Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Fight Like Hell for the Living


"Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living." -- Mother Jones.

Mother Jones, the labor agitator known as the "Miners' Angel," is thought to have been born Mary Harris on this day in 1830 in Cork, Ireland (although some recent research suggests she may have been born on August 1, 1837).

Mary Harris emigrated from Ireland to Toronto with her mother and siblings as a youngster, joining her father there, who had allegedly fled prosecution in Ireland for his revolutionary activities. Following her own grammar school education, she taught for awhile in public and convent schools before settling in Chicago as a seamstress. Before the Civil War she moved to Memphis, where she met and married George Jones, an iron molder and union member. They enjoyed a happy marriage and had 4 children together, until a plague of yellow fever swept through Memphis' Irish-American "Pinch" ghetto; within a week, 38-year old Mary had lost her husband and all 4 children to the disease. She returned to Chicago to resume dressmaking, but there fell victim to the great Chicago fire of 1871, in which her home and all of her possessions were destroyed.

Wandering through victim's shelters after the fire, she stumbled upon an underground meeting of the Knights of Labor. She was befriended by Terence Powderly, and thereafter she decided to devote her life to the labor movement. From the 1870s to the turn of the century, she became a somewhat unlikely "Forrest Gump" of the blossoming union cause. With her deceptively fragile and demure looks, trademark bonnet and long lace-trimmed dresses, she criss-crossed the country, appearing (by her own account) at nearly every major happening -- from the violent 1877 railroad strike in Pittsburgh, to the 1886 Haymarket riot in Chicago, to the 1884 march of Coxey's Army on Washington, to the 1899 establishment of Eugene Debs' Social Democratic Party -- gathering intelligence and working behind the scenes.

By the 1890s, she was known as "Mother Jones" to the initiated, but was nothing like the stereotype of motherly meekness and mildness; her embodiment of motherhood was as a tireless, fighting mother who stood up straight-backed to thuggery and brutal authority on behalf of her working "sons" and "daughters." Her experiences in Alabama textile mills in the late 1890s, where 30% of textile workers were underage, led her to take on child labor as a cause, writing articles for Socialist rags, giving speeches and, in 1903, leading a "Children's Crusade" from a textile mill in Pennsylvania to Theodore Roosevelt's home in Oyster Bay, Long Island, to demand a federal child labor law.

In 1899, she gave aid to anthracite miners in Pennsylvania by organizing their wives into a broom and mop militia against strikebreakers -- "raising hell up in the mountains with a bunch of wild women," as one reporter put it. She was unabashed about the aura of violent resistance she inspired: "I'm not a humanitarian," she would say, "I'm a hellraiser." For the next two decades, sometimes as an agent of the United Mine Workers (with whom she often disagreed on policy matters), she concentrated much of her efforts in the coalfields of West Virginia and Colorado. In West Virginia she participated in 5 major strikes, and in 1912, faced with martial law, Mother Jones was arrested during a march on Charleston to see Gov. Glasscock (on the rumor that she had planned to assassinate him). A military court convicted her of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced her to 20 years in prison, but a state commission settled the strike and the new governor, Henry Hatfield, commuted her sentence. Meanwhile, by the end of World War I, about half of West Virginia's miners would become union members.

Arriving in Colorado in 1913, she recommended a strike against John D. Rockefeller's Colorado Fuel and Iron Company. The authorities physically escorted Jones out of the state 3 times; when she re-entered, she was subjected to a bogus smallpox quarantine on one occasion and locked for a month in the rat-infested basement of the Walsenburg courthouse on another. Pancho Villa, who had benefited from her call for an inquiry into the treatment of Mexican revolutionaries jailed in the U.S., wrote to President Wilson to appeal for her release. In April 1914, the Colorado authorities overplayed their hand, massacring 20 women and children during a raid on a union camp at Ludlow. Ludlow became Mother Jones' touchstone as she testified before Congress, and by December, federal mediators descended on Colorado and exacted an uneasy peace. The following month, Rockefeller invited Jones to his office in New York, and they apparently enjoyed some version of a meeting of the minds: Rockefeller permitted a company union to be formed and dropped some criminal charges against the strikers, and Jones publicly announced (to the outrage of fellow travelers such as Upton Sinclair) that she didn't "hold the boy [Rockefeller] responsible."

Ideologically, she has been accused of being inconsistent: she chided the United Mine Workers for selling out to cooperation with management, but, even as a founder of the IWW in 1905, she broke with the Wobblies, seeing them as too radical for her taste. Often without an official home for her activities, she frequently freelanced, joining William Z. Foster in a post-World War I steel walkout, and traveling as a delegate to the 1921 Pan-American Labor Congress in Mexico, where her train was stopped by striking jewelry workers and she was showered with carnations and violets.

She died a few months after a grand 100th birthday party, on November 30, 1930 in Silver Spring, Maryland, and was buried with the victims of the Virden mine massacre at Mt. Olive, Illinois. Her power as an icon of the movement, representing the native strength of the archetypically weak, dissipated somewhat as the union movement settled into respectability in the years after her death, but in the 1960s her image was resurrected as her name became the title of a leftist magazine, and she has become something of a patron saint of radicalism.


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