By Natasha Dowdy Gordon
It is almost impossible to believe that the world has lost the legendary poet and activist Maya Angelou, and the actress and activist Ruby Dee within weeks of each other.
Both women were inspiring, soul stirring, motivational figures who demanded the respect that they deserved and got it, not by being overbearing and pushy, but by being dignified ladies who knew the proper way to balance their inner and outward beauty, their undeniable sex appeal, their intelligence, and their extraordinary talents.
Ruby Dee and her actor/activist husband Ozzie Davis were perhaps the first of what is now called the Hollywood power couple. Together they took the phrase, “To whom much is given, much is to be expected”, as a lifelong mantra.
Ruby Dee and Ozzie could have just enjoyed the perks of being the be-loved entertainers that they were, but community outreach, civil and human rights, and equality for every man, woman, and child, was what Ruby Dee and Ozzie spent their lives fighting for.
In the world of labor, Ruby Dee and Ozzie worked endlessly fighting for the rights of working people everywhere. Together with leaders like Martian Luther King, Jr., Rev. Joseph Lowery, Rev. James Orange, and Nelson Mandela, they fought for living wages, job safety, and freedom from discrimination in the workplace.
I was sitting down reflecting on my personal encounters with Ruby Dee with my adopted big brother, Georgia State Representative Dewey McClain. Dewey also serves as the president of the North Atlanta Georgia Labor Council.
Dewey and I talked about what a spit fire Ruby Dee was, and how she was so small in stature yet so much bigger than life. We both had a good laugh over one particular encounter that I had with Ruby Dee where I made the mistake of letting her hear me say that I was tired.
I have never forgotten Ruby Dee’s words to me. She said, “Young lady, you don’t know what tired is. You can be tired when you have done as much as you can, for as many as you can, for as long as you can. As long as you can see straight, and move, you don’t have the right to be tired’.”
Ruby Dee’s words, once I got over the embarrassment of course, resonated and had a profound impact on me, and I have worked my entire career with the understanding that until everyone can eat at the table and consume their fair share, I can never be tired.
As Dewey and I continued to talk Dewey stated that the thing that he had always appreciated about Ruby Dee and Ozzie, was the fact that up until his death, you would never see one without the other. “They remind he a lot of Dr. and Mrs. Lowery.” Dewey continued by saying, “They were the ones that told us to walk tall. Hey taught us that in order to walk straight and to walk tall, you have to have a sense of pride, and you have to operate within the confines of truth and honesty.
As Dewey it and I continued to talk about the labor movement as it stands now, I shared with him a recent conversation that I had with one of my mentors Richard Ray. Richard was one of the eight super delegates in the 2008 presidential election. Richard was also with Dr. King when he was arrested in Selma, Alabama. Richard and I spoke about why the labor movement in the United States is dying.
Labor in this country is dying because there are far too many people working as organizers that are willing to sell working people falsehoods and lies, and paint the picture that they can acquire and achieve their goals without hard work and dedication.
There is no clearer example of a union taking advantage of the desperation, circumstances, and ignorance of employees than a recent assignment that I had, where a labor organization fed employees the lie that they were going to get more money, and make their employer get rid of certain policies that they did not like.
Every working American wants to make more money, but it is malpractice, immoral, and just plain irresponsible to tell people that you can get them things that you know that no law gives you the authority to demand. Unions have the right to ask for things, not force employers to do what they want them to do.
If a worker who is making nine dollars an hour washing dishes is told by an organizer that they can get them $15 an hour when they know that they have no leverage in terms of the law to force an employer to give them that, I don’t blame the employee, because the average employee does not know or understand the inner workings of labor law. I fault the organizer because he or she knows better but chooses to make a concerted effort, never the less, to be dishonest and tell employees what they want to hear.
What I have learned by working with and watching people like Sen. Patty Murray, Congressman Jim McDermont, Rev. James Orange, Richard Ray, Diane Sosne, the Lowerys and others, is that peddling people the promise of more money is not the way to grow the labor movement, and if that is the best that an organizer has to offer, he or she should not be organizing.
There is one simple truth that Ruby Dee, Ozzie, the persons mentioned above, and countless others that have dedicated their lives to making the United States a nation of inclusion, and a place that is not just abundant in terms of resources and goods, but a nation that is abundant in ideas and opportunity for all people, knew and understood, is that we are all responsible for one another. Just as Dr. King said, “An injustice to one, is an injustice to all.”
Those that are the true warriors of the labor and civil rights movement are not concerned about dressing to impress, they don’t feel the need to drive around in the most expensive car, they tell the truth whether is the popular or the safe thing for them to do or not, and they don’t have any other motive for doing what they do other than doing their able bodied part to ensure that every person is afforded an opportunity to be successful.
The movement that my great grandparents, grandparents, and parents was involved in believed in giving people a hand up verses a hand out, but at the same time they found the act of kicking people in the ribs when they are at their lowest point in life detestable.
True labor and civil rights warriors don’t try to make a living off of the backs of those who are less educated and less fortunate, because they have sense enough to understand that besides the fact that that sort of thing is immoral, it is also lower than the belly of a snake.
Ruby Dee, Ozzie, and all of the other warriors understood that you have to lead by example, and if you dare to lead you had better be ready and willing to walk the straight and narrow path, and be prepared to be uncomfortable. Anyone who claims to be an activist, and can actually sit back in comfort, is not truly an activist, they are just a want to be with a self proclaimed title and a complex.
Now is the time for the labor movement in this country to give itself a swift6 kick in the behind and stand up for all of the things that Ruby Dee and so many others sacrificed and worked unselfishly for. Rest in peace Ruby, and we sincerely hope that you and Ozzie will continue to guide us from wherever you are.