Mother Jones (1830-1930)
UNITED MINE WORKERSActive: 1877 – 1920
"You will not be serfs, you will march, march, march on from milestone to milestone of human freedom, you will rise like men in the new day and slavery will get its death blow. It has got to die."
During her lifetime, Mother Jones inspired a great number of poems, ballads and folksongs, such as, the poem The Charge of Mother Jones by Henry M. Tichenor and the song “Mother Jones’ Will” by Nimrod Workman. The folksong “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain” is rumored to have been inspired by her, too.
Mother Jones’ story is a narrative of resilience and triumph. She fought against the odds – making a difference all the way – and building alliances for the exploited children in the factories of American cites and for miners in the Rockies. She made a courageous and important contribution to the foundation of the American labor movement at a critical time in its formation.
She would live to be nearly 100 years old in a lifetime that spanned both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Thousands of men covered in soot would call her “Mother” while she in turn called them “my boys!” And when the call rang out in union halls from Ludlow, Colorado to Scranton, Pennsylvania to “Organize us Mother!” she would reply by asking them to raise their right hand as she swore them into the United Mine Workers.
Mother Jones’ most famous quote, “Pray for the dead but fight like hell for the living” is the most succinct and accurate way to sum up her life. Her early life was marked by tragedy. When she was five she emigrated from Cork County, Ireland with her family during the Great Irish Potato Famine. During the 1867 yellow fever epidemic she lost her entire family; she mourned them by wearing black for the rest of her life. After moving to Chicago and losing everything in the fire of 1871 she began to attend Knights of Labor meeting. These meetings inspired her to make the improvement of workers’ lives her life’s work.
She devised creative defense techniques to thwart company efforts to break strikes by hiring scabs or using violence. A frequent tactic was organizing striking workers’ wives into “dishpan brigades” to keep watch over factories and mines for scabs, shouting and banging pans to discourage them. She participated in a number of prominent strikes at mines in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. She testified before Congress and brought national attention to the Ludlow massacre, where the Colorado National Guard and the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company set fire to a camp of striking workers and their families, killing 66. This was a turning point in the American public’s support for the labor movement. She also organized a march of 100 mill children in 1903 from Philadelphia to President Teddy Roosevelt’s home on Long Island prompting Pennsylvania, if not the US Congress, to pass a child labor law.
Mother Jones strove to make unions and the labor movement as powerful as the corporations and corrupt politicians that she fought. And she fought to the bitter end, attending her last strike in 1924 at the age of 94 in support of dressmakers in Chicago.
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