Camera Rolls: 315:44-46
Sound Rolls: 315:22-26
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Mollie West , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on December 15, 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.*
Mollie West take one.
Mollie can you tell me as a sixteen year old how you became aware of what was happening in the steel organizing effort.
As a sixteen year old I lived in the West Side and the West Side was a community that was mostly composed of Jewish workers. Jewish people but workers in the main. My parents were workers and they worked in restaurants on the corner of St. Louis and Roosevelt Road, which was kind of our corner. My father was a cook and then my mother, after we came to this country—
Mollie West take two.
I gathered interest in why, as a young person, sixteen years old I found myself coming out to the Memorial Day Massacre. I came to this country in 1929.from Poland. I was twelve years old and my father had been here for nine years. It was very difficult. Families were divided and they finally were able to come. My brother, my mother and I came at that time. We lived in the West Side because it was a Jewish community and that's where immigrants generally settled, in the communities where they felt at home. They felt at home in communities that reflected their nationality and because we didn't know the language, there were stores where they spoke Yiddish and there were schools where you could make certain reference to the language that you knew. I knew two languages at that time. I knew Polish and I knew Jewish. I very quickly forgot the Polish because I had nobody to talk to in that language, but Yiddish I retain to this day, read, write and speak because that's what we used at home. So the West Side was a very friendly place. But I came at a time when the Depression had begun. Very quickly my father had lost his job and we were really struggling. What I observed was turbulence, even though I started school, and I had to start in the first grade because I had to learn the language. But I went through grammar school very quickly, in one year to just learn the language and move on. The West Side was really a truly friendly community, and it welcomed people like me. We weren't ridiculed if we didn't know the language or if we mispronounced something.
Now you referred to this turbulence. Can you tell more about the turbulence that was around?
The turbulence took the form of, what I noticed there were certain rallies in the West Side on certain street corners. I didn't understand what they were about, but people would get up on the soap boxes and talk about their problems, either unemployment or bad schools or bad housing or mainly the inability to get work. It was a depression and that's what effected the lives of everybody. So that there was a fantastic feeling of community. The other thing, at that time people didn't just live in their houses and lock their doors. People lived in the streets. It was entirely different atmosphere where people didn't have guns. Just the police had guns, but people didn't have guns. If you wanted to hit somebody you did it with your fist. So that when people walked out on the street they weren't afraid, and in the evenings particularly it was lovely. People kind of—there's a Jewish word that's called "shpatzier." You just kind of walk the streets and you meet people and you say "Hi" and you stop, and then you stop in the ice cream stores or you stop in a restaurant to get a bite of type or another.
Now as you got older, into your teenage years were you aware of the turbulence and the situation within the steel industry, the fact that these workers were trying to organize steel? If you were aware of that how so? How did affect you?
Well what happened is I wasn't aware of it in as deep a sense as I just living in the West Side and learning about it, except that we knew, through mainly some of the gatherings that we had. There was a wonderful institution called the Jewish People's Institute and we used to gather there and we'd have a current events club. We used to discuss some of the issues and we were aware of the fact that the beginning of the organization of the unions was kind of telegraphed to us. There were a number of very important industries in the West Side. One of the biggest was the farm equipment industry, the harvester, the McCormick and the other plants. We were aware that they were organized there and so that occasionally we would meet people who would tell us, "Well they're having difficulties, problems." We got the inkling that there too was not only the opposition of the bosses, which were new, but that somehow the bosses were always able to get to the police.
Now, as recent immigrants do you know if your parents voted in the 1936 election?
No, I do not. My mother was not a citizen. In fact my mother didn't become a citizen. I don't believe she ever was a citizen. But my father was a citizen and I don't know if he voted but I'm sure he probably did, and if he did he voted for Roosevelt.
Were you aware of political activity and organization within your community?
Well we became aware of it through what was reflected in newspapers and through people who talked about it. Some of my friends' parents were involved in one form or another n this industry and that industry and they would talk about, "Well they're trying to organize this industry and they're trying to organize that industry." And so we became aware, and then later on we formed this Current Events Club at the Jewish People's Institute. They weren't too excited about it. We kind of had to do it a little bit with subterfuge. Then we talked about current events, and it was my introduction, actually, to some of the social issues that were developing because when I came to this county, as I said I had to concentrate on learning the language and going to school. It was not easy. People who have not been immigrants cannot possibly appreciate the difficulty that there was for an immigrant to adjust in this country, even though everybody says that we are a country of immigrants. Yes we are a country of immigrants, but the immigrants who came earlier and were able to get a foothold and get established a little bit began to look down on the immigrants that were coming in later. Nothing is changed on that. We still do that. Before the immigrants were Irish and English and German and white, more acceptable. Today the immigrants are a little different. They're of color. They're maybe from Haiti or they're maybe from Guatemala or they be from another Latin American country, from Mexico, Puerto Ricans. So there's a different type of prejudice. The blacks at that time, of course, they weren't referred to as blacks at that time. were not a factor in my early days in this country. Actually I didn't become aware of blacks until I became in some of the activities around the plants and the unions because the black workers were beginning to enter the industries. They were brought up from the South first, historically as strike breakers. Then later on they became established, they became workers and in the factories at that time it was very hard work, very difficult work and the black workers, the Negroes were brought into the most difficult aspects of the work. The more rarefied there is the skilled workers, the machinist department and so on were still populated by the white skilled workers, and the black workers at that time were not given the opportunity to learn these skills. But I wasn't that smart at that time to know all this. It was in later years that I could understand what was happening there.
OK. Now tell me—we're almost out of film.
Mollie West take three.
One of the interesting things about the West Side is that it was not only an activist community, all kinds of trends and all kinds of groupings, and there were certain institutions that existed at that time and one of them was the Jewish People's Institute on St. Louis and Douglas Blvd. They had all kinds of wonderful activities for young people. They had a swimming pool and a gymnasium and certain concerts and they had a roof garden where they organized dances and so on. So some of us used to go to the Jewish People's Institute, and we weren't interested in the things that they were doing because they weren't really reflecting the things that we became aware of, the turmoil among the people, the restlessness, the unemployment. And so we organized a Current Events Club, and that Current Events Club was the group that was very, very helpful to me to begin to understand what was happening in the community as well as in the city as a whole. It was my introduction to an understanding of some of these issues. It was through this current events club that we began to participate in various labor activities. For example the International Harvester Mills—
OK. Can we just jump forward, tell me about the involvement that led to the—
Because they were all organizing at that time, and it was around the time of the founding of the CIO, which was a very great advance because they were organizing workers on an industrial basis so that people who were always left out of unions had the first opportunity to get into them. That was a very revolutionary development as far as the labor movement was concerned. So we became interested. We discussed that in the current events club. Then we were asked to go out to the picket line at the harvester plant and we did, and we worked in the kitchens and helped set up the soup kitchens for the workers. Then somebody suggested that there was development in the steel mills, that they were negotiating this contract, that United Steel had signed their contract and the workers were very happy, but that small steel, the Little Steel plants made a decision to bump the union. They weren't going to sign. The worst of them was Tom Girdler of Inland Steel.
Republic Steel, I'm sorry.
Begin again, the worst of them was—
The worst of them was Tom Girdler of Republic Steel. We became aware of it. We had never seen the man, but we knew that he was one of these vicious employers who just was not going to give in to anything. And the workers we knew were on strike in all the small steel plants: Youngstown, Inland and Republic. The union had suggested that a series of rallies take place, and they had a number of rallies on I believe Friday before Memorial Day and various other days. Then the decision was made to call a city-wide rally to try to get the support of as many community people as possible. That's where we came into the picture and it was suggested to us in the club that we go out there on Memorial Day. We did that. We went in a couple of cars and
we came out there and it was a gorgeous day, absolutely a beautiful day
** , one of these magnificent, sun-shiney days. And we were very happy to be out there because it was a prairie. There was hardly anything there except the big mills. There was the saloon, Sam's Place, which was the watering hole for the workers when they got through with a big heavy day. This sort of became the headquarters of the strikers. We went there and we went to Sam's Place. There were thousands of people there by the time we got there. The place was a sea of people, and the most interesting and wonderful thing was that it was a family day. People came out there like a picnic. We're going to support the steel workers and we're going to enjoy a picnic day with our families, and it looked like God shone on that idea.
** So when we came we joined right in and we went over there at Sam's Place and they set up a small platform. Some of us had already learned a lot of the labor songs, and I had a fairly good voice, so "Come on Mollie. Lead some of the singing." And we had some songs. There was a song about "CI, CIO" and of course "Solidarity Forever" which had already had become the anthem of the labor movement, so I got up there and was leading the singing like I knew what I was doing and the workers just loved it. I mean everybody was singing and joyful and
** marvelous, very optimistic and a feeling that "We're going to win this. We're really going to win it."
** And we showed that we weren't alone, that the people of the city were with us and this was a very inspirational moment. So there were a number of speakers, and they tried to keep it short, which was nice, and then they suggested that we all walk towards the gate, just to see what the gate looks like and to show that since they refused to allow picketing right in front of the gate the feeling was that this would be a nice way of just walking closer to the gate. So nobody lined up, it wasn't anything like a march. We just walked, and people were talking and holding hands and the children were being carried by their fathers on their shoulders.
** Everybody was laughing and it was a joyous thing and nobody, none of the workers and this later on became an important point, nobody carried a stick or a stones or anything. They carried their children, they carried their lunch baskets, and at that time you didn't have can beer so maybe you had a drink of some kind. And we walked, and we were walking towards the gates, and as we came closer to the mill the walking slowed a bit. Now I wasn't way up in the front line, but I wasn't very far back either.
** As it slowed a bit we tried to find out what was happening and obviously the people in the front of the line had already seen what was happening. What was happening there is that the mill was completely surrounded by cordons of police.
** It seemed like the entire police force of the city of Chicago was out there. They had their guns, they had their guns drawn and there were machine guns up on the roofs. The people were at that point beginning to get sort of concerned and the mood began to change a bit, particularly the people in the front. But they didn't deter, we were still going to go over to the mill and just conduct a peaceful, mass picket line without signs and just walking in front with this tremendous outpouring of support from the city as a whole. And then all of a sudden we heard shots, and there was a bewilderment. They didn't realize what was actually happening, and then pretty soon we found that the line instead of going forward was walking back because people began to realize that they were being shot at, and they were trying to move out of the line of fire. I being not too far but yet not in the front, as the line was pushing back I was knocked down, and
** I wore glasses then,
** I lost my glasses. A whole number of people were piled up on top of me, and I could barely breathe.
** I don't know how long the shooting took place, but also there was tear gas, and the tear gas blinded some of us, and also it was very difficult because we began to inhale it and it began to choke some of us. What happened is that when the shooting finally stopped and the silence prevailed
** people finally began to get on their feet and when I finally stood up, in total bewilderment, I looked around and I saw a battlefield.
We have to change.
Mollie West take four.
Yes it was a battlefield. There's no question, and in my entire life that was the first time and only time that I saw a battlefield in action, actually. I've seen a lot of battlefields in movies, but I was there. The carnage was unbelievable. There were bodies strewn all over. There were people trying to carry others off the field. There was crying and moaning. I wouldn't say there was hysteria. There was fear, terrible fear, and of course a terrible anger. As I was finally getting up and I stood up I felt something in my back, and there was a policeman with a gun pointed at my back and said, "Get off the field before I put a bullet through your back." At that point some of my friends came running back and just kind of scooped me up and took me back to Sam's Place, and of course Sam's Place was, as I mentioned, it was a hospital. At that point it was a first aid station, because a number of doctors had come out, partially because they were socially conscious and they wanted to participate, and some because they feared, "Well maybe at a big demonstration like that there's always a need for first aid." And so they kind of set up a first aid operation in Sam's Place, but the demands on that were entirely different. It wasn't just bandaging a child's foot or something, but it was a major, major disaster, and when you see in the movies or you read about the current wars you see what a first aid station is and what it means to take bodies off a battlefield. It was an absolute, incredible, devastating moment for me. It was at that time, as a result of that, that I began to understand what I had been talking about without fully comprehending: the difference between bosses and workers, who has the power, and where the state is, which side the state is. By the state we mean the police and the army and so on. That's the state. That's what the state is. They weren't with the workers. I say this now but it didn't really begin to be articulated in my own understanding until much later when I of course began to be more involved, but it did establish one thing. I knew which side I was on, and I was on the side of the workers.
Now you had planned a dance for that evening. Can you tell me what happened when you got back to the dance hall, what you did?
As I mentioned when I was taken off the field by my friends they put me in a car and we went back to the Jewish People's Institute. We certainly were not going to be going to a dance. There was just a handful of us, and the roof garden was filed. It was as I mentioned a gorgeous night. Gorgeous day and it was a gorgeous night. It was filled with young people. Well instead of having a dance those of us who came back transformed that dance into what I believe was the first protest meeting of the Memorial Day Massacre. My friends tell me that when I was asked to speak and I did speak that they had probably never heard me before or since, because I've made a lot of speeches since then, get reflected the feeling and the emotion and the facts about the terrible tragedy that had taken place in South Chicago, to which we were going as observers and participants and bystanders but not as part of the workers at that time.
Can you remember anything in particular that you said in that speech?
I think, I couldn't remember, this is a time when you wish you had a tape recorder and you could have taken something down because it was such a historic moment. But basically what I said is what I just told you. I just came back from a battlefield, and I described what had happened, and I told them in just very simple language what actually took place, and the importance of it was such that the newspapers of course gave a totally different story. They were saying the workers had clubs and they had stones and they actually put the blame of the events on the workers as though the workers provoked it instead of telling the truth, that it was the police who were there and the totally marvelous, friendly, warm solidarity atmosphere that existed, and that it wasn't a march. It was, as I said before, it was like a "shpatzier," the Jewish word of a friendly walk on a gorgeous day. And that's what I expressed to the people, and I must tell you that it must have had a tremendous impact on the people who were listening because to this day when I meet some of the people who heard me speak that night they said that they were never so moved and were never so influenced in terms of their attitude towards labor as they were on that night and at that particular moment.
Do you remember how you felt and what happened when the real story came out later?
When the real story came out, you mean the distorted story? When the distorted stories came out—
No, the real story.
And the real story, finally when there was a Congressional committee and an investigation. Then I felt—
I want you to tell me "When the real story came out," because I was sort of in there.
I was aware, after awhile what happened is that for months we were consumed by these events, and even as a young person and having been there I followed it. I can't remember exactly what was said and how it was said. There were some distortions but they couldn't deny—of course, the mayor then I believe was Kelly, if I'm not mistaken. Of course, they tried to put on an entirely different story, but we were there. We knew, so whatever distortions took place in the press it was countered by a number of other reporters and other people who were witnesses who had influences and Doctors like Dr. [ gap: ;reason: inaudible ] and others were able to tell the true story. And later on during the Congressional hearings of course they couldn't hide the full truth of that, and it might have changed the attitude of the police department. While it didn't completely cure them of the great temptation to be violent towards strikers, which continued for quite a while, it was muted to a large extent. It wasn't the same kind of use of these kinds of weapons and the killing and the murder. Of course it took place in other cases too.
Now, we have three minutes. After the massacre, to your knowledge did the steel workers concentrate more on affecting people that were running for political office so that then they would have more inroads into police and judges and so forth, to in a sense prevent that from ever happening again?
Well from a political point of view, from what I remember, what happened is that the Roosevelt administration was in power and the workers were very much in support of the Roosevelt Administration because you had the enactment of the Wagner Act, which legalized the right to organize. That was an enormous event, so that I don't remember exactly the statements and the basic position of the entire political movement but there's no question that many of the congressman and senators who were elected at that time had to confront this issue and had to take sides, and had to take positions. Now some of them of course defended the employers, and some, many defended of course the workers and the whole movement for the right to organize took on an enormous momentum from that point on.
When you think about Tom Girdler what comes to mind?
What comes to mind to me is that he was one of those killer employers, that what his main objective was, was to keep the workers exactly the way he kept them prior to the attempt of the workers to organize. The lowest possible wages, the lousiest possible conditions, the lack of any kind of a human consideration towards the workers. His main motivation was how to make the most money out of giving the least back to the workers. That was his philosophy, and that over his dead body was he going to allow a union to come in there. That was the position of a lot of the employers. That's why in many instances there were violent episodes, later with the auto workers around Henry Ford and so on, which we later became aware of. But what happened to me, individually, is that I began to follow events in the labor movement, even though I was still a student. Later on, after graduation I actually became an office worker, and I helped actually organize one of the first unions, the office workers union.