One of the most extraordinary organizers of the labor movement in the early twentieth century was Mary Harris, who took the name “Mother Jones.” Born in Ireland, she became an organizer for the United Mine Workers, and, in her eighties, organized miners in West Virginia and Colorado. In 1905, she helped form the IWW. Upton Sinclair was so inspired by her that he used her as a model for one of his characters in his novel The Coal War, which chronicled the Ludlow strike and massacre. “All over the country she had roamed, and wherever she went, the flame of protest had leaped up in the hearts of men; her story was a veritable odyssey of revolt.” Here is a selection from an address Mother Jones gave to a mass audience in Toledo’s Memorial Hall in 1903, as reported by the Toledo Bee. —Introduction from Zinn and Arnove’s Voices of a People’s History of the United States
“Mother” Jones, known throughout the country and in fact throughout the world as “The Miners’ Angel,” addressed a motley gathering of about 1,200 persons in Memorial hall last night. The lower hall was packed. The gallery was full to overflowing and some even crowded the steps leading to the building.
It was truly a motley gathering. The society woman, attracted by mere curiosity to see and hear the woman who has won such fame as the guardian spirit of the miners; the factory girl, the wealthy man and his less fortunate brothers, the black man and the white man, old and young, sat side by side and each came in for a share of criticism.
“Mother” Jones is an eloquent speaker. There is just enough of the down-east accent to her words to make it attractive and she has the faculty of framing pathetic and beautiful word pictures. Despite her sixty years and hex gray hairs, she is hale and hearty; has a voice that reaches to the furthermost corner of almost any hall but it is nevertheless anything but harsh.
“Fellow workers,” she began, “’tis well for us to be here. Over a hundred years ago men gathered to discuss the vital questions and later fought together for a principle that won for us our civil liberty. Forty years ago men gathered to discuss a growing evil under the old flag and later fought side by side until chattel slavery was abolished. But, by the wiping out of this black stain upon our country another great crime—wage slavery—was fastened upon our people. I stand on this platform ashamed of the conditions existing in this country. I refused to go to England and lecture only a few days ago because I was ashamed, first of all, to make the conditions existing here known to the world and second, because my services were needed here. I have just come from a God-cursed country, known as West Virginia; from a state which has produced some of our best and brightest statesmen; a state where conditions are too awful for your imagination.
“I shall tell you some things tonight that are awful to contemplate; but, perhaps, it is best that you to know of them. They may arouse you from your lethargy if there is any manhood, womanhood or love of country left in you. I have just come from a state which has an injunction on every other foot of ground. Some months ago the president of the United Mine Workers [John Mitchell] asked me to take a look into the condition of the men in the mines of West Virginia. I went. I would get a gathering of miners in the darkness of the night up on the mountain side. Here I would listen to their tale of woe; here I would try to encourage them. I did not dare to sleep in one of those miner’s houses. If I did the poor man would be called to the office in the morning and would be discharged for sheltering old Mother Jones.
“I did my best to drive into the downtrodden men a little spirit, but it was a task. They had been driven so long that they were afraid. I used to sit through the night by a stream of water. I could not go to the miners’ hovels so in the morning I would call the ferryman and he would take me across the river to a hotel not owned by the mine operators.
“The men in the anthracite district finally asked for more wages. They were refused. A strike was called. I stayed in West Virginia, held meetings and one day as I stood talking to some break-boys two injunctions were served upon me. I asked the deputy if he had more. We were arrested but we were freed in the morning. I objected to the food in the jail and to my arrest. When I was called up before the judge I called him a czar and he let me go. The other fellows were afraid and they went to jail. I violated injunction after injunction but I wasn’t re-arrested. Why? The courts themselves force you to have no respect for that court.
“A few days later that awful wholesale murdering in the quiet little mining camp of Stamford took place. I know those people were law-abiding citizens. I had been there. And their shooting by United States deputy marshals was an atrocious and cold-blooded murder. After the crimes had been committed the marshals— the murderers—were banqueted by the operators in the swellest hotel in Pennsylvania. You have no idea of the awfulness of that wholesale murder. Before daylight broke in the morning in that quiet little mining camp deputies and special officers went into the homes, shot the men down in their beds, and all because the miners wanted to try to induce ‘black-legs’ [strike-breakers] to leave the mines.
“I’ll tell you how the trouble started. The deputies were bringing these strikebreakers to the mines. The men wanted to talk with them and at last stepped on ground loaded down with an injunction. There were thirty-six or seven in the party of miners. They resisted arrest. They went home finally without being arrested. One of the officials of the miners’ unions telegraphed to the men. ‘Don’t resist. Go to jail. We will bail you out.’ A United States marshal sent back word that the operators would not let them use the telephone to send the message to the little mining camp and that he could not get there before hours had passed. The miners’ officials secured the names of the men and gave their representatives authority to bail them out of jail the next morning. But when the next morning arrived they were murdered in cold blood.
“These federal judges, who continue granting injunctions, are appointed by men who have their political standing through the votes of you labor union fellows! You get down on your knees like a lot of yahoos when you want something. At the same time you haven’t sense enough to take peaceably what belongs to you through the ballot. You are chasing a will-o-the-wisp, you measly things, and the bullets which should be sent into your own measly, miserable, dirty carcasses, shoot down innocent men. Women are not responsible because they have no vote. You’d all better put on petticoats. If you like those bullets vote to put them into your own bodies. Don’t you think it’s about time you began to shoot ballots instead of voting for capitalistic bullets.
“I hate your political parties, you Republicans and Democrats. I want you to deny if you can what I am going to say. You want an office and must necessarily get into the ring. You must do what that ring says and if you don’t you won’t be elected. There you are. Each time you do that you are voting for a capitalistic bullet and you get it. I want you to know that this man [Samuel Milton] Jones who is running for mayor of your beautiful city is no relative of mine; no, sir. He belongs to that school of reformers who say capital and labor must join hands. He may be all right. He prays a good deal. But, I wonder if you would shake hands with me if I robbed you. He builds parks to make his workmen contented. But a contented workman is no good. All progress stops in the contented man. I’m for agitation. It’s the greater factor for progress[.]”
Here the speaker changed her attention to the society woman. “I see a lot of society women in this audience, attracted here out of a mere curiosity to see that old Mother Jones. I know you better than you do yourselves. I can walk down the aisle and pick every one of you out. You probably think I am crazy but I know you. And you society dudes—poor creatures. You wear high collars to support your jaw and keep your befuddled brains from oozing out of your mouths. While this commercial cannibalism is reaching into the cradle; pulling girls into the factory to be ruined; pulling children into the factory to be destroyed; you, who are doing all in the name of Christianity, you are at home nursing your poodle dogs. It’s high time you got out and worked for humanity. Christianity will take care of itself. I started in a factory. I have traveled through miles and miles of factories and there is not an inch of ground under that flag that is not stained with the blood of children.”