Then-Wisconsin State AFL-CIO President David Newby speaks at the Healthcare for America Now Launch in Madison, July 8, 2008. (Wikimedia Commons/Bernard Pollack)
The participants in the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom could be forgiven for resting on their laurels in this week of fiftieth-anniversary celebrations.
But David Newby is still marching.
The former member of the AFL-CIO’s national executive board and longtime president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO was arrested Monday for singing labor and civil rights songs in the Wisconsin Capitol. Newby has been a regular participant in the Solidarity Sing Along, a noonday gathering of Wisconsinites that traces its roots to the pro-labor demonstrations that drew the attention of the world to Wisconsin in February and March 2011.
The sing alongs, loosely organized and good-spirited, went on each day in the capitol for more than two years with little trouble. But, this summer, Governor Scott Walker, who is positioning himself as a tough-talking conservative candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, and his aides engineered a crackdown that has seen more than 300 tickets issued to singers.
The charge is that the singers have failed to get permits for their gatherings. But the permitting process—which assigns financial responsibility to the holder of the permit—is newly developed, and the singers argue that it was established not to maintain order but to silence dissent. They also note that, in addition to the right to assemble established by the US Constitution, the Wisconsin Constitution declares that “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, to consult for the common good, and to petition the government, or any department thereof, shall never be abridged.”
Newby knows a thing or two about official barriers to dissent.
After he rode a motor scooter 400 miles to join the March on Washington in 1963, he felt an overwhelming sense of “optimism that we were making history in the March and that we could continue to make history.”
Newby went south and took a teaching job at what is now Tuskegee University, a historically black college. From 1965 to 1968, he worked closely with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, often facing threats and violence. He joined protests and and participated in sit-ins, taking on not just the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan but police forces that were sympathetic to the Klan’s absolute opposition to the civil rights movement.
Newby committed as a young man to pursue the cause of social and economic justice as a labor organizer and union leader. He would eventually serve as secretary-treasurer and president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, and finish his career as the head of the national union grouping’s coalition of the state federations in the Midwest.