Although muffled by the shroud that draped his head and body, the voice of August Spies rang out in cramped prison yard where he, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer, and George Engel stood on the scaffold on 11 November 1887. A fifth man, Louis Lingg, had cheated the hangman by taking his own life the day before. “The day will come,” Spies shouted, “when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.” The hangman released the trap; the silence was deafening.

The executions marked both an end and a beginning in American labor history. The four men had been arrested in connection with the death of eight Chicago police officers when a labor demonstration in Haymarket Square descended into chaos the previous May 4th. Spies and other labor leaders had called the workers of Chicago out for a mass show of defiance to protest the murders of striking workers by police and company security guards at the McCormick Harvesting Machine factory the day earlier.

This was no ordinary walkout; the Knights of Labor, America’s first national labor union, and the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions had called industrial workers across the country out on strike on May Day to demand an eight-hour day. Hundreds of thousands of workers in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and elsewhere, laid down their tools, left the factories, and joined the picket lines.

At a time when the average American worker labored 60 hours every week for pennies a day, this was a radical demand. The American phase of the industrial revolution, and the fortunes of McCormick, Carnegie, Pullman, and Rockefeller, were built on the principle of extracting as much from workers as possible at the lowest possible cost. It seemed presumptuous for workers to demand to be treated like human beings. For them to walk out on strike seemed like revolution.

Revolution had certainly been on Spies’ mind – as an ultimate goal, if not as an immediate possibility – when he addressed the workers outside McCormick’s factory on 3 May. Facing down the guns of the police and the bosses’ hired men, he called for calm and restraint. But he was an anarchist, a leading voice among the most revolutionary activists in organized labor. He and his comrades believed that the Union, and massed strikes were the first steps toward a world in which the rich would no longer get fat off the sweat of toiling workers. This was the message of his speeches to working people throughout the Midwest, it was the message of his articles in the Chicagoer Arbeiter-Zeitung newspaper.

The prosecutors hanged him with those words.

When a bomb went off in Haymarket Square on 4 May, leaving eight officers dead, the Chicago police set about arresting the usual suspects. No one had actually seen the bomber; his identity remains a mystery today. But Spies, Parsons, Fischer, Engel, Lingg, and Michael Schwab and Samuel Fielden – whose sentences would be commuted to life in prison – were known agitators, anarchists and socialists. Worse still, six of the men were immigrants, the so-called “refuse of Europe;” four were Jews. The prosecution did not need much evidence to get a conviction; the defendants’ beliefs and words, spoken in heavy accents, and their hirsute, foreign faces were enough to convince the judge and jury that they were guilty of something, even if it was not the crime for which they were convicted.

The lives of Spies, Parsons, Fischer, Engel ended on 11 November 1887; the Knights of Labor collapsed soon after. But their deaths also marked the beginning of a new labor militancy that, through organizing and strikes, hard work, defeats and victories, would make the 8-hour day, minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, and the right to strike parts of workers’ lives throughout the United States. In 1904, the international socialist movement adopted May Day as the International Day of the Worker to commemorate the Haymarket martyrs and the global mobilization that began in Chicago in May 1886.

On 25 June 1893, a huge assembly of labor activists, workers, and their families marched from Chicago to the Waldheim (now the Forest Home) Cemetery in Forest Park, IL. It was a summer Sunday and workers and their families could take the time to march, pause, and reflect on the value and the high price of workers’ rights. They came to dedicate a memorial to the Haymarket Martyrs, funded by popular subscription, and designed by the sculptor Albert Weinert.

Weinert’s monument, alongside the graves of labor and revolutionary leaders like Emma Goldman and Benjamin Reitman in the cemetery’s “Radical Row,” depicts a defiant young woman who represents the revolutionary future. She lays a hero’s laurels on the head of martyred worker. The imagery recalls the work of the Belgian sculptor Constantin Meunier and, although it might seem somewhat mawkish to 21st century eyes, in 1893 it signified hope and commitment.

The year 1887 is engraved on the front of the monument, and the names of the five martyrs appear on the back. Spies’ last words from the scaffold, engraved at the base of the plinth, proclaim a warning to capital and promise to workers.

The memorial is now owned and maintained by the Illinois Labor History Society, which conducts monthly tours of the cemetery, Radical Row, and the Martyr’s Monument. It has become a kind of secular pilgrimage site for a new generation of labor activists and political radicals, and provides a fitting backdrop for an annual May Day festival organized by the Forest Park Historical Society. In 1997, the National Parks Service designated the memorial as a national historical landmark.

Yet there is a great irony in that, and not only that the state has recognized the significance of a memorial to radical activists who fought the power of the state. While communities routinely allocate public resources to mark wars with vast stone monuments, and choose which traumatic memories deserve recognition, none the monuments to the martyrs of the workers’ struggle – in Forest Park, at Ludlow, Co., for the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York – receive public support. They were built, and are maintained, by working men and women themselves. The National Park Service’s plaque is little more than grudging recognition of a movement that the state would rather silence.

The Memorial Project is a photographic history of American memorial practice since 1865. Using film photography to document monuments, artifacts, and spaces of collective and official public memory, the project aims to interrogate “how America remembers.” All photos © Matthew Friedman.

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Source: Memorial Project