The Power of The Powerless: A Salute to Mary Harris

The Power of The Powerless: A Salute to Mary Harris Jones:  A reflection given by Dick Bunce for an ICUJP gathering on May 12, 2006 

As we approach Mother’s Day, I’d like to talk about a truly memorable mother. Her name is Mary Harris Jones, better known as Mother Jones. She never got the message that women are to be the caretakers, leaving the pioneering to men. She was both caretaker and pioneer, especially the latter. And what a pioneer she was.

Let’s reel the film back to the year 1900. We’re in the Gilded Age. This is the era of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, the rise of railroads, the telegraph, vast gray factories and soulless monopolies. On the surface, all is beautiful, but this beauty is built on a mountain of despair - seventy two hour work weeks, child labor, sweat shops, slum housing projects, the lockout and blacklisting of laborers who protested. Many are hired just a few hours or days at a time for backbreaking jobs and are always competing for what little work they can get. Pay is dispensed like so many crumbs swept off the table.

Against this background stands a 70 year old woman, gray hair, broad brimmed black hat, long black dress, and mannerly. She knew something about hardship and despair. She had lost her husband and her four children to smallpox. She lived in grinding poverty. Upon emigrating from Ireland to this country, though trained as a school teacher, she could only get work as a seamstress making clothes for the privileged. From this vantage point, she saw and felt the cruelty of the system.

By her middle years she was a committed activist who couldn’t be stopped. When she died at age 100, she had logged 60 years as nothing less than a lion of Judah whose heart was on fire for justice. She often hearkened back to the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt, and if there was a Moses on the cusp of the labor movement, that person was grandmotherly Mary Harris Jones.

She was creative and inclusive. As a day laborer, she formed the Knights of Labor, welcoming women, people of color, immigrants, and all who needed a decent job. 

However, this fledgling labor organization lost support because a demonstration erupted in the violence of the Haymarket Square Incident.

She was slowed only briefly. She waded into mining towns and established a union called the United Mine Workers. She organized mop and broom brigades made up of miners’ wives who beat on pans to scare mules away from hauling coal, thus disrupting business as usual. She organized a children’s strike around the motto, “We want time to play.”

She was a model of perseverance. No gain was enough to justify claiming victory when there was more to do. The authorities threw her in jail, used all means of intimidation, and she would not stop. When she was

72 years old, a federal representative called her “the most dangerous woman in America.” 

She had a holy anger. She embodied a Hebrew proverb that says in effect, there is a point at which patience is not a virtue. As she was dragged off to jail, she exposed the industrial giants for what they were. She would say to her cohorts, “Just fight like hell till you get to heaven.”

She was a person of powerful faith. It was as if she saw the world as God sees it. She experienced firsthand the bondage of children, women, and men and couldn’t help but lift her voice. She demonstrated the power of powerlessness as she echoed Moses: “Let my people go.” In the final analysis, the robber barons couldn’t compete with the raw truth and the challenges that she helped so immeasurably to set in motion.

Obviously, we need leaders like Mother Jones today. Let’s search for them in the ranks of women, the elderly, the poor, all who been marginalized in one way or another. Those who have walked the harder road are not likely to be afraid of the hard road ahead.

In our search for leadership, let’ also look to ourselves despite our ordinariness. At the outset, Mother Jones was supremely ordinary and so was Thomas Merton, Oscar Romero, Sojourner Truth and many more. We cannot use our ordinariness as an excuse to turn away from the Mother Jones who resides latent in our own minds and hearts, waiting to be set free.

The lion of Judah within us needs to be set free especially now. Our crisis is greater than that of the Gilded Age. A friend of mine was talking with Dr. Alexander Saxton, a history scholar retired from the UCLA faculty with earlier stints as laborer and novelist. He is a wise, reflective man. She asked if he considered this the most dangerous time in our country’s history. He said that he’s come to believe this is the most dangerous time in the history of the world and is not at all sure the world will survive through another generation.

Mother Jones had a no-holds-barred vision for justice that lit the sky. Let’s remember her on Mother’s Day and honor her by letting her fire spark our fire, a fire that burns until the task we are given for the healing of the world is done.

Note: In researching this reflection, I especially appreciated Joan Chittister’s compelling book, A Passion for Life, Orbis Press.  

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