Speech | Civil Rights

Trumka at AFL-CIO Civil and Human Rights Conference: We Must Push Ourselves and Society Forward

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following welcoming remarks at the 2021 AFL-CIO Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Civil and Human Rights Conference:

Thank you, Brother Tefere Gebre and Brother Fred Redmond.

And thank you to everyone who is joining us this year. The legacy of Dr. King—from his words to his character—is in each of us. In our solidarity, our service, our spirit. And that’s why we know Dr. King’s legacy is still shaped by us—the ones who came after him.

We have a moral responsibility to carry forward the torch he lit. Dr. King told us that. And he told us why.

In 1968, two Memphis sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck. Workers were rightfully furious.

They did their jobs with few protections. Their trucks were dilapidated. They earned wages so low many were on welfare. They had a mayor who refused to recognize their union. They had enough, and they went on strike.

Fifty-three years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Memphis to join them. He spoke to the sanitation workers on strike and those who joined them in solidarity. We know Dr. King told them that he had been to the mountaintop. That he had seen the promised land. And he reassured them that they would all get there, even if he was not there.

But let us not forget why Dr. King was moved to go to Memphis—why he was motivated to join the striking sanitation workers.

He told them about the Good Samaritan. A parable about a traveler on the road to Jericho who is beaten and left suffering alongside the road.

Dr. King recalled how: “a priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. The first question (they) asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”

That’s why King went to Memphis. He was not motivated by his own self-interest. Rather, he was moved by the righteous call of working people demanding dignity and a union.

That question the Good Samaritan posed—a question that guided Dr. King—must guide us, too.

We are living through a time of crisis, division and hate. A pandemic has killed over 375,000 Americans. Millions have been denied health care and a paycheck. Black and Brown Americans have been disproportionately harmed. The cancer of racial injustice continues to spread through society.

Look no further than the attack on the U.S. Capitol. When domestic terrorists carried out an act of insurrection—a modern-day coup—they were by-and-large allowed to walk away. They were told to go home. The president sang their praises. And we know why this happened: because they were white.

We are suffering. Under the lash of economic injustice and white supremacy. Systemic racism and political malpractice. In our workplaces. In our communities. Across this country.

We must not turn our heads. We must not become numb to pain—whether it is our pain or the pain of our neighbors. Because we all should feel it.

All of us or none of us.

The labor movement is ready to help. To address racism in America—in whatever form it may take. To stop the inequality of income, opportunity and power. To beat COVID-19 and keep everyone whole. To grow America’s labor movement. To carry forward the torch Dr. King handed us—not just on one weekend each year.

But every day, in every corner of this country, that is our moral obligation. To make Dr. King’s dream is our future.

Change is coming to America. I can feel it. In elections won. In a democracy saved. In a labor movement that is growing more popular and militant by the day.

But we can’t settle down or slow our roll. We can’t find comfort in complacency or normalcy. We must push ourselves and push our society forward.

We won’t be in the middle of the pack. We’ll be the tip of the spear. We’re the American labor movement and we will not be denied!

God bless Dr. King. And God bless all of you.

Explore the Issue