Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America

by Storyteller Pippa White

Story Summary

Someone once called her a humanitarian. “I’m not a humanitarian,” she replied. “I’m a hell-raiser!” And she was. She was over fifty years old, she weighed one hundred pounds, and she was under five feet tall. And yet she was called by the United States Government, “the Most Dangerous Woman in America.” Come and hear what she has to say. Come and hear how she changed the world.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Mother Jones-The Most Dangerous Woman in America

Discussion Questions:

  1. We hear a lot today about resistance. Was what Mother Jones did “resistance?” Why or why not?
  2. One hundred years ago, many children worked ten and twelve hour days, seven days a week. And they worked for pennies.  Think back to when you were seven, eight or nine years old.  How would work like this have affected you?  How might you be different today if that had been your fate?
  3. Child Labor was a scourge. How do you think it happened?  Why would people stand by and allow little children to do hours and hours of monotonous, dangerous work day in and day out? (Hints: pay, immigration, ignorance)

Resources:

  • Autobiography of Mother Jones—Charles Kerr and Co. Publishers, Chicago, IL
  • Speeches and Writings of Mother Jones – University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA
  • You can visit Mother Jones grave and memorial in the Union Miners’ Cemetery in Mount Olive, Missouri, not far from St. Louis. In 1898, eleven miners had been gunned down in nearby Virden, Illinois during a riot that broke out during a strike.  The Union Miners’ Cemetery was created to honor those men, and other hardworking people who fought for workers’ rights.

Themes:

  • Immigration
  • Taking a Stand and Peacemaking
  • Workplace

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Pippa White and I’m a storyteller. And the story I have for you today goes back about 100 years, give or take. It’s the story of a woman whom I consider to be a heroine and in her day, many people considered her a heroine. But in her day, many people also considered her a troublemaker. And that is a label she would have been completely happy with. What I have for you, is a little bit of her autobiography. So, I’m going to speak her words. But before I do that, I want to tell you a little bit about her. Because and I think that little bit from her autobiography will be richer for you.

She was born Mary Harris, in 1837, in Ireland. Her father, as was the case often back then, emigrated to the United States. And when he had enough money, and a job, and citizenship, he sent for his family. So, Mary Harris got to the United States when she was about 10. And she said of her American citizenship, she had always been proud. She grew up. She married a man named Mr. Jones. He was an iron molder and he worked in Tennessee. So, they moved to Tennessee. They started a family. All went well until, in the 1860s, a terrible epidemic of yellow fever swept through that part of Tennessee, and she lost them all. She lost her family of four children and her husband. She said she sat through nights of grief. No one could come to her, she said, because other families were stricken as she was.

She moved to Chicago and began a new life as a dressmaker. She was successful but, unfortunately, she was in Chicago for the Great Fire of 1871. That fire burned her establishment, her apartment, and again, she was left with nothing. She wandered the streets of the city as the fire burned and she came to St. Mary’s Church, which was taking in refugees. And there she stayed because she had nowhere else to go. She was there for quite some time.

She said, next door there was a rickety, old building where the Knights of Labor would hold their meetings. And she would go over there. Now the Knights of Labor were a fledgling union. Back then, ‘round the turn of the last century, millions of immigrants were coming to the United States, literally, every year from all over the world, but mostly, at that time, from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia but also from all over the world. And employers took advantage of them. They worked for pennies. They worked long, long hours. And they worked in terrible conditions and sometimes dangerous conditions. So, they joined together to form unions so that they could have a voice. So, this rickety, old building, next to the church, was called the Hall of the Knights of Labor. And Mary Harris Jones would go there. And she said, she would listen to their inspiring speakers and her life took a completely new change. It went in a completely new direction. She became that troublemaker. She became a labor activist.

So, let me get my hat here and my glasses. And I’m going to become that lady. But while you listen to the words from her autobiography, keep this in mind. She was about five feet tall. She was no more than 100 pounds. She didn’t even get into this line of work, a labor activist, until she was over 50. And she was not even well known until she was probably over 60. Yet the government of our country, the United States government, called Mary Harris Jones, for a good decade or so, the most dangerous woman in America. So, as you listen to her words, I want you to think about whether that title, The Most Dangerous Woman in America, is right for Mother Jones.

When the railway strike ended, I went down to Cottondale. I wanted to see if the gruesome stories I had heard of little children working in the mills were true. I applied for a job but the manager said he didn’t have anything for me unless I had a family that could work also. “Oh,” I said, “I have a family. There are six of us.”

“You have children?” he said.

“Well, yeah. Yeah.” Well, he was so happy he took me with him to find a house to let. The house he brought me to was a kind of two-story plank shanty. All the windows were broken. The door hung loose. The latch was broken. Inside there was one room, with a big, fireplace and a kind of open air aloft above. Holes in the roof had let the rainwater in, which had rotted the flooring in front of the fireplace. There were big holes, two big holes, big enough to drop a brick through. I said, “The wind and the cold is going to come in through those holes.”

He said, “Oh, summer is coming. Where are you at, a hotel? What are you talking about?”

I said, “I’m not sure this is big enough for all of us, six of us.”

He said, “It’ll do.” And so, I took the house with the understanding that my family would join me at the end of the month, when work was finished up on the farm.

And I started working in the factory. And there I saw them little children working. The most heartbreaking spectacle in all of life! There were times I couldn’t look at those bodies, those little bodies. I wanted to be back in the Rocky Mountain camps or the grim coal fields where at least the labor fight was fought by grown men! Little children working. Running up and down the rows of spindles. Putting a little hand in to repair a snapped thread. Putting, um, crawling under the machinery to oil it.

Hands got crushed. Fingers got snapped off. Children of six with faces of 60 worked a 10-hour day, for ten cents a day. When they fell asleep on the job, cold water was splashed in their faces. Toddling chaps of four went along with Big Brother or Sister. Oh, but their work was not paid. Machines were built in the north. Built low for little hands.

Every morning at 5:30 these children came in from the gray dawn, into the factory, into the pounding noise and the lint filled rooms. They’d fall asleep over their lunches of fat pork and cornbread. Sleep to these children was what play was to a normal child. But the manager would shake them awake and it was back to the grind.

Well, my family, not joining me at the end of the month, a manager got suspicious and I left. I went up to Lexington, Pennsylvania where fully ten thousand workers, textile workers, were on strike and half of them were children. They’d come into our, our union office. They were stooped, round shouldered little things. Some of them had a thumb missing, others a finger off at the joint. Most of them were under 10, even though there was a law in Pennsylvania saying children couldn’t work under the age of 12. I asked the newspaper boys, “Why don’t you fellows write something about child labor in Pennsylvania?” Oooh. They said they couldn’t. The mill owners had stock in the papers.

“Well,” I said. “I’ve got stock in these children and I’ll just make a little news!”

And that’s how it began, my children’s march on Washington. I asked the parents if I couldn’t borrow their children as they were all striking, they agreed. A lot of adults came with us. A man named Sweeney, agreed to be our Army captain. Each child carried a knapsack with a plate, a cup, a fork, and a spoon. I had a big wash tub with me so that I could make food along the way. And we carried signs saying, “We want to play.” “We want to go to school.”

In every town, I got into the town square and I brought those children up onto the platform and I showed the people their mangled bodies. I said, “The mansions of Pennsylvania are built on the backs of these children!” Well, at this point, I decided we would not go to Washington, but rather to Oyster Bay where President Theodore Roosevelt was vacationing with his family. I thought, perhaps, he might like to compare these children to his own. I thought he might like to know who wove the carpets he walked on, the drapes that hung in his window.

Do you know that recently they passed a law in Georgia for the protection of songbirds? When Labor asked for protection for these children, they don’t hear. I was in Washington D.C. recently and I saw our legislators passed three bills, in one hour, for relief of the railways. When Labor asks for relief for these children, they turn a deaf ear. I was in a prison recently. I asked a man how he came to be there. He said he had stolen a pair of shoes. I told him if he’d stolen a railway, he’d be a United States senator.

Well, we got to Oyster Bay. But President Roosevelt refused to see us nor would he answer my letters. But our march had done its work. Preachers were preaching about us. Teachers were teaching about us. Two newspapers got in a fight about us. And although the strikers lost the strike and had to return to work, one year later, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law saying no child could work under the age of 14. Thousands were sent home from the mills and thousands more never had to go. Our march had done its work.

Mother Jones died in 1930 at about the age of 94. She is buried in the Union Miners’ cemetery in Mount Olive, Missouri. She asked to be laid to rest there. There had been a riot that had left some protesting miners dead. The mining company had brought in detectives with rifles who shot them. And that was the beginning of the Union Miners’ cemetery. And that is where Mother Jones wanted to be buried. There still is child labor on this planet, most especially, in countries like India, China, Bangladesh, and South American countries. In our country, still a little bit. Agriculture, sometimes meat packing, but, mostly, the trouble has been taken care of thanks to Mother Jones and many others like her.

Thank you for listening.

Not By the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman

 

Story Summary:

 In 1991 in Lincoln, Nebraska, a Jewish Cantor and his family were threatened and harassed by the Grand Dragon of the state Ku Klux Klan. Here is the remarkable story of how they dealt with the hatred and bigotry, and, in the process, redeemed a life. Based on the book, Not By the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman, by Kathryn Watterson.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:  Not-By-the-Sword-How-a-Cantor-and-His-Family-Transformed-a-Klansman

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is this a story about religious transformation or about how isolated people need caring relationships?
  2. What does this story say about the power of words and the means of spreading those words? How does anonymity protect the speaker? How do the cantor’s ‘public’ words spread his message?
  3. Would you have considered inviting the former KKK member to live in your home? How was the family able to open their door and their hearts to a man who had hurt so many?

Resource:

  •  Not By the Sword by Kathryn Waterson, Simon & Schuster, 1995; University of Nebraska Press, 2012.

Themes:

  •  Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Interfaith
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

My name is Pippa White. The story I have for you is a true story. It’s about an incident that happened in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1991. Actually, it’s a much truncated version of a wonderful book called Not By the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman. That book was written by Kathryn Watterson. And I’m very grateful to Kathryn for letting me tell this story. Actually, there are two people in the story, Michael and Julie, who I know. So I’m grateful to them too. And I’m going to tell the story from Julie’s point of view. I am now going to become Julie.

We had encountered anti-Semitism before. My husband was a Jewish cantor, he had had other appointments in other synagogues in other cities. Anti-semitism was not something we were unfamiliar with but this was different and especially upsetting. We had just moved into a new home in Lincoln, Nebraska after two years of renting. And one afternoon, my husband answered the phone to hear this harsh, hate-filled voice saying, “You’re going to be sorry you ever moved into 5810 Randolph Street, Jew boy!” Two days later we received a package in the mail. On the outside it said, “The KKK is watching you.” Inside there were all these flyers, dozens of brochures and flyers, with ugly caricatures of Jews with hooked noses, African-Americans-race traitors, all of them being shot or hanged. And another message, “Your time is up and the Holo-hoax was nothing compared to what’s going to happen to you!” This was too much. We called the police.

The police came and said they were 98% sure it was the work of one Larry Trapp, the state leader and Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. Larry and his Klansmen had terrorized many Jews, blacks, and Vietnamese in Nebraska and Iowa. And said the police, “He’s dangerous. We know he has explosives.” Now they explained that he was in a wheelchair. He had lost both legs to diabetes but they said he had firebombed four or five African-American homes in Lincoln and the Indochinese Refugee Assistance Center in Omaha. And, unbeknownst to us, the police felt Larry Trapp was planning to bomb the very synagogue where my husband was the spiritual leader. Last thing the police said was, “So lock your doors and don’t open any more unlabeled packages.”

Well, we didn’t get any more packages nor did we get any more phone calls. But Larry Trapp had done his work very well. We had been terrorized. We couldn’t open the mailbox without wondering if there was a letter bomb in there. We worried about our three children and every time a car drove slowly by the house, we had a little panic attack. Larry Trapp had done his work very well. Perhaps because of this, I couldn’t get him out of my mind. But it wasn’t just the fear, I was also fascinated. I kept asking myself what makes someone like that? I found out his address and I used to drive by his apartment every afternoon after work and wonder, what makes someone like that? And how lonely he must be isolated in all that hatred?

Not long after this we found out that Larry Trapp was on television. He’d gotten himself on some local cable access channel and he would sit there spewing all these white supremacist hate. It made Michael so mad that he said, “He called us.  I’m calling him.”

So he called this, Vigilante Voices. All he got was an answering machine but he said, “Larry, why do you hate me? You don’t even know me. So how can you hate me?” Next day it was, “Larry, don’t you know that you’re going to have to answer to God someday for all this hatred?” The third day it was, “Larry, why do you love Hitler so much? Don’t you know that in Hitler’s Germany, one of the first laws the Nazis passed was against people like you, people with disabilities? Don’t you know that in Hitler’s Germany, you’d have been one of the first to go?” Every day Michael left a message. One day Michael said to me, “I wonder if he’ll ever pick up?”

I said, “If he does, offer to do something nice for him. You watch, it’ll throw him completely off guard.”

One day in the midst of this message, “Larry, when you can get rid of all the hate, there’s a world of love waiting for ya,” Larry Trapp picked up, “What #@&%* do you want?!”

“I just want to talk to you, Larry.”

“Why #@&%* are you harassing me? You’re harassing me! Stop harassing me!”

“I’m not harassing you, Larry. I just want to talk to you.”

“Are you black? You sound black.”

“No I’m, Jewish.”

“Well, what do you want? Make it quick!”

And then my husband took my advice, “Well, Larry, we know you’re in a wheelchair. We wondered if we could help you in any way? Take you to the grocery store, that kind of thing.”

Long pause. Michael says when Larry spoke again his voice was different. “That’s OK. That’s nice. That’s been covered. Thanks anyway. Don’t call this number again.”

“We’ll be in touch,” was the last thing Michael said. I think it must have been Larry Trapp’s time in life to be bombarded with love.

A nurse wrote him a letter, and because of his very poor health he was in and out of doctors’ offices all the time, and she said, “Larry, if you could embrace God the way you’ve embraced the KKK, He would heal you of all that hurt, anger, hatred, and bitterness in ways you won’t believe.”

And one day when Larry was leaving the eye doctor’s office, he felt his wheelchair being pushed from behind. He turned around and there was a beautiful young woman.  And she said, “I help you. I help you. In elevator.” A Vietnamese woman. And Larry and his followers had been brutal to the Vietnamese community in Lincoln Nebraska.

Michael kept leaving messages and one day, mid message again, Larry picked up. “I’m rethinking a few things.”

“Good,” said Michael, “Good.” Two days later, there he was on television, on the cable access channel, ranting and raving about…well, using every horrible, racial epithet you can think of. Made Michael so mad that he called and say, “You’re not rethinking anything and I want an explanation.”

“I’m sorry,” said Larry. “I’m sorry. I’ve, I’ve, ah, I’ve talked this way all my life. I can’t help it. I’ll, I’ll apologize.”

That night, at the synagogue, Michael asked the congregation to pray for someone who is sick with the illness of hatred and bigotry. “Pray that he can be healed.”

And across town, Lenore Letcher, an African-American woman who had been on the receiving end of Larry’s hatred, prayed, “Dear God, let him find you in his heart.”  And that night, the skin on Larry Trapp’s fingers burned and itched and stung so badly he had to take his Nazi rings off.

The next night, Michael and I were just sitting down to dinner when the phone rang. “I want out and I don’t know how.” Michael suggested we get together and break bread together. Larry hesitated and then he agreed.  We were rushing around, packing up the food, and I thought to myself, we should take him a gift. And I found a ring of Michael’s that he never wore.

It was a silver friendship ring. All the silver strands wound together. Michael said, “That’s a good choice. It’s always reminded me of all the different kinds of people in the world.” To me, it represented something twisted could become something beautiful. The last thing we did before we left the house was to call a neighbor and say if we’re not back in a reasonable amount of time call the police.

We got to Larry Trapp’s apartment knocked on the door, the door swung slowly open. There he sat. In his wheel chair, bearded. On the door handle on his side, hung an automatic weapon, behind him was a huge Nazi flag. Michael reached forward and touched Larry’s hand. He winced as though a jolt of electricity had gone through him. And then he began to cry. “Here!” he said. “Take these! take these! I don’t want ‘em anymore!”  And he put the Nazi rings in Michael’s.

We were speechless but not for long. I remembered my gift. I got down on my knees and slid the ring on his finger saying, “Here Larry, look, we brought you a ring.” He began to sob and sob, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry, for all the things I have done.”

We hugged him and pretty soon there were three people crying. We left Larry Trapp’s apartment four hours later, with the Nazi rings, the Nazi flag, all his KKK paraphernalia including the hood and the beret. And we left with all his guns.

Over the next few weeks, Larry Trapp’s transformation was so complete that the KKK began harassing him. He began to write personal letters of apology to many of the people that he had threatened. He joined the NAACP. He began to go to schools to talk to school children about tolerance. And he and my husband, Michael, were interviewed by Time magazine.

On the very last day of the year, Larry learned from his doctors that he had less than a year to live. We asked him if he wouldn’t like to move in with us. He agreed. Now this was not easy. We had three teenage children, a dog, a cat. I gave up my job to stay home and take care of Larry. But we all chipped in and, and made it work. As Larry grew weaker, he would listen to books on tape. He listened to books about Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Malcolm X, and he began to read and study Judaism.

And one day he surprised Michael and me when he announced that he wanted to convert to Judaism. We said we thought it was wonderful that he wanted to embrace a faith tradition at this time of his life. But if he wanted to embrace a faith tradition closer to his own roots we would understand that. “No. Judaism.” So in June of 1992, in a beautiful ceremony, Larry Trapp converted to Judaism in the very synagogue that a year earlier he had planned to blow up.

In September of 1992, Larry Trapp died in our home. Michael and I were with him, each holding a hand.  Before he got too weak, Larry was asked to speak at a celebration for Martin Luther King Jr. This is what he had to say, “I wasted the first 40 years of my life bringing harm to other people. But I believe that God sent Cantor Weisser to me to show me that I could receive love and I could also give love. I’ve learned now that we’re all the same. White, black, brown, there’s no difference. We’re all one race.”  Larry Trapp, the former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan said there is only one race.