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V. Grey

Tradition of May Day Lives On
in America

(26 April 1948)

From The Militant, Vol. 12 No. 17, 26 April 1948, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

We are printing below extracts from a May Day address by V. Grey.

* * *

May Day is an anniversary different from all others. It is a memorial of the past, which by common consent and practice has become a day of action on which working people light for the future. This day was not born in Europe. It was not born in Asia. It did not originate in radical France or in red Russia. It began in that most capitalistic of countries, the United States of America. In the city of Chicago, to be exact, in the year 1886.

The original May Day was a time of world-wide struggle for the eight-hour day. Had the struggle been lost, had the heroes of May Day been less than heroes, we might not be here in this hall tonight. We might just now be coming home from the plant after a twelve-hour day, our minds and bodies too tired to attend meetings.

A demonstration for the eight-hour day took place in Haymarket Square in the city of Chicago. Important organizers and leaders of the demonstration were Engel, Spiess, Lingg, Fischer and Parsons. They were revolutionary socialists, members and leaders of Marx’s First Workingmen’s International. They were our political and spiritual forefathers.

The events of the first May Day were as follows: On May 1, 1886, there were strikes all over the country for the eight-hour day. At the picket line of the McCormick Harvester plant in Chicago, several workers were shot and killed by the police. A big protest meeting was called for May 4 in Haymarket Square.

The long -suffering workers, after a winter of working from before sunrise to long after sunset, poured out into the square, full of hope and fight for a better deal – and full of protest against the murder of their fallen brothers.

Here were the workers, with banners, songs and bare fists. There, on the other side of the square, were the police – more than a hundred of them, with their pistols drawn – just waiting for an excuse to attack the workers.

Suddenly an agent provocateur – that is, a company stooge – threw a bomb into the midst of the police. Like a flash the police fury was turned against the crowd. The demonstration was turned into a riot. The incident gave an opportunity for all the big shots from one end of the country to the other to unleash their fury against the working class.

A country-wide hysteria was worked up. Every big city newspaper joined in framing the workers with the bombing, and howled for the blood of the May Day leaders. And the courts were not long in letting this blood. The leaders were soon executed.

Spiess, Engel, Parsons, Lingg and Fischer. Remember their names.

These men were not brought into the world to be martyrs. They were not people who enjoyed going to their death like the early Christian martyrs, who turned the other cheek to Caesar, and loved their enemies. No, these men hated their enemies fiercely, as fiercely as they loved the workers for whom they fought, as fiercely as they loved their own lives. For they loved life. They liked to see the sunshine once in a while just like you and me. They didn’t set up in business as martyrs at all. But they were genuine leaders of the working people. And when, their hour struck, they were there with all they had.

One of them, Parsons, escaped the dragnet. He could easily have lost himself and lived his life out in obscurity. But he didn’t choose to do that. No, when he heard about the frame-up he returned. He walked into the courtroom and said calmly to the minions of capitalist justice: “I do not expect to leave this place alive. But I could not bear to be at liberty, knowing that my comrades were here and were to suffer for something of which they were as innocent as I.”

And Spiess calmly turned to his executioners a moment before he was hanged, when the black hangman’s hood was already over his head – and said, “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”

It seems to me that May Day, the anniversary of heroism in the workers’ cause, comes appropriately at that time of year when new life starts to grow, when green plants push up through the earth, when even the shallowest rivers overflow their banks. In a word, when the impossible suddenly becomes possible – and then like a flood, inevitable.

Our May Day may be red with the blood of heroes, but it is also green with the hope of Spring.

In spite of the murders of working people, in spite of imperialist wars and atomic bombs, in spite of all the horrors the present masters of the world. can cook up for them, the working people will fight through to a greener Spring.

Do you think such a Spring will not come? Do you think the working people will not rise? This May Day they are already marching by the hundreds of thousands in other parts of the world. Soon they will march by the millions in this country.

Leave aside the original May Day, the Homestead strike, the heroic struggles of the 80’s and 90’s. Forget about the great sitdowns of the Thirties, and the magnificent class struggles of recent years. Call them all accidents if you like, freaks of history if you want to.

But just consider then, the think with which you are most familiar. Consider the whole working-class winter that conceals under its frozen breast the elements of spring.

Consider the daily work in the mines, in the steel mills, in the factories – hard, heavy, dusty, dirty. The people are bound to the wheel of labor – week after week, year after year, just to keep their families fed, just to fix things, they hope, so their children will have it easier than they did. Is there no heroism here? – Why, every day of their lives is heroic, with the grinding heroism of the unwilling slave.

This lifetime of slow struggle is going to be transformed suddenly into the direct struggle of workers against bosses on the gigantic picket line of socialist revolution – that is, the fight for them really to get a better life for their children – the socialist fight for a better world. Then we shall see the long-stretched-out days of labor transformed into the flashing storms of revolt. We shall see the workers give up everything so that their wives and children can be free.

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