[Photo from NAACP: https://twitter.com/ncnaacp/status/764533376757923840]
A video of this speech can be viewed here:
Brothers and sisters, I’m glad to be with you in Richmond today. And I’m honored to join you at this National Convention in the #Fightfor15.
I don’t come as someone who just comes to speak. I’ve stood with you in the streets, in front of McDonalds and other places, I’ve joined you in jail for the cause, because I believe this fight, and the fight for healthcare, and the fight for voting rights, and the fight against police brutality and violence are among the most important battles in our country today.
This movement in many ways is as important as the SNCC movement was in the 1960’s, because right now are you helping to build a third Reconstruction in America. I’ve been traveling with president Mary Kay and all of you who are working with SEIU and the #Fightfor15. I’ve been traveling all over the country with others leading the revival. It is time for a moral revolution of values, and thousands have shown up. And in those thousands, #Fightfor15 was always in the mix because #Fightfor15 knows that the time for America to do right is right now.
Now it is fitting that we are gathered in the capitol of the former confederacy to face this nation’s peculiar labor history. If you follow the James River from this city down to the sea, you will find the place where my African-American ancestors first set foot on these shores.
Tell all the folk around you, “Listen up.” If we want business to listen to us, we first have to learn how to listen to one another. So tell everybody around, “Hold tight right now and just listen up. Focus your attention.”
My African-American ancestors were brought here to work the land, to build this nation, but they were paid nothing for their labor, and after America’s Civil War, when African-American served in the southern legislatures for the first time, they built a movement with poor whites. Poor whites and Black people came together, they rewrote the constitutions of every southern state, including North Carolina and Virginia, they banned slavery, they banned work without pay, they demanded equal protection under the law.
This wasn’t in 1960’s, this was in the 1860’s. And in my home state, preachers – white and Black – demanded moral language be in the new southern constitution. In fact, they wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all persons are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, the enjoyment of the fruit of your labor, and the pursuit of happiness,” because they knew that labor without living wages was nothing but a pseudo form of slavery.
This has been the pattern in our history. We’ve never been what we should have been in America, but every step forward, every stride toward a more perfect Union, has been the result of people like us coming together, pushing a moral agenda, an economic agenda, a justice agenda, and that’s why we have to resist those today who will try to divide us, try to tell us what’s not possible, especially in the South. That’s why I’m glad my Northern brother is down here in the South to say that when we organize the South, we gonna change the nation.
And Franklin Delano Roosevelt – I see a sign there – was in the presidency and a woman was his labor secretary – Francis Perkins in 1938 – and businesses were telling Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “If you raise the minimum wage, you’re going to lose jobs,” the president’s answer was, “No businesses which depends for its existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country called America.
That was 83 years ago. Roosevelt stood up to the greedy corporate leaders in the south and in the north who wanted to block rights and living wages. and today we must confront the lies and the myths. one lie is that the minimum wage is enough. the truth is in 2005 a minimum wage paycheck bought less than it had 49 of the last 50 years.
Somebody ought to tell the truth. The truth is, that living wages raise productivity, that living wages decrease turnover, and that living wages builds jobs. That’s not just me or Mary Kay. That’s hundreds of business leaders and leading economists. When you pay people more, it’s good for them, and it’s good for the economy; it’s good for America.
When you know this history, you understand why we are right to #Fightfor15 and a union. Just touch somebody and say, “We are right to #Fightfor15 and a union and we cannot turn back now.”
We can’t wait. Dr. King said in ’64 – every member of #Fightfor15 ought to get this book Why We Can’t Wait. It was Dr. King’s last book. It was clear about economic justice and civil rights. He looked hatred in the face, and he said that we couldn’t wait any longer to dismantle the systems of race, poverty, and Black voter disenfranchisement. He said in that book that we needed to, like Lincoln, reach to the better angels of our nation. He called on America to pass a Bill of Rights for the poor and the working poor. He called on America to fund a Marshall Plan to help poor folk in the urban centers and poor people in the mountains of Appalachia, and poor people all over the South.
You know a few weeks ago at the DNC I talked about a defibrillator and how we need to shock the heart of this nation. Dr. King demanded billions of dollars for a War on Poverty rather than war on poor people, because he knew we needed to shock this nation, but back then he said, “While Negroes formed the vast majority of America’s disadvantaged, there are millions of poor whites who would also benefit from a massive, bottom-up stimulus. And I say to my white brothers and sisters, “We’ve got to stop being fooled now. There are 8 million more white poor people than there are Black people. There are 5 million more poor white people than there are Latinos. There are some in the South and in other parts of the country that want to keep white people, and Black people, and Latino people away from each other ‘cause they know if we ever come together – [applause].
And I declare to you today, “We must hear what Dr. King said, “We can’t wait.” Hardworking people can’t wait. Mothers trying to raise their children can’t wait. Fast food workers can’t wait.
Health care workers – [with audience:] “Can’t wait!”
Airport workers – [with audience:] “Can’t wait!”
Restaurant workers – [with audience:] “Can’t wait!”
Minimum wage workers – [with audience:] “Can’t wait!”
And even many of our good policemen that make less than a living wage, they can’t wait either.
The truth of the matter is, as I stand here, in front of the statue, not behind it, it took us 400 years to go from slavery to now, to get from $0 to $7.25, we can’t wait anther 400 years.
In America, we’ve got to raise up. In a country where tens of thousands of people die every year from low wages and poverty, we got to raise up now. In a country where 400 families make $97,000 an hour, and corporate crooks get free bailout money, while we arrest people and put people in jail who are fighting for $15, we can’t wait. We got to raise up now. When unarmed Black and Brown children and men and women are shot down, not by the police but by rogue police who really undermine the role of good police, we can’t wait, we’ve got to raise up now. When the greedy attempt to buy elections, through money and hostile takeovers and legislatures are caught red handed passing racist and discriminatory voting laws to suppress the vote and undermine the political power of Black, Brown, and white coalitions in the South, we’ve got to raise up now!
Do you realize in the South, in the 11 southern states from North Carolina to Texas, if you control the South, you control 22 senate seats in the U.S. Senate which means you only need four more from the other 39 to be in control. You control 31% of the House of Representatives, which means you only need 20% from the other 39 states. You control 160 electoral votes in 11 states, which means if you control the 11 southern states and you divide Black and white and Brown people you only need 112 electoral votes from the other 39 states. I stop back to say, “We can’t wait. You’re right. We have to fight now!
Now I know that some of you – somebody said, “Well, we’re wrong sometimes, Mary Kay, to lay in the street. We’re wrong to do civil disobedience.” We’re not wrong. But, it is wrong for the richest nation in the world to pay half of its African-American workers – 54% of African Americans – to make less than a living wage. It is wrong for 64 million Americans in this country to make less than a living wage. It is wrong for politicians in the South to pit white workers against worker of color and against immigrants – all workers that make less than $15 an hour. It is wrong that after we win living wages in cities across the south, like Birmingham, then the state legislatures intervene and vote against those cities, or like in North Carolina they pit the transsexual community against the Black community. They claim they’re passing a bathroom bill, but actually the bathroom bill is full of it. It’s full of anti-worker legislation. It’s full of discrimination. It’s full of legislation to block cities from raising the minimum wages. That bill needs to be flushed!
So, my brothers and sisters, you’re not wrong. Tell somebody we’re not wrong. You’re not wrong to raise up. That’s why I’m joining you today by a host of clergy. You saw ’em this morning, we met afterwards, all across the nation. Because raising wages is a moral issue. It’s about right and wrong. And any attempt to claim to be a Christian, or claim to be Evangelical, or claim to be religious, and religiously right, and it doesn’t begin with a critique of systemic poverty and challenging economic justice – that is nothing but theological malpractice. It is a contemporary form of Pharisaical hypocrisy, and it borders on a heretical interpretation of Scriptures, because there are more scriptures in the Bible and other sacred texts about love and justice and fairness and the poor and helping the least of these than there are any other subject in all of religion.
In the Quran it says, “Men shall have the benefit of what they earn, and women shall have the benefit of what they earn.” In the book of James it says, “the wages of laborers who mowed your fields which you kept back by fraud, their pain is crying out and the Lord hears.” In Leviticus it says, “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him or her of their wages.” In Jeremiah, it says, “Whatever nation builds its house on unrighteousness and your upper rooms by injustice and makes your neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him or her her wages, that nation, that house, is under the judgment of God.” Timothy says, “You don’t’ muzzle the ox because the laborer deserves his wages.” Malachi says, “I am going to draw near to judgment, I will be swift witness against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages and hurt the widows and the immigrants and the children.” Deuteronomy says, “You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy.” Ezekiel says, “This is the guilt: your pride, your excess food, your prosperous ease, and you did not pay the poor what they deserve.” Isaiah 10 says, “Woe unto those who legislate evil and rob the poor of their rights. Isaiah 58 says, “Loose the bands of wickedness – translation, in Hebrew – ‘Pay people what they deserve’ – and then, and then your nation shall be called a repairer of the breach.” You are right to raise up and declare that we can’t wait any longer.
But, as I close this convention today, there going to forces my sister my brother that will always try to reject us. And when I look out on this crowd today, I know that many of you like me have sometimes felt rejected. Why do we have to march so much, and go to jail so much to get folk to do stuff that’s right. Some of you out there, you’ve been rejected by some because of the color of your skin. I now it’s so. Some of you felt rejection because of the kind of work you do, and people make you feel like you don’t matter. Some of you have been rejected because of where you’re from. You weren’t born in America. Some of you have been made to feel rejected because of who you love, because of your sexuality. Some of you been made to feel rejected because of how you talk. Some of you been made to feel rejected because you’re raising children out of wedlock, or you have a prison record, or you have some kind of other stain that makes people want to reject you and push you back.
But, can I be a preacher for the next seven minutes? ‘Cause I’ve got good news for the rejected. I come from a faith tradition, and the Psalm says, “The stone that the builder rejected has become the chief corner stone.” In other words, the rejected have power – power to come together. And when the stones that have been rejected come together something powerful can happen.
And I know the power of coming together. I know it biblically. When Moses and his people and that rod came together, Pharaoh came down, and the Red Sea opened up. Wish I had a witness here. When Esther and her Uncle Mordacai came together they were able to stop the destruction of the Jewish people. Do I have a witness here? When David and his rock and his slingshot, and his faith came together, Goliath fell, and they tell me the next morning in the headline in the Richmond dispatch read, “The bigger they come, the harder they fall.” When Shadrach, Meshach, and that bad Negro got together, down in that fiery furnace, God cooled down the furnace and blessed them. I know what coming together does Biblically. When god the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost got together, things went from crucifixion to resurrection.
But not only that, I know what coming together does historically. Truth is, when truth and justice have fought, truth and justice have never lost. I didn’t’ say truth didn’t get beat up sometimes. I didn’t say truth didn’t get arrested sometimes, but when it’s all over and the dust clears, truth will win. Justice will win. Love will win. During slavery, it looked like Justice had lost. But, when Harriet Tubman, and Fredrick Douglass and, and Quakers, and white Evangelicals got together, they broke slavery down. Women didn’t have the right to vote, but when Sojourner Truth and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, got together they won the right to vote. Plessy vs. Ferguson – separate but equal – looked like it had the victory for 58 years. But, when Thurgood Marshall and white lawyers and Black lawyers and Jewish lawyers got together, the court voted nine zip to overturn Plessy. It looked like Jim Crow had justice beaten down, but when Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King and Bayard Rustin, and A. Phillip Randolph and white labor leaders got together, when Jonathan Daniels, and Viola Liuzzo, they tore, they tore Jim Crow down. Apartheid was strong in South Africa but when Mandela and Bishop Tutu and the mothers of the young people got together, they brought apartheid down.
I know what happens Biblically when we come together. I know what happens historically when we come together. But, I also know personally what happens when we come together.
Let me close. Several years ago, some said I might never walk again. They said I might never get out of a wheelchair again. I was 30 years old and had always depended on my legs. But I woke up one morning and I couldn’t move, and I spent three months in the hospital bed not knowing if I’d ever get up and walk again without major help. For 12 years, I was in a wheel chair or on a walker, but over those 12 years somehow my mind got together and my doctors got together and my nurses got together and my swim coach got together and my therapist got together and my church got together and my faith got together and God’s spirit got together, and when they all got together: I can jump now, I can march now, I can stand now, I can be with the #Fightfor15 now, and I been marching ever since. And I stop by to tell you I’m a witness.
When we all get together, when the stones that the builders rejected get together, when we build, we’ll get together, win #Fightfor15 and a union, and voting rights, and #BlackLivesMatter, and healthcare. When we all get together, when we all get together, when we all get together, what a day, what a day, what a day of justice it will be!