Comrade Swabeck relates his harrowing May Day of 1924 as he is chased through the back roads of Illinois mine country by the Klan.
‘A Little May Day Experience’ by Arne Swabeck from The Daily Worker Saturday Supplement. Vol. 2 No. 58. May 24, 1924.
DOWN in Franklin County the Ku Klux Klan is flourishing like toad stools. The Invisible Umpire has full sway. It is a league of petty bourgeois storekeepers, reinforced by the ap pointed henchmen of the coal operators and the well-known steam roller of the United Mine Workers Union. They are the servile tools of the masters. Of course, any expression of solidarity by the workers is both detested and feared by this gang.
THIS county is bordering on the south to Williamson County, made famous two years ago when the striking coal miners taught a bloody lesson to professional scabbing, and made notorious recently thru the hard boiled exploits of “Grand Kleagle” (or some thing like that) Glenn Young. It is located right in the heart of the Illinois coal fields. Thousands of miners have been compelled to accept a status of more or less permanent idleness. At present over half of the mines are shut down tight. However, most of these coal miners own a little shack, and the storekeepers, in the hope of some day taking over the deed to such property, are quite willing to grant credit for the most essential necessaries, while meanwhile nothing will be left over for clothing. It seems like the coal barons cherish the hope that some day these valiant miners will be starved into submission.
LAST year the little city of Christopher, in Franklin County, put on a grand May Day Celebration. Under the auspices of the two mine workers’ local unions a great parade thru the town was staged, winding up in a mass meeting over which the Mayor presided while Comrades Earl Browder and Mother Bloor spoke. Now matters have changed somewhat. The Ku Kluxers, the local operators, and I suppose, also the lieutenants of Frank Farrington, have had an opportunity to inform the Mayor that he made a mistake. This year nothing like that was going to happen.
ON Thursday morning, May First, after having been pulled thru the muddy road from Benton by a horse team, I arrived in Christopher for the scheduled May Day celebration. A mass meeting had been advertised at the tiny city park. Some of us boarded a Ford and came to the park at the appointed hour. Several hundred coal miners lined the streets. None had been permitted to enter the park. Immediately the Mayor stepped up and told us curtly that “no Bolshevik speeches or May Day celebrations would be allowed anywhere in Christopher,” and “no arguments about it,” echoed the sheriffs and deputy sheriffs while a gang of the Ku Klu Klan sent us some rather hostile looks.
“What were you going to speak about,” one little storekeeper asked me. “Well, give me a chance to get it off my chest,” I replied, “and you may listen.” But, nothing doing. We were pushed back into the Ford and compelled to leave.
WE next made for the miners’ hall, followed by part of the audience, determined to use our “constitutional right” to free assemblage. Comrade Barney Mass, organizer of the Young Workers League, opened the meeting with a few appropriate remarks on the “rights and guarantees” set forth in the United States Constitution. However, the sheriffs, deputies and Ku Kluxers thought otherwise. No sooner had Comrade Mass started than in rushed a big organized gang of this tribe, again laying down the law: “No May Day celebration anywhere in Christopher.” Arguments availed nothing. Comrade Mass was placed under arrest and the meeting broke up.
THE excitement became transferred to the streets; the crowd increased expecting something to happen. While we paced the walk on the one side, awaiting an opportunity to place bonds for Comrade Mass, the Ku Kluxers, growing in numbers, watched our moves from the other side.
I HAD a meeting scheduled at Ziegler, for that same afternoon, and the comrades reminded me that we had better start to reach it in time, leaving others to take care of Barney Mass. Of course, it could hardly be expected that I should be permitted to get away that easy, at least such were not the intentions of those watching us from the other side. When about ready to go, I was also placed under arrest and taken to a place they called the City Hall. “You dirty little rat, did you write that article?” I heard the captain of the Ku Klux Klan shout to Barney Mass, when I arrived there, as he tried to fit his fist to Barney’s jaw. He referred to an article on the American Legion which he discovered in an old copy of the Young Worker, confiscated from our belongings. But no reply was needed, the sheriff intervened, saying that he could not stand for anyone taking the law into their own hands, as we were going to have a fair and “partial” trial (he meant impartial).
THIS particular part of the country has witnessed many bitter fights between the “upholders of the law” and those who want to administer speedy “justice” with the help of a gun or a piece of rope, in line with the traditions of the “good old days.” So, while the city authorities, evidently moved by the fact that a couple of dangerous reds had been caught, decided that we were to be transferred to the county seat, Benton, Ill., the Ku Kluxers made ready for a “Neck tie Party.” They filled two big Buick cars with gun totters and set out at a speed of about 60 miles an hour determined to catch up with us while we were yet on the hard road to Benton and where they would have a better chance to overpower our sheriff guardians.
HEAVILY guarded by a total of eight sheriffs and deputy sheriffs, Comrade Mass and myself traveled along, our party divided into two Fords, with Benton as our goal. Just before the entrance to that city travelers were compelled to switch off from the hard road, which is not quite completed there, and take another road, muddy, about two feet deep. We got stuck and sheriffs had to pull the cars out. Just then the two cars loaded with Ku Kluxers arrived on the scene and got stuck too; they failed to reach us on the hard road. Up came the Klan captain, owner of a little hardware store in Christopher, armed with a gun in one hand and a nice slender rope in the other, ready to administer “justice.” Furious that we had slipped away, he commanded, “stick ’em up,” and continued, “these are my prisoners, I claim these men and we’ll fix ’em.” One deputy sheriff, daunted at the gall, stuck ’em up. A minute’s hesitation, at which many thoughts ran rapidly thru our minds. Was this a frame-up? Were the sheriffs going to turn us over to that mob? But no— the fellow had overreached himself. The sheriff in command, noting that only one man had come forward while pointing his gun at him, retorted, “these are my prisoners, they are going to have a fair and “partial” trial (again meaning impartial) and if you make another move this gun is going to come off.” One sheriff quickly snatched the gun out of the hand of the Klan leader. He turned around and found himself starring into the gaps of seven other guns. Like a whipped cur, the would-be hero waded back thru the mud to his followers, and we felt perfectly at ease in the care of our brave sheriffs, who stepped on the gas and we soon arrived at Benton.
WHEN brought to the States Attorney’s office, the frozen attitude of the sheriffs melted away and they discussed the incident with us in a jolly, good humored manner. “One more move by that fellow and I would have let loose,” said the head sheriff. “They have tried that stunt on me before but never succeeded. Once in a while, however, they have their necktie parties, that seems to be a sort of costume here.”
THE States Attorney delved into our literature supply without finding anything of an incriminating nature. He informed us that we would be held until further notice, rather as a matter of protection against any possible snipers. When we asked what specific charges had been submitted, he replied: “Well, if all those guns you saw had been discharged you wouldn’t have asked for any charges. He was quite a jovial fellow, did not know that this state had a criminal syndicalist law, he had heard some rumblings about a Third Party and a Labor Party, and wished them all kinds of success, but was rather keenly interested in local politics and the candidacy of Governor Small. He agreed that the attempts of the Klan to hold up the sheriffs was a “grave offense.” A little later, in a phone conversation with the Mayor of Christopher, he informed him that it would be of no use trying to make a case against us unless he, the Mayor, had some specific evidence to the effect that we had been advocating the overthrow of the government by force and violence, and he added, “these fellows seem to be advocating a Labor Party.”
At 6:30 the same evening we were released, and made out way to Ziegler, Ill. There we were informed that the Klan were organizing to get some speakers who had arrived in town. Twice they came to the hall where the miners had a dance. But it was late for any May Day celebration.
This incident with the Klan is helping to clear the class lines. It is gradually hammering the mine workers in to one solid front against their enemies.
The Daily Worker Saturday Supplement, later changed to a Sunday Supplement, of the Daily Worker was a place for longer articles with debate, international focus, literature, and documents presented. The Daily Worker began in 1924 and was published in New York City by the Communist Party US and its predecessor organizations. Among the most long-lasting and important left publications in US history, it had a circulation of 35,000 at its peak. The Daily Worker came from The Ohio Socialist, published by the Left Wing-dominated Socialist Party of Ohio in Cleveland from 1917 to November 1919, when it became became The Toiler, paper of the Communist Labor Party. In December 1921 the above-ground Workers Party of America merged the Toiler with the paper Workers Council to found The Worker, which became The Daily Worker beginning January 13, 1924.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/dailyworker/1924/v2n058-may-24-sat-sup-1924-TDW.pdf