On March 4, 1886, during a protest march against police brutality in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, a bomb went off in the middle of a group of policemen, killing 7 officers. The aftermath of the Haymarket bombing showed the fear American capitalists had of working-class ideologies, the lack of civil liberties during the Gilded Age, and the tenuousness of labor organizations during these years of class formation.
The mid-1880s saw the native-born working class struggling to understand the new labor system of the Gilded Age. With the promises of mutually respectful employer-employee relations at the center of early Republican free labor ideology shown to be a farce and workers living increasing desperate lives in dirty and dangerous factories and condemned to poverty, the American working-class sought to even the playing field between employer and employee. The Knights of Labor promised the eight-hour day; in a period when labor looked for a single panacea to solve all problems rather than a deep class analysis of labor-employer relations, the working-class jumped to the idea. The Knights, led by Terence Powderly, grew rapidly in the mid-1880s, even though Powderly didn’t really envision the organization as a radical challenge to capitalism. Still, “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Sleep, Eight Hours for What You Will” became the slogan for a million or more Americans. But Powderly’s control over the organization was tenuous and with the Knights defined as open to all workers, it meant that anarchists and other radicals could easily join and then try to convert workers to their cause.
The center of 8-hour organizing was in Chicago, where small numbers of radicals began organizing workers to demand the 8-hour day and threaten a general strike if denied. On May 1, 1886, between 300,000 and 500,000 workers walked off their job around the nation. Probably 80,000 of those workers were in Chicago. The police responded with sadly predictable violence. On May 3, police murdered 6 strikers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine plant. The McCormick workers had battled with their employer for a year, who had hired Pinkertons to beat them. They combined their already existing struggle with the 8-hour day to become some of the most respected working-class militants in the city. Responding to the murders, labor called a march to protest police violence the next day at Haymarket Square, which somewhere between 1000-3000 people attended.
When the police moved in on the marchers, someone threw a bomb. The police responded by firing into the marchers, killing a disputed number (probably between 4 and 8) before cease-firing, fearful they would shoot each other in the darkness and confusion. Maybe 50 people on both sides were wounded. Unsure who actually threw the bomb, authorities just rounded up all the leading anarchists they could find and tried them for the murder. Despite the lack of evidence, 7 were sentenced to death and another to 15 years in prison. Of the 8, only 2 had even attended the Haymarket event and neither of the two were even suspected of throwing the bomb. But in the nation’s first Red Scare (even if we usually associated that term with post-World War I repression), thoughts mattered more than actions; leading 8-hour day actions meant you might as well be a bomb-throwing anarchist.
Among the convicted was Albert Richard Parsons. Born in Alabama, Parsons grew up in frontier Texas in the 1850s. Although he volunteered for the Confederacy as a young man, he became a southern white Republican in the years after the war. Parsons repudiated his Confederate past and supported not only the principles of Reconstruction but voting rights for African-Americans. He then married a part-black, part-Mexican woman named Lucy Gonzalez. Gonzalez (later Lucy Parsons) had a long and amazing career of her own, including being at the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, fighting with Emma Goldman over the role sex should play in anarchist politics (she thought class was more important), leading the defense of the Scottsboro Boys, and inspiring the young Studs Terkel in the 1930s and early 1940s. Anyway, Parsons and Gonzalez were forced out of Texas due to intolerance to both their political beliefs and their interracial marriage. They moved to Chicago where they both wrapped themselves in the political maelstrom of the time. Parsons became a socialist newspaper editor, attended the first convention of the National Labor Union in 1876, and in 1880, withdrew from electoral politics to immerse himself in anarchism. He became obsessed with the 8-hour day and in 1884 began an anarchist newspaper in support of the idea.
Parsons was not at the Haymarket protest. But as a leading anarchist, one in an interracial marriage for that matter, he was suspect and hated by the forces of order. He was convicted of murder and hanged, with 3 others, on November 11, 1887.
The aftermath of Haymarket completely destroyed the Knights of Labor and the 8-hour movement. Powderly repudiated the violence but was also totally unprepared for every part of the situation, from the size of the Knights to the official repression of labor radicalism. The Knights crumbled soon after and though workers still dreamed of the 8-hour day, it would take another half-century and countless dead workers to see it become a reality.
As for May Day, the Haymarket Riot became a major cause for socialists and anarchists throughout the United States and Europe. In 1889, the Second International, a meeting of socialists from around the world, called for international demonstrations on May 1, 1890 to remember the Haymarket martyrs. In 1891, it made this the official Workers’ Holiday. But in the United States, May Day plays second fiddle to Labor Day. In 1894, facing widespread condemnation for government support of crushing the Pullman Strike in Chicago, President Grover Cleveland rushed to sign legislation creating a Labor Day in September as the official workers’ holiday. He feared that celebrating May Day would benefit socialist and anarchist movements.