The Beginning of a May Day Pilgrimage – The Worker’s Tale
A trip to England and Ireland six years ago to visit our son Joel and our daughter-in-law Catherine plunged Joanne and me into a living history, and we became more conscious of what it means to be working class Americans. We would like to share with you the account of our pilgrimage as it appears in our journal with some editing. The focus is the history of the May 1st Labor Day memorial marches.
As part of our trip we planned to visit Todmorden, the hometown of Samuel Fielden, one of the Haymarket Martyrs. In the town of Todmorden we not only discovered the roots of Samuel Fielden but also the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, Capitalism, and the Labor Movement. We became aware of the influence of religion on the radical economic changes of the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Chicago’s Haymarket Riot has always been a fascinating story for me. I was born and grew up in Chicago, but Joanne and I have lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for over thirty years and have been active in the labor movement. Milwaukee workers remember the events in the 1886 struggle for the eight-hour day with an annual first week of May ritual at the monument to those killed in the Bayview Massacre. We also have a large May 1st march with a focus on rights for immigrant workers.
Several demonstrators were gunned down by the Wisconsin National Guard in Bayview, a lakefront suburb just south of downtown Milwaukee. Polish workers, the latest immigrants to the city, met at St. Stanislaus Church, then marched to the Bayview Rolling Mill in support of the eight-hour day. At the Rolling Mill they were met with a rain of gunfire from the Polish immigrant manned Kosciuzko Guard. The Bayview Massacre took place the day after the May 4th 1886 Haymarket Riot in Chicago where many more were killed by contagious police fire.
Remembering the Bayview Massacre is made easier by looking at the buildings around the Voces de la Frontera office where we volunteer. The buildings were constructed around the time of the Bayview tragedy. St. Stanislaus Church, where it all began, is only a few blocks away.
The police at the Chicago Haymarket were reacting to a bomb that was thrown and killed a policeman. Six more policemen died from wounds received in the melee that followed. It is not known how many bystanders and labor activists were killed. Samuel Fielden was shot in the leg trying to escape the unintended confrontation.
Chicago police, prompted by Chicago retail mogul Marshall Field and others, arrested hundreds after the Haymarket killings. Eight labor leaders were selected to be scapegoats for the Chicago blood bath. One of them was Samuel Fielden. Seven of the eight were migrant workers and the other, Albert Parsons, was born in Montgomery Alabama and was a member of the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Parsons had ancestors who fought in the U.S. War of Independence.
Albert Parsons has a Milwaukee connection; Parsons, his wife Lucy, and their two children fled to the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha immediately after the Haymarket incident. They stayed with the Hoan family. One of the Hoan children, Daniel, became the second of three Socialist mayors in Milwaukee. He was Milwaukee mayor from 1916 to 1940.
When the trial in Chicago began, Parsons turned himself in. When he arrived at the court he stated, “I present myself for trial with my comrades, your honor.” Without Parsons the trial would have been simply a judgment of migrant workers, and perhaps it would have been easier to gain sympathy for the trial and its verdict from the public.
Those brought to trial were called anarchists because of their association with a group called the “International Working People’s Association.” One of them was Samuel Fielden of Todmorden, England. Fielden, born in 1847, emigrated to the U.S. as a young man of 21 and became a labor activist.
The eight were convicted of murder in a notorious trial that failed to connect any of them with the killings. One was given a fifteen year prison sentence; the others were condemned to death including Samuel Fielden. Of the seven condemned to death, four were hanged, one committed suicide or perhaps was murdered, and the sentences of Fielden and one other condemned to death were commuted to life in prison. The commutation decision was delivered the day before the hangings. The three that remained in prison were eventually pardoned in 1893, Samuel Fielden being one of those pardoned. Governor Altgeld, when he issued his pardon, said, “These men are not being pardoned because they have suffered enough, but because they are innocent.”
The violence to repress the eight-hour movement, the subsequent Haymarket trial and hangings, indicated a serious flaw in the capitalist system which has never been resolved.
Anarchists point out that the legal system is often used as the enemy of the working class. A current example would be the Milwaukee Palermo Pizza strike.
Joanne and I found Samuel Fielden a fascinating labor icon to study because he was a man of Faith, a family man and a labor activist. We both are volunteers at an immigrant workers center called Voces de la Frontera. Voces includes The New Sanctuary Movement which works with families and others on the cusp of deportation. Our volunteer work is mostly with the New Sanctuary section. Sam fits well for us as a role model. Both of us are descendants of Irish-German immigrants and we are active in the Latino Labor Community. We found the struggle of 19th century migrant workers instructive and inspiring,
The 1886 struggle for the eight-hour day and the Haymarket Riot prompted the celebration of May Day as the International Day of Solidarity for labor. I remember as high school teachers in Bolivia, Joanne and I were required to march in the annual May Day parade. We heard speeches commemorating “Los Martires de Chicago.” I often wondered how many working class people in Chicago knew about the ‘Chicago Martyrs?’
Years later we saw murals in Mexico City depicting the Haymarket Martyrs. One was by Diego Rivera in the Palace of Justice and the other appears in a union hall.