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I rarely write diaries here anymore, but six years ago today I began a series on the history of the Haymarket bombing in Chicago. It coincided with a screenplay I had written (still unproduced, damnit!) about the subject.  Now, thanks to OWS, a spotlight shines on May Day.  Just moments ago, CNN was reporting on OWS and, shocker, connected it to the Haymarket bombing in Chicago. That brief victory is the catalyst for my decision to repost this yellowing and tattered diary from the past.

The others will follow on May 3rd, May 4th, and May 5th.

(this is the first in a week-long series)
It happened here. In America. In Chicago.

I want to reclaim May Day as a national holiday. After our Independence Day celebrations, it is the most important day in America... but it is a day that isn't celebrated in this country. It is a day about free speech, free assembly, and the rights of American workers. It is why our country exists. It represents the democracy that we go to war for.

Yet, America's connection to May Day has nearly been erased from the history books.

And it has taken until today - May 1, 2006 - for America to reclaim May Day.

It was a pleasant Saturday - May 1, 1886 - in Chicago. It was not the beginning of the weekend - many workers in the city (and across the nation) were still toiling six days a week. But their rights continued to be eroded. Across America, workers marched for the enforcement of the 8-hour work day and better child labor protections. Our government had already passed legislation for the 8-hour day, but there was virtually no enforcement. Likewise, we have a community of workers marching today who, despite a federal minimum wage, are often paid a lower wage.
Like today's marchers, many of the workers of 1886 were non-English speakers. In Chicago, which saw 80,000 people marching down Michigan Avenue, a vast number of these workers were Germans. They were the most recent wave of immigrants - the stone haulers, the factory workers, the sewing girls, the beer makers... and they also kept their "well-regulated militia."

Leading the march was labor leader and newspaper publisher Albert Parsons, a former confederate soldier, whose ancestors landed on American shores in the 1630s. Several of his ancestors (including Maj. Gen. Samuel Parsons) served in Washington's Army during the revolution.

Marching beside Albert was his wife Lucy Parsons, a former slave (part-black, part-Mexican, part-Native American) who, with Albert, was one of the fiercest, most driven labor leaders in Chicago. Their two young children, Lulu and Albert Jr., also joined the march.

Parson's German counterpart in Chicago was August Spies, the gentlemanly editor of the Arbeiter-Zeitung, the city's largest circulation German-language newspaper. Together they would fight the powers that be... and together they would hang for it.

Why Chicago?

Why 1886?

And how did this march end up with death sentences for Parsons, Spies and several other labor leaders?

Fifteen years earlier, the Irish were to blame for the fire the razed the city. A scapegoat was needed and those "no-good dirty Irish" were the most convenient to blame. The fire spread from Mrs. O'Leary's barn and created a firestorm that left little more than the Chicago Water Tower standing.

For the next fifteen years, Chicago's business community literally rebuilt the city on the back of the labor class. Tycoons Marshall Field and Potter Palmer (of Palmer House fame) were among those who took great pride in their new urban metropolis.

A classic divide was created. The "haves" like Marshall Field and the "have-nots" like the immigrant underclass. On one end of the scale were the wealthy residents of State Parkway and Dearborn Street, while on the other end were the sewing girls and cobblers who made department store dresses and shoes that they themselves could not afford to buy.

Ranting against these wrongs were Albert and Lucy Parsons, and August Spies. They became the targets of the "Red Squad", policeman and informers who infiltrated labor meetings. The mainstream media of the day smeared them and vowed that someday they would hang. Chicago's business community had a way of life that it was determined to protect... and it needed cheap labor and lax labor laws in order to insure a healthy profit. Aiding them was a dutiful press that fanned the anti-labor flames by describing the workers as filthy and godless.

It was the "anarchist" labor leaders that needed to be silenced. And silenced they were.

On May 1, 1886, Albert and Lucy Parsons, August Spies, and thousands of marchers across the nation marched and made their voices heard. It was the march heard around the world. But...

...two days later, the government and police retaliated.

More to come:
Wednesday May 3 - The murders at the McCormick factory
Thursday May 4 - The bomb at the Haymarket
Friday May 5 - The round-up begins.


Originally posted to dannyinla on Tue May 01, 2012 at 09:50 AM PDT.

Also republished by Invisible People, History for Kossacks, Headwaters, and WE NEVER FORGET.

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