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Mother Jones, grandmother of agitators, is remembered in Illinois

Mother Jones leading a Colorado march.
United Mine Workers of America (Courtesy Rosemary Feurer)

Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, the “grandmother of all agitators,” emerged as an activist in the late 19th century during the country’s rash of mine and railway strikes.

Fighting for organizations such as the United Mine Workers of America during strikes, Jones organized a transnational, multi-ethnic movement in support of a living wage, restrictions on child labor and public ownership of resources. She came to be nationally known as a dissident, a “dangerous citizen,” and an unapologetic Bolshevik—later in life, she owned up to all three.

Rosemary Feurer is a professor of history at Northern Illinois University and director of the Mother Jones Heritage Project; she is also on the board of the Mother Jones Museum. Feurer joined “St. Louis on the Air” to discuss the largely-forgotten history of Mother Jones, and why her legacy deserves attention today.

For all her infamy in life, Mother Jones’ name has languished in American history since her death. Jones is often forgotten as a champion of organized labor; instead, many people know her name from the eponymous magazine.

“A revival of her name began in the 1970s out of the social movements of that era, and I think that’s appropriate,” Feurer said. “I think that magazine has largely forgotten her, and forgotten the real history and the connection between economic rights and social justice in general.”

Jones’ erasure from history is partially due to her status as persona non grata even in unions, adopted in the middle of the 20th century by United Mine Workers head John L. Lewis, whom Jones had detested.

Jones was “a small-d democrat and agitator and a socialist,” Feurer said, while Lewis was an autocrat and a blatant anti-democrat. Though he organized laborers with great success, and to his credit, he did not believe that workers should run the movement he mobilized. That put Lewis at odds with Jones, who fought for public control of resources, politics, and collective action since she became radicalized in the 1870s.

Jones was born in County Cork, Ireland, close to the port city. Jones lived through the “Great Hunger”—commonly known in the U.S. as the Potato Famine—which first awakened her sense of class injustice. She reported later seeing food exported from the island to feed other nations while the people in the city starved.

Like many Irish during and after the Famine, Jones’ family moved to Canada and the Americas with hope for a new start. In Toronto, part of a vibrant Irish immigrant working-class community, Jones experienced her first strikes with her father in the 1850s. After flourishing in school, she became a teacher in Monroe, Michigan, but soon grew dissatisfied with the job. She moved to Memphis, married active trade unionist George Jones, and had four children.

For a time, Feurer said, Jones was happy—but it was not to last. In the midst of reconstruction, a yellow fever epidemic hit Memphis. All four of Jones’ children, as well as her husband, died. Again, Jones reported later, she’d seen the inequality of tragedy: while the rich families of Memphis fled the sickness, the bodies of the poor were carted from the streets.

Misery attracts misery. Jones moved from Memphis to Chicago, where she sewed for the rich ladies and gentlemen of the city, but soon lost everything in the Great Fire of 1871.

It was in Chicago, after the fire, that Jones started listening to radical speakers. She soon learned about the role of class in America; she took to the idea of fighting against the injustice she’d always observed. Jones rapidly became involved in organizing strikers, and her rhetoric and organizational tactics propelled her to positions of leadership in labor movements all over the country.

“This was the age of great speeches and great rhetorical flourish, but she had a way of communicating complex ideas to a working-class audience,” Feurer said. Jones addressed her audience as “my fellow slaves” and promised the dawning of a new day; she told them to “pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”

Jones wasn’t all talk—she was also a brilliant organizer. She was deemed “mother” partly for her strong effort against child labor, but also for her years-long quest to save a Pullman striker’s life after he’d been thrown in jail. The name stuck, and Jones was canny in accepting it. “She also used that term, ‘mother,’ to soften some of her radical demands,” Feurer said. “So, how can you object to an elderly woman saying some of these radical things?”

Part of Jones’ efficacy was due to her promotion of women and children in the strikes, which made collective action “less scary” to the middle class, Feurer said (although it still frightened the wealthier classes plenty). Jones organized marches of children and families, creating a kind of theater of collective action that emphasized human rights first. Jones also brought African American, immigrant, and other minority trade unionists into the fight—to the chagrin of some—because she knew they would strengthen the movement.

The “one percent” of Mother Jones’ day fought back with hired mercenaries and troops, and they didn’t spare her once she rose to national prominence. There were threats on her life, Feurer said—even hotels burned in the cities she visited, in the hopes of intimidating her or reducing the threat she posed. She persisted, acting as ‘chief tormentor’ to the oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, following him around the country and giving speeches against him whenever she could.

In her rabble-rousing heyday, Jones spent quite a bit of time in Illinois. Belleville was home base for the American Miners’ Association, and both Illinois and Missouri were huge mining areas around the time of the Civil War. At the time, Feurer said, Illinois was the strongest labor state in the country, and Mother Jones spoke often in St. Louis to crowds of thousands. And whenever Jones came through Illinois, Feurer said, she stopped in Springfield and in Mt. Olive to pay a visit to the martyrs’ monument.

The monument honors mine workers who died in a conflict with strikebreakers and the Thiel detectives who guarded them. Known as the Battle of Virden, the 1898 conflict left eight miners and four guards dead. Before her death, Jones asked to be buried in the Union Miners’ Cemetery of Mt. Olive, Illinois, close to the monument and symbolic of her part in the regional fight for economic self-determination and working class power.

“In Illinois, she was never forgotten,” Feurer said.

Though the American labor movement is in decline today, Feurer said, Mother Jones would still be out in the streets, arguing for collective action as a human right and demanding legislation and change. “She would be definitely more radical than most people could handle today.”

Now, the Mt. Olive Mother Jones Museum pays tribute to her zeal. The Museum is developing an exhibit reminding attendees of Mother Jones’ legacy as part of a larger project on the history of labor protest.

“We aren’t going to be a traditional museum, where you see things on the wall,” Feurer said. Like its namesake, the museum seeks to buck tradition, to galvanize and to inspire.

As part of this show host Don Marsh talked with political reporter Jo Mannies about the ongoing labor debate involving ‘right to work’ in Missouri.

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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