Fear is a powerful weapon. For centuries, threatening people’s lives and livelihoods has proved an effective means of suppressing protest and maintaining injustice. Fifty years ago this month, James Meredith’s March Against Fear sent a ringing message to oppressors everywhere: their tactics would not work!
As mentioned in my earlier article, last weekend, a viciously anti-union company, Nissan Canton, whose workers call it an “architect of fear,” tried to appropriate the anniversary of Meredith’s march to suit their own purposes. Their financial sponsorship of this commemoration was clearly an effort to sever the civil rights movement from the battles of labor. The day’s outcome, however, underscored the fact that these causes are deeply connected aspects of the same struggle.
I was fortunate enough to attend this event, in company with three organizers from the United Auto Workers (UAW). The highlight of the program occurred when participants in the 1966 march took seats onstage for a question-and-answer period with the audience. Their stories were fascinating: tales of intimidation and resistance, of voter registration and Black Power, of horror and hope. Unfortunately – and due, perhaps, to the presence of Nissan’s public relations person, Pamela Confer, in the front row of the chapel – no one highlighted the parallels between these historic conditions and the current state of affairs at the factory a few miles away.
Therefore, I went up to the microphone and said that the discussion of these activists’ fight for civil rights in Canton reminded me of another civil rights struggle going on right now in Canton. Workers at the Nissan plant are trying to organize a union; the company is resorting to illegal tactics and intimidation. As I began discussing the irony of the situation, I was cut off mid-sentence by the moderator waving her arms over her head and prompting the woman monitoring the microphone to grab it out of my hands. After asking the panel to talk about the involvement of the UAW in the civil rights movement, I headed back to my seat as the moderator talked about how this was not the place for such comments and how lucky we were to have the benevolent Nissan sponsoring this…
Moments later, a ’66 marcher in the audience, Wendell Paris, delivered a rousing speech supporting the union and the solidarity between the two struggles; he drew multiple rounds of applause from the audience. Formerly with S.N.C.C., Mr. Paris had stayed with the legendary activist Fannie Lou Hamer during Freedom Summer, organized voter registration in Sunflower County in 1965, and headed the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and Land Assistance Fund, dedicated to assisting black farmers in their fight for economic independence. Today, he pastors a Jackson church.
The outpouring of audience support for the union following his speech was inspiring. Many people approached me to shake hands, get a copy of my op-ed piece on the subject, or talk. One of the panelists, Ms. Dorie Ladner, pointed out that she had attended the UAW-sponsored 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer two years before. At that event, activists and supporters had picketed outside the Nissan plant! James Meredith’s niece, Ms. Meredith McGee, took a copy of my letter and gave me her business card. The Rev. Ed King, who proudly stated that he’d been a member of UAW Local 600, called my attention to the fact that the photos used on the brochures had been selected because they didn’t show the multitude of UAW-sign-carrying demonstrators on the march. In fact, crusading UAW president Walter Reuther had come to Mississippi to lead the march alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., and Stokely Carmichael!
At lunch, I continued distributing my letter, until I was interrupted by one of the veterans involved in coordinating the event. Ms. Flonzie Brown Wright told me that my actions were inappropriate and that I was “disrespecting all these black people.” In her view, my age and race disqualified me from advocacy. She even threatened to call the police if I continued my “uninvited” actions on private property! Although I pointed out that the Woolworth’s counter was private property and asked who invited the Freedom Riders, I tried to stick to my main point: that the company was getting to spout its propaganda while representatives of the people were silenced.
But, when a group of young community organizers with the Community Learning Partnership realized what was taking place, they came outside to stand by me. It was a very humbling moment, especially when one of them told his more skeptical friends, “She’s one of us, now.” Again and again, over the course of the day, my message was spread solely through the support of strangers who fearlessly rallied to the cause.
The day’s events proved that, these days, it’s easier to tackle institutionalized racism in governments, police departments, universities, redistricting committees, or just about any other institution, than to address it when it occurs in major employers.
Because of the culture of fear surrounding manufacturing in the United States, especially in right-to-work (for less) states like Mississippi. Losing a factory means losing desperately-needed jobs – a situation exacerbated by the fact that most companies have already outsourced their factories to countries where unions and regulations are virtually nonexistent. Rather than changing the policies and trade agreements that have produced these conditions, our politicians have decided that in order to keep corporations stateside, the United States’ labor policies must resemble these countries’ repressive laws as much as possible.
Thus, more and more of the country is becoming right-to-work. Big business gets tax breaks while education and health care budgets are slashed. Management threatens to shutter factories if workers stand up for their rights. Factories are purposefully located in low-income, majority-black communities, which are perceived as easily exploitable. According to a former Nissan employee, Imani Khayyam, whom I spoke with on Saturday, simply mentioning the union can get a worker fired. The First Amendment is overruled. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which lays out a comprehensive workers’ rights platform and states that “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests,” is ignored. In this climate of fear, a fair union election, free from coercion, intimidation or threats, is impossible.
In conclusion, it is not enough to remember the courage of those who came before on just one day. Rather, we must constantly live by the principles that inspired them. The March Against Fear will continue in our hearts, and in the hearts of the brave workers at Nissan Canton who dare to stand up to oppression, until the struggle is won.