A City’s Past Forgotten and Reborn
It’s often said that history is written by the victors. But not always. Lawrence’s 1912 Bread and Roses Strike is a prime example. Despite broad public support and the workers’ ultimate success, opponents of the three-month strike, which began when factory owners reduced workers’ pay after Congress limited the number of weekly hours that women and children could work in 1911, managed to squelch any positive remembrance of the event. By controlling press reports, school lessons and nearly all public discussion, their alternate version of events became the “official story” in Lawrence for more than six decades.
The strike’s detractors went beyond the mill owners affected by it. Many ordinary citizens, politicians, businessmen and religious leaders denounced it as lawlessness by ignorant immigrant workers. Most troubling to these groups was the fact that the strikers had been led by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the radical wing of the American labor movement. The IWW and its members were widely viewed as dangerous, un-American and perhaps worst of all, atheists.
The mainstream labor movement, under the umbrella of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), was not interested in organizing unskilled, immigrant workers. But the IWW organized all workers, regardless of skill level, immigrant status, gender or skin color. Before the strike, the IWW had about 300 members in Lawrence. By the time it was over, the number had swelled to about 17,000.
But the end of the strike did not end the conflicts between Lawrence workers and factory owners. Contrary to the settlement agreement, strike activists were blacklisted. Many IWW members were not allowed back to work or were fired. Jonas Smolskas, a Lithuanian worker who refused to give in to pressure to leave his factory job, was beaten to death months after the strike. As quickly as it had risen, IWW membership plummeted.
IWW’s rivals, under the banner of the Citizens Committee, organized a demonstration called the God and Country Parade to voice opposition to the union. On Columbus Day, October 13, 1912, the city was draped in mill-funded flags and bunting. As many as 50,000 people marched in or watched the parade, which was not only for God and country, but against the IWW’s “principles
and methods,” denouncing union leaders and members as “godless communists,” according to promotional material distributed at the time.
The “God and Country” version of events was re-enacted in a pageant celebrating Lawrence’s 100th anniversary in 1953, during which the strike and the IWW were referred to as a “Red Blot,” and again in 1962, on the strike’s 50th anniversary, when a re-enactment parade was held, with every school and civic group participating.
But the 1970s brought new interest in local history. In 1979, Paul Cowan, a journalist with The Village Voice and The New York Times, investigated the legacy of the Bread and Roses Strike and was shocked to learn how much had been forgotten. His published articles described the repressed memory of the strike as a “town’s amnesia,” reigniting interest in the event both locally and around the country.
Around the same time, Ralph Fasanella, a labor organizer turned painter, portrayed the Bread and Roses Strike on canvas. His paintings were exhibited at the Lawrence Public Library in 1978, and helped renew interest in the past. The most famous work in his Lawrence series, “The Great Strike: Lawrence 1912,” now hangs in the lobby of the AFL-CIO national headquarters in Washington, D.C. Fasanella’s “Lawrence 1912: the Bread and Roses Strike,” is permanently displayed at Lawrence Heritage State Park.
The post-1979 interpretation of the strike is embodied in Lawrence’s annual Bread and Roses Labor Day Heritage Festival, begun in the mid-1980s by a group of young Lawrencians led by John Corliss. It also can be seen in the exhibits at Lawrence Heritage State Park.