Day Four Update
Atlanta Civil Rights History & Publix Protest
Atlanta, GA
March 2, 2011

On Wednesday, the Do the Right Thing tour crew spent an incredible day in Atlanta, a city with a deep and proud history of Civil Rights struggle. And as CIW members returned to the more familiar terrain of the Southeast, they also returned to the regional dominion of Publix Supermarkets, a $25 billion industry giant whose callous indifference to the poverty and degradation experienced by Florida farmworkers has stunned even the most seasoned veterans of the Campaign for Fair Food.

That afternoon, after drawing renewed inspiration from the Civil Rights movement, over 200 CIW members and allies staged a vibrant rush-hour protest at the Publix on Ponce de Leon Ave. But it was the preceding bus tour of Atlanta's many Civil Rights landmarks given to the CIW crew by Mr. Charles Black (pictured above) that infused the day's passionate protest with even deeper significance.

Mr. Black's central role in Atlanta's student movement of the 1960's provided him a front row seat for some of the most important moments in Civil Rights history, and on this day, he shared his encyclopedic knowledge with farmworkers from Immokalee who, some fifty years later, are leading their own fight for dignity, justice, and fundamental human rights.

The tour crew eagerly absorbed the information as their bus made its way through Atlanta's formerly segregated streets, pausing outside the homes, restaurants, and churches that housed important meetings and influential leaders during the era's pitched battles against the Jim Crow racial caste system.

Some newly minted signs paid tribute -- finally -- to the invaluable contributions made by so many men and women who, now nearly 50 years ago, risked their lives to rid the country of the scourge of legalized segregation.

The tour stopped at Atlanta's historic Morehouse College, alma mater to dozens of influential figures -- from Dr. Martin Luther King to Julian Bond -- from the pages of history. It was Mr. Black's time at Morehouse that brought him into contact with Atlanta's student movement, and it was on the spot where this picture was taken that Mr. Black was the First Marshall at Dr. King's state funeral. Though it is little known outside of those at the heart of the Civil Rights movement, Dr. King's casket was brought to the campus at Morehouse following the more formal ceremony held at the relatively small venue of Ebenezer Baptist Church. While the church service was attended by many officials and dignitaries, the Morehouse ceremony -- which followed a procession through the city during which Dr. King's casket was carried on a wooden farm wagon drawn by two mules -- was open to the public and was attended by thousands of community members and fellow Freedom Fighters. Standing with Mr. Black at this hallowed spot inspired the CIW crew to shout out its now familiar "Coalicion!" "Presente!" call and response chant, echoing the spirit and sounds of the Civil Rights movement that has provided so much inspiration for workers in Immokalee over the many years of our own campaign.

Mr. Black's tour of the city also provided for moments of more intimate exchange...

... and quiet contemplation. The tour concluded, as pictured above, at the King Center, the national historic site where Dr. King and Coretta Scott King's bodies are entombed. CIW members only remotely familiar with the broadest outlines of Dr. King's story came to see many of the finer-detailed artifacts of his life of struggle, from the boots that he used to march in hundreds of protests throughout his short life to his Nobel Prize to pictures of his family.

After a pensive afternoon, the quiet mood of the tour crew quickly pivoted, fueled by the process of group reflection, into one of the more dynamic and high-spirited Publix protests to date, staged on a busy street and coinciding perfectly with Atlanta's notorious rush-hour traffic.

As they have at countless other protests outside Publix stores, CIW members and their families made their case for change, a case based on a minimal expense from the top of the food industry that could bring about life-changing reforms at the bottom.

Under a blanket of cherry blossoms, the protest grew...

... and grew...

... until well over 200 farmworkers and a broad cross-section of Fair Food activists were joined together on the thin strip of sidewalk in front of Publix.

At times, the contagious energy even spilled into the street, as cars often came to a standstill...

... and drivers and passengers were eager to learn about the reality of farm labor exploitation underlying the tomatoes sold in Publix supermarkets.

Even the fortunate few who caught the green light at the nearby intersection managed to let the assembled crowd know exactly where they stand.

The tour crew was joined by many old friends, such as Dr. Carol Anderson of Emory University (left), a talented historian of the early days of the Civil Rights struggle, who joined the CIW at the Farmworker Freedom March last April to deliver an eviscerating speech about the plague of modern-day slavery in the agricultural industry and the apparent apathy of Publix concerning the conditions under which its produce is harvested...

... and even older friend Tony Romano, formerly of the Miami Workers Center, who recently returned to his hometown of Atlanta where he is involved in the city's grassroots movement for economic and racial justice. Tony graciously agreed to put his longtime knowledge of the CIW's struggle and his native command of the Atlanta community organizing landscape to use and emcee the rally following the protest.

Ben Speight, Organizing Director for Teamsters Local 728 (who, if you look closely, is sporting a now-rare, 2003 vintage model Taco Bell Boycott button), made the point that, though Publix says that "atrocities" in the fields are not their business, without the labor of Immokalee workers in the fields, Publix has no business.

Andrea Nicholls, a graduate student at Emory, was also on hand for the impromptu rally and more than ably represented Atlanta students and relayed their deepening commitment to the Campaign for Fair Food. Her expression captures the joy that has been the constant across all the actions of the Do the Right Thing Tour.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the picket line, things weren't quite so joyous. This man -- the representative from Publix's human relations department who has followed the Campaign for Fair Food for nearly two years -- was once again on hand for the protest, and from the looks of it, the massive crowd and festive mood of the protest didn't sit well with him.

He spent most of the two-hour picket taking pictures of the people on the line for his files and protecting inches of Publix's property from the feet of momentarily incautious protesters.

We began this update with a new video and short reflection prompted by our tour of Atlanta's Civil Rights landmarks and a quote from Dr. King. Here is that quote again:

"Non-violence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a weapon unique in history which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals."

We have never personalized our campaign, and we won't start now. But the look on the man from human relations' face seems to capture the spirit of a company that has grown burdened by the weight of its own indefensible role in the unjust farm labor system, a spirit eroded by the effort required to construct justifications for the unjustifiable. A spirit corroded by too many times turning away from "atrocities" in the fields where the produce it buys -- and sells for a profit -- is picked.

Nonviolent protest, like the beautiful community action that took place in Atlanta yesterday, is the spiritual antidote to the malaise captured in the photo of Publix's HR representative. It is the sword that will heal Publix, just as it healed the city of Atlanta and freed it from years of unconscionable hate and repression of its African American community, a change which allowed business to flourish in the city and Atlanta to become the "Capital of the New South."

To close, we will give the final word to our tour guide, Mr. Black. He described his vision of social change as an endeavor that takes place in "four dimensions." In Mr. Black's words:

"Lasting change requires deep commitment, high principles, a broad base of people, and takes place over a long time."

We share Mr. Black's understanding of social change, and while we may not have Publix's resources or political connections or sheer size, we do have time. And like our predecessors in the Civil Rights movement, we will fight for justice as long as it takes.