Big Bill Haywood

Union leaders Adolf Lessig and Big Bill Haywood (Courtesy Library of Congress via Flickr Commons)

There’s something raw about the history of the 1910s, a period of depression and unrest, when Americans were engaged in an anxious quest for alternatives.  It was a period of activism, when anti-capitalist sentiment and true human suffering allowed organized labor, still in its infancy, to make significant strides.  At the center of these trends were redoubtable labor leaders like Big Bill Haywood (right), shown here in 1913 with his fellow activist Adolph Lessig.

William Dudley Haywood (1869-1928) was one tough customer, a sometime socialist who helped found the radical labor organization known as the International Workers of the World (IWW), or ‘Wobblies.’  Founded in 1905, the IWW was radical in seeking to organize workers of all types and nationalities, even unskilled workers, in contrast to the other, more exclusive, ‘trade’ unions of the day.

Haywood was born in Utah and by age 15 was working in western copper mines.  By 1900, he had an invalid wife and two children and had gotten involved in the labor movement, skyrocketing to the top of the Western Federation of Miners, a militant union that in 1903 pitted itself against the Colorado mining industry and the state’s government in a bitter strike lasting nearly three years.

Aligned for a time with the fledgling Socialist Party, Haywood ultimately fell out with that group over strategy.  By 1910, his chief interest lay in directly mobilizing masses of people in IWW-led strikes and protests, believing this the surest path to structural change.Big Bill Haywood & followers in Paterson, NJ (Courtesy Library of Congress via Flickr Commons)

Haywood was involved, for instance, in the famous 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, also known as the Bread and Roses strike, whose centennial is now being commemorated.  Lawrence’s textile workers included large numbers of women and teens, and many persons of foreign birth.  Their protests aroused national sympathy, particularly when children of striking parents were sent to New York City for safekeeping.  The strike ended after three months, with workers gaining many concessions to their demands.

The 1912 textile strike in Lawrence (Courtesy of the Library of Congress via Flickr Commons)

Haywood’s star began to set during WWI, when the IWW’s on-going militancy and vision of international solidarity jarred with wartime industrial demands and an accompanying tide of national feeling.  In 1917, Haywood and 100 other IWW officials were arrested on charges of wartime sedition, found guilty, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.  Freed on bail while appealing conviction, Haywood fled to the Soviet Union, where he entered on an ignominious final chapter and died of alcoholism and diabetes a decade later.

His ashes are interred partly in a wall of the Kremlin, while others were sent back to Chicago to be buried in Waldheim Cemetery near the remains of the Haymarket martyrs.

Images: (top to bottom) Adolph Lessig and Big Bill Haywood, from this source;
Haywood and followers in Paterson, NJ (1913), from this source;
and a scene from
the Lawrence textile strike (1912), from this source.

RELATED ARTICLES:
May Day Meditations, Our Polity.
The Strike That Shook America 100 Years Ago, History.com.

May Day Meditations

Chicago's May Day Parade along Jackson Boulevard (Credit: Susan Barsy)
I WAS RUSHING out of my office building the other day when I ran smack dab into a May Day parade.  It took me a minute to realize it wasn’t just another Occupy rally.  No, the date was the first of May, when, by tradition, workers around the world take to the streets en masse, their parades a vivid display of emotion and identity.

Chicago police watching the 2012 May Day parade (Credit: Susan Barsy)It was striking was how un-specific this demonstration was.  It didn’t have much to do with labor in particular or something specific workers might actually need.  It seemed to have more to do with how unfair life is—a general proposition we might all assent to.

Bystanders watching the Chicago May Day parade at Dearborn & Jackson (Credit: Susan Barsy)Seeing the marchers made me think about how much the nature of work and the status of workers in the US has changed over the decades, since May Day observances first began.  International Workers Day, as it is officially called, was instituted to mark the anniversary of the Haymarket disturbances in Chicago when, in 1886, violence erupted as police sought to dispel a crowd that had gathered to protest police brutality toward workers demonstrating for the eight-hour day.  Eight policemen were killed, an unknown number of protesters were killed and injured, and 4 probably innocent demonstrators were later hanged in what was one of the most infamous incidents in labor history.

May Day protesters in front of the Dearborn Street Post Office, Chicago (Credit: Susan Barsy)The heroic struggles of those earlier generations of workers were quite remarkable.  Their disciplined efforts brought about many important gains: the abolition of child labor, the minimum wage, safety inspections, the 40-hour week.  Without the labor movement, most of us would not have anything like the standard of living we enjoy today.  One has only to dip into Freidrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Classes in England or Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills or Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives to recall why their struggles were necessary.

Bits of that story are told in photographs such as these, preserved at the Library of Congress.

Children wearing sashes in Hebrew and English bearing the words "Abolish Child Slavery"These girls were photographed on May Day in New York City in 1909.  Their sashes bear the words “Abolish Child Slavery” in English and Yiddish.

African American protester in 1909 wearing a hat card with the words "Bread of Revolution"This protester was a member of the I.W.W. (International Workers of the World), also known as “the Wobblies.”  Wobblies believed in the international brotherhood of labor and dreamed of improving conditions of workers the world over.  A labor movement like that today would still have much to do.  Looking at this photo makes me think of some of the labor movement’s missed opportunities.

Photograph of female garment workers in NYC parade, 1919 (Courteay Library of Congress)
In good times and bad, May Day has inspired expressions of worker pride, as displayed in this wonderful photograph of female garment workers in 1919.  You would never guess from looking at these ladies how very punishing their occupation was.

Maybe that is one of the differences between that era and today: whereas, then, many workers suffered from conditions that were local and immediate, the costs global capitalism inflicts on American workers are more abstract and harder to see.

There was a great deal to ponder in even a fleeting glimpse of a modern May Day parade.

Additional information regarding Library of Congress images:
here and here and here

MLK: Memorial and Man

It’s fun to imagine what our departed greats would think of the posthumous images we erect in their memory.  Some of those enshrined on the National Mall in DC would be startled or surprised to find how we see them.  Lincoln, famous in his own time for telling naughty stories too risqué to be repeated in polite society, would be amused to find himself so completely ennobled and now comfortably ensconced in the best society.  Jefferson, a great lover of the Enlightenment, would probably like his memorial’s Neo-classical trappings, but would he like being stuck inside forever that way?  He seems too cut off from Nature, there in his rotunda, which could scarcely please a man who so loved to garden.

And what about the new kid on the block, Martin Luther King, Jr.?  He’s probably more than a little bit miffed, and I don’t blame him.  His new statue is ugly, and he deserves better than to be remembered as a stern colossus cordoned off alone, with nothing but two marble icebergs for company.  I can hardly imagine a memorial duller or more inapt.  Here was a great artistic opportunity, and one bungled badly.

King’s was a congregate life.  His struggle, his aims, his achievements can only be appreciated by comprehending them in relation to a larger society.  He was nothing if not part of a collective, a figure who, because of his gifts and his particular conceptualization of the problem of black Americans, became the symbol and voice of a larger brotherhood, the leader of a larger tribe of suffering humankind.

He became great by giving voice to, and raising up, a great part of our society, and his labors, no matter how refracted by his own personality, were memorable and laudable because of his relation to other, more ordinary, Americans.  The photographs of King that stick in my mind are all teeming with crowds, with phalanxes and teams: King addressing the millions during the March on Washington; King marching with Ralph Abernathy, Stokely Carmichael, and others who were the civil rights movement’s first generation of strategists and leaders; King walking arm in arm with his wife Coretta or a friend.  Even the famous image of King taken during his imprisonment in the Birmingham jail takes its significance from the fact that he had been temporarily ripped from his proper place as a leader of a movement and a people.  King’s invariable impulse was to place himself before, to be seen by, and to connect with masses of American people.

Not only was King essentially a creature of his race, a champion who gave voice to, and would not let us forget, the deplorable position of blacks within American society, but his too-brief life was almost inconceivably kinetic and dramatic, particularly during what would prove to be in his last years, between about 1963 and 1968, when he had really just reached maturity.  During these years, King worked, and spoke, and moved, incessantly.  In retrospect, his life appears to have been one long succession of sit-ins, bus rides, marches, interviews, mass meetings, huddles, parades, and rallies.  He was the leader of a movement, and that movement moved.  King moved hearts, but, more crucially, he moved millions of ordinary American citizens to act, and, in so doing, he achieved what few American leaders have ever accomplished as brilliantly.  Whatever their accomplishments, neither Lincoln, nor Jefferson, nor Washington ever led a popular movement of the sort that Martin Luther King helped will into being.  While these other leaders attained greatness while occupying positions at the top of America’s social and political hierarchies, King was a great dissident, leading an outsider movement that was amorphous and purely voluntary.  In that sense, his greatness came solely from his relationship to other people.

The crowded, kinetic character of King’s life is precisely what his new memorial fails to capture or even acknowledge.  King’s very death was public and dramatic, occurring at the center of a homely crowd scene; it, too, is occluded.  King as depicted on the Mall appears isolated, mute, static, even uncaring, yet this King couldn’t be farther from the passionate, embracing, vibrant, and, above all, articulate character whose words and deeds are impressed on our memories.

It’s unfortunate that King’s life and place in history have been immortalized in a way that separates King out and partakes of the “great man” theory of history.  The pressure to figure King in a style resembling that of the great whites he would join on the Mall must have been considerable.  Yet a representation truer to the significant chapters in King’s struggles for civil rights and referring in some way to the larger social and political context in which he labored would have been preferable.  King did not emerge, inexplicably, out of nowhere, like some force of nature: his identity as an activist and intellectual was inextricable from the major traditions and figures that influenced and inspired him.  King’s hard-won pre-eminence as a civil rights leader derived from his ability to frame arguments about racial justice in terms of democratic principles and Christian precepts that most Americans, regardless of race, understood and revered.  He was also deeply influenced by the example and ideas of the great Indian pacifist, Mahatma Gandhi, whom King traveled to meet early in life, and from whom he adopted the key principle of non-violent resistance.

King’s contributions to American life do not hinge solely or even principally on his steadfast determination, as his sculptor has argued; many blacks of that time were similarly determined.  King’s great contribution lay in bringing together a rich complex of ideas through which his people’s disruptive yet urgent crusade for equality could be legitimated and realized.  “Why We Can’t Wait” was one of his famous titles.

Choosing to depict King’s situation and achievements in a more explicit way would have been risky as well as more artistically demanding.  King’s importance cannot be understood without acknowledging the perdurance in America of race hatred, any more than his success can be explained without reference to religious faith, including that of non-Christian spirituality.  The modern era furnishes many instances of memorials—from David’s Death of Marat to the Vietnam Memorial—that are at once simple, truthful, and moving.  Had the creators of the King Memorial harkened to such examples, they might have arrived as a more fitting and less sanitized tribute to one of our greatest modern men.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 148 other followers