MLK Stories, Family Ties Inspire Activism in AFSCME Member

Renardo and Angie Straughter
Renardo and Angie Straughter

Renardo Straughter grew up in Memphis, Tenn., hearing his mom’s stories about marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement.

Those same stories have inspired the St. Louis County financial services worker to carry on his mother’s fight for equality and justice.

“They marched a lot back then. Everyone who was oppressed back then, it was just what you had to do,” the Local 66 member says. His mother, Elaine, participated in multiple marches in 1967 and ’68, just before she graduated from high school. She marched with Dr. King on the first day of the Memphis Sanitation Strike, and watched him deliver his famous ‘Mountaintop’ speech at the Memphis Mason Temple on the eve of his assassination.

One of Renardo’s mother’s most heart-wrenching stories involves marching with Dr. King past the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis. People on the balcony threw jars of urine down onto the marchers.

“I think a lot of people can’t forget the things they’ve endured, all the hate,” Renardo says. “There’s a lot of anger, a lot of fear still in those people, and a lot of the things they’re angry about. It’s systematic stuff like predatory lending and redlining.”

Today, Renardo and his wife Angie (a public health nurse and fellow Local 66 member) live in a cozy house in Virginia, Minn., with their three kids and two cats. A basketball hoop stands in for a welcome sign. Angie is white, Renardo is black. They both know none of this would be possible without the strength and sacrifices of marchers like Dr. King and Renardo’s mom.

“Some of Dr. King’s sacrifices made it so that I could marry a white woman and not get killed,” Renardo notes.

“And the unions helped with a lot of that, too,” Angie adds.

But in today’s political climate, they say, it seems like we’re going backward. Angie says fake news and President Trump’s attacks on the media are silencing our voices and dividing working people, and that’s heightening racial tensions.

In their predominantly white community, she says, “having the union for Renardo, as a black male, is fantastic. I feel more secure because I know things are going to be fair for him.”

“There’s a long way to go, as far as things getting better,” Renardo says.

It makes him proud to know he’s a member of the same union Dr. King fought alongside during the Sanitation Strike and the Civil Rights Movement, and that AFSCME is still fighting to make sure every working person gets an even playing field.

“We all deserve a living wage where you can afford things. Health care, paid time off, all of the benefits a family really needs,” Renardo says. That’s why he’s getting more active in AFSCME.

“I wouldn’t want Minnesota to be a ‘right-to-work state’ where they push unions out. I want to help protect workers’ rights. There’s someone fighting to protect my rights. I want to keep that fight going.

“Regardless of what adversity you face, you’ve got to keep trying and not let it break you.”