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Celebrating Mother Jones

“In all my career I have never advocated violence. I want to give the nation a more highly developed citizenship.”

Mother Jones

This week commemorates the anniversary of the Haymarket Affair, International Workers’ Day, and the claimed birthday of Mother Mary Harris Jones.  While the United States’ official Labor Day falls in September, the international community celebrates workers and workers rights on May 1st, in recognition of actions taken by Americans in 1886, and the events that led up to the Haymarket Massacre.

On May 1, 1886, more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses across the United States walked off their jobs in the first May Day celebration in history. In Chicago, the epicenter for the 8-hour workday organizers, 40,000 went out on strike. The strike continued for three days, and, though violence broke out between strikers and police in one location, the bulk of the strikers remained nonviolent.

On May 4th, a large rally was held in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, calling for the establishment of an eight-hour workday. The police were trying to disperse a public assembly when an unidentified person threw a bomb at the police. The police responded by firing on the workers, killing four demonstrators. Eight officers were also killed, and scores of people were wounded. One of the survivors of the events was “Mother” Mary Harris Jones.

“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living,” was Mother Jones’ notorious motto.

While Mother Jones sometimes used violent rhetoric in her inflammatory speeches, the actions she organized were nonviolent actions – boycotts, strikes, marches, walk-outs, work stoppages, rallies, speeches, and picketing. For all her appearance as a five-foot tall, one hundred pound, grandmother dressed in old-fashioned (even for the era) black dresses, Mother Jones was one of the most popular and effective labor organizers of her time. She was present at the Haymarket Massacre, and it is in recognition of these events that she began to claim her birthday as May 1st.

The exact date of her birth is uncertain, but we do know she was born in Cork, Ireland. When she was barely 10 years old, she witnessed the horrors of the potato famine, which drove her family from their homeland to Toronto, Canada. At 23, she moved to the United States, and in 1861, she married George Jones. Six years, later, a yellow fever epidemic struck Memphis, killing George and their four children.

Biographer Elliott Gorn writes, “Now a 30-year-old widow, Jones returned to Chicago and dressmaking, where her tiny shop was burned out in the great fire of 1871. For the next quarter century, she worked in obscurity. As the new 20th century approached, Mary Jones was an aging, poor, widowed Irish immigrant, nearly as dispossessed as an American could be. She had survived plague, famine, and fire, only to confront a lonely old age.”

Beginning with rebuilding work after the great fire of 1871, Jones became involved with the Knights of Labor. When they dissolved, she began organizing with the United Mine Workers. She cofounded the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), which at its founding was the only labor organization that included women, immigrants, African Americans and Asians in the same organization. Mother Jones traveled the country by rail and foot. From the late 1870s through the early 1920s, Mother Jones participated in hundreds of strikes in all regions of the country.

“My address is like my shoes,” she said, “It travels with me. I abide where there is a fight against wrong.”

In 1903, Jones organized children who were working in mills and mines to participate in a “Children’s Crusade,” a march from Philadelphia to the summer home of President Theodore Roosevelt in New York with banners demanding “We want to go to school and not the mines!” The campaign succeeded in raising public awareness, and was widely covered by the newspapers during the two months of the march.

She died on November 30th, 1930 and claimed to be 100 years old. At one point in her life, when she was denounced on the floor of the United States Senate as the “grandmother of all agitators,” she replied: “I hope to live long enough to be the great-grandmother of all agitators.”

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Rivera Sun is the author of The Dandelion Insurrection and other books, and the cofounder of the Love-In-Action Network.

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