A statue for Mother Jones would re­mind Chicago that work­ers built this city

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION - BY EL­LIOTT GORN AND ROSE­MARY FEURER El­liott Gorn teaches His­tory at Loy­ola Univer­sity Chicago and is au­thor of Mother Jones: The Most Dan­ger­ous Woman in Amer­ica, and Rose­mary Feurer teaches His­tory at North­ern Illi­nois Univer­sity.

On Mon­day, we rested. To­day, we go back to work. But th­ese are tough times. The wreck­age from pan­demic mis­man­age­ment is ev­ery­where, with food banks, boarded-up busi­nesses, tens of mil­lions of peo­ple out of work and prob­a­bly more on the way. This is a good mo­ment to re­mem­ber lessons from hard times past, to re­call vi­sion­ar­ies we’ve for­got­ten.

Mary Har­ris — A.K.A. Mary Jones, “Mother Jones,” “the Min­ers’ An­gel,” “the most dan­ger­ous woman in Amer­ica” — was one of the most col­or­ful and fa­mous women in the first two decades of the 20th cen­tury. She was con­stantly in the news­pa­pers.

Hers was the clas­sic Amer­i­can story of hum­ble be­gin­nings.

The Har­ris fam­ily came to North Amer­ica from County Cork, im­pov­er­ished refugees from the Ir­ish Potato Famine. In just a few years be­gin­ning in 1845, a mil­lion Ir­ish died of hunger and dis­ease, and an­other mil­lion, like Mary Har­ris’ peo­ple, fled. Her path took her to Toronto; Mon­roe, Michi­gan; Chicago and fi­nally Mem­phis, where she met and mar­ried a union iron-molder named Ge­orge Jones. They had four chil­dren to­gether.

In 1867, yel­low fever struck Mem­phis, car­ry­ing away Ge­orge and all four chil­dren. Mary Jones moved back to Chicago. She started a small dress­mak­ing busi­ness down­town, but the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 took ev­ery­thing she had.

So famine, plague and fire left her bereft. She spent the next 25 years mostly in Chicago, and reached her 60s as the 19th cen­tury ended, an el­derly, wid­owed, work­ing-class, im­mi­grant woman, al­most as dis­pos­sessed as an Amer­i­can could be.

And then she be­came Mother Jones. She chan­neled all of the pain and loss of her early life into cre­at­ing a bet­ter world for work­ers like her­self, and Chicago was the cru­cible of her faith.

It was the rank-and-file them­selves who called her Mother, and she thought of them as her sons and daugh­ters. From the late 19th cen­tury un­til the 1920s, she or­ga­nized men and women, black and white, na­tive­born and im­mi­grant. She told them to “pray for the dead, but fight like hell for the liv­ing.”

She ex­ploded into the head­lines with the 1903 “March of the Mill Chil­dren.” Tex­tile mills rou­tinely em­ployed young work­ers, some un­der 12 years old, at dan­ger­ous, mind­numb­ing jobs for pen­nies a day. So Mother Jones or­ga­nized a chil­dren’s crusade that marched from the Lib­erty Bell in Philadelph­ia to Sag­amore Hill, Pres­i­dent Theodore Roo­sevelt’s sum­mer home on Long Is­land.

“Here’s a text­book on eco­nomics,” she told a crowd out­side Prince­ton Univer­sity in New Jersey, hold­ing up the crip­pled hands of a boy-worker. “He gets $3 a week work­ing in a car­pet fac­tory ten hours a day, six days a week. We are told ev­ery Amer­i­can boy has the chance of be­com­ing pres­i­dent. I tell you that th­ese lit­tle boys would sell their chances any day for a good square meal and a chance to play.”

In 1915, she helped lead women gar­ment work­ers, most of them im­mi­grants, in one of Chicago’s largest strikes. They marched through the Loop and along the Chicago River, and her fiery speeches in­spired them.

“Or­ga­nize! Join the union. That’s your only chance to fight the power of money,” Mother Jones told them. “Our re­volt is against poverty and all the mis­ery that poverty brings.”

Once, when asked to state her ad­dress be­fore a Con­gres­sional Com­mit­tee, Mother Jones re­sponded, “all over this coun­try, wher­ever there is a good fight against wrong. … My ad­dress is like my shoes; it trav­els with me.”

Her leg­end grew as she faced down armed thugs hired by coal com­pa­nies in West Vir­ginia and Colorado. Still, it was Chicago to which she re­turned again and again, work­ing with old friends like at­tor­ney Clarence Dar­row and Chicago Fed­er­a­tion of La­bor Pres­i­dent John Fitz­patrick. Chicago, too, was where she wrote “The Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of Mother Jones.”

Strug­gle and lose, strug­gle and win, Mother Jones used to say, but you must strug­gle. She calls to us across the years to con­nect our cur­rent fight for dig­nity to a for­got­ten his­tory. She be­lieved that in sol­i­dar­ity lay the power to re­sist ex­ploita­tion. And she knew it was a fight that would last for gen­er­a­tions.

Mayor Lori Light­foot has asked us all to think about whom Chicago should honor with stat­ues and memo­ri­als. The Mother Jones Her­itage Pro­ject has been do­ing pre­cisely that. For over a year, we have been rais­ing money and aware­ness of this great his­tor­i­cal fig­ure. Our hon­orary chairs in­clude Sara Nel­son, pres­i­dent of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Flight At­ten­dants, and Daniel Mul­hall, the Ir­ish Am­bas­sador to the United States. Learn more at moth­er­jones­mu­seum.org/statue.

Many peo­ple de­serve to be hon­ored in bronze. Not all of them were rich, well-born men. A statue of Mother Jones would re­mind us that work­ers built this city. It would re­mind us too that women, who are barely memo­ri­al­ized at all in Chicago, con­trib­uted just as much as men. And a Mother Jones statue would honor im­mi­grants, waves of them from all over the world who also built this great city and dreamed Amer­i­can dreams.



Mother Jones

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