The largest parade in Lawrence’s
history was on September 23, 1962. They called it the parade “For God and Country.” I marched with 50,000 others
that day, but now after learning of the parade’s origin, I regret it. Not that I have anything against God or country.
I am a Christian-although a very imperfect one. And I am grateful for the opportunities America has given me. But the story of how the parade came to be is a study in
collective amnesia and historical revisionism.
Excitement was in the air in the days leading
up to the parade. I was curious about why the city should be celebrating God and country because there was no such celebration
the year before. This expenditure of collective energy seemed conspicuous in some way that I could not articulate. And so
in school, I asked my sixth grade teacher. She gave me a vague answer about the people of Lawrence and communists. I pressed
her for more information and she became annoyed, and said something about my taking too much of the class time. I got the
message, in not in so many words, to sit down and shut up.
I pressed on. I asked my scoutmaster why-if there was no God and Country Parade last year- was the city planning this enormous
spectacle. And why on this date and not another? He gave me a vague story about some “atheists and troublemakers”
that came to Lawrence. I pressed him for a clearer answer,
but he blew me off too. He didn’t really know. Others I asked gave similar answers. Nobody knew. Looking back, I realize
that 1962 was the height of the cold war, and nuclear exchange with Russia
was dangerously close. People were scared. God and country are important when you are preparing for all-out nuclear war.
Years later, in the late 1970’s,
a cultural reawakening occurred, and people rediscovered the Lawrence Strike of 1912. Before that time, nobody talked about
it. I worked in the IBEW (electrical workers union), for example, and the organization never referred to it. I attended Lawrence schools for twelve years and no teacher ever said a word about
it. Old timers never mentioned it. It was as if it never happened. And yet it was one of the most important strikes in the
history of the labor movement. It was front-page news in Rome, London
The strike happened in response to a pay cut and a work speed-up imposed by the American Woolen Company. Pays were
already at subsistence level, averaging six dollars for a 56-hour week. The strike dragged on for ten weeks, with ugly confrontations
between police and strikers. Strikers were killed, bayoneted, and beaten down with clubs. Harvard boys came to Lawrence for the sport of beating up and intimidating immigrants. Some immigrants fought
dirty too, using knives, guns and brass knuckles. But the nascent power of mass media laid open to world opinion the wretched
conditions in Lawrence’s mills, and Bread and Roses
became a rallying cry.
What kind of places were those mills? If you’re over fifty and you’re grew up around here, chances
are you’ve had a taste of working in them. They were sweat shops; hotbeds of prejudice and the most rabid, backstabbing
politics imaginable. And sexual harassment? We will never know what was endured in silence. Growing up around old-timers in
Lawrence, I never heard them say a single good thing about
the mills. Their attitude could be described in two words: good riddance.
Some of the strikers were indeed communists,
anarchists and atheists. They advocated openly for abolition of the capitalist system. But can you blame them? Dr Elizabeth
Shapleigh, a Lawrence physician wrote, “Thirty-six out
of every 100 of all the men and women who work in the mill die before or by the time they are twenty-five years of age.”
We can scarce imagine the wretchedness of their lives. And let’s remember the strike happened in communism’s infancy
when its glowing promises held forth the dream of social progress. This was, of course, long before Stalin revealed another
side of communism.
In the fall of 1912, eight months after
the strike was over and the city settled down, the mayor, local clergymen, and business leaders organized a parade as a counterattack
against the goals of the strikers, who were painted as troublemakers and atheists. The slogan of the parade would be, “For
God and Country.” The 1962 parade was a commemoration of this first reactionary parade fifty years before, a reminder
for Lawrence’s poor to remember their place and do as
they are told.
As to “God and Country”,
the Bible- if you believe it- says that God works through man. You can say that God, working through people, raised up those
mills from the dust of the earth. But God, speaking through the voices of the workers in those mills, asked something more
of life. Here’s to the bravery and intelligence of those who demanded bread-and roses too.
Ah, but a
man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?—Robert Browning
We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state and our education system. We
are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will
tremble to take us.—Charles Bukowski, beat poet and postal worker
Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it. —Chinese
Nothing strengthens authority as much as silence.— Leonardo da Vinci