrisy of a university fabled for its liberalism where many of the campus buildings are named for slave owners. One hall, Saunders, is even named for the founder of North Carolina's Ku Klux Klan. Chapman suggested that one way to rectify UNC's racist past would be to replace Silent Sam with a monument to the black workers who had built and maintained the University for 200 years. UNC student Courtney Scott then led the crowd in the Black National Anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

The crowd, which had grown to 600 strong, marched down Franklin Street chanting "Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Racist Silence Has Got to Go" and "Tear Down Sam, Tear Down Greed, Workers Rights Are What We Need." Banners demonstrated the participation of Chapel Hill High School students, the NC State Employees' Association, graduate students in the UNC Math Department, the Feminist Alliance, the Lesbian Avengers, and of course, the UNC Housekeepers. To the words of "We Shall Not Be Moved," and other songs and chants, marchers made their way to a closing service at the First Baptist Church.

At First Baptist, reverends Gene Hatley, Marie Mann, and Larry Jones, and Gloria Brooks of the NAACP welcomed the marchers and members of the congregation. Chapel Hill Mayor Rosemary Waldorf greeted the crowd, R.D. Smith of South Orange Black Caucus spoke of the need for educational reform, and BPWA president Steve England provided observations on his organizations achievement of higher wages for the towns workers. Perhaps the most inspiring presentations came from young people. Joel and Teal McCauley read beautiful poems, and a horn quartet played several songs. Throughout the service, the Hickory Grove Inspirational Singers provided musical background and interludes.

The service culminated with a key note address by Ajamu Dillahunt of the Postal Workers' Union and Black Workers for Justice [see selections this page]. A fitting end to a day celebrating the struggle for racial and economic justice, Dillahunt's speech stressed the importance of acknowledging Dr. King's increasing radicalism in the last years of his life.

Not only is the King holiday a celebration of struggle, explained the labor organizer. It is also struggle to reclaim King's legacy from the corporations and politicians who have watered down the civil rights leader's radicalism. President Clinton, for example, would certainly evoke King's name in the inauguration ceremony that also occurred on January 20. After signing the Welfare Reform bill, which would drive thousands of black and white Americans into desperate poverty, Clinton and others were only, in Dillahunt's words, "pimpin' off King's message."

Chapel Hill's growing movement for economic justice demonstrated how progressive coalitions could reclaim King's radical legacy. Dillahunt called the Housekeepers "Shining Stars" who had inspired public workers across North Carolina. The BPWA had demonstrated the awesome power that organized workers could wield in local political struggles. By supporting these movements, progressive activists in the Coalition for Economic Justice, the Black Student Movement, the Internationalist Bookstore, and other groups were forcing Chapel Hill to live up to its reputation as a progressive community.

Turning to national politics, Dillahunt defended the controversial decision to introduce Ebonics, or Black English, into the public school curriculum in Berkley, California. He chastised Jessie Jackson and other black leaders for denouncing the decision without knowing all the facts. For example, Jackson overlooked the fact that Berkeley's school board had only supported instructing teachers and parents to recognize and appreciate black speech patterns. Instead of checking the facts, he had denounced the motion for advocating the teaching of black English in place of standard English.

Dillahunt argued that the attack on Ebonics was really an attack on the black educators who had studied and developed the curriculum. Had journalists and politicians investigated more carefully, for example, they might have asked for a clarification of the school board's assertion that black English had "genetic" roots. Could educators really have believed, he asked, that black people's DNA produced a different language? They had, after all, quickly retracted the word "genetic" from their proposal. Whatever the meaning of their use of "genetic," criticism of the school board's decision was at its root an attack on African-American "peoplehood."

Dillahunt concluded by asking his audience to "keep the struggle in front of" them. Activist coalitions for economic justice can grow in all communities, and they should mimic Chapel Hill's movement by allowing workers to set the agendas. He criticized the Democratic and Republican Parties, and urged local activists to support the Labor Party, the Green Party, the New Party, or any other party dedicated to an agenda based on the needs of working people. Only by reclaiming King's commitment to radical social change, can a truly progressive movement continue to grow in Chapel Hill, and across North Carolina.

Will Jones is a graduate student at UNC and an activist with the Carolina Socialist Forum, Internationalist Books, and the North Carolina chapter of the Committees of Correspondence.

 
 

Civil Rights Leaders for the 90s Speak

Dillahunt and Horne speak about the slain leader and his recognition of the need for economic justice

Ajamu Dillahunt spoke in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Monday, January 20, at the First Baptist Church in Chapel Hill. Dillahunt is President of the Raleigh local of the American Postal Workers Union, a member of the national steering committee of Black Workers for Justice and a member of the Labor Party. The following are excerpts from his talk:

• Too many people want to freeze Dr. King in time and dwell on his 1963 "I have a dream" speech with its eloquent phrases and optimistic tone....He became clear on questions of poverty, class, private propoerty and the role of big business and the rich in setting the country's priorities and foreign policy agenda.

• The developed industrial nations of the world cannot remain secure islands of property in a seething sea of poverty. The storm is rising against the privileged minority of the earth, from which there is no shelter in isolation and armament.

• The Texaco Corporation ... concedes that there is rampant discrimination. In Wilmington, an Avis franchise refuses to rent cars to black people. Hundreds of churches have been burned and there is still resistance to the idea that they are racially motivated....In Charleston, South Carolina, a white teacher paints a reminder on a black child's face and up the road in Clarendon County a white couple puts a hangman's noose around the neck of a nine-year-old, ties him to a tree and fires a shotgun blast past his face....At a Walmart in Knightdale an assistant manager tells a black woman she can't quit because slaves can't quit.

Brothers and sisters, they think they can do and say whatever they want....In fact, they have been encouraged by the atmosphere created by the government, media and the corporations.

• Black workers bear the burden of class exploitation and race discrimination, and our sisters have the added oppression of gender.

• We call on you to support union organizing drives. Be a part of coalitions fighting for a Living Wage or, as Dr. King proposed, a "guaranteed income." And be there to defend the working class from the attacks that have taken the form of welfare reform.

Gerald Horne, professor of history and Director of the Sonja Haynes Stone Black Cultural Center at UNC-CH, spoke at a January 19 forum in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. The event, "Civil Rights for the 90s, a Call for Economic Justice," was hosted by the Carolina Socialist Forum.

Horne is author of The Fire this Time, the Watts Uprising in the 1960s, and formerly served as Director of the National Conference of Black Lawyers and Local 1199 of the Hospital Workers Union in New York. Here are excerpts from his talk.

• The promise of the Revolution [of 1776] was not fulfilled until the Civil War, when in order to defeat the slaveowning South the US government was forced to move toward emancipation of the slaves....Those Africans who had been slaves still found it difficult to improve their working conditions and income, precisely because they discovered that Euro-American workers by and large sought to bar them from unions...[T]hese unions' concern with racial exclusion hampered their ability to engage in class struggle against the boss.

• With few exceptions...this discrimination against African-Americans within unions remained the case until the organization of the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO), began organizing in the 1930s beyond craft workers targeting production workers....[T]his organizing drive was aided immeasurably by the Communist Party, which...broke decisively with the old Socialist Party idea that the question of racism would be solved once there was socialismä The CIO organizing drive, the need for black labor during World War II, and the dictates of the Cold War were decisive factors in breaking the back of US apartheid and bringing on the so-called civil rights movement.

•In the late 1920s and early 1930s Tokyo worked closely with the Nation of Islam and other black nationalist organizations on a common platform of "anti-whiteness." The US had been encouraging black workers...to migrate to Seattle, Oakland and Los Angeles during World War II to work in defense factories but it was...the West Coast that was most vulnerable to attack from Japan. This dynamic led the US to conclude that anti-Jim Crow measures were not just a question of morality but...a question of strategic good sense.

•The erosion of legalized segregation had significant impact....This general rise in democratization came with a huge price tag. As the US elite was forced into making concessions on the racial front, they won givebacks on the class front. During the civil rights era the labor movement, principally the AFL-CIO unions, descended into the dark night of anti-communism, spending more time backing genocidal wars in Korea and Vietnam than organizing workers in North Carolina and Mississippi.

• One of the tactics devised to bring on economic justice is affirmative action, a remedy that King endorsed more than once....Malaysia, [with very high growth rates], has some of the most...stringent affirmative action requirements in the world. India's affirmative action...guarantees certain groups reserved seats in universities...[and]...in Parliament. Raising the question of India and Malaysia reminds us of a basic fact....It took the Union army, which was forced to incorporate recruits from abroad to undo human slavery; it took the federal government...and the weight of the international community to break the back of Jim Crow.

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