Last Saturday evening, Feb. 16, America lost one of our greatest warriors for social justice, and I lost one of my best friends. The Rev. James Orange died at Crawford Long Hospital in Atlanta after being hospitalized for gall bladder-related issues.
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 fire-hosed 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.
Rev. Orange 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). He 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 and helped with a 72-hour, round-the-clock vigil and picket line in Augusta. When budget cuts threatened staffing levels at state hospitals and prisons, Rev. Orange helped us take over state department heads' offices and went to jail with us.
We became closer than ever when Andrew Young ran for governor of Georgia in 1990. Together, with many others, we worked on field operations across the state. We worked to connect union activists to civil rights activist in the Ambassador's campaign.
Rev. Orange was a central reason I became president of the Atlanta Labor Council in 1991. For the next 10 years, we worked as a team, more closely than I'd ever worked with anyone, and he became one of the closest friends I will ever have.
Rev. Orange, to me, was defined by a profound and deep faith in people and in God. His politics and activism came from that same well that watered Dr. King and so many other Southern organizers and activists--a belief that Jesus Christ's admonition to love others was the essence of Christianity. He had an immense capacity for love and empathy and belief in the basic good in all people. He also possessed a passion for justice for all.
As we campaigned for the 1996 Olympics to be done fairly with decent, family-supporting wages and benefits under union contracts, Rev. Orange helped to organize and lead demonstrations and rally the broader community. On Sept. 18, 1992, when 10,000 marched on the Olympic flag ceremony, Rev. Orange was the chief marshal. Two months later when we took over the Olympics headquarters, Rev. Orange helped organize and lead the protest. Six months later Rev. Orange helped broker the meeting that led immediately to the labor agreement on the construction of the Olympic Stadium.
When the Atlanta Labor Council took on Georgia Republican Rep. Newt Gingrich in 1995, Rev. Orange was central to the planning and execution of the marches, rallies and the demonstration when we occupied Gingrich's congressional district offices.
Rev. James Orange never failed to stand up when called on or speak out when it mattered. He spent his life standing up and organizing and fighting for all of us. He believed intensely in our capacity as human beings to create the Beloved Community and to win justice and equality for all.
He lived the values of the movement for social justice. He never failed any of us. He was the best friend you could ever have because he was unwavering in his loyalty while always helping you do the right thing. In the depths of the despondency of a long struggle, he would say: "What we gonna do now? We gonna keep going? The Lord ain't brought us this far to turn us loose now." He constantly called you to do your best. He lived his life connecting to the better angels in all of us.
I will miss him for the rest of my life. But my life is much richer for having shared so much of it with him.