|With Dolores Huerta of the Farm Workers Union|
but today someone from the Union forwarded photos taken at the time, and I was reminded ...
besides, there were a thousand witnesses in that ballroom so what's there to withhold?
I'd been invited to attend at the request of Mr. Newton B. Jones, International President of the Union. I was not asked to represent the National Park Service, but was told by my supervisor that Mr. Jones was traveling from headquarters in Kansas City to San Francisco for this occasion, and that he had especially requested my presence.
And, of course, the organization sent a limo to Richmond to transport me to the Union Square Hilton Hotel that evening. It was Cinderella time, and, having spent the morning hours being filmed by their team -- there was a surreal character to the entire weekend.
But on arrival in a rainstorm at the hotel, and being greeted by Union officials with whom David and I would spend the evening among a ballroom filled with 1000 union members celebrating their National Labor Awards. Mr. Jones was receiving the International Labor Leadership Award; the reason for his being in San Francisco that evening.
There were other honorees, each giving a speech of acceptance. Mr. Jones was the last to speak, being the "star" among stars.
David and I were seated at #1 Table, just below the dais and within a stone's throw of the speakers.
Mr. Jones spoke for about ten minutes -- a speech with lots of inside references with lots of names of those unknown in my world, but noted in theirs. Suddenly, as he was coming to the part where he was introducing me to the house -- and I stood to receive their applause -- he lost control.
He provided to the gathering background that could only have been known if he'd been reading my blog or paying very close attention to articles and/or interviews I've done over years. But as he referred to his regret that I'd worked for the Union at a time before it was racially integrated he was overcome by emotion and the tears came, and -- before 1000 Unionists he simply couldn't go on. The room was absolutely silent. You could hear the proverbial pin drop as he struggled to gain control.
As he struggled to regain his composure and without warning I was suddenly being asked to join him on the platform; this was not planned, but the room faded away and there was only this dear man who had just apologized for the entire International Boilermakers Union and there was nothing to do but grant forgiveness after more than 70 years of struggle. So that was what I did and without hesitation.
In a strange way it didn't feel personal at all, but purely symbolic. It was as if this was a conversation the Union was having with itself, and that I was only incidental to the outcome. But that it was a role that someone (me?) needed to play in order to exorcise the demons of bigotry, finally, so that they might be able to own that awful history and forgive themselves. But ultimately it is the Union of today that holds the power to forgive the Union of 1944, because, of course, this is the only way to find the peace we're seeking in these troubled times.
It was all over in a few minutes after decades of angst and guilt. Mr. Jones wrapped me in his arms and planted a kiss firmly on my cheek as the room filled with 1000 dinner guests melted away for us both.
If only it could be so easy ... .