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  • Labor, Memory, and the Boundaries of Print Culture:From Haymarket to the Mexican Revolution
  • Shelley Streeby (bio)

1. Haymarket Memories, the Civil War, and the Mexican Revolution

In this essay, the constellation of events known as "Haymarket" serves as a hinge between the Civil War and the Mexican Revolution. These events, which together comprise one of the most notorious episodes in US labor history, include huge demonstrations in Chicago on 1 May 1886 in support of an eight-hour day; 3 May 1886 attacks in which police fired on strikers at the McCormick Reaper plant in that city, killing at least two; the gathering of 3000 workers the next day at Haymarket Square; and finally, the interruption of that peaceful meeting by the police and the throwing of a bomb, which killed several policemen and workers. As is well known, the state charged eight of Chicago's labor leaders with murder, though the identity of the bomb-thrower was never discovered. After an outrageously unfair trial, all were convicted: four were hung, one was found dead in his cell, and three others received long prison sentences.1 Despite the Red Scare and the repression of public speech that followed the 1887 executions, however, in newspapers, pamphlets, books, plays, poems, images, speeches, commemorations, and through other modes of memory-making, radicals and working-class advocates repeatedly returned to Haymarket to understand the past and make meanings for the present.2 In order to contribute to the [End Page 406] larger project of situating US labor history and culture within a global frame, this essay focuses on the connections some of these radicals made among the US Civil War, Haymarket, and the Mexican Revolution.

In what follows, I retrace the paper trail left by the radical periodicals and other publications of the era in order to reconstruct the responses of a range of Haymarket memory-makers who looked both backward, especially to the Civil War, and forward to the revolutionary break with the present that some hoped the Mexican revolt might inaugurate. I read texts composed by a multiply connected cohort of writers, orators, editors, and organizers, including Eugene V. Debs, Lucy Parsons, Jay Fox, Voltairine de Cleyre, William C. Owen, and Emma Goldman, who drew on antebellum languages of labor and race as they remembered Haymarket and looked south to Mexico. Partly as a result, I argue, they linked together the Civil War, Haymarket, and revolutionary struggles against the Díaz regime (1876–1911), understanding each of these conflicts as a war against slavery. Viewing Haymarket as a continuation of the Civil War and as part of an ongoing struggle to end "slavery" and return control of land, natural resources, and the means of production to workers, some even hoped that the Mexican Revolution might be the transformative event that the martyrs had called for in the famous speeches and other public statements and writings that were cited and circulated again and again in the decades after Haymarket.

Such comparisons had ambiguous implications, however. During the antebellum period, labor advocates' comparisons of different forms of "slavery" sometimes connected those struggles, but also often pitted them against each other, so that the problems of white workers were in many cases prioritized over those of black slaves.3 In the case of early twentieth-century Mexico, characterizations of Mexicans as slaves could link up US and Mexican labor and land struggles, but they could also "blacken" Mexicans in ways that played into white supremacist beliefs about the supposed inability of nonwhites to rule themselves. Although many US anarchists, Industrial Workers of the World members, and other radicals did not share those beliefs, the long history, reinforced by the US–Mexico War, of racializing non-elite Mexicans as nonwhite, along with the language boundaries that often separated working-class communities, posed limits to the coalition-building possibilities of the slavery comparison after US emancipation and during the Mexican Revolutionary moment. The transnational anarchist and socialist discussion of the meanings of emancipation and revolution after the Civil War and Haymarket and during the [End Page 407] Mexican Revolution, moreover, also involved and opened up even more debates about whether marriage was a form of slavery...


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