The 1937 Memorial Day Massacre: A community remembers

On Memorial Day 1937, hundreds of steelworkers and supporters, led by the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, attempted a peaceful picket of Republic Steel in Chicago. They were met by several hundred Chicago police who, unprovoked, charged the demonstration with billy clubs, tear gas and pistols. When the dust settled, ten picketers were dead and dozens wounded.

Sixty-six years later capitalist globalization has not been kind to Chicago’s southeast side community. The mighty Republic Steel works (later LTV) is now down to a handful of workers from a spin-off operation of this once great South Chicago mill.

Out of years of struggle, and surmounting many obstacles, including the 1937 police violence, steelworkers built a proud union at Republic, Local 1033 of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA). The union and thousands of Republic workers and their families were the backbone of this community.

Local 1033 built a beautiful union hall right across the street from the mill and the meadow where the Memorial Day Massacre took place. They named it Memorial Hall and placed a plaque with the names of those killed on a monument in front. The union was – and is – determined to remember those who fought to build the union. Memorial Hall played a tremendous role in the community, not just with union meetings, but with weddings, parties, clubs, political rallies and much more.

But with global restructuring destroying jobs, and the mill down to next to nothing, Local 1033 has been forced to sell the union hall. Fortunately, the new owner – the Southeast United Methodist Youth and Community Center – cares about the community and about the steelworkers’ heritage.

This past week a play based on those 1937 events was produced at Memorial Hall for three performances. What a treat!

Unfriendly Fire is an original play that tells the “Massacre” story. It is based on historical record dramatized to show the deliberation of the steelworkers as they convinced themselves of the need for a union.

The production, acting, and sets were all magnificent – a real work of art. There were no professional actors. Victor Storino, the last president of Local 1033, and Ed Sadlowski, a former district director of this region of the USWA, both had important roles in the play as actors and in its production. Many other steelworkers and family members also starred in the play.

Special note should be made of Steve Castro, a retired steelworker, who wrote a moving poem that he read at the end of the play celebrating the courage and determination of those 1937 marchers.

Rev Zaki L. Zaki, the director of the community center, told the audience that he had made an ironclad agreement with the steelworkers to preserve their heritage and the memory of the Memorial Day Massacre. He said producing the play was part of that commitment. “Look around you now,” Zaki said, “Note all the children and young people. This is how their heritage and history will be passed on.”

I loved every minute of the play and the community this production highlighted.

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