Elizabeth Warren delivered a speech on November 21st at Clark Atlanta University honoring the historic legacy of some of the most persistent and fearless fighters, from the Black washerwomen who went on strike in 1881 to domestic workers' rights activists almost a century later.
The speech was at Clark Atlanta University, one of the oldest Historically Black Colleges in the nation.
Below are her remarks as prepared for delivery:
Thank you, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley! I have known Ayanna for nearly a decade. Together we have fought against for-profit colleges that cheat working families. We’ve stood in the gap for families torn apart by the epidemic of gun violence. We’ve gone toe-to-toe with the Trump Administration as we’ve fought to protect immigrant families.
Yes, Ayanna is a fighter and she’s the kind of fighter I love – a sister warrior who knows how to win.
Thank you all for coming. It feels so good to be here with all of you on the historic campus of Clark Atlanta University. Can we hear it for America’s HBCUs?
I wanted to stick around after last night’s debate because this city has been at the heart of America’s fight for justice. Atlanta is a city that honors fighters.
Fighters like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bayard Rustin and Septima Clark.
I’ve learned that no matter what fight you’re in today, no matter how steep the climb feels, there are fighters who were here before you. Fighters we can learn from.
The fighters I want to talk about tonight are Black women.
As a white woman, I will never fully understand the discrimination, pain, and harm that Black Americans have experienced just because of the color of their skin.
I’m not here to tell you about a painful history that Black Americans experienced and know all too well. I am here today for a different reason.
I’m here to make a commitment: When I am President of the United States, the lessons of Black history will not be lost. Those lessons will live in every part of my presidency – and I will ask you to hold me accountable for that promise every single day.
I want to tell a story.
The year was 1881. After the tyranny of slavery, thousands of African Americans came to Atlanta hoping to build new lives, lives full of promise. The promise that they could fall in love and build homes and families. The promise that they could earn a wage that would support those families. The promise that they could plan for the future – for their own future and for the futures of their children and their grandchildren.
Black people came to Atlanta with hope in their hearts. But what they found was a crushing disappointment. The war for freedom from enslavement had been won, but the fight for equality – the fight for opportunity – was only just beginning.
Black women and girls found that pretty much the only work white employers allowed them to do was the work that they’d been forced to do when they had been enslaved: Caring for white families.
Thousands of women here in Atlanta scratched out a living as washerwomen.
The work was heavy. Monday through Saturday, they made their way to white families, trudging from house to house picking up piles of dirty laundry. Once they were back at their own homes, they toted gallons of water from pumps and wells.
They lifted and poured the buckets of water into washing tubs made from beer barrels. They built fires to heat the water. They scrubbed the clothes, using soap they made themselves, soap so caustic it left their hands raw.
They hung the laundry to dry.
Then came the ironing, stacks of ironing with heavy irons heated in front of a fire.
By nightfall, everything was folded and stacked, ready to be dropped off the next morning when they picked up a new pile of dirty laundry. And so the cycle continued – all for less than a dollar a day.
The pay was so meager that a family that depended only on a woman’s wages lived at the bare edge of survival.
As they worked, the women talked among themselves about their lives and their futures. And then, one day, they had enough.
It was July 1881, when 20 of Atlanta’s Black washerwomen threw down their washboards, walked away from their barrels – and formed a union: The Washing Society.
Their first order? Strike! Their demands? Higher wages and to be treated with a little dignity.
The washerwomen had a plan.
Black women led, but soon, the handful of white washerwomen who’d stood on the sidelines realized that the only way to better wages was to follow the lead of the Black women. Working women standing together.
In the space of three weeks, 20 women on strike became 200 women. And 200 women on strike became 2,000 women. 2,000 became 3,000.
From the beginning, employers dismissed the women, certain that they would be back to work in no time. But the women stood together.
So the employers struck back. They warned that they would use their money and power to start their own modern industrial laundry service to replace the washerwomen permanently.
Black women – then and now – are no strangers to facing resistance when they fight for justice, and Black women – then and now – don’t give up easy. Even in the face of imminent violence, Black women refused to be defined by fear. So, the women of the Washing Society persisted.
Many of the employers were also landlords, and they threatened the striking washerwomen with huge rent increases and eviction.
Still, the women persisted.
The employers doubled down. They got the local police to fine members of the union and to arrest strikers.
Still, the women persisted.
And when the city council threatened to intervene, the women sent a public letter to the mayor of Atlanta and said they would not back down. They went right to the heart of the matter, and I quote: “We mean business.”
Then it happened. The employers, the city council, the powerful white citizens – they all backed down.
The women won!
Here it was, less than two decades after the end of enslavement, nearly half a century before women would even have the right to vote – and, right here in Atlanta, a handful of Black women had built a movement strong enough to force an entire city of wealthy elites and public officials to back down.
We don’t know exactly how many of the washerwomen won higher wages but word of their success spread across Atlanta. Soon other African American workers began making demands. Black cooks, Black maids, Black nurses got in the fight. And in some cases – not many, but some – they won.
The implications of this fight were enormous — and so was the response. As the idea that Black and white workers could make real structural change if they fought side by side began to spark to life, an evil force was once again mobilizing against it.
In 1883, two years after the successful washerwomen’s strike and as other groups were just beginning to exercise some political muscle, the Supreme Court struck down a civil rights law that had been passed in the wake of the Civil War. The law had promised equal civil and legal rights for all, and its loss was another body blow to our fragile, reconstructed democracy.
Racist politicians doubled down. They divided Black people and white people in every moment of every day of every life, using force, violence, and intimidation to oppress Blacks and to ensure that Blacks and whites would never come together to stand up against those in power.
I don’t need to tell anyone here about the cruelty and indignity that Jim Crow inflicted on Black people in America. I don’t need to tell anyone here about the barriers that powerful people and institutions put up to destroy Black wealth, to endanger Black health, to pollute Black communities, and to confine Black people. Barriers, formal and informal, had their roots in Jim Crow laws.
Black history is American history. And American history teaches us that racism has for generations shaped every crucial aspect of our economic and political system.
Racism told white workers not to organize in the South because so long as you’re white, you’re a little better off than your brother on the line. A little better off – even though neither of you has a union to protect you or a pension to support you.
Racism told segregated white communities that they should just abandon their public schools, rather than let their kids learn and play with Black children and generations of America’s school children lost out.
And by the 2000s, Racism told everyone in Washington to look the other way when the banks were testing out predatory loans in Black and Brown communities. Those banks then spread those loans across the market and crashed the entire economy for all working people.
And to this day racism still whispers the convenient lie to some white people that if your life has problems, you should blame “them” – people who don’t look like you.
So, I want to speak directly to the question on some white people’s minds when we talk about the need to address what our government has done in Black communities. The uncomfortable question of “what will this mean for me”?
The wealthy and well-connected want us to believe that more for your neighbors will always mean less for you.
But, the truth is, when we come together, we can ALL move forward.
When Black civil rights warriors won the fight for voting rights, voter turnout all across the south – for Blacks and whites – skyrocketed.
And when Black people won the fight to end school segregation and demanded federal funding for their children’s educations, poor white children got better educations too.
The lesson is clear: Racism doesn’t just tear apart Black and Brown communities – it keeps ALL working people down. Racism props up the wealthy and powerful, leaving them free to take more wealth and more power for themselves.
Which brings me to Donald Trump.
Donald Trump didn’t create this divide and conquer system. But he wouldn’t be in power without it. After eight years of progress under President Obama, Trump’s embrace of white supremacy, white nationalism, and corruption threaten to break our democracy beyond repair.
Today our government is working great for billionaires. Working great for giant corporations. Working great for those who cheerfully suck up as much wealth as they can, and never glance back at who gets left behind.
Divide and conquer is an old political tactic – and it comes in all sorts of ugly flavors: Racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic. It’s the phobic – that’s the key part. Because it’s all about fear. Politics based in fear. The rich and powerful want us to be afraid of each other. Why? Because they’re afraid of us. Afraid of our numbers. Afraid of seeing us stand together. Afraid that we will take up each other’s fights as our own.
Afraid that they will lose their power.
But even in the face of racism, hatred, bigotry and corruption – Black history, American history, teaches us how to confront this moment of challenge. Black history teaches us how to stand up when we’re told to sit down. Black history teaches us how to speak out when we’re told to be silent. Black history teaches us how to march on even when the road gets rough.
And now more than ever, all of us have to embrace the lessons of Black history. The rich and powerful aren’t going to just give away their power. No, if we want power, we have to fight for it!
Like the women of the Washing Society, that is exactly what we will do!
America was founded on principles of liberty and built on the backs of enslaved people.
It’s time for our government to face this truth. Time for America to have a full-blown national conversation about reparations. Time to adopt H.R. 40, Sheila Jackson Lee’s reparations plan. Time to do what’s right, so our nation can begin to heal.
This is a big step, but slavery is not the only history we must confront. Jim Crow was the lived reality in America up through the 1960s. In 1964, the official policy of the US government was to help families buy homes and build up wealth one generation after another. For white families. Not for Black families. And segregation in employment, in travel, and even in marriage meant African Americans were closed off from one opportunity after another.
And then there were the quieter – and sometimes even more deadly – forms of state-sponsored discrimination. Government redlining meant that too often toxic waste dumps and polluting factories are located far away from white communities and right next to Black communities. The 1994 crime bill exacerbated the mass incarceration that has locked up millions of Black men and women, many for the smallest infractions.
So don’t talk about race-neutral laws.
The federal government helped create the racial divide in this country through decades of active, state-sponsored discrimination and that means the federal government has an obligation to fix it.
And I have a plan for that. In fact, I have a lot of plans for how we can begin to fix it together.
My housing plan will help families living in formerly redlined areas buy a home and start building the kind of wealth that was denied to their parents and grandparents.
My plan for a Green New Deal will put racial and environmental justice at the center of our response to climate change.
My health care plan will bring down the costs of prescription drugs and tackle the risks of Black maternal mortality that is literally killing Black women and their babies.
My public education plan will put 800 billion dollars in new federal money into our public schools and quadruple the funding for schools that teach low-income children.
My student debt cancellation plan will help close the wealth gap between Black and white families.
My higher education plan will invest 50 billion dollars in Historically Black Colleges and Universities just like Clark Atlanta.
And one more thing about those plans: They are all paid for. Not by raising taxes one penny on working families. They are all paid for by asking the wealthy and the well-connected to pay their fair share. Billionaires can cry all they want – it’s time for a wealth tax in America! Two cents! Two cents!
When it comes to protecting Black women, we need to face the hard truth that Black women and girls are being brutalized at alarming rates by people they know and trust.
The murder of Alexis Crawford, a Clark Atlanta student, is an unspeakable tragedy and my heart goes out to the Crawford family. Alexis’s story happens every day across this country. We need to take meaningful action to protect women, especially women of color.
Black trans women are especially vulnerable to violence and hate crimes. At least 21 Black trans women have been killed this year alone – that is an epidemic and we need to call it out.
As a nation, we need to stand with and for women who face one attack after another. That also means protecting abortion access. I stand with Black and Brown women who have been leading the fight for reproductive justice all across this country. It’s time to repeal the Hyde Amendment once and for all.
The Black-white wealth gap was created by decades of government-sponsored discrimination on housing and employment and it’s time to close it.
So, when I’m in the White House I will create a Small Business Equity fund for entrepreneurs of color.
On day one of my presidency I will take executive action to boost wages for Black and Brown women.
And remember the washerwomen? It’s time to take up their cause. Black women today still make up a large proportion of domestic and child care workers. And those women are still overworked, undervalued, and underpaid.
It’s time to stand with domestic workers organizing and winning across the country and pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Let’s make caregiving jobs good jobs today and into the future.
And let’s extend New Deal federal labor and wage standards to include every domestic worker. Let’s finish the job.
Think of what we can do together, think of what we can do for each other: Child care. Health care. Free College. Paychecks. Entrepreneurship. The list goes on. African Americans have gotten the short end of the stick generation after generation, but we have a chance to change that, a chance to build an America where that’s no longer true. 2020 is our chance to build a better tomorrow for every American.
Building a country that works not just for those at the top, but works for everyone, starts with protecting our democracy.
And right now our democracy is broken.
How do I know? Because Brian Kemp is sitting in Stacey Abrams’ chair. And we are all grateful to Stacey for what she’s doing to make sure that never happens again in this country.
Voter suppression is just one more relic of Jim Crow, and we need to say so. That’s why I have a plan to strengthen voting in America. It starts with restoring the Voting Rights Act.
But let’s not stop there.
Let’s pass a constitutional amendment establishing the right of every American citizen to vote and get that vote counted.
Overturn every single racist voter suppression rule in this country.
Outlaw partisan gerrymandering.
Overturn Citizens United – democracy is not for sale.
And there’s more. It’s time to live our values. Look at the four words etched above the Supreme Court: Equal Justice Under Law.
But justice is not equal in America.
We all know – and say – the names of those whose lives have been cut short with callous indifference by law enforcement. Let’s honor Aiyanna Stanley Jones, Rekia Boyd, Korryn Gaines, Sandra Bland, and Atatiana Jefferson by reforming our criminal justice system once and for all.
We criminalize too many things. We send too many people to jail. We keep them there for too long. It’s time for real change, and I have a plan for how we can do it together.
Repeal the 1994 Crime Bill
Undo the legacy of the War on Drugs
End cash bail and every law that criminalizes poverty
End private prisons—no one should make a profit from locking people up
Now I know what some people are thinking. That’s a lot of change. It will never happen. The fight is too hard.
But here’s how I see it. This isn’t about whether or not we start a fight. We’re already in a fight. This is about how we win!
Let me tell you one more story.
In 1924, a generation after the Washing Society of Atlanta organized on these very streets, a little girl was born to a washerwoman. As a child, she watched her mother work – washing, drying and ironing – day after day.
By the time she was nine years old, the little girl and her younger brother had started helping. They went door to door picking up dirty laundry in a little wagon. Day after day, they washed and rinsed and dried laundry.
It was there, in her mother’s house, that Dorothy Bolden learned about hard work.
Dorothy grew up, married, and had six kids. She worked various jobs to support her family, but she always returned to domestic work.
The way she saw it, domestic workers are counselors, doctors, nurses and caregivers. They hold families together. And, nearly a century after the end of enslavement, they continued to do the work for little pay and even less respect.
But Dorothy Bolden knew that you don’t get what you don’t fight for.
And that’s why in the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement, she was in the fight. At a time when the laws restricted where she could eat or which restroom she could use, Dorothy was loud and insistent, fighting for better pay for domestic workers.
One of her neighbors was a man who was leading the fight for big structural change, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. King encouraged Dorothy to continue this fight, so she mapped out a plan.
She started with the hundreds of working women she rode the bus with every day. She turned those bus rides into union meetings, and she turned her fellow passengers into a labor group that would fight for the rights of all domestic workers.
Together, they launched the National Domestic Workers of America – the first union with real power for domestic workers in American history.
And today, the National Domestic Workers Alliance is leading the fight for fairness and justice for domestic workers.
Dorothy’s union built economic and political power right here in Atlanta and then she went on to represent domestic workers across the country. Together they raised wages and improved working conditions for the Black domestic workers who clean and cook and, yes, do the laundry. Dorothy Bolden showed that one very determined woman – backed up by many people across this country – can deliver big structural change.
From the boldness of Atlanta’s Washerwomen to the courage of Dorothy Bolden, Black history teaches us that the only way to win is to get in the fight.
It shows us that the fight for justice will never be over. With every win, a bigger win stands just around the corner. With every inch we take on the moral arc of justice, we make an extra mile possible.
Yes, there’s a lot at stake in this election, and I know people are scared.
But the washerwomen were not afraid.
Dorothy Bolden was not afraid.
I am not afraid.
And you can't be afraid, either.
I’ve been called persistent in my time – and I love it. But understand this: The persistence of generations of Black women, and Black people in America, up to and including many people in this crowd tonight, is the true story of American persistence.
This is a moment in our history when that persistence can change the lives of every American for the better. This is our moment to dream big, fight hard and win.