Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., June 18, 19 or 20
This Saturday (June 20) we’ll be reminded of that as Mary Harris “Mother” Jones’ burial plot will be rededicated at 10 a.m. at the Union Miners’ Cemetery in Mt. Olive, Ill., south of Springfield off Interstate 55.
Jones was born into poverty in County Cork in Ireland in 1830, according to her autobiography, and father moved to New York to escape the devastating Potato Famine. In 1841 he brought his family to Toronto, where Mary was trained as a teacher, working in Maine and Michigan before moving to Chicago to work as a seamstress.
Two years later, she moved to Memphis to teach and met George Jones, an ironworker who became active in the Iron Molders Union. By the end of the Civil War, the Joneses had four children and George was a full-time union organizer. Then a Yellow Fever outbreak killed George and all their children.
Mother Jones returned to Chicago to work as a seamstress, but lost everything in 1871’s Great Chicago Fire, after which she became active in the Knights of Labor, eventually becoming disillusioned with its timidity and striking out on her own. By 1890 she was organizing mostly with miners, and worked tirelessly for decades, dying in suburban Washington, D.C., on Nov. 30, 1930.
“From the beginning of her involvement in the union until she was almost 100 years old, Mother Jones was where the danger was the greatest,” recalled historian Natasha Gayle. “Crossing militia lines, spending weeks in damp prisons, unconcerned under the wrath of governors, presidents and coal operators, she helped organize the United Mine Workers with the only tools she ever used: confidence and a voice.”
Her Washington funeral at St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church attracted crowds, including pastors, government officials and labor leaders. Her pallbearers were men from eight unions. Later, her casket was brought by train to St. Louis and then to Illinois, where her body lay in state for two days at Mount Olive’s Odd Fellows Hall.
The morning of her Mount Olive funeral at the Catholic Church of the Ascension was cold, but thousands came. Father J.W.R. McGuire presided, and Chicago radio station WCFL broadcast it live.
“Wealthy coal operators and capitalists throughout the United States are breathing sighs of relief while
“She represented all that was finest in womanhood,” he continued. “Armed with only with the weapons of a burning mother’s love, a flaming tongue and indomitable spirit, she went forth to convince a cold, money-glutted world of justice, mercy and love.”
Afterward, carrying her casket through crowds to the burial plot were survivors of the infamous 1898 Virden (Ill.) Massacre – where seven miners were killed.
A modest marker was erected at the graveyard. In later years, the Department of Labor mounted a Mother Jones display in its lobby; a progressive magazine was named for her, and writers penned books, plays, poems and songs about her.
One, “The Death of Mother Jones,” was even recorded by Gene Autry in 1931: “The world today’s in mourning o’er the death of Mother Jones; gloom and sorrow hover around the miners’ homes. This grand old champion of labor was known in every land; she fought for right and justice, she took a noble stand. O’er the hills and through the valley in ev’ry mining town, Mother Jones was ready to help them, she never turned them down. In front with the striking miners she always could be found, and received a hearty welcome in ev’ry mining town. She was fearless of every danger. She hated that which was wrong. She never gave up fighting until her breath was gone. This noble leader of labor has gone to a better land while the hard-working miners, they miss her guiding hand. May the miners all work together to carry out her plan and bring back better conditions for every laboring man.”
The monument restoration started in 2013. Led by the Union Miners’ Cemetery Perpetual Care Association, the project involved the Illinois AFL-CIO, State Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill), the Illinois Labor History Society, and the United Mine Workers, and raised some $114,000.
“The historic landmark celebrates the courage of a woman who fought most of her life for the rights of others,” said the Illinois AFL-CIO. Saturday’s keynote speaker will be United Mine Workers International secretary-treasurer Dan Kane.
Fund raising continues to ensure the monument is maintained. Contributions are being accepted by the Mother Jones Monument Fund, Illinois AFL-CIO, 534 S. Second St., Springfield, Ill., 62701.
[PICTURED: Top, Mother Jones photo from the University of Pennsylvania's digital library; above, front page from an Oklahoma miners newspaper from imgkid.com.]