We still remember you, Frank Little

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Book Review
"The Truth about the Lynching of Frank Little in Butte, Montana, 1917"
By Mike Byrnes and Les Rickey
Old Butte Publishing, Butte, Montana, 2003, 118 pp.
Order from mbyrnes@in-tch.com

"The Truth about the Lynching of Frank Little in Butte, Montana, 1917" documents in horrendous detail the awful torture and death of union organizer Frank Little in the wee hours of August 1, 1917.

As far as I know this little 118-page booklet is the first time anybody has even tried to bring these facts together.

And yet, Frank Little may be the greatest figure in American labor history. He fought for and won free speech rights before the American Civil Liberties Union was created. He successfully implemented tactics of non-violent resistance years before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. - even years before Mahatma Gandhi used it to free India from British rule. He successfully implemented farm worker organization years before Cesar Chavez.

Frank Little was a charter member of the Socialist Party and Industrial Workers of the World. He was a hard-rock miner associated, like Bill Big Haywood, with the Western Federation of Miners until their split from the IWW. He led free speech fights among lumberjacks and farmworkers all around the West. He organized miners from Bisbee, Arizona, to the upper reaches of Montana and Minnesota.

At the time of his death, Little was Chairman of the Executive Committee of the IWW. He took the position that the IWW was a revolutionary organization and, consequently, should resist the draft and oppose America's entry into the Great War of 1917. Actually, he lost the vote in the Executive Committee just before going to Butte, but he kept his anti-war militancy and expressed it fully in speeches to the Butte miners. The Anaconda Copper Mining company insisted that the miners go back to work, even though a large number of them had just been killed by unsafe working conditions, because copper was needed for the coming war effort. Frank Little basically told the miners, "To hell with the companies, and to hell with the war!"

Within a few nights, he was dragged out of his hotel without his clothes or his crutches, tied to the back of a Cadillac car, and dragged through the streets to a nearby railroad trestle, where he was strangled to death with a hangman's noose. No one was ever arrested or punished. Thousands gathered for the funeral.

Byrnes and Rickey's book must be credited with going a long way to explain why people don't know about Frank Little. Their final chapter talks about the amazing government repression that began with Little's death and continued through World War I and well into the 1920s. The Industrial Workers of the World offices were raided in the month following the murder. The organization and its members were hounded into near obscurity. There is no reasonable estimate of the number of unionists deported, jailed, blacklisted, or killed. Even Frank Little's close relatives were afraid to talk about him. His personal effects, his writings, the death mask made from his face, and the movie made at his gigantic funeral are lost to history. The only remaining trace of the great Frank Little is his tombstone in Butte. It reads, "Frank Little, murdered by capitalist interests for organizing and inspiring his fellow men."

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  • Frank Little was my Grand Great Uncle. Frank's parents both died before he was murdered. Contrary to previous information, Frank was not part Indian. His mother Was Almira Hays.

    Posted by DLittle, 06/05/2014 12:01pm (7 months ago)

  • It was Joe Hill, not Frank Little, that said, "Don't mourn, organize." Hill's original letters are in the cpusa files at Tamiment Library in NY, I believe.

    Frank Little carried a little envelope of Joe Hill's ashes with him. His sister-in-law, Emma, a radical in her own right, asked that the Hill's ashes be sent to her in California when Little was murdered.

    I have never been able to find out if her wish was honored or what happened to her and her children, nor whatever happened to Frank Little's personal effects.

    Government-sponsored terror eradicated everything.

    --Jim Lane

    Posted by Jim Lane, 01/26/2011 4:03pm (4 years ago)

  • I'm very grateful for these wonderful comments. The little book, which is kind of tacky and unedited but very readable, gives some of reasons that so many people have never heard of Frank Little. His memory was massively and deliberately stamped out by the Red Scare.

    When the IWW members were tried en masse, one of the questions they were asked was "Did you know Frank Little?" Just knowing him was condemned!

    One of the Oklahomans who was killed during the Green Corn Rebellion had a picture of Little in his pocket, and that was used to discredit those brave anti-war sharecroppers, whose memory, sad to say, was also expunged.

    The way they hide our history is capitalism's dirty secret. There's a bit about Little (and Greencorn) at www.labordallas.org in the history section.
    --Jim Lane

    Posted by Jim Lane, 01/26/2011 3:57pm (4 years ago)

  • Is there any way I can find out more about Frank?I now some people that are in their late 90's and one over 100. They are all in the progressive move ment. I will see what they have for me, but it might not be much. Max

    Posted by Max Rader, 01/25/2011 2:42pm (4 years ago)

  • I lived in Butte, Montana in 1987 to 89. It is a great town. It is then that I first heard of Frank Little. It was said that he said, "don't mourn, organize," moments before being hung. The mines are still there. There were 13 different unions in the mines when they were closed in the (I think) early eighties. They subsequently reopened about ten years later with no unions.

    The workers lacked some of Frank Little's backbone and courage.

    Posted by Tim Kearney, 01/23/2011 9:29pm (4 years ago)

  • I am glad Byrnes and Rickey have brought out this important little book. It puts me in mind of the fate of Rosa Luxemburg, less than two years later, in Germany. Her revolutionary efforts were stopped in 1919 by the butt end of a rifle, as her skull was smashed and her body dumped in a river. But there is a telling lesson to both Little's and Luxemburg's legacy: their ideas were dangerous--yes ideas can be dangerous!--enough so, that their detractors were led to murder. Are there any ideas out there today so volatile, so revolutionary, so dangerous, that people are willing to silence them by an extreme act of violence? At least Little and Luxemburg (not to mention Ghandi, King, and others) had a terrifying impact on those who ideologically opposed them. I'm afraid that today, we may be living in a climate where apathy and indifference prevail. Indifference and apathy: those twin maladies that prevent any effort to stir the people.

    Posted by Michael Synowicz, 01/20/2011 6:20pm (4 years ago)

  • Frank Little represented a "left" faction even for the Wobblies. My father, Wayne Walden, was influenced by him, and talked about being on the run with him to escape recruitment. My father survived, Frank Little didn't.
    Do you know the month when Little was killed? I'm trying to put together a program this year to commemorate all the labor struggles in November, Joe Hill, Centralia Massacre....

    Posted by Eleanor Walden, 01/20/2011 4:13pm (4 years ago)

  • I am deeply grateful that you have taught me and other readers about this heroic person. I'd never heard of hi before.
    If we reconstruct the histories of all of those who have been targeted by campaigns to rub them out of the historical record, or to slander and distort what is known about them, we'll have a great model of what kind of individuals, organizations and actions the exploitive and warm-mongering classes fear most.
    It is plain to me, for example, that Lenin is their number one target of all time, so he's characterized as a brute, terrorist and tyrant. (The cultural troops of the Fat Cats join in by describing him as a person who disliked music because it softened his militancy!)
    Why is Lenin the main target of the right, middle, left, neo- and retro- champions of capitalism? Because Lenin showed what had to be done to take them out power.

    Posted by John Woodford, 01/20/2011 2:54pm (4 years ago)

  • I am embarrassed that I have not heard of Frank Little. How can such a hero be ignored by so many historians, writers, newspapers, and magazines?

    Posted by Peter Gale, 01/20/2011 12:41pm (4 years ago)

  • Thank you for reminding us of the brave and inspiring work of Frank Little and so many of his fellow Wobblies and early Socialists.

    Often it was that combination of direct in-your-face job actions by the IWW, combined with Socialists rallying public support in the community, that helped blaze the path of industrial unionism in this country. Even in the face of the young J Edgar Hoovers, the Palmer Raids and brutal attacks on unionists by the American Legion and local newspapers, they won many battles and blazed many a path.

    We all owe a huge debt to the Frank Littles, Vincent St. Johns, Bill Haywoods, Joe Hills and so many other IWWs who dared to challenge war and fought for industrial democracy. Their creative and militant tactics are a wellspring for us all -- as this book and article rightfully point out.

    Posted by Tom Gogan, 01/20/2011 11:34am (4 years ago)

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