The Clara Lemlich awards for social activism celebrate the lives of incredible women in their 80s and 90s and 100s whose brilliant activism has made real and lasting change in the world. They’ve been held every year since 2011, and since 2013 have been celebrated at the Museum of the City of New York.
“I believe very strongly in the young people—they’re the ones that are going to change the things that are happening now.”
“I am the grand- daughter of a man born into slavery in the US… taken away from his mother as a child—something that is going on now, as you well know—a terrible situation.”
“We organized a coalition—if something came up in the West Village, for instance, in Jane Jacobs’ territory, she would call the rest of us and we would all go to the hearings.”
“I was born in 1931 on Franklin Roosevelt’s birthday and there was an immediate connection. You might say I was born a politician—and I was also guided by his four freedoms.”
“I’ve got something to say!” shouted the 23-year old Clara Lemlich in her native Yiddish during a tense, crowded meeting of garment workers in Cooper Union’s Great Hall in 1909. Rising from the audience, she interrupted Samuel Gompers and the other union leaders on stage. Her speech inspired the crowd, leading to an unexpected vote to strike, and to what would become known as the Uprising of 20,000.
Born to a Jewish family in the Ukraine (then part of the Russian Empire), Lemlich migrated to the U.S. in 1903, found work in the garment industry, and soon became active in the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union. The 1909 strike led to reforms, but the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was a hold-out, and refused to implement safety improvements.
The fire that took 146 lives on March 25, 1911 was seen across the country as a tragedy that could have been avoided, and it sparked a movement that pushed politicians to accept a new notion about the responsibilities of government. Lemlich continued to be active in the labor movement until she was pushed out for her leftist politics. She continued to work for women’s suffrage, led a boycott of butcher shops to protest meat prices, campaigned for unemployment relief, and fought for tenants’ rights.
One hundred and seven years later we are proud to honor her legacy and to honor those who follow proudly in her footsteps.
If you are the child of a refugee, you do not
sleep easily when they are crossing the sea
on small rafts and you know they can’t swim.
My father couldn’t swim either. He swam through
sorrow, though, and made it to the other side
on a ship, pitching his old clothes overboard
at landing, then tried to be happy, make a new life.
But something inside him was always paddling home,
clinging to anything that floated—a story, a food or face.
They are the bravest people on earth right now,
don’t dare look down on them. Each mind a universe
swirling as many details as yours, as much love for
a humble place. Now the shirt is torn,
the sea too wide for comfort, and nowhere
to receive a letter for a very long time.
And if we can reach out a hand, we better.