What began as a rally in support of striking workers and the push for an eight-hour workday quickly turned into one of the worst police massacres in American history when a bomb was hurled at police officers dispersing the crowd in Chicago’s Haymarket Square on May 4, 1886. The explosion and the melee that ensued as the police opened fire resulted in the deaths of eight police officers and an unknown number of civilian deaths.
In the show trial following the massacre, eight rally organizers were charged with the murder of the police officer killed by the bomb, even though prosecutors admitted that none of the men had actually thrown the explosive device. All eight were convicted of the crime they did not commit, and on the night before four of them were hanged, The Nation reported that two thousand people walked down Broadway in New York “bearing red flags and black banners inscribed with incendiary sentiments.” After the executions, a funeral procession through the streets of Chicago wore red ribbons and sung the Marseillaise.
Out of this travesty of justice arose the International Workers’ Day and the progressive tradition of May Day as we know it today. In the decades since the massacre, the workers’ movement has won a host of government reforms, union advances and a political approach that eliminated some of the worst horrors associated with industrialization. To mark this tragic event, but also to celebrate the great victories that came in its wake, we have assembled a collection of articles and images from The Nation’s archives in the following slides. It’s a very incomplete but, we hope, inspiring collection of some of the highlights of US labor history over the last 100 years.
Credit: Harper’s Weekly / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division