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When I was an 11-year-old kid in Chicago, my 5th Grade Class was assigned to do a School Assembly for the month of May.  As my teacher brainstormed what holidays are in May, I innocently suggested May Day.  “No, Paul,” she replied sternly.  “May Day is only celebrated in Communist countries – we can’t do a play about a Communist holiday.”  

Of course, Miss Barth was wrong – May Day is celebrated in almost every country in the world, except the United States.  Even though the holiday commemorates the Haymarket Riot of 1886, which happened – of all places – in Chicago.  But for years, the United States has intentionally whitewashed May Day from our culture and our consciousness.

Even in Chicago, it’s almost impossible to find Haymarket Square where the riot occurred – because it basically no longer exists.  As Occupy protesters plan to wage massive May Day rallies today across the country, they will have a basic problem – outside a circle of left-wing activists, most Americans have never heard of May Day.  People may be drawn to protest because of their economic woes or Wall Street greed, but not because of some holiday that they never learned about in school.

When I suggested May Day to my 5th Grade teacher for our school play, I was not a very precocious 11-year-old – or even a red-diaper baby.  I had just vaguely heard about May Day, as the holiday of fertility where you make flower baskets to celebrate the coming of spring.  Any association that May Day has to workers rights – or left-wing causes – was foreign to me.  But we should have learned about it in school, because the Haymarket Riot happened in Chicago.

On May 4, 1886, as part of a national effort by labor unions to pass an eight-hour workday, activists held a peaceful rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square.  At around 10:30 p.m., a dynamite bomb exploded in the crowd – killing seven police officers and four civilians.  No one knows who threw the bomb, but the Police suspected and arrested eight anarchists.  They were tried and convicted in what everyone admits was a sham trial – and four of them were executed (one committed suicide in jail.)

The Haymarket Riot and its aftermath outraged working people and their allies across the world, and they started May Day to remember its martyrs and celebrate the struggles of working people.  Today, May Day is a national holiday in over eighty countries across the world.  While celebrated in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries, it is also a holiday in countries like the United Kingdom and Spain.  After South Africa had its first free elections in 1994, May Day became a holiday.

In these countries, workers typically get the day off – and mass rallies are held to celebrate the struggle of working people for fair wages and an eight-hour workday.  My father now lives in Barcelona, Spain (after teaching at the University of Chicago for twenty years) – and only first learned about May Day because of its rallies there.

But May Day never took hold in the United States.  In 1894, after the Pullman Strike (which also happened in Chicago), President Grover Cleveland made Labor Day – the first Monday in September – a national holiday.  Labor Day was chosen to intentionally co-opt May Day, because they feared commemorating the Haymarket Riot would build support for communism and other radical causes.  In 1958 during the McCarthy Era, President Dwight Eisenhower took it even further by signing a law making May 1st Loyalty Day.  And in the 1980’s, President Ronald Reagan enacted May 1st as “Law Day.”

Unless you were a red-diaper baby, Americans don’t grow up learning about May Day.  We did not get the day off in school, and we certainly didn’t do a 5th Grade play about it.  But when I was in the Chicago Public Schools, we got a three-day weekend in early March for Casimir Pulaski Day – because of Chicago’s large Polish-American community.  Even the first grade class at Lincoln Elementary School did a play about Pulaski Day.

Haymarket Square?  I lived in Chicago for 18 years, and only discovered its location while researching this article.  There isn’t much left of it, frankly.  What used to be Haymarket Square is a block of West Randolph Street – between the Loop & the Kennedy Expressway.  But we all knew Mrs. O’Leary’s barn where her cow kicked the lantern, because the Chicago Fire Department now has a Training Academy there.  Even though 20 years after the Great Chicago Fire, a reporter admitted he made it all up just to sell papers.

Which is why the Occupy Movement’s goal of a “General Strike” with thousands of people in the streets on May Day is a little tone-deaf.  Yes, May Day 2006 was a huge success – when thousands of Latino immigrant families marched in cities across the country.  But they were not marching to commemorate the Haymarket Riot – they were protesting mass deportations and the right-wing anti-immigrant hysteria.

What made the May Day 2006 rallies so powerful and influential was it rounded up more than the usual suspects.  Spanish radio stations, churches and groups with deep ties in the Latino community spent weeks mobilizing people – so that folks who you would never expect to be political suddenly got involved.  Here in San Francisco, we’re used to seeing a left-wing political protest every week with the same crowd.  But the sight of immigrant moms marching down Market Street with baby strollers – and kids waving Mexican and American flags – was a sight to see.

Can the Occupy Movement generate a huge turnout of families being foreclosed on by the Wall Street banks, or young college graduates struggling for a job while under crushing debt?  Sure, but you won’t get the masses to turn out because it’s May Day.  And yet, all the flyers I’ve seen cater to the same left-wing crowd.  If you want to shut down the Golden Gate Bridge (which Occupy organizers now admit they can’t do), you need to expand your movement beyond the usual suspects – i.e., people who don’t know about May Day.

My 5th Grade Class at Lincoln Elementary School never did a school assembly about May Day – in fact, Miss Barth could never find a good holiday in May to do instead.  So we did a humorous play about a school cafeteria.  I played the mashed potatoes, who none of the children ate because they all wanted French fries.  Despite living in Chicago, it would be over a decade before I would learn the significance of May Day.

I often like to imagine what might have been if I were in Miss Barth’s shoes.  As the 5th Grade teacher, I would have had the kids do a play about May Day – where they re-enact the Haymarket Riot, and the conviction of eight anarchists.  The kids would have learned about Chicago’s proud labor history, and that these militant struggles brought workers’ rights we take for granted today – like the eight-hour workday.

After the play, the kids would turn to the audience and sing “Solidarity Forever” and “The Internationale” – before concluding the assembly by enthusiastically shouting: “Workers of the world unite!  You have nothing to lose but your chains!”  It would probably be at this point, where our School Principal – whose name (ironically) was Mr. May – would have walked up to me in the auditorium, and fired me on the spot.

Paul Hogarth is a writer and attorney living in San Francisco.  He is the Managing Editor of Beyond Chron, San Francisco's Alternative Online Daily, where this piece was first published.

Originally posted to Paul Hogarth on Tue May 01, 2012 at 07:36 AM PDT.

Also republished by Occupy Wall Street.

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Comment Preferences

  •  In honor of the day (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Paul Hogarth, mookins

    ... I figured I'd post this thing I put together a few years back.  And here you are at the top of the recent diaries, the first shiny object that kinda fits.  Certainly speaks right to the central themes that started the day in Chicago in the century before last.

    I think what makes this version of the poem put to music better than others is that they made one of the verses into a bridge.  Better song structure.

    Grab all the joy you can. (exmearden 8/10/09)

    by Land of Enchantment on Tue May 01, 2012 at 07:46:50 AM PDT

    •  I wondered about this (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      mookins, oortdust

      When I lived overseas, this was a huge holiday, like our labor day. But most of the time, the mutterings of older service members and contractors referred to it as a Communist Holiday.

      I was waiting for the conservative press to run with that like a dog with a bloody bone.

  •  Meh, we tend to do things our own way (2+ / 0-)

    in addition to Labor Day, something else that sets us apart from international norms is the (lack of) the use of the Metric System (thank you Stonecutters!).

    And that's the way Baby Jesus wants it, end of discussion.

    •  but a lot of our "own way" (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      oortdust

      has some political/ideological foundations under it, as this diary suggests.

      And during the Cold War, any nation that wasn't us kinda was "communist" at least in a very great deal of the public imaginary.  If it wasn't "communist" it was in danger of becoming thus, hence a large amount of our foreign policy in those days.

      Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. --Elie Wiesel

      by a gilas girl on Tue May 01, 2012 at 08:41:10 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Small correction (3+ / 0-)

    only one policeman died wounding 6 others, then police open fire repeatedly killing on person and wounding scores. This was before communism. It was against immigrants, laborers and unions. The police the Pinkerton goons, the politicians

    A story most Americans don't know anything about, because in the USA the constitution has been thrown to the trash once and again when repression against workers rights was in order. If anyone questions why we don't have strong unions like in Europe, or a more concision working class well it is because anyone trying to organize that was killed, jailed, deported or executed.Thanks for bringing it

  •  Teach Labor History? (5+ / 0-)

    That would not be in the interest of the 1%...

    I am on my Union's (UE506) Legislative Action Committee. We ask candidates to visit us so we can get a feeling for who they are and what they stand for. One issue I bring up with every candidate that may have some control over Education is a question about what they think about teaching Labor History in our Public Schools, and what they could.would do to bring that to fruition.

    We need to push that across the Nation, because those that don't know history "are doomed to repeat it."

    Just your average every day Autistic hillbilly/biker/activist/union steward with an engineering degree.

    by Mentatmark on Tue May 01, 2012 at 08:05:30 AM PDT

    •  If you want to teach your kids and yourselves (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      oortdust, glitterscale, Mentatmark

      some American History, check out Howard Zinn's works!

      Young People's History of the United States--Priceless. My kids love that book!

      •  Great Suggestion! (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Paul Hogarth

        But it is not our kids I am worried about, it is those whose parents think Unions are the cause of America's decline. We know that this country was t it's greatest at the same time Union membership was the largest it had ever been.

        My son knows that history, but that is only because he learned it at home.

        Just your average every day Autistic hillbilly/biker/activist/union steward with an engineering degree.

        by Mentatmark on Tue May 01, 2012 at 07:56:25 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  The problem with history (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    penguins4peace, oortdust
    "The reason people don't learn from the past, is because the past was a repetitious lie to begin with."
    Mike Hastie
    U.S. Army Medic
    Vietnam 1970-71

    "White-collar conservatives flashing down the street. Pointing their plastic finger at me."

    by BOHICA on Tue May 01, 2012 at 08:29:21 AM PDT

  •  In Wisconsin in the 1970s we were taught about May (7+ / 0-)

    Day. In fact, we were taught and actually allowed (!) to sing "Solidarity" in class. At the time, I didn't appreciate what this teacher did for us but I can say that it stuck with me for the rest of my life.  Even before our Wisconsin Protests, every time I heard the song or sang it I felt a strong emotional response.  

    I also was taught about the May Day expression by hanging baskets of flowers on doors  - and did it a few times when I was a very young girl. But never had the opportunity to dance around the May Pole.

    I am somewhat surprised that neither of these historic associations to May first are widely known in the US.  I think that this is very sad.

    •  pagan roots of May Day (5+ / 0-)

      very dangerous in a so-called " christian " nation like ours

      and those godless communists (or their precursors, the dirty, unwashed, laboring immigrants), even more dangerous to a "christian" nation.

      who says religion isn't political?

      Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. --Elie Wiesel

      by a gilas girl on Tue May 01, 2012 at 08:44:11 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I was born in 1956. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Paul Hogarth

      In Wisconsin, as a child, I remember getting and giving 'May Baskets.'  Am I the only one that did this?  We used to make the baskets out of cupcake liners and pipe cleaners and filled them with candy.  If you really liked someone special, you took a whole candy bar or even a bucket full of candy, knocked on the door and then ran.  When you knocked on the door, you were supposed to run and the person inside was supposed to try and catch and kiss you.  A particularly attractive young man in our neighborhood, ALWAYS got LOTS of candy!

       Our whole neighborhood did this.  I remember leaving candy for our elderly neighbors.  Even later, as I was older, I remember kids making May baskets for their boyfriends or girlfriends.  I feel like I must be the only person that did this growing up, because I've never run into anyone else who did this.  I remember discussing this with a co worker on May 1st, many years ago, when living in Oklahoma.  His comment was, "Well, you are close to Minnesota up there, and they're nothing but communists."  

      I have very fond memories of May Day.  I remember feeling like the beginning of summer.  

      "Undermining Americans' belief in their own institutions of self-government remains a prime GOP electoral strategy." — Mike Lofgren

      by churchlady on Tue May 01, 2012 at 11:21:31 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  "law day" is a joke (5+ / 0-)

    We celebrate law day in New York with speeches by judges and the like and I cannot stand it because it is such a sham. Can you imagine if workers actually got a living wage or education was free or any of the other possibilities if there truly was freedom and democracy?

    •  I never heard of Law Day until this diary (0+ / 0-)

      I guess that is the difference between my education in what used to be a progressive state and what will be taught here in the future (if we have any qualified teachers post-FitzWalkerStan apocalypse in our classrooms, that is)

  •  if you can (0+ / 0-)

    please visit http://www.akpress.org/...

    Friends worked on this - a true labor of love.  The martyrs are buried in Waldheim and there is a wonderful book about them put out by the Illinois Labor History society.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25hef8mb0SQ&feature=youtu.be

    by KibbutzAmiad on Tue May 01, 2012 at 09:19:17 AM PDT

  •  It'll be interesting to see how the events (0+ / 0-)

    ..are covered or not covered on the boob-toob "news" programming.

    The "anarchist bridge bomb plot" showing up today of all days is telling.

    Dissatisfaction with democratic government is substantially due to economic globalization. We either rein in the corporations or Nation States will continue to diminish in stature, power and their ability to protect and serve their citizenry.

    by Anthony Page aka SecondComing on Tue May 01, 2012 at 11:56:45 AM PDT

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