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Monday, September 28, 2009

The Virden Riots

About 24 years before the Herrin Massacre, we had the Virden Riots of 1898, sometimes referred to as the Virden Massacre. An easy hop straight down Route 4 from here, Virden sits partially in Sangamon County, but mostly in Macoupin County, Illinois.

From "Hotter than San Juan Hill" - The Battle of Virden, the UMWA and the Challenge of Solidarity, by Carl Weinberg:

[...] The miners were organizing to fight back against the intransigence of the Chicago-Virden Coal Company. Despite an agreement arrived at between the new union and coal operators statewide in January of 1898 to settle a biter six-month strike, Chicago-Virden and a handful of other companies were determined not to pay the new higher wage scale of 40 cents per ton of coal mined.
All spring and summer, the coal operators made their preparations. They recruited African-American miners from Birmingham, Alabama, promising them high wages and good conditions. In this way they sought to drive a wedge between white and Black miners. They built a stockade of four-inch oak around the mine. They hired ex-police from Chicago and private detectives from St. Louis and bought them brand new Winchester rifles. And now the train carrying strikebreakers sped north from St. Louis to the big Virden mine.
It was October 12, shortly after the noon hour, when the miners stationed south of the mine spied the train coming. A miner posted on lookout fired a warning signal. And soon the train, carrying strikebreakers and armed train guards, approached the stockaded mine. Miners waited, armed with hunting rifles, pistols and shotguns. As the train slowed down at the depot, a shot rang out and then the battle began in earnest, continuing as the train moved along and then stopped in front of the stockades. With the miners in an open field they took the brunt of the carnage. To a mine guard who survived, the bloodshed conjured up images of the Spanish-American War then raging in Cuba and the Philippines.It was "hotter than San Juan Hill," he recalled. After ten minutes of mayhem, having received a gunshot wound, the train engineer thought better of stopping in Virden and continued on to Springfield, his strikebreaking cargo still aboard.
Famed union organizer Mother Jones, the "Miners' Angel," was so inspired by the heroism displayed at Virden that she asked to be buried next to the "brave boys" who gave their life for the union. In tribute to them, she lies buried in the Mt. Olive Union Miners' Cemetery today."
A less obvious achievement of the Battle of Virden is something that did not happen: Republican Governor Tanner did not send in troops to break the strike. At Homestead and Pullman, government troops had played a decisive part in defeating workers. Unlike their corporate counterparts in these battles, the stubborn Illinois coal operators found that the State of Illinois would not so easily cooperate. T.C. Loucks and Fred Lukins of Chicago-Virden Coal initially expected and then desperately pleaded with Governor Tanner to call out the National Guard for strikebreaking duty. But he refused. Only after the gunfight in Virden did the troops arrive, and for the next month they prevented strikebreakers from landing in Virden.

I've quoted too much. Please read the rest at this link. It's a worthwhile, fast read. There's much to be learned there, if we're of a mind to do so, that can be applied to where we are today on labor, racism, and politics.

Also of interest is this recent interview in PoliticalAffairs.net "Class Struggle in St. Louis, an Interview with Rosemary Feurer," where she indicates she has an upcoming project on the Virden Massacre which includes a film on Mother Jones. (Yes, that web site is a publication of the Communist Party, but don't let that stop us from learning something.)

And, thanks to my friend, Dan, who has been to the Mother Jones grave for jogging my memory. Also, here's a photo of Gov. Tanner's tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois.

Posted by Marie at September 28, 2009 1:42 PM