There was a time not so long ago when Memorial Day was traditionally celebrated on May 30th of each year, and most Americans still considered the holiday to be a national day of respect and remembrance for our fallen soldiers.
On May 30th in 1937, it was also to be a day of unfortunate death for ten citizens who were shot and killed by police officers in what has come to be known as the Memorial Day Massacre.
In honor of the ten poor souls who lost their lives that fateful day, their own memorial exists on the site of the incident, at the United Steel Workers Association in Chicago.
The events that led up to the Memorial Day Massacre were typical of many conflicts still happening in the United States today. American workers, unhappy with current working conditions or worried about a faltering economy, see no other choice but to strike or protest. In response, the police are called to help quell what might possibly become a violent rebellion. Nowadays, more often than not, demonstrations, strikes and protests are rather peaceful, and crowds are usually dispersed without any force.
This was not the case on May 30th, 1937.
On this day, a group of steelmakers who had thus far refused to sign a contract decided to strike. It was know as the Little Steel Strike, and was in direct protest to the larger U.S. Steel. The Steel Workers Organizing Committee managed to draw a large crowd of supporters to help rally to the cause.
The events of May 30th, Memorial Day, started peacefully enough. Speeches were made, and then the SWOC and its large crowd of supporters began to march from the headquarters of the SWOC to the Republic Steel Mill, where the demonstration would continue.
But their march was impeded by the Chicago Police, who ordered the crowd to disperse. Tempers flared and arguments ensued.
Perhaps it was orders, or perhaps one overzealous police officer began firing on his own or even accidentally. But whatever the case may be, the fact remains that the Chicago Police fired upon the crowd, killing ten people. As the remainder of the crowd fled, police followed, calling out threats of more death to follow if they did not immediately leave the area.
Economic hardship and worker strikes were nothing new in the 1930s. While violence sometimes resulted from such events, the Memorial Day Massacre was a turning point, a showcase of the plight of American workers and the unions who fight for them, against large, often ruthless corporations, in this case the steel corporations, and more specifically, Republic Steel.
What differed about the Little Steel Strike when compared to other strikes around the country was that the Chicago Police took on an active role of direct confrontation from the beginning of the strike, in fact even before the strike began, as they had been working closely with the management of Republic Steel and other steel corporations. In fact, it can and has been argued that the police were virtually “employed” by Republic Steel, and thus had become enemies of the SWOC.
The strike had actually begun a few days before the actual massacre occurred. Within those few days, there had already been several arrests and beatings of strikers, and more than one officer discharged weapons into the air in an effort to frighten and intimidate the strikers.
Tensions were high on May 30th, which was to be the definitive culmination of the strike. Over 200 policemen were waiting for the SWOC and its supporters to arrive, in preparation of an invasion of Republic Steel, which might have been little more than a rumor.
Regardless, the roadblock of police angered the marchers and strikers, who demanded the police step aside and allow them their rights to protest. Police responded first by shooting tear gas canisters into the crowd, and then bullets.
An ensuing investigation showed the police had been wholly unjustified in their actions. And while Memorial Day in all the country honors the dead soldiers of many wars, in Chicago, a memorial day of a different sort honors the ten marchers who fought a war of a different kind, and gave their lives for it.
For a more comprehensive background of the Memorial Day Massacre, be sure to visit http://www.kentlaw.edu/ilhs/republic.htm where you’ll find a complete recounting of events.