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AFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders: ‘American Dream’ Not Realized for Too Many

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By Clyde Weiss Civil Rights Labor Movement Dr. Martin Luther King
AFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders: ‘American Dream’ Not Realized for Too Many
AFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders helps lead a massive march to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. (Photo by Khalid Naji-Allah)

WASHINGTON, D.C. Fifty years after the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, “the promise of democracy” is still unrealized for too many Americans, AFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders told tens of thousands who came to the National Mall on Saturday for the ‘Realize the Dream March and Rally.’

“The promise is not real for people who work hard and play by the rules every single day, yet struggle to pay the bills,” President Saunders told an audience stretching from the Lincoln Memorial, rising majestically behind him, to the World War II memorial in the far distance. “The promise is not real for retirees who worked hard all their lives but don’t know how they’ll make it day to day. The promise is not real for students who graduate under so much debt, they wonder if they’ll ever climb out of it. And if the promise is not real for all of us, it is not real for any of us.”

Pres. Lee SaundersAFSCME Pres. Lee Saunders addresses the crowd at the ‘Realize the Dream March and Rally’ on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Khalid Naji-Allah)

Sharing the stage with President Saunders was Martin Luther King, III, eldest son of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who spoke of his father’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The historic speech was given at the 1963 rally, which became a catalyst for passage of the Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“I, like you, continue to hear his voice crying out in the wilderness,” he said. He urged the crowd not to engage in “self-congratulatory celebrations” because of the many achievements since the 1963 rally because “the task is not done, the journey is not complete. We can, and we must, do more.”

Many speakers focused on the unfinished goals of Dr. King’s dream: creating jobs, protecting workers’ rights, reducing poverty, defending voter rights, ending racial profiling, supporting gay rights and creating a pathway to citizenship for millions who want to share in the American Dream. “Decades have passed. Times have changed,” President Saunders declared. “But the promise of democracy has not been made real for all of us.”

Following the speeches, President Saunders helped lead a massive march to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, which AFSCME contributed funds to build. AFSCME’s history is deeply linked to Dr. King, who was killed in 1968 in Memphis, Tenn., where he had gone to support the striking sanitation workers of AFSCME Local 1733. They were fighting for recognition of their union, their right to collective bargaining, and for respect as workers and men.

Thousands of AFSCME members were spread throughout the crowd. Many had come by buses from Atlanta, Ga.; Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Among them was Maisha Brown, a chemist with Philadelphia’s Air Management Services and also a member of AFSCME Local 2187 (District Council 47). A member of her council’s executive board, Brown looked back over her life to put this march into perspective.

“Being an African American, we didn’t have certain rights” when she grew up, she said. Brown credits Dr. King’s efforts for her own achievement – becoming the second African-American in her school to get a chemistry degree. “Had not Dr. King marched for civil rights, that would not have been possible,” she said. But for many, especially those “still on the bottom,” Dr. King’s dream is a work in progress. “We need to be able to give everybody their rights.”

Claudine Wilkins-Chambers, president of AFSCME Local 3429 (Council 4), could not be happier to be at the rally. “I’m excited beyond words,” she said, noting that she had wanted to attend the 1963 march but could not because she was pregnant. Today, the paraprofessional with the New Haven (Conn.) school system is proud to be continuing the struggle that Dr. King led.

Wilkins-Chambers said the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first black President proves that much has been accomplished since 1963. “That’s a part of the dream Dr. King had when he asked people not to judge his people by their color but the content of their character. That part of the dream is alive. But there are some parts of that dream that died with him. We’ve fallen backwards a little bit. I don’t know what Dr. Martin Luther King would say about all the violence, all the prejudice, all the homelessness, all the joblessness – that really troubles me because, where do we move from here?”

AFSCME members march Thousands of AFSCME members participated in the events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. (Photo by Khalid Naji-Allah)

Marcel Trevathan, a county child enforcement case manager in Youngstown, Ohio, and a member of AFSCME Local 3577 (Council 8), said he too was excited “to be able to say that, during my lifetime, I participated in something that I feel strongly about.” He’s especially proud that Dr. King helped make such sweeping social and political changes without violence. “We were able to use our heads, not our fists,” he said. Trevathan hopes this march will further that progress “so all men and women are treated equally.”

AFSCME member Bessie Shavers, a juvenile court probation officer in Atlanta and a member of AFSCME Local 3, was just 13 in 1963 but watched the march on TV. “As the years passed, I became an activist in my own right,” she said. “Coming to the 50th anniversary march was the right thing for me to do. Much has changed since 1963 but not enough. All the people who came together today are fighting for workers, LGBT people, women and others. Today showed me that I'm not in this alone. We're all in this together.”

Oliver Gray, associated director of New York AFSCME District Council 37, was among the 250,000 people at the 1963 march who hoped to be at Saturday’s march, but wasn’t sure because of a bad foot. If he didn’t make it, he said Friday, “I’m going to be sitting right there” in front of the TV “with a little moisture in my eye, and thoughts about the day I spent there.”

Of that 1963 march, Gray said, “There was so much spirit in the crowd, singing and speeches,” of which he could hear little because there were no large speakers like today to carry the words deep into the crowd. “I kept moving forward,” he recalled, “just feeling so pleased so many people had turned out.”

The promises of that day have only partially been fulfilled, Gray said. “We’ve had a black mayor and now we have a black President. But some things have not changed. There’s quite an emphasis now on diminishing the role of public employees, so much so that we’ve lost many, many jobs and opportunities during the economic downturn. The march we’re embarking on now is to remind ourselves and the nation that all is not resolved, all is not well, and there’s work to be done.”