The President's Column: Lift Every Voice and Sing

February 27, 2018


Silence is acquiescence.

Generations of schoolchildren throughout our country have been taught to believe in a number of shared ideals and values:

• we are all created equal and should enjoy equal opportunity whatever our color, religion, gender or national origin;
• we are a nation of immigrants, and the diversity of our multiracial, multinational, multicultural people is one of our greatest strengths;
• as a free people in a democracy, we should all have equal rights, including to the ballot box;
• democracy means a government of, by and for the people;
• with hard work and “playing by the rules” we can all get ahead and provide a better life for our families.

Today, of course, each one of these ideals is under assault—not from abroad but from the White House and the leaders of Congress. Fortunately, millions of Americans are speaking up and acting to resist the assault.

If we have learned anything in our lives—and certainly in the past year—it is that, as the old spiritual says: freedom is a constant struggle. What has been achieved over generations can be erased with one session of Congress. What we win today, we can lose tomorrow—if we don’t continue to speak up and join with our friends and allies to defend our gains. That some misbegotten souls, including those at the highest level of power, still seem to regret the outcome 153 years ago of the U.S. Civil War. This tells us that to remain silent is to not only undermine our ideals but to put them at great risk.

We 1199ers are reminded of this every time our contracts are about to expire. We can lose so much of what we’ve achieved if our members are not informed and mobilized. Fortunately, most of our sisters and brothers are ready to defend our jobs, our families and our union.

But these same dynamics hold true in our communities and our country. So many of our rights are threatened by the White House and Congress. Our civil rights, voting rights, reproductive rights, LBGTQ rights, immigrant rights, collective bargaining and labor rights—all have been under sustained attack since the November 2016 election.

We need to always keep in mind that every one of those rights was won in struggle—by folks making their voices heard, organizing, mobilizing and demanding—often at a great price, including sacrificing their lives. Nothing is ever given to us. “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will,” Frederick Douglass wrote in the 19th century. “Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.”

We in 1199 know this from our own experience. The $15 an hour minimum wage is just one recent example. It was unheard of until tens of thousands of homecare workers, fast-food workers and others went into the streets to demand it. And now we’ve won it—not entirely and not yet everywhere—but what was considered unrealistic just a few years ago is now widely understood to be not just reasonable but obtainable. This victory can be multiplied by thousands. Freedom of speech, Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, paid vacations and sick leave, union contracts, the right to vote, freedom from sexual harassment, and on and on and on.

In these days of struggle, I am constantly reminded of the Black National Anthem, James Weldon Johnson’s poem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”:

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea…
Facing the rising sun of our new day
Let us march on till victory is won.

I urge all of you to continue making your voices heard. We must never give in and never give up. Nobody said making a better life for ourselves and our families and our communities is easy. But it can never happen unless we make it happen.

- 1199 Magazine: January/February 2018