Happy Birthday Mother Jones: My Local Saint

Not Indian film related really, but a humanity related post, and a Margaret related post, so I am going to put it up and force you to learn things.

When I was first learning about Hinduism (this is back when I was ten years old in basic religious education classes) one of the things that resonated with me the most was the idea of a local Saint. Is that okay to say? My Hindu people here? The idea of a person who was from your village who was touched by God, and had a temple right in your village and a sacred place right in your village and a story all the villagers knew, but maybe never made it into a printed sacred text, or had a festival that had any importance outside of your own village, or really mattered to anyone but your village. To have a sacred tree, or a sacred pool, or a sacred stone that came with a legend and a practice and that was all folded into a larger religion, that sounded wonderful to me.

I don’t think this is unique to Hinduism, I believe Catholicism has similar local stories and local traditions around local saints, but they are so stingy with Saints, there weren’t any really local experiences for me as an American to look to. Shintoism of course has local temples and local traditions, but I happened to run into Hinduism first. Oh, and there are the earth based Native American traditions, only those were confusing for me and didn’t feel like it would be okay for me to use for my own worship. But the idea of saying “this practice that my hometown does isn’t just a weird superstition, but is an actual form of worship”, that had a lot of power for me.

Lincoln's Tomb and Lucky Nose, Springfield, Illinois

I grew up in Springfield, IL which is Abraham Lincoln’s hometown, and Lincoln was everywhere. As kids, his life story was used in school to teach us moral lessons, we got his birthday off school every year and our parents got it off work (this isn’t an American thing, it’s a Springfield thing, only in Springfield is that a holiday), we saw his face everywhere, and we also learned the local practices. Every statue of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield (and there are A LOT) has a bright shiny polished nose. Because it’s good luck to rub his nose. Why? Don’t know. How do I know this? Don’t know. But in Springfield, you will see children literally before they are able to walk picked up by their parents and made to rub Lincoln’s nose. Oh, and my church was called the “Abraham Lincoln Church”. I was raised to worship Lincoln. Not in a “good historical figure to use as a model for life” kind of way, but like you would worship a local saint. I still do, I keep a couple of pennies on a shelf next to my Ganesh statue, I celebrate his birthday every year even though I don’t get it off work any more, I went on a pilgrimage to his birthplace with my sister a few years back, it’s part of what ties me to my roots and my identity. And the same is true for everyone I’ve met who was raised in Springfield. For that little specific community, Abraham Lincoln is our personal Saint and always will be.

Just down the road from Springfield is a place where Mother Jones is, and always will be, worshipped as a saint. Not a historical figure, but a living presence in their lives in a way she isn’t anywhere else in the world. Everywhere else, Mother Jones magazine is the solid established voice for workers and the unions in America, and Mother Jones is the person from which it takes its name, vaguely understood as a strong older/elderly woman who supported striking miners in the early 1900s during the birth of the American labor movement. But in the very specific area around where I grew up, she is understood as a saint and a martyr in an intensely personal way that guides day to day life.

Union Miners Cemetery and Mother Jones Monument
Birthdate is wrong, don’t worry about it. She lied to make it May 1 for PR purposes. It’s really July 31.

Mother Jones was an immigrant from Ireland, and an educated woman thanks to free public schooling in Canada where her parents landed. She worked as a teacher before marrying a skilled laborer and union organizer. And then a few years after they married, her husband and 4 children (all under 5 years old) died in a cholera epidemic. She moved to a new city after that, Chicago, and started a business and tried to move on. But the same union organizing her husband used to do followed her. This was the 1880s in Chicago, the center of the labor unrest for America and (briefly) the world. The reason May Day is celebrated as a labor holiday everywhere now, is because of the Haymarket Riot in Chicago in 1886. Mother Jones renamed herself from “Mrs. Jones” to “Mother” and started taking on a character. She dressed older and lied about her age, spinning herself as this indomitable grandmother type, a mother who could go out there and fearlessly tell grown men what to do. She was a genius at PR, and spin, and convincing folks they had no choice but to follow her.

That is what most people in the world know, a photograph and some quotes, maybe a long list of accomplishments. But down the road from Springfield there is a little forgotten cemetery that I’ve pulled over to visit many times. There’s a grave, and a marker, and there are always fresh flowers. This isn’t something you see on the cover of the magazines named for her, or which is referenced in most of her articles. This is the local people coming by, day after day, leaving flowers and saying a prayer.

Mother Jones Monument restored - Route 66 News

I grew up in the city, but all around me was coal country. Under me too, the house I grew up in was balanced atop an enormous abandoned mine, as was most of the city. In 1898, there was a tiny forgotten battle about 20 miles from the house where I grew up, a battle which isn’t in most history books. The mine workers of Virden went on strike, the mine owners brought in scabs by train, and when the miners met the train with their wives and families there, and Mother Jones along with them, the mine police opened fire. The miners fired back and at the end of the day 4 private police were dead and 7 miners.

Mount Olive, IL - Grave of Mother Jones
Marker added in 2015, in front of the older monument. Still the wrong birthday, oh well, it’s nice to pretend it is true.

Mother Jones lived another 32 years after the Battle of Virden, and worked with strikers the whole time. She was arrested twice, and saw many similar battles, bloodier ones like Ludlow massacre in Colorado in which 2 women and 11 children died. But when she died at age 93, she wanted to be buried back in Illinois in the Mount Olive miners cemetery with “her boys” who died at Virden. Something about that first battle and those first dead stayed with her in a way that was stronger than all the national and international fame she gained later, and all the other dead she saw in the decades after.

The Green Flame: Mother Jones' Grave
If you can’t see, the central marker is for her, the other 4 are for miners who died at Virden

Two years after her death, 15,000 miners gathered at her grave site to prepare to go to war. The national mining union wasn’t answering the needs of the Illinois miners and they wanted to start their own union. The Progressive Miners of America survived independently until 1937, and limped along for another decade after that as a semi-independent part of a national organization, never really spreading beyond central Illinois, and never stopped battling with the national United Mine Workers. I don’t know that from history books, these battles never made the history books, I know it from stories. You ask people who grew up around Mount Olive, and they have stories of their family practicing for when the UMW came for them, little kids taught to run for the cellar when there was a knock on the door, a father coming home beaten to pieces, an uncle who died in a “housefire”, shots coming from the woods as you ran for safety. This is what Mother Jones means. It wasn’t what she did before she died, it was what she did afterwards. In 1936, 4 years into this battle, the Progressive Mine Workers came together again and raised $16,000 to build Mother Jones a monument at her graveside. 50,000 people attended the dedication on October 12, 38 years after the Battle of Virden. As the miners of Illinois kept dying, they kept being put beside her for safety, 21 men dead after her and buried around her. While in the cities people mention her in songs, write plays about her, try to spin meaning from her life, in the coal country she is just there, walking beside you, every day.

Mother Jones Memorial and Grave - Mt. Olive, Illinois | Flickr
“We pledge to fill your last request ‘Let no traitor breathe o’re my grave'” is not a graceful phrase of grief, but an undying call to action

Do you remember 10 years ago the story of the Chilean miners who were trapped underground for 69 days? At the same moment that the first miner was finally pulled out above ground down in Chile, in Mount Olive Illinois the 2,000 residents were making their way to the cemetery to pay their respects to Mother Jones. He was rescued on October 12, the annual celebration of Mother Jones Day in Mount Olive. Write all the songs you want, start the labor magazines, give speeches about her, but if you want her to use her power to act in the world today, you go to Mount Olive and stand at her grave and ask her for help.

The striking teachers of Mount Olive, Illinois. The descendants of ...
December 2013, 73 years almost to the day after Mother Jones died, the 39 members of the teachers union of Mount Olive went on strike. You can see Mother Jones in the room with them, can’t you?

There, that didn’t hurt too much, did it? And now you know new stuff about the world, which is always a good thing.

6 thoughts on “Happy Birthday Mother Jones: My Local Saint

  1. This such a great article. I like when you post union related stuff here because I relate more to unions and solidarity than movies. Here in Pittsburgh area there is so much union history and it is always fascinating to hear people talk about the strikes their grand fathers or great grand fathers took part in.

    Like

  2. Love this piece of history, thank you. We get so little of this in the official version. I had no idea about Mother Jones as anything other than a magazine.

    Like

    • It makes me wonder how many other stories are out there that we don’t know, little local labor disputes and tragedies that small towns remember and no one else does. I suppose it is impossible to find them all, but the best we can do is learn the ones around us.

      On Fri, Jul 31, 2020 at 2:41 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      Like

    • She’s the best! And soooooooo good at self-promotion, I adore it.

      On Sat, Aug 1, 2020 at 1:49 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      Like

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