A Lesson Learned from a Segregated Union
Volume CVII, No. 2February, 2007
I planned to write this month’s column about the progress the administration is making toward the goal of rebuilding the staff and reconnecting our relationships with other unions, but I had forgotten that the February Allegro is the issue which the union tries to relate in some way to Black History Month. The former subject, though important, will wait another month; I hope that a short story from childhood will tie my experience to the latter.
I grew up in a happy and sheltered home, raised by parents who taught my brother and me conventional values — that, if one works hard and does the right thing, one can be successful in any endeavor. While my family wasn’t rich, we children certainly had all the advantages we really needed; most things easily fell into place at home and in school. Life, as I had experienced it, had its ups and downs, but was fundamentally fair.
As a senior in high school headed to music school, and with a sibling only one year ahead of me in college, my parents were anxious to explore any source of scholarships or grants that would alleviate the cost of higher education for two children. So, my father was delighted to read in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that AFM Local 197 was offering a scholarship of $100 to an area resident, an amount which would at least provide my textbooks for a year. It was quickly determined that I would apply and, in a few weeks, my father and I set off for the audition site, determined to demonstrate my abilities and bring home the prize.
When we arrived at the audition, however, there was a surprise. Unbeknownst to my father and me, St. Louis was one of those locations in which African-American musicians were segregated into a different local. Local 197 was the “black” local; Local 2 was “white.”
At the scholarship audition, all of the applicants were white. We also were clearly from more affluent households than the union members, yet the gentlemen of the local were gracious, offering praise to all of us and expressing regret that they didn’t have funds for more awards. Even as a self-absorbed teenager, I felt an uncomfortable sense of injustice. I couldn’t avoid entertaining the private suspicion that African-American children would not have been welcomed in the same way if the situation had been reversed. For the first time in my sheltered life, I came into direct contact with an unpleasant reality — life isn’t fair, particularly if you come from disadvantaged circumstances.
I didn’t win the audition that day, but I learned a valuable lesson. Hard work is certainly important, but there are many other variables to success. Moreover, these variables are often beyond the control of the individual. We therefore shouldn’t make rash judgments about people based on their station in life.
Thankfully, the era of segregated locals is long over for the AFM. We have made progress toward a society in which people are judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” as Martin Luther King once said. But we still have a distance to travel.
If we are to consider ourselves ethical, we have an obligation to work toward a just society for everyone. The fight for social justice is the foundation of the union movement. We should use this occasion to re-dedicate the union and its members in the fight for social justice for all citizens.