This year marks the 125th anniversary of the Battle of Virden
By ROBERT KELLY
Mt. Olive, IL — The 19th century spirits of both the late Mother Jones and “General” Alexander Bradley are still working through Labor leaders and union members who are fighting for their rights every day, said several speakers at an annual event here honoring Jones and Bradley. This year’s event also marked the 125th Anniversary of the Battle of Virden in which locked out miners fought a bloody battle against mine owners and operators.
Tim Drea, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, spoke of events in the current era of American unionism where minorities and women still receive smaller wages than men doing the same work. He also cited too many current incidents of sexual and physical harassment on the job.
Drea and others who called on the spirits of Jones and Bradley drew cheers and extended applause from about 75 people at the ceremony Oct. 8 at Union Miners Cemetery in Mt. Olive, the only union-owned and operated cemetery in the United States, located about 45 miles north of St. Louis, along Interstate 55.
The cemetery was founded by union coal miners shortly after the infamous Battle of Virden, where locked-out miners fought against mine owners and operators, as well as against some strike-breaking miners from the South on Oct. 12, 1898. A total of 13 men were killed and 30 others wounded during the day-long battle for better wages.
‘FIGHT LIKE HELL’
Actress Loretta Williams, who portrayed Mother Jones at the ceremony, railed against the mine operators being willing to shoot their miner employees after locking them out.
“They were ready to commit murder,” Williams said. “But the brave miners fought back. Just remember the atrocities your brother union members went through so that you might have the rights you have today.”
Mary Harris “Mother” Jones became an activist for coal miners and other oppressed union members after losing all of her own family members to a yellow fever outbreak when she was a young wife. She decided to devote the rest of her 100-year life to helping the miners who she came to consider as “her boys.”
She also directed that she be buried beside them at the Union Miners Cemetery before her death in November 1930.
In her fiery speech, Williams repeated Mother Jones’ most famous quote: “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living!”
A 22-foot monument now rises at her grave in the cemetery, where she and Bradley are both buried. Unions contributed generously in 1936 to build the monument, which dominates the rest of the cemetery and draws attention to the most famous person who rests there.
‘WE STOOD OUR GROUND’
Actor Dale Hawkins, who played the role of General Bradley, said he was given his honorary title by union members he led into the Battle of Virden and other labor disputes in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Hawkins also defended the top hat and dapper tails he wore to the battles.
Bradley had worked many years as a coal miner before other miners started calling him their general. Hawkins said the classy outfit that he wore to the battles with mine operators got him at least a small amount of respect.
“Because if I looked like I did when I was working underground, they (mine operators) wouldn’t talk to me,” he said. At least they would speak to him as the general, he said.
Hawkins said he was proud of all miners who risked their lives and jobs to protest unfair conditions.
“We succeeded because we stood our ground,” he said.
“I am always struck by how many of our members throughout the nation are well aware of the great work done by Mother Jones,” Duffy said.
Duffy concluded his remarks by leading the crowd in a rousing rendition of “Solidarity Forever.” He left the microphone to loud cheers and applause.
A BATTLE, NOT A RIOT
John Alexander, a University of Illinois historian who has extensively researched the Battle of Virden, encouraged the crowd to keep alive the good work done by Mother Jones and General Bradley.
“History shows that the fight at Virden was not planned to result in a riot,” Alexander said. “That sort of thing just kind of happens. But this event was carefully planned by both sides. It was a battle, not a riot.”
The program at the cemetery was jointly sponsored by the Union Miners Cemetery and the Mother Jones Museum at Mt. Olive. More information about the ongoing work in Mt. Olive to commemorate Mother Jones, General Bradley and union miners is available by visiting motherjonesmuseum.org/motherjonesmonument or facebook.com/motherjonesrests.