Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Ludlow Massacre

Why am I writing a post about the Ludlow Massacre 95 years after it happened? For one, I think that the progressive movement today lacks historical perspective. Or, if it has historical perspective, progressives themselves don't bring historical lessons to bear on today's issues. We often lack a sense of continuity of purpose with the people's movements, the underdogs' resistance of American history.

In my first post on this blog, I said, "Today's Web-surfin' progressives--whether we know it or not--are part of the same struggle as the strikers, suffragists, abolitionists, and civil rights marchers who came before us." And I believe it. We look back on so many of these stories from history, and the motives of the actors involved, the broader themes at play, and the lessons are so clear. I might be criticized as oversimple to say that, when we look, it's also clear who were "the good guys" and who were "the bad guys." But it's usually true!

Progressives today don't have to reinvent the wheel. We're fighting for the same things progressives, liberals, radicals have always fought for: democracy applied broadly, justice applied equally, a fair distribution of our nation's resources. We can look back and see what worked and what didn't for our forbears. We can examine what kinds of people, and philosophies, and systems opposed them. Then we can look and see the very same kinds of people, and philosophies, and systems opposing us today.

This is a general theme I feel is lacking in much of the blog world, so I aim to continue it on BTM.

That's one reason I'm writing this post. Another reason is that, ever since I first read about Ludlow, in the "early springtime" I get that tune in my head.

"It was early springtime when the strike was on..."
That's how Woody Guthrie begins his tribute to the victims of the "Ludlow Massacre" of 1914.

In southern Colorado, mine workers had been on strike since September 1913 against the big coal interests of the region, chief among them the Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation, owned by John D. Rockefeller. The miners' demands included the eight-hour day, more honest procedures for weighing the mined coal, the right to buy and trade in any store they pleased, recognition of the union, and other basic dignities that were already supposedly guaranteed under the law--a common theme in the labor movement's history.
"They drove us miners out of doors,
Out from the houses that the company owned..."
The company owned the workers' houses, set the wages, and paid the workers in scrip that could only be spent at stores that the company owned, where the company set the prices. The surrounding towns, and indeed the state itself, were all but controlled by the great mine interests. So, when Mr. Rockefeller owns everything, and you are striking against Mr. Rockefeller, you are turned out to the cold.
"We moved into tents up at old Ludlow."
The workers were forced out of their homes and out of the mining towns--all private property belonging to the mine owners. They formed tent colonies on public ground in the hills around the towns and were supported by the United Mine Workers (UMWA). The largest tent camp was at Ludlow. 
"I was worried bad about my children,
Soldiers guarding the railroad bridge,
Every once in a while a bullet would fly,
Kick up gravel under my feet." 
The winter was cold, and the strike dragged on. Martial Law had already been declared, although there had been no violence from the miners. The Rockefeller interests' hired guns, such as the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, periodically raided the tent colonies throughout the winter, killing mine workers. (When a company hires a gunman or arms a thug, he is called a "detective.") But the workers would not yield. Some of them were armed and would defend themselves. 
"We were so afraid you would kill our children,
We dug us a cave that was seven foot deep,
Carried our young ones and pregnant women
Down inside the cave to sleep."
When spring arrived and the miners still held out, the great owners got impatient. Baldwin-Felts used an improvised armored car, with a mounted machine-gun, that drove around and sprayed bullets into the tent camps. The miners called it the "Death Special." The miner families dug trenches around their camps and holes beneath the floors of their tents for protection. 

The miners gathered more arms and ammunition; they had to know that more brutal attacks were coming. It's hard to imagine today how living in tents and fighting against armored vehicles and mounted machine-guns seemed like a better alternative than returning to the same working and living conditions as before the strike.

By this time the National Guard had joined the "detectives," militias, and armed thugs surrounding the striking miners, so that government and corporate interests were one force. The National Guard was under the command of the governor, who was of course under the de facto command of the mining interests. The Rockefellers were even paying the Guardsmen's wages.
"That very night your soldiers waited,
Until all us miners were asleep,
You snuck around our little tent town,
Soaked our tents with your kerosene."
On the morning of April 20th, gunmen attacked the Ludlow camp in earnest, with machine-gun fire slicing through the tents. At one point during the fight, the soldiers summoned the miners' leader into the hills to discuss a truce, where he was shot to death by a company of National Guardsmen. That night, the soldiers descended on the camp with torches and lit up the tents. 
"You struck a match and in the blaze that started,
You pulled the triggers of your gatling guns,
I made a run for the children but the fire wall stopped me.
Thirteen children died from your guns."
Early sources say that 33 people were killed, more than half of whom were children. More recent sources indicate that 20 people, including 11 children, were killed in the tent camp on April 20th. The discrepancies between those numbers, the ones in Woody's song, and those in other early sources may relate to confusion over when people were killed (on April 20th? during April? during the Spring? etc). But according to A People's History of the United States, 66 people were killed over the duration of the strike.

The workers grew more militant after the massacre, and they were supported by people throughout the region. Armed miners from around southern Colorado descended on the Ludlow area. Thousands of people marched on the state capitol, demanding that the Guardsmen be tried for murder. The funeral for those killed at Ludlow was held in Trinidad, the main town in the area. After the funeral, miners armed themselves and took to the surrounding hills to attack the mine guards and blow up mine shafts. A company of state soldiers ordered to Trinidad refused to mobilize, saying they would not shoot women and children.

12 more miners were killed before federal troops arrived to "restore order." The strike was over. Mr. Rockefeller and the great corporations won, because they could go to whatever lengths necessary for victory and rest assured that state and federal government stood ready to assist. The solidarity of working families throughout Colorado was no match for the solidarity of corporations and government throughout the country. When it was all over, none of the company's gunmen were charged with a crime.
"I said, 'God bless the Mine Workers' Union,'
And then I hung my head and cried."
Today, most people have not heard of the Ludlow Massacre. You probably did not learn about it in school. I didn't. But our history is full of "Ludlows." Tent colonies and armored machine-gun cars may sound old-fashioned. But a privileged class that benefits materially from slowly crushing working families and is willing to act ruthlessly to maintain its privilege never goes out of style. The systems and philosophies and distractions that made it possible then are still at work today. The story has not fundamentally changed. The difference is that there has been progress, thanks in large part to the awakening of the public by events throughout our history like the Ludlow Massacre. But it's been a slow and grinding progress, and we've seen indications of how easily it can be rolled back.

We would do well to arm ourselves with the knowledge and memory of the Ludlows of our history.


Sources for this post:
From The Folks Who Brought You The Weekend, by Priscilla Murolo and A.B. Chitty


Amy said...

Wow. I simply had no idea--have never even heard of this, like you said. Thanks for an eye-opening and powerful post!

delaine said...

Thank you for telling us about this tragedy of long ago.It should be required reading for those who think unions are outdated and superfluous. Large corporations are capable of great evil as they watch their bottom line. They have incredible power and the ears of many in Congress.Unions forever! Keep educating us.

bendygirl said...

Perhaps, you might also like to cross post to http://unionreview.com.

I've also added your site to my blog roll.

Elizabeth said...

This is not a shameless plug to read my blog (where I talk about John Rockefeller as well), but it's interesting the involvement of men such as Rockefeller in the abuse of power.

It's this same Rockefeller who gave much of his fortune away for the construction of universities (University of Chicago is just one of them), tithed ten percent to his church out of every paycheck, gave money for the medical sciences...and the list goes on and on. We, as a country, have a lot to thank him for (including rehabilitation after World War One, and much of our medical research that grew out of his endowments). At the same time, whether directly or indirectly, he shamefully mistreated many of the very workers who helped build him his fortune.

It makes you wonder what your blind spot is.

Kate said...

This is a great post. I've never heard this story before.

BTM definitely does takes a different approach than a lot of "web surfin' liberals" or, like you say, "fashion liberals" when discussing the progressive movement. I think it's refreshingly unique and right-on. Keep it up :)

Better Than Machines said...

bendygirl, thanks for the blog roll! I've read www.uniongal.blogspot.com a number of times and highly recommend it. I'm adding you to my links as well.

I didn't know readers could post article-length stuff at unionreview.com. I'll definitely check it out.