Friday, May 31, 2024

Just Four Years Ago Today—To Matilda Mokoto Holmes on Her Birth

Matilda--you were brand new!

Note—Granddaughter Matilda was born on Sunday, May 31, 2020—traditional Memorial Day that year—at 10:40 am.  That was just in time for me to make the exciting announcement in the virtual coffee hour following Tree of Life UU Congregation Coronavirus Zoom services.  How could I forget. 

To Matilda Mokoto Holmes on Your Birth

May 31, 2020

I understand you can’t read this.  You have been very busy getting born, learning how to breathe and such.  Hopefully your mother will keep a copy of this to share with you on some appropriate birthday a few years from now.

On the day you were born the sky was crystal blue and everything was lush green bursting with young life to greet you like the young ducklings on the pond and bunnies in their burrows.  The Web of All Existence greeted you.

With your Mom and Dad.  You weren't really a cone head.

Your Mom and Dad were there, of course.  It couldn’t have happened without them.  And frankly you were a lot of work to get born.  It was even a little scary but your new life prevailed.  You were welcomed in the arms of love.

A whole tribe waits anxiously to greet you—two grandmas, aunts, uncles, cousins, and an odd old Papa.  And there is your second Cousin Sienna who is just one year older than you and will be your playmate and guide for years of coming adventures.  And did I mention the dogs Piper and Ginger who will protect you from marauding pirates and Piper at least will curl up to sleep with you.

Some of your clan--Papa, your Mom, Aunt Heather, Grandma, and Aunt Carolynne.  There are lots more.

You will come home in a couple of days or so with your Mom to Grandma Kathy and Papa’s little house.  It will be your first home.  You will have others, but that first one is very special.  Grandma will spoil and play with you.  Papa will take you on his walks—the stroller is ready to be your carriage into the world—and looks forward to singing strange lullabies to you and reading books with you when you are a little older.

The day you were born used to be Memorial Day before that holiday got moved.  And in a way that connects you to two great grandfathers, Papa Art Brady and Papa Willard Murfin who were soldiers in World War II which will be 100 years past when you are a young woman.  In fact, you are connected to ancestors on both sides of your family whose interesting lives made yours possible.  You are part of a great river of humanity.

Beyond your kin and home there are many friends waiting to greet you and support you on your life journey—your folks’ friends, your whole neighborhood, the Sisters Grandma Kathy works with, and the good people at Papa’s church.  It takes a village to raise a child and you have many villagers to guide you.

The day you were born everyone wore masks.

But I am sorry, not everything was pixie dust and unicorns on the day you were born.  The wide world was a freighting mess.  You were born in the middle of the great Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 which is why no one but your Mom and Dad could be with you in the hospital.  Even after you get home many of your clan will have to wait to see you and play pass the baby until it is safe.  People will wear masks on their faces.  They are scared for themselves—and for you.

Climate change—I am sure you will have heard of it when you can finally read this—is making over the world.  Where you live it will be hotter and wetter, snowier in the winter, apt to big, dangerous storms.  Everything will change from the way things once were.  Your parents and grandparents will have to do everything they can to keep that change from being catastrophic.

The country you live in is riven by bitter division.  Ominous forces are at work.  The free democracy of your parents and ancestors is threatened.  Fascism—I am sorry you will have to learn what that is—looms and some long for a civil war.  Many good people, however, are doing everything they can to prevent that and to leave you a free and safe country.  But it will be a struggle.  

The day you were born Papa was here to help make the world better for you.

Even sadder, on the day you were born cities across America were torn by demonstrations, protests, riots, looting, and violence.  All because Black people in this country are not safe from violent assault by police and because a long sad history of white oppression has been unmasked again.  Your world will not be safe until Black children are safe.

That is why Papa on the day you were born went to Woodstock to hold a sign that said Black Lives Matter and march around the Square with hundreds of others.  He pledges to spend the rest of his life fighting to give you a better world than the one in which you were born.

                                Matilda at four years old--the Princes hits the skins  

The ancient Chinese had a curse—“May you live in interesting times.”  You were born on a day in the middle of interesting times.  Bless you as you make your way through them.

With all the love in the world,




Thursday, May 30, 2024

The Chicago Memorial Day Massacre was a Bloody Walk on a Prairie

The Memorial Day Massacre--American Tragedy, 1937, by Philip Evergood was based on a press photograph.

Eighty seven years ago today it was hot and muggy in Chicago.  But the Sun was shining brilliantly.  Due to a week old strike and the Memorial Day holiday, the giant steel mills nearby were not belching their customary heavy smoke.  Maybe those unaccustomed dazzling skies contributed to the air of a holiday outing as steel workers, their wives in their finest summer dresses, and their children converged by bus, trolley, auto, and foot on Sams Place, an erstwhile dime-a-dance hall, turned into a makeshift soup kitchen and strike headquarters on the Southeast Side less than a mile from the Republic Steel mill.

It was May 30, 1937.   The Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), the pet project of John L. Lewiss Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), had shocked the nation earlier in the year by bringing industry behemoth U.S. Steel under contract by infiltrating the company unions and having them vote to affiliate.  Faced with rising demand from an apparent recovery under way from the depths of the Depression on one hand and a popular, labor friendly administration in Washington on the other, the nation’s dominant steel company quietly surrendered.

Buoyed by the success, organizers turned their attention to Little Steel, the smaller, independent operators in Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Chicago and other grimy industrial cities.  But the bosses of Youngstown Sheet and Steel, Republic, Bethlehem, Jones and Laughlin and others were a tougher bunch than the Wall Street stock manipulators that ran the huge rump of the old Steel Trust.  In fact they had nothing but contempt for the monopolists, their old business enemies, and their “weakling” attitude toward unionization.  Little Steel vowed to fight.  Tom Girdler, President of Republic, had said that he would go back to hoeing potatoes before he met the strikers’ demands.

The ferocity of the opposition to unionization was not just empty rhetoric either.  They had shown they meant business in blood on more than one occasion.  Famously in Youngstown, Ohio back in 1916 strikers accompanied by their wives and children marched from the slums to the gates of the Sheet and Tube mill to keep strike breakers from reporting to work.  Inside the gates a small army of private security forces responded by throwing dozens of tear gas bombs.  As the thick, poisonous haze hung over the workers obscuring their vision, guards unleashed volley after volley of rifle fire directly into their ranks.  The exact toll may never be known as workers were afraid to bring the wounded to medical attention.  At least three were killed, probably twice that many including women.  Twenty-seven injuries were confirmed, but strikers made oral reports of more than a hundred.  Enraged as the dead and wounded lay bleeding on the ground the strikers attacked the guards with stones and bricks and perhaps a pistol shot or two before retreating to town.

Little Steel strikers remembered Youngstown 21 years earlier.

In rioting over the next two days, workers burned much of the town’s business district only to be eventually crushed by Ohio National Guard troops.  The memory of those events was still fresh to workers more than twenty years later.  Especially when Little Steel bosses quietly let it be known that they had been stockpiling armories for years and were ready, even eager to repeat the carnage.

The USWOC called their national strike against Little Steel a week earlier.  In Chicago it had been marred by predictable violence, particularly on the part of the Chicago Police Department which had a long history of being used as armed strike breakers.  Beatings and arrests on the picket lines were occurring daily.  Some strike leaders had been kidnapped and held incommunicado.  For their part senior police officers were “subsidized” by corporate bosses who also bought political clout with the usual campaign contributions and bribes to local officials.  They also pledged to reimburse the city for police overtime during the strike.  In addition the still largely Irish Catholic force was kept inflamed by homilies preached in their parishes deriding USWOC as “Godless Communists.”

Despite this, morale among the strikers was high.  After only a week out, families had not yet felt the full pinch of lost incomes and strike soup kitchens kept them fed.   Organizers made a point of engaging workers’ wives from the beginning, including them in planning and giving them important support roles.  This was critical because many a strike had been lost in the past when families went hungry, and the women urged their men to return to work.

As the large crowd gathered at Sam’s Place for the first mass meeting of the strike, vendors plied the crowd with ice cream, lemonade, and soft drinks.  Meals were passed out from the soup kitchen.  Other families munched on sandwiches wrapped in wax paper brought from home.  Many of the men passed friendly bottles as they settled into a round singing—mostly old Wobbly songs including Solidarity Forever and Alfred Hayess I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.

Then came the rousing speeches.  Joe Webber, USWOC’s main organizer pointed his finger at the distant plant. The plan was to establish the first mass picket at the gates of the Republic Works.  Some workers carried homemade signs.  Organizers passed out hundreds of pre-printed placards stapled to lathing emblazoned with slogans.

With a sense of a gay holiday parade the strikers marched away from Sam’s Place behind two American flags singing as they went one block up the black top and then turned into the wide, flat prairie that separated them from the distant plant.  

Many of the surviving press photos--the police confiscated and destroyed as much film as they could lay their hands on--was damaged.  Still, they tell an unmistakable story.  Police continue to beat the helpless in the pile while launching more tear gas as firing at those still fleeing.

Historian/novelist Howard Fast later described the scene.

…snake-like, the line of pickets crossed the meadowland, singing at first...but then the song died as the sun-drenched plain turned ominous, as five hundred blue-coated policemen took up stations between the strikers and the plant. The strikers’ march slowed—but they came on. The police ranks closed and tightened… now it was to unarmed men and women and children that a police captain said, “You dirty sons of bitches, this is as far as you go!”

About two hundred and fifty yards from the plant, the police closed in on the strikers.  Billies and clubs were out already, prodding, striking, nightsticks edging into women’s breasts and groins. It was great fun for the cops who were also somewhat afraid, and they began to jerk guns out of holsters.

“Stand fast! Stand fast!” the line leaders cried. “We got our right! We got our legal rights to picket!”

The cops said, “You got no rights. You Red bastards, you got no rights.”

Even if a modern man’s a steelworker, with muscles as close to iron bands as human flesh gets, a pistol equalizes him with a weakling—and more than equalizes. Grenades began to sail now; tear gas settled like an ugly cloud. Children suddenly cried with panic, and the whole picket line gave back, men stumbling, cursing, gasping for breath. Here and there, a cop tore out his pistol and began to fire; it was pop, pop, pop at first, like toy favors at some horrible party, and then, as the strikers broke under the gunfire and began to run, the contagion of killing ran like fire through the police.

They began to shoot in volleys. It was wonderful sport, because these pickets were unarmed men and women and children; they could not strike back or fight back. The cops squealed with excitement. They ran after fleeing men and women, pressed revolvers to their backs, shot them down and then continued to shoot as the victims lay on their faces, retching blood. When a woman tripped and fell, four cops gathered above her, smashing in her flesh and bones and face. Oh, it was great sport, wonderful sport for gentle, pot-bellied police, who mostly had to confine their pleasures to beating up prostitutes and street peddlers—at a time when Chicago was world-infamous as a center of gangsterism, assorted crime and murder.

And so it went, on and on, until ten were dead or dying and over a hundred wounded. And the field a bloodstained field of battle. World War veterans there said that never in France had they seen anything as brutal as this.

Because workers were afraid to bring their injured to hospital, the exact casualty count may never be known for sure.  Ten men were confirmed dead.  All shot in the back. More than 50 gunshot wounds were reported. At least a hundred were badly injured, many more with scrapes, bruises, and turned ankles from police clubs and the panicked stampede to escape.

Many reporters and photographers were on the scene.  Police confiscated most of their film.  Newsreel cameras caught the action, but the companies were pressured not to show the footage.  The next day, led by the rabidly anti-union Chicago Tribune, most of the press dutifully recorded that the police had come under attack by fanatic Reds and had acted in self-defense.  

The rabidly anti-union Tribune spread the lie that Communist radicals had attacked police.  They threatened their own reporters who knew better.

Although covered in the labor press, the nation as a whole was kept in the dark about what had happened.  Even the workers supposed friend Franklin D. Roosevelt, pretty much accepted the official account and told reporters that “the majority of people are saying just one thing, ‘A plague on both your houses.’”

A Cook County Coroners Jury ruled the deaths that day as justifiable homicide.  Not only was no action taken against any of the police involved that day, but senior officers were commended and promoted.

The truth about what happened was very nearly suppressed, as so many atrocities committed against working people had been.  But a single newsreel cameraman saved the footage he shot from the roof of his car.  Some of the photographers on the scene retained their shots.  The stills and the moving pictures were placed on exhibit during the hearing on Republic Steel Strike held by a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Education and Labor almost a year later.  A shocked nation saw for itself the senseless, unprovoked brutality of the police.

The Ladies Day massacre outside of the Youngstown Sheet and Tube plant later in July showed that Little Steel Bosses were still committed to smashing the strike with brutal force. 

As for the strike, it dragged on through the summer, as did regular violence on picket lines.  Then on July 19th it was Ladies Day on the picket line in front of the Republic Steel mill in Youngstown.  After company guards assaulted one of the women, they were pelted with rocks and bottles.  Retreating into the plant, in an eerie replay of the 1916 violence, guards let loose with tear gas and then opened fire, many firing down on the crowd from virtual snipers nests.  At least two were killed and dozens wounded.  Once again the National Guard was called in and the town became a virtual occupied territory.  The strike was crushed, and workers went back.

But the Steel Workers turned to the new National Labor Relations Board for help.  They complained of unfair labor practices by the Little Steel companies.  The case took years to resolve.  But in 1942, with another war on and the need for industrial peace, the NLRB ordered the companies to recognize what had become the United Steel Workers Union.

                                            The Memorial Day Massacre victims remembered.

Today a local union hall stands on the site of Sam’s Place.  The Republic Mill and other Little Steel plants are closed and pad-locked eyesores or have been torn down for largely undeveloped parkland. The City seeks desperately to find some way to redevelop what are now called simply Brown Fields.  At one time the site was suggested as one possible future home for Barack Obamas Presidential Library, but it was passed over.  USW members and the Illinois Labor History Society sometimes gather in remembrance of that terrible day.  And the last aging survivors, including some of the children present, fade away one by one, their stories untold. 


The Republic Steel Memorial Day Massacre Sculpture, created by former Republic Steel employee Edward Blazak, was dedicated in 1981. Originally located near the main gate at 116th Street and Burley Avenue, it was rededicated in 2008 and relocated to 11659 South Avenue O, at the southwest corner of the grounds of a Chicago Fire Department station where it is somewhat hard to find.  I'm told that current Chicago Police are resentful of the CFD for letting it be put on their grounds.

This year again there will be scant mention of the Memorial Day Massacre or coverage of commemorations.  Seems like Chicago is still eager to forget.