Cruise the streets of most major U.S. cities, and you’ll find Martin Luther King Jr. boulevard or bridge.
The slain civil rights leader made an indelible impression on society with his I Have a Dream speech delivered during the 1963 March on Washington, and his memory lives on in multiple forms, including an annual holiday.
Public tributes to the man who organized that historic march are much harder to find. But members of the A. Philip Randolph Institute are determined to keep alive the vision of their group’s namesake.
A. Philip Randolph spent his whole life standing up for other people’s rights, said LeRoy Jackson Jr., president of the non-profit organization’s local chapter.
The group, like Randolph, has close ties to labor.
APRI’s Indiana Chapter has chosen the theme Standing Our Ground for Justice for its annual meeting, scheduled for next weekend in Fort Wayne. The event is expected to draw 130 to 140 delegates to the Fort Wayne Marriott.
The highlight of the three-day annual meeting is expected to be Saturday night’s dinner speech by Bill Fletcher, a racial justice, labor and international activist and writer based in Washington. But the meeting will also include sessions on suicide prevention and tracking hereditary diseases.
Fletcher once read a Randolph quote that stuck with him: The essence of trade unionism is social uplift. The labor movement has been the haven for the dispossessed, the despised, the neglected, the downtrodden, the poor.
This quote has been imprinted on my brain and my soul, he said in a phone interview. What Randolph laid out is exactly what the labor movement needs to be.
In other words, Fletcher said, the labor movement needs to be about social and economic justice for all – not just trade associations bargaining only on behalf of members.
The author pointed to the Northeast Indiana Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, led by Tom Lewandowski, as an example of an organization that’s doing things right. The labor organization in early 2009 launched the Unemployed and Anxiously Employed Workers’ Initiative, a group that addresses local residents’ working and living conditions.
They fight on behalf of the unemployed, Fletcher said. I want to hold that up as a model.
For his part, Lewandowski considers Randolph an American hero for helping unionize sleeping car porters in the 1920s.
He gave voice and power to people who didn’t have voice and power, Lewandowski said before correcting himself. He didn’t give it to them – he helped them discover it.
The skills and experience Randolph, a former Socialist magazine editor, gained from organizing the porters allowed him to organize blacks in general to gain more power and freedom.
Randolph successfully lobbied President Franklin Roosevelt to require that all companies receiving defense contracts during World War II hire workers without regard to race. Those jobs sparked a black migration from the South to the industrial Midwest and helped lift many black families out of poverty.
One of APRI’s missions today is to help members learn skills so they can take leadership rolls in unions, churches and other organizations, Lewandowski said.
Several requests over several days to APRI’s national leaders for national and state membership numbers went unanswered.
Fletcher plans to challenge the organization to refocus. He wants it to advocate for all those in need.
I’m there to push the envelope, to ask some questions that in many settings are uncomfortable, he said.
Labor leaders today are so intent on not losing what benefits they’ve already won that they aren’t willing to take risks, Fletcher said. That tactic doesn’t work at a time when unions are facing annihilation by unfriendly politicians and corporations, he said.
This is the time to take risks, he said. This is not the time to cower. This is not the time to protect the little that we have. This is the time to fight on behalf of millions of working people.
Fletcher is proud to be an agitator.
I’m not someone who aims to tell people what they want to hear, he said. I feel very much driven to raise questions that other people don’t wish to raise.
That attitude is exactly what the conference’s organizing committee is counting on. It’s one of the reasons Fletcher was invited to speak, Jackson said.
We want him to rile people up, he said. We want people to get off their hands and reach their hands out to help someone.
When Fletcher presents a problem, he follows it with a solution.
That’s what I like about him, Jackson said. He creates involvement.
Jackson joined APRI, a nonpartisan organization, 30 years ago and now serves as president of the Fort Wayne chapter.
The group’s 68 active local members sponsor a scholarship program and various health awareness events. It also does voter registration and voter education, including in the schools.
Although Randolph was black, membership isn’t restricted.
It’s not about any one race. It’s about human rights – across the board, Jackson said, adding that people of all faiths are also welcome.
Individual memberships in the group are $15 a year. Members meet at 10 a.m. the first Saturday of each month in Links Wonderland, a restaurant at 1711 E. Creighton Ave. Visitors are welcome to check out the group by attending a meeting.
We just kind of break bread and talk about problems, Jackson said, and see what we can do to solve them.