May 01, 2005

'I'm no lady. I'm a hell-raiser.'

Today is the birthday of Mary Harris Jones, better known around the world as 'Mother Jones.' In her long life (she lived to be 100), Mother Jones was a tireless agitator, labor organizer, and advocate for the poor and dispossessed. She was especially known for her work on behalf of the nation's coal miners.

Mother Jones
Mother Jones [1830-1930]

Writing in 1907, labor leader and socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs wrote a tribute to Mother Jones for the Appeal to Reason, in which he could not say enough about Mother Jones' contributions to the US labor movement:

From the time of the Pullman strike in 1894, when she first came into prominence, she has been steadily in the public eye. With no desire to wear "distinction's worthless badge," utterly forgetful of self and scorning all selfish ambitions, this brave woman has fought the battles of the oppressed with a heroism more exalted than ever sustained a soldier upon the field of carnage....

For many weary months at a time she has lived amid the most desolate regions of West Virginia, organizing the half-starved miners, making her home in their wretched cabins, sharing her meagre substance with their families, nursing the sick and cheering the disconsolate - a true minister of mercy.

During the great strike in the anthracite coal district she marched at the head of the miners; was first to meet the sheriff and the soldiers, and last to leave the field of battle.

Again and again has this dauntless soul been driven out of some community by corporation hirelings, enjoined by courts, locked up in jail, prodded by the bayonets of soldiers, and threatened with assassination. But never once in all her self-surrendering life has she shown the white feather; never once given a single sign of weakness or discouragement. In the Colorado strikes Mother Jones was feared, as was no other, by the criminal corporations; feared by them as she was loved by the sturdy miners she led again and again in the face of overwhelming odds until, like Henry of Navarre, where her snow-white crown was seen, the despairing slaves took fresh courage and fought again with all their waning strength against the embattled foe.

Deported at the point of bayonets, she bore herself so true a warrior that she won even the admiration of the soldiers, whose order it was to escort her to the boundary lines and guard against her return.

Mother Jones 1903?
Leading a protest march in Trinidad, CO [c. 1903]

This short chapter from Mother Jone's Autobiography gives a good idea of how she got her reputation as such a tenacious organizer:

The miners in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, went on strike for more wages. Their pay was pitifully low. In answer to the cry for bread, the Irish -- that is the Pennsylvania -- constabulary were sent into the district.

One day a group of angry women were standing in front of the mine, hooting at the scabs that were taking the bread from their children's mouths. The sheriff came and arrested all the women "for disturbing the peace." Of course, he should have arrested the scabs, for they were the ones who really disturbed it.

I told them to take their babies and tiny children along with them when their case came up in court. They did this and while the judge was sentencing them to pay thirty dollars or serve thirty days in jail, the babies set up a terrible wail so that you could hardly hear the old judge. He scowled and asked the women if they had some one to leave the children with.

I whispered to the women to tell the judge that miners' wives didn't keep nurse girls; that God gave the children to their mothers and He held them responsible for their care.

Two mounted police were called to take the women to the jail, some ten miles away. They were put on an interurban car with two police men to keep them from running away. The car stopped and took on some scabs. As soon the car started the women began cleaning up the scabs. The two policemen were too nervous to do anything. The scabs, who were pretty much scratched up, begged the motorman stop and let them off but the motorman said it was against the law to stop except at the station. That gave the women a little more time to trim the fellows. When they got to the station, those scabs looked as if they had been sleeping in the tiger cat's cage at the zoo.

When they got to Greensburg, the women sang as the car went through the town. A great crowd followed the car, singing with them. As the women, carrying their babies, got off the car before the jail the crowd cheered and cheered them. The police officers handed the prisoners over to the sheriff and both of them looked relieved.

The sheriff said to me, "Mother, I wou1d rather you brought me a hundred men than those women. Women are fierce!"

"I didn't bring them to you, sheriff," said I, " 'twas the mining company's judge sent them to you for a present."

The sheriff took them upstairs, put them all in a room and let me stay with them for a long while. I told the women:

"You sing the whole night long. You can spell one another if you get tired and hoarse. Sleep all day and sing all night and don't stop for anyone. Say you're singing to the babies. I will bring the little ones milk and fruit. Just you all sing and sing."

The sheriff's wife was an irritable little cat She used to go up and try to stop them because she couldn't sleep. Then the sheriff sent for me and asked me to stop them.

"I can't stop them," said I. "They are singing to their little ones. You telephone to the judge to order them loose."

Complaints came in by the dozens: from hotels and lodging houses and private homes.

"Those women howl like cats," said a hotel keeper to me.

"That's no way to speak of women who are singing patriotic songs and lullabies to their little ones," said I.

Finally after five days in which everyone in town had been kept awake, the judge ordered their release. He was a narrow-minded, irritable, savage-looking old animal and hated to do it but no one could muzzle those women!

There are links to lots more about Mother Jones here.

Posted by Magpie at May 1, 2005 02:17 PM | Labor | Technorati links |