Speech | Civil Rights

Trumka at AFL-CIO Civil and Human Rights Conference: Give Us the Ballot

Washington, D.C.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks at the 2020 AFL-CIO Martin Luther King Jr. Civil and Human Rights Conference:

Good morning, brothers and sisters. Thank you for being here today. Thank you for making the Martin Luther King Jr. Civil and Human Rights Conference a part of your observance during this holiday weekend of reflection and action.

The power of Dr. King’s words and example are in each of you—in your focus, your fierceness, your fighting spirit. It’s a reminder that Dr. King’s legacy is shaped by the leaders who came after him...those who carry forward the torch he lit.

This year, one of those leaders is very much on our minds. I want to take a moment this morning to send our best wishes to America’s greatest living civil rights hero, the conscience of the Congress, Representative John Lewis.

When Alabama’s state troopers hunted for blood on that Sunday in Selma, John Lewis was the first marcher they met. The world learned that day that you might hit John Lewis, but you can’t break him. And I know that cancer has never met a match like the distinguished gentleman from Georgia.

Dr. King called for that march in Selma because of a man named Jimmie Lee Jackson. He was a woodcutter and a deacon and just 26 years old when the police shot and killed him. For what? As King said at the young man’s funeral, “Jimmie Jackson just wanted to vote.”

A few weeks later, 600 marchers set out in Selma. A few days after that, LBJ called on Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. And in the decades that followed, the number of black voters in the South more than doubled. So did the number of black elected officials. One of them, sent time and again to represent the hometown of MLK, was John Lewis.

Dr. King’s fight...the civil rights fight...our fight—was for goals both big and basic. Integration. Education. Jobs. Dignity. Respect. And a union! 

It was also about the insidious and inane injustices that protected the powerful. You know these stories.

Making somebody who just wanted to vote calculate the number of bubbles in a bar of soap.

Making somebody recite the preamble to the Constitution just to exercise the rights it promises. By the way, does anybody here think the current president could pass that test?

Or how about this: court orders in the South that prohibited three or more African Americans from meeting together at the same time.

Does that sound familiar? It should. Because it’s the kind of thing those in power always do when they’re scared. They’re scared of what happens when the people they’re trying to keep down come together. To protest. To vote. To organize. To unionize. To look at those who are standing over them and still summon the belief: we shall overcome!

That’s why, six years before Dr. King stood at the Lincoln Memorial and dreamed, he demanded the vote from those very same steps.

He was tired of the tests and trickery, the intimidation and insults. He was tired of being expected to ask permission for what was rightly his. So he refused to make a polite request for the ballot. He insisted on it. “Give us the ballot,” he demanded—not “give us the ballot, please.”

On top of everything else, why was the franchise something worth fighting for? Dr. King demanded the ballot because he knew its potential. He knew that nothing else in a democracy makes the powerless so powerful.

Give us the ballot, King preached, and we will use our vote to stand up against violence.

Give us the ballot, King preached, and we will use it to make sure that voices of virtue are louder than the “bloodthirsty mobs.”

Give us the ballot, King preached, and we will elect to Congress men and women who are so committed to justice that they are willing to give their lives in its name. Americans like our brother John Lewis.

Give us the ballot, King knew, and you give us the chance to write our own future.

A future of justice. A future of peace. A future defined by unions. 

That’s why Dr. King sacrificed his life marching for those sanitation workers in Memphis.

That’s why he exposed right to work as a false slogan designed to “rob us of our civil rights and job rights.”

And that's why—more than ever before—we must come together in his name.

Take a second to look at the people around you.

We are a family.

And whenever anyone tries to keep us from using our voice...from casting our vote...whenever anyone tries to build a wall between us—that’s the first sign they’re scared.

Because they know that our solidarity is our strength. They know that when we’re united, they’ll be defeated.

Brothers and sisters, the best way to honor Dr. King’s memory is to lock arms and carry his torch forward together.

Jimmie Lee Jackson just wanted to vote. John Lewis just wanted to vote. Dr. King just wanted all of us to vote.

Brothers and sisters, the fights of Martin Luther King’s day are still our fights today.

Today’s Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act.

Today’s Supreme Court gave us Janus—which wasn’t just an attack on public sector unions. It was an attack on the people of color who make those unions go.

Today’s voter ID laws are the new poll taxes and literacy tests.

Today’s attacks on early voting...extreme gerrymandering...voter purges like what’s happening this very moment in Wisconsin—they’re still our fights.

They’re still our fights so long as this White House gins up fiction about illegal votes and cooks up commissions in search of nonexistent fraud.

And they’re still our fights so long as the governor of Alabama—a successor to George Wallace —brings a major manufacturer to his state by promising to silence unions.

Oh, but they have another thing coming, don’t they? In 2019, we gave them a preview of what we do with our ballot.

We took out an anti-worker governor in Kentucky. We re-elected a pro-worker governor in Louisiana. We won a labor-friendly legislative majority in Virginia. And we’re just getting started.

Union approval is at 64 percent—the highest in nearly 50 years. Union members are running for office—and winning. We are going on strike—and winning. And the rest of the country wants in! 

More than 60 million workers say that if they’re given the chance, they would vote to join a union. You know what that sounds like to me? They’re saying: just give us the ballot!

Brothers and sisters, our voice must still demand the ballot, protect the ballot, make our ballot count. And in turn, the ballot amplifies our collective voice.

Brothers and sisters, they’re scared of us. But we’re not scared of them, are we?

They fear the future, don’t they? But we welcome it with hope.

They don’t want to hear our demands, do they? Well, that just makes us louder.

We’ll make them look us in the eyes—and when they do, they won’t see fright. They’ll see a fight!

We’re not shying away from this moment. We’re not sitting out this battle.

We’re the ones who make America great. We keep it safe. We teach, heal and make. We package, print and bake. We build the roads, fight the fires and lift the loads. We stand tall. We don’t run and hide.

We wake our country up every single day. We tuck her into bed at night. And come Election Day...we vote!

We’re fearless. We’re strong. We’re powerful. We’re united. We’re the American labor movement and we will not...WE WILL NOT...be denied!

Thank you, and God bless you!

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