Labor Day has been celebrated in American communities since the late 1800s, and since 1894 the first Monday in September has been set aside as a national holiday to honor American workers. From the beginning, Labor Day was celebrated with picnics and grand parades. Today, as retail sales have become as much of a Labor Day tradition as long weekends and cookouts, for many workers this day is no longer a holiday at all. But it should be a day to honor the people who have made America all that it is and a reminder for all of us to keep working to make it what it should be.
In his brilliant 1936 poem “Let America Be America Again,” Langston Hughes made clear that our nation has never actually been what it should be for many Americans: “America never was America to me.” But he still urged that America “be the dream it used to be” — a land “where Liberty/Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,/But opportunity is real, and life is free/Equality is in the air we breathe.”
Instead, for the many laborers, farmers and factory workers on whose backs America was built, that American dream clashed again and again with American reality:
“I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak …
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream …”
Years later, our nation’s 20th-century prophet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used similar language and foreshadowed his own famous American dream when he spoke to the AFL-CIO labor union convention in December 1961:
“I look forward confidently to the day when all who work for a living will be one with no thought to their separateness as Negroes, Jews, Italians or any other distinctions. This will be the day when we bring into full realization the American dream — a dream yet unfulfilled. A dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few; a dream of a land where men will not argue that the color of a man’s skin determines the content of his character; a dream of a nation where all our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone, but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity; the dream of a country where every man will respect the dignity and worth of the human personality. That is the dream.”
Too many workers are still hungering for that American dream today — and it is time to make it reality for all. This Labor Day weekend is another opportunity to say along with Hughes:
“I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!”
On this Labor Day, we thank You for all the people who make our country great.
Who grow food to eat and build houses where people sleep and make clothes that help us stay warm.
Who clean the schools we learn in and the parks we play in and the streets we walk on.
Who drive the buses and trains and fly the planes that take us where we have to go.
Who protect us from danger of all kinds.
Who heal us when we are sick and teach us what we need to know.
Who provide jobs with decent wages and benefits.
Who pray for us and preach to us Your word in an errant world.
Thank You, God, for all who hold our communities together.
Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund.