Embargoed until release: President Obama’s Labor Day address

Disclaimer: this is not actually Barack Obama speaking at the site of the Loray Mill in Gastonia, North Carolina on Labor Day in 2012.

Thank you all for coming to Gastonia today.

When I delivered my Nobel Lecture in acceptance of the Nobel Committee’s prize for peace on December 10 of 2009, I did so in the knowledge that I had not earned it and did not deserve it. I told the assemblage that among those more deserving, “there are the men and women around the world who have been jailed and beaten in the pursuit of justice; those who toil in humanitarian organizations to relieve suffering; the unrecognized millions whose quiet acts of courage and compassion inspire even the most hardened cynics. I cannot argue with those who find these men and women – some known, some obscure to all but those they help – to be far more deserving of this honor than I.”

In retrospect, I should have ended my speech there and left the stage. Because just as I did not deserve that prize, those people, “jailed and beaten in the pursuit of justice,” did not deserve to be subordinated to my cause that night, which was not justice but justification of state violence applied to an inexcusably wide range of situations. And I stand before you today to make some small amends, to celebrate and justify our own who across the years have been and still are jailed and beaten in the pursuit of justice, and I ask you all, and all other Americans, to celebrate and justify them with me.

I stand before you today as one among the most powerful and influential men in the world. I have, quite literally, the power of life and death over many, many millions of people all over the world; if I say “kill that man, kill those people,” someone will do that for me. I can move markets, crash them, seize them if need be. I can nationalize industry, nationalize banks. I can nationalize suffering. I am a powerful man on a scale that only a handful of people alive today can really grasp.

I stand before you today on the site of the Loray Mill, once among the largest textile mills in the country. We’re just about 20 miles from the Bank of America Center in Charlotte, where I’ll be accepting the Democratic Party nomination for President on Thursday.

I’m sure you all know the Bank of America. What some of you may not know is why we’re here today. We’re here today because of Ella Mae Wiggins.

Ella Mae Wiggins was a single mother of five children—and she lost four others to the whooping cough, because she couldn’t afford a doctor and the medicine to save them—and a worker here at the Loray Mill, and a union organizer. We’re just a few days shy of the 83rd anniversary of her death on September 14 of 1929. That’s the day Ella May Wiggins was murdered for her support of striking mill workers. She would have celebrated her 30th birthday three days later.

Ella Mae Wiggins is one of the people on whose behalf I should have rejected my Nobel prize. She’s one of the people whose fate I didn’t mention. She wasn’t jailed and beaten in pursuit of justice; she was murdered for it. Her five young children were orphaned for it. And she, and they, are far from alone.

I quoted Martin Luther King on that occasion in Oslo. Dr. King said that “[v]iolence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.”

And I replied to him, indirectly. I told him that I stood in the Oslo City Hall accepting the same prize he accepted 45 years earlier, and I stood there because of him. I said this:

“As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King’s life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there’s nothing weak – nothing passive – nothing naïve – in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.

“But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone.”

“By their examples alone.” The implication is that if sometimes I act outside their examples, or in opposition to them, then sometimes I don’t; sometimes, I stand in solidarity with them.

But I can’t stand here, three days before I stand in the Bank of America Center, and claim that I’ve stood with them.

I just can’t.

Martin Luther King was born the year that Ella Mae Wiggins died. He would have stood in solidarity with her if he had the opportunity. And of course in a way he did: he was shot down standing in solidarity with workers in Memphis who sought the same things Ella May was shot down for seeking here in Gastonia 39 years earlier.

Solidarity. It’s the easiest thing in the world to set poor against poor, worker against worker, cop against striker. It’s an easy thing for someone with money and power to point a working man, or a Pinkerton man or a policeman, to point them at an Ella Mae Wiggins and say, “what little you have you get from me, and she’s coming for the both of us.”

That’s how people of absurd wealth and unjust power survive against people who outnumber them hundreds of thousands to one.

Ella Mae Wiggins was murdered by men little different from her. They weren’t merchants or landed gentry, or professional men, or mill owners or managers. The men who were arrested for her murder, who were acquitted at trial after 30 minutes of deliberation, were mill workers too.

Anyone of any station who stands for justice against wealth and power, or against the machinery of the state, knows on some level that they invite their own destruction. Certainly Gandhi did, certainly Martin Luther King did. What King and Gandhi hoped was to forestall it long enough to do some of what they came to believe they had to do in order to live with themselves.

I don’t know whether or not Ella Mae Wiggins told herself aloud that she might die pursuing justice for herself and her fellow workers at the Loray Mill and across the South and across the nation. By all accounts she was surprised when it happened. Her last words are supposed to have been “Lord a-mercy, they done shot and killed me.”

Certainly, though, she knew that others in her position had been murdered, and that more would be, and that when the beatings or the bullets came, they most often came from people more like her than like the people for whom they all worked.

She knew that, and she did what she did anyway. She did it in spite of what she knew, and because of what she knew.

Another thing Ella Mae knew, back in 1929, was that black men and women were her brothers and sisters. The National Textile Workers Union, which she represented, was among the first to welcome African-American workers; Ella Mae not only organized black workers and brought them into her union local, but lived in a black neighborhood and relied on her black neighbors to care for her children while she worked nights at the mill.

Ella Mae Wiggins would have welcomed me into her kitchen and into her union decades before the rest of America was ready to do so. So Martin Luther King could have taken one look at Ella Mae, had she lived long enough, could have spent one minute with her and known who she was, what sort of person, just as surely as she would have known him. They were engaged in precisely the same struggle against precisely the same people.

And they met precisely the same fate. And here we are, more than 80 years after the death of Ella Mae Wiggins, more than 40 years on from the death of Dr. King, and workers still struggle for decent wages and decent conditions, and black Americans still struggle for acceptance, and people still die for lack of medicine and care, and this nation still studies war like no other.

And I’m part of that. I’m the face of this nation today.

In a few days I’ll take the stage at the Bank of America Center. I’ll accept the nomination of the Democratic Party, and I’ll travel around our country telling people there are two sides in this fight and they’ll have to pick one and the right one to pick is mine.

We are not all in this together. You have to pick a side. I have to pick a side. Too often, I’ve told myself that there’s only one side and the trick is to make everyone see that they’re on it. But it isn’t true.

It isn’t true. It isn’t true, so I have to pick a side too. And today I pick Ella Mae’s side. I pick Ella Mae Wiggins’ side, and Martin Luther King’s side, and I’m asking you to join me if you’re not already there, and I’m asking you to welcome me if you already are.

Today I’m making it my cause to ensure that everyone who wants a job can get one, and that every job pays a living wage. I’m making it my cause to ensure that health care in this country is truly universal. I’m making it my cause to ensure that we don’t describe some combination of inconvenience for the wealthy and trauma for the poor and middle class as “shared sacrifice.” I’m making it my cause to ensure that a few people don’t despoil for their own profit the air and water that we all need.

In three days, I’ll bring these causes to my party and then to the people. I don’t know how it will end, but I do know how it will start. I ask you to join me, I ask you to allow me to join you. I said at the beginning of this speech that I’m a powerful man. I am, but only if you permit it. You are powerful too.

Thank you.

18 thoughts on “Embargoed until release: President Obama’s Labor Day address”

  1. Sure, Obama in 2012 picks Martin Luther King’s side, but only after improving crucially on the old man’s trademark message, which after all was much more redolent of Christian patriot and sellout Booker Washington than of commumnist exile and race-hero W.E.B. DuBois.

    Yes, Obama’s dream too is that his progeny be judged by the content of their character, but what King failed to grasp—unlike Stokely Carmichael, and Obama’s own father—is that in the world of identity-politics solidarity, the content of one’s character (along with just about everything else) is determined by the color of one’s skin.

    1. I dunno. I think it’s the sort of speech that once delivered commits the speaker to a course. I haven’t read the actual speech but I’ll go out on a limb and guess it doesn’t commit him to anything.

  2. Is this his actual speech, or someone putting words in his mouth that they WISH he would say? I need to know, so I can decide whether Obama is a hypocrite of the highest order, or whether the real author of this speech fumbled it and left out the most critical item he could have mentioned.

    But just in case it’s really Obama’s own speech, here’s my response to President Obama:

    You say (irrelevant parts omitted): “I did so in the knowledge that I had not earned it and did not deserve it. … among those more deserving, “there are the men and women around the world who have been jailed and beaten in the pursuit of justice; … the unrecognized millions whose quiet acts of courage and compassion inspire even the most hardened cynics. I cannot argue with those who find these men and women – some known, some obscure to all but those they help – to be far more deserving of this honor than I.” You’re damned right you didn’t deserve it. No Nobel Peace Prize in history has been so badly bestowed. OBut it’s good, Mr. President, that you realize that. So tells us exactly when you released Bradley Manning with an apology, back pay for the time he’s spent in prison,and gave him your Nobel Peace Prize so that it would be in the hands of someone whose quiet act of courge inspired THIS hardened cynic? And tell us why this didn’t make the front page of every newspaper in the world? And while you’re at it, Mr. President, please tell us when you’re going to finally start PROSECUTING people for torture, murder, pollution, bribery, conspiracy, and corruption, whose crimes Bradley Manning (IF he’s ‘guilty’) courageously exposed to the world?

    1. When I wrote it I thought it was pretty obviously not for real, but I guess I should add a disclaimer. This was labor day, hence Ella Mae. His acceptance speech will be more broad.

  3. Well played, then, you’ve crafted a speech that’s perfectly plausible for a self-righteous hypocrite to deliver, if he’s blind to his own failures and his own unjust actions. I guess mentioning Bradley Manning would have spoiled that effect. You can bet that Obama’s actual speech, when he gives it, will make no mention of Bradley Manning.

  4. Weldon—

    Well played, sirrah! You got me. Not that you’ve misstated Obama’s positions, of course, nor that I’d restate anything in my response.

    Anon @ 9:08 and 9:30—

    Spare us the violin recital for Bradley Manning. Now it’s true that even if I personally disagree with his left-wing pacifist apologists, I can certainly understand why one might lionize him for helping to pull back the veil on what the military-industrial complex would prefer to keep hidden. There’s plenty of merit to that position.

    The problem is that this self-absorbed little weasel Manning doesn’t and never did give a rat’s ass about war policy or America’s reputation one way or the other. He was simply lashing out in any diva way at his disposal (military intelligence analyst, so leaks instead of a mass shooting) because he was wallowing in a gender-identity fugue, and was getting or anticipating blowback for wearing women’s clothes and calling himself Breanna Manning. His leaking was a bitchy tantrum, nothing more or less.

    1. I didn’t misstate Obama’s positions so much as make them up out of whole cloth. Regarding Manning, I expect you’re in as good a position to be absolute about his motivations as I am, which is not at all.

  5. Weldon—

    Whole cloth? It’s Obama’s statements of principle for public consumption that are, er, fabricated. I thought he’d broken through here.

    On Manning, there’s no need to make the absolute the enemy of the accurate. We almost never require the former for any purpose, unless we’re in denial.

    1. On Manning, of course you have no idea what the cocktail of motivations was, or at least no reason to think it was exclusively one thing. Although that’s pretty much what Nixon’s fellas tried to say about Ellsberg, so you’re in good company at least.

      I don’t think Obama is especially hypocritical except on the national security state issues, and as I said ahead of his inauguration, there aren’t any presidents who reject powers their predecessors left for them. If you unwrap what he says, he’s a traditional conservative with a dollop of empathy, although a smaller one than I expected.

      I also think you mistake the whitewashed bullet-point presentation of King’s agenda for the actual one. He was 39 years old and catching his second wind when he got murdered.

  6. Weldon—

    I think you’re doing a disservice to the work of Wired, New York magazine and other legitimate sources which report not only Manning’s gender-identity issues but Manning’s own conflation of it with his/her “heroic” predicament (“heroic” per the likes of Glenn Greenwald). His maudlin sexual walkabout commenced long before his latest identity started leaking.

    Wired reported that Manning’s chat log included, e.g., “I wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me…plastered all over the world press…as a boy”. Coupled with his self-servingly, er, evolving view of the military, your “no idea” is an exaggeration. You might as well chide me for knowing “only” that his cocktail contains alcohol. Nothing comparable or comparably reliable was said or known about the Pentagon Papers quisling.

    I needed a laugh, so thanks for your characterization of Obama as a “traditional conservative”. He’s a doctrinaire Alinskyite with a goodly helping of patience and circumspection, fully committed to global redistribution of wealth and resources as reparations for “evil” Western colonialism.

    Finally, back to King, yeah sure, he was catching his second wind at 39. Just like Elvis Presley in Vegas.

    1. Does smoke come out of your ears when you say things like “doctrinaire Alinskyite,” or is it a seamless transition from one universe to the next? In any event you should be grateful he’s so bad at it, since the only redistribution of wealth currently underway is from bottom to top in fairly dramatic fashion. But I suppose you expect his second term to be a frenzy of socialism unloosed.

      Ellsberg was smeared as a fag and a psycho, among other things. But I bow to your superior familiarity with history and Bradley Manning’s interior landscape.

  7. Weldon—

    Caricaturizing or mythologizing upon arrival the various formative and mentoring influences on Obama has been a standard-issue defense ploy from progressives since Obama’s ascendancy, even when the supporting data comes from Obama’s own words. Alinsky was quite real and quite influential even if Alinsky for Obama wasn’t (any more) a Card-Carrying Communist (as opposed to Obama’s dad, or one of Obama’s other key mentors, Frank Marshall Davis). Folded in with Wright, Unger, and Said, the recipe is “Bad America, Bad West”.

    The quickest and easiest concrete example of what I’m talking about is a comparison/contrast between the much-bruited moratorium on deepwater Gulf drilling….on American or British oil companies, supposedly in the name of eco-safety, even as much less-bruited licenses and American public outreach monies go to Brazil so they can conduct the same exact activity in the Gulf. China and India routinely getting a pass from programmatic climate-change initiatives follow the same pattern.

    Finally, the operative word on Ellsberg was “smeared”. As I understand it, anyway, “smeared” means specious or speculative assertions from vested-interest detractors, versus in this connection the well-documented topographical descriptions of Bradley Nanning’s petulant, tortured psyche….from Bradley Manning.

    1. You know the moratorium was lifted six months after it was imposed, right? No doubt you can show me some documentation that the administration was subsidizing Brazilian concerns and issuing new permits to them during the six months when the process was shut down for other firms.

      As for Manning, the smear is that his actions were motivated entirely by his personal difficulties, that because he was talking about one thing he can’t have been concerned about another as well.

      Obama’s father could have been Mao for all I care. He turned the economy over to bankers after they looted it; he hired three successive investment banking millionaires as chiefs of staff; he has prosecuted more whistle blowers and weed dispensary operators than war criminals and bankers—not difficult since the latter number of prosecutions is zero—he adopted a conservative health insurance reform plan previously endorsed by the Heritage Foundation; he has adopted deficit hawk policies and has endorsed social insurance program “reform,” by which is meant cuts. He bailed out banks unconditionally; when he bailed out the auto industry, he extracted massive concessions from auto workers. He completely bailed on the card check bill that he promised the unions he would support; he has offered no serious support for an increase in the minimum wage even as the majority of jobs added during his tenure fall into the range from 100-150% of minimum wage. He has steadily increased the military budget and steadily expanded the number of countries in which the US is waging war.

      I don’t like the guy’s politics and policies, I didn’t vote him, I’m not defending him and I predicted with some accuracy the conservative and hawkish course he would follow in office. He’s governing to Nixon’s right. If he had been a Senator in Nixon’s day his policy views would have made him a moderate Republican. The idea that he’s any kind of leftist is hallucinatory and wholly contradicted by his record.

  8. I remember when Robert Bly asked about the objects of his youthful veneration, “I wonder if there ever really was a basketball player”? The way you use “leftist”, Weldon, makes me wonder if you posit Noam Chomsky as a left-leaning centrist. Obama is too smart and yes, too unselfish to imagine he can remake things overnight, or in this case, one term. In a second he’ll show as many of his true geo-collectivist colors as he can, but even so the cause comes first, and it’s normalizing left-wing tropes, setting precedents to be built upon later, and otherwise continuing the work of Herbert Marcuse that represent his primary duty.

    Otherwise, thank you for your patience and your venue. I still do miss The Fray.

    1. I use leftist in pretty much the way I have for the more than 40 years in which I’ve been aware of the term. I recognize today’s conservatives to be analogous to John Birch Society adherents, and while it’s no wonder that people whose ideological progenitors thought Eisenhower was an active agent of the Communist conspiracy think the same of Obama, it’s none the less bemusing.

      Cheers. I don’t miss The Fray one little bit.

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