May 30th 1937: Thirty-one year old Hull House social worker Guadalupe “Lupe” Marshall stood amongst the crowd in front of Sam’s Place on a warm afternoon. Approximately 1500 people were there to rally support for Chicago steel workers. Marshall was researching Mexican workers in the labor movement. Formerly a popular Southeast Side Chicago dance club, Sam’s Place had become a strike headquarters for the young CIO Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC). Hull House was the Chicago settlement house founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr.
A march to the gates of the Republic Steel plant was scheduled to begin shortly. Workers at Republic Steel, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, Inland Steel and Bethlehem at Johnstown had been on strike for a week. Their goal was union recognition and a decent life in the middle of the worst depression this country has ever known. The strike was known as the “Little Steel” strike because the larger steel companies like US Steel had already peacefully agreed to recognize the SWOC and sign union contracts.
Marshall had come to the USA from Mexico in 1917 and was active in the Mexican-American civil rights movement and the communist organized Popular Front, a coalition of many organizations. A mother of 3, she mingled with the kids cavorting about eating popsicles and women dressed in their Sunday best.
There were speeches, including the reading of a statement made by Chicago Mayor Kelly that the workers had the right to peacefully picket. Marshall planned to return to Hull House after the demonstration to oversee the play she was producing. She never made it.
When the rally ended people began walking across an open field toward the Republic Steel plant: men, women and children. Marshall first accompanied a young writer who had originally invited her, but she soon found herself with a group of singing women toward the front of the crowd. Some women had brought their children.
At around 4:30 pm, about 250 yards from the plant gates, they were met by phalanx of Chicago police who blocked their path. As the people behind her pressed forward, Marshall was pushed up against a cop named Higgins who called her dirty name. She heard a tense discussion between the police and SWOC organizers. Behind her marchers shouted,” Mayor Kelly said it was all right to picket.” The police were slapping their hands with their billy clubs. A cop pulled out his revolver.
She heard a sound like a thud behind her. Other accounts say that someone had tossed a tree branch. Then came the thunder of police gunfire. She turned and saw people lying on the ground, some with blood on their backs. She stood there stunned, not wanting to run across the backs of the dead and wounded.
What came to be known as the Memorial Day Massacre had begun.
The shooting only lasted 15 seconds, but approximately 200 hundred rounds were fired. Then the police came into the crowd swinging their clubs. Marshall was hit on the back of the head as she tried to flee through an opening where there were fewer club-swinging police.
Below is the testimony of Lupe Marshall given under oath to the U.S. Senate Committee on Education and Labor chaired by Senator Robert La Follette
Senator LA FOLLETTE. Were you successful in your efforts to get away from the police?
Mrs. MARSHALL. No; I was not. After I evaded these policemen that were immediately in front of me . . . . I was aware that my head was bleeding. I noticed that my blouse was all stained with blood, and that sort of brought me to, and I started walking slowly toward the direction from which a policeman had just clubbed an individual, and this individual dragged himself a bit and tried to get up, when the policeman clubbed him again. He did that four times.
Senator LA FOLLETTE. When he was on the ground?
Mrs. MARSHALL. While he was trying to get up. Every time he tried to get up the policeman’s club came down on him. Then he took him by the foot and turned him over. When the man finally fell so he could not move, the policeman took him by the foot and turned him on his back, and started dragging him. As he turned over, I noticed that the man’s shirt was all blood stained here on the side, so I screamed at the policeman and said, “Don’t do that. Can’t you see he is terribly injured?” And at the moment I said that, somebody struck me from the back again and knocked me down. As I went down somebody kicked me on the side here, a policeman kicked me on the side here.
Senator LA FOLLETTE. How can you be sure they were policemen?
Mrs. MARSHALL. Well, I could see from the sides. I could not identify the particular policemen that did it, but I could see their uniforms, and I could see the edges, the ends of the clubs from the side of my eyes.
Senator LA FOLLETTE. How much do you weigh, Mrs. Marshall?
Mrs. MARSHALL. I weigh 92 pounds now. I weighed 97 when this happened.
Senator LA FOLLETTE. And how tall are you?
Mrs. MARSHALL. 4 feet 11.
Senator LA FOLLETTE. Go ahead.
Mrs. MARSHALL. So, after he kicked me I tried to get up, and they hit me three times across the back, and then somebody picked me up and took me to the patrol wagon. As we were walking along to the patrol wagon I noticed men lying all over the field. Some of them were motionless. Some were groaning, but nearly all of those that were lying down had their heads covered with blood, and their clothing was stained with blood. They took me to one patrol wagon, and as I was walking toward it the policeman is dragging me by the arm. As I was walking toward it, one man that I presumed was a newspaper reporter asked my name…
Mrs. MARSHALL. …and I said “Lupe Marshall”, and I gave him my address as quickly as I could, and I was about to give him my telephone number when he twisted me around and he said, “Come on, get going!” And as we approached the patrol wagon I noticed that it was full, so they said, “No, we can’t get her in there.”
An empty patrol wagon pulled up and Marshall was shoved in so hard that her face was smashed against the grating of the window at the front of the wagon. Then police began picking up the men lying on the ground, some of whom had obvious bullet wounds. The cops tossed them into the patrol wagon like sacks of potatoes. Marshall got up and did what she could for the wounded in the police wagon. One man died in her arms despite her desperate ministrations. She became hysterical and screamed at the cop who was in the back of the wagon:
“I hope you get the medal for this.” I said, “Your children and your wife must be very proud of you.” And he says, “I didn’t do that”, he says,“I wouldn’t do that. I am just doing here what I can for you now. I am trying to help you as much as I can. That is all I have to do, is to see that you get medical care now”, he says, “But I wouldn’t do that.” And as he said that I noticed the tears rolling down his eyes. —from the testimony of Lupe Marshal before the La Follette Committee”
The cop and the social worker had found a common humanity amidst the horror of one-sided class war.
After a seemingly endless ride around the city, Lupe Marshall and the 16 wounded men she was tending made it to Burnside Hospital. When she arrived she told the shocked nurse on duty that more wounded could be expected. Since there were not enough doctors and nurses to handle the casualties, Marshall grabbed a pitcher of water and some table napkins and applied compresses even as a cop tried to stop her. When she tried to telephone her family and the phone numbers from men in the police wagon, she was ordered to put down the phone.
A plainclothes detective from downtown arrived:
“I imagine it was from downtown, since that was the only place where they had detectives—came in, and made a terrible noise. He screamed at these policemen that were standing at the doorway there. He said, “Who the hell ordered this (such and such) shooting?” He swore at them, and the other fellows started to answer, but the policeman that had been advised to watch me—one policeman had been assigned to watch me—said, “Shut up your mug! They are not all dead yet”—and he went like this (indicating) to me, motioning to me.”—from the testimony of Lupe Marshal before the La Follette Committee
Marshall was among the last to be treated. Her kindly doctor was concerned that the head injury may have been a bullet graze and not a police club wound. While waiting for X-Rays she was constantly harassed for more information despite her state of shock at what she had just experienced.
10 marchers were killed and 90 were injured, 30 of them by bullet wounds. About 15% of the wounded were permanently disabled. The police officers had 32 minor injuries and 3 that required hospitalization. None of the police injuries were inflicted by the marchers, but by cops who tripped over obstacles, or were hurt in other ways amidst the confusion.
The deaths were also the beginning of the end for the Little Steel strike. The smaller towns of the Little Steel strike had became virtual fascist dictatorships with bloody repression meted out to anyone who resisted the companies. If you lived through the the civil rights era of the 1960‘s, think Birmingham and Selma. When the SWOC realized that the strike had been defeated, members were told to go back to work without a contract. The total strike casualties were 18 dead workers and many hundreds injured, some seriously. Observers sympathetic to the SWOC asked if the new organization had really been prepared for the strike.
In those days before YouTube, FaceBook, blogging, online alternative media, Amy Goodman and Bill Moyers, it was much easier for the Little Steel companies to “control the narrative” that was presented to the public. In the wake of the Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago, the Chicago Tribune described the peaceful march on Republic Steel as red rioters who had assaulted the police and “lusted for blood”. Other newspapers followed suit in blaming the strikers, even if in less lurid terms. Paramount Pictures had a cameraman that day who recorded nearly the whole event. That film was suppressed for many years to keep the truth from leaking out. Public opinion turned against the strikers.
Labor historian Les Orear & eyewitness Sam Evett
present some of that Paramount footage.
President Roosevelt commented on the Little Steel violence as a “plague on both your houses.” He said this even though the worst bloodshed came from the companies and their refusal to bargain was a violation of the new National Labor Relations Act passed in 1935. A Coroner's Jury declared the killings to be "justifable homicide".
There was hardly a whisper of public criticism of Little Steel from Wall Street or even from US Steel which had peacefully agreed to work with the union. It was as if the captains of industry were waiting to see if the CIO might be crushed once and for all. It was a case of violent civil disobedience by Corporate America.
Little Steel was represented by Republic’s President Tom Girdler (photo on right). Girdler had a well deserved reputation for ruthless ambition. After taking over the ailing Republic Steel in 1925 he burned through the companies cash modernizing plants and introducing new technology. By buying up other companies and applying hard-nosed business tactics, he hoped to monopolize light steel manufacturing where Republic excelled and had his eye on heavy steel as well.
To prepare for the SWOC, Girdler amassed an arsenal including thousands of rounds of ammo, tear gas bombs, clubs, revolvers, automatic weapons and high powered rifles. There is no record of him hiring a team of high powered negotiators. He vowed,”I'll go back to the farm and dig potatoes before I sign with the C.I.O." After the news reached him of the Memorial Day Massacre at the Chicago gates of Republic Steel, he expressed no contrition and offered no condolences.
It was corporate gangsterism, worse than than the 1927 St. Valentine’s Day Massacre perpetrated by the Al Capone mob. The Memorial Day Massacre was the killing not of rival mobsters, but of American working people.The Capone mob’s violent exploits became the source of movies, TV shows and books. The Memorial Day Massacre is hardly remembered outside of labor circles. It seems that not all gangster legends are created equal.
Despite his staunchly anti-union “principles”, Girdler acquiesced to a collective bargaining agreement in 1942 that included back pay and vacation money for workers fired after the Little Steel strike. Girdler had been under pressure from the War Labor Board. He also wanted Republic to get in on lucrative on government defense contracts. He remained with Republic Steel until his retirement in 1956.
A World War II poster honoring Tom Girdler
What about Lupe Marshall, who showed so much courage during that terrible Memorial Day, and who bravely testified before the La Follette Committee? She was charged with communism and faced deportation under the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952. Marshall’s association with communists was no secret as the Communist Party was a prominent member of the Popular Front, a Depression era coalition that she belonged to and which met at Hull House during the those years. There is no evidence that she had done anything illegal or was a threat to national security, but it was the McCarthy period and any left-wing associations (former or present) were suspect.
Tom Girdler, the man who had declared war on American steel workers, continued to enjoy his life as a wealthy man. Lupe Marshall fled to Jamaica with the help of friends, becoming an exile after over 30 years in the USA. She never returned and passed away in 1985.
After the Little Steel Strike, labor relations in the USA remained antagonistic, but have not resulted in such mass bloodshed again. Did Corporate America learn to put away the gun in its clashes with organized labor and those opposed to corporate domination? Not really. US companies operating abroad continued to ally with gangster terrorism, supporting US government intervention against pro-labor governments and labor movements, especially in Latin America: Guatemala, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Uruguay being some examples.
The campaign against communist Cuba after it nationalized US companies nearly touched off World War III.
Today US corporations continue to be charged of violent crimes. The Coca-Cola company has been implicated in the murder and torture of trade unionists in Columbia. Victims of Columbian rightwing paramilitary violence accuse the Drummond mining company of hiring death squad members to kill and torture. Drummond is now in US federal court facing these charges. Chiquita has admitted making payments to Columbian rightwing terrorists and is being sued by their victims in US federal court. Both Chevron and Shell have been cited for violent crimes by residents of the Niger Delta in Nigeria who were protesting environmental destruction and labor abuses.
The international justice system has proven to be woefully inadequate for dealing with this type of crime. But then no one was ever prosecuted for the May 30, 1937 Chicago shootings either.
As I write these words, American citizens are becoming more alarmed by the militarization of our domestic police forces and the increasing power that corporations hold over our political process. Could we see more Memorial Day Massacres here in the USA? I would not dismiss the possibility.
The Mexicans in Chicago by Louise Kerr
Labor Rights are Civil Rights by Zaragosa Vargas
Latinas in the United States by Vicky Riuz and Virginia Sánchez Korrol
“The Man . . . Died on My Lap”: One Women Recalls the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937 Testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Education and Labor (1937)
Big Steel, Little Steel and the CIO by Benjamin Stolberg
Labor’s New Millions by Mary Heaton Vorse
The Memorial Day Massacre by Daniel J. Leab
Chicagoist Flashback: Memorial Day Massacre of 1937 by Chuck Sudo
The Memorial Day Massacre of 1937 (Video) edited by the Illinois History Society
Memorial Day Massacre by the Illinois Labor History Society
An Occurrence at Republic Steel By Howard Fast
They Remember Girdler by Howard Fast