Saturday, November 22, 2008

Forgetting the Marion Massacre

Members of the Philadelphia Full Fashioned Hosiery Workers display their solidarity with the Marion strikers.

If we do not know our own history we are doomed to live it as though it were our private fate. – Hannah Arendt

Capitalism is the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives will somehow work for the benefit of all. – John Maynard Keynes

Sometimes, it’s hard to know what to say. I’ve been reading again about the Marion Massacre and finding far too much to fit into one blog post. The events are compelling, the human stories of resistance and suffering are powerful, and the broader context of labor unrest in the Carolina textile mills is fascinating. I could take any number of tangents: the migration of mountain families to the mill towns of the Western Piedmont in the early 1900s, Eugene V. Debs and socialism, Ella Mae Wiggins and protest songs, racism within the union movement, and various novels inspired by the textile strikes. The story connects with me on so many levels that I don’t know where to start.

So I'll start with this; we suffer from our inability to learn the lessons of history. The financial collapse of 2008 is not entirely unlike the stock market crash of 1929. In both cases, the meltdown was the culmination of a long, long trend. Remember "Morning in America" and the dawn of the Reagan Era? The Gipper was a happy champion of free enterprise, but somewhere along the line, unfettered capitalism turned into legalized thievery. For a very few, legalized thievery has been very good, but it has led to a sorry end for most of us. Members of Congress (those public servants who are never guilty of hypocrisy) put on a good rhetorical show this week when they grilled the Big Three automakers, chastising them for disembarking from private luxury jets "tin cups in hand," and comparing them to tycoons "lining up at the soup kitchen in top hats and tuxedos." Zingers like that would be funny if the situation weren’t so sad.

Behind it all, I keep seeing how silence and amnesia deprive us the lessons of history and rob us of our power in fundamental ways. That’s true from the most personal level to the global level. And so I figure the re-telling of the stories is a protest against mute forgetfulness. To anyone who will listen, I contend "Storytelling is essential to the survival of a culture." In that light, I've been considering how to approach the Marion Massacre, which occurred just three weeks before the Wall Street crash of '29.

It's funny how my online relationship with Marion, North Carolina has unfolded. Always one to see little absurdities emerging from daily life, I got a chuckle from several billboards and road signs that I spotted in Marion a while back, so I had a bit of fun with it and quickly discovered that some folks in Marion lack a sense of humor.

To me, different places have different "vibes." If one place feels pretty much like another place to you, then you won’t know what I’m talking about. But I’m sure that some readers can identify with me when I say that Marion feels repressive and dark in subtle ways that defy description. Little did I know that Marion was deep into deliberate forgetfulness, drowning in denial.

After reading an interview with Mike Lawing, author of The Marion Massacre, I had a better idea of what it was I was sensing:
Mike Lawing grew up in Winston-Salem, but frequently visited relatives in Marion. He drove past the mill dozens of times, but had never once heard anybody mention what happened there. He was well into middle age when his father pointed to the site one day and started to tell him about it. The elder Lawing had three uncles working in the Marion and Clinchfield mills--two supported the strike, one was "loyal" to the company. Lawing's mother was related to a deputy accused of shooting at strikers as well as the attorney who represented the Union. "It was as if both sides were ashamed of what had happened, and nobody wanted to talk about it."

Perry Deane Young, who conducted the Lawing interview, commented on how the Marion Massacre had been relegated to obscurity until Lawing researched the history of the event:
With admirable persistence, Lawing has succeeded in getting this story home to the folks in Marion and McDowell County whether they want to talk about it or not…. If his book does not make it on any kind of statewide or national stage, at least he will have helped to erase the long conspiracy of silence and confronted the folks back home with the facts about this tragic event in local history.

There are several, sometimes conflicting, accounts of the Marion Massacre, but here’s one capsule summary of what happened:
During the 1929 Textile strikes in North Carolina the workers at the Marion Manufacturing Co. held out against evictions and hunger and disease for nine weeks. They went back to their jobs at the end of nine weeks when the company promised to grant most of their demands. These promises were never kept, and the company officials, fearing another strike, began to bully and threaten the workers.The foreman on the night shift was worse than most. One night he began to threaten and goad one of the boys. When the boy could stand it no longer he ran to the lever which controls the power of the plant and pulled it. The machines stopped. The men walked out.

That was Oct. 2, the first day of the second strike at the Marion Manufacturing Co., the same day that Sheriff Adkins and his deputies shot and killed six men and wounded twelve others, most of whom were shot in the back while trying to escape the fumes of tear gas.

In the end, all of the lawmen were acquitted of all charges, thanks to lawyers paid for by the factories. Some of the strikers were convicted of rioting. Testimony came out on both sides at trial. The right of the sheriff to maintain order and the need to act in self-defense prevailed. Union organizing did not return to Marion.

Sinclair Lewis witnessed the events in Marion and wrote a series of newspaper articles later republished in the volume, Cheap and Contented Labor:
The workers, especially in Marion, have become discouraged. They are hungry, tired, bewildered. They are sick of being shot down. Unless the whole country encourages them (and there are few more delicate and tactful forms of encouragement than dollar bills), they will crawl back into the slavery I have sought to picture here.

It was reported that no minister of the town of Marion or of the neighboring towns would come near the dead or their families. A stranger from another state conducted the funeral and during the services an old mountain preacher, Cicero Queens, dropped before the coffins of the slain workers, spread out his arms and called out in prayer:

O, Lord Jesus Christ, here are men in their coffins,
blood of my blood, bone of my bone.
I trust, O God, that these friends will go to a better place
than this mill village or any other place in Carolina.

O God, we know we are not in high society,
but we know Jesus Christ loves us.
The poor people have their rights, too.
For the work we do in this world,
is this what we get when we demand our rights?

Jesus Christ, Your Son, O Lord, was a working man.
If He were to pass under these trees today,
He would see these cold bodies lying here before us.
Dear God, do feed the broken hearts
of these loved ones left behind.

Dear God, do feed their children.
Drive selfishness and cruelty out of your world.
May these weeping wives and little children
have a strong arm to lean on.

Dear God, what would Jesus do
if He were to come to Carolina?

Let’s get back to my story. I grew up in North Carolina. In fact, I grew up in a Piedmont cotton mill town. My dad worked in the mill. I worked in the mill, for a brief time. The socio-economic disparities of life in a cotton mill town are not some academic abstraction for me, but are ingrained in who I am. If our North Carolina History class, back in the schools of that mill town, ever included a lesson on the labor movement in the textile mills, I must have been sleeping. Maybe things have changed, but I doubt it. I suspect our young Tar Heel scholars learn about Blackbeard and Virginia Dare and the Battle of King’s Mountains, and never hear a word about Ella Mae Wiggins and the strike at Loray Mills.

If we forget about the injustices of the past - the exploitation and abuse of workers in the textile mills of 1929 – that makes it easier to overlook the exploitation and abuse in, say, North Carolina’s poultry processing plants of 2008. And some people want to keep it that way. The establishment has protected its privileged status by splintering any threats to entrenched power. As a result, the white man looks down on the black man, the linthead looks down on the chicken plucker, the middle class looks down on the underclass. Divide and conquer with a wink and a nod. Anyone speaking out against the corporate overlords is fomenting, heaven forbid, class warfare! Puh-leeze...

So bring on the venomous comments from Marion, NC in response to my rant. Call me a socialist or a communist or an ignorant ass. I don't pretend to know if capitalism is inherently good or bad. I’m simply observing that unfettered capitalism can be just as tyrannical as any system out there, and that the Marion Massacre showed us the deadly side of free enterprise.

It's unfortunate that Marionites (or anyone else, for that matter) believe there's some virtue in forgetting it ever happened.


Frank Welling and John McGhee, recording as the Martin Brothers, released their version of the Marion Massacre on the Paramount label in 1930, with the following lyrics:

A story now I'll tell you,
Of a fearful massacre,
Which happened down in Dixie
On the borders of the sea.

[Chorus]There'll be no sorrow there,
There'll be no sorrow there,
In heaven above,
Where all is love,
There'll be no sorrow there.

'Twas in Marion, North Carolina
In a little mountain town,
Six workers of the textile mills
In cold blood were shot down.'

Tis ever the same old story
With the laborers of our land.
They're ruled by mighty powers,
And riches they command.

Why is it over money,
These men from their friends must part,
A' leaving home and loved ones
With a bleeding, broken heart?

But some day they'll meet them
On that bright shore so fair,
And live in peace forever,
There'll be no sorrow there.

It started over money,
The world's most vain desire,

These men were only asking
Their rights and nothing more,
That their families would not suffer
With a wolf at ever door.

The UNC Library has a transcript online of a 1975 interview with Union organizers Vesta and Sam Finley who organized the Marion workers in 1929:

In a later post, I'll have more from Sinclair Lewis, but for now, this:

...the belligerent Marion druggist cornered one of the objectionable outsiders - a small, trim man, unknown to Marion and presumably a newspaper reporter.

"All reporters," said the druggist, "are dirty Communists. And I got a way with Communists." He produced a knife with a six-inch blade. "Do you know what I'm going to do with this?' he amiably inquired.

"No," the small, trim man said. "But I know what I'm going to do if you don't put that bread-carver away. I'm going to punch you in the snoot!"


Don Meaker said...

When reading things like this, remember that the jobs in the textile mills were far better than other jobs, or non-jobs, and that finding other workers would not have been a problem. What would have kept other workers from coming to take these jobs?

GULAHIYI said...
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GULAHIYI said...
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Anonymous said...

you failed to mention how people in marion nc 2010 still today will take, should i say steal, anything that they know will profit themselves! ask mike lawing just how did he really get his information for his book and his relationship with ellen pphirman of eljapa media! yes, people have not changed in marion all these years!