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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Big Orange

Do read AFL-CIO Director of Organizing Stewart Acuff’s remembrance of Reverend James Orange at Campaign for America’s Future ‘Blog for Our Future.” James Orange was MLK’s street guy, the one he called on to get young people and even gang members involved in King’s historic campaigns against racial injustice, and he also served as MLK’s March mobilizer and was with King when he was assassinated. Acuff recalls:

During the 1960s and 1970s, Rev. Orange was a key field organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. More than that, he was a member of Dr. Martin Luther King’s inner circle. He joined Dr. King during the Birmingham movement where he organized the demonstrations of school children who were firehosed and attacked by police dogs. Those images broadcast across the nation helped turn public opinion to support the civil rights movement.
Rev. Orange also played key roles in civil rights actions in Selma, Memphis and Chicago—and in Dr. King’s last campaign, the Poor People’s Movement. In both Memphis and Chicago Rev. Orange was assigned to deal with the street gangs attracted to the movement but not committed to King’s nonviolent civil disobedience. He never stopped teaching activists and organizers the principles and basic tactics and strategies of nonviolent civil disobedience.
In 1977 Rev. Orange became a union organizer. He personified the link between the civil rights movement and the union movement. He understood at his core what Dr. King taught – that civil rights without economic rights or justice was insufficient.
Reverend and I began working together in 1985 when I went to Atlanta as an organizer for SEIU to start the Georgia State Employees Union (GSEU/SEIU Local 1985). Reverend knew activists and political leaders all over Georgia and he opened doors for me and our staff wherever we went. He marched with us in Milledgeville and Savannah, helped with a 72 hour, round the clock, vigil and picket line in Augusta, and when budget cuts threatened staffing levels at state hospitals and prisons, Reverend Orange helped us take over state department heads’ offices and went to jail with us.

Acuff has more to say about Orange’s amazing spirit and uncompromising integrity, which I also witnessed when I worked with Orange on a number of projects. He was the best of a great generation of young men and women who answered the call of history and never lost faith or courage, even after MLK was assassinated. Orange continued the fight for social justice until his last breath.
Orange was a gifted labor organizer and after King was assassinated, he led some 300 union organizing campaigns across the southeast. He was once well-described in Southern Exposure magazine as a “big black mountain of a man,” standing about 6’3″ and hitting the scales just south of 300 lbs. Other writers knick-named him “the gentle giant,” partly in tribute to the open-hearted way he embraced ostracized minorities in organizing the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. March in Atlanta. Orange was sort of a ‘pied piper’ as well, commanding an army of political activists who conducted voter registration drives for every Atlanta election and organizing a group called “the blue crew” that turned out the black vote to elect Atlanta’s Black mayors and African American members of congress. He and his activist wife, Cleo raised a house full of great kids, who also became activists.
James Orange was the most widely-loved of King’s lieutenants, and his memorial service at Morehouse College’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Chapel on Saturday will be SRO. Both Senators Obama and Clinton sent messages of tribute praising Orange’s contributions. Indeed, neither candidate would be contending for the Democratic nomination without the groundwork laid by James Orange and his followers.

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