On anniversaries, it’s customary to look back on original events and compare them to today’s, and this newspaper’s anniversary is no exception; Sabrie Akin’s description of a newspaper that promised that “Labor will be handled without gloves by the Labor World, and if need be with knife in hand,” appear often in anniversary issues of this publication over the years. How could subsequent editors not repeat it? It’s a great line!
Last year about this time, I was looking through old Labor Worlds to see what it may have had to say about the influenza epidemic of 1918-20. Studying the past can offer comfort to the present, and I hoped to find perspectives that might have sounded familiar to today’s union members.
Instead, I found myself reading the Labor World’s take on the events that will have their 101st anniversary this month: The lynchings of three Black circus-workers: Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie on June 15, 1920, in downtown Duluth.
Last year, for the centennial, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative was scheduled to address what was expected to be thousands of people at the memorial. Stevenson has worked for years to reverse death sentences of hundreds of people as well as the “lesser” sentences for people wrongly convicted or sentenced; his book, “Just Mercy,” describes the experience of a man who was released from death row after being cleared. But the pandemic cancelled those plans.
This year, Stevenson will be addressing people online through the memorial’s YouTube channel to help mark more than a century of witnessing the events of those days. (By the time you read this, the video should be available on YouTube; search for the CJMM channel.)
How did the Labor World witness it? In some ways, the newspaper was definitely a product of its perspective at that time: It took the accusations against the Black men — that they had assaulted a young woman — at face value, and acknowledges that the reaction of the mob had its own dreadful logic. It went on to call for the rule of law, for justice through following the process. “If the mob had waited the accused men would have been given a speedy and fair trial, and if they were found guilty punishment would have been meted out to them as provided by law. …That is the way of organized government. That is the manner of a sane civilization.”
The Labor World left radical opinions to other publications, and a critical look at the justice system and racism was not something it would apply to the events. There was even a wry humor to be found, as it was clear that people in the thriving city of the 1920s exercised a familiar geographic self-congratulation: “But who in Duluth thought that in a few hours a mob would gather and become a law unto itself? It would not be unusual in the South where the blood of men is hot, but in this cold North where folks move cautiously and deliberately, few dreamed of the thing which happened.”
We’ll always see echoes of the present when reviewing the past. And we’ll always take hope and resolve with us as we move toward the future. William McEwen, editor at the time, went on to write: “Race hate, national hate, political hate, religious hate, class hate, sectional hate, neighborhood hate and personal hate, all must be banished if we …are to enjoy real peace and happiness and prosperity…”
Thanks to your support, the Labor World marks another year of moving toward that future. Here’s to many more.
— By Catherine Conlan, Editor