Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mother Jones

Mary Jones née Harris is known to those who read history, as Mother Jones. Her ancient grey visage, clothed in black, spoke in a fiery, yet measured, golden tongue. She became a celebrated figure in her late age, and she cultivated that image. She died 30 November 1930, after having a hundredth year birthday party on the first of May. That day was promotional, May Day, being traditionally, Labor Day.

Mary led an eventful life. She was a corker, born (1837) in that irish town before the starving time. Her family crossed the ocean to North America. This laboring catholic family eventually settled, in Toronto, amidst waspish bigotry. A brother became a priest. She taught school, for a short time, emigrated again and became a seamstress and married a union man. In her early life as an émigré, she was well acquainted with purposeful rebels: catholics under oppression in their own land and the new world, working people against robber barons and their thugs, fenians, and trade unionists. She was a poor female, but one with spirit and determination and understood cameraderie.

There is a story, that, she sewed Mrs. Lincoln’s inaugural dress in 1860, Chicago. In 1867, her husband and four children die in the yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1871, her dress shop burns in the Great Chicago Fire.

After this, she becomes a labor activist and organiser, especially for the workers on the railroad and the mines. In this capacity she is both beloved and hated. To the workers, she cut a very motherly and inspiring figure. She was with them, chancing death and imprisonment. Being spotted stepping off a train was cause enough for arrest. She ministered to the impoverished and the wounded.

In 1903, she led a march of mill children from Kensington, Pennsylvania to Coney Island. Their destination was to have been Oyster Bay, the home of, then, president Theodore Roosevelt. That was not to be allowed. The United States had very little concern about child labor and social injustice.
We want President Roosevelt to hear the wail of the children who never have a chance to go to school but work eleven and twelve hours a day in the textile mills of Pennsylvania; who weave the carpets that he and you walk upon; and the lace curtains in your windows, and the clothes of the people. Fifty years ago there was a cry against slavery and men gave up their lives to stop the selling of black children on the block. Today the child is sold for two dollars a week to the manufacturers. Fifty years ago the black babies were sold C.O.D. today the white baby on the installment plan. ... I shall ask the president in the name of the aching hearts of these little ones the he emancipate them from slavery. I will tell the president that the prosperity he boasts of is the prosperity of the rich wrung from the poor and the helpless.*
Perhaps, in words like those, she showed her power. She was an orator, of and, for the working class. Her tongue was very sharp and her voice fearless. She was an irish, and catholic peasant thrown into industrial America. Her cultural past, and self awareness, formed her uncompromised views. Oratory was respected and feared. To-day there are several mediums of communication, these media have actually de-emphasised speech. Currently, the sitting incumbent to the presidency is a blithering idiot, and he has millions of supporters who denounce eloquence.
I asked a man in prison once how he happened to be there and he said he had stolen a pair of shoes. I told him if he had stolen a railroad he would be a United States Senator.*
She had her programme and was not concerned with the programmes of others, whom may have wanted her to ally with theirs. She believed for the betterment of the human condition in easily demonstrable benefits. Her method was free speech.
I spoke to a great mass meeting in Cooper Union ... Five hundred women got up at dinner and asked me to speak. Most of the women were crazy about women suffrage they thought that Kingdom-come would follow the enfranchisement of women.

"You must stand for free speech in the streets," I told them.

"How can we," piped a women, "when we haven't a vote?"

"I have never had a vote," said I, "and I have raised hell all over this country! You don't need a vote to raise hell! You need convictions and a voice!"*
She was right. The suffragettes were social dilettantes, who were interested in themselves. The vote was trivial in comparison to justice, sometimes it was inimical to justice. At times voting and the government are just forms. Justice is to do right by, and in, all forms.
*selections from her Autobiography

Addendum: by happenstance, the first reading for mass, two Sundays ago, was about the
valiant pearl of a woman, who, makes a good wife; well, the Scripture line, immediately, before is:
Open thy mouth, decree that which is just, and do justice to the needy and poor. ― Proverbs xxxi.9.
This is not just the job of Lamuel the king, but us all, Mother Jones lived it.

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