On Memorial Day morning, Sunday May 30, 1937, workers gathered at the Steel Workers Organizing Committee union headquarters and then advanced to Republic Steel, one of the largest and most successful steel companies in the country, for a peaceful protest and strike, seeking to sway company owners into brokering a contract with the union. As the workers began to march around the building, they came face to face with Chicago’s police, who had been waiting for them.
Police threw tear gas bombs into the crowd of men, women, and children - infants even. After suppressing them with gas, they fired blindly into the crowd for 15-20 seconds, unleashing a volley of shots - over 200 bullets as some reports share. And then, as civilians began to run away, police advanced brutally beating the innocents with clubs. Stories emerged about how police intentionally shot an 11-year old and even an infant in the process. Shortly after, the dead and injured were worthlessly tossed into patty wagons, where those in need of medical care became permanently maimed or died due to receiving no medical care. When all was calm, ten were dead, dozens maimed, and over 90 were injured.
The pain and suffering of the massacre did not end at the event, a much more lasting struggle arose. In the days that followed the press chose not to do as they had always done: portrayed the strikers as a mob of rioters, and the police as having acted accordingly. Sixty-five rioters were charged with crimes and fines, and the officers were cleared by the Cook County Coroner’s jury as having committed “justifiable homicide.” The event was dubbed not a massacre but a riot.
Had it not been for the work of Paramount filmographer Orlando Lippert, who recorded the event, there is no guarantee the incident would have ever been remembered. Originally his footage was withheld, then, upon release, was heavy edited to convey a message of innocent law enforcement officers, until it eventually was able to be shown in its original format proving the evil that had occurred in its entirety. We remember now because a lone cameraman took the risk of recording this atrocity.
Frequently throughout history, it seems, the same story gets repeated. Hurting, struggling, oppressed people have to initiate their justice. Whenever hurting, struggling, oppressed people initiate their justice powerful, controlling, oppressive forces fortify their structures. When hurting, struggling, oppressed people engage those fortifications, the stories are often distorted and warped by the oppressors, or worse simply erased from the historical record. The most significant damage is in convincing the world that an event never occurred.
How many times, have protesters been labeled rioters or mobs? How many times have victims been made the blame for crimes committed against them? How many times have law enforcement, politicians, and leaders (religious and non-religious), covering up a truth, fabricated a truth, or destroyed evidence to secure a position, vote, or victory at the expense of lives? How many stories never had the safeguard of a video recording to expose truth? How many are not remembered?
As I reflect on the steelworkers, I cannot help but think about how I did not even know of this event until recently. In talking to the individuals planning a memorialization of the event for union workers on Chicago's South Side, they shared how for years they’ve reached out to media and news outlets, yet receive little support in publicizing the memorial.
I cannot help but recall other known but under-regarded events. The East Saint Louis, IL massacre of 1917, resulting in the death of over 40 and the destruction of an equivalent of millions of dollars, was dubbed a race riot, instead of a mass killing. The Elaine, Arkansas massacre of 1919 - regarded as one of the deadliest racial massacres in the United States leaving at least 237 dead- was (and is still in some circles) dubbed a race riot, instead of a mass killing. While both events reflect violence injected upon those seeking labor justice, the list of lives lost goes on and on. And for a great many injustices we know, there are still more unknown.
For people of faith, remembering is paramount to our lives. Our Christian tradition hinges on remembering the Exodus, recognizing work of the prophets, commemorating the lives of the disciples, and the very act of Holy Communion, is fundamentally an act of remembering the pouring out of Christ’s blood and breaking of His body. Remembering is “re-membering,” or the putting together again of broken pieces of the past as a means of celebrating, memorializing, and learning, at the least. And while it is easy to celebrate the lives and victories of those who stood at the front of the lines, it is essential to acknowledge the many who have been situated in the background, too.
We are reminded to remember the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8). We are asked to remember those who have served faithfully for us in the public square (Hebrews 13:7). We are shown the importance of keeping the memories of all that God has done for us (Psalm 143:5). And we are reminded never to forget the lessons we have learned through word and writings (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
But as Paul is writing one of his final letters to the church at Collosia ultimately awaiting his death, we are reminded by him to “remember his chains” (Colossians 4:18). As we approach the holiday next week, embracing the joy of time with family and friends, eating good food during a cookout, or just celebrating a day off, let us also remember the chains of those who have suffered before us. Yes, we acknowledge the sacrifice of those who died serving in the military for our country, but we also recognize those who have no day to honor them. Remember the chains of the 60 killed and more than 1,350 wounded by gunfire in Israel last week. Remember the chains of the eight students and two teachers who died in yet another school shooting last Friday. Remember the chains of those killed in East St. Louis, IL and Elaine, AR in 1918 and 1919, respectively. Remember the chains of those massacred in Chicago in 1937. And remember the chains of the countless unnamed women, men, and children who have lost so much at the hands of violence. To tell their truths and keep their memories from being forgotten is to remember them well.