You might think that, having been raised aÂ mile from whereÂ 10Â workers were killed andÂ 30Â more were shot by police while picketing aÂ steel plant, IÂ would have heard of such aÂ tragedy. More confounding, my great-uncle, Eddie Marasovic, was wounded by aÂ police bullet in that violent affair that would become known as aÂ massacre.
Yet IÂ knew nothing ofÂ it.Â
It happened in May, 1937, before I was born, on the prairie outside the Republic Steel plant on Chicagoâ€™s East Side. This spit of land, along Lake Michiganâ€™s southern tip, linked the steel plants of southern Chicago to a long string of industry that reached through Indiana, giving rise to what labor economists called the largest steel producing region in the world.
Why did IÂ only learn about the killing of workers from aÂ poster of the massacre that IÂ found in aÂ bookstore, in aÂ city located two states away, nearly half aÂ century after the eventÂ transpired?
The Memorial Day Massacre, as many refer to it, was largely repressed by many in the community where it occurred.
In the lateÂ 1990s when IÂ began researching it, scholars had also neglected the tragedy for decades. Greg Mitchellâ€™sÂ new PBS filmÂ andÂ book,Â Memorial Day Massacre: Workers Die, Film Buried, explore how vital evidence — a Paramount newsreel — helped union leaders and civil libertarians turn the tide against the extreme pro-police news coverage in the immediate aftermath of the killings.
AÂ single newsreel cameraman, Orlando Lippert of Paramount News, captured the tragedy on film. Lippertâ€™s footage, suppressed by Paramount until aÂ congressional committee under progressive Sen. Robert M. La Follette Jr. (D-Wisc.) screened it, showed police firing at protesters, strikingÂ 40Â of them, the vast majority in the back or on the side.
The newsreel provided vital proof of corporate and state violence against workingÂ Americans.Â
How had events transpired as they did?
Tensions had been ratcheting up for months ahead of the tragedy. InÂ 1935, the new Committee of Industrial Organizations (CIO), under the leadership of United Mine Workersâ€™ John L. Lewis, organized industrial labor, unskilled workers flexed their muscle. And, in lateÂ 1936, workers set off the sit-down craze, initiating hundreds of strikes from late NovemberÂ 1936Â through the spring ofÂ 1937.
Lewisâ€™s CIO achieved an agreement with U.S. Steel, the largest producer in the country, but Thomas M. Girdler, the CEO of Republic Steel, and the heads of other smaller steel companies (known as Little Steel), vowed to keep unions out. When workers called a strike at these plants, unionists rallied at Republic Steel. But Chicago police refused to let strikers picket the plant and on May 28, 1937, they viciously beat strikers, including women.
To build community support, workers organized a Memorial Day picnic for families and labor activists on the prairie several blocks from their plant. More than 1,000 people showed up, many in their Sunday best, and then set off on a peaceful march to form a picket line close to the Republic plant.
Police halted them halfway there. Orlando Lippertâ€™s newsreel of events shows men and women gesticulating to police. Seconds later, the film shows workers fleeing. Police run after them, many with guns drawn, and fire upon the crowd. Four workers died of their wounds immediately, and within three weeks, another six had lost their lives. Others were hospitalized due to severe beatings. One boy, age 11, was shot in the foot.
My grandmotherâ€™s youngest brother, my great uncle Eddie, was one of those who had been shot. Ironically, though IÂ learned of the massacre inÂ 1983Â at the Northern Sun bookstore in Minneapolis, IÂ only discovered our personal connection at aÂ family wedding several years later. My great uncleâ€™s daughter shared the story of her father having been shot that Memorial Day.
InÂ 1996, in the midst of my graduate studies, examining how news photography shaped labor conflict, IÂ interviewed my aunts and uncles to see if IÂ could find out more. They knew nothing of the Memorial Day Massacre. IÂ became fascinated, not only about the events in Chicago, but about the ways in which it had beenÂ forgotten.Â
Only from an oral history that my brother, Michael, conducted with our grandparents did IÂ find out that my grandfather was working in the Republic plant forÂ 17Â days before and after the massacre. He was one of the “loyal workers” the company deployed to suggest the strikers did not represent most workers. He was, in effect, aÂ scab. My uncle Eddie, in contrast, stood on the field that day, fighting for the right to aÂ union.
I have few strands of information, hardly more than whispers, of Eddieâ€™s life.
He continued his employment at Republic Steel for nearly four decades. But these are the lone facts IÂ can dredge up. From family, there is little more. Others, notably urban sociologist William Kornblum in hisÂ 1975Â bookÂ Blue Collar Community, have observed that Chicagoâ€™s East Siders did not want to discuss the events that so divided theirÂ community.
As documentarian George Stoney found in his exploration of Southern millworkers involved in theÂ 1934Â general textile strike, being subject to state violence can cause trauma or shame, making workers suspicious and willing to repress their own experiences.
Even the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) refused to honor the massacreâ€™s victims — it took aÂ decade for the unionâ€™s newspaper to print the infamous photographs of its members being beaten and shot at by police, even as other union papers and metropolitan dailies published such imagery. InÂ 1937, SWOC was fighting for its right to exist — and it may have feared scaring off membership by highlighting theÂ massacre.
The intransigence of Girdler and the other Little Steel executives soon stymied the union drive. Little Steel only accepted union representation after the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1940 that workers deserved compensation for the companiesâ€™ illegal actions against them, and as President Franklin D. Roosevelt forced industry to negotiate with unions if they wanted federal defense contracts.
While workers did not obtain contracts immediately, efforts at curtailing labor spies, corporate mercenaries, and police overreaction to labor disputes mostly succeeded. AÂ committee under Sen. La Follette probed the massacre and exposed the buried Paramount footage.
This spotlight upon extralegal violence helped curb it in the future. Documenting and publicizing the surveillance of workers — and the collusion between private “security” forces, police and the National Guard — lmited such practices. The stifling of violence, and federal support for unions along with workersâ€™ ongoing mobilization, ultimately led aÂ third of the nationâ€™s industrial workforce to enjoy union representation by the earlyÂ 1950s.
It was only in the mid-1990s that IÂ began to deeply research the story of the massacre. By reading the La Follette transcripts, IÂ was able to find traces of my great uncle.
IÂ knew from aÂ second cousin that her father, Eddie Marasovic, had been shot in his leg, and he carried the bullet in his body to the grave. Unexpectedly IÂ encountered his name, in Exhibit #1463: AÂ medical examinerâ€™s sketch of aÂ body, with dots strewn across the drawing, for all the bullets that more than two dozen activists had borne that day. My great-uncleâ€™s name corresponds to the bullet that wounded hisÂ leg.
My family had been touched by history, recorded in history, and yet those marks had been lost to me. Repressed, censored or silenced — I am still trying toÂ learn.
This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 4, 2023. It is an adapted excerpt from the foreword to he book, “Memorial Day Massacre: Workers Die, Film Buried” by Greg Mitchell. Republished with permission.
About the Author: Carol Quirke is a professor of American Studies at SUNY Old Westbury and is the author of “Eyes on Labor.