Monday, September 4, 2017

Radical Labor History: Mother Jones (the woman, not the magazine)

Mary Harris "Mother" Jones was an extremely radical labor organizer who was "born in revolution" in Cork County, Ireland in 1837. A dressmaker in Memphis at the time, profound tragedy struck her in 1867 as her husband George Harris and her four children (all under aged 5) died of a yellow fever epidemic. I stand in awe of her strength and courage after burying one of my children almost destroyed me.

After her husband and children died, Mother Jones moved to Chicago to open another dressmaking business, but then it was destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire.

She went on to belong to the radical Knights of Labor which folded after Haymarket, then she went on to work with the Socialist Party of America and help found the Wobblies (International Workers of the World: IWW) and worked with the Mine Workers to help organize poor and beleaguered mine workers in the Appalachians.

When I rode my bike across the country in 2013, our Tour de Peace
Photo Courtesy, Tour de Peace
stopped in  Mount Olive, Illinois to pay our respects to this "most dangerous woman in America" at her burial site where mine workers raised thousands of dollars to erect a very beautiful, yet powerful monument to honor their "mother." 

After our ride through Mount Olive, I was talking about the experience of visiting her monument and a person in the audience approached me afterwards to tell me that the song "She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain" is about Mother Jones: a factoid that I was not familiar with. Lyrics to the song include the verse, "She'll be wearin' red pajamas when she comes," which refers to her affiliation with socialism.

I've read that at times, Mother Jones was profane, witty, and a very inspirational speaker who worked overtime to improve working conditions of not only miners, but also children as she led the "March of the Mill" children in 1901 from Pennsylvania to the doors of President Theodore Roosevelt. Although Roosevelt (of course) refused to meet with them, the March brought much needed attention to the conditions of child labor and the fact that in the 1900 US census, it was revealed that 1/6 of all children under the age of 16 were employed.

Mother Jones, like contemporary labor giant, Eugene V. Debs, was not perfect, but she organized so many strikes and other actions for her "boys" that she was bound to make mistakes, however; her accomplishments are legendary. 

Over the past several decades, hard won victories of labor have been slowly eroded by both Republicans who never pretended to be pro-labor and Democrats who are more treacherous in their dealings with labor.

At a time when most "big" labor unions here in the US have become reactionary tools of the Democrat Party, today, on Labor Day, we can look back on the life of Mary Harris Jones and other radical labor activists and marvel at her strength and commitment to improve conditions and the lives of all workers. 

I believe the most famous quote attributed to Mother Jones is, "Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living." 

As a Radical Granny myself, I will strive to internalize those words, especially on a day like today!




  1. Thanks, Cindy. I did not know this about Mother Jones. This should be taught in all history courses in all schools, even in elementary schools. Children are never too young to learn the truth if it is presented in an enlightened way. I am sure Howard Zinn would agree.

  2. I also didn't know that Mother Jones was a real person. I thought it was just the name of a magazine. Thanks for the history lesson, Cindy.

  3. Of course a brave radical woman like Mother would slip from corporate approved and politically "sanctioned" history. Thank the Goddess that brave women like Cindy Sheehan are with us, to remind us of the work of Mother Jones and Gene Debs, and the IWW


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