This video features John L. Lewis, an outspoken early and mid-twentieth century labor and union leader. I’m sure I had to remember his name in high school US history, but I relearned his name yesterday in rehearsal for Julia Wolfe's ANTHRACITE FIELDS with the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and Bang on a Can All-Stars, presented by The New York Philharmonic. Details here.
John L. Lewis delivers a fiery speech to congress wherein he lambasts Secretary of the Interior J. A. Krug for his lack of attention to the conditions of the mining industry after a 1947 mining disaster in Centralia, IL that killed 111 men. I drove through Centralia in March with New York Polyphony and didn’t know anything about this.
Julia sets some of the most haunting words in the piece:
If we must grind up human flesh and bones in this industrial machine that we call modern America, then before God, I assert that those who consume the coal and you and I who benefit from that service, because we live in comfort… We owe protection to those men, and we owe the security to their families if they die.
To be honest, singing these words makes me feel like a hypocrite. I am blissfully unaware of the conditions of the people who have made my clothes, shoes, or computer. Just 2 months ago, some NGOs called for a boycott of Apple for “needlessly exposing workers … to toxic chemicals.” What kind of a person am I, singing these lyrics, but playing an active role in permitting injustice, whether directly or indirectly?