See website linked below for Union Miners Cemetery map guide.
Mary Harris Jones (1837-1930) was an Irish immigrant who endured terrible tragedies, but through organizing in the labor and socialist movement, became a beloved folk heroine.
Mother Jones was a legend in her own time--a tiny steel-blue-eyed woman who
conjured courage in working-class people to take on the corporate “pirates.” There
was truth to this legend. Jones faced down bayonets, stared fearlessly into the
eyes of the coal operators’ hired guns, and defied troops sent to subdue
the immigrant working class. She became a legend by organizing entire
communities. She inspired people to fight, to resist, to refuse.
In 1901, when young
textile children in New Jersey launched a strike, they expected Mother Jones to
appear over the hills: “They say that strikers always win when they have Mother
Jones to help them,” they vouched. In looking for Mother Jones, they found the
power of collective action, the legend in themselves. The legend only deepened
when Jones fearlessly took on the challenge of organizing West Virginia. She
became known as The Most Dangerous Woman in America.
Jones chose Union Miners Cemetery as her final resting place because of the symbolism associated with it. This small town and activists like General Bradley (see his gravesite here) had helped to create a rebellion against terrible conditions in the mining industry of the Midwest of the 1890s. When four Mt. Olive miners died in a battle with hired guards in the Virden mine war of 1898, the miners union here sought to honor them with a historical marker. (see Virden Martyrs monument) Local prominent men refused permission for this kind of commemoration a year later. So in 1899 the union purchased their own land and started this cemetery, the only union-owned cemetery in the U.S.
The commemorations built the idea that history is changed from the bottom up, and that the unsung miner could be the authors of their own lives. Mother Jones was organizing on that basis. Soon the miners had achieved October 12, the day the martyrs died, as a union holiday. In this area of the country, miners, not Christopher Columbus, were celebrated as heroes. The Mt. Olive local built the monument to ensure this lesson was passed on. And that memory of their role deeply affected the perspectives of miners.
The commemoration were pushed by Mt. Olive socialists such as Adolph Germer. He and other socialists brought figures like Emma Goldman, widow of a Haymarket martyr, and socialists like Eugene V. Debs and Mother Jones, to speak at the monument. They were among the dozens of prominent figures who spoke at this site in the early twentieth century.
Mother Jones embraced the concept that ordinary workers and their families could move history forward. When a Congressman asked her address, she replied, "My home is where the workers are fighting injustice." She had no home of her own for 25 years, and instead traveled across the country, wherever there was a labor struggle. She believed that labor would only be strong if it broke down ethnic and racial barriers.
While she asked to be buried with "her boys" in Mt. Olive, Jones believed that women needed to organize and march for justice. When she fought against child labor, it was by calling on children to organize and march against injustice themselves. Jones thought that the people who were considered the lowliest could be the authors of their own destiny. In doing this, she helped to create the concept of rank-and-file unionism, and sought to connect the socialist project with labor unions.
Mother Jones fame at the time of her death in 1930 ensured that wherever she was buried would have a spotlight on it. She wanted to highlight the struggles for worker control of their union and industry by being buried here. Workers in this area had a strong positive sentiments toward socialism, which Mother Jones embraced. "I long to see the day when labor will have the destination of the nation in her own hands, and she will stand a united force, and show the world what the workers can do."
In 1936 miners and women mining activists raised funds to erect an 80 ton monument to her, now the
Mother Jones Monument. By then, the miners were embroiled in a great factional dispute with John L. Lewis and mine operators. The twenty one people listed on Mother Jones' monument died in that mine war. Because of that, Jones' grave and monument became a focal point in the debate over democratic unionism. This led to limiting her memory in the mid-20th century. Lewis and the UMWA carefully left her out of their history, and the Progressives sought to use her mainly as an icon to "clean unionism."
During the 1960s and 1970s, radical unionists and students revived Jones memory, and there were attempts to revive this as a place of remembrance. There were many obstacles. Many people in the area balked at the idea of radical celebrations, but more especially of any UMWA members commemorating her. John Keiser and the Illinois Labor HIstory Society led the effort to get the cemetery designated as a National Historic Place. Then some groups from the Springfield labor movement and leftists began to revive the October 12 commemorations starting in the 1980s. Every October people come to the area to remember.