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Magpie is a former journalist, attempted historian [No, you can't ask how her thesis is going], and full-time corvid of the lesbian persuasion. She keeps herself in birdseed by writing those bad computer manuals that you toss out without bothering to read them. She also blogs too much when she's not on deadline, both here and at Pacific Views.

Magpie roosts in Portland, Oregon, where she annoys her housemates (as well as her cats Medea, Whiskers, and Jane Doe) by attempting to play Irish music on the fiddle and concertina.

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Monday, May 1, 2006

'Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.'

A big magpie welcome to visitors from Carnival of Feminists 14!

I hope you enjoy what I've posted about Mother Jones. As you'll see, there's a definite reason that we in the US don't get a unit on this hell-raising woman in our high school classes! And while you're here, please do take a look around the place. Hopefully you'll find some other posts that you'll like.

May 1, 1830 is the day generally celebrated as the birthday of Mary Harris Jones, better known to the world as the hellraiser and labor organizer 'Mother Jones.' In her long life, Mother Jones was a tireless agitator, labor organizer, and advocate for the poor and dispossessed. She was especially well known for her agitation and organizing among US miners in Colorado and West Virginia. Those organizing skills led one government official to call her 'the most dangerous woman in America.'

Mother Jones

Mary Harris 'Mother' Jones, 1830?–1930.
'There are no limits to which powers of privilege will not go to keep the workers in slavery.'
[Image: Robert Lentz]

Writing in 1907, labor leader and Socialist Party 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, Colorado [c. 1903].

This excerpt from chapter XI of Mother Jones' Autobiography gives a good idea of how she got her reputation as such a tenacious organizer:

Lattimer [Pennsylvania] was an eye-sore to the miners. It seemed as if no one could break into it. Twenty-six organizers and union men had been killed in that coal camp in previous strikes. Some of them had been shot in the back. The blood of union men watered the highways. No one dared go in.

I said nothing about it but made up my mind that I was going there some night. After the raid of the women in Coaldale in the Panther Creek, the general manager of Lattimer said that if I came in there I would go out a corpse. I made no reply but I set my plans and I did not consult an undertaker.

From three different camps in the Panther Creek I had a leader bring a group of strikers to a junction of the road that leads into Lattimer. There I met them with my army of women again. As I was leaving the hotel the clerk said, "Mother, the reporters told me to ring their bell if I saw you go out."

"Well, don't see me go out. Watch the front door carefully and I will go out the back door."

We marched through the night, reaching Lattimer just before dawn. The strikers hid themselves in the mines. The women took up their position on the door steps of the miners' shacks. When a miner stepped out of his house to go to work, the women started mopping the step, shouting, "No work today!"

Everybody came running out into the dirt streets. "God, it is the old mother and her army," they were all saying.

The Lattimer miners and the mule drivers were afraid to quit work. They had been made cowards. They took the mules, lighted the lamps in their caps and started down the mines, not knowing that I had three thousand miners down below ground waiting for them and the mules.

"Those mules won't scab today," I said to the general manager who was cursing everybody. "They know it is going to be a holiday."

"Take those mules down!!" shouted the general manager.

Mules and drivers and miners disappeared down into the earth. I kept the women singing patriotic songs so as to drown the noise of the men down in the mines.

Directly the mules came up to the surface without a driver, and we women cheered for the mules who were the first to become good Union citizens. They were followed by the miners who began running home. Those that didn't go up were sent up. Those that insisted on working and thus defeating their brothers were grabbed by the women and carried to their wives.

An old Irish woman had two sons who were scabs. The women threw one of them over the fence to his mother. He lay there still. His mother thought he was dead and she ran into the house for a bottle of holy water and shook it over Mike.

"Oh for God's sake, come back to life," she hollered.

"Come back and join the union." He opened his eyes and saw our women standing around him. "Sure, I'll go to hell before I'll scab again,' says he.

The general manager called the sheriff who asked me to take the women away. I said "Sheriff, no one is going to get hurt, no property is going to be destroyed but there are to be no more killings of innocent men here."

I told him if he wanted peace he should put up a notice that the mines were closed until the strike was settled.

The day was filled with excitement. The deputies kept inside the office; the general manager also. Our men stayed up at the mines to attend to the scabs and the women did the rest. As a matter of fact the majority of the men those with any spirit left in them after years of cowardice, wanted to strike but had not dared. But when a hand was held out to them, they took hold and marched along with their brothers.

The bosses telephoned to [United Mine Workers president] John Mitchell that he should take me and my army of women out of Lattimer. That was the first knowledge that Mitchell had of my being there.

When the manager saw there was no hope and that the battle was won by the miners, he came out and put up a notice that the mines were closed until the strike was settled.

I left Lattimer with my army of women and went up to Hazelton. President Mitchell and his organizers were there. Mr. Mitchell said, "Weren't you afraid to go in there!"

"No," I said,

"I am not afraid to face any thing if facing it may bring relief to the class that I belong to."

There are links to lots more about Mother Jones here.

You can read her Autobiography online here. While it's good reading, don't take it as gospel truth — Mother Jones used her autobiography as much as an organizing tool and to reinforce her own legend as to tell the facts about her life.

A very readable alternative — and a far more accurate account of Mother Jones' life — is Elliott Gorm's 2001 biography, Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America. There's an excellent review of the book here and other one here.

| | Posted by Magpie at 12:29 AM | Get permalink

Liar, liar, pants on fire!


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