“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”
It is always fascinating to read about figures who made such a significant impact in our history, and yet despite their achievements, they don’t garner even the shortest mention or hat-tip in the average history classroom.
Mary Harris, most often referred to as “Mother Jones,” is one such figure.
But, you’ve probably never heard of her (I’m ashamed to admit that I hadn’t either until fairly recently).
So it goes with our educational priorities in this country…
Mother Jones is one of many figures who represents our largely forgotten history, the history of the people.
And, for the heinous crime standing up for the people and protesting for the rights of working men and women in America, she was labeled “the most dangerous woman in America” by a U.S. district attorney. How’s that for recognition?
But along with the above label, she was also referred to as “The Miners’ Angel” for her dedication to improving working conditions.
She co-founded the International Workers of the World and indefatigably gave lectures and participated in protests and organized rallies.
She was true democracy embodied: Democracy is about giving the people a voice, and she made her voice heard around the country during a time when many were powerless and devoid of hope.
“Forty years ago men gathered to discuss a growing evil under the old flag and later fought side by side until chattel slavery was abolished.
But, by the wiping out of this black stain upon our country another great crime – wage slavery – was fastened upon our people. I stand on this platform ashamed of the conditions existing in this country.”
It is easy for one unfamiliar with history to assume that, after the abolition of slavery, things just magically got better and conditions immediately improved. A closer look will reveal that this is an absurd fantasy.
Terrible segregation persisted, of course, as did a new form of slavery: wage slavery.
With minimal focus on the rights of the workers, owners of factories could take extreme advantage, allowing for dangerous working conditions and paying workers an incredibly low wage for hard and long hours of labor.
Mother Jones gave the workers a voice, and she advocated their right to organize and protest against harsh, inhuman treatment.
One is tempted to call her a humanitarian, but she objected to such a label, retorting, “Get it straight, I’m not a humanitarian, I’ma hell-raiser.”
Mother Jones acknowledged the universal truth that if you want something, you have to fight for it and take it, whether it is basic rights or otherwise.
The politicians that are supposed to be representing you aren’t going to do it for you, as they are beholden to their own self-interests, or whatever helps them to stay in power.
“I hate your political parties, you Republicans and Democrats. I want you to deny if you can what I am going to say. You want an office and must necessarily get into the ring. You must do what that ring says and if you don’t you won’t be elected.”
The ring, for Mother Jones, represents the system, or the status quo.
In order to succeed in “the system,” you have to play by the rules; you can’t stray too far or present too many new, radical ideas that challenge traditional dogmas.
And this is why nothing gets done: Politicians are scared of transformation, worried that the system that has provided them with great prosperity might collapse beneath their feet. So, they will fight tooth and claw to maintain this system.
What is needed is “agitation.”
The opposite of agitation is, of course, complacency; the passive acceptance the current system, the “that’s just the way it is” attitude. Complacency is the antithesis of progress.
We need activism and we need civil disobedience. Change does not come through passive frustration or resignation. Change is a process which requires persistent action.
Supplement this with Howard Zinn’s provocative thoughts on activism and civil disobedience.