The name of Vilma Martinez of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund was spelled incorrectly yesterday. Vilma Martinez was incorrectly identified Tuesday as president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Martinez is a former president of the group. Picture, Lane Kirland, at the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights gathering with Douglas Fraser, Rosina Tucker and Benjamin Hooks. Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post
From the lives of Rosina Tucker, the 101-year-old Washingtonian who played a critical role in union organizing among blacks many years ago, and Douglas Fraser, the 66-year-old outspoken leader of thousands of union workers crippled by today's economic depression, a group of civil rights activists took some strength last night.
Momentarily pausing from their well-known disagreements with the Reagan administration's solution to unemployment and inequality, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and 600 supporters, quietly celebrated two different paths of vision, dedication and courage. Standing at the podium and speaking vigorously for 15 minutes, Tucker, who helped organize the ladies' auxiliary of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, said, "I am at this moment 101 years and 2 months and 20 days old." The audience at the Capital Hilton stood cheering, united in its appreciation and awe.
A portion of a film based on the history of the Pullman porters and the work of the auxiliary underscored the daring of the black workers. "Randolph did not relegate the women to tea-making but had them organize schoolteachers and redcaps," remembers Bayard Rustin, a key lieutenant to the late A. Philip Randolph, who was president of the porters' union and also a founder of the Leadership Conference.
At the same time Tucker was carving out her part of history in Washington, Fraser became a shop steward of the United Auto Workers, the union he now leads, in Detroit. "Not too many Americans are old enough to remember the violence and danger that surrounded union organizers in those days," said Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO. Harassment was common, he recalled. "They did not, finally, succeed. Men like Doug Fraser are not easily intimidated. Nor can they be bought."
However, the erosion of the victories won by Tucker, Fraser, Randolph and Hubert H. Humphrey, for whom the conference names its annual humanitarian award, was not ignored by last night's audience. "What civil rights record?" asked attorney Vilma Martinez, struggling to assess the first two years of the Reagan administration. And attorney Joseph Rauh said, "I've been here since 1935. This is the first anti-civil rights administration we have had. Some didn't care but never before have we had one that wanted to push blacks down." In describing the Reagan administration's civil rights record, Wiley Branton, dean of the Howard University law school, choose the word "dismal." Kirkland said it was "poor," but both Benjamin Hooks, the executive director of the national NAACP, and the Rep. Don Edwards, (D-Calif.), settled on "disastrous."
"The only thing that has helped us has been public opinion and judicial decisions," said Hooks. The Justice Department suit against the town of Cicero, Ill., charging the Chicago suburb with preventing blacks from living there or obtaining municipal jobs was viewed cautiously by Hooks. "Obviously we are pleased with any good action they take," said Hooks. A slightly optimistic assessment of the administration was given by Ronald Andrade, the director of the American Congress of American Indians. "I give Reagan a half-decent rating. Some areas he has supported us on, block grants and the new roads bill, but there are some negatives."
Fraser seemed to take renewed determination from the gathering and from occasional civil rights victories, such as last year's extension of the Voting Rights Act. "That proved the forces of decency are alive and well," he said. "We must remain vigilant."