In less than one week, we’ll be celebrating our Independence Day in the United States. While cooking burgers and dogs, or watching fireworks, we’ll take a moment to consider and celebrate the human rights that have made the U.S. a paragon for more than two centuries; rights that we would not enjoy were it not for heroes from the past.
I worry that Mary Harris Jones is one hero whose name and achievements are fading from history. “Mother” Jones, as she came to be called, was born in Ireland around 1837. Her family fled the Great Famine to live in America. A teacher and dressmaker by trade, she married and lived with her husband and their four children. When Mary was only 30, her entire family died of yellow fever. Four years later, the Great Chicago Fire claimed her dress shop.
While helping rebuild the Windy City, Mother Jones involved herself in the ongoing organized labor movements of the time. The late 19th and early 20th Centuries had no restrictions on child labor, few states or professions enjoyed eight-hour work days, and there were no common health, retirement, or workers’ compensation benefits provided by employers. It was a dangerous time; many strikes ended in violence at the hands of the militia. Unions formed as workers attempted to leverage their power to collectively bargain for basic human rights, better pay, and benefits. Mother Jones, as an old, widowed woman, became a leading activist, organizer, and agitator in the labor movement, particularly for children and coal miners. Often, she’d organize the miners’ wives and children to gather and protest corporate injustice.
Mother Jones remained active until her death at age 93 in 1930. Regardless of your political leanings (she was a socialist long before the U.S.S.R. of the Cold War made “communism” and “socialism” bad words, and her work went on to inspire the foundation of the left-wing “Mother Jones” magazine), she proved that anyone, at any age, can make a meaningful impact.
In 1999, folk rock singer Ani DiFranco teamed up with folk singer and storyteller Utah Phillips to present some of Utah’s stories. Their track about Mother Jones is excerpted below. I’ll provide two bits of commentary, then leave you with the quote: (1) Utah was a storyteller, and as with such folk, his stories are substantially correct with some misremembered details; (2) the details are irrelevant, it’s the story that matters.
I hope you find this as inspiring as I did:
One time Mother Jones was out in Colorado at the great Ludlow strike. Now that was the strike to enforce the eight-hour day, which the state of Colorado had made a law. But they couldn’t enforce it because Rockefeller owned the militia. Now, the governor promised not to send the militia into the coal fields, but he lied, and he did.
Mother Jones was in the union hall down there at Ludlow when word came that the militia had entered the coal fields. Well she leapt up and she screamed, “Let’s go get the sons of bitches!” And she stormed out. She didn’t look to see if anybody was following her.
Nobody was following her.
She just flounced up the road alone and confronted the militia.
And that was the year President Theodore Roosevelt called Mother Jones “the most dangerous woman in America,” and she was 83 years old.
That’s some kind of danger.
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