MLK Day Speakers Share Stories of Discrimination
Evege James talked about discrimination in Detroit bakeries during an event held at the Farmington Community Library Main Library.
It may be hard today to imagine a world where the color of your skin would determine where you are allowed to work, but that's a world Evege James knows all too well.
James, a speaker at Monday's Martin Luther King Jr. Day commemoration at the Farmington Community Library Main Library, grew up in the Deep South, where Jim Crow laws mandated racial segregation in schools, transportation and other public places.
He started working for American Bakeries in Detroit in 1965, one of only a handful of black people among the company's 100 or so employees. Even though the civil rights movement was in full swing, he said the company still kept black men and women and white women from taking some jobs.
"When I came here, it seemed like it wasn't any better than what I just left," he said. "That's why I got into helping people."
As a union steward — and eventually chief steward — representing all American Bakeries unionized workers, James helped employees file grievances when they were denied the opportunity to hold certain jobs because of their color or gender. The company had a history of discrimination; in the 1940s and 1950s, black employees were kept from working on the production line, he said.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made that illegal. "The law was passed for everybody to be treated equally, but they were slow to change," James said of the company.
Now retired for four years, he said he has seen some progress. More black workers are employed as salespeople, and the union successfully fought for more women to be hired as transport drivers.
Monday's event also included a reading of the book These Hands by Ferndale author Margaret Mason, which tells the story of Joe Barnett, a bakery worker who experienced discrimination. Mason said that when Barnett told her his story, his hands trembled — and that image provided the inspiration for the book, which is available through the library.
When master of ceremonies and Multicultural/Multiracial Community Council (MCMR) co-chair Tanji Grant asked audience members to share their reflections about the holiday, longtime MCMR member Mygene Carr shared a story about traveling by bus in 1958 to hear King speak in Washington, DC. She said there were no hotels in that area where black people could stay, so the group had to get back on the bus after the march and head home.
The morning program concluded with readings by poet Ber-Henda Williams, a poet, teacher, author and television producer. She encouraged members the audience to share their history with family. "We need to keep the tradition alive by passing down the stories," she said.
But Williams also had a message for young people who are more savvy about technology and social media.
"Tweet the change you'd like to make," she said.