Dennis Serrette: Presenté

OVER 300 PEOPLE attended a memorial tribute to Dennis Serrette on April 20th. No doubt many more were watching on Zoom; no doubt many more, unable to attend, spared a thought to someone who, over the course of his 83 years, contributed so much to the struggle for peace, freedom and justice. Dennis, born in Harlem in 1940, relocated to Oxon Hill in Prince George’s County in the 1980s and played a meaningful role in his community, in our county, in our country and globally. Dennis was a Vietnam veteran, a worker, a unionist, an educator, a committed activist organizing for racial and social justice. He was a deeply caring person which was expressed in every conversation, in every activity, with which he was engaged.  

Dennis Serrette was a lifelong advocate for labor power and social justice. Dennis was a founding member of the CWA Black Caucus and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists.

I first heard of Dennis in 1971 when telephone workers and technicians went on strike – and continued to strike in New York City after rejecting the contract the union had reached with management. Dennis was in the news (at least as I recall, in the left press) as one of the rank-and-file leaders of the strike. What made that all the more remarkable was his leadership emerged within a workplace that was overwhelmingly white (AT&T had just been successfully sued by the EEOC for its racist and sexist hiring and promotion practices). Through his organizing within the membership as well as against management, Dennis was among those who helped transform CWA into the militant, progressive union it is today. Though I didn’t know him personally at the time, I was aware of his engagement in other transformative struggles going on throughout New York City in the 70s, rooted in the labor and Black Freedom movements.

Years later, I got to know Dennis through the Rainbow Coalition and Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign, a campaign which brought those and so many other struggles together. He played a central role in our work to build the Rainbow within organized labor in the DC Metro area.  He was incisive, clear, his leadership expressed by listening and talking, by doing the work of promoting unity within our disparate grouping, seeking and finding common ground without compromising around principles. And he did so by always speaking based on his personal experiences.  

This had a particular meaning at the time, for Dennis had run for president as an independent candidate in 1984 on the ticket of the New Alliance Party on a program for peace and justice that would meet the genuine needs of our society. That party, upon examination, however, he came to understand as corrupt and destructive. He didn’t shy away from addressing that contradiction, and often spoke about it at Rainbow gatherings –  for the New Alliance Party, in one of its many guises, sought to project itself as the “true Rainbow,” and, as such, was disruptive to the movement. What struck me, however, was the way Dennis posed that contradiction, for over and again he warned that we should not focus on our criticism of what they – or any other divisive force – was doing, we should not let them sidetrack us from doing the real work of building outward. It’s not polemics against those with whom we differ that matter, it is how we take what we learn to continue to organize around our convictions.

The pin used by Dennis Serrette during his run for President in 1984 on the New Alliance Party ticket.

I was reminded of that lesson during the memorial. One of his sons – Dennis G. Serrette, who moderated the program — recounted a life lesson imparted from his father, who upbraided him for expressing frustration about his failures in organizing surrounding students. Our job, his father explained, is not to “convince” someone to take one particular action or another for people have to – and will – make their own decisions about what actions they’ll take in life. Organizing should instead be understood as laying the framework for individuals to do that in a personally meaningful way. Building collective movements rooted in experience, in community, is the only pathway toward building movements that are sustainable.

The years when the Rainbow was growing was also a time when the movement against South African apartheid was growing in strength and intensity, when solidarity initiatives were becoming ever more important here in the United States.  There too I had the privilege to work with Dennis at several events and to grasp his profound sense of internationalism. It is also when I met his wife, Cathy (Hollenberg Serrette), who was deeply engaged in that fight as she has been for human rights abroad and here at home. Bill Fletcher Jr, gave a moving talk and personal testament to his relationship to Dennis, rooted in learning how to learn, and then commented on the role Dennis played in the anti-apartheid movement and overall movements for justice. That was highlighted by the presence of Bill Lucy, retired Secretary of AFSCME and first president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), at the Memorial, for he talked about Dennis’s role in its founding, the vision and the politics behind it.


My last conversation with Dennis was in October 2015 – I recall it because it was a “We Want Bernie” rally, which took place before any of us realized quite how transformative Sanders’ presidential campaign would become. Along with Jim Hightower, Barbara Ehrenreich (who took part despite being ill), Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal, Larry Cohen – then recently retired as CWA president – spoke about the importance of the campaign, of what it represented, the need for people to get behind the effort. (Cohen reminisced at the memorial of his close personal and political relationship with Dennis).

Dennis spoke from the floor, stressing the importance of Bernie’s run while stressing that unity required an upfront opposition to war and racism, projecting the same politics as he had in the 1970s, as he did during the 1980s, the same yet distinct recognition of the new world we were facing.

After the speeches and talks from the floor, I walked over to speak to Dennis. I hadn’t seen him in 20 years, yet there was the same smile, openness and  humanity that I recalled – there was a joy in life about him that is hard to express but evident to all who had the opportunity to know Dennis, a joy of life despite any and all hardships which is where the strength and the lesson of his politics can be best expressed.

Politics, that is, as an expression of a love of life which came through in his love of a family central to the life of a man who had 10 siblings and had 10 children, a love of life expressed at the forum too by comments from his sister Sharn Nesbit, by another of his sons, Kyle Serrette, and by Cathy’s deeply moving tribute.  It was also expressed in the music Pam Parker (an anti-apartheid activist in her own right) sang “We Sing Louder than the Machines,” Jodi Beder concluded the tribute performing “Wade in the Water” on the cello. And in between Elise Bryant led the DC Labor Chorus in singing “We Remember You,” and in the wholly appropriate “May the Work That I Have Done Speak for Me.”

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