the tragic genesis of May 1st in the United States

Book. While Workers’ Day is celebrated almost everywhere in the world on 1er May, the United States follows another calendar with the first Monday of September, designated as Labor Day. This decision owes nothing to local eccentricity.

Also read our archive (1986): Article reserved for our subscribers The first “May 1st”

When, in 1889, the Second International made 1er May Workers’ Day, she wanted in particular to commemorate events that occurred in Chicago (Illinois), in 1886. However, American President Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) did not want to hear about this date, fearing that this would fuel the memory of strikes and injustices which had marked the labor movement in his country. It is precisely to maintain this memory that the historian and teacher Martin Cennevitz publishes Haymarket. Story of the origins of 1er-May, in which he brings to life an event of international scope, the Haymarket Square massacre.

1er May 1886, a massive strike broke out in Chicago, a major industrial center of the United States, to defend the eight-hour working day. Three days later, a rally was organized in Haymarket Square, but things got out of hand. A bomb explodes, seven police officers are killed, and the police shoot into the crowd. Between four and eight people were killed, dozens of others injured.

In the aftermath of these troubles, a spirit of vengeance took hold of the authorities. Eight men, August Spies, Albert Parsons, George Engel, Michael Schwab, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, Oscar Neebe and Samuel Fielden, were arrested and wrongly accused of being behind the attack. It is the intimacy of their destinies that Martin Cennevitz reconstructs here.

Hesitations and courage

They have in common that they fight for workers’ rights, which makes them perfect scapegoats for the police, who cannot identify the author of the attack. Justice acquiesces and chooses to crush their lives. Four of them are hanged, one commits suicide in prison. Two others will have their sentences commuted to life imprisonment. The last was to remain behind bars for fifteen years; he was pardoned in 1893.

Also read the column by Annie Ernaux (archive from 2012) “May 1st, imposture alert! »

These events are known and have been the subject of numerous historical works. Martin Cennevitz, however, brings them back to life by getting as close as possible to these eight men, by inviting himself into their cells. He carefully reconstructs the thoughts that may have taken hold of them at the moment when their lives were slipping away from them. It shows their doubts, their hesitations, the courage they showed.

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