History remembered, history forgottenon May 5th, 2011 at 6:00 am
The late Washington Post publisher Philip Graham famously said that news is “the first rough draft of history,” and on Sunday, labor history was remembered but largely overlooked because of events that ran the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous.
That evening, of course, terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces raiding a fortified compound north of Islamabad, Pakistan, capping a long day filled in Chicago with an immigrants rights rally, activities memorializing fallen police and firefighters, Cinco de Mayo celebrations, the Ravenswood 5K Run, and the rededication of the Haymarket martyrs monument at the Forest Home Cemetery 10 miles west of the Loop.
“History is not a random collection of discrete facts. Nor is history static,” says Maine writer John Buell. “The facts as individuals and as a society that we now choose to emphasize reflect and in turn influence our experience, our sense of right and wrong, and our imagination.”
Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO, told hundreds of people assembled in the picturesque setting on May 1 – International Workers Day – that history must teach us.
“What better place to gather than here,” Shuler said, “the place where 125 years ago the struggle for the eight-hour day and for collective bargaining rights was front and center.
“But history repeats itself and today those gains themselves are in danger,” she continued. “We are here to show Chicago and the world that we are one and that we will not let that happen.”
Recognizing and appreciating history prepares people for the future, says writer Lew Rosenbaum.
“Paying homage to the Haymarket martyrs does not mean bowing to nostalgia,” Rosenbaum wrote. “It means recognizing the way that they broke with shackles of their time to migrate into their new era. We are now all immigrants.”
That May day, in 1886, was a pivotal point in a series of workers actions to press for the 8-hour day. The long campaign’s slogan was, “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.” Illinois’ General Assembly in 1867 enacted a law declaring eight hours to be the legal work day in the state, but it wasn’t enforced. Organized labor continued to push for the eight-hour day, and on May 1, 1886, 340,000 U.S. workers walked out of factories – including tens of thousands of Chicago alone.
Demonstrations over the next few days included a Michigan Avenue march and a protest at the McCormick Reaper Plan and culminated in a May 4 meeting in Haymarket Square at Randolph and Des Plaines. There, a crowd of 2,500 had dwindled to fewer than 200 when rain started to fall, then an unknown person threw a bomb. More than 170 police with repeating rifles charged the protestors.
Four workers and seven police were killed, and the resulting arrests and farcical trial of eight labor activists – dubbed “anarchists” by the business-cozy press of the day – set off years of repression against unions, in the United States and abroad. Eight labor activists – most of whom had not been near the square – were convicted. Seven got death sentences. In 1887, three were hanged and another had his head blown off by a dynamite cap, in his cell, on the morning of the execution. Illinois’ courageous governor, John Peter Altgeld, read the trial transcript and related commentaries, and he denounced the proceedings as a travesty of justice. In 1893 he pardoned the other four.
Six of the eight were immigrants; the group was a cross-section of Illinois labor activists: trade unionists, labor journalists, a militant Methodist preacher, community organizers.
When the American Federation of Labor met in St. Louis in 1888, May 1, 1890, was set as the date to revive the 8-hour day movement, and AFL delegates got the Second International Labor Congress meeting in France the following July to adopt May 1 as International Labor Day also honoring the Haymarket Eight.
Now, the restored monument – a National Historic Landmark – continues to honor them and inspire regular working people. Its plaque reads that it “represents the labor movement’s struggle for workers’ rights.”
The eight were George Engel, Samuel Fielden, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, Oscar Neebe, Albert Parsons, Michael Schwab and August Spies.
When the monument was first dedicated, in 1893, speaker Ernest Schmidt said, “Look at this simple, yet majestic woman cast of bronze; how she presses with one hand the laurel wreath on the brow of the fallen hero, while, without halting, she steps forward into the great storm laden future whose lightning now causes the world to tremble. Look at this image and your hopes will be nourished, your sense will become keener, your hearts will be steeled.”
The oft-quoted comment from Spanish-American writer/philosopher George Santayana seems chilling this spring: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”