April 2017

May Day in America: US Protest in Global Context

May Day represents a political tradition long forgotten to most Americans. For many, the celebration is marked by a dance around the Maypole, an old pagan tradition of white costumes and ribbons meant to mark the coming of warmer months and the beginning of the growing season.

May Day represents a political tradition long forgotten to most Americans. For many, the celebration is marked by a dance around the Maypole, an old pagan tradition of white costumes and ribbons meant to mark the coming of warmer months and the beginning of the growing season. Others might recall the equally innocent rite of hanging May Day baskets and flowers on neighbor’s doors. Those who remember the Cold War might recall television broadcasts of thousands of Russian workers and Soviet troops marching alongside intercontinental missiles in a long precession to Red Square and Lenin’s Mausoleum. Few, however, think of May Day as having been an important American holiday—one that explicitly connected American radicals to a global fight against authoritarianism and capitalist exploitation.

Meyris Image 1
May Day Parade in Red Square, 1963. Courtesy of USA Today.

May Day has a robust tradition independent of both pagans and the nuclear arms race. European workers already accustomed to May 1 being a holiday used the occasion to protest the challenges of their backbreaking and low-paid work. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, May Day was adopted globally as a time for workers to rally against economic exploitation. It was primarily Central and Eastern European immigrants who carried over the tradition to North America. Indeed, the tragic events of the 1886 Haymarket Affair, a riot that culminated in the deaths of several workers, activists, and police officers, began after a May Day rally in favor of the eight-hour workday. A few years after Haymarket, the Second International, a body comprised of Socialist Parties from around the world, officially declared May 1 to be “International Workers Day.”

“One aspect of International Workers Day is undoubtedly worth saving: namely, its inherent call to collapse national borders and include all workers, regardless of gender, religion, or race. Historically, May Day offered an opportunity for Americans to be part of a purely global movement. As participants rallied and marched, they knew that thousands, if not millions, of others joined them in a concerted effort against the powers that be.

Despite the role Chicago labor activists played in creating International Workers Day, American participation in the holiday barely lasted a century. It was no secret that Congress sought to discredit May Day when it declared Labor Day—already celebrated in some states on the first Monday in September—a national holiday in 1894. It was also not coincidental that the holiday was nationalized only a few months after President Grover Cleveland ordered the United States military to force an end to the tumultuous Pullman Strike in Chicago.

As historian Donna T. Haverty-Stacke notes, the battle between May Day and Labor Day was a very real one.[1] Labor Day was a day for flag-waving Americans; it was purposely distinct from the violence associated with the Haymarket Affair, the Pullman Strike, and the rising tide of industrial unrest. Labor Day was specifically apolitical—it was a day for picnics, sport, and general leisure.[2] It was a day to ignore the death and imprisonment of striking workers and the complicity of the US government in promoting unjust labor practices. It quickly became patriotic to celebrate Labor Day, but it was un-American to march for May Day.

Meyris Image 2
May Day Parade, New York, NY, 1951. Courtesy of Getty Images.

Still, thousands of workers celebrated May Day for decades after the Federal Government adopted Labor Day. The holiday even survived the First World War when the call for “100% Americanism” led to the arrest, imprisonment, and deportation of thousands of dissenters and activists. The holiday had a minor resurgence during the Great Depression, when a revived interest in socialism and communism resulted in more public marches. After World War II, however, the Cold War and the rise of McCarthyism painted any May Day celebration with a crimson swath of red. As the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union found themselves closer to war, most Americans were unwilling to support anything, or anyone, associated with the Soviet Union.

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Americans are unlikely to resurrect a popular May Day tradition. Smaller groups of dedicated activists will continue to march, but most are too unfamiliar with the tradition. May Day’s association with Communism also continues to isolate radicals timid about ideological purity. One aspect of International Workers Day is, however, undoubtedly worth saving: namely, its inherent call to collapse national borders and include all workers, regardless of gender, religion, or race. Historically, May Day offered an opportunity for Americans to be part of a purely global movement. As participants rallied and marched, they knew that thousands, if not millions, of others joined them in a concerted effort against the powers that be.

Take for example the 1927 May Day Program of the Labor and Socialist International (LSI)—the international body of non-Communist leftists that included affiliated parties in Europe, North America, Latin America, and the Middle East. The LSI called for Socialists to unanimously support the Chinese struggle for national self-determination. As the Manifesto declared, “In the forefront of world events stands the awakening of the Chinese people, its mighty struggle for the right of full self-determination inspires hopes of freedom in the souls of the oppressed peoples of every color and every race.” Equal consideration was given to the people of Albania, a nation threatened by fascism and “well on the way to being converted into a colony of Italy.” Not only did the annual message call for a renewed push for the Eight Hour Day and guaranteed unemployment insurance, it also called for the immediate release of political prisoners in all countries, including the Soviet Union, and support for the tens of thousands of refugees “enduring the bitter faith of exile.”[3]

Every day, Americans are realizing that fighting Trumpism means combating the rise of far-right nationalism everywhere. Concerned citizens increasingly understand that the upcoming elections in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom will affect the course of global events and that the violent repression of civil liberties anywhere cannot be ignored.

In the United States, May Day events were carefully constructed to be both militant and ethnically diverse. In 1930, the Socialist Party of America planned a rally at the Bronx Coliseum that began with political speeches given by Vincenzo Vacirca, an Italian socialist in exile for his criticism of Mussolini, and Toni Sender, a German representative to the Reichstag who became known for her later work aiding refugees from Nazi Germany and working for the United Nations. The event concluded with a cultural portion titled “Towards Internationalism.” The program was curated in part by Pauline Koner, a native New Yorker born to Russian immigrant parents who studied ballet under Russian choreographer Michel Fokine and later worked with the esteemed Japanese choreographer Michio Ito. Other performances included a recital of “Negro Work Songs,” a performance by an “American Indian” dance troupe, and a series of performances by Mexican and Dominican artists arranged by Elena Arizmendi, a Mexican revolutionary and radical feminist.[4] At the end of the pageant all of the groups gathered on stage together to perform the Speaking Chorus, “Workers of the World Unite,” followed by the singing of the “Internationale.”

Crowds in New York City were smaller than expected that year. One reporter at The New York Times estimated there were about six thousand socialists at the Bronx Coliseum and a few thousand more scattered throughout the city. Likely, many marchers were deterred by the actions of New York Police Commissioner Grover Whalen. Already infamous for ordering one thousand police officers to violently break up a Communist led rally two months prior, Whalen ordered the city’s entire police force (18,300 persons) “on reserve” for the duration of May Day. He also promised to control any potential demonstration by having “machine gun squads and gas ready.”[5]

May Day rally in Santo Domingo
May Day Parade, Dominican Republic, 2014. Courtesy of Canada.com.

American protests were compounded by large, and occasionally violent, demonstrations around the world. Crowds in both Berlin and Mexico City exceeded fifty thousand people. In Spain, which in 1930 was still ruled by a monarch, scores of protesters were badly injured when mounted police with “drawn swords” dispersed a crowd of ten thousand who began shouting “death to the king, long live the republic.”[6] Their cries were answered when the monarchy collapsed at the end of 1931—though the new democratic Republic that followed would last less than a decade. In Cuba, thirty years before the Communist revolution, ten thousand workers protested the increasingly autocratic presidency of Gerado Machado and laid siege to the City Hall of Regla (an eastern Havana Suburb). The masses were only subdued when soldiers in the Cuban Army were called in.[7] Scattered over several continents, workers knew that they were part of something larger. Whether a communist, socialist, or anarchist, or undetermined “leftist,” May Day was the one time of year guaranteed to worry the ruling elites and demonstrate radical solidarity and strength.

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Over the past few months, events like the Women’s March or the March for Science saw groups take to the streets in solidarity around the world. The scope of these marches provides hope that the international spirit of May Day still lives on. Every day, Americans are realizing that fighting Trumpism means combating the rise of far-right nationalism everywhere. Concerned citizens increasingly understand that the upcoming elections in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom will affect the course of global events and that the violent repression of civil liberties anywhere cannot be ignored. May Day’s communist-partisanship and ideological purity can, and should, be tossed aside; but the tradition of promoting justice and solidarity on a global scale is worth saving. As we continue to combat the growth of nationalism on the far right and left, we need to understand, as radical activists did more than a century ago, that freedom is international.

meyris-bio-picAndreas Meyris is a PhD student in history at the George Washington University and a Graduate Fellow at the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project. He plans on writing his dissertation on the transatlantic connections of the American left during the 1920s. He can be contacted here.

Notes

[1] Haverty-Stacke’s brilliant book provides the most comprehensive history of May Day celebrations in America. In her words, “[May Day] illuminates the cultural creation of individual and collective political identities… it shows the specific negotiation between radical political commitments and American national affiliations in the period from 1867 to 1960.” Haverty-Stacke reconstructs an era of US history where national identity was in flux and radical alternatives to “flag-waving” patriotism included socialism and radical egalitarianism. (Donna T. Haverty-Stacke, America’s Forgotten Holiday: May Day and Nationalism, 1867-1960 (New York: New York University Press, 2008).

[2] See “Labor’s Own Day,” New York Tribune (September 3, 1894), 7.

[3] Bureau of the Labor and Socialist International, “1927 May Day Manifesto, Socialist International,” American Appeal (April 30, 1927), 1.

[4] “Pageant to Feature N.Y. May Day Meet,” New Leader (April 26, 1930), 1-2.

[5] “All Police on Call for May Day Rally,” New York Times (May 1, 1930), 1. The Socialist Press estimated that there were 13,000 present at the Bronx Coliseum.

[6] “May Day Peaceful in Most of Europe,” New York Times (May 2, 1930), 20; “Fifty Hurt in Charges by Police at Madrid,” Ibid..

[7] “Two Die, Scores Hurt in May Day Riot in Cuba; Martial Law in Regla After City Hall Stoning,” New York Times (May 2, 1930), 18. Protesters also took to the streets in India after British Parliament decided to issue an arrest warrant against Mahatma Gandhi. While leftist circles protested the action heavily throughout the early thirties, it was not directly connected with May Day. (Gandhi’s Arrest Near; Britain to Use Iron Policy,” Chicago Daily Tribune (May 1, 1930), 1; “Looks for Arrest of Gandhi in Raid,” New York Times (May 2, 1930), 9.)

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