History of May Day isn’t all rainbows and butterflies

“I really have no idea what May Day is,” senior Information Technologies major Eric Lech said. “It is something I have always heard of, but I can’t really say exactly what it’s about.”

Jake Johnson/Photographer The budding trees and blooming plants on campus are a sure sign that May is bringing spring our way, but what exactly is the meaning behind the holiday that is May Day?

Jake Johnson/Photographer
The budding trees and blooming plants on campus are a sure sign that May is bringing spring our way, but what exactly is the meaning behind the holiday that is May Day?

Lech is not alone — after asking a fair number of ISU students about the historic holiday of May Day, it was clear that a vast majority had only a hazy awareness of the holiday.

So what is May Day, anyway?

“If you see a history of May Day in the newspapers this year, it is most likely to recount the mystical, medieval origins of a pagan fertility festival,” wrote Richard Seymour for the Guardian on May Day, 2012. “Yet this has little to do with the reason that May 1 is celebrated … ”

May Day festivities stemming all the way back to pre-Christian pagan traditions have a vibrant, ancient history. Since the 1880’s, the holiday celebrated on May 1 has transformed to become much more about worker’s rights than mysticism and dancing around maypoles — and it is all thanks to our home state of Illinois.

May Day in its current incarnation can be traced to the summer of 1884, when the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions called for May 1, 1886 to be the beginning of a nationwide movement for the eight-hour workday.

Two years later, Chicago, with its robust labor movement, had the nation’s largest demonstration: a reported 80,000 workers marched down Michigan Avenue that May 1 in 1886.

The following Monday, May 3, another demonstration turned tragic when Chicago police attacked picketing workers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company plant, killing six.

The deaths led outraged labor activists to stage a “revenge” demonstration at Chicago’s Haymarket Square on Tuesday, May 4.

Though the demonstration at Haymarket Square started peaceful, blood began to spill after police attacked the demonstrators and an unknown individual threw dynamite at the attacking officers.

The police panicked, and in the darkness and confusion many shot their rifles indiscriminately. In the end, seven policemen and four workers were killed.

In the following months, governments around the world used Chicago’s Haymarket incident as an excuse to round up labor leaders and shut down progressive newspapers. Eight men representing a cross section of the labor movement were eventually selected to be tried for the dynamite bombing.

The trial proved to be wildly unfair, and four of the eight men were sentenced to  death and executed. Another man committed suicide before he was to be hanged.

The gross injustices surrounding Chicago’s Haymarket affair energized the international labor movement, and in July 1889, the American Federation of Labor recommended that May 1 be deemed International Labor Day in memory of the injustice of the Haymarket Affair.

“No single event has influenced the history of labor in Illinois, the United States, and even the world, more than the Chicago Haymarket Affair,” co-founder of the Illinois Labor History Society, Professor William J. Adelman said.

From then on, May Day protests have played a significant role in major sociopolitical events throughout the world, such as the Portuguese revolution of 1974, the uprisings against South African apartheid in the 1980s, and more recently, the Occupy movement.

This May Day, as you stress over finals and daydream about the rejuvenating summer sun, take a moment to consider how an event which occurred over 100 years ago, right here in Illinois, has had an incalculable effect on the shape of the modern world.

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