Celebrating the history, legacy of Mother Jones

MOTHER JONES (re-enactor Loretta Williams) extolls attendees at the Mt. Olive Mother Jones Festival to stand in solidarity and join the union at the Mother Jones Festival May 1 in Mt. Olive, Ill. – Labor Tribune photo

Illinois Correspondent

Mt. Olive, IL – The gray-haired woman in the broad purple-bedecked bonnet raised her fist in the street of Mt. Olive, Ill.

“Who among ya is brave enough to stand in solidarity with me?” she shouted in a broad Irish accent. “Ya want a living wage, and health insurance and a pension? How ya gonna get it? The union!”

Mother Jones is portrayed at local events by re-enactor Loretta Williams, who always stays in character as she portrays the 19th century Labor leader memorialized by the Mother Jones Museum and the festival in her honor every May.

Born in Ireland in 1837 as Mary Harris, she emigrated to the U.S. and married in her early 20s. But Mother Jones was struck by tragedy when she lost her husband and all her children to the yellow fever epidemic in Memphis. She moved to Chicago and started a seamstress business, but lost that as well to the great Chicago Fire of 1871.

From that point on, Mother Jones was a Labor rabblerouser. She campaigned on behalf of coal miners and dressmakers and garment workers, traveling throughout the country to lead rallies and marches on behalf of working folks.

She worked with Kansas City workers on a march on Washington, organized miners in Birmingham, Ala. for a coal strike, and campaigned for railway workers jailed in retaliation for supporting striking union workers. She led a march of child workers from Philadelphia to New York City, where President Teddy Roosevelt refused to meet with them. In 1913, she negotiated with Pancho Villa not to allow strike breakers over the U.S.-Mexican border.

The nickname “Mother” Jones stuck by 1897 when the mine workers sent her into coal fields to sign up miners with the union. From Colorado to West Virginia to Pennsylvania, she led and agitated workers and was jailed or banished in town after town.

“She had force, she had wit, above all she had the fire of indignation,” said admiring writer and political activist Upton Sinclair. “She was the walking wrath of God.”

In 1898, the coal company sent armed guards to their mine in Virden, Ill. to restart production with scab workers. They faced the striking union led by a miner dubbed “General” Alexander Bradley, who had led marches from mine to mine in southern Illinois, growing the union from 400 to over 30,000.

At the end of the day, seven of the workers were dead and many others injured, but their defiance marked a turning point in the Labor movement.

Thus Mother Jones asked to be buried in the Mt. Olive cemetery where the Virden martyrs were buried. To this day it is the only Union Miners’ Cemetery in the nation, and her monument stands only a space or two away from the Virden dead.

“They are responsible for Illinois being the best organized labor state in America,” Mother Jones wrote. “I hope it will be my consolation when I pass away to feel I sleep under the clay with those brave boys.”

Mt. Olive has a small museum to Mother Jones and the Virden incident in its city hall, displaying old coal-miner equipment, newspapers and historical explanations of Mother Jones and her connection to southern Illinois.

RE-ENACTOR LORETTA WILLIAMS (aka Mother Jones) reads to children about the March of the Mill Children which was led by Mother Jones to the summer home of President Theodore Roosevelt to highlight the plight of children forced to work in textile mills. The president refused to see them. – Labor Tribune photo

In her entry in the U.S. Department of Labor’s Hall of Honor, it calls her “a magnificent scold.”

“Her flaming rhetoric and fearless campaigning helped swell the ranks of the United Mine Workers, who called her the Miners’ Angel. With the look of an angel and the tongue of a mule skinner, she tramped the land, venting her searing invective against the shame of child labor and worker exploitation.”

The festival included food booths, a memorial ceremony at Mother Jones’ grave, live music, speeches by “Mother Jones” and a voter registration booth. David Schwab manned the voter registration booth, a solid Labor supporter after 13 years as a coal miner and 26 years as a steelworker because the advances of the Labor movement helped everyone, he said.

Joanne Condellone, festival organizer, said they chose to hold it on the original May Day to honor working people as it was in Mother Jones’ day.

“She celebrated her birthday (on May 1) even though she was born in August,” Condellone said. “We try to celebrate, but also to remind people of workers’ sacrifice and hard work. Many of us have our roots in that story.”

It’s also not just a dusty history lesson, Condellone said.

“We’ve only had child labor laws since 1936, and now we see kids back in the slaughterhouses,’ she said. “This is an ongoing story.”

As a matter of fact, since 2022 at least 14 states have passed new child labor laws. Some are strengthening protections for children, but others have weakened child labor laws. Indiana has repealed all work-hour restrictions for 16- and 17-year-olds who previously could not work past 10 p.m. on school days, and Florida allowed them to work seven days in a row and overnight shifts. Children have been found working in dangerous jobs such as meatpacking and construction despite federal law, and a janitorial service in Virginia and Iowa was caught using children as young as 13 to clean headsplitters and kill-floor equipment in slaughterhouses, according to the Washington Post. And poultry plants in Virginia have illegally employed migrant children.

Missouri is among the states considering bills that would eliminate work permit requirements for minors as young as 14, according to the Missouri Independent.

At the cemetery, Mother Jones spoke again at the grave, before Gordon Hayman of the IATSE Union lay a wreath on the monument to honor Mother and her work – and to tell the history of the Labor Movement, a history sometimes ignored by the history textbooks.

“This is a foundation built on the blood of our union forefathers, on the strength of Mother Jones and our love for her,” Hayman said. “We stand on the grave of a woman who dedicated her life to Labor after suffering the loss of her family…The fight can be won. We must and we will stand. Our union makes us strong.”

Toward the end of the festival, Williams sat in the Mt. Olive library and read a children’s book about child mill workers who marched with Mother Jones from Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt’s Long Island summer home in Oyster Bay, N.Y., only to be told the president was not available.

The young ones gathered around her listened intently to the story of the  children’s march, and at the end, Mother passed out little packets of two cents each to the children – a day’s wage for the children who marched to see a president who would not hear them.

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