The tents huddled together on the high prairie. For seven months, they had borne deluge, frost and blizzard. In that time, the occupants—more than 1,000 striking coal miners and their families—had also endured the fear and fact of violence. On April 20, 1914, the sun rose at 5:20 am. It was the 209th daybreak over the tent colony at Ludlow, Colorado. And it was also the last.
The next twenty-four hours, in which roughly a score of people were killed, would be the bloodiest in the entire sanguinary history of the American labor movement. Immortalized as the Ludlow Massacre, its causes and ramifications have been discussed, disputed and decried for a century. As with the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 or the Haymarket Riot of 1886, it generated martyrs, villains, monuments, social legislation and mass movements.
For years, the Ludlow Massacre was a touchstone of our radical tradition. Its legacy was fashioned and sustained by some of the brightest publicists of the left, including John Reed, “Mother” Bloor, Upton Sinclair, Woody Guthrie, George McGovern and Howard Zinn. “It was a watershed event,” wrote novelist and historian Wallace Stegner. Ludlow, he thought, had touched “the conscience of the nation, and if it did not make raw corporate gun-law impossible, it gave it a bad name. At the very least, it made corporations more careful.”
The union movement drew enough strength from the events at Ludlow—as well as its defeats and victories on untold shop floors across the country—to force the implementation of new forms of welfare support and working-class power. In the 1930s and ’60s, the battle cry “Remember Ludlow!” inspired advocates for labor and civil rights. By the 1970s, however, the fatalities in those coalfields felt like wounds from a distant past, and the massacre fell from political discourse and education curriculums.
And then the world changed back. The gains of labor began to be undone, and the factors that defined the conflict in Colorado are with us once again: class warfare, corporate monopoly, environmental ruin, the demand for workers’ justice, the influence of media and public opinion. One hundred years on, the Ludlow Massacre is a starkly contemporary tragedy.
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By 8 am on April 20, mountain breezes were gusting up loose earth around the tents. A clear, mild morning and the ordinary busyness of the community belied an atmosphere of dread that had been lingering for days. Nerves tensed as a squad of Colorado state militiamen rode past the baseball diamond and washing lines, into the center of the settlement. The uniformed men demanded to search the camp. Union leaders refused. The military promised to return.
Strikers took this ultimatum as proof of a looming attack. After months of strain, the ground suddenly teemed with motion. Terrified noncombatants fled the colony for a protective row of hills to the north and west. “Everybody was in a hurry-flurry,” recalled the local postmistress, “getting their children out of the way.” Union men shouldering rifles deployed south and east across the flats, hoping to divert enemy fire away from the tents. On the other side of no-man’s land, the soldiers prepared for battle. Privates raced to fill sandbags. Leaving headquarters, Lt. Karl Linderfelt, the brutal leader of the militia’s most feared unit, packed a machine gun on a mule cart and headed off to the front lines.