A poignant tribute to gun violence victims

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Delegates took time July 19 to participate in a poignant, heartfelt vigil for the victims of gun violence across America and to pledge action that can help stem this national scourge.

One by one, delegates took to the microphones in the morning session to name scores of American cities and towns where bullets had claimed family members, colleagues and neighbors. Leading the tribute was Kimberly Colbert, a St. Paul English teacher at the high school Philando Castile attended. Castile was gunned down July 6, one of the latest victims of unchecked police shootings of young black men.

Candlelight vigil

"I am here today to say the name of Philando Castile," she declared, describing him as a co-worker in the school system and a union brother, and pointing out that his story has become tragically common today in America. "As we sit in the hall today, another family mourns the loss of a loved one. Since the start of this year, 7,218 families have held funerals due to gun violence.

"We can and must do two things: take a stand against the hateful rhetoric that is seeping into American life, and address the easy availability of weapons that transform haters into murderers," said Colbert.

AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson underscored Colbert's message and the urgency of the moment.

"We as a nation will never see our full potential as long as there is hatred in our politics, racial divide in our cities and violence on our streets," Johnson said. "We must meet our brothers and sisters not with clenched fists, but with open arms."

Following the morning session, Sybrina Fulton, who lost her 17-year-old son, Trayvon Martin, to gun violence in 2012 , was honored with the AFT's 2016 Bayard Rustin Human Rights Award at the Human Rights Luncheon.

Fulton has channeled her loss into advocacy and dedicated herself to ending gun violence and fighting hatred and fear. In giving Fulton the award, AFT President Randi Weingarten praised her as someone who epitomizes Bayard Rustin's values. "Sybrina stands in Bayard's shoes and has made them larger."

Fulton encouraged the audience to get involved in their communities. "There are a lot of problems happening in our country, and you can't just turn your head. We all need to play a part to help our communities and our country," she said.

"If something doesn't challenge you, it will not change you. If you can make a change and you don't, you're part of the problem," she told the audience. "I encourage you all to continue to fight for your children and your community, continue to make a difference."

[Mike Rose, Adrienne Coles/photo by Russ Curtis]