'We can reclaim the promise of an equal education for all'
On Aug. 28, 1963, Lorretta Johnson got on a bus in Baltimore with her 6-year-old son, Leonard Jr., and came to the March on Washington.
"I went because I needed to be part of changing America for my sons," she says. "And now, 50 years later, I need to continue the fight for my great-granddaughter, born last month, so that she and her generation can realize the dream of Martin Luther King."
Fifty years ago, AFT leaders and members helped mobilize 250,000 Americans for the march, which led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and other progressive programs we benefit from today. Since that first march, Johnson has advanced from homemaker to paraprofessional to union leader to secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers. She also now serves as treasurer for the national board of the A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI), which carries on the work of Randolph, who was president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and is considered the elder statesman of the civil rights movement.
Johnson champions the life of the late, great Bayard Rustin, whose work stands at the intersection of the AFT and the March on Washington.
"I first met Bayard Rustin at an APRI conference I attended along with the AFT delegation," Johnson says. "Straight away, you could tell that he was a highly intelligent man. He immediately left an imprint. At the time, we weren't thinking of the march as part of history. For us, it was about responsibility and accountability. History is made by people who don't even know they're making it.
"Bayard and the leaders of the movement did a very special thing. They amplified the voices of millions of African-Americans across the United States. Voices long marginalized and stamped out by those insistent on clinging to the status quo. For African-Americans, the March on Washington was the discovery of our collective voice.
"Even before the March, Bayard shared a close friendship with Al Shanker, at that time president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York. Bayard and Al worked hand-in-hand on the march and on countless battles for equality and freedom.
"We've made leaps and bounds, but our struggle continues," Johnson says. "Whether it's oppressive voter suppression laws or unfair school closings in minority neighborhoods, our struggle continues. Let's not forget the lessons learned from those who came before us. Let's not forget how hard Bayard Rustin and his peers fought for the freedom we now enjoy. Yes, our struggle continues, but we can reclaim the promise of an equal education for all our children."
Lorretta Johnson is the secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO.