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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Mother Jones, Local Heroine

Presented by Rev. Diane Teichert with Carol Carter Walker, Worship Associate

Opening Words
by Rev. Diane Teichert

Just down Powder Mill Road from our church is a historical marker by the side of the road. It honors a lover of justice, a beloved and fiery labor organizer who lived her last years near here. Her nickname was Mother Jones, and she called the mineworkers “her boys” because she wanted to protect them, like any mother would, from accidents, disasters, low pay and unfair treatment by the coal companies.

She traveled from one mining mountain to another organizing for their rights, whether Alabama, West Virginia, Illinois or Colorado, so that’s why it is said that the familiar song “She’ll be, Coming Round the Mountain” is about her. 

Mother Jones, local heroine… In honor of International Women’s Day, which was on Thursday, we celebrate her life.

You will find the words on page 3 and please watch me to see the hand motions to go along with them.

Chalice Reflection
by Carol Carter Walker, Worship Associate

I was startled when our minister suggested that today’s Chalice Reflection be about how I became an activist.  I was taken aback because I never particularly thought of myself as an activist.  I was forced to do some deep thinking and came to the conclusion that being born a person of African descent and a woman left me no choice except to be an activist. 

I realized that I have always resonated with the sentiments expressed by Sister Jeannine Gramick, when her Catholic Church sanctioned and tried to silence her for her outspoken advocacy on behalf of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender people:

Sister Jeannine said to the Vatican:

“I choose not to collaborate in my own oppression.” 

To be a member of one or more marginalized groups is to be an activist, or by silence and lack of action, a collaborator.

I’m 70 years old.  I should be fanning myself on a veranda somewhere, doting on my grandchildren, reflecting on my life, and doing more of what I want to do rather than what I feel obliged to do. 

But the mountain top that I thought we had reached is being fracked.  Rights taken for granted in my daughter’s generation and not even a subject of discussion for my 24 year old granddaughter and not even on the radar for my 11 year old granddaughter and 10 year old grandson—are now under attack. 

I am angry, very, very angry!  Who’d have thunk that, instead of enjoying my dotage, whatever that means, I would be rattled and perturbed by a series of whacks upside my head!

In January, a fellow member, Leo Jones, brought to my attention via Facebook that several retailers were trying to have King Day sales—trying to coopt a serious holiday that was specifically created to honor Dr. King by a day of service rather than a day of shopping.


In February, according to NBC, over 100,000 people responded in support of a father who shot his teenaged daughter’s laptop on Facebook.  The video went viral.  He was punishing her for a series of derogatory comments about him and her mother that she had posted on her Facebook page.  The general media didn’t address the scary reality that this father had punished his daughter by using a handgun.  How many steps lie between shooting her laptop and shooting his daughter?


Rush Limbaugh ushered in Women’s History Month by calling a Georgetown Law School student a ‘slut’ and a ‘prostitute’ who should videotape her sexual encounters since we, the taxpayers, were subsidizing them.  When advertisers started pulling his ads, I found out that I was a customer of four of them. 

During Black History Month, John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, LA talk show hosts, were suspended for referring to the dead Whitney Houston, as a ‘crack ho.’   But there was not nearly as much publicity for the slurs to Houston as to Fluke.  Did their race have anything to do with the difference in coverage and outrage?

Whack! Whack! Whack!

I was even surprised when many in Hollywood rallied around the producer of Desperate Housewives, for the slap he doesn’t deny giving Nicolette Sheridan, one of its stars.   I was especially ashamed when some women in executive positions in the industry supported his testimony that he hadn’t fired her after she complained about his harassment.

The State of Virginia, where my daughter and two granddaughters live, wants to dictate what kinds of medical tests and procedures they must have should they opt for abortion to terminate a pregnancy.

Preparing to be part of a service lifting up Mary Harris, or ‘Mother’ Jones has put me in touch with the need to commit to lifelong activism.  Her life, as you will hear, took many twists and turns, yet, she seemed to me to be able to keep pressing forward.

Battles once fought and won--must be fought again. Jim Crow is now James Crow, Esquire. The person holding you back may be a woman cloaked in a power suit.  We’ve got to rise and rise again to keep what we have ‘won’ and continue to press the arc of the universe toward justice.

Sermon: Mother Jones, Local Heroine
by Rev. Diane Teichert, Minister

Before I begin, I would like to introduce two visitors this morning.

Marat Moore, a former staffer of the United Mine Workers and Mother Jones enthusiast. A Greenbelt resident, she is currently researching the many mysteries of Mother Jones’ life in preparation for writing an historical novel about her. She accompanied me on a visit to the Mary Harris “Mother” Jones Elementary School here in Adelphi and loaned me several books, The Autobiography, Mother Jones Speaks: Collected Speeches and Writings, and the 2001 400-page biography Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America by Elliott J. Gorn.

Marat put me in touch with Saul Schniderman, who is solely responsible for the naming of the elementary school and for the historical marker honoring Mother Jones, shown in the photograph in our Order of Service today. A Takoma Park resident, cataloguer at the Library of Congress and President of the Library of Congress Professional Guild, he has published several articles about Mother Jones, one of which I will quote, “Mother Jones’ Sojourn:  My Search for the House where the “Miner’s Angel” Died” in Labor’s Heritage.

Thank you both for joining us today, and for your commitments to economic and social justice through labor union activism. Though I now work in the church, which Mother Jones often derided, my first career was as a community and labor organizer, the latter with women office workers through 9to5-the National Association of Working Women, which was affiliated with the Service Employees International Union. So I feel affinity with our visitors and with Mother Jones, our local heroine.


Mary Harris “Mother” Jones was a true believer in the message that the choir sang today – “joining one voice to another voice…” – but for her the purpose of joining of voices was not to achieve the ephemeral qualities called out in the song  -  “echoes in memory” “perfect peace” “changing beauty.” For Mother Jones, the purpose of joining voices was to win concrete benefits for working people. In a fight with companies, bankers, and politicians, the workers could win only by joining their voices together as one.

Like she said to striking coal miners in Montgomery, West Virginia on August 4, 1912,  “Fellow workers: Let me say this to you, that no one person wins a strike, that it takes the combined forces of the oppressed, the robbed class to get together and win a strike.” (From Mother Jones Speaks, Philip Foner, ed., p. 177). No one person, many voices.

Mother Jones was an activist, a fiery orator, someone who not only got steamed up about injustice, she was like a steam engine for justice, traveling the country from mountain to mountain, mine to mine, textile mill to steel mill, sweatshop to railroads, meeting with wives and workers, mobilizing them – and even their children – to fight for their rights, for safer working conditions, better living conditions, and for higher wages.

Our Worship Associate, Carol Carter Walker, showed us in her Chalice Reflection this morning that she can be steamed up for justice like Mother Jones… who would, I think, have loved Carol’s “Whack! Whack!” refrain. Many of us here are steamed up for peace and justice!

Exclaimed Mother Jones in that same 1912 speech, “My friends you are exploited, you are robbed, you are plundered. You have submitted to it, you haven’t protested. You grunt but you don’t fight as you ought to do. You don’t have to kill the guards, all you have to do is to go to the ballot box and vote them out of business.” (Foner, p. 184-5).

Mother Jones was fiery and she had a sense of humor. Again, in the same speech, speaking of protesters killed by guards who were sheriffs doing the bidding of the coal companies and of workers dying in mine accidents, “With the bleached bones of these people you build your churches, your YMCA’s and your institutions. You have robbed and plundered these people, [who] will build churches – and the love of God will be there – or will it be the love of capitalism or the operators? Look into the churches, and see the big fellow at the front singing, ‘All for Jesus.’ They murder for Jesus, they rob for Jesus, and own the government for Jesus, and scare hell out of the sheriff, for Jesus.” [the mineworker audience laughed]. “They say, ‘Our Father in Heaven.’ You can hear them forty miles away, crying to heaven, ‘Give us today, Oh, Lord, give thy son his daily bread,’ and ‘Oh, Lord Jesus, fix it so I can get three or four other fellows’ bread.” [Laughter] (Foner, p. 185-6).

Mary Harris was born in Cork, Ireland, and she claimed May 1, 1830, as her birth date. But her baptism is recorded at St. Mary’s Cathedral there as taking place on August 1, 1937 (Gorn, p. 9) so it is likely she was born in July and not on May Day – the International Workers Day – and was always really seven years younger than she said she was. These are among the inconsistencies and mysteries in the story she told about herself, prompting her biographer to say in more than one chapter something like, “The single greatest clue about the life of Mary Harris Jones was her desire to become someone else,” namely Mother Jones.

Forced out by the horrors of the Irish Potato Famine, her family emigrated from Ireland to Canada in the early 1850’s, a period in which the trip by ship was gruesome, packed in steerage, diseases rampant, many dying. She later moved to Michigan where she had her first teaching position in a convent school and then to Memphis, Tennessee where in about 1861she married George Jones, an iron molder and union activist, who we know from public and union records died six years later in the yellow fever epidemic, which she said also claimed the lives of her four children, though there are no birth or death records for them.

She moved to Chicago sometime later, where the great fire of 1871 left her destitute.

Clearly, whatever embellishments she may have made on the truth of her life story, Mary Harris Jones was a survivor of hardship – famine, fever, and fire. Her hardships steamed her up it’s safe to say.

The same year as the fire, she began attending meetings of the Knights of Labor, though they didn’t allow women as members, and soon thereafter she began to "raise hell" in support of workers. That was also the year she met Knights of Labor leader Terance V. Powderly and his wife, who were to be her life-long friends and the reason that she lived the last decade of her life down Powder Mill Road from here.

Mother Jones was labor’s drama queen. She knew that injustices in the workplace had to be brought to light, to the embarrassment of corporate and public officials, and she had a knack for mobilizing people and getting publicity.

For example, in 1897 at the strikers’ camp in Turtle Creek near Pittsburgh, she invented the “pound party,” a gathering of neighborhood women who were asked to bring a pound of food to donate to the strikers supplies.

Also, around the turn of the twentieth century, she was instrumental in numerous marches of women or children, among them the Children’s Crusade arising out of a Philadelphia silk mill strike in 1903 in which 100,000 workers, sixteen thousand of them children under age sixteen, walked out. The main demand was to reduce the workweek from 60 to 55 hours, but they also sought to prohibit night work for women and children. (Gorn, p. 131)

Let us let those realities sink in – a 60 hour workweek with children under 16 working, even at night – reminding us of all the struggles labor movement won for us.

But the silk workers strike wasn’t making the news. She said in her autobiography, that newspapermen told her that they could not print stories about the strike because the mill owners held stock in the papers. “Well I’ve got stock in these little children,” she told them. “I’ll arrange a little publicity.” (Gorn, p. 131)

So, to dramatize the issues of the silk workers, Mother Jones improvised the idea for a crusade of child workers from Philadelphia to Wall Street and the home of JP Morgan, and from there to the home of President Theodore Roosevelt in Oyster Bay, Long Island, more than 100 miles. Children holding signs saying “We are textile workers” and “We want time to go to school” and “Prosperity: Where is our Share?” and rallies along the way, they attracted local press and Mother Jones gave speeches, denouncing the “cannibalistic plutocrats who are grinding out young lives beneath the wheels of gold.” (Gorn, p. 131-5).

“We are textile workers.” Sounds like the Occupy Movement, don’t you think?... “We are the 99%.” Occupy Wall Street, march on the bankers, march on the president…

Throughout her long fight for the labor movement, Mary Harris "Mother" Jones “lived a nomadic life, often with a handbag serving as her pillow,” as Saul Schniderman wrote for the website of the elementary school named in her honor [i]. Of herself she said, “My address is like my shoes. It travels with me. I abide where there is a fight against wrong.”

Only in the final years of her life did she find a tranquil home, in what was then rural Maryland, but is now suburban Adelphi. It was the farmhouse of Walter and Lillie May Burgess, on Powder Mill Road where Riggs Road joins it. Mother Jones had met them, many years earlier, at the Washington DC home of her long-time labor leader friends, the Powderly’s, where she lived in the early 1920’s.

From time to time over her years of activism, when Mother Jones was tired out from her travels and travails for the working people of our country, the Burgess’ welcomed her to spend a little time at their truck farm. So, it was natural for her to think that she might settle there when she was no longer able to run around. She moved in for good in May 1928, showing up unannounced. As Lillie May Burgess later remarked about her welcome arrival, “When Mother Jones made up her mind to do a thing, she almost invariably did it.” [ii]

Two years later, on May 1, 1930 she celebrated her "100th birthday" (actually her 93rd) on the farmhouse lawn in Adelphi where she received hundreds or maybe a thousand well-wishers, telegrams from labor leaders and even one from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. her nemesis, and gave the last speech of her life. She died six months later, mourned by working people everywhere. A memorial gathering was held at the Burgess’ home, a funeral at St. Gabriel’s Roman Catholic Church in Washington DC, and the burial at Mount Olive, near Virden, Illinois as she had requested.

It was at Mount Olive that the United Mine Workers won the victory that allowed them to organize a major portion of America’s coalmines. Back in 1898, most operators were ready to accept a union contract, but the owners in Virden held out. They tried to bring in scabs from Alabama, African Americans who were not informed of the strike. On October 12, when their train pulled into Virden, armed miners shot it out with the guards on board. In the ten-minute battle, forty-seven union men were shot, seven mortally; four of nine wounded detectives died. None of the would-be strikebreakers was hit, but the train never unloaded its cargo, and the coal company was forced to settle the strike. It was this final battle that made the UMW the most powerful union in America. (Gorn, p. 293)

Mother Jones wanted to be buried with “her boys” at Mount Olive. Her eulogizer said, “Today upon the plains of Illinois, the hillsides and valleys of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, in California, Colorado and British Columbia, strong men and toil-worn women are weeping tears of bitter grief. The reasons…are the same. Mother Jones is dead.” (Gorn, p. 293).

Song to immediately follow: “The Death of Mother Jones” (Anonymous) sung by Allison Hughes and Arun Ivatury.

Closing Words

In the words of Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, “Sit down and read. Educate yourself for the coming conflicts.” Be prepared for the “Whack!Whack!” and get ready for action.

Web sources:

[i] Saul Schniderman, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones Elementary School, Prince Georges County Public Schools, http://www1.pgcps.org/maryharrismotherjones/


[ii] Saul Schniderman, “Mother Jones’ Sojourn:  My Search for the House where the ‘Miner’s Angel’ Died” in Labor’s Heritage. http://www.nlc.edu/~breynolds/landmark/laborheritage/MotherJonesSojourn.pdf


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