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450 S Michigan Ave, AUD 1851
Chicago IL 60605
United States


Illinois Labor History Society

Past Events

Great May Day Celebration

Webtrax Admin

As part of the ILHS recent May Day celebration, James Green, Professor of History and Labor Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston delivered this address entitled The Globalization of Memory: The Enduring Memory of Chicago's Haymarket Martyrs around the World.

The following was presented as a talk to the annual meeting of the Illinois Labor History Society on May 1, 2005 and is drawn from Jim Green's new book to be published in March 2006 by Random House. The book will be entitled: Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America.
A longer version of this talk will be published with footnotes to all sources in Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas in the fall of 2005 (Vol. 2, no. 4). Labor is the official journal of the Labor & Working Class History Association. A yearly LAWCHA membership of $50 dues ($30 for students) brings you the journal four times a year. You can join LAWCHA online at

Jim Green is Professor of History and Labor Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston and current president of the Labor and Working Class History Association. He can be reached at[at]

Good morning! Happy May Day one and all! It is great to be back in Chicago and to be here with my brothers and sisters in the Illinois Labor History Society. I know you all know the Haymarket saga backwards and forwards, so I want to tell you a chapter of the story, an epilogue to the tale you might not know so well.

Let's begin by going back to Chicago in cold spring of 1941 when, at age 91, Lucy Parsons braved the winds and spoke to workers on Blue Island Avenue, still known as the Black Road where a union affiliated with the new Congress of Industrial Organizations was campaigning for votes at the old McCormick works-where all the trouble started in 1886, all the trouble that led to the tragedy in the Haymarket. When the weather warmed up that spring, Lucy reappeared at a May Day parade riding through the Southwest Side as an honored guest sitting on top of a float sponsored by the C.I.O.'s Farm Equipment Workers Union. It would to be her last May Day.

Nine months later on March 7, 1942, the stove in Lucy Parsons' little house caused a fire. Handicapped by her blindness, she could not escape. Her ashes were placed at Waldheim, close to the remains of her beloved Albert and her daughter Lulu and her funeral was attended by many of the young radicals who carried on the union fight that began with the Great Upheaval of her youth.

Lucy's final May Day in 1941 was also the last one celebrated in Chicago for a long time. During the Cold War years that followed, the Chicago idea of militant unions taking mass action against capital and the state—the idea Albert Parsons and August Spies espoused until their last breath- simply vanished from the American labor scene.

May Day celebrations that had resumed briefly after World War II were banned and in 1955 May 1 was proclaimed Law Day in many states, then designated as Loyalty Day in all states by presidential decree. The American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merged that same year after nearly all the radicals had been purged from union offices and those in the ranks had learned to keep quiet. Thus, it seemed that the memory of Haymarket boys would be effectively erased from the labor movement's history, even in Chicago.

In other parts of world, however, particularly the Latin world, the Haymarket story was retold many times over. Indeed, no other event in American history after the Civil War exerted the kind of hold the Haymarket tragedy maintained on the popular imagination of working people in other countries, particularly in Mexico where May 1 became a national holiday long known as "the Day of the Martyrs of Chicago."

Even after radical independent unions were replaced by party dominated worker federations in Mexico, and even after trade unions were destroyed and demonstrations were banned by military dictators during the 1970s in places like Chile, Argentina and Uruguay—even in these places icons to the martyrs could be found. While traveling in the remote tin mining region of Bolivia during the 1980s, the journalist Dan LaBotz met a worker who invited him into his little home. As he was eating dinner with the miner and his family, LaBotz noticed a small piece of cloth hanging in the window, an embroidery that in the U.S. might have read: "God bless our home." He moved closer to take a look and saw that it read: "Long Live the Martyrs of Chicago."

LaBotz made this discovery a century after the Haymarket bombing, the arrests, the defeat of the eight h our strikes and the show trial of the Haymarket Eight in the summer of 1886. Let's return to those days and consider what made them so memorable to workers around the world.

A hundred years before—in summer of 1887, the world's first international amnesty movement was swinging into gear

Haymarket anarchists Amnesty Committee; it was led by Chicago's great labor reformer, Henry Demarest Lloyd and Chicago's great trade union activist George A. Schilling.

At first, the response to the committee's appeal came in the form of resolutions of from labor unions and by cash contributions from workers in many cities across the country and particularly from immigrant unionists in Chicago who were kept constantly informed by a revived radical press comprised of the Arbeiter Zeitung, which had reopened under new management, by the city's Knights of Labor publication edited by Bert Stewart.

Meanwhile, in New York City, John Swinton, the most influential labor journalist in the land, attacked the death sentence as a judicial murder and He then joined with fourteen union leaders representing various wings of the city's union movement to condemn the verdict and to call for a mass protest on October 20. That night a large crowd jammed into the Great Hall of Cooper Union in New York City to hear Samuel Gompers, the new President of the American Federation of Labor, denounce the proceedings in Chicago. Unlike chief Powderly of the Knights, who refused to endorse the campaign for clemency, Gompers joined other trades union leaders in making an appeal for liberty, free speech and justice expressing their belief that the impending execution would be "a disgrace to the honor of this country."

Meanwhile, in Cuba, a surprising level of concern over the case welled up among workers in Havana where the anarchist newspaper, El Productor, had closely followed the eight hour struggle and the ordeal of the anarchists accused of the May 4 bombing. The editor, Enrique Roig, like many labor activists in Havana, was a exiled anarchist from Spain who published many reports on the Chicago trial and the demonstrations of protest and solidarity around the world. Two weeks before the Cooper Union meeting in New York City, El Circolo de Tradajadores de La Habana convened a meeting of workers in the colonial capital to begin a campaign to save the lives of the Chicago eight. A special committee was formed that held a meeting on November 8 of 1000 workers from various unions, "tipographos, cigarerros, zapateros, mecanicos," and so forth where it was agreed to send a petition to the governor of Illinois urging a pardon that was also signed by workers in all the provinces and in a greater number of towns in the interior. One of the results of this vast solidarity campaign was that 1000 pesos were raised to send to support the families of the condemned men.

At the same time European socialists and trade unionists turned their attention to the events unfolding in Chicago. "The European socialist press devoted a 'truly impressive amount of coverage to the Haymarket bombing and all the events flowing from it," wrote historian R. L. Moore. "Indeed, for fifty years event in the U.S. no "incident on the American scene was given so much space or remembered so long." Although European socialists, particularly those of the outlawed German social democratic party, regarded anarchists a destructive provocateurs at best, their newspapers embraced the Haymarket defendants as heroic social revolutionaries and gave their hard-hitting speeches on American freedom wide circulation.

The repression following the bombing, the reaction to the eight hour movement, the show trial, the rejection of appeals to the higher courts and the governor, the anarchists' fervent speech making and finally the intensely

scrutinized execution—all events confirmed the view European socialists had held about America at a time when popular opinion on the Continent regarded the U.S. as a Promised Land, a new Caanan.

That same month trade unionists and reformers in London spoke out against the executions, primed by the editorials that appeared in the socialist publication, Commonweal produced by William Morris, the noted poet and designer. Morris had commented regularly on the Haymarket events since the original May 1 strikes. At the same time, he worried about of rioting by of unemployed marchers in his native London and feared that city authorities would now adopt the repressive tactics of the Chicago police who "hunted socialists like wolves."

Coverage of the trial and the appeal hearings was even more extensive in Paris, a city with an active anarchist movement (though it was tiny compared to the International in Chicago.) When word of the failed appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court reached France, the socialist newspaper Le Cri du Peuple announced a protest against what would be the most atrocious political crime since the hanging of John Brown. Public concern reached all the way to the municipal council of the Seine whose deputies issued a plea for mercy to the U.S. legation recalling the clemency the federal government had extended to the "vanquished leaders of the Southern rebellion." Many of the same deputies also signed a clemency petition to the governor of Illinois. In October radicals called Haymarket protest meetings in London, The Hague and Rotterdam, in Vienna, Brussels, Lyon, Marseilles, Toulon. It was no wonder, then, that the Tribune admitted on October 11: "The eyes of the world seem to be on the Chicago anarchists."

Morris's London publication Commonweal reported on the entire trial and appeal process as a travesty of justice. By contrast, during the trial the editors of the London Times praised the Chicago police but then praised their use of force on the streets and suggested British police might well follow the example of their American counterparts who did not hesitate to invade public meetings without legal sanction or to "carry revolvers, and use them without mercy when they see signs of resistance."

When news of the executions reached England, William Morris announced that the Haymarket case exhibited what he called "the spirit of cold cruelty, heartless and careless at once, which is one of the most noticeable characteristics of American commercialism." Here, said Morris, was "... a country with universal suffrage, no king, no House of Lords" and yet, it was "a society corrupt to the core, and at this moment engaged in suppressing freedom with just the same reckless brutality and blind ignorance as the Czar of all the Russias... ."

On November 13, two days after Black Friday, the London city police attacked a peaceful demonstration of the unemployed in Trafalgar Square with extreme brutality. Two hundred were treated in hospital and three expired because they had been beaten to death. Working-class London was outraged. The trauma of London's "Bloody Sunday," followed so closely upon Chicago's Black Friday, galvanized British radicals and reformers. William Morris of the Socialist League joined others in leading an enormous funeral march honoring the victims of the Trafalgar Square assault.

The news of Haymarket exerted its greatest influence upon Spanish workers who had organized a powerful federation with anarchist leaders in the early 1880s. When the open trade unions were destroyed, anarchist politics remained alive in hundreds of resistance societies that existed side by side with other workers' circles, café clubs and choirs as well as in newspapers that published a talented bunch of skilled writers who presented enormous volume of information in accessible forms like serials and novellas.

The memory of the Haymarket victims deepened when it became associated with the celebration of May Day as the international workers' day beginning in 1890. In cities all over Europe the icons of the Chicago martyrs appeared in the first of May processions along with red flags and crimson flowers: for example, in Barcelona where a militant strike for eight hours swept the city and in Italian towns and cities from Piedmonte to Calabria where socialists and anarchists celebrated Primo Maggio with marches, festivals and strikes. Rank-and-file workers quickly transformed May Day into potent ritual event to demonstrate for the eight hour day, and to assert a new working-class presence in the world." In the Latin world this public expression class solidarity became a commemoration of the Chicago martyrs as well.

Why were these European workers so seized with emotion by the ordeal of the Chicago anarchists? First of all, the trial and hangings had been widely publicized in the mainstream newspapers, and especially in radical periodicals that emerged in great profusion during the mid 1880s. Socialist newspapers in Europe devoted a truly impressive amount of coverage to the Haymarket affair and its aftermath. "Indeed, no future incident on the American," writes one historian, "was given so much space or remembered so long."

Second, the drama of the trial and appeal lasted one year and half, long enough to become a kind of serial drama in which they lives and beliefs of the defendants became well known, partly through their own simply written autobiographies. Parsons and the immigrants who died with him became familiar characters in working-class quarters and were endowed by their admirers with the purest hearts and minds. European workers who learned about the Chicago anarchists came to believe that their "brethren were thoroughly honest " and that, as the anarchist philosopher Kropotkin explained: "Not a single black spot could be detected in their lives, even by their enemies. Not a single black spot!" They were not ambitious man who yearned to rise of their class, to "climb up" on the shoulders of their fellow workers. "They sought no power over others, no place in the ranks of the ruling classes," he added. Furthermore, the condemned men acted courageously, refusing to renounce their beliefs to save their lives, refusing to sacrifice their manhood by begging for mercy from evil men.

When American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers appealed to Governor Oglesby to commute the sentenced of the four men on death row he predicted that executing them would cause "thousands and thousands of labor men all over the world" to look upon the anarchists as martyrs, "executed because they were standing up for free speech and free press." This is precisely what happened as "labor men" created a ritualized memory of their heroes. When Gompers visited European cities in 1895 he noticed in nearly every union hall there were pictures of Parsons, Lingg, Spies, etc. with the inscription: 'Labor's Martyrs to American Capitalism.'" On later visits, he saw "the same pictures still there."

A third reason for the endurance of this memory in working-class consciousness is this: the Spanish retratos (those were portraits on cards like the holy cards of saints) of the martyrs and the memorials to the Chicago anarchists on November 11 as well as the strikes and the parades on May 1 all reflected the power of the Haymarket story for ascendant labor movements around the world in the years between 1886 and 1914, and even longer in Latin America. The remembrance of Spies, Parsons and their comrades was far more than ceremonial; their martyrdom became the key parable in constructing a homily of supreme sacrifice for workers' movements struggling at birth in cities all over Europe and Latin America during the 1890s and beyond.

Confronting aggressive employers, hostile churches and newspapers, armed forces and militarized police forces, these movements needed issues like the eight hour day (a truly international demand), tactics like the mass strike (pioneered in Chicago in 1886) and heroes like the Haymarket martyrs whose dedication to labor cause was absolute and whose vision transcended national boundaries. The pioneers of the labor movement—from Barcelona to Havana from Rome to Mexico city—found all these things in the tragic Chicago story.

Mother Jones knew the power of the martyrs' story and how far it reached. Traveling in Mexico in 1921 she received a hearty reception in many places, notably in Orizaba, a thoroughly organized textile manufacturing town in Puebla where workers had formed a "libertarian mutualist cooperative society" in 1901 and had launched a general strike in 1906 that produced an upsurge in Mexican working-class radicalism.

It was May Day of 1921 when Mother Jones addressed a large meeting of workers and deputies in Orizaba. Most of the elected officials referred to Haymarket in their speeches, she recalled. What impressed her most came at the start of the meeting when a parade entered the hall with bearers of the Mexican national flag and a banner recalling "the murder of the so-called Chicago anarchists of 1886." The audience rose and erupted in applause. "The tribute paid the banner as it entered the hall was the most remarkable demonstration I have witnessed in all my years of industrial conflict," she wrote to the leaders of the Chicago Federation of Labor.

In fact, similar demonstrations occurred all over Mexico that day. The Confederacion General de Trebajo, founded that year on anarchist principles, raised the celebration of May 1st to a new level, calling for 24-hour strikes by its members, an action joined by the other major union movement. In subsequent years, May Day general strikes, took place in several states of the Mexican Republic, especially in Mexico City where the great march and walkout would be referred to "as the annual demonstration glorifying those who were killed in Chicago in 1887."

When Mother Jones described the stirring Mexican May Day events of 1921 to John Fitzpatrick of the Chicago Federation of Labor, she knew that memorials to the anarchists in the U.S. had ended. Indeed, she told the labor leaders there that if they staged celebrations for the Haymarket martyrs like the ones she saw in Mexico they would be thrown in jail.

The memorials to the Chicago martyrs endured in Mexico partly for ceremonial reasons. Traveling near Mexico City on May Day in 1923, an American poet, together with D.H. Lawrence and his wife, saw working people laying cornerstone for a statue to the martyrs of Chicago whose memory—described during a rally as "shameless and villainous"-could still arouse "all Mexico to protest." Of course, at this point in time when radical and militant labor activists had been driven under ground in the U.S. their Mexican comrades remained important in the labor movement as Conferacion General de Trabajadores (C.G.T.).

Later when the unions held bring the pro-worker Cardenas government to power, depicted in far grander site of memory-on the walls of the palace of justice in a mural by Diego Rivera. Perhaps, these Mexican memorials to "los martires de Chicago" reflected one more effort by architects of Mexican national identity, like Rivera, to define Mexico in opposition to the United States, as if to say: "We're Indian, they're Anglo. We're Catholic, they're Protestant. We have history, they have no memory."

A few years later the four anarchist workers who died in 1887 were recalled in a massive parade of 60,000 factory and field workers in Mexico City on May 1, 1936 who voiced their indignation over "the death of the martyrs in Chicago."

But in Latin America martyrs were not just recalled on memorial occasions. They were also remembered during especially in violent strikes led by revolutionary trade unionists—anarcho-syndicalists—who continued as the vanguard of working class struggle Latin America until they were displaced by the political party bosses, as in Mexico, or by Communists, as in Cuba. But during the period before 1920 when only 37 unions in all of Latin America were legally recognized the anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists led the most powerful and militant workers' organizations and often led them into terribly risky confrontations as they did in 1916 Bogota, Columbia, one in which numerous workers were killed and more than 500 imprisoned and in the 1918-19 conflicts on the Atlantic Coast including a general strike in Cartagena and the first strike of banana workers against the United Fruit Company in Santa Maria.

And so, as we prepare to march to the Haymarket on this May Day, 2005, we can look to the past to be reminded of the enduring memory of the Chicago martyrs, to be reminded, as we will soon be, by a delegation of Colombian trade unionists who will dedicate a plaque at the base of the new memorial in memory of the more than 1200 workers who have been murdered by death squads in their home land. The ceremony we are about to join will also serve as notice to those who think the kind of deadly violence Chicago workers endured in 1886 and 1887 and again at Pullman in 1894 and at Republic Steel in 1937 is now just "history." Some would say we don't have that kind of bloodshed "here" any more.

May 1st, the international workers' holiday is a perfect day to ask what we mean by "here." If "here" is the United States of America, then labor history reads one way, but it "here" is all the Americas, north and south, we can see that the bloody history that began here in Chicago is not over and done. And on this May Day we can be reminded yet again that the old motto of 1886 still applies, now more than ever, to the new labor movement of today. As the saying goes: "An Injury to One is an Injury to All."