Speech | Civil Rights

Trumka on the 57th Anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing: We Can Be Moved Forward

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks on the 57th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham: 

Reverend Price and members of the 16th Street Baptist Church, thank you for including us as we remember what happened in your home—a sacred place of both tragedy and unity.

Reverend Barber and I have come together today to raise up the voices of the labor movement, the civil rights movement and people of faith everywhere in defense of our democracy and for the triumph of hope over fear, and love over hate.

Fifty-seven years ago today, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Denise McNair came to church to be closer to God. And that morning they entered eternity.

We'll forever wonder how many more aprons Addie Mae would have sold or how much more Denise would have done for muscular dystrophy research. We think about how many more dances Carole should have danced and how far Cynthia's love for math would have taken her. We feel their emptiness in the pews, where they might still be parishioners today.

Instead, as we all remember, dynamite tore through the church. Glass and brick tore through bodies. Grief tore through the hearts of four families and the nation they called home. But that attack could not tear us apart.

The fact that we remember these girls and draw inspiration from their martyrdom, proves that unity endured and love prevailed.

For the ultimate effect of the bombing was not division, but unity. It strengthened the movement. It hastened the Civil Rights Act. It bolstered the Voting Rights Act. It did the opposite of what the Klan wanted.

We stand on the shoulders of Birmingham. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was written in the solidarity and sacrifice of Birmingham’s African-American community.

Every time a union leader calls for equal pay, every time a shop steward says to the boss “you can’t do that, it’s discrimination,” every time we cast a vote, we honor the memory of Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole and Denise.

But our debt as a labor movement to this community is greater than that. On the day the Ku Klux Klan set off the bomb, parts of the labor movement were racially segregated—including in Birmingham. The divisions and hatred that landowners and employers had been sowing since the founding of this country infected our own movement.

And so when the AFL-CIO fought for the passage of the Civil Rights Act, we were fighting to end discrimination and racism not just by employers, but by our own unions, our own institutions. We were fighting to change ourselves.

We believe that people can change and grow and overcome so that history can be made right.

We believe that people—and we, the people—don’t stay in the same place forever.

We can be moved forward.

After all, that is why it is called a movement.

America’s labor movement stands with every union member and every person in this country who is demanding justice and striving for the end of racism.

Some refuse to learn. Some see what’s happening and resist change or outright refuse it. Worse, some want to return to a dark past that they mythologize as “great.”

We cannot let them drag us back and hold us down.

In fact, at the trial of one of the Birmingham bombers, then-prosecutor and now-Senator Doug Jones said that the defendant “saw change and didn’t like it.”

At this very moment, we see things in our country that we don’t like—and we demand change.

Our nation is in a moment of true crisis.

A crisis of public health, a crisis of economic injustice and a crisis of structural racism.

Beneath all three of them is the question of who gets seen. And who gets heard. And, ultimately, who lives and who dies.

This is a crisis of leadership.

The day after these four little girls were killed, President John F. Kennedy asked whether the bombing would “awaken this entire nation to a realization of the folly of racial injustice and hatred and violence.”

Where is that voice today? Where was that voice in Charlottesville when the Nazis and white supremacists filled the streets?

And where is that voice as thousands of our elders and essential workers—disproportionately people of color—are dying from coronavirus?

Where is the voice of our nation’s leader?

At a time when we need unity, the president is using the power of the federal government to stoke violence and division.

He is lying to us about the virus. He continues to block safety standards for our workers and health care for the unemployed.

As our veterans died from the coronavirus, he mocked their sacrifice and the memories of America’s fallen heroes.

There is only one way to respond to such a catastrophic failure of leadership.

That is with solidarity. A rededication to this nation, to the democratic republic that is the United States of America.

That only happens with hope. Hope for our people, hope for our future, with certainty that a new day is coming for America—and it is coming because we are going to make it so.

Our determination in this hour is to shine a light—the combined light of poor and working people, people of faith, united in the labor and civil rights movements and every place freedom is on the march.

We are one in our love for each other.

We are one in our determination to win racial, social and economic justice in our nation.

We are one in our devotion to our democracy.

And we are one in the potential we all have for positive change.

Every time I talk with Reverend Barber, he reminds me of his supreme belief in our power.

As individuals, as participants in great movements and as a nation.

This is a moment when the potential for positive change here in America is all around us.

So let us make a new birth of freedom. A new prosperity. A new solidarity. Let us in that spirit defeat the coronavirus, honor the dead and care for the sick.

That is what we as a labor movement pledge to do. Each and every one of us.

What happened here still saddens us, but it continues to steel us.

It is remembered everywhere, through time and space. You can draw a straight line from what was erased on 16th Street in Birmingham to what is written on 16th Street in Washington, four stories high at the AFL-CIO in full view of the White House: Black Lives Matter. That truth is what we affirm by remembering these four little girls.

Our belief is their legacy.

In the church, there is an iconic stained glass window. It was donated by the people of Wales—total strangers an ocean away.

It has five words written on it: “You do it to me.” It’s based on a verse from Matthew 25:40, which preaches the very message we take from this memorial. A call for unity: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”

The Lord wants us to live with mercy, love and compassion.

We must heed His words.

We must respond to crisis with unbridled action.

We must answer the greatest needs of our day with love and unity and sheer determination.

And let that be our legacy.

Thank you. God bless you.

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