Rebels of the Soapbox
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was formed in Chicago in June 1905 when Big Bill Haywood banged his gavel down and declared, "Fellow Workers ... This is the Continental Congress of the working class."
Preamble of the Industrial Workers of the WorldUnlike the American Federation of Labor (AFL), this new Union intended to organize workers on an industry-wide basis rather than by craft or trade. The IWW was to include the millions of workers left unorganized by the AFL -- the unskilled, the immigrant, and the indigent, irregardless of "race, creed, color, sex, or previous condition of servitude."
The working class and the employing class have nothing in common! There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system...
"Street speaking" became an important organizing tool of the new union, especially in the western states. To put a halt to IWW organizing, western cities began passing anti-speech ordinances. The IWW responded with massive free-speech campaigns. The call went out and rebel soapboxers poured into town, ready to fill the jails. Free Speech was usually re-established after much persitant effort.
By 1912, the IWW had fought (and mostly won) free-speech fights in Missoula, Seattle, Spokane, Aberdeen, Fresno, as well as other western towns.
Soapboxing Wobblie Style
February 8, 1912
"Friends and Fellow Workers"
On this date the San Diego Anti-Speech Ordinance went into effect. The area long known as "Soapbox Row," E Street between Fourth and Fifth, became part of a "restricted" district which included 49 blocks in the center of town. All street meetings were prohibited, even those held by street preachers.
IWW Local Union No. 13 was undeterred. That same day, 38 men and 3 women climbed up on the soapbox, gave the free-speech fighter's four-word speech: "Friends and Fellow Workers," and were all hauled off to jail. Arrests continued for several days.
On Feb 12, IWW headquarters in Chicago received a request for help along with this message, "Will fight to a finish." Word was soon spread across the IWW hobo camps, and Wobblies began pouring into San Diego. A general round up of "vagrants" followed. The San Diego City Jail was filled and overflowed.
In response to the Anti-Speech Ordinance, locals of the IWW, AFL, Socialist Party, and even some church groups, formed the California Free-Speech League. On Feb 26, the League held a large protest parade. In a line, two miles long, and five abreast the protesters marched down the middle of the street.
March 4, 1912
San Diego Tribune
Hanging is none to good for them. They would be much better dead, for they are absolutely useless in the human economy; they are the waste material of creation and should be drained off into the sewer of oblivion there to rot in cold obstruction like any other excrement.
March 10, 1912
A Rebel Girl Speaks
In front of the San Diego City Jail, Laura Payne Emerson stepped onto the soapbox. Laura was a member of IWW L.U. NO. 13 and a veteran of the successful 1910 organizing campaign among American and Mexican workers of the San Diego Consolidated Gas and Electric Co. Once organized, these workers had won their strike for shorter hours and higher pay.
Now, as she rose to speak for better treatment of the free speech prisoners, she was well known to the San Diego police. Determined to stop her speech, the police called in the fire department. The Oakland World described the scene:
For a full hour, hundreds packed themselves in a solid mass around Mrs Emerson as she stood upon the speaker's stand. Bending themselves to the torrent that poured upon them they held their ground until swept from their feet by the irrepressible flood."They have the courts, the jails, and the funds," she aknowledged. But yet the free speech fighters had each other and their Solidarity. Laura later wrote this song which was sung to the tune of Wabash Cannonball, and printed in the 1923 Little Red Songbook:
I stood by a city prison,
In the twilight's deepening gloom,
Where men and women languished
In a loathsome, living tomb.
They were singing! And their voices
Seemed to weave a wreath of light,
As the words came clear with meaning:
"Workers of the World, unite!"
The Death of Michael Hoey
The city jail, built for 60 inmates, held as many as 280 during the Free Speech Fight. Beatings were common. One such beating was inflicted on Fellow Worker Michael Hoey, age 65.Three officers attached him, kicked him in the groin, threw him into a crowed cell and left him there gravely injured. The prison doctor visited but remained unconcerned with his condition until, finally, after many days, he was taken to the hospital. He died seven days later.
They Are Singing All The Time
The San Francisco Labor Council (AFL) sent a committee to San Diego to investigate conditions. They interviewed Chief of Police Wilson who expressed his complete exasperation with the free speech prisoners:
These people do not belong to any country, no flag, no laws, no Supreme Being. I do not know what to do. I cannot punish them. Listen to them sing. They are singing all the time, and yelling, and hollering, and telling the jailers to quit work and join the Union. They are worse than animals.Animals indeed! For what sort of humans would view their jailers as their fellow workers and then reach out to them in Solidarity? From behind the bars the prisoners may have been singing this popular parody from the 1911 Little Red Songbook:
Beyond Singing They Made No Trouble
The AFL Committee concluded that the actions of the IWW and their supporters were:
... part of the workers' struggle for better conditions and brighter lives...Beyond singing a few songs in the crowded jail and asking to have the vermin suppressed and the vile food improved...they made no trouble.
Outside the jail not a single act of violence or even wantonness has been committed. Not a blow has been struck; not a weapon used, not a threat of any kind made by an IWW or other sympathizer with the Free Speech movement. Such patience under the most infamous and galling inhumanity and injustice speaks well for the discipline maintained by the leaders of such men.
March 28, 1912
To facilitate the ban on free speech, the city passed a "move-on" ordinance which went into effect on March 28. This useful ordinance allowed police to order individuals or groups of any size anywere in San Diego to "move-on." The Industrial Worker warned their fellow unionist in the AFL:
WORSE AND MORE OF ITAnd "worse and more of it" is exactly what the free speech fighters got, for with the "move-on" ordinance in their pockets, police violence increased.
"MOVE ON" FOR SPEAKERS, LATER WILL INCLUDE PICKETS
Police routinely handed prisoners over to vigilantes who took them out of town, beat them, took their clothes, and left them in the desert. Incoming Wobblies were met by deputized vigilantes, and dragged out of railroad cars. They were then forced to kneel and kiss the flag before being run through the gauntlet. Fellow Worker Charles Hanson later gave this description:
[There were] 50 men being on each side and each man being armed with a gun and a club and some had long whips. When I started to run the gauntlet the men were ready...I felt the wagon spoke sink in splitting my knee. I reeled over. As I was lying there I saw other fellow workers running the gauntlet. Some were bleeding freely from cracked heads, others were knocked down only to be made to get up to run again. Some tried to break the line only to be beaten back.Abram R Sauer, Courageous Editor
Abram R Sauer, editor of the San Diego, Herald, dared to expose the vigilantees:
The personnel of the vigilantes represents not only the bankers and merchants but has as its workers leading Church members and bartenders. Chamber of Commerce and the Real Estate Board are well represented. The press and the public utility corporations, as well as members of the grand jury, are known to belong.
He was kidnapped, taken out of town and threatened with a rope around his neck. His printing office was destroyed. Nevertheless, the intrepid Sauer moved his printing operations out of town and smuggled his newspaper in.
May 4, 1912
The Death of Joseph Mikolasek
Fellow Worker Joseph Mikolasek, IWW member from Los Angeles, had been one of the first volunteers to arrive in San Diego. On May 4, he was standing in front of the IWW hall when he was approached by two policemen. One of them shot him in the leg. To defend himself, he reached for an ax and was cut down by four more bullets. He died nineteen hours later. His body was shipped home to LA where a huge public rally was held in his honor.
May 14, 1912
The Torture of Ben Reitman
Emma Goldman arrive in San Diego with her campanion, Ben Reitman, for a speaking engagement. Her speech was cancelled due to death threats, and she was rushed out of town ahead of a mob threatening to "tear out her guts." Her campanion was not so fortunate.
Ben Reitman was kidnapped from his hotel room by vigilantes and transported out of town. There the vigilantes tortured him. They held him down, urinated on him, tarred and "feathered" him with sagebrush, burned IWW into his back, forced a cane into his rectum, and then forced him to run the guntlet. Lastly, to satisfy their patriotic fervor, the vigilantes forced him to kiss the flag and sing "the Star Spangled Banner."
Later speaking at a large protest rally in San Francisco, Mrs Femont Older predicted that:
When the vigilantes of San Diego burned IWW into the back of a man, they burned IWW into the hearts and souls and blood of every worker in the United States.
May 25, 1912
Finally, Governor Johnson was forced to act. He sent California Attorney General U. S. Webb to San Diego with the warning that local authorities must act within the law or face state intervention. Webb also threatened prosecution of vigilante leaders if their acts of violence did not stop. Vigilante violence did stop, but the anti-speech ordinance remained in effect. For its part, the Free Speech League remained determined to carry on the struggle.
A Fellow Worker Undresses the Court
From the beginning of the struggle, many free-speech fighters were charged with various crimes and hauled into court. Before being sentenced to six months in jail, Fellow Worker Jack Whyte stood before the superior court of San Diego, California and gave this speech:
"The People of the State of California against J.W.Wright and Others." It's a hideous lie. The court itself knows that it is a lie, and I know that it is a lie. If the people of the state are to blame for this persecution, then the people are to blame for the murder of Michael Hoey and the assassination of Joseph Mikolasek. They are to blame and responsible for every bruise, ever insult and injury inflicted upon the members of the working class by the vigilantes of this city.
The people deny it....You cowards throw the blame upon the people, but I know who is to blame and I name them-it is [sugar capitalist] Spreckles and his partners in business and this court is the lackey and lickspittle of that class, defending the property of that class against the advancing horde of starving American workers.
...Then you tell me to respect the law. I do not. I did violate the law, as I will violate every one of your laws and still come before you and say, "To hell with the courts."
...and [I] say again so that you, Judge Sloane, may not be mistaken as to my attitude, "To hell with your courts, I know what justice is."
There is one thing I can tell you
And it makes the bosses sore,
As fast as they can pinch us,
We can always get some more.
With vigilante violence curbed, the free-speech fight continued. Wobblies continued to pour into San Diego, and police continued to arrest and jail them for soapboxing in the restricted zone. Gradually the citizens of San Diego grew tired of footing the bill for room and board and prosecution of the relentless free-speech fighters. Thus, in the summer of 1914, and with the anti-speech ordinance yet on the books, Free Speech was, nevertheless, re-established on San Diego's Soapbox Row.
Dec 9, 1916
Writing for Pearson's Magazine, Courtenay Lemon praised the IWW for leading the fight for Free Speech. His article was later reprinted in the IWW press:
Absolutely irreconcilable, absolutely fearless, and unsuppressibly persistent, [the IWW] has kept alight the fires of freedom, like some outcast vestal of human liberty. That the defense of traditional rights to which this government is supposed to be dedicated should devolve upon an organization so often denounced as 'unpatriotic' and 'un-American,' is but the usual, the unfailing irony of history.Hold the Fort, one of our oldest Union songs.
IWW Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent*
A Facsimile Reprint of the Popular Nineteenth Ed. 1923
(The Little Red Song Book)
Charles H Kerr Pub, 1989
Rebel Voices An IWW Anthology
Ed. by Joyce L Kornbluh
Charles H Kerr Pub, 1988
Th Autobiography of Big Bill Haywood
International Pub, 1983
History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Vol. 4
-by Philip S Foner
International Pub, 1980
Women and the American Labor Movement
From Colonial Times to the Eve of World War I
-by Philip S Foner
The Free Press, 1979
*Happily, I was able to find versions of the featured IWW songs, popular during the period, and sung very much as they appear in the 1923 Little Red Song Book.