Machinist returns for new March on Washington

AUBURN — A lot has changed in the 50 years since Martin Luther King delivered his epic “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, said Joe Perry, a union steward with Machinists Union District Lodge 751.

JoeBuffyMarchBut a lot of the battles King and his supporters were fighting in 1963 are still being fought today, he said.

“We dropped the ball,” said Perry, who works for the Boeing Co. in Auburn. “We sat back down. We’ve got to start the struggle all over again.”

Perry was part of a District 751 delegation that attended part of the 50th anniversary commemoration of King’s original March on Washington.

Perry was the only one in the group to have attended both this year’s march and the first one, back on Aug. 28, 1963. He was 8 years old then, living in Detroit, where his father and grandfather both worked as union auto makers.

“May Dad took us, me and my older brothers,” Perry said. “We left at 1:30 or 2 in the morning. Dad said ‘C’mon, we’re going to Washington.’ He promised us Dairy Queen.”

Perry said his main memory of the day was the heat. “It was hot as heck out there.”

Otherwise, his memories of those of an 8-year-old boy in a big crowd of grown-ups.

“I remember King speaking,” he said. “I remember A. Philip Randolph (a noted African-American labor leader) speaking.”

The atmosphere was tense, he said. A quarter million black Americans were there that day, angry and demanding to be treated the same as everyone else and the same opportunities for jobs and advancement.

“I remember our Dad telling us, this is going to make a difference in our lives,” Perry said.

This month’s 50th anniversary march was “totally different,” Perry said. “You had all races there. We were sitting down next to each other, talking, shaking hands and hugging.”

The March on Washington and King’s famous speech electrified America and led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which both passed with strong bi-partisan support.

But today, conservative politicians at the federal level and in some states are taking aim at the basic rights ensured by those laws.

Perry said he’s most bothered by the attacks on workers and on women.

“For jobs, we’re still behind the 8-ball,” he said. “And the rights women have now, they’re eroding. I have four daughters of my own. It’s going to be a struggle for them.”

Perry said black Americans and their progressive allies relaxed, thinking the battles they’d won in the 1960s had been won for all time. They were wrong, he said.

“You’ve got to fight every day for what you’ve got,” Perry said. “That’s what I appreciate about our union. We’re on it.”

Originally formed in 1935 to represent hourly workers at the Boeing Co., District Lodge 751 of the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers now represents some 33,000 working men and women at 49 employers across Washington, Oregon and California.

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