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OP-ED: “Hell No!” That is my message to those who would divide us

NNPA NEWSWIRE — In framing the profound impact that organized labor has had on the civil rights movement and why this relationship must be shored up and strengthened at every turn, I wanted to start with Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner and first president of the new South Africa. Mandela, upon being released from the South African jail where he spent 28 years, made Dearborn, Michigan, one of his very first stops on a trip that included addressing the United Nations. He stopped to speak to UAW Local 600 members to thank them for their anti-apartheid efforts to bring freedom to South Africa and to extol the America labor movement. “It is you who have made the United States of America a superpower, a leader of the world,” he told his audience. And he was right.

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First president of the new South Africa, Nelson Mandela (Photo: iStockphoto / NNPA)
A longtime grassroots activist, Curry is a member of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Nashville, a Silver Life member of the NAACP, and member of the NAACP National Board of Directors. He is also an active member of numerous community and social organizations including but not limited to the Michigan State Democratic Party, American Legion Post 177 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Unique Masonic Lodge #85, Charlotte Consistory #35, and Rameses Temple #51 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and various others. He resides in Detroit.

A longtime grassroots activist, Ray Curry is a member of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Nashville, a Silver Life member of the NAACP, and member of the NAACP National Board of Directors. He is also an active member of numerous community and social organizations including but not limited to the Michigan State Democratic Party, American Legion Post 177 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Unique Masonic Lodge #85, Charlotte Consistory #35, and Rameses Temple #51 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and various others. He resides in Detroit.

By Ray Curry, Secretary-Treasurer, UAW

“The machines stopped at the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn in June 1990. Workers held aloft unfurled “Local 600” banners to welcome the South African leader on what was dubbed his “Freedom Tour.” When Mandela finally appeared, he was greeted by United Auto Workers president Owen Bieber and vice president Ernie Lofton. Mandela recalled the struggle to organize the plant in the 1930s and told the assembled workers: “It is you who have made the United States of America a superpower, a leader of the world.”
John Nichols writing in The Nation

In framing the profound impact that organized labor has had on the civil rights movement and why this relationship must be shored up and strengthened at every turn, I wanted to start with Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner and first president of the new South Africa. Mandela, upon being released from the South African jail where he spent 28 years, made Dearborn, Michigan, one of his very first stops on a trip that included addressing the United Nations. He stopped to speak to UAW Local 600 members to thank them for their anti-apartheid efforts to bring freedom to South Africa and to extol the America labor movement.

“It is you who have made the United States of America a superpower, a leader of the world,” he told his audience.

And he was right.

It was the middle class that UAW President Walter Reuther and this union began hammering into shape in the 1930s, both at the head of and alongside America’s other great unions, that brought our nation to prosperity. And it was unions, every step of the way, that created wage parity and opportunity for Black America. And over time, that movement broke apart many of the ugly racial divisions so long held in not only the Jim Crow South, but in the industrialized North as well.

They will not silence us

Sadly, the efforts to weaken the labor movement, under non-stop withering attack from the anti-labor forces on the right, could imperil all that we have gained. Their efforts threaten the middle class existence that all of us have worked so long and so hard to achieve. And, make no mistake, these forces are at work to silence our collective voice.

So, I say, “No, to that.” Hell no!

As Americans, we must stand strong — union strong — for every one of us, against any and all threats to our civil liberties. One of the most pivotal moments in the struggle for equal rights came in 1963 when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Walter Reuther walked in solidarity in the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. — Leaders marching from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, August 28, 1963. In the front row, from left are: Whitney M. Young, Jr., Executive Director of the National Urban League; Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). A. Philip Randolph, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, American Federation of Labor (AFL), and a former vice president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). Walter P. Reuther, President, United Auto Workers Union. Arnold Aronson, Secretary of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

The Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. — Leaders marching from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, August 28, 1963. In the front row, from left are: Whitney M. Young, Jr., Executive Director of the National Urban League; Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); A. Philip Randolph, Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, American Federation of Labor (AFL), and a former vice president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO); Walter P. Reuther, President, United Auto Workers Union; Arnold Aronson, Secretary of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

We, African Americans and organized labor, have a shared history of fighting in solidarity for wages, for health care, for better working conditions, for education, for retirement, for respect — for the American Dream. And for a role in building and living in a better nation.

As I write this, I invoke Mandela and Dr. King and Reuther because I see America at a tipping point. America has better angels than those in the political headlines we see today. There is a lack of vision coming out the Administration these days. In its stead, we have finger pointing and division, race baiting and xenophobia. We have the most anti-labor administration since Ronald Reagan and with ever more lax business restrictions and consumer protections. We have a labor board that might as well be the Chamber of Commerce, courts stacked with union busters and we’re seeing voter suppression across the country.

I see a light ahead

But I invoke heroes because they inspire. They see a better place, an inclusive place and I am seeing that light, too. I am seeing people, like voters in Missouri, who said ‘No’ to Right to Work. I am seeing presidential candidates increasingly talking up unions and making it part of their platforms. I see a push for a livable minimum wage. I see organizations like the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) fighting tooth and nail to “use the full Constitutional power, statutory authority, and financial resources of the federal government to ensure that African Americans and other marginalized communities in the United States have the opportunity to achieve the American Dream.”

I see the CBC taking the facts to the President in a hand delivered 130-page policy document entitled, “We Have a Lot to Lose: Solutions to Advance Black Families in the 21st Century.”

The document addresses the importance of trade unions and the negative impact of Right-to-Work laws, as African Americans are particularly vulnerable when unions falter. The Center for Economic and Policy Research states it best:

African American union workers are “13.1 percentage points more likely to have employer-provided health insurance, and 15.4 percentage points more likely to have employer-sponsored retirement plans.”

For black union workers who haven’t completed high school: black union workers in this category benefit from a “wage advantage of 19.6% over their non-union peers and are 23.4 percentage points and 25.2 percentage points more likely to have health insurance and a retirement plan, respectively.”

The strength of millions

But that’s not all the CBC is working toward.

With a historic 55 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, the CBC represents 82 million Americans and more than 17 million African-Americans. Their accomplishments are many:

  • Joining the fight to combat voter suppression: The CBC has worked tirelessly to enhance access and make voting easier via initiatives such as early voting and automatic voter registration.
  • Supporting the Affordable Care Act to make sure all Americans have access to quality, affordable health care.
  • Working diligently to ensure across-the-divide access to quality education, business opportunities and capital, and resources to be a part of developing industries and technology.

Nelson Mandela went from the UAW local back to South Africa to become exactly what he preached that day four years later as president.  To the end of his days, he served as the honorary president of South Africa’s National Union of Mineworkers. He publicly stated he was “fully committed to the protection of the integrity of the collective bargaining system.”

For me this lifetime honorary member of the UAW and fulltime champion of the oppressed underscores the unbreakable bond of civil rights and the labor movement and along with the memory of Dr. King and Walter Reuther, and CBC past and present members, stirs in us the will to fight forever on — on both fronts.

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U.S. Business Leaders Step Up to Fight Inequities in the South

Even as the pandemic has laid bare societal inequities that have long eroded the foundation of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and in state capitols are mired in a level of rancor and partisanship not seen since the ideological struggles over the Vietnam War. 

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Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr./ NNPA Newswire

Even as the pandemic has laid bare societal inequities that have long eroded the foundation of our democracy, political leaders in Washington and in state capitols are mired in a level of rancor and partisanship not seen since the ideological struggles over the Vietnam War. 

This toxic atmosphere has left them incapable of addressing pressing, yet ingrained issues like the racial wealth gap, the digital divide, and vast inequalities in everything from health care to home ownership.

With COVID-19 still an omnipresent concern and the country’s recovery still very much in jeopardy, individuals, families, and communities – particularly communities of color throughout the South – are struggling to deal with issues that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

From impediments to wealth creation opportunities and a dearth of education and workforce development to a lack of access to reliable broadband, substandard housing, and inadequate political representation, communities of color have suffered an outsized toll during the ongoing public health crisis.

Yet political leaders can’t even agree on basic facts that would allow the nation to implement a coherent national strategy for combatting a pandemic that appears to be entering a new wave amid the rise of the highly contagious Delta variant that is currently ravaging parts of the South.

Against that disillusioning backdrop, there is at least some reason for hope. Moving to fill the vacuum created by the inaction of our political class, a group of business leaders in the technology and investment sectors have embarked on a far-reaching – and perhaps unprecedented – campaign to address the social inequities and systemic racism that has historically plagued our country’s southern communities.

Known as the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI), the campaign was founded by financial technology company PayPal, the investment firm Vista Equity Partners (Vista), and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

SCI was formed to work with local elected officials and advocacy groups to tackle the ubiquitous problems of structural racism and inequalities facing communities of color in six communities throughout the South. SCI notes that these areas – Atlanta, Ga., Birmingham, Ala., Charlotte, N.C., Houston, Texas, Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans, La., – were chosen in part because they are home to around 50% of the country’s Black population and are where some of the greatest disparities exist.

SCI is aiming to drive long-term change, as outlined by PayPal CEO Dan Schulman, Vista CEO Robert F. Smith and BCG CEO Rich Lesser. 

In Atlanta, for example, SCI is working to bridge the wealth gap that exists among the region’s African-American residents. While there is a strong Black business community in the city, and high levels of Black educational achievement thanks to the regional presence of several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and the voice of the Black press, there is still an extremely low level of Black entrepreneurship and business ownership with only 6% of employer firms being Black-owned.

To remedy this disparity, SCI is working with the Southern Economic Advancement Project to create entrepreneurship hubs and accelerator programs to increase the number of minority-owned businesses. The corporations behind SCI are also using their networks to help other companies work with minority-owned supply companies.

In Alabama, SCI is seeking to bridge the massive digital divide in an urban area where 450,000 households are without connection to the internet. In order to tackle the crisis, SCI is leveraging relationships with local schools and libraries to distribute laptops and service vouchers. Another tact SCI is taking is to partner with the owners of multi-unit buildings in low-income neighborhoods to install free public Wi-Fi for residents.

The lack of access to capital is another reason Black communities throughout the South have been traditionally underbanked. In Memphis, where 47% of Black households are underbanked, SCI is partnering with Grameen America to cover the $2 million per year per branch start-up cost to build brick-and-mortar banks in minority communities.

This alone will provide 20,000 women access to more than $250 million per year in financing.

Beyond these initiatives, SCI is partnering with groups like the Greater Houston Partnership and the Urban League of Louisiana to provide in-kind support to improve job outcomes for minority college students, expand access to home financing through partnerships with community development financial institutions, and harness the power of technology to expand health care access in underserved urban and rural neighborhoods.

The issues facing these communities throughout the South are not new nor will they be fixed overnight.

Fortunately, SCI is taking a long-term approach that is focused on getting to the root of structural racism in the United States and creating a more just and equitable country for every American.

A once-in-a-century pandemic and a social justice movement not seen since the 1960s were not enough to break the malaise and rancorous partisanship in Washington. Fortunately, corporate leaders are stepping up and partnering with local advocates and non-profit groups to fix the problem of systemic injustice in the U.S.

We, therefore, salute and welcome the transformative commitments of the Southern Communities Initiative (SCI). There is no time to delay, because as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so accurately said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

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Black Woman to Lead United States Park Police

 Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

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Pamela A. Smith

Pamela A. Smith, a 23-year veteran of the United States Park Police, will lead the nation’s oldest federal law enforcement agency.

Smith, who became the first African American woman to lead the 230-year-old agency, immediately remarked that she would establish a body-worn camera program for USPP within 90 days.

The program will initially begin in San Francisco and be implemented across the country by the end of the year, Smith said.

“Body-worn cameras are good for the public and good for our officers, which is why I am prioritizing implementing a body-worn camera program within my first 90 days,” Smith offered in a statement.

 “This is one of the many steps we must take to continue to build trust and credibility with the public we have been entrusted to serve.”

Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and graduated from the FBI National Academy. She is a member of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

During her law enforcement career, the proud Zeta Phi Beta Sorority sister has served as a patrol officer, field training officer, canine handler, and academy instructor at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

 According to a news release, Smith also served as executive lieutenant to the chief of police, assistant commander of the San Francisco Field Office, commander of the New York Field Office, acting deputy chief of the Homeland Security Division, and deputy chief for the Field Operations Division.

Smith was the first woman to lead the New York Field Office as its Major.

At the USPP, she will lead a 560-member workforce that protects the public, parks, and the nation’s most iconic landmarks in Wash., D.C., New York City, and San Francisco metropolitan areas.

“Chief Smith’s commitment to policing as public service and her willingness to listen and collaborate make her the right person to lead the U.S. Park Police at this pivotal moment in our country,” Shawn Benge, deputy director exercising the delegated authority of the NPS director, noted in a statement.

 “Over the coming months, the leadership of the National Park Service will explore opportunities with Chief Smith designed to strengthen our organization’s commitment to transparency. Her personal and professional experience make her acutely aware of and ready to meet the challenges and responsibilities that face U.S. Park Police and law enforcement agencies across the nation.”

 Jennifer Flynn, the associate director for Visitor Resource Protection at the National Park Service added that she’s looking forward to Smith’s leadership.

“Chief Smith’s experience serving in leadership roles in every U.S. Park Police field office has provided her with an unmatched foundation to lead the diverse agency,” said Flynn, who oversees law enforcement programs at USPP.

 “As federal law enforcement officers, the U.S. Park Police officers have a new opportunity each day to give their best to the American people. Chief Smith exemplifies that approach as a colleague and mentor, and she will be instrumental in refining and shaping the future of the organization,” Flynn said.

Smith declared that she would lead by example and expects all officers to display integrity.

 “I have dedicated my career to the professionalism of law enforcement, and it is my highest honor and privilege to serve as chief of police,” Chief Smith declared. “Today’s officers face many challenges, and I firmly believe challenges present opportunities. I look forward to leading this exemplary team as we carry out our mission with honesty and integrity.”  

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