Though it’s a holiday celebrated with an appreciative nod to those workers and activists who fought for decent workplace conditions, May Day is also a link to our distant past — a time when individuals were attuned to the ebb and flow of the seasons. Oddly enough, the double-layered nature of the holiday is not at odds with itself.
Of course the day has pagan roots, exactly half of the year removed from the festival of Samhain on November 1st. As that holiday marked the culmination of the harvest season, May Day (or Beltane) reflected the joys of spring and the desire for a fertile growing season. The decidedly unbridled celebration created foes over the years; the holiday was banned by the largely puritan parliament during Oliver Cromwell’s years. But that, of course, was not enough to stomp out the holiday that keeps popping up like an unruly, but lovely weed.
The transition from May Day to an International Workers’ holiday occurred a bit over 100 years ago. Remarkably the country that spurred this conversion from springtime revelry to the more serious reflection and homage to workers of the past does not celebrate this day in the formalized manner of so many other nations. The United States was responsible for the mayhem and miscarriage of justice that caused the rest of the world to take notice and create a May Day a holiday for the workers.
In 1886, Chicago was a hotbed of what was perceived to be radical workers’ rights initiatives. Strikes and scabs were words floating around in abundance, and the Pinkertons were strong-arming those thought to be “unhelpful” to the aims of business. The close of the Civil War brought the onslaught of industrialization and the accompanying wrestle between business profitability and worker dignity. Many immigrants, often of German origin, made attempts to strengthen the position of workers during these chaotic and changing times.
On May 4th of that year, a gathering was held in Haymarket Square to push for a standardized 8-hour workday. Speeches were given as people gathered, and as the meeting came to a close, something absolutely terrible occurred. An explosive was cast into the area, causing the police present to fire into the crowd. Untold casualties fell during the mayhem, including friendly fire towards other policemen.
They never figured out who threw the device, but that didn’t stop the prosecution of several defendants, six of whom weren’t even present when the event occurred. Jury members were tossed out if they expressed anything less than disdain for the workers’ rights movement. And Judge Joseph Gary exhibited complete prejudice during the proceedings.
Not surprisingly, the media fed into the frenzy, producing highly skewed articles, full of bloody and violent adjectives to describe the strikers and dissidents involved in the movement. Words like “stalwart” were used to describe those who worked against the maniacs who mainly believed would destroy the very fabric of society.
The defendants never stood a chance. They were truly prosecuted and convicted for having non-mainstream beliefs and aspirations. As seen so many times, Middle America took the side of the oligarchs, letting themselves be manipulated against their own interests. The Supreme Court dismissed the request for a writ of error in regard to the flawed proceedings.
The media continued to add insult to injury in regard to the affair, even years later. The Chicago Tribune was one of the main offenders that created the atmosphere conducive to the miscarriage of justice. Years later they ran an editorial, continuing to disparage labor activism saying that the wrongs of that movement were in much greater excess than any perceived evils of capitalism.
They went on to criticize workers directly, saying that they needed to work more efficiently if they wanted more pay and less hours. (And we know how increased efficiency always translates into benefits for the workers….well- maybe not so much, right?) Oh, and they needed to quit drinking so much booze, too, said the editorial.
At the time of the trial, there was indignation around the world as the guilty verdict came in, but relative quiet in the United States. On November 11, 1887, four of the defendants were placed on the gallows, and in a disgusting chapter close, they did not die rapidly from broken necks. The unfortunate men lingered brutally through strangulation. Much like the crowd response after the reported “blush” by Charlotte Corday after her slap and beheading, the crowd who witnessed the sickening display left shaken and a little less bloodthirsty than before.
The three other defendants did not see the gallows. Louis Lingg killed himself with an exploding cap placed in his mouth before he could be executed, but like the botched gallows’ deaths, he lingered for a horrifying time with much of his face gone. The two remaining men finally received some mercy when a governor of German descent, somewhat sympathetic to the workers, gave a stay of execution. That act was used against the governor in a political manner soon after, and he lost out on reelection, quite possibly due to that act of mercy.
Haymarket monuments are in place to commemorate all involved: one is in Forest Home Cemetery, Illinois, standing over the graves of the executed men. Emma Goldman’s grave is in that cemetery as well. There was also a monument to the police placed in the middle of Haymarket Square in 1889, but in a fit of what might be called “streetcar rage” a driver jumped the tracks and ran into the statue because “he was sick of seeing that policeman with his arm raised.”
May Day became a natural time to reflect on the terrible events of that early spring day in 1886. Though the pagan holiday was about renewal and life, these martyrs were trying to usher in a new age of decency and worth for humanity- a calculated dismissal of the machine, the industrial. The fit is there, between the desires of those men for an organic, meaningful existence, and the unbridled love of nature that is May Day. It may well fit better than the originators of International Workers’ Day realized.
And of course there’s the common authoritarian hatred suffered by May Day in regard to those joyless Puritans so many years ago. Their work ethic became the very core philosophy of all who would justify the actions of industrialization, and denigrate the fallen workers and their demands for dignity. Connections are there when we free our minds to see them.
The holiday was formally recognized in France in 1891 and many countries followed suit. Though many eventually wanted this to be a holiday in the United States, this was not to be. In fact, I suspect Americans would be more successful in getting “420” to be a national holiday than May 1st.
President Grover Cleveland wanted nothing to do with a remembrance of the fallen at Haymarket Square, so he pushed for the Labor Day that we now know in early Septembe -r- pretty much just a hollow three-day weekend to mark the end of summer. In that most American manner, there was no need to ban the reflections on the labor movement, simply co-opt it and turn it into a day to barbecue.
There’s a spirit that connects us all to the love of spring — and the pure desire for renewal that comes from a long, dark winter. The heroes of the past were part of that pull towards the value of human life, and that naturally merges with the beauty of yearly rejuvenated nature. Industrialization and profits are not part of this delicate world.
This year, Occupy Wall Street is encouraging a nationwide strike on May 1st. I would say they know their history. And I hope many, especially in America, will remember the struggles and deaths of those activists in Chicago, and consider the potent blood that is May.
Kathleen writes out of the US Midwest and can be contacted at [email protected] — or later this month at paintedfire.org (the body parts are being assembled, just waiting for some lightning to bring the thing to life).
Posted: Saturday, 28 April 2012