Exclusive: AFGE’s Kelley uses experience with racism to help others
Everett Kelley, President of AFGE | AFGE

WASHINGTON —When Everett Kelley, the Doctor of Theology who’s now the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, first encountered specific white racism targeted directly at him, he was three years old.

As a young Black boy growing up in small rural Goodwater, Ala., son of a mill worker and a restaurant worker, young Everett rode with his Dad one day in a rented car—the large family couldn’t afford to own one—to see his mother at work at the Old Hickory restaurant.

“All I wanted to do was hug my Mom,” Kelley said in an exclusive and long interview with Press Associates Union News Service. “The windows were outside and I could see through them to the cooking area,” where she worked. “I wanted to see my Mama. I wanted to give her a hug.”

Everett and his father approached the front door of the restaurant, which still stands in Goodwater. The white manager came out.

“You can’t come in this way,” he told young Everett. “You gotta go in the other way,” through the alley.

It was a shock to a 3-year-old who doted on his Mom. And it was his first in-your-face experience with the daily racism Blacks faced then—and now.

Kelley’s determination to overcome it eventually led him to the AFGE, after joining the Army in September 1975 for three years of active service, eight years in the reserves, and 30 years overall, ending at the Anniston (Ala.) Army Depot.

He became an AFGE shop steward, local president, and regional vice president and came to the D.C. area—his first move outside the South—as national Secretary-Treasurer in 2018 and now union President.

“Having been a spiritual man, God moved me to that” union work, mused Kelley, who was pastor of the St. Mary Missionary Baptist Church in Lincoln, Ala., for 31 and a half years, on top of his union work—unpaid for years–and sometimes other jobs, too, such as a cabinet business and selling shoes. The AFGE presidency “is the first time I’ve only had one job,” he says.

“God told me, ‘You got to get involved to make sure no one else was treated the way I was treated.’ God put me on this mission to make sure my members are treated with fairness, dignity, and respect.

Good for me

“The union has been good for me because it helped me become the person I’ve become,” he says. “I was totally happy pastoring, but I was put on this mission” with the union “to see that people were treated right,” he adds with emphasis.

Kelley has a reason for telling his story and that of others he serves as AFGE president. It’s of the racism he as an individual Black man—and his friends, colleagues, and members—suffer in ways large and small every day.

In a time of continuing national argument over systemic racism, the focus is on patterns of discrimination and the white nationalism behind it. The debate often encompasses large issues such as police brutality, a rigged justice system, or laws—federal, state, and local—deliberately written to discriminate against people of color in general and Blacks in particular.

What debaters don’t discuss is that racism happens day to day in myriad incidents, many not covered by laws, and it affects both Blacks as a group and, more deeply, Blacks as individuals. Reactions differ. Some victims suffer in silence. Others become depressed. Others lash out. But all hurt. Kelley chose to use the union as a way to combat it, on others’ behalf. But here’s some of what he encountered:

There was the high school counselor after the family moved to a larger town, Sylacauga, who told Kelley and other Blacks they wouldn’t amount to anything and who refused to inform them—much less counsel them—about college opportunities, including scholarships.

“He told me I ‘would be nothing because I came from the wrong side of the tracks.’”

He was working the 10 p.m.-6 a.m. shift at the same Sylacauga textile mill his father earlier labored at. Kelley worked there while in middle school, as a weaver and dyer. Which means he then went home to get ready for an 8 a.m. school start. “When did you sleep?” one AFGE staffer asked. Why did he work? Because the family needed the money.

Even a high union post didn’t exempt Kelley from the daily impact of racism.

“When I became the local union president, people in that area” of Alabama “weren’t really ready for an African-American” in that job in 2002. That’s understating the case.

Kelley found dead cats thrown in his yard. Urine was deposited in his mailbox. His house was shot at. He had the side carpentry business then “and the KKK hung all over my building.” When he reported it to the police and pushed for follow-up, he was told “We have no leads.”

Incidents of racism have persisted throughout his career and made Kelley more determined than ever to ensure his members don’t face the same racism. They continue, including this month.

Kelley was driving through the Ozarks on the way to visit an AFGE local and its members and stopped in a store. Only whites were there “and nobody speaks” when Kelley—well-dressed and dapper as always—walked in.

Sent to jungle infantry training

When Kelley enlisted, the military sent him to jungle infantry training, and then to posts throughout the South—Fort Polk, La., Fort Jackson, S.C., and Fort Campbell, Ky., with the 101st Airborne. Along the way, Kelley learned he could manage things and people, winning Army-wide awards as a cook, and running the kitchen because there were no senior officers to do so.

One Black friend went AWOL from Fort Campbell in 1976 due to “quite a bit of racism.” Kelley and two other soldiers—“a Caucasian male and a Puerto Rican male”—were sent to find him. A white police officer stopped them in Pulaski, Va., giving no reason why.

“He tells us, ‘Pay $85 or go to jail.’ We asked to see the judge.” The officer took them downtown, “took off his police hat and put on his justice of the peace hat. ‘Pay the $85.’” The three scraped up the money between them and left Pulaski, fast.

Kelley and his colleagues eventually found the AWOL soldier. He’d run “because of the way he was treated” at Fort Campbell. “He was from the Bronx” and wouldn’t accept the racism of the South. The soldier was mustered out with a general discharge, not the Army’s normal honorable discharge.

Back in Sayacauga, Kelley saw African Americans there “get overlooked for jobs and promotions.” And when whites sought car loans from the local credit union, they got the money on their own signatures, while Blacks “needed two or three co-signers.”

The discrimination which sent Kelley into union work involved his wife, Elizabeth. “She worked 12 hours at a time at the mill and she needed a break,” he says. But when she complained, the mill bosses fired her. “They wouldn’t even give workers bathroom breaks.”

By then, Kelley had a community college degree. “I went down and represented her”—they had separate last names and the mill didn’t know they were married—“and she got her job back.” He went back to the Anniston Army depot.

One supervisor “told a lot of racist jokes” in the morning “huddle” staff meetings there. Kelley, one of three Blacks in his department, filed an Equal Employment Opportunities Commission complaint. “One white guy, a Christian believer, stood up for me. That stopped it for a while.”

Later, “My entire shop was promoted to a higher grade, except for me.” That exclusion got reversed—or so it seemed. But the commanding officer took the reversal announcement off the bulletin board. When another CO came in, the promotion went through and the announcement was posted. That CO wasn’t a Southerner “but a Caucasian male from Illinois.”

And once he became union president, first at the local and now at national AFGE, Kelley made it his mission to end such daily racism.

There’s another “win” he had over racism. Defying the pediatrician who served Kelley’s mother, and who predicted he would never amount to much because a rare rheumatism would kill him at 16, Kelley has his growing union and the Kelleys now have four children and six grandchildren, too.

“We have to challenge it,” he says of racism, “and take a stand.” Kelley wants to “make sure that what happened to me doesn’t happen to others. Taking a stand together, we are prevailing.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.