Lifelong Activist’s Lessons Learned Fighting for Social Justice

Excerpts of speech by Cleve Jones, UNITE HERE union organizer, and author of When We Rise: My Life in the Movement, recorded and produced by Melinda Tuhus

A man who was instrumental in the fight for gay rights in the 1970s and the fight against AIDS in the 1980s and ’90s has been working ceaselessly since then for justice for workers and everyone else. While still in high school, Cleve Jones was electrified by a story he read in Life magazine in 1971 about gay liberation. After high school, he found a mentor in Harvey Milk, an out gay man and a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Jones now works for the UNITE HERE International union, promoting equal rights for LGBTQ workers and others. The union represents workers in the hospitality industry, transportation, textile manufacturing and more. He spoke on May 21 at Yale University, whose workers are represented by UNITE HERE, about lessons learned over his 45-year career in organizing. He spoke in support of Yale graduate student/teachers represented by UNITE HERE Local 33, who are now fighting an intransigent Yale administration to negotiate a contract after they won a union vote in February.

In his talk, Jones shared the lessons he’s learned, which included the importance of building coalitions and of “strategically and relentlessly” using a variety of tactics in pursuit of one’s goals – such as conducting voter registration drives, organizing protest marches and engaging in non-violent civil disobedience actions. [Rush transcript.]

CLEVE JONES:Meeting Harvey Milk was really the single most important thing that ever happened to me in my entire life. I was going to high school in Phoenix in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and I had already joined the movement. The war in Vietnam began the year I was born, in 1954, and when I graduated from high school it was still raging, and young people of all races and backgrounds united in an effort to end that illegal and immoral war. During that same period, Cesar Chavez came to Arizona to organize workers in the fields, and my friends and I, who’d been protesting the war joined that struggle. It took a little while for word of the women’s liberation movement to trickle down to Maricopa County, but when we heard about it, we signed up, and we circulated petitions for the Equal Rights Amendment, and we understood that this was yet another part of that larger, global effort for peace and for social justice – the fight against war and racism and poverty.

But, I didn’t know that any part of the movement was for me. I just knew that I was different in a way that was dangerous and really scary. And that danger and fear was made evident to me every single day when I went to high school. I thought my life was over before it began. When I was 15, I was so frightened about what it meant to be queer that I started stealing pills from my parents until I had quite the stockpile, because I knew at some point that people were going to understand what I was, and the only way out was to kill myself. And I think you all know there are still 15-year-olds out there right now who are stealing those pills and getting ready to kill themselves.

But I read that article in Life magazine, and I flushed those pills down the toilet, and I hitchhiked to San Francisco, and I met Harvey Milk, and I went to work for him. And then I found his body on the floor, and I thought, “Well, it’s over now.” We were trapped for hours in the office as the police bundled up the bodies and all I could think was, “It’s over.” He was our leader; he was my mentor; he was like a father figure to me, and it was all over. And then the sun went down, and the people began to gather at Castro and Market street, and lit their candles – gay and straight, young and old, black and brown and white, immigrant and native-born – and they marched in that river of candles that I know you’ve seen in the films, down to Civic Center Plaza, and filled the plaza with the light of candles, and I stood in that crowd and I knew it wasn’t over – it was just beginning! (Applause.) Out of that tragedy we built power. We united people, and we were led by Harvey’s example, who taught us two things: He said you must come out and reveal who you are, your true nature to your colleagues, your co-workers, your friends, your families, because then they won’t hate you anymore and they won’t fear you anymore, and they won’t vote to take away your rights. And he also taught us to build coalitions, to reach out to the labor movement, to the women’s movement, to racial and ethnic communities, to environmentalists, to all of us. He called it the coalition of the Us’s.

And then AIDS came. By 1985, almost everyone I knew was dead or dying or home caring for someone who was dying. And my friends and I thought, “Now it is over. We’re not going to survive this. How can the movement be sustained when half of us are already dead?” In my little neighborhood we’d lost a thousand people just by the fall of 1985. By the time treatment arrived, over 25,000 gay men in my neighborhood had been killed. And I thought it was over.

But we acted up. And we sewed quilts. And we lit candles. And we stormed the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] and the NIH [National Institutes of Health], and we said, “No! We want resources! We want research! We want compassion! And we want action!” (Applause)

We had a president at the time who has since been elevated to sainthood in some quarters. His name was Reagan, and he didn’t say the word AIDS publicly until more Americans had died of AIDS than died in the entire Vietnam War. And we fought him, and we fought Bush and we fought Clinton. And just when I was ready to die, and couldn’t walk, and was losing my vision, the first medications were released. It wasn’t over. I lived.

Now this past November, my boyfriend was in Washington on business. He’s younger than me, we text a lot. I’m sitting alone in my apartment watching the results come in … Florida. I thought, oh, no, and I’m texting him. He’s texting back, “Don’t worry, it’s going to be okay. We’re gonna win.” And then the results came in from Pennsylvania, and I was so upset, I called him on the phone, and I said, “It’s over! It’s over! We’re gonna lose!” and he said, “Honey, you just went from zero to Auschwitz in like one minute. Calm down! Are you alone in the apartment?” I said,”Yeah” and he said, “Go down to the street. Go down to Castro Street. Start the march!”

And I went down to the street and that night we marched – tens of thousands of people, gay and straight, young and old, men and women, black and brown and white, immigrant and native-born. We marched and we said, “No, this isn’t over! This is just beginning.” (applause)

For more information, visit Cleve Jones’ website at; on Twitter at;> UNITE HERE, About Cleve at; UNITEHERE at; UniteHere Local 33 at; When We Rise: Cleve Jones and UNITE HERE at

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