Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
April 13, 2023
Thank you, Reverend Sharpton, for that introduction. And thank you, as always, for your commitment to racial, social, and economic justice. You have done so much to ensure our country lives up to our highest ideals — and we are all better for it.
I also want to thank the chairs of this luncheon for hosting us today, and I want to take a moment to celebrate our honorees tonight. Shaunie, Ethel, and Michelle: congratulations on this well-deserved recognition.
And I am particularly honored, and moved, by the presence of Brittney Griner here today. Brittney, we are all so delighted that you are home safe and sound. It is impossible to imagine what it’s been like for you in the past few months since you returned. Your courage is an inspiration to us all.
I also know this group in particular was critical to bringing Brittney home.
To me, that is the sign of our power — which is what I want to talk about today.
And it is especially important right now, as we work for the safe return of Evan Gershkovich, the journalist who Russia recently wrongfully detained, as well as Paul Whelan and every American who is being unjustly detained anywhere.
We all know how generation after generation of Black Americans have fought for our civil rights and fundamental freedoms. We know well how they – how we – have taken matters into our own hands and changed the course of American history.
Less well known is that we have also, time and again, shaped the fight for freedom around the world, too. The truth is, our impact is outsized. What you do here matters out there, too.
Last month, our Ambassador to Australia, Caroline Kennedy, unveiled a memorial to John Joseph. John, an African American man in his late thirties, arrived in Australia in 1854, as many did, in search of gold. He was among a group of miners who, fed up with the unjust practices of the corrupt colonial government, swore allegiance to a new Southern Cross flag and built a stockade at the nearby Eureka mines.
The Eureka rebellion was Australia’s equivalent to the Boston Tea Party. The miners, too, were fed up with taxation without representation. And John Joseph was on the front line of the battle that took place there. Like hundreds of others, he was arrested afterward.
But unlike the others, he was put on trial. Because while the U.S. Counsel helped all the white Americans avoid that fate, they ignored John Joseph due to the color of his skin. He was the only American tried and the first defendant brought to trial.
The Crown’s case, however, was weak. Ultimately, surrounded by 10,000 eager onlookers, Joseph was declared ‘not guilty.’ They hoisted him into the air and took him to the nearest bar to celebrate. That rebellion, and that trial, led directly to the right to vote being established in Australia.
And yet, John Joseph’s remarkable contribution was almost lost to history, had it not been for a few persistent local historians and U.S. Embassy and Consulate employees who made last month’s memorial ceremony possible.
Also last month we lost the legendary Randall Robinson.
Randall was raised, like myself, in the segregated South. Having lived that injustice, he became a civil rights activist – and then a foreign policy catalyst like no other. He led sit-ins, hunger strikes, and protests. He founded TransAfrica, an organization dedicated to bringing the full influence of the Black diaspora to bear on American foreign policy. He formed the Free South Africa movement and successfully campaigned for economic sanctions and corporate disinvestment from apartheid South Africa. And his 27-day hunger strike led the Clinton Administration to welcome more Haitian refugees to our shores.
Time and again, Randall proved that we not only have power here – we have power everywhere.
One more source of inspiration for our global impact comes from Monemia McKoy. Monemia was a slave who lived in North Carolina in the mid 19th century. She was a mother of eight – most famously, the conjoined twins Millie and Christine. While every enslaved parent feared their children being separated from them on the auction block, the conjoined twins were seen as even more valuable because of they were so unusual.
Throughout their lives, the twins were sold and kidnapped. They were put through invasive and demeaning medical exams. They were forced to perform in sideshows.
But Monemia was a mother. And as this group knows, mothers never give up. Somehow, Monemia convinced her “owner” to go with her and a detective to Europe, to track down her missing girls.
When she found them, a court in England granted maternal rights back to Monemia. They returned to the United States. The twins received an education – and performed of their own volition, eventually buying back the very property they were born on.
To me, there is a direct line between Monemia McKoy and the mothers in this room, the Mothers of the Movement, and every Black mother who has fought so fiercely to protect their children.
I share these stories – of John Joseph, Randall Robinson, and Monemia McKoy – first and foremost to lift up those Black heroes, both known and unknown, who made a difference in this world.
But I also share these stories to make a simple point: that our impact is global. These were Black Americans who made a difference in Australia and South Africa, Haiti and England. Even when the odds were heavily stacked against them.
What’s more, they show how our work is connected. I see that every day from my perch as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. When we fight for freedoms here, it helps others fight for freedoms elsewhere. The reverse is true too. When we stand up for what’s right outside our borders, it helps the movement here at home.
Those truths are especially important for this room, because I believe, as Black women, we have a special obligation to help our sisters under threat. And unfortunately, around the world, this year in particular, women and girls have been under assault. It’s sad. It’s horrifying. But it’s true.
In Haiti, just a few miles from our shores, Haitian women are being kidnapped, held hostage, and raped by gangs.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban have banned women from working with NGOs and the UN, the very organizations who support them. They have limited half – half – of the population’s ability to participate in public life and the economy. And they have prevented women and girls from attending secondary school and universities.
Earlier this year, I met a young Afghan refugee whose family has settled in Virginia. She told me how grateful she is to continue her education in the United States, but how painful it is to know that girls in Afghanistan – including her cousins – are denied that same opportunity. I promised her the United States will continue to push back against these archaic attacks on universal human rights.
In Ukraine, women and girls are facing dramatic increases in trafficking and gender-based violence. When I traveled to Kyiv last year, I met with women who had been raped and tortured by Russian forces. The pain etched onto their faces is difficult to put into words. We must not rest until Russian forces are held accountable for their atrocities.
In Iran, we have watched the Iranian people – led by courageous women – take to the streets under the banner of “woman, life, and freedom.” I saw a video of young students in Karaj taking off their hijabs and shouting “If we don’t unite, they will kill us one by one.” If we don’t unite, they will kill us one by one.
All around the world, from Ethiopia to Burma, women and girls are taking this lesson to heart.
That includes here at home, too. For we must acknowledge that America’s women and girls are under threat, too. We know all too well that American maternal death rates are spiking – and especially so for Black women.
And recently, the Supreme Court took away the established, fundamental, Constitutional right to abortion from millions of Americans. At the UN, I feel acutely how this decision rendered my own country an outlier among developed nations in the world.
But as President Biden says, the fight is not over. From the women’s march to the protests that erupted after the Dobbs decision, we are standing up for our rights, rights that we can never take for granted.
And for our part, the entire Biden administration remains deeply committed to protecting and advancing the rights of women and girls at home and around the world – including at the UN and in our foreign assistance. We are working toward building a country and a world where women and girls are equal and included. Where we are in positions of power – not just at the table but at the head of the table. Where we serve as ambassadors for peace and models of leadership.
And so my ask to you today is simple: make the connection between the local and global. When you fight for justice here, think about who else is a part of your movement. Make those connections. Build global unity. Reach out to your sisters around the world. Their tragedies are our tragedies. Their fights are our fights. And their human rights are our human rights.
As Randall Robinson, may he rest in peace, wrote, and I quote, “the varieties of bigotry spring from a common root. To tolerate one form, either wittingly or not, is to accept all the rest.”
So let us not tolerate a single one.
Let us banish all forms of bigotry.
Let us remove hate, root and stem, from our societies.
Let us remember that we are tied together. That we are stronger together. That we are better together.
And so together, let us bring about more equal, more peaceful world for us all.