Free Speech fight draws on militant history

HOMESTEAD, Pa. – With post-9/11 attacks on civil liberties running amok, nearly a hundred marchers poured out of the historic Carnegie Library here recently, heading off on a “Free Speech March” where they would stop along the way to honor three women who made a difference for worker rights and civil liberties in the early 20th century.

Led by folk singer and hell-raiser Anne Feeney, the marchers filled the cool, autumn air with defiant labor chants and songs. Several of the marchers noted the irony of having assembled in the library that the robber baron Andrew Carnegie donated to the community shortly after crushing a steelworkers strike in 1892.

After passing century-old ethnic churches that tower over nearly every street corner in this former steel town, the marchers stopped at the intersection of 9th and Amity, where two state historical markers were dedicated in honor of legendary labor organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones and Frances Perkins, the first woman cabinet member and longest-serving U.S. Secretary of Labor.

The borough council had designated the intersection as “Free Speech Corner” last spring in recognition of the important struggles for labor and civil liberties that took place here, and in anticipation of the marker dedication ceremony.

It was at this intersection that Mother Jones was jailed in the old municipal building for addressing thousands of striking steelworkers “without a permit” in 1919. When a judge asked who gave her a permit to speak publicly, Mother Jones replied, “Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams!” It was also at this intersection in 1933 that U.S. Secretary of Labor Perkins held an open-air meeting in 1933 with aggrieved steelworkers in defiance of local authorities who had barred her from meeting at nearby Frick Park.

At the marker dedication ceremony, Homestead Mayor Betty Esper, the first and only woman mayor of any town in the Mon Valley, decried the destructive effect the mill’s closing has had on its workers and the town. “There was no reason for it to close, except company greed,” Esper, a former Homestead steelworker, said.

After the marker dedication, the marchers headed for the 1941 Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee Memorial for a memorial observance and wreath-laying ceremony honoring USWA organizer Fannie Sellins, who was brutally murdered by company thugs in the “Black Valley” on the eve of the Great Steel Strike of 1919.

Speaking at the Sellins memorial, Rosemary Trump, former president of Service Employees Local 585, called on those in attendance to carry on the fight in Sellins’ memory. “We owe it to her memory to stand up to George Bush and John Ashcroft and tell them that we are going to fight like hell for our civil liberties,” Trump said to hearty applause.

The Free Speech March was held in conjunction with the annual conference if the Pennsylvania Labor History Society, titled “Free speech in Homestead! Civil liberties then and now.” The conference concluded with a rousing labor music concert, featuring labor troubadour Joe Glazier, Feeney, and hard rockin’, ex-steelworker Mike Stout and the Human Union.

The author can be reached at jthomp690@yahoo.com