Speaker after speaker at the AFT Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Conference called on AFT members, leaders and allies to take action—from the steps of the Alabama state Capitol building, from the conference stage and from the panel discussion tables—and they responded. Surrounded by Montgomery, Ala.’s rich history of civil rights, they pledged to persist in the fight against racism, discrimination and exclusion, and for equity, justice and democracy—as the conference title announced, “Fighting for a Better Life and a Voice at Work and in Our Democracy in the Not-So-New Jane and Jim Crow Era.”
“We are on hallowed ground,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten, addressing a crowd of demonstrators at the state Capitol building. “While we stand on the shoulders of giants, we must not just stand. We must show up, we must fight, we must care and we must vote. … While none of us can do everything, every one of us must do something.”
The call couldn’t come at a more crucial time, she said. “Our national government has become a platform for the promotion of hatred and prejudice, a pulpit for authoritarianism, and a megaphone for shouting down the democratic ideals that have motivated what is best in America,” said Weingarten. The president threatens to imprison political opponents, wants to “get rid” of journalists, props up white nationalism, and allows elections to be undermined by voter suppression, partisan gerrymandering and foreign interference.
These threats, along with cruel exploitation of undocumented immigrants in the name of cheap labor and greed, are a call to action, said Hector Sanchez, executive director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement. “Our future depends on us being political.” Sanchez called on some in the labor movement who still support Donald Trump—a man who is justifying a return to historic levels of racism—to instead fight against the destruction of our economy, healthcare, education, labor rights, immigration rights and so much more. “Now, more than ever, we need unions,” said Sanchez.
Jitu Brown, director of the Journey for Justice Alliance, was stern in his demand that everyone join the movement to unseat injustice. “The biggest enemy of freedom and justice in the United States is the progressive movement,” he said, drawing an audible reaction from the audience and then approval as he explained that people like Rahm Emanuel, who as mayor of Chicago wreaked havoc on the public school system, call themselves “progressive.” “We must raise the bar on what it means to be progressive.”
Brown, a powerful community leader who was especially visible during the 2015 Dyett High School hunger strike and the related struggle against school privatization in Chicago, praised the Chicago Teachers Union for its partnership with community activists then and now, and advised others to follow its lead: “They had humility. They listened. They validated. And they were consistent,” he said.
While Brown is a present-day leader, the three women featured at a “Conversation with Living Legends” panel were inspiring activists during the 1950s-1960s civil rights movement in Montgomery. Sheyann Webb-Christburg recalled learning civil rights chants (“What do you want? Freedom! When do you want it? Now!”) as an 8-year-old girl at the knee of Martin Luther King Jr. and walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday. Jeannie Graetz, a white woman who is nearly 90 years old now, remembered how her home became a rare space where black and white people could mingle safely. And Doris Dozier Crenshaw described the fear she experienced walking with other activists during the Montgomery bus boycott, and how “the more afraid we got, the louder we would sing.”
That impulse to be heard was part of the message from Diana Cournoyer, executive director of the National Indian Education Association. Native American women and girls are being stolen and murdered at an alarming rate, she said. Telling that truth is the first step to fixing it, and Cournoyer challenged those listening to go home and educate their own communities to advocate for change.
Conference participants both gathered this sort of new information and embraced historical context, visiting nearby local sites—including the place where Rosa Parks boarded the bus and the church where King preached—that enriched subsequent conversations. They also drilled down on solutions to current challenges: In a panel about healthcare inequities, they talked about contract language to address discrimination against patients of color and women. Others listened to LGBTQ college students who advised educators about how to be more supportive of them—by using preferred pronouns and names, for example, and providing safe spaces to talk. There were workshops on campaign strategies to win funding for public schools and services, how to protect reproductive rights, how to protect undocumented families, and how to ensure the census does not shut people out of the services they need.
By the end of the conference, participants were making plans to bring home what they had learned, recharged and ready to fight. “We have led the way so many times,” said Weingarten. “We can move anger to aspiration, and fear to hope, because we are and have always been the change agents, the movement builders and the fighters for a better life.”