A statue for Mother Jones would remind Chicago that workers built this city
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.
“OUR REVOLT IS AGAINST POVERTY AND ALL THE MISERY THAT POVERTY BRINGS.”