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Commentary :: Labor
Lucy Parsons on the Origins of May Day
01 May 2014
The following article is by Lucy Parsons. She was a comrade of Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons. The article first appeared in the Labor Defender in November 1926. The Labor Defender was a newspaper of the International Labor Defense, a working class defense organization tied to the early American Communist Party.
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Lucy Parsons on the Origins of May Day

“The Haymarket Martyrs”

1926 Article from Labor Defender

Does this rising generation know that those who inaugurated the eight-hour day were put to death at the command of capital?

Until forty years ago men, women, and children toiled ten and often twelve hours a day in factories for a mere pittance and children from eight to nine years of age had to work to help to keep up the family.

The Knights of Labor, a powerful organization, claiming 500,000 members, had never agitated for a reduction of the hours of labor. Then who were the pioneers of the eight-hour movement?

Those martyrs who were strung from the gallows in Chicago on November 11, 1887, the much lied about and abused Anarchists.

I will verify this statement. Until 1885 there had never been a concerted action for the reduction of the hours of labor. If eight hours was mentioned in some of our meetings (they were never really mentioned), why, that was only a dream to be indulged in by fools; the bosses would never tolerate such a thing, was the reply.

In 1885 a convention was held in Chicago, composed largely of delegates from Canada. They passed a resolution calling upon the workers of this country and Canada to unite in a demand for a reduction of the hours of daily toil to eight a day on the first of May, 1886, and to strike wherever it was refused. Albert R. Parsons brought the matter up before the Trade and Labor Assembly of Chicago, the first central body ever organized in this city, a body which he himself organized and of which he was elected president three consecutive times. The matter was hotly debated and finally rejected on the ground that the bosses would never tolerate it.

The Central Labor Union, composed of German mechanics, took the matter up and endorsed it. At the same time they passed a resolution requesting August Spies, editor of the Chicago Arbeiterzeitung, the daily German paper, and Albert R. Parsons, editor of the Alarm, to support it in their papers and speeches; they were both splendid orators.

Thus it was that the eight-hour movement got under way. Many other cities agitated for it, but Chicago was the storm center of the movement owing to the zeal and courage of the men and women of this city who worked day and night for it. The result was that when May 1, 1886, arrived, it found Chicago well organized and demanding the eight-hour day, striking by the thousands where the demand was refused. It was a veritable holiday for the workers.

The bosses were taken completely by surprise. Some were frightened and threatening; some were signing up; others were abusing those “scoundrels” who had brought all this trouble upon “our” city and declaring that they would be made examples of, that they ought to be hung and the like.

Bradstreet [a financial publication of the time] declared (see Bradstreet of that date) that stocks had slumped on the New York market owing to the strike situation in Chicago.

The police were unspeakably brutal, clubbing and shooting; factory whistles blew, but few responded.

I was chairman of the Women’s Organization Committee and know personally how that great strike spread. I have never seen such solidarity. I only wish I could describe it in detail, those stirring times. It would make the blood course swiftly through the veins of the rebels of today, but lack of space forbids.

In the afternoon of May 3, the McCormick Reaper Works employees were holding a meeting at the noon hour, discussing the strike and declaring for the eight-hour day—they were then working twelve hours—when wagon loads of police dashed down upon them and began clubbing and shooting without a word of warning. An afternoon paper stated there were five killed and many injured at this meeting.

August Spies who was addressing the meeting, returned to the Arbeiterzeitung office and issued the circular calling the Haymarket meeting for the next evening, May 4. I will allow Mayor Harrison, who was the first witness for the defense, to describe that meeting:

“I went to the meeting for the purpose of dispersing it in case I should feel it necessary to do so for the safety of the city...there was no suggestion made by either of the speakers looking toward calling for immediate use of force or violence. I saw no weapons at all upon any person. In listening to the speeches I concluded that it was not an organization to destroy property...”

For holding that peaceable protest meeting, five of as fine young men as ever lived, all labor organizers, were condemned and judicially murdered on November 11, 1887, in Chicago, Illinois.

There was a riot at the Haymarket meeting, it is true, but it was a police riot. Mayor Harrison further testified that, when the meeting was about to adjourn, he went to the police station, half a block distant, and ordered Captain Bondfield to send the reserves to the other stations, as the meeting was about to adjourn and was quiet. Instead of Bondfield obeying the orders of the Mayor, as soon as the Mayor started home, Bondfield rushed a company of police at double quick, with drawn clubs, upon the meeting of peaceably assembled men, women and children. At the onrush of these violators of the people’s constitutional rights someone hurled a bomb. Who threw that bomb has never become known. Neither the police nor the capitalists wanted to know; what they wanted was to get hold of the labor organizers and make “examples” of them as they said openly they would do.

The trial, so-called, lasted sixty-one days. The jury reached their verdict in less than three hours, condemning seven men to the gallows and one to prison for fourteen years. I herewith give a few, just a few, samples of the rulings of the judge who presided at the trial in selecting the jury.

James H. Walker said he had formed an opinion as to the guilt or innocence of the defendants, which opinion he still held. Now the judge takes him in hand.

“Do you believe that you can listen to the testimony and the charge of the court and decide upon that alone, uninfluenced and unbiased by the opinion that you now have?”

“No, I don’t.”

“That is what I asked you.”

“I said I would be handicapped.”

“Do you believe that you can fairly and impartially render a verdict in accordance with the law and the evidence in this case?”

“I shall try to do it, sir.”

“But do you believe that you can sit here and fairly and impartially make up your mind from the evidence whether that evidence proves that they are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt or not?”

“I think I could but I would feel that I was a little handicapped in my judgment. I am prejudiced, sir.”

“Well, that is a sufficient qualification for a juror in this case. Of course, the more a man feels that he is handicapped the more he will guard against it.”

W.B. Allen, another juror. The judge asked:

“I will ask you whether what you have formed from what you have read and heard is a slight impression or an opinion, or a conviction?”

“It is a decided conviction.”

“Have you made up your mind as to whether these men are guilty or innocent?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Would it be difficult to change that conviction or impression perhaps?”

“It would be hard to change my conviction.”

Seven years later Governor John P. Altgeld reviewed the whole case. He, having been a judge before he was elected governor, was amply competent to review the case in a legal manner. He took the testimony and proved from it that our comrades were absolutely innocent. In his masterly State Paper, Altgeld’s “Reasons” (I can only take a few extracts from it here, the document is printed in the Life of Albert R. Parsons in full) Governor Altgeld says:

“The state has never discovered who threw the bomb which killed the policemen and the evidence does not show any connection between the defendants and the man who did throw it...and again it is shown here that the bomb was, in all probability, thrown by someone seeking revenge, that is, a course had been pursued by the authorities which would naturally cause this; that for a number of years prior to the Haymarket affair there had been labor troubles, and in several cases a number of laboring people, guilty of no offense had been shot down in cold blood by the Pinkerton’s men, and none of the murderers were brought to justice...

“All facts tend to show the improbability of the theory of the prosecution that the bomb was thrown as the result of a conspiracy on the part of the defendants to commit murder; if the theory of the prosecution were correct, there would have been many more bombs thrown and the fact that only one was thrown shows that it was an act of personal revenge... The record of the case shows that the judge conducted the trial with malicious ferocity and forced eight men to be tried together who should have been tried separately.”

Albert R. Parsons was not arrested immediately after the Haymarket meeting. He left Chicago and stayed with his friend, D.W. Hoan, father of the present mayor of Milwaukee, at Waukesha, Wisconsin. The day the trial began he came into court and surrendered, stating that he was innocent of bomb-throwing and only wanted a chance to prove his innocence. But he too was murdered along with the other four.

Parsons, Spies, Lingg, Fischer and Engel. Although all that is mortal of you is laid beneath that beautiful monument in Waldheim Cemetery, you are not dead. You are just beginning to live in the hearts of all true lovers of liberty. For now, after forty years that you are gone, thousands who were then unborn are eager to learn of your lives and heroic martyrdom, and as the years lengthen the brighter will shine your names, and the more you will come to be appreciated and loved.

Those who so foully murdered you, under the forms of law—lynch law—in a court of supposed justice, are forgotten.

Rest, comrades, rest. All the tomorrows are yours!


Distributed by Liberation News, newsletter of the Revolutionary Tendency, subscribe free:
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This work is in the public domain.
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