Mother Jones: The Grandmother Of All Agitators

Posted by Pete on Jul 24th 2020

Today in 1903, Mother Jones gave the most stunning speech in her long life of working-class struggle.

"Mourn for the dead, fight like hell for the living.”

This is the immortal battle cry of Mary G. Harris (1837-1930) – the one and only 'Mother Jones'.

Born in the countryside of southern Ireland, she knew well what it means to suffer and mourn.

At 10, her family was forced by the man-made horror of the Great Famine to emigrate to North America - first to Canada and then the US.

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From Tragedy to Strength 

In 1867, Mary lost her husband, George Jones, and all of her four young children to a yellow fever epidemic in Memphis.

It was enough emotional trauma to break the strongest person.

Then four years later, having begun to rebuild her life in Chicago as a dressmaker, Mary’s shop, home, and belongings were all burned down in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

So the first half of Mother Jones’ life was an unimaginable tragedy, and it’s a measure of just how strong she was that she didn’t allow herself to be brought down by it.

Having lost her family and her livelihood, Mary Jones found a calling in the cause of the working class.

Chicago was the beating heart of US radical politics in the late-19th century, and out of the ashes of her shop, Jones dived into it.

She joined the Knights of Labor and later the United Mine Workers of America as a union organizer, mobilizing workers and their families for strike action.

Jones, like other giants of the contemporary Left such as Eugene Debs, also got involved in the new Socialist Party of America.

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A Mother to America's Workers 

These institutions were all vehicles by which Jones could fight for her class in a country where it was trampled on.

She saw the workers of America – especially the coal miners she was always fighting for – as part of her family.

As she got older, the enemies of the labor movement labelled Jones the "grandmother of all agitators", which was a title she loved, replying, "I hope to live long enough to be the great-grandmother of all agitators."

She called the workers "my boys", and from the end of the 19 th century was increasingly known to the Left as 'Mother Jones'.

Then, in 1903, Mary’s growing symbolic status as mother of the radical working class took on a more forceful dimension with the so-called 'march of the mill children'.

At a time when child labor was still widespread in American factories, Mother Jones went on the offensive.

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The Voice of America's Child Worker 

On 7th July, Mother Jones led a 'Children’s Crusade' of child workers from the mills and mines of Philadelphia down to the summer home of then-president Theodore Roosevelt in Oyster Bay, New York.

Carrying banners reading "We Want To Go To School And Not The Mines", the march was meant to make the child labor scandal impossible to ignore.

En route, on the 24th July, Mother Jones gave her timeless speech against the ruthlessness of American capital,

"After a long and weary march, with more miles to travel, we are on our way to see President Roosevelt at Oyster Bay. We will ask him to recommend the passage of a bill by Congress to protect children against the greed of the manufacturer. We want him to hear the wail of the children, who never have a chance to go to school, but work from ten to eleven hours a day in the textile mills of Philadelphia, weaving the carpets that he and you walk on.”

Roosevelt refused to see the marchers, which was no surprise to Jones.

She knew not to expect much from corrupt politicians, as she once said,

"I asked a man in prison once how he happened to get there. He had stolen a pair of shoes. I told him that if he had stolen a railroad he could be a United States Senator."

Jones was famously called "the most dangerous woman in America" by the Right.

But to what kind of politics is the struggle against child labor and industrial greed dangerous? The kind of politics which was holding – and continues to hold – America back.

Jones, like Debs, Emma Goldman and so many others, led the fight for a different politics and a better world.

They’re all gone now, so what do we do?

Well, as Mother Jones told us, fight like hell for the living!

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