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.