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Issue #1591      May 1, 2013

Honouring our working class heroes

“The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.” Haymarket martyr August Spies, his last words from the gallows on November 11, 1887. They have been inscribed in the base of the Haymarket Martyrs Monument at the Forest Home Cemetery in Chicago.

“No single event has influenced the history of labour in Illinois, the United States, and even the world, more than the Chicago Haymarket Affair,” writes William J Adelman in The Day Will Come: Honouring our working class heroes.

“It began with a rally on May 4, 1886, but the consequences are still being felt today. Although the rally is included in American History textbooks, very few present the event accurately or point out its significance.”

William J Adelman was a labour historian and teacher who worked tirelessly to increase public awareness of the historical roots of May Day and the so-called “Haymarket riot”. He died in 2009 and his ashes have been scattered in the Forest Home Cemetery.

The Federation of Organised Trades and Labour unions, the predecessor of the American Federation of Labour (AFL), had called for May 1, 1886, to be the beginning of a nationwide movement for the eight-hour day. There were demonstrations across the country, the largest in Chicago where more than 80,000 workers marched carrying union banners. There were smaller actions in the days that followed.

On May 3, police attacked and killed picketing workers at the McCormick Reaper Plant in Chicago. There was a protest meeting the next day over the killings, and towards the end of it, the police turned up carrying Winchester repeater rifles and attacked the remaining protestors. Someone threw a bomb, the police panicked and in the darkness shot some of their own men as well as some of the protestors. Four workers and seven policemen died.

Eight men, randomly selected trade union leaders and eight-hour day activists, were rounded up and seven of them sentenced to death by hanging and one given a life sentence. Not all of them were even at the scene, let alone guilty of throwing a bomb. Four of them were hanged, including August Spies, another mysteriously had half his head blown half-off by a dynamite cap in his cell. They were hanged for being labour activists.

The other three eventually received a pardon in 1893 from a Governor who condemned the entire judicial system that had allowed this injustice.

In July 1889, a delegate from the American Federation of Labour recommended at a labour conference in Paris that May 1 be set aside as International Labour Day in memory of the Haymarket martyrs and the injustice of the Haymarket Affair.

The Day Will Come provides a brief outline of these events and the origins of the Cemetery, an interesting story itself. The booklet provides a map of where the martyrs and many other well known and not so well known political activists and other figures are buried or have had their ashes interred or scattered there.

“The real issues of the Haymarket Affair were freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to free assembly, the right to a fair trial by a jury of peers and the right of workers to organise for things like the eight-hour day,” Mark Rogovin, editor of The Day Will Come, notes in the introduction. Mark was a muralist and co-founder of the Peace Museum and the Historical Society of Forest Park.

The Illinois Labour History Society has done considerable work researching and collating the biographies of those whose remains and memorials are in the cemetery. It is a work in progress. In fact most of the publication is dedicated to these short biographies and they make fascinating reading.

August Spies had come from Germany in 1872 and eventually settled in Chicago. He was active in the causes of workers, joined the Socialist Labour Party and was editor of the anarchist daily Arbeiter-Zeitung. He was the first speaker on that fateful night.

Adolph Fischer and George Engel, also anarchists, were not at the meeting when the bomb exploded, but were still convicted and hanged. They are buried at the Cemetery, along with the ashes of the other martyr Albert R Parsons.

The biographies provide a rich vignette of more than a century of US working class history. They include:

  • Communist William Z Foster 1881-1966), who took part in many trade union struggles, stood as the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) presidential candidate in 1924, 1928 and 1932, and played a key role in the reconstituting of the Party following the Browder period.

    “In 1917, Foster worked with others to organise workers in the meat-packing industry – the first mass-production industry to be organised. This industry was the most difficult to organise because of its multi-national and multi-racial work force. Soon after, with the reluctant help from the AFL leader Samuel Gompers, Foster tried to organise the steelworkers….”

  • Peggy Dennis (1909-1993), who worked with her husband Eugene Dennis on international assignments for the Communist International. “Peggy worked in Europe with underground Communist Parties, including in Nazi Germany, bringing them outside assistance.” She later wrote for the Daily Worker.

  • “The Rebel Girl”, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890-1964), whose exposure to the poverty of textile workers had a profound effect on her. She was a member of the Socialist Party and the International Workers of the World. In 1937 she joined the CPUSA. In the McCarthy period she was convicted under the Smith Act and received a three-year prison term. In 1961, after the death of Eugene Dennis, she became the chair of the CPUSA.

  • Albert Moreau (1897-1977) whose activities in the working class and revolutionary movements spanned more than six decades. “He figured prominently in the US anti-imperialist movement of the 1920s, and helped to found the influential Obrero Español (Spanish Workers) Club in New York in 1927 with Cubans, Spaniards, Venezuelans and Puerto Ricans. As a member of the Central Committee of the CPUSA, Moreau gave special attention to the struggle for Puerto Rico’s independence and against US domination of Cuba.”. He worked in collaboration with the Communist International to help the early Communists in Cuba and elsewhere.

  • William “Big Bill” Haywood (1869-1928), a cowboy and miner, who “in 1986 became a charter member of the Western Federation of Miners and led his fellow miners in a bitter and often violent class war against the mine operators. He helped found the IWW.”

    “Savage government repression of the IWW escalated when it opposed US involvement in WW1. The national headquarters was raided, and Haywood and 105 others were jailed … Found guilty of seditious activities, Haywood was sentenced to 30 years in Leavenworth and a $30,000 fine.” He escaped to Moscow in 1921, when on bail. Half of his ashes are interred in the Kremlin Wall, the other half in the Forest Home Cemetery.

  • Joe Hill (1882-1915), whose name has been immortalised by the song “I dreamed of Joe Hill Last Night”, written by Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson and sung by Paul Robeson. He was a working class cartoonist and troubadour, whose songs are also widely sung. They include “Casey Jones – the Union Scab”, “Rebel Girl”, and “The Preacher and the Slave” (also known as “Pie in the Sky”).

    He was framed on a murder charge by the copper bosses and executed by firing squad on November 9, 1915, despite a worldwide campaign for his release. His ashes were scattered on every continent and some were scattered at the Haymarket Martyr’s monument.

  • Clarence Schwid Kailin (1914-2009) was the first American to be made a citizen of Spain, in 2009, under the Law of Historical Memory for his service as a Volunteer of International Brigades. “As a volunteer of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, he came to Spain in 1936, which was the front line of the struggle against fascism at the time. In August, 1938, Kailin helped to hold Hill 666 in the nearby Sierra de Pandols during the Battle of the Ebro.”

    On his return to the US he was involved in many campaigns, including the anti-apartheid movement, struggle for peace, and as a Jew he championed the rights of the Palestinians and his book Black Chronicle, became a primer for school teachers and inspired a national dialogue on the hurtfulness of racism.

A number of the biographies feature leading trade unionists, their struggles in setting up unions in meat packing, waterfront, mining and other industries. They were brutally repressed by police and armies of company hired thugs, served long sentences in jail, were blacklisted and subjected to other forms of persecution.

The biographies include a number of other communist leaders and members not mentioned above – include Gus Hall (1910-2000), Sue Kling (1912-2008), Geraldine Lightfoot (1912-1962), Frank Lumpkin (1916-2010), Ruth Schaffner (1910-1995), Art Shields (1900-1989), James West (1914-2005), Charles Wilson (1910-1984), Henry Winston (1911-1986), Carl Winter (1906-1991), Helen Winter (1908-2001), Eugene Dennis (1905-1961).

They are just a few snippets of the many interesting lives recorded in the Cemetery. There is such a rich collection – members of the IWW, anarchists, communists, socialists, unionists, fighters for peace and other social causes, writers, etc. There is so much to absorb, and there is the constant temptation to stop with each brief biography and search for more information on the internet.

If you are planning a visit to the US, then add the Cemetery to your itinerary. Otherwise, you can still take a virtual tour with a copy of The Day Will Come or by visiting the Illinois Labor History website, illinoislaborhistory.org.

The Day Will Come was published by the Illinois Labor History Society to commemorate the 125th anniversary of May Day in 2011 and was edited by Mark Rogovin. A4 paperback, 40 pages with graphics. The Day Will Come $15 plus $2 p&p from CPA. 

Next article – Culture & Life – Bombs in Boston

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