For many Americans Labor Day has become the holiday that ends summer, one last long weekend to enjoy barbecue, boating, or a day at the beach. It seems to have lost its original intentions as a celebration of the laborers who built the nation’s wealth and a day of remembrance for the workers who sacrificed and even died in struggles with their industrialist employers. Americans these days seem little interested in the bloodshed of the workers who literally paved the road to American greatness.
Pilgrimage to the American Matron Saint of Workers’ Rights
Not too many will spend their Labor Day on pilgrimage to the shrines of heroes of the American labor movement. One such shrine commemorating an American matron saint of workers’ rights stands above the cornfields of southern Illinois. In the calm quiet of the Midwest summer rests the feisty soul of Mary Jones, renowned as labor activist and union organizer. Two bronze miners flank the tall monument at the head of her grave in the Union Miners’ Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois, where she chose to be buried beside immigrant mine workers killed in the struggle for labor rights. This pastoral farmland setting belies its past as a hotbed of union activism in the Land of Lincoln that Mother Jones regarded as “the birthplace of rank-and-file unionism” (according to the Mother Jones Museum).
The tranquility of the Illinois countryside contrasts with the contentious and confrontational spirit of the fearless woman whose remains rest here. A lifelong Catholic, Mother Jones had no use for prayer in her activist efforts. “I long ago quit praying,” she once exclaimed, “and took to swearing. If I pray I will have to wait until I am dead to get anything; but when I swear I get things here.”
Getting things here also left no room for “ladylike” behavior. Mother Jones once told a gathering of women in New York, “Never mind if you are not lady-like, you are woman-like. God Almighty made the woman and the Rockefeller gang of thieves made the ladies.” Her disdain for the Rockefellers, John D., Jr. in particular, had to do with brutal tactics in putting down labor unrest. She was particularly incensed with the strike-breaking attacks on coal miners and their families in the 1914 Ludlow Massacre in Colorado, where women and children were among those slaughtered by the Rockefeller minions. In the face of such inhuman brutality, Mother Jones had more important things to do than to be their lady.
Celebrating the Legacy of Labor
Mother Jones sacrificed greatly for her commitment to the rights of workers, spending many nights in jails, but she survived the violent hand of strikebreakers and anti-labor thugs to live a long life. When she finally died in her 90s, she traveled one last journey to the coal country of southern Illinois to be laid beside her heroes, the miners who had died fighting the injustices of the coal companies.
Today pilgrims who visit her grave leave tributes to the woman who instructed activists of all ages, “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” As we enter a new era of divisions between those who labor and those who profit from workers’ labor, these words can inspire the passions of those who will fight for justice and equity in a broken world. It seems fitting on this Labor Day once again to celebrate the wisdom, commitment, and courage of Mary “Mother” Jones.
Daily post 051 of 260 in my year-long challenge. ♨