Pastor Tim’s article which appeared in the Evening Leader on August 31, 2020
I was looking into the history of Labor Day for today’s article and I learned about an incident that happened back in 1886. It was one of the motivations to create what we know today as Labor Day. I had never heard of this incident before. As I read more about it, I decided I would like to give you a brief history of the Haymarket Affair and compare it to what is happening in our world today.
On May 4, 1886, a labor demonstration of workers who were on strike on Haymarket Square in Chicago, was held. They were protesting for an 8-hour workday and had been out there for several days. Their objectives were clear as were their demands. They were being worked too hard and wanted some limitations so that these workers could have a life outside of their job.
The day prior, the police had cracked down on the demonstration and there was some conflict. One protestor was killed, and several were injured. Tempers were high on this day. Rev. Samuel Fielden, a United Methodist Pastor, was the scheduled to speak that day at the last moment. He was at the end of a long line of speakers and was sort of an after though. The weather was starting to threaten to storm and it was getting dark. The police showed up to disperse the crowd. Fielden stepped down from the wagon they were using as a platform and as he did, someone, to this day no one knows who, threw a stick of dynamite into the crowd of police officers. Seven police officers and four civilians were killed. Dozens were wounded both by the blast and the ensuing crowd trying to get away. Rev. Fielden was shot in the knee but managed to get away.
Eight anarchists were arrested and charged with the conspiracy, including Rev. Fielden, who had only found out about the protest shortly before he spoke and almost didn’t even take the stage. Seven of the anarchists were sentenced to death, one was given a 15-year prison sentence. Two of those on death row had their sentences commuted and one committed suicide in prison. The remaining four were hanged on Nov. 11, 1887.
Rev. Fielden, who was not hanged, was eventually pardoned by the governor because there was almost no evidence that he had anything to do with the dynamite. He ended up moving to Colorado where he died in 1922.
Now, what does this have to do with Labor Day? What the Haymarket Affair helped the world to see is that the people who work were deserving of respect for the contribution to society that they made. They deserved a living wage, time to have a life outside of work, and the honor and respect that reflects someone who matters. To our ears today, that doesn’t seem like too much to ask. But in the years after the Civil War, we didn’t understand the importance of dignity. That is what lead to the demonstrations that grew into the Haymarket Affair. People were demonstrating for the chance to have structured 8-hour days. Their objectives were clear and when their grievances didn’t get the attention that they deserved, the peaceful gathering turned violent.
I would like to draw a parallel to protests we have in our world today. An 8-hour workday is a very clear objective that should have been taken seriously by those running the businesses. It is a clear and reasonable request. What are the protests happening in our world today asking for? The people who made their voices heard on Haymarket Square in Chicago have led to a limitation on the number of hours a person can work so that people are able to have time with their families. What changes could be made to end protests in our world today? What requests are being made? They want less police brutality. I am all in favor of that and every single time there is an incident with a police officer, there is a thorough investigation; if there is wrongdoing, there are consequences. Officers are screened, trained and prepared to have as many positive interactions with the public as the public will allow.
In 1886, there were no labor protection laws; therefore, there was something to protest to change. Today, police brutality is already illegal, and society will not tolerate it. What is the end game for our modern-day protests? I can look back today and clearly see what came of the Haymarket Affair because of drastic changes on how much better workers are treated today. What changes does anyone hope to see based on the current protests in places like Portland, Oregon and Kenosha, Wisconsin?
I despise violence and I don’t ever want anyone to be victim, no matter whether it is from a police officer or from a rioter.