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.
When he retired in 2010, then-Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, now the junior senator from Wisconsin, honored Newby on the floor of the House of Representatives with a heartfelt call:
May his stalwart dedication, vision, and lifelong commitment to the highest ethical standards continue to serve as an inspiration for us. I join the greater Madison community, the entire state of Wisconsin, and those who continue to fight for their beliefs throughout our great nation in honoring Mr. David Newby’s achievements and thanking him for his lifetime of service.
As it happened, Newby was not done serving.
Like so many Americans who marched in Washington in August 1963, he’s still on the frontlines.
Rare is the week when Newby is not marching, as the head of the Wisconsin Fair Trade Coalition and a leading figure in national groups such as the Labor Campaign for Single Payer Healthcare and US Labor Against the War.
When he addressed a Veterans for Peace convention in early August, Newby concluded his remarks by declaring:
Together, we can transform our country into one which values human rights, civil rights, workers’ rights. It can be done, if we act in coalition and solidarity.
But Newby has always believed that the transformation will only come if activists push for it. “No gains are freely given,” he argues. “We have to seize the moment, focus our energies, and assure that the victory will indeed be ours.”
So, even as he travels the country to promote economic and social justice and peace, Newby has made time to sing We Shall Overcome, Which Side Are You On? and Solidarity Forever in his state capitol.
On Monday, two days before the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, Newby was among a number of singers who were arrested.
Newby is the first to point to the fact that veterans, grandmothers, teachers, firefighters, current and former elected officials, journalists and mothers with children have been arrested. And he is quick to argue that the arrests must be seen in the broader perspective of the current crackdown on civil liberties, not just in Wisconsin but across the country.
But the symmetry of Newby’s arrest five decades after he rode his motorbike into Washington and felt that “optimism that we were making history in the March and that we could continue to make history” cannot be lost.
Like so many who marched, he retains the faith that it matters to march, to protest and to sing.
Guess who cleans up the mess when America’s highest-paid CEOs do their jobs badly?