Youth dominate Project Bridge’s March for peace

Marchers line up before beginning Project Bridge March at south end of Groppi Bridge

Marchers line up before beginning Project Bridge March at south end of Groppi Bridge

Standing in a cold, pouring April rain, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett looked out upon several hundred similarly wet onlookers to declare that he was seeing the most positive actions among young people that he’d ever experienced in his nearly sixty years.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett  addresses rally under the Groppi Bridge

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett addresses rally under the Groppi Bridge

If the crowd standing before him was representative of progress among youth, he was right in his observation, since a majority attending this first effort of Project Bridge appeared to be teenagers, many of them members of groups that are dedicated to improving life in the city’s most troubled neighborhoods.

Drawing the folks to this rain-soaked event was an effort by a community-wide coalition entitled Bridge Project Milwaukee, perhaps a name appropriate to the site of the event, the Groppi Bridge (the old 16th Street Viaduct).  It was the scene of many of the city’s civil rights struggles of the 1960s, when Northsiders sought to “integrate” Milwaukee’s South Side predominately white neighborhoods.

Saturday’s event began with marchers gathering at each end of the bridge, northsiders at N. 16th St. and W. Clybourn Ave. and southsiders at Cesar Chavez Dr. and W. Pierce St.  They marched to join in mid-viaduct, and then moved together down the ramp at Emmber Lane to a park-like area along Canal St., near to the bridge.

There the marchers gathered around speakers including Mayor Barrett, District Attorney John Chisholm, Alderman Robert Perez, County Supervisor David Bowen and others.  Speeches were kept mercifully short, as the cold rain intensified, but they drew a spirited response from the enthusiastic crowd that had been entertained by a drumming group.

Speakers also cited the elderly marchers scattered among the group, many of whom had participated in the 1960s civil rights efforts.

The marches and rally are a kickoff to the Project Bridge initiative that also inaugurated that day its online presence through a website and social media.  In June, the Project plans to produce a music video, using the anthem for the group, “United We Must Stand.”  Beginning in July, the Project will be encouraging the creation of Bridge Projects throughout Milwaukee neighborhoods.

A. Philip Randolph legacy in civil rights and labor traced

Norman Hill (left) with Nacarci Feaster, president of Milwaukee Chapter of APRI

Norman Hill (left) with Nacarci Feaster, president of Milwaukee Chapter of APRI

Far too many union members and African-Americans today may never have heard of A. Philip Randolph, not realizing the contributions he made both to the civil rights movement and to labor.

WIlliam E. (Bill) Johnson, retired business manager of Laborers Local 113, received the Milwaukee APRI Chapter's Achievement Award at the event.

WIlliam E. (Bill) Johnson, retired business manager of Laborers Local 113, received the Milwaukee APRI Chapter’s Achievement Award at the event.

Norman Hill, longtime labor and civil rights activist and president emeritus of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, outlined the major legacy that Randolph left upon his death at the age of 90 in 1979.  Hill, of Washington, spoke at a program sponsored by the Institute’s Milwaukee Chapter in April to celebrate the 125th Anniversary of Randolph’s birth.

Hill traced Randolph’s life from his founding and leadership of the Sleeping Car Porters Union, the nation’s first predominately black trade union, and his leadership of the union became a springboard that led him to leave a significant mark on the nation’s civil rights and labor history.  Randolph brought pressure upon President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 to issue an Executive Order banning discrimination in defense industries, perhaps the first significant action by the federal government to end such practices.

Randolph today is best known for developing – along with Bayard Rustin – the famed 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his memorable “I Have a Dream” speech.  Hill recalled that President John F. Kennedy at first opposed the March, fearing it would become violent and create a backlash against the civil rights movement.  Hill said Randolph persisted and the March was held, its eventual success made possible by the inclusion in the program of both African-American and white leaders, particularly from the labor movement.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, he said, did not originally contain a job discrimination clause, and it was eventually included when Randolph persuaded AFL-CIO President George Meany to push for it.  The clause banned racial discrimination by both companies and labor unions, with Meany urging it cover unions, many of which then practiced discriminatory behavior and needed to “clean up their own act.”

Randolph believed that blacks would never be able to gain equality unless they got involved in politics.  He constantly called for blacks to engage in building coalitions with whites, “since whites were also affected by economic issues,” Hill said.  In 1965, Randolph founded the Institute that bears his name, settings its three main goals to promote voter participation, get black workers active within their unions and to establish a positive labor presence in the community

Thus the Institute provides a link between labor and the civil rights movement, Hill said.

He stressed the importance of engaging in political activity by outlining the anti-worker and anti-civil rights actions that were occurred under four U.S. Presidents that were elected without the support of organized labor.  Under Richard Nixon, he said, the Republicans “southern strategy” was created, a movement that called for a “law and order” agenda that were code words against civil rights.  President Reagan opposed both the voting rights and civil rights acts through appointments of administrators that stifled enforcement and gave a permanent blow to labor by firing the striking air traffic controllers in 1981.

Both Bushes, Geroge H. W. and George W., followed similar policies of appointing anti-worker persons to the Supreme Court or key commissions.

Hill said experiences under such Presidents show the need for becoming more active in political action.

Coalition-building is a vital goal to success, he said, urging the involvement of youth and reaching out to other community groups, including all of the civil rights groups of all minorities, including Hispanics, seniors, gay and other progressive organizations.  In that way, Hill concluded, today’s activists will “fulfill the legacy of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.

 

 

Our words may have changed, but racism lingers on — particularly in Wisconsin

It’s hard to forget certain dates.  Today, April 4, is one of them.  It is exactly 46 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I remember exactly where I was when I learned of his death in Memphis, where he was gunned down on the balcony of the Loraine Motel while participating in a rally in support of striking sanitation workers.  The headline of his death greeted me on the following morning as I entered the coffee shop in a downtown hotel in Decatur, Illinois, where I was working on a labor union project.

An older union representative whom we called “Red” saw the headline about the same time I did and uttered something like “it’s about time someone got that b—–d.”   I forget his exact words, but that’s what he meant.

In 1968, Red’s attitude was fairly typical among whites who considered Dr. King a radical, a communist, a troublemaker and a danger (the nouns usually accompanied by expletives).  We’ve come a long way since then, and I’m certain there’s a rare union man or woman who would share Red’s feelings, much less speak out loud so hatefully.  Much of the nation has adopted Dr. King as a symbol of peace and we celebrate his life with a national holiday, full of honor and praise.

Yet, how far have we “really” come as a nation in rooting out racial hatred and in providing persons of color with true equality and opportunity?

Some of us in the North might think most of the barriers have been broken through.  In many ways, it is true: particularly in urban areas there is a cheek-by-jowl existence with persons of varied racial backgrounds that forces us to live and work together in a semblance of harmony.  We joke and share stories with persons of other ethnic backgrounds almost every day; yet, when we socialize or meet for lunch, we too often go our separate ways.

In Wisconsin, we should be particularly ashamed.  Just a few days before April 4, the Annie E. Casey Foundation published a report ranking the Badger State the “worst” among the 50 states for black children in an index measuring 12 key indicators at various stages of life, including home situation, educational skills and income.

The report is a true indictment of our state’s failure to deal effectively with this economic and social inequity.  It only confirms what most of us have known for years.

Sadly, the policies being expressed among our leaders in Madison will do nothing but exacerbate the situation.  Governor Scott Walker and Republican-controlled Legislature have cut several avenues to better health care by refusing to expand Medicaid while cutting back on BadgerCare.  It has further sliced such benefits as FoodShare that assist poor families; it has taken steps that have weakened the Milwaukee Public School system.  None of the actions of the current Administration will do anything but to make the inequities facing African-Americans grow worse.

You may hear occasional platitudes from Walker and Rep. Paul Ryan (the Wisconsin Republican who heads the House Budget Committee) honoring Dr. King, but don’t accept such hypocrisy.  Perhaps, if they were being honest with us, they’d sound more like Red in that hotel coffee shop in 1968.  Ken Germanson, April 4, 2014