August 25, 2013

NYSUT activists join thousands to celebrate 50th anniversary of the March on Washington

Author: Liza Frenette
Source:  NYSUT Communications
on the national mall
Caption: Thousands packed the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Photos by El-Wise Noisette.

Rep. John Lewis , D. Ga., - the only surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington - had the crowd at the 50th anniversary march in the proverbial palm of his hand.

As a member of the 1960s Freedom Fighters who risked his life for civil rights, he told the thousands and thousands of people before him how he was only 23 years old when he stood at that podium at the Lincoln Memorial. He'd marched in Selma, Alabama and throughout the south and was arrested more than 40 times for his efforts to secure the right to vote for African-Americans, and "I'm not going to stand by and let a Supreme Court take that away."

Voting, he said, "is the single, most powerful non-violent tool we have in America."

Imploring the thousands before him who were roaring their approval, he said, "You cannot sit down. You have to stand up and get in the way... You have to push and pull" to make America be what it is supposed to be.

"I'm not tired. I'm not weary," he said.

march on washington 

In the crowd, packed around the reflecting pool and stretching long into the grass beyond it, a man said "Now, how are you going to top that speech?"

Next up was young Asean Johnson, a 9-year-old elementary student from Chicago, who stood at the podium with AFT President Randi Weingarten wearing a T-shirt that said, "I am the promise."

With his head bent earnestly over his notes, he said Congressman Lewis was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March and "now I'm the youngest speaker!" When the crowd cheered him, he stopped, looked up and smiled.

Johnson said he was at the March for education, justice and freedom. In Chicago, 50 schools have been closed in Latino and African-American communities. Budgets for those schools were cut while budgets for charter schools increased. "Every child deserves a great education and every school deserves equal funding," he said.

"I have a dream that we shall overcome," Johnson said.

When Weingarten picked up the microphone, she said about Johnson:  "That is our future!"

Much needs to be done to protect that future. She said it's only been months since the Supreme Court rolled back voting rights; high-poverty schools are given the least; a child dies from gun violence every thirty minutes; and signs of injustice are everywhere. While discrimination based on race or sexual orientation may not be legal, "It's still lethal."

She called for actions such as a day of prayer; non-violent protests in underfunded school districts; and sit-ins. "Educational opportunity is the highway to economic opportunity," she said.

When young Johnson and Weingarten's speeches finished, and the crowds hollered approval, the same man turned to his friend and said "Now that's how you top that!"

Martin Luther King III seemed to shake the whole dais when he asked the crowd to catch a flicker of the "ferocious flame of freedom."

He called for entrepreneurs not inmates, and for men who are fathers to be present in their children's lives. He bemoaned cities and major urban centers dying right here in our country, and impressed on the crowd that "there is a fierce urgency to act now" as we recover from the worst economy since the Great Depression.

King said he could almost hear his dad humming "People get ready, there's a train a coming..."

"Be mindful of my father's fundamental imperative of love," he said, decrying the senseless killing of children on the streets and in schools like Columbine, Co. and Newtown, Ct.

"We have to keep on talking, keep on job building, keep on community building..." King said.

"We ain't gonna let nobody turn us around," he shouted, and the crowd roared the same words back to him from across the reflecting pool. Words reflecting each other as King hopes actions will do.

march on washington
UUP members on the mall call for New York to save Suny Downstate Medical.

Reverend Al Sharpton reminded the crowd that 50 years ago, people came to the rally who couldn't buy a cup of coffee until they crossed the Mason-Dixon line; who slept in their cars because they couldn't get a motel room.'

"Today we face continuing challenges," he said. "We want to protect our right to vote."

We always had ID, he said. Through Presidents Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush again, he said – "Why would we get to Obama and need ID?" The people heard, lifted their signs higher, and roared.

Blacks were given a check that bounced, he said. "We redeposited it." But guess what? He asked. "It bounced again." It was marked "STOP payment."

Meanwhile, America had money to bail out the bankers and give to the rich, but not when it came time to fund Head Start or teachers.

This time, he said, America better make that check count "or we're going to close the bank."

march on washington
NYSUT officers Andy Pallotta and Maria Neira.

NYSUT executive vice-president Andy Pallotta, wearing a blue AFT "Reclaim the Promise" t-shirt at the rally, said the civil rights movement and the union movement share common ground over these issues.

"When programs are cut opportunities go down," he said.

At the National Mall, he said he saw huge numbers of people from many diverse groups, backgrounds and heritage, "thinking about what happened 50  years ago. They're involved. They're continuing to make change."

Every time unions help get a budget cut restored, "We're in this march," he said.
NYSUT's local unions throughout the state are so involved in community service and giving back that "it gives you hope for change. They really have a heart for what they do."

Maria Neira, NYSUT vice president, was moved by the speeches of Martin Luther King III and Myrlie Evans, wife of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evans.

"It was empowering to hear an 80-year-old woman talking about women empowerment," said Neira as she walked through the crowds, where people held signs saying "Close Prisons Not Schools;" "End mass incarceration and the new Jim Crow!" and wore CWA bright red t-shirts that said "I am a drum major for justice!" or "Less talk, more walk."