Monday, September 3, 2012

Did Unitarians Murder Anna LoPizzo?

The Funeral of Anna LoPizzo, Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1912.

Note:  The continuing series of my memoirs of the Democratic Convention in 1968 will return tomorrow.  Today is Labor Day so I'm sharing my part of a Labor Day service at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation now in McHenry, Illinois.
It was cold on January 29, 1912.  Thousands of mill workers, mostly women and foreign born representing dozens of ethnicities and languages, had been on strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts since January 11.  Despite hardships and language barriers the strike had held firm despite heavy police oppression and the mobilization of state militia units—the National Guard.  Leaders of the militant Industrial Workers of the World, including Big Bill Haywood, Carlo Tresca, Joseph Ettor, Arturo Giavannitti and 18 year old Elizabeth Gurley Flynn had arrived to help organize the strike.
The strike, one of the most important labor struggles in American history, is remembered today as the Bread and Roses Strike for picket signs carried by the women.

That morning Ettor led the largest mass march yet through the center of Lawrence’s business district.  Militia, with fixed bayoneted, had disbursed the march.  That afternoon while Ettor spoke to a mass meeting the regular pickets at the mill gates were attacked by police, who opened fire with pistols.  Twenty three year old Anna LoPizzo was shot and killed.  Her funeral two days later was the largest event yet of the strike.

The policeman who fired the shot that killed her at short range was not punished.  Despite this Ettor and Giovannitti were arrested and charged in LoPizzo’s murder.  They were held without bail. 
Marshall Law was declared and all public meetings and marches officially banned.  The governor called out 22 more Militia companies.  Two days later a 15 year old Syrian boy was bayoneted to death.

This weekend, we look back on this as Unitarian Universalists not only as a reminder of decades of labor struggle, but to assess who we are and how our illustrious religious forbearers responded to manifest injustice.

If you think they flocked to the support of oppressed workers, you would be dead wrong.  On the contrary, the elite of American Unitarianism were united in its determination to do everything possible to crush the strike.  Not surprising in that among their numbers were most of the great families which had made their fortune in the New England textile industry, including the Lawrences and the Lowells and many of the leading ministers of Boston environs had married into or come from those families.  Almost to a man—and there were no women—they thundered condemnation from the pulpit, often using the most extreme language and advocating even more violence to suppress what they saw as a revolutionary uprising of unwashed foreigners, most of them despised Papists, Jews, and even Mohamadans.

The President of Harvard, A. Lawrence Lowell—can you guess his familial connections—went further.  He encouraged the governor to call up Harvard’s cavalry militia unit, mostly made up of the sons of New England’s wealthiest families, to active duty to smash the strike.  He also excused all students who answered the call from all class work and examinations.  The young men themselves could hardly contain their enthusiasm.  Several left behind letters expressing their hope to “make short work of the swine.”

Of course, not every Unitarian in 1912 shared the intensity of the Boston Brahmin’s class hatred and xenophobia.  A few like rising young star John Haynes Holmes who would soon found the Community Church movement, advocated for a progressive stand on social justice, including support for working people.  In the Midwest where Jenkin Lloyd Jones had for decades presided over the quasi independent Western Unitarian Conference and Unity movement, there was a good deal of pro-labor social gospel feeling.  But by in large, Unitarianism was still a tribal religion of the New England upper classes, and it showed.

Universalists of the period, who included many people of modest means and education in addition to small business people and professionals, tended to support or oppose labor based on local circumstances and conditions.  Industrialist George Pullman is best remembered for being the cause of the great Pullman Strike of 1892 led by Eugene V. Debs of the American Railway Union, but he was one of the Universalist captains of industry and one of the few to take a leading anti-labor role.

It has taken decades for Unitarian Universalism to warm to the labor movement, despite progressive stands on other issues.  Most today are at least mildly supportive or neutral.  The old Brahmin class has long since abandoned Unitarianism for the respectability of Episcopalianism and Congregationalism.  Although we no longer have many super wealthy, we are among the highest income per-capita of all American religious organizations due the very large percentage of college graduates and professionals with advanced degrees.  Indeed today the biggest barrier to more active solidarity with labor lies not in income prejudice, but in the refusal of many of us to acknowledge that we are, despite our degrees, by in large, wage earners ourselves.  We don’t like to think of ourselves as workers, which conjures in our minds dirty fingernails, bad teeth, and ignorance.

As we strive to Stand on the Side of Love and social justice, that is an attitude which we must abandon.

Note 2:  I also read this poem, which I first introduced a few weeks ago at our Just Plain Folk—Songs of Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things benefit.  Seemed appropriate again. 

My Prayer for Today

Let me be worthy of those
whose names have been forgotten.

Those who stood up,
            stood out
            and stood down.

Those whose hands bled,
            brows sweated
            and backs bent.

Those who nurtured,
            and loved without question.

Those who questioned,          
            and cared.

Those who offered hands up,
            hand outs,
            and hands on deck when it mattered.

Those who saw far,
            saw clearly
            and saw what need be done.

Those who sang,
            who danced,
            and laughed despite it all.

Those of faith,
            free thought
            and far horizons.

Oh, Greater Mystery,
            make we worthy of them all.

—Patrick Murfin


  1. Patrick,

    One of those Harvard students was a young classical banjo player named Paul Cadwell. I met him when he was in his nineties, back in 1970 or so. He told Utah Phillips that if he'd had the wit back then that he had when he was older, he never would have done it.

    Nice poem. Happy Labor Day.

    Andy Cohen

  2. "On the contrary, the elite of American Unitarianism were united in its determination to do everything possible to crush the strike."

    Kinda like how the current elite of American Unitarian Universalism at "The Place That Reeks Of Hierarchy And Privilege" aka 25 Beacon Street in Boston are apparently united in their determination to do everything possible to crush The Emerson Avenger? :-)

    Still ROTFLMU*UO over *that* recent example of manifest UUA legal douchebaggery that is clearly intended to silence my legitimate public criticism of contemporary U*U injustices and abuses. Not much chance of U*Us getting away with *that* "murder" however. . .