"In spite of oppressors, in spite of false leaders, in spite of labor's own lack of understanding of its needs, the cause of the working class continues onward. Slowly his standard of living rises to include some of the good and beautiful things of the world. ... Slowly those who create the wealth of the world are permitted to share it. The future is in labor's strong hands."
-- Mother Jones
"There is no peace in West Virginia because there is no justice in West Virginia."
-- Mother Jones
If any one person has helped to improve this nation's civil rights and overall standard of living, it is Mother Jones. Born in 1830, Mary Harris from Cork, Ireland, spent most of her life as a teacher and dressmaker. Her life began to change drastically in 1867. While living in Memphis, the yellow fever epidemic took her husband and four children. After losing her family, Mary Harris Jones helped nurse the sufferers until the plague was stamped out. Soon after, she went back to dressmaking and moved to Chicago.
Once again "bad luck" darkened her door. The Great Chicago fire of 1871 claimed her establishment and everything she owned; she was once again without a home. This is when she found the union as her home and the workers as her family. After the Chicago fire, Mother Jones became a member of the Knights of Labor, which formed after the Civil War to fight industrial slavery. Her father and husband were hard working laborers, likely influencing her decision to take an active part in the efforts of the working class. The Industrial Revolution brought the exploitation of immigrant workers, poor working conditions, and overcrowded cities. The 1880s saw child labor suffering, 17-hour work days, mass unemployment, and the birth of one of America's greatest leaders -- Mother Jones. In the coal mines from West Virginia to Colorado, and in mills and factories from Illinois to Georgia, Mother Jones travelled to fight for the freedom of the working class. In West Virginia, she was the first walking delegate for the United Mine Workers of America. On foot she would travel from coal camp to coal camp inciting miners to risk their lives to form a union.
Mother Jones, a strong and willful woman, spent her golden years as the most active time in her life. From the age of 50 to 99 years this "pistol packin' mamma" was jailed two times for leading union strikes in West Virginia; once in 1902 at age 71, and again in 1913 at 82. She died at 99 years of age not missing much of the outcome of the labor movement. Jones is buried in the United Mine Workers Cemetery in Mount Olive, Illinois; 30,000 people attended her funeral.
On January 28, 1993, she was inducted into the Labor Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C. A plaque in her honor states: "For countless workers she was both goad and inspiration... Her flaming rhetoric and fearless campaigning helped swell the ranks of the United Mine Workers who called her the Miner's Angel."
Last updated: January 26, 2021