1/20/09: A Day of Reflection – National Consumers League

by Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

The crowds in Washington DC were thick with people from all over America, indeed, from all over the world and all roads led to the Mall on this historic day in Washington DC and in America, the swearing in of America’s first African American president, Barack Obama. The sense of optimism and hope for a new direction was palpable in those streaming downtown as I walked with my friends and family from Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood toward the Mall. The night before, I and many Washingtonians, whose city was virtually shut down for the four-day weekend that included Martin Luther King Jr. Day on January 19, followed by the Inaugural Day, had attended parties and events from the National Archives to the Washington Convention Center to the National Portrait Gallery to the many hotels and restaurants.

I couldn’t help thinking of Florence Kelley, the National Consumers League’s first leader and General Secretary. One hundred years ago, in 1909, Kelley helped to create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and thereafter became a lifelong friend and ally of W.E.B. DuBois, the black visionary and leading voice for civil rights at the beginning of the 20th century. At Kelley’s death, DuBois gave a eulogy for her, saying: “Save for Jane Addams, there is not another social worker in the United States who has either had her insight or her daring, so far as the American Negro is concerned.” Kelley came by her civil rights ideas naturally; her father, a Philadelphia Congressman and impassioned abolitionist, William “Pig Iron” Kelley, and her great aunt Sarah Pugh was a Quaker and fierce opponent of slavery.

The League, under Kelley’s leadership, was unique among both union and women’s groups in championing the cause of equal rights for black Americans. League leaders argued passionately for better pay and working conditions for blacks and particularly for black women, who were the lowest paid workers of all.

The spirit and great works of Kelley and the other leaders of the National Consumers League throughout our 109 year history – from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and consumer and labor leader Esther Peterson – are with us on this historic occasion as we welcome our new President and his family to Washington DC and look forward to working with him on behalf of workers and consumers across America.