The amazing story of political prisoners in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary celebrating May Day on the fateful, and fatal, day in 1919 as told by a Socialist C.O., conscientious objector.
‘May Day in Ft. Leavenworth’ by a Socialist C.O. from The Liberator. Vol. 2 No. 6. June, 1919.
‘WHILE Cleveland was having its fatal May Day demonstration and while other free American cities were engaged in bloody rioting and fighting between citizens and police, with soldiers pitching in on both sides and shavetail ex-officers going into “action” for the first time, the militant Socialists imprisoned in Fort Leavenworth were observing the international revolutionary Labor Day under U.S. military sanction.
‘The open air red flag parade was witnessed by a crowd of soldiers who offered no opposition but viewed it with apparent approbation. The one day stoppage of prison work by the celebrants met with the approval in advance of the prison authorities who made special arrangements to permit the rebel group to assemble and observe the day. Civilians and Q. M. sergeants and children on their way to school looked with amazement on the unprecedented prison scene as it unfolded itself behind the double lines of barbed wire surrounding the stockade-annex of the Disciplinary Barracks.
‘The sensational feature of the day that will make it a bright red memory for the amazed officers; the grinning soldiers and the triumphant laborites was this grand parade through “Wire City.” It formed in front of the Bolsheviki Barracks, as the Socialist prison quarters are jocularly called, right after dinner. Red flags and banners were distributed among the 90 or 100 marchers. The winter hoods issued by the prison clothing department and lined with flaming red flannel were worn turned inside out. The covers of the Liberator bearing pictures of Lenine and Lincoln (Liebknecht’s had been lost) were tied on brooms and borne aloft as sacred emblems. The Russians, as citizens of a bonafide revolutionary country, held the place of honor, leading the parade and chanting the Revolutionary Dead March and other Bolshevik songs. Then came Italian Socialists and Anarchists, American Socialists and aliens and Pacifists and, bringing up the rear, the handful of I.W.W.’s.
‘In and out between the stockade buildings the remarkable demonstration proceeded while sentries looked down dumbstruck from the watch-towers and the guards on duty within stood passively by. After the parade was half over, it reversed itself so that the I.W.W., starting up their songs, led the rest of the procession until it disappeared within the’ Bolsheviki Barracks. One soldier was observed leaning out of a window-the guard’s barrack, waving a red ribbon. Many others cheered and applauded.
‘Suddenly the soldiers hushed and the deferential demeanor a soldier learns to display before his superiors indicated the appearance of officers on the scene. From the Bolsheviki Barracks came deafening cheers for the revolution, for Karl Marx for Eugene Debs, for Lenine, Trotsky and Liebknecht. One of the “agitators” responsible in large part for arrangements went out and met a lieutenant-colonel, a captain, a lieutenant, several corporals and a number of buck privates.
“This must be stopped. I feel that you men have abused the privilege I gave you,” declared the senior officer. He was smilingly assured that there would be no more disturbance, since the parade was over and the rest of the program was chiefly speech-making. He was informed further that there had been no thought of abusing any privileges since permission had been given to “observe the day,” and no May Day anywhere could be properly “observed” without red flags and a parade. The celebrators were so hilarious and also so completely satisfied with the success of their demonstration that they were content to let, matters rest. Speeches were made, discussions went on and a general rejoicing was everywhere evident.
‘The program as posted on the bulletin board in the morning read (names omitted):
- “The International,” by all Revolutionists.
- “Dead March,” by Russian chorus.
- Address: ” Karl Marx,” by ……… .
- “The Red Flag,” by all Reds.
- Open Air Parade Through Wire City.
- “Hold the Fort,” by I. W. W. choir.
- Address: “The First of May,” by ……… .
- “Stung Right,” by all Reds.
- Open Air Singing Between No. 6 and No. 7 Barracks.
- I.W.W. vs. Socialist-Quoits Contest.
- Address: ” The American Way,” by ……… .
- Discussion of Revolutionary Methods.
- “The’ Marseillaise,” by all Reds
‘The panic of the officers caused the remainder of the singing to be omitted, and a delay in supper forced postponement of the Wobbly-Socialist horseshoe throwing contest; but the speaking gained in nerve and spirit, and as reports drifted in of the glad surprise with which the other prisoners heard of the affair and of the helpless consternation among the authorities who had to recognize that nothing unlawful had occurred, the memorable day drew to a jubilant close.
‘Permission for the observance had been won by reminding the officials of similar permission granted to the Jews for commemorating Passover and the like, indulgence granted to Seventh Day Adventists and others. And it was not stretching the truth at all when the representatives of the militant Socialists said to the executive officer what all-revolutionaries can proudly say: “The First of May, May Day, is the most sacred day in the year to us, as sacred as Passover to the Jews, as Christmas to the Christians, as the Fourth of July to nationalistic Americans. May Day is our international revolutionary memorial day.”
The Liberator was published monthly from 1918, first established by Max Eastman and his sister Crystal Eastman continuing The Masses, was shut down by the US Government during World War One. Like The Masses, The Liberator contained some of the best radical journalism of its, or any, day. It combined political coverage with the arts, culture, and a commitment to revolutionary politics. Increasingly, The Liberator oriented to the Communist movement and by late 1922 was a de facto publication of the Party. In 1924, The Liberator merged with Labor Herald and Soviet Russia Pictorial into Workers Monthly. An essential magazine of the US left.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/culture/pubs/liberator/1919/06/v2n06-jun-1919-liberator-hr.pdf