Note—I have always been proud of my active membership in the Industrial Workers of the World—the Wobblies as a young man and my more mature identification as a Unitarian Universalist, a denomination justly identified for its commitment to social justice. But sometimes modern UU’s are so proud of that reputation that they are loath to admit that not all of our Unitarian and Universalist forbearers were always on the side of the angels.
We boast about early abolitionists like Ralf Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker and our very real martyrs in the Civil Rights Movement, but it was not until Black UUs held our collective feet to the fire to make us recognize our own White privilege that we began to face the fact that Boston elite who helped found and sustain Unitarianism largely gained their wealth in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and then from the textile industry made possible by slave labor on Southern plantations. Or that many Unitarians were violently opposed to abolitionism and shunned and isolated crusaders like Parker. Or that post-Civil War Unitarians refused to recognize Black Unitarian congregation. And in the 1960’s when push came to shove the UUA refused to stand by commitments made to Black members driving the majority of them from our faith. Thankfully, we are finally coming to grips with that as we are will our collective responsibility for settler colonialism and the suppression and near annihilation of our indigenous peoples.
But facing enduring class bias has been much harder. We hate to admit that a deep streak of nativism and anti-Catholic and Jewish prejudice made the Unitarian elite the often sworn enemy of unionism and that those same Brahmin families who made their fortunes on the backs of Blacks were among the most intransient of capitalist bosses and their allies throughout the establishment.
In 2012, the centennial year of the great IWW led Lawrence Textile Strike I addressed the issue in one of the annual Labor Day worship services I led for several years at the old Congregational Unitarian Church in Woodstock, Illinois. This is what I said.
|The Old Man leading one of the annual Labor Day servuces at the old Congregational Unitarian Church in Woodstock, Illinois back in the pre air conditioning days when hot weather services were held in the basement Religious Education room.|
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.
|The press coverage of the Lawrence Strike labeled this photo "immigrant worker types" purposely dehumanizing women strikers.|
That morning Ettor led the largest mass march yet through the center of Lawrence’s business district. Militia, with fixed bayonets, 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.
Martial 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.
|No one could have been more respectable than Harvard University Presudent A. Lawrence Lowell, scion of two Brahman families who made their wealth from the slave trade and then from New England textile mills.|
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.”
|National Guard cavalry, perhaps the Harvard unit, on duty during the Lawrence strike.|
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.
According to Bruce Watson, author of Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream, “If America had a Tomb of the Unknown immigrant paying tribute to the millions of immigrants known only to God and distant cousins compiling family trees, Anna LoPizzo would be a prime candidate to lie in it.” She was so obscure that no known photo of her exists and there is even confusion over her age. Finally in 1990 retired IBEW business agent worked to get a marker on her pauper's grave decorated with a Bread and Roses symbol of a rose and wheat heads.
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 Brahman 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 many minds images of dirty fingernails, bad teeth, and ignorance.
As we now strive to Stand on the Side of Love and social justice, that is an attitude which we must abandon.