Chicagoist Flashback: Memorial Day Massacre of 1937

By Chuck Sudo in News on May 30, 2011 6:00PM

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A low point in the history of organized labor in Chicago marks its 74th anniversary today. What became known as the "Memorial Day massacre of 1937" began when steel workers, labor activists and sympathizers assembled at a one-time dime-a-dance hall on South Green Bay Road called Sam's Place in support of unionizing the workforce at Republic Steel on the Southeast Side, during what was known as the "little steel" strikes (U.S. Steel had earlier signed a labor agreement). From Sam's Place, they intended to march to Republic Steel in a show of force in support of what was then a week-old strike. Tom Girdler, who ran Republic, said he'd rather go back to hoeing potatoes for a living than agree to workers' demands.

As the workers and sympathizers marched onto a field en route to Republic Steel, they were met by police, who blocked their progress. As the front line of protestors argued their right to free assembly, a tree branch was tossed at the police. The police responded with an opposite and very unequal reaction.

When it was over, police shot and killed ten protestors. Nearly 90 others were injured by gunfire, billy clubs and the use of tear gas. Mollie West, who marched on that day, recalled hearing a police officer say to her, "Get off the field or I'll put a bullet in your back." Another police captain told the protestors, "You dirty sons of bitches, this is as far as you go!" and "You got no rights. You Red bastards, you got no rights."

A Coroner's Jury later called the killings "justifiable homicide" while the press, notably Colonel Robert McCormick's Chicago Tribune, used the massacre to stir anti-union and anti-Communist sentiment. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in response to a request by organized labor to intervene, said, "The majority of people are saying just one thing, 'A plague on both your houses.' "

Today Sam's Place, which served as headquarters for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee during the strike, is now the union hall for United Steelworkers. A memorial to the ten who died that day stands on the site of the union hall.

For more on the Memorial Day Massacre, click here and here.