Mother Jones: MoJo Rising

Mother_Jones_1902-11-04
By Bertha Howell – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs divisionunder the digital ID cph.3a10320., Public Domain.

In the 1960s, big business came to be known as “The Man.” A hundred years before the hippie revolution, Mother Jones was giving The Man a kick in the wallet every chance she got. She organized her first labor strike at the midpoint of her life, age forty-seven, and devoted the rest of her life to establishing unions in coal mines, breweries, factories, and cotton mills over a span of forty years. Armed with steel-trap smarts, a tough, no-nonsense manner and endless courage, she fought her way to the forefront of the labor movement and paved the way for safer, more humane conditions for workers, including child labor laws and the eight-hour work day.

A charismatic leader who helped the underpaid and overworked laborers of America fight for their rights, Mary Harris Jones came to be known as Mother Jones because of her concern for the workers she came across. Portrayed in the many photos taken, as the sweetest of grandmothers in her proper Victorian gowns, hats, and spectacles, she was however, in her own words, “a hell-raiser.” Doubtless, she enjoyed the epithet once hurled at her by a prosecutor in West Virginia—“the most dangerous woman in America.”

She was born into a working-class family of revolutionaries. Her father and his father before him were both soldiers in the battle for Irish independence. Her grandfather was hanged for his participation in the revolution; her father escaped to North America to avoid arrest. Young Mary attended public school and trained both as a seamstress and a teacher. She taught at a convent in Monroe, Michigan, for a year before deciding to set up a dressmaker’s shop in Chicago. The year 1860 found her in Memphis teaching; there she met and married George Jones, an ironworker, union member, and labor organizer, who died seven years later of yellow fever. This was enough to send her back to Chicago, where she applied her skill as a seamstress, making fancy dresses for the wealthy of Lake Shore Drive. Anger welled up inside her at the selfish wealthy folks she sewed for who blithely ignored the needy and basked in their sumptuous comforts.

Four years after losing George to yellow fever, Mary lost her shop to Chicago’s great fire, and she joined the ranks of the homeless. Her anger at the selfish wealthy class incited her to attend Knights of Labor meetings where she quickly became admired for her orations and argumentation. Mary Harris had found her true calling—as a labor activist, agitator, and activist. She was nothing short of brilliant. Her passionate calls to action were heard by thousands of Americans who were inspired by her to fight for basic human rights and respect as workers. She had an almost magical ability to band people together to fight against incredible odds.

“Women are the foundation of the nation,” she declared as she put her heart and soul into helping the condition of working women in rural areas and mountainous towns of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, and as far west as Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. She forged a powerful sisterhood with these women and saw behind the shy faces a steely strength that she helped them tap. “Women have great power, if only they knew how to use it,” she would declare often, urging women to focus their eyes on the prize of better pay, decent working conditions, and reduction of the soul-killing hours. “This is the fighting age. Put on your fighting clothes. You are too sentimental!”

Mother Jones labored in the trenches alongside the workers, sleeping on their floors in cold mountain shacks and sharing their scant food. While intellectuals theorized about class struggles and economic ideals, Mother Jones worked in the gritty reality of these people’s daily lives. She saw herself as one of the struggling, too, and babysat, cared for the sick, held the dying, and scavenged for food, clothing, coal, and money during strikes. Her distrust of the suffragette movement came from her total allegiance to the uneducated working poor; many of the suffragettes were of the monied, educated, upper class she so resented. She let them worry about getting the right to vote for women; she was making sure they could survive the business of making a living.

A victim of sexism, Mother Jones was never allowed to participate in the United Mine Workers of America she fought so hard for. Men completely ran the union; she was allowed no part of it. From the sidelines, she tried her best to advise in impassioned letters these men for whom she had built a powerful membership. Late in life, she was saddened by the infighting and corruption she was powerless to prevent.

Mother Jones championed the underdog at her own expense and often at enormous personal risk. Ahead of her time, she amazed West Virginia mine workers she had organized when she implored them to be more understanding of the foreign-born “scabs” who were sent to work the mines during strikes. She also lobbied on behalf of African American workers who suffered bigotry from the unions.

Born in the Victorian Age and brought up to be subservient, Mother Jones was a first generation Irish American who fought the good fight and left the world a better place for her class, for women, and for the ethnic groups trying to find their place among the workers of America. Mary Harris Jones was fortunate to live long enough to see many of the great changes she fought for in improving the lot of the working class. Iron-willed and lion-hearted, Mother Jones lived by her principles. A shero in both words and action, she reminds us all, “it is the militant, not the meek, who shall inherit the earth.”

“This Jeanne d’Arc of the miners was a benevolent fanatic, a Celtic blend of sentiment and fire, of sweetness and fight…(who) captured the imagination of the American worker as no other woman—perhaps no other leader—ever has.”
— Dale Fetherling on Mother Jones

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Coretta Scott King: Unshakeable Faith

Coretta_Scott_King
By Kingkongphoto & http://www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA – Coretta Scott King © copyright 2010, CC BY-SA 2.0, Public Domain.

Like the Robesons, the Kings had a marriage based on love—for each other and for racial equality. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Coretta gained recognition in her own right as a pillar of the civil rights movement. A talented musician, Coretta was born in Alabama in 1927 and was educated at Antioch, where she got a degree in music and elementary education and was exposed to whites in a very different environment than the South, learning a great deal about techniques to foster interracial communication. In 1953, she married Martin Luther King, Jr. while they were both college students, and they pursued a life together, her music—she got a higher degree at the New England Conservatory of Music—and his theological degree. From a long line of ministers, Martin felt a call to become a pastor, a decision that found the young couple moving to Montgomery, Alabama, after their education. They had their first of four children in their first year at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and became deeply involved in the actions of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the bus boycott after Rosa Parks’ historic bus ride. As the footage shows, Coretta was right beside Martin at every protest, fighting for the rights of all African Americans. She also participated in fundraising for the movement by giving more than thirty concerts in Europe and the United States to raise money for Martin’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

The Kings traveled extensively in their work—to Ghana, to India, to Nigeria, and in 1964, to Norway to receive Dr. King’s Nobel Peace Prize. Four years later, the world watched in horror as Martin was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee, during a garbage workers strike. Coretta didn’t shrink from the work at hand and led a protest in Memphis four days later with her children at her side. Her quiet dignity captured the nation; that year she was voted Woman of the Year and Most Admired Woman by college students.

From that fateful day, Coretta stepped forward and took up the mantle of leadership in the civil rights movement, which she shared with the young Jesse Jackson. Coretta amazed everyone with her stamina and heart as she made speech after speech and led march after march. She has received innumerable awards for her tireless efforts in her lifetime. She founded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Change and has also led the attention of the nation into new directions, organizing antiwar protests, antinuclear and anti-apartheid lobbies, and employment for African Americans. More than 100 colleges have given her honorary doctorates. Coretta Scott King has never hesitated to give herself to the struggle for freedom and justice, viewing it as both “a privilege” and “a blessing.”

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Harriet Tubman: Harriet the Spy (Not Kidding)

by H Seymour Squyer
By Photographer: Horatio Seymour Squyer, 1848 – 18 Dec 1905 – National Portrait Gallery, Public Domain.

In her day, Harriet was lovingly referred to as Moses, for leading her people home to freedom. An escaped slave herself, she pulled off feat after amazing feat and gave freedom to many who would otherwise have never known it. Harriet Tubman was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, perhaps the best that ever was. She is best known for this activity, but she was also a feminist, a nurse, and, for a time, a spy. Her keenest interest was social reform, both for her gender and her people.

Born around 1821 on a plantation in Maryland, Harriet struggled with grand mal seizures after a blow to the head as a child, but the damage from a severely fractured skull didn’t stop her from the most dangerous work she could have possibly undertaken: taking groups of slaves to freedom in the north. During her slow recovery from being hit in the head with a two-pound weight by an overseer, she began praying and contemplating the enslavement of blacks, resolving to do what she could, with faith in a higher power. She married John Tubman, a free man, in 1844, and lived in fear that she would be sold into the Deep South. When she heard rumors that she was about to be sold, she plotted her escape, begging John to come with her. He not only refused, but threatened to turn her in.

Harriet escaped to freedom by herself, but immediately plotted to return for her family members, using the Underground Railroad. She ultimately rescued all her family members except John; he had taken a new wife and remained behind. She led more than two hundred slaves to safety and freedom, encouraging her “passengers” with gospel songs sung in a deep, strong voice. She also developed a code to signal danger using biblical quotations and certain songs. Harriet Tubman always outfoxed the whites who questioned her about the groups of blacks traveling with her. She lived in constant threat of hanging, with a $40,000 price on her head, and many close calls. One of the most dramatic incidents shows Harriet’s resourcefulness and resolve when she bought tickets heading south to evade whites demanding to know what a group of blacks were doing traveling together. She always carried a gun to dissuade any frightened fugitives from turning tail. “You’ll be free or die,” she told them— and she never lost a passenger.

Harriet also started connecting with abolitionists in the North, developing a strong admiration for John Brown (she conspired with him in his raid at Harper’s Ferry) and Susan B. Anthony. During the Civil War, she nursed black soldiers, worked as a spy for the Union, and even led a raid that freed 750 slaves. After the war, she lived in Auburn, New York, in a house that had been a way station for the Underground Railroad, teaching blacks how to cope with newfound freedom; gathering food, clothing, and money for poor blacks; and founding a home for elderly and indigent blacks. Harriet’s last years were spent in abject poverty despite all she had given to others, but she died at the age of ninety-three having accomplished the task she set herself as a girl. She was the great emancipator, offering her people hope, freedom, and new beginnings. Reformer and writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson named her “the greatest heroine of the age.”

“When I found I had crossed that line, I looked to my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything.”

— Harriet Tubman
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.