WASHINGTON – Two buses full of autoworkers traveled Friday from Allen County to Washington, D.C., although some passengers saw their ultimate destination as a place in history.
About 100 members of United Auto Workers Local 2209, the bargaining unit at the General Motors truck assembly plant southwest of Fort Wayne, will attend todays 50th Anniversary March on Washington. The first march, in which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his I Have a Dream speech, is widely regarded as a pivotal point in the civil rights movement, earning credit for helping push Congress to outlaw discrimination in hiring, housing, education and elections.
Fort Wayne resident Shonda Skipper, 38, rode on one of Local 2209s charter buses. She said her grandmother, Willie Mae Wilkerson, 94, of Anderson, had been at the first march.
Now I can tell stories to her. She was a storyteller, Skipper said.
This mornings 50th anniversary march, expected to draw 100,000 people or more, will start with a rally at the Lincoln Memorial and end at the King Memorial. Martin Luther King III and civil rights leader and commentator Al Sharpton are among the scheduled speakers; topics will include voter rights, racial profiling, unemployment, poverty, gun violence, immigration and gay rights.
The actual march anniversary will be Wednesday, when more events are planned.
Janie Burkhamer and her daughter Courtney Lewis, 23, sat together on the same UAW bus as Skipper. Burkhamer has worked for GM for 30 years, Lewis for less than a year.
I knew I was going. I didnt know (Lewis) was wanting to go, Burkhamer said about the march. But when I found out she was going, I was really happy about it.
First, its going to be a part of history, Burkhamer said. I think its important for young people her age to be aware of things like this. She wasnt around for the first one, so now she gets to be part of this.
We all want the same things for our children and for ourselves. We want justice and jobs, equality and equal pay for women, she said. Amazingly, 50 years ago, this march was about the same things it is today: jobs and justice. Fifty years later, were marching for the same things.
Lewis said: I just want to be a part of history. Experience what shes already been through and see it for myself. See how big of a deal it really is. There are going to be people from everywhere there. Hopefully this will help change things from 50 years ago to 50 years from now.
UAW Local 2099 paid for transportation and hotel expenses, and GM granted excused absences to most workers, according to Vern Trimble, chairman of the UAW Civil and Human Rights Committee. One bus departed from a GM parking lot at 5:15 a.m. Friday, and the other left at 7 to accommodate third-shift workers who had clocked out 20 minutes earlier.
Most people on the first bus slept or listened to headphones in the dark as they began the 560-mile journey. But James Burgess, 66, was wide awake and eager to talk about civil rights, the NAACP – of which he is a state vice president – and his hopes for todays March on Washington.
He repeatedly said that for the rally to make a difference – by changing peoples attitudes and influencing state and federal legislation – you have to have an infrastructure.
Just to say Im mad about something isnt enough, said Burgess, who drives daily from Anderson to his job in the GM paint department.
Organized activism – what he termed everyday advocacy – is required for progressives to advance their causes, he said.
The tea party was out there every day in 2010, when Republicans won a majority of U.S. House seats, Burgess said. You have to give them credit for that.
He contended that the conservative tea party borrowed from the model of the NAACP and civil rights groups.
No matter the interest group, he added, You have to have a process in place.
Extreme economic disparity among Americans was among the concerns of the soon-to-be marchers.
Corporate America has so much and gives the average worker so little right now, said Damikco Stockard, 37, who like others on the bus has bounced around GM plants as jobs disappeared. The Allen County plant is Stockards fifth stop with the automaker since 1997.
Kevin Murray, 38, has worked at four GM plants in 10 years.
Its good to see people working together, he said about the mood among the Local 2209 bus passengers. We need to carry that back to the plant, carry that back to the neighborhoods.
The bus excursion had its doubters and detractors at the plant, according to Trimble.
There were a number of people who told me it wouldnt happen. All that did was motivate me, he said.
Some people dont believe things have changed and dont believe that hope exists. They dont want to put energy into it, Trimble said.
In the last 100 miles, riders viewed a film documentary on the UAW, narrated by actor Martin Sheen, called Brothers on the Line. They applauded at the end.
As the bus approached Washington, Trimble, 55, stood in the aisle and shouted at the union members.
Why are you here? he demanded.
To keep the union! somebody yelled back.
Teaching by example! another yelled.
Next generation! another called.
All yall are freedom fighters! Trimble praised.
People soon were singing, The union made us strong / Solidarity forever / Solidarity forever.