Council 4 Members Reflect on Black History Month

Black History Month is a time to reflect on the contributions Black people have made to the strength and vitality of our nation. It is also an opportunity to consider how the labor movement – and public employee unions in particular – have created a pathway to the middle class for so many Black families.

We asked four members of Council 4 to share their personal reflections on Black History Month and the role unions can play in strengthening that connection between economic justice and racial justice.

Ruby Blackmon, President, AFSCME Local 96 (State NP-3 Clerical)

Blackmon recently retired from her job as a Processing Technician at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain. She spent 32 years with the State of Connecticut. She is a member of Council 4’s Civil Rights Committee.

“Black History Month is a time to reflect on the history of what’s happened to people of color in this country—to educate the world, so the world will understand. It means fulfilling Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of recognizing you by the content of your character, not the color of your skin. Dr. King wasn’t looking at people’s skin color He believed in fair labor standards for all. He thought we all should be treated equally.”

“I grew up in Mississippi and attended segregated schools until the 10th grade. We even had two separate sets of books. The history we learned was written from a white point of view. We learned that we were only slaves, and not much else about our history.”

“My advice for my friends who aren’t Black is to do your best to educate each and every person. We’re all equal. That’s why the union is important. Labor is fighting for all of us, not just some of us. We have all worked hard to build this country and we’re still working hard to sustain what we’re building with a good quality of life.”

Sgt. James Lofton, AFSCME Local 407 (Stratford Police Department)

Lofton is a 24-year veteran of the Stratford Police Department. In addition to his normal detective bureau assignments, he is among SPD staffers building better relations through community engagement and officer education.

“Black History Month gives me an opportunity to feel proud of my heritage and ancestry. It’s a time to acknowledge that Black history is part of American history, to reflect on how far we’ve come while acknowledging we still have a long way to go.

“My family members fought for this country (in World War II) and couldn’t even celebrate our victory by walking in a parade. It’s very hurtful to me, as a person of color, to know your ancestors endured that kind of pain.

“There’s a direct correlation between the history of law enforcement and civil rights. I teach about that in our class. After the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude) was passed in 1865, southern states leased out convicts for labor. It was a system of peonage. The system of arresting Black people was a lucrative business. Whites were hired to be the police. So there is unfortunately a part of law enforcement history that ties directly to civil rights.

“Individuals and organizations should use their influence to educate communities. Everyone has a responsibility and a collective obligation to advocate for the fair treatment of Black and Brown people. That includes unions. I like to say [in our classes] that as people know better, they’ll do better.”

Kim Rice, AFSCME Local 714 (State P-2 Human & Social Services)

Rice is an eligibility services worker for the State Department of Social Services. She has more than 20 years with the State of Connecticut. She is active in Council 4’s PEOPLE Committee and Civil Rights Committee.

“Black History Month most specifically highlights the challenges, accomplishment and contributions of Black people who are the most underserved population in America. It reminds us that this country would never have amassed the wealth, cultural, and scientific gains without the direct contribution of ADOS (American Descendants of Slavery) who are the descendants of slaves. In short, everything America has gained it is because of its Black children.    

“There is absolutely a connection between the civil rights movement and the labor movement. [Dr. King] stated, ‘As I have said many times, and believe with all my heart, the coalition that can have the greatest impact in the struggle for human dignity here in America is that of the Negro and the forces of labor, because their fortunes are so closely intertwined.’ ”

“[It’s important that people] listen and accept without judgment uncomfortable truths about the Black experience here in America. Help to create safe spaces for Black people i.e. change and enforce laws. Have the necessary conversations with friends and family. Get to know people outside of your friend circle—in the end relationships/friendships help to change and shape our perspectives. Speak up when you hear or see something inappropriate happening. Ultimately, this makes the environment safe for all people.”

Stacie Harris-Byrdsong, President, AFSCME Local 3194 (CREC Paraprofessionals)

Harris-Byrdsong is the Secretary of Council 4. She is a lead educator and president of AFSCME Local 3194, representing paraprofessionals, child care workers, oral interpreters at Capitol Regional Education Council schools. She is a member of our Civil Rights Committee.

“African-Americans have contributed so much to this country. Our accomplishments in the fields of medicine, science, industries, business, architecture, fashion, sports, music and art are endless. We are beautiful and a talented culture. Our skin tones range from blue-black to the lightest fair skin people you can image. We are so versatile that even our speech is copied and emulated across the globe.”

“Did you know that between 1880 to 1885, nearly 3 million people who came to America were Russians, Italians, Irish, Scandinavians, Asians and Latin Americans. Each fleeing their native land due to persecution. They were oppressed in their homeland and fled to the U.S. for a better life. New immigrants and freed Africans banded together to change the labor standards in the US. The power they generated together helped forge democracy in the 20th century in our country.”

“Black History Month means to me the memorialization and the accomplishments that the African-American race has made to this country since we were brought over in slave ships. We have contributed so much to this country, including fighting in a segregated military, where my uncle Sgt. Saunders Matthews was the last surviving Buffalo Soldier who taught horsemanship to white officers at the military academy at West Point.”