Good afternoon. Thank you to the Workers’ Rights Institute at Georgetown University Law School, the University of Minnesota Law School’s Journal of Law and Inequality, the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, and Building One America. While I wish we were together, our solidarity, our love, cannot be contained in a single room.
This week, Representative John Lewis wrote to us from beyond the veil of death. He told us about a voice he heard on a radio when he was in high school. That voice said, “we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice.” That was the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King. But that is not all John Lewis told us. He challenged us to “continue to build union between movements stretching across the globe because we must put away our willingness to profit from the exploitation of others.”
We are gathered under the banner of a Jesuit institution and in those words, I hear echoes of our Jesuit Pope Francis. And it is in that spirit of solidarity, of defiance of injustice, and yes, of love of each other and of our country, that we gather today.
In a moment, we’ll join several foundation leaders. All of us represent institutions. But our institutions are more than institutions. We are moral visions and legacies. And we have been, and must be, the foundations, the seedbeds of a great movement, a movement for racial and economic justice that is on the verge of sweeping across America.
Many of you know I first went to work in the coal mines of Western Pennsylvania. I’m a proud member of the United Mine Workers of America. In 1890, at our founding convention, the United Mine Workers banned discrimination against any member based on race, national origin or religion. We never had a Jim Crow local in the Mine Workers because we learned the hard way that the mine owners treated us all equally. And by equally, I mean bad.
So yes, the United Mine Workers are an institution but we are also a moral legacy. And so are the institutions represented by leaders here today like Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation. During the civil rights movement, the Ford Foundation supported public defenders, legal aid and litigation to advance racial justice. Just as the Steelworkers paid Dr. King’s bail. Just as the Auto Workers paid for the microphones that John Lewis and Dr. King spoke into during the March on Washington. And yet our institutions bring complex legacies to the table. The labor movement had segregated locals. We were involved in episodes of racial violence. We must acknowledge our own painful pasts and recognize how the past shapes the present. That’s what confronting structural racism requires. We have a moral obligation to get it right. To make Dr. King’s dream our future. To live for the causes John Lewis marched for. To win a better day.
Change is coming in America. I can feel it. I see it when I look at the House of Labor, which is now on Black Lives Matter Plaza. I see that change when I look at streets full of young people demanding justice. On picket lines and in voting booths, I see a better day coming.
In that better day, no one will live in fear of violence at the hands of those who are sworn to protect them because they are Black or because of their sexual orientation or identity.
In that better day, no one will fear being fired because they demand a safe workplace, or speak out for justice on the job.
In that better day, we won’t have to fear that our votes won’t be counted, or our democratic republic attacked—whether by armed men in the streets or robed judges in our courts.
In that better day, the fruits of our labor and the wealth of human invention will not be pocketed by a handful of billionaires, but will be the foundation of better lives for disenfranchised Americans.
That future may feel unobtainable right now. This pandemic is getting worse by the day. Every day, we hear of more economic suffering, fed by the politics and economics of immense inequality. And the cancer of structural racism continues to eat away at our country. It’s shaping who lives and dies from the virus. Who must work and who can stay safe. Who has health care and who dies. This moment demands that we decide which side we’re on. Because together, we have a moral obligation to confront these truths.
We can’t deny this virus has disproportionately sickened and killed Black people. People of color, especially women of color, are more likely to be out of a job. Make no mistake about it: economic inequality is racially structured. Coronavirus is only the latest tragic reminder of that. The rules are written to benefit those at the top. And those at the top are overwhelmingly white. The Supreme Court favors business over people. It continues to gut voting rights laws. That entrenches systemic racism deeper into the fabric of our society. And it exacerbates the inequality of power. It feels like we’re on a trajectory toward greater inequality in power, inequality in income, inequality in opportunity—and that the result will be catastrophic.
We must stop this. We must make structural changes. We have done it before in America. Never perfectly, but we have done it. We fought a Civil War, and propelled by the courage and determination of freed slaves in uniform, we ended slavery. During the Great Depression, millions of America’s workers rose up and demanded industrial democracy. For decades in this country after that uprising, economic inequality declined, driven by the economic and political power of the collective bargaining system that men and women like my parents literally bled for. And we honor John Lewis because he was a great leader in America’s civil rights movement and our moral compass. We went from being a country where John Lewis protested “Whites Only” signs to a country where John Lewis became the “Conscience of Congress.”
We are on the verge of a moment when structural change can happen. But our institutions have to be the incubators, the funders, the midwives of change. So when I say we need to confront these crises, I mean we must coordinate our work. We must do as John Lewis asked of us and “continue to build unity between movements.” Let’s be honest with ourselves: we haven’t really done enough to build that unity. So if we want bold structural change, if we hunger for that better day, we can’t keep living in our own little worlds. As large as we think our institutions are, as powerful as we think we are, by ourselves, we can’t defeat white supremacy nor bring the structural change needed to reverse inequality.
As we face the challenge of the coronavirus, of the wreckage structural racism and economic injustice have wrought, of the 2020 election, let us remember what Dr. King once said about that which we seek to change: “Our needs are identical with labor’s needs: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community. That is why Negroes support labor’s demands and fight laws which curb labor. That is why the labor-hater and labor-baiter is virtually always a twin-headed creature, spewing anti-Negro epithets from one mouth and anti-labor propaganda from the other mouth.”
Sixty years after Dr. King spoke these words, they echo today. In warehouses, in nursing homes and in schools where students and educators are being forced into unsafe conditions. In detention centers where our government keeps children in cages. In the numbers that define our economy and our nation’s health. The grotesque disparities in wealth and income that shape the lives of all working people, especially working people of color.
Dr. King died bringing forth a new day. He died on a union picket line, with African American sanitation workers on strike for the right to collectively bargain. From the moment he was recruited by the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters leader in Montgomery to lead the bus boycott, to the moment he died on the balcony in Memphis, he lived the unity of movements.
How can we do less in the face of the towering injustice, the terrifying threats and the astounding opportunities of our moment in history?
How can we not do everything in our power, together, to bring a new day?
The torch lit by Dr. King was carried forward by Congressman Lewis. That torch is now ours to carry onward together. Thank you.