By Charles McCollester
October 1, 2016
Keynote Address: Naturalization Ceremony at the Pump House – site of the 1892 Battle of Homestead. September 7, 2016
It is truly an honor to be invited to address a naturalization ceremony creating new citizens of the United States of America. It is especially meaningful at this time when immigration has become controversial in a way that it has not been since the 1920s. It is also especially meaningful that this ceremony is being held in this place, the Pump House for the great Homestead Steel Works, the site of one of the most consequential conflicts in American labor history.
Like most Americans, I am a product of immigration: my father, Irish/Scots/ English mix; my mother, German; my wife, Polish. I am proud of my paternal ancestors who fought in the Revolution, the Civil War and World War II, and my mother’s uncle who volunteered for the ambulance corps in World War I because he wanted to show his love for America, but would not shoot at fellow Germans. I am equally proud, however, that many family members including myself actively protested and resisted the Vietnam War and our invasion of Iraq.
Who is an American? The “100% American” questions the loyalty of the immigrant, the aptitude of the descendants of slaves or natives, Orientals or “Hunkies,” Catholics or Muslims. But only Native Americans have any degree of antiquity to their claim on this land. We fought a revolution over the issue of ancestry as a determinant of political power. We fought a Civil War over slavery and the exclusion of a race of people from civil and legal rights.
But what is an American goes to the question of meaning. Is an American someone who has loyalty to a set of ideals, including freedom of speech, assembly and religion, who pledges allegiance to a government that provides for the common defense and promotes the general welfare? Or, does being an American come wrapped in an imperial flag, demanding unregulated private control of the nation’s wealth and lifeblood, and the reduction of government to the pursuit of power at home and abroad? If there is any meaning to the concept of American exceptionalism, it is not that God is on our side; rather, it is rooted in the diversity of our origins and expressed in our common yearning for freedom and justice for all.
On this very site in 1892, workers at the Carnegie Steel mill, the most productive and profitable facility in the world, resisted the occupation of their workplace by a well-armed private army in the name of an American right to a voice on the job, some input determining the price of their labor, some protection for their health and safety on the job. Government, in service to the interests of the wealthy and powerful, defeated the workers and decimated their organization. Immigrant labor and racism were used as tools to break the union, reduce pay and dramatically increase the hours of work.
However, in 1937, it was immigrant workers and African Americans who united through participation in the political process with the native born to strengthen workers’ rights, abolish child labor, and establish the eight-hour work day. The greatest Pittsburgh novel, Out of This Furnace by Thomas Bell, (real family name Belejcak – Slovak-Rusen) ends with the third generation union organizer character realizing deep in his soul that he has become an American.
“Maybe not the kind of American that came over on the Mayflower… or the kind that’s always shooting off their mouths about Americanism or patriotism…. If I’m anything at all I’m an American, only I’m not the kind you read about in the history books or that they make speeches about on the Fourth of July; anyway, not yet…. It wasn’t where you were born or how you spelled your name or where your father had come from. It was the way you thought and felt about certain things. About freedom of speech and the equality of men and the importance of having one law – the same law – for rich and poor, for people you liked and the people you didn’t like.”
America is a work in progress and immigrants who seek citizenship here reaffirm our basic commitment to human equality and the rule of law – that “same law for rich and poor, for those you like and those you don’t like.” Our freedom to dissent and our history of joining together in concerted activity to better the lot of everyone is at the core of what it means to be an American. Educate yourself, vote, participate, share your wisdom, celebrate your roots. We are a work in progress. Help us become better. It is your job now as well as ours. Welcome fellow citizens!
Charles McCollester is a former TMC board member.