POLITICAL ANNIVERSARIES WE COMMEMORATE AND WHY.
The observance of the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the annual observance of Labor Day (regrettably, a much muted holiday these days) are both a source of joy and a source of disquiet for me. The joy stems from the recognition of the inestimable value of the March on Washington as a catalyst for actions moving us closer to universal justice. The disappointment comes from the usual mistakes the mainstream mass media make in reporting and “analyzing” the issue of race relations and discrimination in the United States.
(“Mass media,” if you think about it in Spanglish, always reminds me of hosiery you put on before you go to misa on Sunday, but that’s another cosa.)
I was a reporter for CBS Radio for thirty years. I paid close attention to the accuracies and inaccuracies of reporters and editors and producers in the business, across the mainstream spectrum. I did what I could, as a small fish in a very large pool, to have us Latinos portrayed accurately and fairly. A Sisyphean task, I assure you.
Along with other Chicano reporters (the number of whom could fit inside a Volkswagen in the early days) we did our best to fight with editors and news directors about the use of phrases such as “illegal aliens” and “graffiti vandals” and “known gang members” (known by whom?). People in these stories had never been convicted of anything, for starters. Language and its subtleties are powerful tools. And, for years, I raged against mass media “reporting” on race relations and issues of discrimination. Why? Because these issues were always looked at as strictly “black and white” issues. Nonsense. It is not a black/white issue. What about Latinos? What about Asian Americans? What about indigenous Americans? (And slowly, but surely in our new circumstances, what about Middle Eastern Americans?)
This kind of reminds me of the tale that the often-brilliant comedian Paul Rodriguez would tell. He was born in the 1950s. He would tell this tale in the 1990s: “When I was a kid I turned on the TV and it was just black and white. Today we have color TV but when I turn on the TV now it’s still black and white – where are the brown faces?”
Racial and ethnic issues, clearly, are more complex than just “black and white.” The major networks and the major newspapers (what’s a newspaper, some chavalos are asking right now) still don’t seem to get it. Let’s keep ranting until we’re heard and understood. And this is not to minimize the Herculean efforts of those who created and drove the African American civil rights movement, which was crystalized by the 1963 March on Washington. Not at all.
Ranting and persisting are what got the issue of segregation and injustice center stage. The challenge to America’s version of apartheid is one of the noblest mass movements in the history of the United States. Led by blacks for blacks, for sure, but bolstered by whites, by Jews and – yes – by Latinos.
It was impressive and satisfying to see the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington the other day. Speeches by John Lewis, Bill Clinton and President Obama himself were on the money. As a nation we’ve come a long way in the past 50 years, but we still have a long way to go. The original March on Washington, of course, is engrained into our collective cultural consciousness because of the inimitable, iconic “I Have a Dream” speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Nothing comes close to equaling its eloquent resonance and spot-on analysis of the injustice of Jim Crowism and the steps needed to overcome bigotry and intolerance. But when I look at the events of that day, August 28, 1963, I don’t only think of King’s marvelous speech, but also at the little-remembered speech by A. Phillip Randolph.
Randolph, along with the much-maligned Bayard Rustin (he was a closeted gay black man; imagine how tough that must have been early in the 20th century), was the key tactical organizer of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. An hour or so before Dr. King gave his rousing, galvanizing speech; Randolph took to the podium at the Lincoln Memorial to give his comparatively quiet, subdued speech.
And it is memorable for what was in it. Randolph presented a very broad view of the struggle for justice, emphasizing the need for economic justice. Beginning in the 1930s he worked to organize unions, including the Union of Sleeping Car Porters. Not an easy task. Throughout his life he emphasized that ending segregation would be only half a victory if blacks and others didn’t have good jobs that would help them become full participants in America. He emphasized the danger of corporate wealth and power, something which contributed to what we today call “income inequality.”
In his speech on that day Randolph said: “The sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of the human personality. It falls to us to demand new forms of social planning, to create full employment, and to put automation at the service of human needs, not at the service of profits. (This was 1963; we can replace “automation” with “technology” and “outsourcing,” but the concept remains fundamentally sound.) A. Phillip Randolph also said: “We are the advanced guard of a massive, moral revolution for jobs and freedom. This revolution reverberates throughout the land touching every city, every town, every village… But this civil rights revolution is not confined to the Negro, nor is it confined to civil rights, for our white allies know that they cannot be free while we are not.” Forceful words. Prescient words.
And in his speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 A. Phillip Randolph had the effrontery to call for a rise in the minimum wage of the day: to an outrageous two-dollars an hour! Those are the thoughts that stick with me as we observe this important 50th anniversary.
And we’ve just been through observances of Labor Day, a day that for decades was an opportunity to re-charge the political batteries for the ongoing fight for decent wages and respect for workers, but which has lately been reduced to – as the Saturday Night Live Coneheads would say – charring mammal flesh and consuming mass quantities of alcoholic malt beverages behind the family shelter (barbecues and beer in the backyard.)
Labor Day in this country once celebrated a proud tradition of struggle and activism. Things we take for granted today, such as the 40-hour workweek and the prohibition of exploitative child labor, were among the victories of working men and women to be celebrated. It came from organizing. Unions were once quite strong and an important factor in the economic equation. Not so much anymore.
Today only about 12 per cent of workers are unionized nationwide. Unions have been vilified by the extreme rightwing of the country, and even more or less reasonable folks are wary of unions. There are lots of reasons for that. Manufacturing has disappeared in this country – transplanted to factories in China and elsewhere. A reactionary political climate has created so-called “right to work” laws (which are really “right to not get a job” laws) in places such as Michigan, once the Mecca for a strong unionized presence. And unions have been the targets of well-financed propaganda campaigns by corporate interests who want to ensure that the wealthy “one per cent” remain filthy rich while the rest of us of the “99 per cent” remain on the outside looking in.
So let’s use the milepost of Labor Day as a reminder for us to keep up the struggle for economic justice. And remember too that Cesar Chávez was, first and foremost, a union organizer.
And there’s another anniversary we’ve just observed. Perhaps it’s not as momentous as the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, but it possesses its own validity and significance. I’m talking about the anniversary of the August 29, 1970 Chicano Moratorium. I remember it well because it was the first time I was tear-gassed by police. But it’s important to remember for more substantial reasons beyond that, of course. The August 29 Moratorium in East Los Angeles was held to protest the War in Vietnam and the fact that Chicanos were being used as cannon fodder for that unjustifiable war. And it was a call for an end to injustice and discrimination on all fronts – in education, in employment and in political participation. The police turned it into a riot. Journalist Ruben Salazar was killed by an L.A. County Sheriffs deputy. Despite the losses we suffered, that event served to galvanize the broad Chicano community in a fight for justice and freedom. We should not forget the importance of that day and what it represents.
And, finally – disconnected somewhat from all of the above – there’s another recent development we would do well to note: the passing of pop singer Eydie Gorme. I suppose she’s best known for the big pop hit song “Blame it on the Bossa Nova,” but like most Chicanos I remember her for something else entirely. (By the way, her “Blame it on the Bossa Nova” was a monster hit right at the time the March on Washington was going on.)
I remember Eydie Gorme for that incandescent album “Eydie Gorme with Los Tres Panchos.” It was an album in Spanish. It included lots of beautiful boleros, backed by the incomparable musicians who comprised Trio Los Panchos. Her Spanish was perfect and it seemed to amaze us all. (Gorme was a Sephardic Jew with cultural roots in Spain.) I was in elementary school when that album came out and I heard it playing from record players throughout the neighborhood. (Jovenes are asking themselves right now, “What’s a record player?”)
It seemed everybody on L.A.’s eastside and in every barrio in the Southwest had a copy of that album. It continued to sell for generations. Interestingly, when I was in Mexico City once in the late 1970s I went into a record store. (Many chavalos right now are probably asking “What’s a record store?”) Anyway, the album was there, but the title was reversed. Instead of “Eydie Gorme with Trio Los Panchos,” the album’s cover read: “El Trio Los Panchos con Eydie Gorme.” It’s still a great album/CD/mp3/digital download whatever we call it. Descanse en paz, Eydie Gorme.
See you next time.
Copyright 2013 by Luis R. Torres
To contact Luis write: firstname.lastname@example.org