Camera Rolls: 317:07-11
Sound Rolls: 317:05-07
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Harold Rossman , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on July 14, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
OK, I want to start by talking about that day in 1937, and I want you to tell me how you ended up being there, what you expected to happen, and then what happened, what you witnessed.
Well, I was covering the Little Steel Strike as a whole. I actually followed the strike all across the middle West, in Indiana, in Ohio, largely Warren, Ohio, Marion, Ohio and I was working for the then, which covered the Little Steel Strike in a way that none of the other local newspapers did. It was important for to do that because the was the newspaper in town that was on the bottom of the totem pole. There were the two Hearst papers. There was the , very powerful, the , and then there was the , which was a tabloid. That was the result of the merger of the and and some other newspapers. All of the papers in town were Republican papers, and the was the only Democratic paper, the only one that supported the Democratic political thing, particularly in Washington, and it advertised itself, they had little narrow strips that you could paste on the bottom of your back car window: "The Times-Chicago's Liberal Newspaper." That's what they were selling.
Can we stop for a second?
OK. So let's start again by, you don't have to go into quite as much detail, actually. I'll ask you again later about your work as a newspaper man.
Well I'll start by telling you that I had no idea on that day that anything like the Memorial Day Massacre was going to happen. I had been following the Little Steel Strike very closely. My paper advertised itself as "Chicago's Liberal Newspaper." It was the weakest paper in terms of circulation and influence and particularly wanted to be able to do strong labor coverage to justify that slogan, and also to attract the kind of people it wanted to attract as the only newspaper in Chicago that supported the Democratic administration and the New Deal policies and stuff like that. So I had been following the Little Steel Strike very closely. I had traveled all across the Middle West, had gone to Marion, Ohio, Warren, Ohio and the other main steel centers. I was in close touch with the officials of the SWOC, Steelworker's Organizing Committee, at that time. I knew that they planned a picnic, and that's what they did. It was Memorial Day, it was a great occasion for a picnic, and so they had a real barbecue and picnic there, and they had this large crowd which wasn't just of workers and strikers. It was the men, their wives, their children, and
at the end of whatever little party they had someone said, "Look, let's go to the plant and set up a picket line."
** They had been held back. I can't remember exactly whether there was a court injunction or something, but they had not been able to establish a picket line, and they decided they were going to go there and establish a mass picket line and they started walking towards the plant.
** Now the steelworker's' headquarters had been placed near the plant and there was a large, empty industrial space that they had to traverse to go to the plant, and they started going there. Now that is all I knew was going to happen. However, as I came to the location there I noticed something that was very strange, because in a short block, just on the other side of the empty lot with houses and stuff there was a very large contingent of uniformed police standing there. In other words they were hidden. They were carefully hidden so that the people who were approaching when they started trying to walk across the lot they could see only a few cops there. They didn't realize there was this huge—I don't know if I would say huge, there was a large number of people. One thing that I put in my story about the thing that was published the next day was I noticed that there was a real tension there and my attention was caught particularly by one particular black officer. He kept pulling his gun out and putting it back in its holster, and pulling it out and putting it back in his holster, and there was nothing happening that justified that, and yet obviously he had some sense that he wanted to have his hand on his gun. So I left that place and I went out in front of the last row of houses and to the very last house in that row that had a high stoop. You had to walk a long flight of stairs, it had a high porch. I and the other newspaper men who were covering got up there so we'd be out of the action but have a good clear view. We could see the people starting to march across this large empty lot and then came closer and closer, and I would say when they were maybe a hundred yards, two hundred yards, a hundred and fifty yards away, probably closer than that, I could see a few objects through the air. I could see some things being thrown. Not much, it wasn't a lot of stuff, maybe a couple of rocks, I don't know. You could see a couple things thrown, and then suddenly it was like the Fourth of July. There was a dry, crackling kind of a noise that took me a moment to figure out what it was, then I realized it was gunfire.
** By that time the people were falling and they were turning and trying to run and the gunfire continued. Afterwards in the inquest, the hearing and stuff like that it was clear that a whole number of these people had been shot in the back. They were trying to flee and they were still being fired at.
Were you shocked that this happened?
Of course I was shocked that this happened. I was a young newspaper man then, and it was very important to keep my cool. You know, i felt like I was a surgeon in the operating room. You have those feelings when you're covering an event, at least I did, when I was twenty or so. I didn't let my personal emotions impede things, and as soon as we could we came down off the porch and we started moving through the field, and the strikers had their own sort of an ambulance. They had an open touring car, maybe a couple of them, with a red cross on it and they tried to administer help to some of the people and get them off the ground. I remember one scene of a couple of cops taking a body, and they were just lifting this guy by his belt like a sack of potatoes. They weren't handling them with, you know, any particular care or anything. I realized that something terrible had happened. The numbers we did not have immediately. I didn't know how many people had been killed, how many people had been injured. My recollection roughly is that there were ten killed and about sixty wounded, and obviously they were not able to establish that picket line.
OK, let me just go back a moment in terms of understanding this. I mean, was this kind of violence that occurred typical of what was going on in 1937?
Well were there not any incidents that had this scope and size, but the Chicago Police Department was a tough police department. It was an anti-labor town. They had a Red Squad, and at a later time when I was covering criminal courts the Red Squad would come around and go to the photographers and get the negatives of all the strike pictures that they had taken and then get their own file and stuff like that. The policy, there was a guy named Make Mills who was the head of the Red Squad in Chicago, and so far as the authorities were concerned, all the labor people, especially the CIO labor people, they were Reds. The function of the Red Squad was to make sure that they could interfere with that as much as possible. So there was a clear anti-labor policy in the town.
OK, you left the strike, you left the scene. Then what did you do?
Well I obviously went back to my office and I wrote a story. I was writing for a commercial, daily newspaper. I couldn't write a story that reflected my own feelings about it, my own outrage. I was in the mold of objectivity that you're supposed to have in American Journalism, but I also wrote about this cop pulling his gun and the fact that this full ranks of troops had been put into this cul-de-sac street out of the sight. Obviously they had laid a trap for these people, and the people came across. They figured, "Hey, it's a holiday. We've got our kids. Let's see if we can do it."
OK, let's start again with telling me about how you felt that what you observed was that a trap was set.
Well it was obvious when I saw what was finally happening that a trap had been set for these people. They were coming a in a very carefree way. It was a holiday. It was Memorial Day. I'm sure most of the people, the rank and file people who were there, they wouldn't have been there with their children if they had any anticipation that something like this could happen. They were there having a picnic, and someone says, "Let's go and picket the plant." Everybody says, "Yeah, let's go and picket the plant," and it was in that mood that they were coming across that prairie and approaching what seemed to be a thin line of cops and suddenly the people came out from this street which was out of sight and suddenly they're approaching an army, small army of blue coated cops. I think I mentioned before that as they came real close I could see a few objects flying through the air, but they weren't large objects and it was a ragged kind of thing. It wasn't a volley. Somebody got mad and threw some rocks, some cans, I don't what. It could have been some provocateurs who were planted there to do that, and suddenly I was totally surprised. We were up on this porch there, and we could hear a noise that at first I didn't register. A dry noise like firecrackers, and suddenly I realized that this was gunfire and that people were falling, and the kinds of things that became evident when the films were finally shown, the newsreel films, was happening. So when it was over I went back to the office and I wrote my story. Now was an afternoon paper, and so I wrote an overnight story to be published in the afternoon of the next day. was a morning paper. was an afternoon. There was a Hearst morning paper, there was a morning paper, and they came out with their stories, and they were pretty cut and dried. I came out with my story in which I tried to be objective in the mold of daily newspaper journalism, but I also wanted to point out that these people were ready and seemed to be primed for violence and expected it, whereas the people coming across the prairie were not expecting it. So when the morning papers came out and when my story was there in type, which suggested that the cops had been trigger happy there was a real problem at the paper. I was back out on the South Side covering the picket line and the managing editor Louis Ruppel came down to a saloon down there on 103rd street, something like that, and we went into the saloon and he asked me to recount what I saw and I told him essentially what I'm saying to you now, although it was much more detailed and fresh in my memory. We took some paper napkins and I diagrammed the thing, and he said, "We'll stand on the story," and we published that story. Now I went on vacation not long after that but there was a protest meeting held in Orchestra Hall in Chicago and I was told afterwards that I was cured and all that sort of thing. I was a momentary hero because I had been the only person to suggest that this was not a bunch of crazy strikers attacking a police line, but that the police were ready for them and primed for violence.
It's my understanding that all the other papers really reported it as that the demonstrators attacked the police and that they had provoked the police, and it wasn't until the newsreel was released, which had been suppressed, that anybody could actually see what had really happened. Is that correct?
Well it was only after the newsreel was released that generally people became aware of this. We were a small paper, we didn't have a large circulation. I had the story which suggested that the thing was totally unprovoked, but I don't know how long, it was a week or two or more, there was a committee of the Senate, the US Senate, the LaFollette Civil Liberties, and the LaFollette Civil Liberties Committee decided to hold a hearing on this, and they subpoenaed the film of the Hearst Metrotone News that I wasn't aware of. I didn't even know that there was film on this. Nobody else did.
I'm going to ask you to start that part of the story again because actually it was a Paramount newsreel.
Was it? All right.
If you could just tell me that the LaFollette Committee.
The LaFollette Committee had a screening room and they subpoenaed this film from the newsreel company and it was shown there. It still was not a great event. I don't think it was very much covered, but there was one reporter, Paul Y. Anderson of who covered that and he sent out a story to his paper that went on the wires by the Associated Press and then nationally the word went out that there was unnecessary police violence and that there was a Senate committee investigating it and so on and so forth. That's when the larger story broke, but my story broke, I don't remember the interval, a week or more before anybody else suggested that there was unnecessary violence. The Chicago Police continued, and the administration of Mayor Kelly I think it was then, continued to try to present it in that light. They summoned, they also would have of course a coroner's jury. That's a cut and dry kind of thing. But the coroners' hearings on this particular incident became big time stuff, and they were held in a courtroom and they came in with a large trunk, like a steamer trunk. They opened the trunk and there were rocks and bottles and pipes and all kinds of these which were there clearly as the weapons that these strikers had come toward the police line with and that would justify the violence. Now what that was, was the scourings of an empty lot in an industrial area. Anybody going around would have picked this junk up. The effort was made to still make the case that there was a bunch of rioters and that they were going to sweep the police line away and establish a picket line by force. And that's how it ended.
Was it hard, and you were very sympathetic to the demonstrators and the strikers, and yet you were very professional. Was it hard to have to conceal your feelings? Had you seen people killed before?
I had not seen people killed like that, but I've seen a lot of violence. I remember when I had to cover a double execution. I'm a professional, so you steel yourself and you bridle your feelings, but of course at that point I was very strongly pro labor. My own sympathies were with the strikers, but of course I had to try to keep the thing under control and write a story that would get published. It was very important for me to write a story that could be published, and if I tried to write the story that I wanted to write, I was not a columnist. I was labor reporter. Yes, I was close to violence all through this thing. I remember one time when I was in Warren, Ohio where there was a very strong strike movement and the strikers wanted to approach the plant and they were going to march up a narrow street, and the governor had called out the National Guard. So here are the strikers at one end of the street and they're walking down this street. It was very narrow sidewalks. Buildings and storefronts right down to the edge of the sidewalk. Here are the strikers and they're going to go to that plant and nobody's going to stop them, and there is this line of sixteen year old kids, some of whom had never had live ammunition in their hands before, with guns and fixed bayonets and they're across the other part of the street, and I'm in the middle with my photographer and I don't know where the hell to go. I start trying to pound on doors at bars and stores. Nobody's going to open. Finally, it was getting closer and closer, somebody opened the door of a bar and we were able to get in there. Yes, this is rough stuff. The photographer I with me was a guy who was lame. He was gimpy and he walked with some difficulty. He was taking some pictures on another occasion and one of the strike guys didn't like the idea of a photographer taking pictures of people who might be identified. He grabbed this great big camera and just smashed it on a fire hydrant and the next thing I saw my little gimpy photographer running down the street trying to get out of the way. You can't be around things like that without being in jeopardy. I covered some of the demonstrations of the Workers Alliance for Relief in Chicago. People don't remember that at the time of the Depression there, there was no such thing as general welfare. There was no safety net.
Well, I think I should say something about the importance of the Little Steel Strike because Big Steel, which was US Steel, had already signed with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. Now how John L. Lewis, who was then the head of the CIO, was able to do that I'm not sure I can tell you for sure. But you have to understand that this was an industrial union, and John L. was head of the coal miners. The coal miners already could disrupt the steel industry by simply striking and it was very important for steel to be able to have an uninterrupted supply of coal. And also John L., over a period of time had had a lot of personal dealings with the head of US Steel, I'm trying to remember his name.
And so this startling event. It was really a great surprise at the time. A great victory of course. The contract was signed, but here you had these other "Little" steel companies. They weren't very little.
Can I have you back up for a second? Why was it so startling? What was the significance? Was steel the biggest unorganized industry at that time? Or one of the biggest?
The importance of steel is that
steel underlay the whole industrial American operation. At the time when we were a country of smokestack industry we needed steel to make the automobiles. We needed steel for all the purposes of industry,
** and steel needed coal, and steel needed iron. If you were able to curtail the supply of iron and of coal there was no steel. If there was no steel there was no industry. This was the heart of the matter,
** and that's what the importance of this...at the time it was an incredible event. It heartened everybody and it showed the strength of this new industrial unionism for the first time. And so here it is. We've got this contract with US Steel, with Big Steel, but Little Steel was not really little. There was Republic Steel, there was Inland Steel, there was Youngstown Sheet and Tube, I'm sorry. All of this large amount of industrial capacity that was determined not to give in to the Union, would not be organized. That is why the Little Steel Strike was a germinal event in the development of organized labor at that time.
Do you remember who Tom Girdler was?
Tom Girdler was the head of Republic Steel.
What did people think about him?
Well you have to ask which people. The people on his side thought he was an Iron Man, grim visage, strong man who never would capitulate, and he was probably the strong man of the Little Steel Strike holding these people together. Obviously what I thought of him was not very much. So the Little Steel Strike was terribly important and when it was won you really had the real basis of organizing in a lot of other fields.
Do you think that Little Steel was so resistant towards unionization partially because US Steel had given in?
No, not because—on their own merits, for their own—obviously industry, the profit of industry has a lot to do with the wage bill, with wage cost, and you've got to remember too, this was a time when all industry was very heavily labor based. You needed a lot of man power. We hadn't mechanized. We certainly hadn't gotten into the computerized stuff. Work was hard. The people who made steel, the people who made the coke for the steel ovens they worked ten hour days. They walked down these furnaces making the coke that were so hot they lived in this gaseous atmosphere. It took man power, and I mean man power. I don't mean, you know as we use it now, also women power. it took men, strong men, and they died of it. That's what it took.
OK, I want to stop for one second.
Well you have to understand what the CIO, the development of the CIO meant. First it was the Committee for Industrial Organization. CIO, same initials. These were a few unions that saw that America had to be organized. Organization at that point was the craft unions, the aristocracy of labor, but in all of the major developments: the people who made autos, the people who provided electricity, the people that made electrical equipment. All of that stuff was totally unorganized. Now the AFL continued to claim that because it claimed all labor. When they started to try to organize, for example auto they wanted to go in and have the sheet metal workers do the bodies and send in the upholsterers to do the upholstery, you know, that kind of thing. And the painters union do the painting and you would have a whole bunch of little, separate crafts that could be played off against each other against industrial giants like Ford, like General Motors. It was insane, it was impossible, and it was clear that the only way to organize America was to organize industrially. Now the Committee for Industrial Organization went to I think three AF of L conventions and tried to get the AF of L to accept the idea of setting up a department to organize industrially, and there was the famous incident of the fist fight on the floor of the AF of L convention between John L. Lewis and Hutchinson of the carpenters. At that point they said, "OK, we can't move the AF of L. The CIO will become not the Committee for Industrial Organizing, it will become the Congress of Industrial Organizations. And there was a small group of unions that could do this. There was the coal miners which had historically been an industrial union because people went out and found a seam of coal out in the country and then a whole city had to be built up. Everything there was coal, so that had one union. But you also had in the garment workers, you had industrial unionism. You had the Ladies Garment Workers, you had the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. A rather unlikely first component was the printers, but yes printing could also be broken up into a lot of small crafts. There were a few unions that saw the worth of this but the muscle, the money came from John L. Lewis and the United Mine Workers. These first unions weren't unions. This wasn't a steel workers union, this was a steel workers organizing committee.
Help me understand what this meant right before the...
You've got to remember also that in this time there was the time of the New Deal and the NRA which was just a pious statement that people should have the right-this is very important. The NRA and Roosevelt's declaration that workers should have the right to organize and to be able to be able to bargain collectively with their employers. Now that statement had never been made before, and the organizers went out in the field saying, "Hey, the president says it's OK for you to organize." Now
there was a ferment that's hard to imagine. People ran out of cards. You went out to organize you didn't have to plead with people to convince them. They grabbed the cards. They were ready. They'd been long ready. This is the Depression. They wanted something done.
** There was a surge, there was a, you know, a feeling, and that's why we won.
OK, and so right before the Memorial Day Massacre people were actually picketing, trying to organize Republic Steel. Is that right?
Yes. There was a strike on, of course.
Tell me that there was a strike.
Yeah. Well of course, obviously the point of setting up a picket line at the Republic Steel Plant was because SWOC had gone on strike demanding a contract. That was the issue. Either we're going to get a contract or not, and of course there were the victories. I think now, my recollection may be wrong now, but I think some of the victories in auto had already started to happen, the victorious sit-down strikes. Now some of that stuff we borrowed from France.
You told me before about how John L. Lewis, about the issue of Communism in the labor movement, and how John L. starting using—
Yeah, it was very ironic.
If you could tell me about that.
Yeah. Well one thing that's worth mentioning is that there was a wonderful irony in these early efforts to organize against the very fierce employer resistance. John L. Lewis was an autocrat. He didn't even begin to be any kind of a democrat. There were forty-eight districts of the mine workers, and all but two of them were in receivership, you know, anybody wanted to assert any kind of independence there. But John L. Lewis had opposition, and a lot of the opposition came from people who were either, he thought of them as or probably many of them were people who were Communist Party members. Over a period of time he realized that they were real tough guys. They were hard for his goon squads to dissuade, and suddenly when he decided he was going to be the head of the movement to organize industrially in America.
I'm going to stop you for a second. Instead of saying, "When he decided," when who decided?
The reference I thought is clear to John L. Lewis.
Can you just...?
All right. When John L. Lewis became the head of the of the CIO he was a man of great power and great determination. He was determined to carry this through and to win, and he went out and hired all the Communists that he could find because he knew that they were the people he could send down into Southern towns where they would be ridden out of town on a rail and be tarred and feather perhaps. Who could he get to go down and do these tough things? So there's the wonderful irony that John L. Lewis, who started out as probably, in labor, the fiercest enemy of people who had left-wing sentiments when he decided he had to get a job done he went out and hired them by the wholesale.
And why did he [John L. Lewis] feel that the Communists were able to do this job?
Because he recognized, he knew this from his own experience. He knew that the people that could stand up to them, who had the dedication, possibly not all of the Communists, but he knew that these tough, dedicated, fanatic reds would go anywhere to get the job done and take all kinds of risks. And of course he was right.
OK, can you tell me, what was the importance of Roosevelt at that time? I believe at that time that people felt that Roosevelt was taking a fairly sympathetic stance towards labor?
Well, Roosevelt was very important to what was happening—
I'm sorry, I'm going to have to have you start that again.
President Roosevelt was very important to what happened. You have to understand that this country was going through the most massive depression that its ever had. The country had to get up on its feet. There had to be some hope. So Roosevelt was trying to get things, he enunciated the idea that labor should have the right to organize, labor should have the right to bargain. Before that he enunciated the NRA, the National Recovery Act. That was a larger thing, but in it had Section 7A, and Section 7A was supposed to guarantee that people would have the right to organize and to bargain. That was part of the package of getting America off of its butt and on its feet again and going forward. But this was an invaluable tool. When organizers went into the factories with their cards they said, "The president wants you to join the Union," which was taking a little bit of liberty with it, perhaps, but yes Roosevelt was perceived as a friend of the workers. Roosevelt was. You know we've spent fifty years tearing apart a network of social protections that were set up in the first place by the New Deal. It had all of that importance.
OK, so people when they went out to organize they felt like they wouldn't be shot down like they were?
No, they didn't have all of that comfort and security, but they knew that yes, there was something there. There was finally, I don't know exactly when, the National Labor Relations Act, which for the first time...See Roosevelt's proclamation was a statement, but then now you had a law passed, and of course the employers contested it and of course they took it all the way up to the Supreme Court. In the famous Watson case Morris Watson, an employee of the New York Times...
I'm going to stop here, because I don't want to get into that. Can you, what about the LaFollette Committee? Was that representative of the way that the government was getting involved?
Yes, very important. Now you have to understand that LaFollette was a Progressive senator from Wisconsin. Now there was a long, old tradition of Progressivism in Wisconsin state. I think some of that was in North Dakota, what had survived from the original Populist movement, and it was in place. He was that kind of a senator. He had these sentiments. He had a lot of seniority and a lot of power, and he was able to establish this Civil Liberties committee to investigate any deprivations of civil liberties. Obviously the Memorial Day Massacre was a very outstanding incident, and so these hearings were held. The committee itself was not an organizing committee, but the fact that it investigated this and put out reports that supported labor and criticized or indicted industry for its violence was very important to the progress of organizing at that time.
What were people striking at Republic Steel for? Were they striking for better wages, or was it just union recognition? So much was brought on them for what? What were they asking for?
They were asking in the first place for union recognition and contract. Of course they already had the format of a contract because what they wanted was the contract that US Steel had given.
I want you to tell me. Ready? So tell me, help us understand like, the Memorial Day Massacre brought on such a reaction, but what were people really striking for at Republic Steel? What did they want?
throughout Little Steel what they wanted simply was what Big Steel already had. The people who were making steel for US Steel were getting shorter hours, higher wages, certain kinds of protections, I don't know what all was in their contract, but it was a contract that for the first time gave the workers there some kind of recognition and a mechanism to discuss grievances, a mechanism to try to raise wages
** if that was possible. None of that existed in Little Steel.
** So it wasn't just a vague thing, it wasn't a generalized thing. These people already had in their industry the example of a living contract, and they wanted no less.
And then why was Tom Girdler and Little Steel so resistant to the idea of workers having a union?
Well part of it would be an attitude. Part of it would be an attitude of simply not being willing to concede anything like that to ordinary working people. But the other thing is dollars and cents. You can't understand anything having to do with labor without understanding the profit and loss aspect of labor, and as I think I said earlier this was a time when all production required labor, a lot of it, particularly in the heavy industry.
Can we stop for a second?
Now this is something that perhaps a lot of people are reluctant to talk about, but I speak of it with pride. I was a member of the Communist Party from 1934 to 1958. 1958 the Khrushchev revelations had come about Stalin and then you had the two episodes in Hungary and in Czechoslovakia, and about that time I realized, "Hey, this is not my stuff," and I just simply walked away. No manifestos, no declarations. I just stopped paying dues, people stopped coming around and that was it. But I look back on that part of my life with satisfaction, unmoved, and with pride. I was a young man growing up in a hard time in the world, and the country was out of joint. People were literally starving. This kind of government, this kind of economic system I decided had to be changed, and the people I saw trying to do it were the people in the Communist Party. I got kind of sucked into it in a way. I was a newspaper man and I was sympathetic. People figured out I was sympathetic to labor. So some people were putting out a newspaper for the railway brotherhoods. There was a railway unity committee which tried to develop a movement to reunite the twenty-one different railway brotherhoods into one union. They were putting out a small little newspaper and they needed somebody to do some technical work for them, and I volunteered.
What did Communism mean?
What did it mean to me? It meant to me trying to educate and arouse the working people of America to realize that their interest required getting rid of the capitalist system, just as bold as that. And developing a socialist system that would care about people instead of caring first about profit. It was very simple.
I was an idealistic young man. I was coming out of college and getting into a world in which everything was wrong and not functioning, and there were great needs. There was the example of what then seemed to be a very glowing example of workers having taken control of a country over in the Soviet Union, and we thought, "That's what we need here. We need this country to be owned and run by the working people." This was a time when the mayor of Chicago, in the depths of the Depression when there was no social network sent a message to Washington saying, "Send us relief or send us troops." It seemed possible then.
What was your vision though?
Our vision was to have something, probably paralleling what we thought was happening in the Soviet Union where the workers were in control, the workers were running industry, owned the major means of production and if we could have that we could create a land of plenty here for people to enjoy. That's what we wanted. Also there were other things in it. There were two major concentrations. One was what we called The Woman Question with a capital W and a capital Q. Our understanding of it was awfully limited. The women still made the tea and the coffee and stuff, but by God we were for the right of women to have jobs and to have equal pay and all that nice stuff. The other was the Negro Question with a capital N. The idea of doing something for the black people who were so badly suppressed. The big migration to the North hadn't fully happened, and we really had a program for self-determination in the Black Belt. We really believed that in the concentrated areas of the South, In Mississippi, Alabama and stuff where the blacks were so largely the majority that they would have a right to set up their own government, secede if necessary. We really believed in that. And again we thought that would be possible.
And you believed really in a better world.
Yeah, obviously. This world was pretty lousy. Somebody ought to do something about it, and we were about to try.
For me personally this was a very exciting time. You know we had a special little panel truck with on it. It had a photo lab inside. I had a photographer with me and we'd go around to these places. We would take our pictures. We would repair to a hotel room at the end of the day and get on the telephone with a revolving cylinder that was synchronized with a cylinder back home and send wire photos back. And I'd pound out my copy and go down to the Western Union office and send it home there. It was great. I was doing what I wanted to do. I was doing what I would have done for nothing if I had to do it.
What were you covering?
I was covering the whole labor beat. The Little Steel Strike thing obviously was central and important, but I was covering the whole labor beat. I was covering the local organizing, the local strikes and stuff. I covered the Bendix sit-down, one of the early sit-downs, I think it was up in Milwaukee. I was in the give and take stuff between the CIO people trying to organize auto and Homer Martin, the puppet the AF of L had set up there.
Were you covering labor basically in the Midwest and the East or only in the Midwest?
Only in the Midwest.
So can you just tell me in a sentence that you were covering labor in the Midwest?
Well, I was covering labor in the Midwest for a Chicago newspaper.
Starting where you said that what you see in the film is not what you saw, that you saw people on a holiday. Tell me that again.
Well, we when saw the cops we had a premonition something was going to happen, but at first all you could see was the people who had started to walk across this large prairie in the direction of the plant to establish a picket line. But there were men, women and children and it was the last part of what had been a picnic. It was the last part of what had been a happy occasion. I don't know, somebody probably said, "Look, let's go down there and set up a picket line." But it wasn't a bunch of toughs who went there, militants. The whole crew came. The men, the women, the children. They weren't ready for this. There was no expectation that they were going to walk into a bloodbath. Everything that's in the film is important, and that happened, but the first part of it, the people walking across then a few things flying through the air, but you know, what? Not much of anything. Then that crackle of gunfire and suddenly it was an altogether different thing. It was a shock. It was a shock.
So tell me that you were in...that if I'm looking at the film I can see you. You had the felt hat on.
When I saw the film, the first time I saw the film I saw an edited, small version of it. Later I've had this opportunity to see the uncut stuff. Now everything that's in the film was there and I saw it, but that isn't all that I saw.
Tell me when you went into the crowd, that you were the guy with the felt.
I see myself walking around there with a grey felt hat and a press card in it, and with my characteristic jerky kind of motion, and I'm walking around and I'm seeing these people lying on the ground. I'm seeing people handling them like sacks of potatoes,
** none of the kinds of care that we now have with paramedics and rolling people gently into stretchers and stuff. I remember, particularly, one scene where a couple of cops were carrying somebody who was either dead or seriously wounded and they were lifting him by his leather belt. He's just falling both ways, like just stuff. There was some small effort by the strikers to try to do some first aid stuff.
** They had one or two open turning cars with a red cross cardboard symbol on the side. They were also trying to administer first aid. There were no ambulances that I remember initially. They were taking them into paddy wagons.
** [NOTE Interview gathered as part of The Great Depression: Mean Things Happening; Episode 315-59] I'm sure that the death toll of ten has a lot to do with the fact that there wasn't any kind of real role of taking care of seriously wounded people, and if they had people there ready to kill people and shoot you'd think maybe they would have a couple of ambulances in that back street too. They didn't.
What were you doing in the crowd?
I was walking around trying to see what I could see, see how many people were hurt, see if I could talk to anybody. I didn't have a chance to talk to anybody. After a short time I gave it up and went away and went back to my office and wrote my story.
Were people in too much shock to talk?
You have to understand, it was a scene of total disorder. The people were in total shock. They weren't going to stop and talk to a reporter. I went down there because the thing was happening. There was no point in standing on a porch back there. This was what was happening. I started walking through the crowd trying to see and I realized there were a lot of bodies. I didn't know what the head count would be but I realized that something terrible had happened. That's all I can say.
Arise ye prisoners of starvation! Arise ye wretched of the earth! For justice thunderers condemnation, a better world's in birth! No more traditions chains shall bind us! Arise ye slaves, no more enthrall! The earth shall rise on new foundations, we have been nought, we shall been all! Tis the final conflict, let each stand in his place. The International working class shall be the human race!
Do you remember any place in particular where you sang that?
Oh at all kinds of peace meetings and all kinds of—you know there was the whole period of the United Front, when it was OK to be a Communist, and we would sing that song, you bet.