MAY DAY 2014, St. Joseph the Worker
St. Joseph House, New York City
Deacon Tom Cornell
He did it again! Father George gave me no warning this time. I’m not prepared. So just let me tell you what’s been going through my mind as I have been looking out over this congregation, in this place. First of all – the children. So many of them, so beautiful! We are a pro-life church and a pro-life movement. Let them squall and holler if they will. We can take it, and be glad.
Then I see the photograph on the far wall, near the door, Bob Fitch’s famous photo of Dorothy Day in Fresno at her last arrest, for the United Farm Workers, in 1973, sitting on her little portable three-legged chair framed by two big cops with revolvers on their hips. That makes me think of the day so many years ago when I was walking to work at the CPF office down at Beekman Street, walking past 223 Chrystie Street. I knew Dorothy was in town so I dropped in. She said sit down, get a cup of coffee. Cesar Chavez is due any minute. Minutes later he came in. He had to be Cesar Chavez. He had no one with him, no driver, no secretary, just himself. As he noticed the Guadalupe on the wall he paused, turned to it, made the Sign of the Cross, then joined us at the table. There was no small talk, no “How was your trip?” Dorothy got right to the point. “What can we do for you?”
“We have six men coming in from California to organize a lettuce boycott. They’ll visit the headquarters of all the supermarket chains and ask them to refuse to handle lettuce that doesn’t have the Union Eagle on it. Then they’ll go to the individual supermarkets and appeal to the grocery managers. Then to the mom-and-pop bodegas. Do you have room for them here?” “No,” Dorothy answered. “All our beds are full. But I know there’s an empty apartment in the building where we rent. I’ll rent that one for you. There’s no heat or hot water in those apartments.” “You don’t have heat and hot water, we won’t need them either.” “You can all eat here of course. Is there anything else?” “Yes,” Cesar answered. “Six men can’t cover all that territory. We’ll need help.” “Tom,” Dorothy turned to me. “Here’s where you come in. You know the union leaders here in the City. See if they can free people up to help.” I was working with A.J. Muste, Dorothy knew. A.J. had trained major labor leaders at the Brookwood Labor School in Katona. All I had to do was call up the Distributive Workers Union, the Pharmacists Union 1199, the Taxi Drivers and the Meatpackers, explain the need and they all said, “Send ’em on over!” It took twenty minutes, that’s all, to lay the foundation of the lettuce and the grape boycott. It was that easy.
Then I see the portrait of Martin Luther King on the east wall. Tommy was one month old when Martin King called us to Selma, Alabama. I asked Monica’s permission to go. None of us could be sure we would come back home alive. Forty of us had been killed since Emmett Till in Chicago and three more would die in Selma. I was a marshal for the March to Montgomery. When we got back to Selma after the March, I went to the old folks’ solarium at Good Samaritan Hospital where I was living, in hope that there would be decent coverage of the March on the Evening News. The solarium was crowded. It was not the Evening News on the TV. It was the President of the United States, Lyndon Johnson, addressing a joint session of the Senate and the House of Representatives, and he was talking about us. He named us. He said we were right, there’s no room in this country any more for racial hatred and bigotry, he said. He demanded they pass the Voter Rights Bill. He would sign it into law. Then he put his papers down on the lectern and looked into the camera, to say, “We shall overcome!” We were thunderstruck. We knew, at that moment, we knew we had won. The President, a Southern white man, was standing with us. We had won! Tears poured down the faces of hardened radicals from the labor movement, not a dry-eye to be seen. Martin King was seen to weep only that once. The South would change, this country would change. Not that we have achieved racial justice, we are far from that even now. But we tore down the legal structures of racial segregation and we did it with nonviolence.
Then I see here closest to the altar, the photo of Archbishop Oscar Romero and his flock in a poor village. The FOR had just fired me in 1979 after fourteen years. I was out of work and out of money. Archbishop Romero knew, and gave me an assignment and $1,500 to stimulate programs around the country to raise awareness in the US public of the role our country was playing in the repression in El Salvador. With the help of movement contacts we were able to get a dozen or so people to picket a post office and hand out leaflets in some cities, and organize small educational seminars in others, and a major event at a major seminary. Ita Ford and Maura Clark attended the seminar I led at St. Bridget’s Church here on the Lower East Side. I sent a report to the Archbishop and he replied with a thank you by mail. Jim O’Callahan was in the CPF office when that letter arrived. I showed it to him. He said, “You ought to frame this letter in red, Tom. This man is going be killed!” Weeks later, it happened, and Ita Ford and Maura Clark!
That’s what I see when I look out at this room. The children. We have a future. And the past, so rich in memories -- of Dorothy, of Cesar, of Martin, all that I owe to you. You made, you make this movement. Keep it up!