May Day: Celebrating through Protest

Happy May Day! Originally, May Day was a pagan springtime festival, roots of which survive in the traditions of flower-festooned maypoles and the crowning of the “Queen of the May.” Since the late 19th century, it has also been a workers’ holiday. Though in the US it has been officially replaced (and I would argue, coopted) by Labor Day in September, May Day remains an occasion for social protest of many kinds.

May Day emerged as a workers’ day in 1886, when it was chosen by American labor unions as the day to begin a general strike in support of the eight-hour day. Workers across the country rallied on May 1, and in several cities with active labor organizations protesting continued into the following days. In Chicago, a city with a large immigrant and anarchist population, violence erupted on May 3rd when police opened gunfire on the striking workers.

The following day, as laborers gathered in Haymarket Square to protest the police shootings, a bomb was thrown into the meeting and the ensuing gunfire killed seven police officers and at least four workers. With no conclusive evidence of who threw the bomb, anarchists were blamed; a show trial jury found eight guilty and sentenced seven to death.


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