May Day

How America tries to tame its history

Today the vast majority of the world celebrates May Day as Labor Day, or International Workers’ Day. Americans won’t celebrate Labor Day, despite the fact that it all started here, in bombs and blood and hangman’s nooses. By the official fiat, history is remade for Americans: May First is Loyalty Day.

My most memorable May Day was in 1992, in my native Los Angeles. I was 18, and my city was burning down. My memories have a childish impressionism to them. I remember being momentarily caught in flames. I remember surge of a crowd, and the advice of my father if I was ever caught in a riot. “Get to the side or back. Get somewhere high where you can take in the scene. Never move against the crowd, but make your way through it to the edge.” (His advice would serve me those days, and many more after than he could have imagined)

From the LA Times’ 20 year retrospective, and my adolescence.

I remember watching tanks roll up the 5 into my city. I remember screaming at a TV set and crying. I remember being on the back of a motorcycle, a shotgun across the handlebars, trying to get home with no idea of what was going to happen to my city. I remember the eerie and apocalyptic silence of Downtown. All those tall buildings and wide streets were empty and silent except for the wind.

For facts and figures, I have to go to Wikipedia like anyone else. 3,767 buildings burned, 58 people died, 11,000 were arrested. They called it a race riot, but that wasn’t true. At its heart, it was a class riot.

Even then I knew the LA Riot was about poverty, about how damn hard it was to get along. It was about feeling trapped without a future.

The real story of May Day as a day for workers begins in the Gilded Age in Chicago, where people without a future were fighting for something we take for granted now.

They were fighting for the right to work an eight hour day, and then go home.

On May 1st, 1886, labor unions all over America held rallies and strikes in support of legislation for an eight-hour workday, with the slogan “Eight-hour day with no cut in pay.” It was a huge event, but nowhere was the action larger than the union and anarchist hotbed of Chicago. Half the population of Chicago, and much of the poor and exploited, were recent European immigrants. This was the setting of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a place where people, including children, were often worked to death.

Chicago’s actions kept going past May 1, with workers in Chicago clashing with police and Pinkerton strikebreakers on May 3rd. The police supposedly shot live rounds into a crowd that included not only the workers, but their wives and children. In response, a few local organizers, including a German immigrant and anarchist organizer named August Spies, set up a rally the next day, May 4th. It was a last minute affair, and he didn’t have speakers lined up. But he knew people he could pull into it, including Albert Parsons, editor of the anarchist weekly The Alarm, and Samuel Fielden, a frequent anarchist speaker at labor demonstrations. Both of them would soon be Spies’ co-defendants.

The May 4th rally was itself fairly small and disorganized, and was beginning to disperse in the rain when it all went horribly wrong.

Months later from a jail cell, Parsons told the story of the night in his own words.

About 8 o’clock p.m. accompanied by Mrs. Holmes, Mrs. Parsons & my two children (a boy 6 yrs old & a girl 4 years old) we walked from home to Halsted & Randolph Sts. There we observed knots of people standing about indicating that a mass-meeting was expected. Two newspaper reporters, one for the Tribune and the other for the Times, whom I recognized … inquired if I was to speak at the Haymarket meeting that night. I told them that I was not. That I had to attend another meeting & would not be there…
…when about 9 o’clock a committee entered the meeting & said that there was a large mass-meeting at the Haymarket but no speakers except Mr. Spies, & they were sent over to request Mr. Fielden & myself to come over at once & address the crowd.
We… went over to the Haymarket in a body where I was introduced at once & spoke for about an hour to the 3,000 persons present urging them to support the 8-hour movement & stick to their unions. There was little said about the police brutalities of the previous day, other than to complain of the use of the military on every slight occasion. I said it was a shame that the moderate & just claims of the wage-workers should be met with police clubs, pistols & bayonets, or that the murmurs of discontented laborers should be drowned in their own blood.
When I had finished speaking & Mr. Fielden began, I got down from the wagon we were using as a speaker’s stand… it soon appearing as though it would rain & the crowd beginning to disperse.. I assisted the ladies down from the wagon and accompanied them to Zepf’s Hall one block away where we intended to wait for the adjournment & the company of other friends on our walk home.

Bad weather had reduced the crowd from a few thousand to a few hundred people by the time Parsons left. Around 10 pm after Fielden had finished and the event was wrapping up, the Chicago police moved in to break up the remaining protesters. As they moved in, a bomb was thrown, killing Officer Matthias Degnan. A gunfight erupted, though it was never clear who besides the police was involved in it in the 19th century dark streets.

An illustration of the Haymarket Bomb. In the 1880s, they had to draw the photojournalism.

By the time the chief had called for a ceasefire 12 officers were injured or dying, and probably dozens of protesters. The total number beyond the four protesters dead at the scene was never known — the the injured and dying could not seek medical attention without risking arrest.

In the coming weeks seven figures of the labor movement were arrested. The eighth, Parsons, gave himself up. None of them were the bomber, whose identity remains unknown to this day. Only three of the eight had spoken at the rally, and only one, Fielden, was still present when the bomb was thrown. The eight men were charged with conspiracy and convicted by one of America’s worst kangaroo courts. There was no evidence that linked any of the eight men to the crime, they were convicted of saying things that might have lead that one man to throw a bomb. Five were sentenced to death.

Besides Parsons, Spies, and Fielden they were Michael Schwab, Oscar Neebe, Louis Lingg, George Engel, and Adolph Fischer.

The Eight Anarchists convicted of the Haymarket Bombing

Albert Parsons was a confederate veteran. He had married Lucy Parsons in 1872, who was probably a former black slave. Originally they lived in Texas, but the couple had to flee in 1874 because of KKK threats, winding up in Chicago. From prison, awaiting death he wrote of free speech and free assembly, of anarchy, what it meant to be a worker, and what was moral. Along with statements from the other seven, it was published far and wide, but it was Parsons and Spies whose eloquence most touched the watching world.

He wrote this: “My enemies in the South States consisted of those who oppressed the black-slave. My enemies in the North are among those who would perpetuate the slavery of the wage-slave. My whole life has been sober & industrious; was never under the influence of liquor, was never arrested for any offense, & voluntarily surrendered for trial in the present case.”

At the end of the trial, when it was obvious there was no hope to live, and the world beyond our borders was largely looking on in horror at what America was doing, each condemned man read a statement to the court. In his, August Spies said:

“The contemplated murder of eight men, whose only crime is that they have dared to speak the truth may open the eyes of these suffering millions; may wake them up. Indeed, I have noticed that our conviction has worked miracles in this direction already.”

It is fair to say this happened, though the results have been both far more and far less than the condemned men could have imagined. Within three years of the whole affair national trade unions and the Second International in Paris designated May 1 as a worker’s day, in honor of the men they called the Martyrs of Labor. From there it spread to over 80 countries, touched most of the world, where people now often know our history better than we do. But we wouldn’t get the 8 hour day until FDR’s New Deal, and as yet, no anarchist or socialist paradise has descended on humanity, and it’s not looking good.

A year ago, thousands poured into the streets to take up the causes of the age. Bangladeshi factory workers marched and screamed against the kind of conditions that led to a factory collapse that killed more than 300 people. Greeks walked off the job, bringing the country to a standstill in a one day strike to show their hatred of the European austerity that is destroying their lives. Young Spaniards took to the streets over austerity as well, Filipinos for the right to form labor unions at all. Once again, with continuing economic oppression and revolutions in the air, people in every part of the globe are waiting and gritting their teeth for May Day, except in America. Our May Days in America are mostly incidental, like my riots.


Americanization Day started in the 1920s, during the first Red Scare. It was set up as a counter to the Russian celebration of the Soviet revolution, which the American veterans who set up the original counter-holiday had conflated with May Day by a misunderstanding. (The Russian October Revolution was celebrated in the Soviet Union November 7th, because of a misalignment of calendars at the time.) Americanization Day ran as a counter to the Labor Days and International Workers’ Days that had sprung up around the world. In 1958, Eisenhower proclaimed it as Law Day.

36 U.S. Code § 113 — Law Day, U.S.A.
(a) Designation.— May 1 is Law Day, U.S.A.
(b) Purpose.— Law Day, U.S.A., is a special day of celebration by the people of the United States—
(1) in appreciation of their liberties and the reaffirmation of their loyalty to the United States and of their rededication to the ideals of equality and justice under law in their relations with each other and with other countries; and
(2) for the cultivation of the respect for law that is so vital to the democratic way of life.
(c) Proclamation.— The President is requested to issue a proclamation—
(1) calling on all public officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on Law Day, U.S.A.; and
(2) inviting the people of the United States to observe Law Day, U.S.A., with appropriate ceremonies and in other appropriate ways, through public entities and private organizations and in schools and other suitable places.

In the 1960s it was codified as Loyalty Day by Congress.

36 U.S. Code § 115 — Loyalty Day
(a) Designation.— May 1 is Loyalty Day.
(b) Purpose.— Loyalty Day is a special day for the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom.
(c) Proclamation.— The President is requested to issue a proclamation—
(1) calling on United States Government officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on Loyalty Day; and
(2) inviting the people of the United States to observe Loyalty Day with appropriate ceremonies in schools and other suitable places.

In case you are wondering, 36 U.S. Code § 114 is Leif Erikson Day, October 9th.

The American May Day comes to us cleaned of its fiery and bloody history, proclaimed by every president including Obama as Loyalty Day, It’s been Loyalty Day, Law Day, Americanization Day, whatever. The point is it’s not May Day. It’s never to be May Day. Even though the eight were vindicated by history, and even eventually honored by the same government that had killed them, it will never, ever, be May Day in America.

Five men were set to hang in November of 1887. Louis Lingg committed suicide the night before by eating a blasting cap rather than die on the gallows.

The next day, the four remaining men were dressed in white robes and taken to stand side by side on the platform of the gallows. August Spies shouted to the crowd that had come to watch them die, “There will be a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.”

And then they all hanged by the neck until they choked to death.

The place where they died is now a landmark. James Quinn, Flickr

May Day, Labor Day, in truth the sense of the day starts long before 19th century Chicago. It goes back hundreds and maybe thousands of years before its contemporary history of protest and riot. It has existed as Beltane with its bonfires and sex, as Walpurgis Night, full of drunk students and mayhem and pranks. May Day has been the rites of spring and the erecting of the maypole, and observed by latter day pagans with their modern forms of ritual and debauchery. However you see it, it’s a day of fire and hot blood. It may even be Outdoor Fucking day.

It is the spring, and whether at its most violent or most debauched, it is about the coming summer. May Day anticipates a future wholly different from the now.

What it is not, what it never will be, is Loyal.