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Mother Jones had a special relationship with Illinois. It was there, in Chicago, the most radical city in the nation and perhaps the world in the late nineteenth century that she became a radical activist in the labor and socialist movements. The city was her base for many years.
While she often said that “my home is my shoes” she stayed in Illinois frequently on her travels across the United States from the 1890s to the 1920s. And she chose to be buried in Illinois in Union Miners Cemetery, in the small coal mining town of Mt. Olive, a place that was the center of a fight for living wage for miners and a place where miners sought to shape their capacity to believe in a future where they controlled their economic destiny.
On December 8, 1930, tens of thousands of people travelled to Mt. Olive, Illinois, to join the funeral cortege of Mother Jones. Father John Maguire of Bourbonnais, Illinois, someone who had assisted Jones in the steel strike in Illinois in 1919, gave the eulogy, suggesting that Jones’ death caused “strong men and toil worn women” to cry “tears of bitter grief.” Meanwhile, in “mahogany furnished and carefully guarded offices in distant capitals wealthy mine owners and capitalists are breathing sighs of relief” at Jones’ death, he said.
Mother Jones’ belief that ordinary people had the capacity to control and manage their economic destiny was shared by the miners of Illinois, whose struggle against coal companies from the 1860s through the 1920s showed the visionary role of ordinary workers. The first miners’ union in the United States was started in Belleville, Illinois on a foundation of the marching strike. In 1897 nearby Mt.Olive miners launched the marching strike for a living wage to bring out their fellow miners from Belleville. This spread across the state and to other states. Mother Jones, Eugene Debs and others followed this strategy in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. This strike established the United Mine Workers of America as the leading industrial union in the U.S.
In 1898, Illinois became a battleground for labor rights when the Chicago Virden Coal Co. and two other anti-union owners defied the union contract established in 1897 and sought to bring strikebreakers to Virden and other areas to break the union contract. African-American union miners in Illinois played a role in turning away the strikebreakers, initially foiling the company’s plans. In defiance, the company brought Chicago ex-police private guards with a reputation for brutality to Virden, and used armed guards on the trains carrying strikebreakers. Miners from Mt. Olive marched with others from across Illinois in a rank-and-file movement to “stand their ground” against the company.
In an ensuing battle, 13 people were killed, including 4 Mt. Olive miners.
The United Mine Workers built the Union Miners’ Cemetery in Mt. Olive, and in the years afterward, miners began to commemorate October 12 as miners’ day in Illinois. Through that commemoration ritual a sense of the identity with past sacrifices became embedded in Illinois miner communities.
Mother Jones considered Illinois the birthplace of rank-and-file unionism in the United States. Miner activist Jack Battuello from Gillespie, Illinois listed memories of Virden as one the “cruel experiences of the past” that explained Illinois’ workers extraordinary “solidarity.” The “radical element of Illinois miners . . . were always great activists . . . affecting minds and human welfare . . . And that form of education left its seed; it germinated a little in Illinois, I think.”
Unfortunately, those commemorations also wrote out the role of African-Americans except as victims and strikebreakers.. It is a more complicated story, one that deserves a fuller narrative.
Mother Jones helped build a style of unionism that reinforced overcoming racial and ethnic divisions in order to effectively confront mine owners. There were varieties of unionism and degrees of commitment to this ideal in Illinois and across the U.S. It was always a work in progress, but there is no doubt that as an organization the UMWA was one of the most progressive in this respect for its time.
Three decades later, when UMWA president John L. Lewis forced Illinois miners to accept lowered wages in their contracts, and then joined with police forces and the Peabody Coal Co. to enforce the contracts, miners in Illinois established a new union, the Progressive Miners of America (PMA). They argued that the union should fight for a 30-hour workweek and redistribution of profits to the miners instead of reducing their wages. Their rebellion led to the deaths of over 22 workers in what became known as the mine war of the 1930s. These are the names on the Mother Jones monument.
At the center of it were the women of the PMA auxiliaries, who felt connected to the Illinois marching tradition and to Mother Jones’ injunction to “shorten your skirts and march.” Here is a photo of their January 27, 1933 march to Springfield to demand civil liberties and the end to violence at the hands of the military, local police, and John L. Lewis.
The PMA led the effort to establish the huge monument to Mother Jones at Mt. Olive, and thus began the regular sojourn to the monument as both a reflection of the origins of industrial unionism in the U.S. and an argument that, following in Mother Jones footsteps, ordinary men and women should play a role in the nation’s economic destiny.
That dream was not fully realized, and today, the resurgence of a second Gilded Age of economic inequality has caused a renewed interest in Mother Jones in the U.S. and elsewhere.