When I received an email from the UFT about the Martin Luther King, Jr. ceremony at Convent Avenue Baptist Church in Harlem, I decided that I would like to go. Michael Mulgrew would be there, and I know the union is only as strong as the dedication of its leaders and members. Erin Oates, Joseph Usatch and I became friends when we recently trained together as pension consultants. The three of us are also chapter leaders. We touched base with each other and decided to go to the celebration together.
We made our way from Queens to the church that Monday morning. I didn’t think twice about it, even though I could have stayed in bed late on a day off from school. I posted a quote earlier that day on Facebook that Dr. King said: “Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.” I relate this to our union and how we are fighting the good fight day after day, and that we aren’t afraid to do what’s right. Not just for our members, but for the children in our schools.
UFT President Michael Mulgrew, who spoke at the ceremony, explained that our union and Martin Luther King Jr. “go way back.” He explained how a group of teachers “passed around a hat” so they could get station wagons to go down south and meet with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. Mulgrew also drove home the point that just like King fought for what he believed, we have to do the same, and we have to make sure our students are at the center of our efforts. “It’s about the kids,” he said. The congregation clapped as Michael Mulgrew gave credit to teachers for their hard work.
To say the least, the ceremony was very moving. We sang and swayed to songs like “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah,” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
When we left the church, we decided to go to the iconic Sylvia’s restaurant. We enjoyed delicious soul food as we reflected on the day’s events. I looked up and recognized Chirlane McCray walking in, and a second later Bill de Blasio! The mayor shook people’s hands. As he passed our table, I said “Hi Bill, can you take a picture with us?” Joe told him that we were UFT members, and Erin mentioned we had just come from the MLK ceremony where Mulgrew spoke. He smiled and said, “That’s great.”
We immediately took to our phones to tell all our friends that we had met the mayor, and that night our picture was posted on the UFT Facebook page. It was definitely a memorable MLK Day for Erin, Joe and me, and, boy, am I glad that I didn’t stay in bed!
Denise Verde is the UFT chapter leader at PS 186 in Queens.