As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing:
Bread and Roses!
Bread and Roses!
- James Oppenheim
On a freezing January day in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912, a group of young women marched at the head of a large crowd of striking workers. They worked as operators of the huge, mechanical looms in the massive textile mills that covered the newly industrialized Northeast. Loom operators worked long hours, were paid a pittance, and, worst of all, labored under terribly unsafe conditions. The tiny fibers that filled the air left them with never-ending coughs, and many young women died from chronic lung conditions usually found in people three times their age. The young women's banner read: "Bread, yes, but roses too."
The Lawrence mill workers' strike became known in the annals of American labor history as the "Bread and Roses" strike. The poet, James Oppenheimer, wrote a famous protest song commemorating that action, declaring: "Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes; hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread -- but give us roses." It has been sung by everyone from Pete Seeger to Joan Baez to Ani DiFranco. The poem's words declare the profound truth first articulated in the Book of Deuteronomy: "Human beings do not live by bread alone" (Deuteronomy 8:3). It is not enough to ensure that people have the bare minimum they need to survive, every human being also deserves those things that give life meaning, beauty, and joy.
In Tractate Ketubot, the Rabbis discuss another verse from the Torah, which instructs us to provide for those in need "sufficient for their needs, in whatever they lack" (Deuteronomy 15:8). They conclude from the repetition in the verse that while "sufficient for their needs," refers to the essentials of survival, the addition of "in whatever they lack" commands us to go further in restoring a person to full dignity. The Rabbis and later halakhic writings debate precisely how far this responsibility extends. Still, all sources concur that we owe far more to those who are most vulnerable than simply that which keeps them alive to the next day. Bread, yes, but roses too!