Friday, 30 November 2012

Mary Harris Jones ( 1/5/1830 - 30/11/1930) Mother Jones / The Miners' Angel

Today marks the anniversary of the death of Mary Harris Jones. Dressmaker and militant activist. In her autobiography she claimed she  was born on May 1 1830, though others have put her actual birth as  August 1 1837. What is undisputed is that she was born in North Cork, Southern  Ireland, her grandfather  having been of Welsh stock, who had been hung for fighting for the cause of Irish freedom. Her own father was a Richard Harris, a Roman Catholic tenant farmer, who was forced to flee with his family to Toronto in Canada because of getting into trouble for political activities.
After  leaving school at 17,  Mary taught for a while before leaving Canada and moving to Chicago and becoming a dress maker. Going back to teaching, she moved to Memphis where she met and married the Welsh American George E Jones in 1861. He was an iron moulder who was an active member of it's union.
However tragedy struck because her husband and their four children died in an outbreak of Yellow Fever. Mary tried to recuperate by moving back to Chicago, to become a dressmaker once again, but yet again another misfortune occurred. In the great Chicago Fire  of 1871, she lost everything she ever owned. On her own in the world, she decided to dedicate herself  to the labour struggle for human working conditions, and so began  a life of relentless campaigning against suffering and exploitation.
She said "Often while sewing for the lords and barons who lived in magnificent houses on the Lake Shore Drive, I would look out of the plate glass windows and see the poor, shivering wretches, jobless and hungry, walking along the frozen lake front. The contrast of their condition with that of the tropical comfort of the people fr whom I sewd I sewd was painful to me. My employers seemed neither to notice or care.'
In 1903 the West Virginian District Attorney, Reese Blizzard dubbed  her ' the grandmother of all agitators, and the most dangerous woman in America.'
She joined the Knights of Labour Movement and was to become involved in just about every  major industrial dispute in the next half century. From the 1870' to the early 1920's  she travelled to many strikes up and down the country, earning respect and admiration wherever she went,  she became known for her passionate eloquent speeches, that she delivered  to encourage the strikers, taking part in many militant actions, running educational meetings for the workers and their families. She lived amongst the workers, treating them all as equals, inspiring them, such was her empathy for the workers, they started referring to her as Mother Jones.

She developed a confrontational style, refusing to compromise on behalf of all that she considerec suffering from Oppression. In 1877, she was involved in the Pittsburgh Railway Strike, when twenty strikers were killed She showed no fear to the intimidation and violence that was being perpetrated by the authorities, at a time when many radical leaders in the Labour Movement were being harrassed, detained and silenced. Despite all this Mary Harris Jones carried on defending.
In 1898 she helped found the Social Deomocratic Party, which 3 years later became part of the Socialist Party  of America. In 1905 she helped start the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). She was the only woman among 25 delegates, who called for a convention to organise all Industrial Workers. Known as the Wobblies, their famous motto was ' an injury to one, is an injury to all'

Famously she organised the childrens crusade of striking children from the textile mills of Kensington, Pennsylvania, across New Jersey to President Theodore Roosevelt's own front door in Long Island , New York in 1903. Though the President refused to meet the protestors, this crusade bought the issue of child labour  to the national attention.She made frequent stops to give speeches and tell the public about the effects of this exploitation, and her actions paved the way for the eradication of child Labour in the Unite States. Here she was at 73 , still fighting for better conditions, you did not mess with Mother Jones.
Typically clad in a black dress, her face framed by a lace collar and black hat, the barely five-foot tall Mother Jones was a fearless fighter for workers’ rights. She rose to prominence as a fearless organizer for the Mine Workers during the first two decades of the 20th century. Her voice had great carrying power. Her energy and passion inspired men half her age into action and compelled their wives and daughters to join the struggle. If that didn’t work, she would embarrass men to action. "I have been in jail more than once and I expect to go again. If you are too cowardly to fight, I will fight," she told them. Mother Jones' organizing methods were unique for her time. She welcomed African American workers and involved women and children in strikes. She organized miners’ wives into teams armed with mops and brooms to guard the mines against scabs. She staged parades with children carrying signs that read, "We Want to Go to School and Not to the Mines."
She was like an anchor to the workers, such was her dedication to their cause, arrested many times, using fearless tactics, with words and deeds, using revolutionary ideas, driven by her underlying passion. She got increasingly involved in the plight of the miners, becoming an organiser for the United Mine Workers Association, the miners themselves started to refer to her as their angel, such was their love for her. In 1911 she was involved in the Paint Creek Cabin Strike in West Virginia. In 1912 she was leading a march of miners children in Charleston, West Virginia. She was back again the next year, this time leading to her arrest. She had become a militant matriarch, uniting the family of labour through her words and her courage.
September 23, 1913 marked the beginning of a massive coal strike in Colorado, she brought news of the strike to the nation, and after the infamous Ludlow Massacre, when twenty people  were machine gunned down by guards after a walkout  by about ninety percent of the workers she made sure that the truth of this  got out and that the news was not suppressed.

Woody Guthrie - Ludlow Massacre

When in January 1914  she tried to return she was arrested again. She was convicted  by a miliatary court of Conspiracy to murder and the 83 year old was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Thousands gathered to protest which led to the commute of her sentence. Above all she had once again drawn the press into the plight of the miners and by her actions the Senate ordered an investigation into the conditions in the coalfields.
She went to Pittsburgh in 1919 to support the steelworkers,throughout the 1920s, her fight did not cease, still embracing the movement to her heart,supporting dressmakers in Chicago in 1934, supporting the Revolutionary cause in Mexico. In 1925 she published her autobiography. In it she defiantly wrote 'In spite of oppressors, in spite of false leaders the cause of the workers continues onward. Slowly his hours are shortened, slowly his standards of living rise to include some of the good and beautiful things in life. Slowly, those who create the wealth of the world are permitted to share it. The future is in labour's strong rough hands.' She continued making public appearances and fighting for the causes she believed in right up to her hundredth birthday.

She died on November 30th 1930. She is  buried in the Union Miners' Cemetery at Mount Olive, Illinois, alongside th 4 victims of the 1889 Virden, Illinois, mine riot. Mother Jones , the Miners angel had been asked to be buried here. Her 80-ton granite monument  was erected there in 1936, dedicated before a crowd  of 50,000 people, 32,000 of whom had marched to the cemetery.
After her death the American authorites tried to erase her imprint from the history books, they still found her dangerous. But her memory and spirit was impossible to erase, she had overcome personal tragedy to raise peoples hopes , a spark in  the name of solidarity and resistance. She had become the mother of the downtrodden,and the voicless, who had fought against suffering and exploitation. Across America, today, people still fighting for decent lives, fighting for social justice, raising their voices in defiance. This is Mother Jones's legacy, long may it be honoured.

Mother Jones Speaks
filed on the occasion of her 100th
birthday 1930

The Most Dangerous Woman
- Ani di Franco & Utah Phillips

Further Reading:-

Autobiography - Mary Harris Jones

Mother Jones: The Most Dangeerous Woman in America
-  Elliot J Gorn.

Mother Jones speaks:
Speeches & Writings of a working Class Fighter
-Mary Harris Jones/ Philip S Glover

'Pray for the dead & fight like hell for the living'. - Mother Jones

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