(Actor Danny Glover speaking to students at the University of Mississippi)
OXFORD, Miss. – I’ll never forget Danny Glover as the
drifter Moze in the 1984 film Places in
the Heart. It was a Depression-era story of a widowed mother in the South trying
to keep her children and save her farm with the help of Moze and a blind war
I loved that story because it reminded me of my grandmother,
Minnie “Mama” Atkins, herself a rural Southern widow during the Great
Depression who had to fend off local authorities wanting her to give up her
four small children.
Later I saw Glover as Joshua Deets in the 1989 television
series Lonesome Dove. He was one of
my favorites among the large cast of characters in that 19th century
cattle drive tale that my family watched religiously, episode after episode.
I never imagined I would eventually get to meet Glover, not
so much as an actor but as a champion of working folks and their rights to
organize and have some control over their lives at the workplace.
Glover was here in Oxford recently to rally students and
citizens to come to Canton, Mississippi, March 4 and join U.S. Sen. Bernie
Sanders in the “March on Mississippi” against voter suppression and for
workers’ rights, particularly in the ongoing union organizing effort at the
giant Nissan plant in Canton.
He told the crowd of more than 100 a story about legendary actor,
singer and human rights activist Paul Robeson, who suffered the blacklist and
widespread scorn because of his political advocacy. Asked if he regretted
anything in his life, Robeson said, “`There’s not one thing I’d change in my life.
It’s about the journey.’”
Young people today would do well to think about their own
journey in life, said Glover, 70, whose labor advocacy and human rights efforts
have earned him an international reputation. They need to listen to the stories
of those around them, particularly the shared humanity of those who work hard
and play by the rules yet whose rights as humans are constricted by the
“I think about the journey. Over 50 years ago as a student,
I didn’t know where that journey was going to take me. … You have an
opportunity to look at the stories and make them part of your story. “
In Canton, thousands of men and women work at an automobile
plant that was built with the help of $1.4 billion in tax breaks and other
incentives provided by the poorest state in America. While they earn good wages
in comparison to other Mississippians, they live in fear that they’ll lose
their jobs due to injuries in a workplace recently fined $20,000 by the U.S.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration for poor safety conditions.
They see their jobs increasingly threatened by management’s
hiring of temporary workers who receive fewer benefits and lower wages.
They worry that reasons will be found to get rid of them if
they show support for joining a union despite federal laws that prohibit such
intimidation by management. For more
than a decade, a community-wide effort has been underway to get Nissan to
desist in the kind of voter suppression that makes a free union election
“The South has changed,” said Glover, a native of San
Francisco whose family came from Georgia. “The South I heard about in 1964,
it’s not the same South. The Civil Rights Movement opened up the South.”
Yet, he said, the fight for workers’ rights in the South
“The rights of workers have been curtailed, stepped upon,”
he said, adding that those rights will continue to be curtailed “without a
union, a place where workers can go to collectively bargain, to have a
Glover, who also would participate in the 14th
Annual Oxford Film Festival while in town, said it was his first trip to
Oxford, but he has come to Mississippi several times over the years to bring
attention to the cause of the Nissan workers in Canton, 80 percent of whom are
“When I see people win, they stand a little taller,” he told
Nissan workers during a visit in 2012.
“I want people to win. People lifting themselves up. I’m always blown
away by that.”
Glover told them that he came from a union family. His
parents were postal workers who were also active in the Civil Rights Movement.
“I had health care all my life because the union created the situation where I
could have health care.”
He also told the workers something that was echoed during
his more recent visit to Oxford. “You are all part of a much larger legacy,” he
said. “Your story is going to resonate.”
This column also appeared in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Mississippi.