Ceremony dedicates monument renovation
By CARL GREEN
Mt. Olive, IL – It’s been 85 years since Mother Jones was buried in Union Miners Cemetery here, 40 miles north of St. Louis, with “her boys,” the union coal miners killed in the Virden Riot.
The great labor organizer’s monument now has a sharp and shiny look after extensive renovations, and more than 200 supporters came out on June 20 to see the impressive results at its re-dedication.
The speakers were impressive, too – state senator and union supporter Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) gave powerful speeches, and even a Republican, U.S. Rep. Rodney Jones, of Taylorville, offered a few words, insisting that the union leaders and supporters present were his “good friends” and that Mother Jones’ work must go on.
But for all the quality workmanship and good will on display, the message of the event was a lot more sobering. It was that Mother Jones’ fight for economic justice is still being fought, and that the stakes are as high as ever.
Durbin defined the terms.
“If Mother Jones and her boys were alive today, we know what they would tell us to do when we leave this celebration – to fight like hell for the living, fight like hell to preserve the rights of working people to form and join unions and all the other basic rights for which earlier generations fought and too many people died,” he said in ringing tones.
“They would tell us to fight these phony ‘right-to-work for less’ laws – we know better than that.
“They would tell us to fight for an increase in the minimum wage to make it a living wage, so people who go to work 40 hours a week don’t live in poverty in the United States, and they would tell us, ‘Don’t turn Medicare into a voucher program and don’t turn Social Security over to Wall Street!’ ”
‘FIGHT LIKE HELL’
Manar, too, used some of Mother Jones’ famous phrases.
“This monument is a message from our forefathers to remind us that this fight has been fought before, and this fight is worth fighting again,” he said. “My friends, today, let’s strengthen our resolve to fight like hell for the living.”
Manar gave a glowing introduction to Durbin, describing him as a key national figure for the labor movement.
“When you think about Washington D.C., and you think about the elected officials in Congress, and you ask the question of who stands up for working men and women across this country, there’s one name that always comes to mind,” he said. “In my opinion, there’s no greater voice in the U.S. Senate for working men and women than our own U.S. Senator, Richard Durbin.”
The restoration project was originated some three years ago in conversations between the cemetery board and local miners. The monument was looking a little timeworn, but the board didn’t have the money to do much about it.
“We were a long way from this moment for a long time,” board President Ed Becker told the crowd. “The old section of the cemetery was up in weeds, and the monuments were falling over.”
New board members such as retirees Nelson Grman and Jim Alderson started seeking ways to raise some money, and Don Stewart, president of United Mine Workers Local 1613, had the idea of asking the Illinois AFL-CIO for help. That group’s president, Michael Carrigan, assigned staff member Amy Rueff to it, and the campaign was on.
Rueff was praised frequently at the ceremony. “She’s kept us together, and we really wouldn’t be here without her,” Decker said. “We had a wish list, and we thought it was unattainable. We were doing all we could just to maintain the cemetery. Now, we’ve been able to do things we didn’t think were possible.”
“Once the ball got rolling, we were amazed,” he said. “We’re going to continue to work and keep this cemetery up. We purchased new land to the north. We’re going to have a pavilion in there and we’re going to have a granite stone that recognizes all the donors. We hope to make everybody proud and keep this place going for future generations.”
The campaign also spun off an important new side project – the creation of the Mother Jones Museum in a new building that also houses City Hall. The museum is not yet open, but it was open that Saturday with mock-ups of the future displays.
Mt. Olive Mayor John Skertich said the projects give him hope for the future of this idyllic small town just east of Interstate 55.
“We have to continue to build,” he said. “Small communities are just dying, but I believe Mt. Olive is on the right path now. And I believe it’s because of the people who are here, and the Mother Jones Museum committee and the Union Miners’ Cemetery board. Let’s just keep going and working together – and keep it union.”
Carrigan reported that the campaign generated $76,073 in donations plus $43,000 in a matching state tourism grant. Contributions came from 17 states and 114 union organizations, plus individuals and businesses. The $5,000 contributors were UMW International, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the International Union of Operating Engineers and the Chicago Council of Carpenters.
Union members, notably Bricklayers Local 8, provided more than $11,000 worth of volunteer work, including caulking and cleaning of the monument.
Carrigan said all were happy to help because of the importance of the cause.
“The legacy of Mother Jones is one that we treasure,” he said. “Her fiery efforts in demanding worker rights on the job not only helped adult workers, but also raised awareness of the need for child labor laws.
“While she was hated by corporations, she was loved by workers, who turned to her for justice in the workplace.”
NOT RAUNER’S CROWD
Speakers at the ceremony made frequent allusions to Illinois’ billionaire governor, Bruce Rauner, who has been trying to force the Legislature to agree to anti-worker bills in exchange for a negotiated state budget.
“The governor believes that you turn around Illinois by paying teachers less,” Manar said in his speech. “And the governor believes that you turn around Illinois by outsourcing jobs to other states and other countries. All of these things, because he refuses to ask those who enjoy the daily privileges of wealth to pay their fair share.”
“Everyone knows that Illinois is in a dire financial mess. Decades of politicians of both parties have squandered resources and kicked the can down the road. And now our governor wants to use this crisis to pass extreme anti-worker measures in the Legislature, taking away the very rights that have been bought and paid for by the blood of those we honor today in this cemetery.
“Our governor hops from one anti-union position to another as we pass every day, one after another, without a state budget. He wants to turn back the clock, reduce wages and benefits for workers, lower the standard of living and shrink the middle class, all so a few millionaires and billionaires don’t have to pay a little more of their fair share.”
The UMWA was represented by its regional representative, Steve Jones, who said Rauner would be a great target for Mother Jones.
“If Mother Jones was standing here with us today, she would be ready to march to the state capital, to the newly elected governor’s office,” he said. “She would be on him to sit down and would have some very stern conversations with him, with those piercing eyes of hers.
“There is no doubt that that would happen – and she would begin that march immediately.”
Durbin shared a few stories, including one to show how devoted to Mother Jones the people of Mt. Olive have been. When he was a newly elected congressman, the town came to him for help getting a sign on I-55 indicating that the monument was located there.
“I said, ‘Hey, I’m the congressman, I’ll bet I can get that done.’ Boy, did I learn a lesson. It turned out to be next to impossible to get this sign,” he recalled. “So we finally agreed we were just going to throw up a sign and call the Illinois Department of Transportation and ask them to look the other way.
“That sign that you see heading south now on Interstate 55 is the original sign that was up. I know there’s a more official sign now. But the community was determined to let everybody know that Mother Jones was buried here, and I thank you for that determination.”
He also told stories about Mother Jones, who was born in Ireland as Mary Harris and lived through 60 years of hard work and tragedy before she emerged on the national scene.
“She fought for fair wages and safe workplaces, and for the rights of kids to be kids and to go to school, not to be forced to work for pennies, and maimed and injured in coal mines and factories,” Durbin said. “Simply put, Mary Harris – Mother Jones – fought for justice and an economy that works for everybody.”
Noting that the government is considering choosing an American woman to be shown on the new $10 bill, he nominated Mother Jones for the honor, to much applause.
“She was once introduced as a great humanitarian,” he said. “She got up on stage and said, ‘Get it straight – I’m not a humanitarian, I’m a hell raiser!’ That who she was.”
And another favorite story: Mother Jones, already in her ‘60s, was arrested in 1892 in Pennsylvania for speaking to striking steelworkers.
Said Durbin: “When the judge asked who gave her permission to speak publically, this 5-foot tall, Irish-immigrant American looked him straight in the eye and replied, ‘Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry and John Adams.’ ”
In the middle of the ceremony, Durbin described a tax reform plan he filed in the Senate that Mother Jones might have approved.
“How can we have so many poor, hungry kids in this great nation? For 40 years, wealthy corporations and individuals have been waging a concerted effort to destroy unions and dismantle government programs that help working families get ahead, send their kids to college and retire with dignity,” he said.
“These same groups are trying to deny many American citizens the right to vote today. They tell us that tax cuts are the answer to everything.
“Well, I have a tax cut proposal. It’s called the Patriot Employers Act, and it’s real simple. It says, if you keep and create good jobs in America, pay a living wage to your workers, give them health insurance they can count on, contribute to their retirements, and hire veterans and the disabled, we’ll give you a tax break.
“If you won’t ship your jobs overseas, and stay in America, we’ll give you a tax break.”
Durbin wrapped up by saying it’s what happens next that counts.
“If we leave this memorial and forget why it’s here, it will have been a nice day and good memories and that’s all,” he said.
“But if we leave here remembering why this 5-foot-tall lady was willing to go to jail time after time and risk her life for a lot of workers who didn’t have a voice, then we’re going to do our part – with our vote, with our voices, with our emails – supporting people across the board who are willing to work to give those in America who work for a living the dignity, the respect and the benefits they deserve.”
Mother Jones Museum begins with small space, great promise
Mt. Olive – The brand new Mother Jones Museum had a crowd on hand last week at its open house in conjunction with the rededication of the Mother Jones Monument across town.
But it might be the last time for a while. Museum planners haven’t yet decided when to open to the public on a regular basis, and they still have a lot of work to do. And they need donations to prepare the museum displays.
The museum at the moment is a 580 square-foot room in a new building that also houses City Hall. It was built with grant money after the previous City Hall was destroyed by a tornado two years ago.
Its brick design matches that of the next-door city library, making for an attractive block along the north side of Main Street in downtown Mt. Olive. At the rededication, Mayor John Skertich thanked Korte & Luitjohan Contractors for getting the building up on schedule and observing the city’s demand that only union labor be used.
Rosemary Feurer, an assistant professor of history at Northern Illinois University, is the museum director and now is in the midst of turning big ideas into credible museum displays.
She intends for them to be lively and interactive. “Pictures on a wall do not grab people these days,” she said.
At the open house, the museum featured, well, pictures on the wall – eight large boards with information, photos and graphics describing the great labor organizer’s astonishing life.
One wall had photos of her funeral, probably the biggest event ever in Mt. Olive. A book shelf in one corner had a small library of works about Mother Jones.
The only professionally done display, in another corner, features a life-size photo of Mother Jones.
Feurer’s goal is to make the museum a “small, top-notch space” that will lead to bigger things. For one, she plans for the building to be expanded in the direction of the library next door, which could triple its size.
For another, Feurer plans for the museum to spread its wings to other places where Mother Jones had an impact, including existing museums that touch on her life, places where she lived, historical markers at important sites, and something to mark the March of the Mill Children, which she led from Philadelphia to New York in 1903.
Sites in Canada, Mexico and Ireland could be included in the resulting Mother Jones Heritage Project, with Mt. Olive as the anchor site.
A walking tour in nearby Virden is to interpret the Virden Riot, the gunbattle between miners and strike-breaker guards that led to creation of the Union Miners Cemetery in Mt. Olive. Cell-phone apps will tie it all together.
“That’s how people will experience her – in space,” Feurer said.
The biggest need right now is donations. Museum-quality displays are expensive – that first one cost $2,500.
- Email – firstname.lastname@example.org
- Online information and donations – motherjonesmuseum.org
- Social media – facebook.com/MotherJonesLives and twitter.com/MotherJonesLive
- U.S. mail – Mother Jones Museum and Heritage Project, 630 Joanne Lane, DeKalb IL 60115.