The story of the Haymarket Martyrs, and their monument in Forest Home Cemetery, begins at a convention of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in 1884. The Federation (the predecessor to the American Federation of Labor) called for a great movement to win the 8-hour workday, which would climax on May 1, 1886.
The plan was to spend two years urging all American employers to adopt a standard 8-hour day, instead of the 10 to 12, even up to 16-hour days that were prevalent. After May 1 of 1886, all workers not yet on an 8-hour schedule, were to cease work in a nation-wide strike until their employer would meet the demand.
Although some employers did meet the deadline, many did not. Accordingly, great demonstrations took place on May 1 all across the country. Chicago's was the biggest with an estimated 80,000 marching on Michigan Avenue, much to the alarm of Chicago's business leaders and newspapers who saw it as foreshadowing "revolution," and demanded a police crackdown.
In fact, the Anarchists and other political radicals in Chicago were reluctant to have anything to do with the 8-hour day strike, which they saw as "reformist;" but they were prevailed upon by the unionists to participate because Albert Parsons and others were such powerful orators and had a substantial following.
A mass meeting was called for the night of May 4, 1886 in the city haymarket at Randolph St. and DesPlaines Ave. Its purpose was to protest a police action from the previous day in which strikers and their supporters at the McCormick Reaper plant on Blue Island Ave. had been killed and injured by police.
The mass meeting in the haymarket was so poorly planned that the organizers had to round up speakers, including Parsons, at the spur of the moment. A rain began to fall, and as the last speaker was concluding, a large force of 200 police arrived with a demand that the meeting disperse.
Someone, unknown to this day, then threw a bomb at the massed police. In their confusion, the police began firing their weapons in the dark, killing at least four in the crowd and wounding many more. Several police were killed (only one by the bomb), the rest probably by police fire. The myth of the Haymarket Riot was born.
In the aftermath of the event, unions were raided all across the country. The Eight-Hour Movement was derailed and it was not until passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1935, that the 8-hour workday became the national standard, a part of the Fair Labor Standards Act passed during President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal."
Albert Parsons and seven others associated with radical organizations were prosecuted in a show trial. None were linked to the unknown bomb thrower, and some were not even present at the time. They were held to be responsible for the bomb thrower's act, because their public criticism of corporate America, the political structure, and the use of police power against the working people, was alleged to have inspired the bomber.
They were found guilty in a trial which Governor John Peter Altgeld subsequently held to be grossly unfair. On June 26, 1894, Altgeld pardoned those defendants still alive and in prison; but Parsons, Spies, Fischer, and Engel had been hanged, and Lingg was an apparent suicide.
The Haymarket case became a world-wide scandal. Governor Oglesby was petitioned by hundreds of thousands, including AFL President Samuel Gompers, to grant clemency, and thus prevent a miscarriage of justice by stopping the executions. It was to no avail. They were hanged on November 11, 1887.
In July of 1889, a delegate from the AFL attending an international labor conference in Paris, urged that May 1 of each year be celebrated as a day of labor solidarity. It was adopted. Accordingly, with the exception of the United States, workers throughout the world consider May First to be their "Labor Day."
The Martyrs' Monument in Forest Home Cemetery is now held in trust by the Illinois Labor History Society, the gift of Irving S. Abrams, the sole surviving member of the Pioneer Aid and Support Society which had erected the monument, and dedicated it on June 25, 1893.
Today, the monument can be looked upon as a shrine to the Bill of Rights, specifically to the right to free speech, and the right to assemble and present grievances as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution.
The men to whose agony the monument is sacred, were victimized by a public opinion and a state power which stifled truth, and trampled upon the peoples' right to assemble and state their grievances, as they had tried to do in the haymarket.
A Reminder to Us All
The monument can be seen as a reminder that a great movement for a more humane workplace was also strangled with the Martyrs. When we gather in its presence, we also recall the untold millions of working men and women whose unremitting toil and suffering was prolonged for more than forty years by the Tragedy of the Haymarket. The Haymarket Monument was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997. Please visit the bookstore for a number of books and videos which address the Haymarket Tragedy.
Forest Home Cemetery is just south of the Eisenhower Expressway on Desplaines St, in Forest Park, IL. Eastbound traffic should exit at Desplaines. Westbound should exit at 1st Ave., Maywood. Re-enter Expressway eastbound. Take next exit and turn right (south). Proceed to cemetery entrance, then take left fork to the Monument.