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Darrell Bouldin

Darrell Bouldin is an activist and organizer and the founder of Coffee Party Progressives

March 1st, 2011 11:59 PM

Let's Remember Real Labor History -- From Madison to Memphis

Last Saturday February 26th I spoke in Nashville, Tennessee at one of the nationwide rallies to Save the American Dream promoted by MoveOn.org along with numerous other organizations. With a good 400 to 500 in attendance despite the media quoting a lower figure, I'd say that this little planned gathering of people was one of the  largest rallies I've seen with such a short notice in Tennessee in the past few years of my progressive organizing here. There were several other speakers as we stood on Legislative Plaza below the Tennessee State Capitol. Before my speech I had been holding the American flag my friend had given me to hold behind the other speakers. Out in the crowd there were two American flags modified with corporate logos instead of stars, sometimes called the Corporate American Flag. When I made my speech I pointed out the corporate flags stating how in ten or even five years that is where we seriously will be, if we are not already.

I felt it was important to speak on the fact that one of the greatest men in history, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed in Memphis while there protesting for public workers. Though specifically sanitation workers, these protests helped lead to the little protection public workers have had in Tennessee. Now after all of this effort the conservatives in my state wanted to strip away the right of collective bargaining, and even other union rights. I recently purchased “All Labor Has Dignity”, a book containing a collection of speeches on labor by Dr. King,  some previously never published. In this book is Dr. King's speech to the AFSME employees in Memphis. His speech was as prophetic as always, and seems to echo down through history today.

The historic struggles that brought us the protections we are rallying to protect today seem to be echoing through time to our struggle today. Voices calling for us to not give up, to keep on fighting. Tennessee has a long history of struggle, one that is often hidden in history classes. I grew up in a little village up against the foot of the hills where less than 35 miles away the original historic location of Highlander Center in Monteagle, Tennessee stood. My father was living at the foot of these hills as Rosa Parks was being trained, and Dr. King was visiting Highlander Center.

In Nashville a large part of SNCC's activities were coordinated. Here sparked one of the first major lunch counter sit-in movements. Dr. King's well known march with striking sanitation workers in Memphis was a key part of his Poor People's Campaign to highlight the issues facing workers at that time. He had chosen that battle. Even earlier in Tennessee's history in the late 1800s northwest of  Nashville in Dickson County the early socialist writer John Ruskin had founded a socialist colony there.

Tennessee as with Wisconsin has had a surprisingly subtle, but important role in the history of the American Left. Perhaps not as deep nor victorious as the union wins in Wisconsin, but Tennessee has been a part of the history of the struggles of the American Left just the same.

Like Wisconsin, Tennessee has recently taken a turn toward conservatism if now only electorally it is showing. Here too the right of collective bargaining is under attack among other union rights, and here too we are preparing our response. I now see some teachers I have previously known to be conservative suddenly finding their voice, and responding to these attacks upon their freedom. A self-proclaimed Republican firefighter spoke at a press conference last month responding to these attacks, and demanding his freedom of collective bargaining.

Across the state it seems there is something stirring, but it remains to be seen if this will manifest a movement in this often sleepy state. It is my hope that at some point the fierce spirit of Tennesseans will  awaken, and find their working class roots of struggle. If not there will still be us few progressives holding down the fort steadily beating the drum for justice.

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