Mother Jones (born Mary Harris) emigrated from Ireland following the potato famine and eventually became one of the most effective labor leaders and child advocates in history.
She settled in Memphis, married a foundry worker named George Jones and had four children. Although she and her husband both read his union journal-which had the motto "Equal and Exact Justice to All Men, of whatever state or persuasion"-she was not politically active in her early years.
But her life changed in 1867 when a yellow fever epidemic swept through the South, hitting the Memphis area particularly hard. As Jones desperately tried to nurse them back to health, her husband and all four of her children died. Later, in her autobiography, she wrote that afterward "I sat alone through nights of grief. No one came to me. No one could. Other homes were as stricken as mine. All day long, all night long, I heard the grating of the wheels of the death cart. After the union buried my husband, I got a permit to nurse the sufferers. This I did until the plague was stamped out."
Although she rarely spoke of it, this shattering loss clearly transformed Jones' view of the world, deeply internalizing her sense of social injustice. When a disease struck, those that could afford to leave the area did, leaving the poor to suffer the consequences alone. I believe the totality of the disaster may have been what made her endlessly resilient and daring, as well as ever ready to defend the underdog to the death.
Jones moved to Chicago where, and made her living as a dressmaker until the store she worked in was destryed in the great Chicago Fire of 1871 Jones was one of thousands who fled the heavily Irish neighborhood where the fire broke out, rushing toward the lake with whatever belongings she could salvage. Enduring the anti-Irish sentiment that flared up after this tragedy reinforced Jones' resolve to fight back.
This was during the "Gilded Age" when the gap between rich and poor grew and the fledgling labor movement began to gain traction, even as the new industrial titans tried to squelch it. Reading Railroad President George Baer summarized the attitude of many company leaders when he said, "The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in his infinite wisdom has given control of the property interests of the country."
But conditions grew worse, and destitute workers began to band together. In 1894, there were a series of economic crises that led to a demonstration of unemployed men. This was when the name "Mother Jones" first appeared in print. She was referred to as a volunteer, making speeches, soliciting donations and looking after the marchers.
Small in stature, Jones often stood on a table or a wagon bed to deliver her increasingly fiery addresses. Her unique, melodic speaking style, matronly appearance and sharp message drew big crowds and, eventually, some media attention. After one rally, a reporter wrote, "Mother Jones made the other speakers seem like tin cans." She seemed very conscious of the power of her style: a long, black dress with long sleeves and a high collar, her white hair swept under a black pancake hat. She also always exaggerated her age, imploring her audience to listen to her now because she wouldn't be around for much longer.
Mother Jones stressed working-class solidarity and warned against racism. "We will join hands together for the emancipation of the human race," she said. "We do not live for ourselves alone." She also was suspicious of the role of religion in the movement, scheduling meetings in town halls or schools rather than churches (as was customary) and telling her followers to "pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living."