Celebrating Black History

April 10, 2024

1199 mag celebrating black history.jpgMembers came together at Union headquarters to honor past heroes and build for the future.

On February 23, members came together at the 1199 headquarters to celebrate their proud history, and honor civil rights heroes past and present. The Black History Month event was simultaneously livestreamed to the Quincy, Massachusetts and Buffalo, New York offices.

Clarence B Jones—the lawyer for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who successfully smuggled his handwritten “Letter from Birmingham Jail” manuscript out of the prison for him—was one of the guest speakers. Jones is one of the few surviving members of Dr. King’s inner circle. Now 93, he traveled all the way from California to be there.

“The FBI wanted to destroy Dr. King,” Jones recalled. “They also wanted to destroy 1199. They were especially fearful of his relationship with 1199.”

“This union defines the conscience of America. That is why I came all this way to be here,” he added. “I never thought I would reach 93 years-old and be living in a country that seems to be going insane. How did it become that the measure of your success is how much money you have? I forget things, but I don’t forget important things.”

New York State Attorney General Letitia James and New York City Mayor Eric Adams also came to hear the speakers, and mingle with the members.

Pamela Frank—the widow of the iconic singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte who passed away last April at age 96—was there to receive an award on her late husband’s behalf. Belafonte worked closely alongside 1199 over many decades, and a video tribute of that special relationship was shown at the event.

For 1199 retiree Yvette Weeks, it was one of the first inperson events she’d attended since the pandemic—and she was greatly impressed. “I’m sorry that I was so late in getting involved with the union. I knew that Dr. King and Harry Belafonte played a large role. I would have loved to have been in their company,” she said.

It wasn’t just historical figures who took to the stage, however. Tamika Mallory, a leading organizer for 2016’s Women’s March, and co-founder of Until Freedom, a non-profit dedicated to addressing systemic and racial injustice, also spoke.

Jones paid tribute to Mallory and her political work, delivering a moving speech to her about handing over the torch of civil rights activism to the younger generation.

Michael Guevarez, an 1199 Recreation Leader at Brooklyn’s Seagate Nursing Home, is also part of that younger generation. During the fight for healthcare justice in March 2023, he submitted to arrest during a nonviolent civil disobedience protest outside the Midtown Manhattan headquarters of New York State Governor Kathy Hochul.

In receiving an award for his service to civil rights and healthcare justice, Guevarez said: “We are the same healthcare heroes that kept NYC afloat during the pandemic. We are also witnesses. Every day we witness the injustice in the healthcare system. And we are really sick and tired of it. I was honored last year, March 29, to stand with people who I consider to be my leaders, but also our family. Our brothers and sisters. Together we took arrest. It was my first time getting arrested. We knew we were doing it for the right reasons. It wasn’t easy. I want to encourage my fellow union members who think that maybe politics isn’t for you. Or you don’t have time to come out. Or the union doesn’t do anything for you. The Union has done so much for me. I never thought I would meet the Mayor of NYC. I can’t be the only one doing this. Alone I’m nothing. I need you guys to come out, I need you to join us, and I need you to get involved!”.