Noah Daponte-Smith

The ghost of soul music legend Sam Cooke filtered through the auditorium of Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School Sunday, as area singer Ariel Johnson sang his Civil Rights-era classic “A Change Is Gonna Come” to welcome roughly 200 New Haven residents for a celebration of social justice activism.

“I don’t know if Sam Cooke could have done that that well,” said event organizer Kit Salazar-Smith after Johnson left the stage. “And the thing is, the words are still affecting — they still have meaning.”

The gathering was the annual People’s World Amistad Awards Rally, held to recognize prominent members of the community for their work and accomplishments. This year’s three recipients ran the gamut of social justice activists: an immigrant-rights advocate, a newly elected alder and a longtime labor union organizer. The ceremony, which featured musical performances from a variety of New Haven groups, began with a special recognition for Edie Fishman, a labor organizer and activist who has fought for change ever since she joined the Young Communist League in 1935 at age 14.

Fishman — who worked in the shipyards of Camden, New Jersey during the Second World War — has spent her life involved in social-justice activism. She said her first memories of activism are of marching for Social Security and labor rights during the Great Depression.

“I and other working people bombarded our legislators, bombarded the president, saying we need wage and labor laws,” Fishman said.  “Because we stood united and made our voices heard, we won. We got Social Security and unemployment compensation, but it was only through struggle.”

Her daughter, Joelle Fishman, is also a well-known activist in the New Haven area who serves as a member of the Peace Commission and chair of the Connecticut Communist Party. She said the struggle for equality started when the slave ship Amistad landed in New Haven in 1839, and has continued since.

Drawing a link between communist and anti-racist activism, Joelle Fishman said racism is “embedded” within capitalism and called on activists to fight for abortion rights, a $15 minimum wage and the right to unionize. She concluded her remarks with the activist slogan “Black Lives Matter,” which was met with applause.

“We’re sick and tired of the hatred, bigotry and fear being spewed to bust us apart, and we should never take our unity for granted,” Joelle Fishman said. “Our continuing struggle for equality has been long and hard.”

Jill Marks, who recently defeated incumbent Beaver Hills Alder Claudette Robinson-Thorpe, also received an award Sunday. Raised in The Hill, Marks comes from an activist family — her husband, Rev. Scott Marks, a prominent city union activist and co-founder of New Haven Rising, citywide advocacy group dedicated to economic, social and racial justice, received the Amistad Award in 2004.

In her remarks to the audience, Jill Marks said the character of New Haven is changing, and not for the better. A dearth of jobs in New Haven’s needy neighborhoods, she said, is causing social havoc. She called on Yale to hire more New Haven residents and end the jobs crisis in New Haven.

“We are qualified and ready to go to work,” Marks said. “They need to do their part to solve their crisis by hiring us … There are 986 good jobs at [the Yale School of Medicine] that are in danger of being outsourced or made into Yale-New Haven Hospital jobs. We want Yale to put in writing that they will protect those good jobs.”

Ciro Gutierrez, an immigrant-rights activist who was born and raised in Peru and participated in the movement for democracy after the county’s 1968 military coup, also received an award Sunday. He became a union steward in Peru until the government’s privatization of the public sector cost him his job. He and his family then moved to the United States in 1994, and he has fought for working families as a union organizer in Hartford since 2006.

The third awardee was Cindy Harrity, a labor organizer who has worked around the United States to ensure that workers can exercise their right to unionize. Her most significant action came in New Hampshire, where she organized 600 workers at an AT&T call center, the biggest victory in the state in 15 years. Harrity, who recently lost her ability to speak while battling thyroid cancer, had her husband, fellow organizer John Harrity, deliver her remarks.

“I want fairness, I want truth, I want a country and community that’s based on justice,” John Harrity said on his wife’s behalf. “And I don’t give a damn whether that’s reasonable or not, because it’s right, and it’s what we all deserve.”

Harrity called on attendees to “be unreasonable,” challenging social systems they find unjust and unequal. Those struggles, he said, include diverse causes ranging from the Black Lives Matter movement to the fight for a $15 minimum wage.

Harrity’s speech ended with a quotation from the left-wing journalist and writer I. F. Stone.

“The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you’re going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins,” Harrity said.