Unions honor March on Washington with a renewed call for justice

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison urges young people at the March on Washington anniversary event to take up the struggle for social justice.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison urges young people at the March on Washington anniversary event to take up the struggle for social justice.

Fifty years after the March on Washington, the march toward justice continues.

That was the tone struck by union members, elected officials and civil rights advocates who gathered on the Capitol grounds in St. Paul today to honor the 50th anniversary of the watershed event in the civil rights movement.

Nearly 200 people participated in a march from Boyd Park to the Capitol’s South Mall, site of a program that featured speeches, prayers, music and a reading of the “I Have a Dream” speech delivered by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years ago.

Cherrish Maxon, 12 years old, reads MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech.

Cherrish Maxon, 12 years old, reads MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

“The fight must continue,” U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison said, drawing a connection between the struggle to end discrimination and inequality 50 years ago and several issues facing the nation today, like voting rights, marriage equality and immigration reform.

Minnesotans led the way last year, according to Ellison, when they rejected constitutional amendments that would have limited access to the ballot box and denied same-sex couples the freedom to marry.

“We said a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” the 5th District DFLer said. “This is the kind of thing that will happen if you stand up for what’s right and you don’t back down.”

Abraham Kone, a janitor and member of Service Employees International Union Local 26, was among the speakers who called members of Congress to “honor the civil rights movement by passing common-sense immigration reform” with a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented workers.

“Congress must act because without reform, millions of immigrants will be relegated to a permanent underclass,” Kone said.

Sponsored by the SEIU Minnesota State Council’s African-American caucus (AFRAM), the event underscored the labor movement’s commitment to civil rights. “If we do not have an economy that works for all, we do not have justice,” said Carol Nieters, director of SEIU Local 284.

"There were union members in that march," Minnesota AFL-CIO President Shar Knutson says.

“There were union members in that march,” Minnesota AFL-CIO President Shar Knutson says.

“There were union members in that march too,” Minnesota AFL-CIO President Shar Knutson added. “They marched for racial justice, social justice and economic justice.”

The AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, has considered strengthening its commitment to civil rights by inviting organizations like the NAACP and the Hispanic civil-rights group La Raza under the federation’s umbrella.

“We’ve got to keep on marching – and marching together,” Knutson said. “If we do, we can make more strides so that every man, woman and child is achieving and prospering.”

“Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther King could walk. Martin walked so Barack Obama could run. Obama ran so that we all could fly,” said Bobby Kasper, president of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation. “I ask you now, are you going to fly? Are you going to fight? Are you going to achieve the dream?”

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