Remarks by Carl Gershman at the 80th Birthday Celebration of Norm Hill

Sponsored by the A. Philip Randolph Institute, Washington, D.C, Delivered on August 28, 2013

When Norm called to ask me to speak tonight, I was reminded of another call that I received from him in 1968, literally 45 years ago, when he asked me to come work for him and Bayard Rustin at the A. Philip Randolph Institute. That was the best phone call I’ve ever received. Bayard was my hero, and going to work for him didn’t just fulfill a dream but started me on my life. And so I want to take this opportunity to thank Norm, and also to say what an extraordinary honor it is to speak at a dinner honoring him on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, which Bayard conceived and organized with Mr. Randolph. And how wonderful it is that earlier this month President Obama recognized Bayard’s historic contribution by awarding him posthumously the Presidential Medal of Freedom that is our country’s highest civilian honor.

Norm has talked about how he was drawn to Mr. Randolph’s “radiant dignity” and “mesmerized” by Bayard’s eloquence and strategic brilliance. What Norm brought to the Randolph Institute was grassroots organizational muscle and energy. He was always on a plane, going from one Randolph Institute chapter to another, organizing, speaking, motivating. It was Norm who made the Institute a mass-based national institution.

Mr. Randolph once said to Bayard, “If you are my son, then Norman is my grandson.” If we follow that analogy, then Norm’s wife Velma is Mr. Randolph’s granddaughter and Bayard’s daughter-in-law.   They’ve written a memoir that is entitled Climbing Up the Rough Side of the Mountain, and when it appears next year it will, in my view, demonstrate that there is no married couple in America that has done more to advance racial and economic justice over the past half century than Norm and Velma – from Rainbow Beach in Chicago, to the March on Washington, to the struggle of black trade unionists and paraprofessionals for jobs with a decent wage.

Norm asked me to say a few words tonight about the international dimension of his career. I want to do that by speaking about five fundamental ideas that have guided his work over the years, ideas that he learned – as did I – from Bayard and Mr. Randolph.

The first is democratic universalism. This was the core idea of our Declaration of Independence, which famously said: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Abraham Lincoln said when he visited Independence Hall in 1861, having just been elected President, that he had never had “a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.”   For Dr. King, these words in the Declaration were the “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” They had special relevance, of course, for American blacks whose condition contradicted the meaning of those words. But these sentiments were not limited by racial or national origins. They had universal meaning. That’s why Lincoln said that they gave “hope to the world for all future time,” and Dr. King spoke of “All of God’s children,” not just blacks and not just Americans.   It’s why Bayard always felt that the separation between domestic and international issues was artificial, since the basic issue was democracy itself, everywhere and for everyone. It’s also why the Randolph Institute gives its Bayard Rustin Freedom Award to someone fighting for freedom abroad, like last year’s recipient Birtukan Mideksa, a very courageous woman who has been called the Aung San Suu Kyi of Ethiopia.

The second idea is solidarity. It’s what Bayard had in mind when he once told a meeting of the Randolph Institute that “blacks will have nothing to offer mankind if they are concerned only with themselves,” and what Dr. King meant when he wrote from a Birmingham jail that “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” Solidarity is the reason the AFL-CIO under the leadership of Lane Kirkland played a central role three decades ago in the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy, and why American labor’s aptly named Solidarity Center, which is part of the NED family, today advances workers’ rights in Zimbabwe, China and other countries around the world where such rights are denied or threatened.

The third idea is that political rights need to be accompanied by economic justice, which is why Mr. Randolph and Bayard called the March on Washington a march for “Jobs and Freedom.” They were second to none in their commitment to equal political rights and human freedom. But as trade unionists and Social Democrats, they also understood that a vast deprivation of economic, educational and social opportunities would ultimately affect the very substance of political equality. This is why they followed up the March on Washington with a “Freedom Budget” that would address the worsening economic situation of blacks in the inner cities. And of course that same concern for the economic condition of the poor informed their understanding of the requirements for international peace and democracy.

The fourth idea is struggle. “Freedom is never granted,” Mr. Randolph said; “it is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted.” This is a sobering but actually a very hopeful view. People who fight for their own freedom are not dependent on some political or bureaucratic elite to bestow rights and benefits upon them. They’ve taken responsibility for their own lives, which is the only path to pride and dignity. It’s for that reason, Mr. Randolph said, that “Salvation for a race, nation, or class must come from within.”

And that leads to the fifth and final idea, which is that you can’t struggle successfully without the means to do so. As Mr. Randolph put it in his inimitable way, “At the banquet table of nature there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold. If you can’t take anything, you won’t get anything; and if you can’t hold anything you won’t keep anything. And you can’t take anything without organization.”

In a career that has stretched over five decades, Norm has lived and worked according to these five ideas of democratic universalism, moral solidarity, economic uplift, political struggle, and grassroots social and trade-union organization.  He has helped organize workers in South Africa and establish an Institute for Racial Equality in Brazil. He’s currently reviving an organization that Bayard established in 1975 called the Black Americans to Support Israel Committee, or BASIC. This is all in addition to his Randolph Institute work with black trade unionists here in the United States.

Norm has never wavered over these many years. He has been grounded in core beliefs that he derived from his two mentors, Bayard and Mr. Randolph; beliefs that have allowed him to address the racial problems of America in a practical way, and also to play a global role, thereby helping this country come a little closer to realizing its great promise. With Velma, he has climbed up the rough side of a very steep mountain, and as Dr. King said, he has let freedom ring from that mountain-top. He’s done all of this with extraordinary modesty and self-effacement. For his service to our country and his contribution to democracy here and around the world, we’re eternally grateful to him, and we salute him here tonight.