by Lovie Smith-Wright, AFM Diversity Committee Chair and President of Local 65-699 (Houston, TX)
From January 17-19, I had the great pleasure of representing the AFM at the 2020 AFL-CIO Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Civil and Human Rights Conference, held at the Capitol Hilton in Washington, D.C. The theme of the conference, “Give Us the Ballot, Political Boot Camp,” emphasized the importance of us getting out to vote and making sure our members understand why the 2020 election is critical.
The opening ceremony began Friday morning with the invocation by Terry Melvin, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, and a welcome by Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO. Trumka told us that Dr. King’s words are in each one of us—in our focus, our fierceness, and our fighting spirit. He said that Dr. King’s legacy is shaped by the leaders who came after him who continued to carry the torch that he lit; then Trumka took a moment for us to send out our best wishes to America’s greatest living civil rights leader, the conscience of the Congress, Representative John Lewis.
Trumka reminded us that Dr. King called for the march in Selma because Jimmie Lee Jackson, a woodcutter and a deacon, was shot and killed when he was 26 years old—all because he just wanted to vote. Shortly after the march in Selma, President Lyndon Johnson called on Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. Today’s Supreme Court has weakened the Voting Rights Act; the voter ID laws of today are the new poll taxes and literacy tests. The attacks on voters’ rights were the fights of Jimmie Lee Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr., and John Lewis; these are still our fights today. “The best way to honor Dr. King’s memory is to lock arms and carry his torch forward together,” stated Trumka.
The Friday afternoon session opened with Tefere Gebre, executive vice president, AFL-CIO, who introduced the speakers for the afternoon plenary: “Give Us the Ballot: A Voting Rights Mandate.” The moderator was Gwen McKinney and the feature speakers were Dora Cervantes, International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers; Jeanne L. Lewis, National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy; and Leon Russell, NAACP. They all explained the significance of getting people involved in voting, because whom you vote for, on local and state levels, determines whether your streetlights stay on or whether you get funding for public schools; the right to vote and the power of votes brings political and economic power in its wake.
The highlight of the conference was Labor Night at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The evening started with an empowering discussion, “The Colored Girls: Lessons from the Political Battlefield.” The featured speakers were: Donna Brazile, Yolanda Caraway, Bishop Leah D. Daughtry, and Minyon Moore, who are the authors of the book For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Politics. Each panelist spoke of how they got started in politics, and how they were affected by Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson, and many others. Donna Brazile had a tremendous impact on me because she spoke so eloquently as to why each one of us should always follow our dreams and never give up hope.
After the presentation, the delegates were given time to explore the exhibits of the museum; we headed straight to the fourth floor where the history of African American Music is found. It is an extraordinary collection of all the great artists of jazz, rhythm and blues, hip hop, classical, etc. Every musician should see this historical collection.
Saturday morning was dedicated to community service, and Saturday afternoon offered several workshops. The three sessions I attended emphasized how important our vote is. Since “civics” is no longer being taught in most public schools, a lot of people do not understand the legislative process; therefore, we must educate everyone to vote in every election in their communities. Along with our vote is the 2020 census—again, we must encourage and educate people why it is important to be counted. The evening ended with a closing reception with remarks by Fred Redmond, United Steel Workers, and Tefere A. Gebre.
A last quote from President Trumka: “We’re the ones who make America great. We keep it safe … We tuck her into our bed at night. And come Election Day. … We vote! We’re fearless. We’re strong. We’re powerful. We’re united. We’re the American labor movement and we will not … WE WILL NOT … be denied!”