Initially there was nothing remarkable about a Memorial Day gathering of striking steelworkers at Sam's Place, a Southeast Side tavern, 75 years ago. A day without picket lines and walkouts would have been something to talk about during the Great Depression. The demonstrators had no idea they were walking into history when they marched south from the barroom serving as their union's headquarters through a gritty labyrinth of massive factories, modest homes, railroad yards and barge docks.
But at 118th Street and Burley Avenue, they confronted a phalanx of Chicago police drawn up in front of a Republic Steel plant, where cops and workers had previously clashed since the walkout began a few days earlier.
"Suddenly I heard a shot which, I think, came from the strikers. The strikers immediately began throwing clubs — big ones, bricks and pieces of machinery. My picture shows the police ducking and trying to get behind a patrol wagon that was on the field."
In the melee that followed, 10 demonstrators were killed and 60 injured; 40 police officers were hurt. Violence was endemic to labor disputes of the time, but on this occasion a film crew from Paramount News was on the scene, transforming this tragic encounter into the Depression Era's equivalent of earlier labor struggles in Chicago, like the Haymarket Riot and Pullman strike.
"Some of the police are shown swinging their clubs," noted a Tribune reporter after a screening of the footage. "Billows of gas are being wafted over the heads of the rioters. The motion picture is accompanied by sound effects, in which words are indistinguishable. Gun shots can be heard momentarily, perhaps a second or two. No shooting can be seen, and it is impossible to determine where the shots came from."
Despite that film, what happened — indeed, what to call it — remained in dispute. Was it a Memorial Day Massacre, as trade unionists saw it? Or, a Republic Steel Riot, as the company and city officials dubbed it?
Police and protesters recalled the incident differently.
Molly West, a young Polish immigrant involved in union organizing, told the Tribune: "Once I got close to the mill, we heard shots. I was lucky, because I was knocked down, and there were other people who fell down on top of me."
Patrolman Walter B. Oakes said: "Suddenly there was a shower of bricks and clubs. The mob pushed forward. I was struck across the back with a club and knocked to the ground."
Under a headline, "Murder in South Chicago," a Tribune editorial blamed the violence on "a murderous mob ... inflamed by the speeches of CIO organizers." The initials then stood for Committee for Industrial Organization, an upstart wing of the union movement led by John L. Lewis. The miners union head, Lewis had decided to organize the less-skilled workers whom craft-union leaders traditionally disdained. A slap in the face of the union movement's establishment, it set off a fury of organizing.
On May 26, 1937, 85,000 steelworkers in five states walked out, idling 37 plants. Five Chicago-area mills were shut with 22,000 workers walking out. Four days later came the deadly clash at Republic Steel.
Two governmental investigations came to opposite conclusions. A Cook County coroner's jury "absolved the police of blame, holding the killings were justifiable," the Tribune reported. A U.S. Senate committee, chaired by Sen. Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, a notable liberal, said the police used "excessive force."
Muddying the waters even more, the cameraman who took the newsreel footage (available at chicagotribune.com/flashback) claimed it didn't tell the whole story. He said "he was changing lenses in his camera at the time of the strikers' attack and that his film shows an incomplete picture of what happened," according to the Tribune's report of the coroner's inquiry.
In the lean years of the 1930s, workplace disputes weren't limited to the classic standoff of bosses versus workers, which further divided contemporaries' views of the violence. Some workers saw their salvation in banding together. Others, thinking themselves lucky to have a job, wanted no part of the union movement.
When the Republic Steel workers walked out, about 1,000 remained on the job, the company feeding and housing them on-site. "We got a good place to eat and sleep and play," one told a Trib reporter. "Think I'm gonna quit, with four kids? G'wan—."
Angered by the nonstrikers' obstinacy, union members and their supporters set out on that fateful march from Sam's Place. What did they aim to do? According to the police, the demonstration was designed to be violent. A police captain said he had heard a leader at the meeting that preceded the march say, "We'll get those cops, knock them over, take their guns away from them, and go right into the plant." According to the Tribune, that was part of a larger conspiracy, "a plan to seize control of the country in the manner of the Russian October Revolution."
But William Waltmire, pastor of the Humboldt Park Community Methodist church, told the story differently at some of the slain strikers' funerals. "The men lying here had a dream of brotherhood," he said. "They sought to bring a new world, a good world in which men could live and be happy."
Editor's note: Thanks to Bob Streepy, of Bartlett, for suggesting this Flashback.