USW Retiree Robert Avery Goes Extra Mile for Hillary Clinton

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

The day after Michelle Obama electrified the Democratic National Convention with her inspiring speech, retired USW member Robert Avery, who is a Hillary Clinton delegate to the Democratic National Convention this week, told me that he feels he has a special obligation to go beyond the call of duty to get the nominee elected.

That is because in 2008, Avery was a Hillary Clinton supporter before a virtually unknown Illinois senator named Barack Obama went to Selma, Ala., and met with the Alabama New South Coalition at a time when Avery was the group’s president. 

The organization endorsed Obama, so, of course, Avery did too. He recounts telling the young senator, “I let him know I was with Hillary.  I said I would support him until he fell out of the race.” In the end, that’s not what happened.

“So, now,” Avery told me yesterday, “I really feel like I owe it to Hillary to help her.”

Avery explained that the Alabama New South Coalition felt it was important to back a highly qualified black candidate for president in 2008, and he felt that too.  Active in the civil rights movement from the age of 15 when he hitchhiked to Washington D.C. for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Avery has served decades as a community leader and knows the need for strong black leaders.

This is a man who served as a shop steward for USW Local 12 when he worked 30 years at the Goodyear tire plant in Gadsden. He served on the Gadsden City Council for 24 years. He served on the Alabama A&M University Board of Directors for six years. He led the Gadsden chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He knows what it is to serve community. And that is what he likes about Hillary Clinton.

“Her entire career has been helping people.  She has always been on the side of helping people, to make things better for people,” Avery told me. He noted her work with the Children Defense Fund and her efforts to get health insurance for all indigent children. She believes working class wages must rise and the minimum wage must go up. 

It’s not just a talking point or a way to gain brownie points. It is a core philosophy with Hillary Clinton.  Avery can see that she is intent on social justice the way he is. And that is why he always supported her candidacy.

Avery was one of 10 children raised in the Jim Crow south by a mother who worked as a maid and a father who worked as a tailor. When the Klu Klux Klan murdered a white guy just seven miles from his home in April of 1963, it was a defining moment in his life.

The man was William Lewis Moore, a postman from Baltimore, Md., who had planned to walk from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss., to personally deliver to Gov. Ross Barnett a letter pleading for racial justice. The Klan made sure he didn’t make it.

This occurred just a few months before the March on Washington was scheduled. Avery, though only 15 at the time, said he decided that if some white guy from Baltimore was willing to fight for his rights, he needed to get active. So he and two friends hitch hiked 700 miles to D.C. to participate in the rally.

They arrived about a week early, virtually penniless, so organizers put them to work making signs for the event in exchange for room and board. Their contribution has been memorialized in news stories and by President Obama himself in speeches.

Dr. Martin Luther King spoke in Gadsden shortly before the march, and the boys’ parents asked him to try to check on them when he arrived in D.C.  Dr. King found them at an auditorium where they were working and spoke to them for about half an hour.  “I felt one of the most important people in the world was taking time out for us,” Avery told me of his first meeting with the civil rights icon.

When Avery returned home, he became involved in the struggle for civil rights, and his body bears some scars. But he hopes those hard-fought battles, including at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, will serve future generations, among them his own five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

The man who worked so hard for civil rights recognizes a stark difference between the candidates on this issue. In Hillary Clinton, Avery sees a candidate who has strived for social justice her entire life. In Donald Trump, he sees an individual to be feared.

“I don’t think he could do that much to me,” said Avery, who is 67 years old, accomplished and respected in his community. “But what he could do to other black people and to poor people scares the heck out of me,” Avery told me.

Trump makes racist comments and contends it’s okay. He asserts that polite or “politically correct” behavior, including refraining from calling people rude names, must end. Trump mocks disabled people. Trump ridicules women. This, Avery said, has the effect of desensitizing people. Trump, Avery fears, could change the character and tone of the country. Trump wants to take America back to a time that was not good for minority groups and women.

But Avery thinks he can talk about these issues to people of good will, whether they are Republican or Democrat. He said he has found it helps to take his grandmother’s advice in these interactions. She told him the good Lord gave everyone one mouth and two ears, so people should spend twice as much time listening. He has found listening helps in convincing. And that’s what he plans to do on the campaign trail for Hillary Clinton. 

Leo W. Gerard also is a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Committee and chairs the labor federation’s Public Policy Committee. President Barack Obama appointed him to the President’s Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiation and the President's Advanced Manufacturing Partnership Steering Committee 2.0. He serves as co-chairman of the BlueGreen Alliance and on the boards of Campaign for America’s Future and the Economic Policy Institute.  He is a member of the executive committee for IndustriALL Global Labor federation and was instrumental in creating Workers Uniting, the first global union. Follow @USWBlogger

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