Subversives in the City: Responses to Political Radicalism in Chicago

Hana Layson with David Krugler

What is the history of political radicalism in Chicago from the 1880s through the 1950s? How did the government and the public respond to radical movements?

Introduction

The city of Chicago provided a crucial battleground for a national struggle over the meaning of political radicalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The term political radicalism refers to individuals and parties who advocate far-reaching political and social reform. During this period, writers usually applied the term radical to activists and parties on what is known as the left side of the political spectrum, such as Communists, socialists, and anarchists. Leftist radicals were also called Reds, after the color of their party flags. There were significant ideological differences between these parties and each party’s positions changed over time. But all of them rejected the concept of private property and promoted the rights of workers against those of the people for whom they worked, wealthy factory and business owners, known as capitalists.

Leftist radicals rejected the concept of private property and promoted the rights of workers.

From the 1880s through the 1960s, Chicagoans engaged in a passionate debate over how government should respond to political radicalism. On one side, were proponents of civil liberties, the freedoms and rights promised to every member of society by the U.S. Constitution. They argued that political radicals and their organizations were protected by the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech. On the other side, were people primarily concerned with security. They wanted to maintain social order and protect the government from violence or radical change. These concerns increased during wartime. Many political radicals, like the workers they claimed to represent, were recent immigrants from northern and eastern Europe. Their opponents often raised alarms about foreign influences in the United States.

Adding to the complexity of these debates was the difficulty in defining who or what constituted a real threat to the United States. A small number of political radicals engaged in deliberately violent or overtly treasonous activities, such as bombings or espionage. But these people were affiliated with larger movements and parties that included many people committed to reforming, not overthrowing, the U.S. government and society. Many radicals sought workplace protections for laborers, African Americans, and women that are now widely accepted. They made important contributions, for example, to movements to prohibit child labor or to enforce an eight-hour workday. The documents that follow represent some of the milestones in Chicago’s history of political radicalism from the Haymarket Affair of 1886 through the Palmer raids of 1920 into the McCarthy era of the 1950s.

Please consider the following questions as you review the documents

  • What were the goals of the political radicals represented here? How did they try to accomplish those goals? Did their actions increase or weaken public support of their ideals?

  • What were the goals of the officials and organizations that sought to police or monitor political radicals? What were their methods? Was their treatment of radicals a form of persecution or not?

  • How do writers throughout these documents define the concepts of freedom, justice, and security? In what ways do these ideals conflict with each other?

  • Who or what constitutes a threat to the community, the city, or the nation? On what grounds does a person, idea, or group constitute a threat? How should such threats be handled?

  • How do definitions of and responses to political radicalism evolve from the 1880s through the 1950s?

Anarchism and the Haymarket Affair

Nineteenth-century employers often expected workers to spend 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week on the job. In the 1880s, anarchists, unionists, socialists, and reformers organized a national effort to demand an eight-hour workday. During the first week of May 1886, 35,000 Chicago workers walked off of their jobs in massive strikes to protest their lengthy work weeks. Some of these strikes involved violent skirmishes with the police. At least two strikers were killed on May 3. In response, the next evening, roughly 1,500 people gathered at the West Randolph Street Haymarket, a market on the edge of the city where people bought hay for their horses. The May 4 rally featured fiery speeches from the city’s leading anarchists and labor leaders, but was a peaceful gathering. As the rally drew to a close, hundreds of policemen moved in to disperse the crowd. Someone threw a bomb at the police brigade, killing one officer instantly. The police responded with a barrage of bullets. An unknown number of demonstrators were killed or wounded. Sixty police officers were injured and eight eventually died. Politicians and the press blamed anarchists for the violence. Although there was no evidence linking specific people to the bomb, eight men were convicted of murder on the basis of their political writings and speeches. Four men were executed; one committed suicide. The trial was later considered grossly unjust and, in 1893, the Illinois governor granted absolute pardon to the three, remaining, imprisoned defendants. The anarchist movement, however, never recovered from the trial. The documents that follow include passages and images from a history of the Haymarket Affair written by Captain Michael Schaak. Schaak commanded a Chicago Avenue police station in 1886 and played a large role in the arrests and prosecutions of anarchists following the Haymarket violence. Schaak included in his book the published principles and constitutions of several radical parties, such as the Workingmen’s Party of the United States, excerpted below. He also reproduced Judge Joseph E. Gary’s instructions to the jury, or guidelines on reaching a verdict.

Questions to Consider

  1. Examine the broadside advertising the Haymarket rally. What can you learn about the rally’s audience and purpose from this broadside?
  2. What are the principles and goals of the Workingmen’s Party, as outlined in this document? Which, if any, of their goals do you consider reasonable? Which, if any, do you consider unreasonable?
  3. How does the judge instruct the jury to consider the constitutional right to freedom of speech? What are the limitations on this right, according to the judge?
  4. What activities do political radicals appear to engage in, according to the Picnic of the “Reds” illustrations? How do these illustrations represent the ethnicity of political radicals?
  5. Does Schaak’s position as police chief appear to affect his presentation of the issues and events?

“Attention Workingmen! Great Mass Meeting Tonight at 7:30 O'clock at the Haymarket”

May 4, 1886.

Image of Attention Workingmen! Great Mass Meeting Tonight at 7:30 O'clock at the Haymarket

A broadside advertising the May 4, 1886, rally at the Chicago Haymarket that would become the scene of violent clashes between police and demonstrators.

Metadata Details
Item Type Document
Title Attention Workingmen! Great Mass Meeting Tonight at 7:30 O'clock at the Haymarket
Short Title Attention Workingmen! 1886
Publication Date May 4, 1886
Language English and German
Call Number VAULT Ruggles 12
Location Special Collections 4th floor

Anarchy and Anarchists. A History of the Red Terror and the Social Revolution in America and Europe

Michael J. Schaack. 1889.

Image of Anarchy and Anarchists. A History of the Red Terror and the Social Revolution in America and Europe

Two selections from a history of radical political movements in the U.S., written by Police Commander Michael J. Schaack. Includes documents from the Workingmen’s Party of the United States and instructions to the jury in the Haymarket trial.

Image of Anarchy and Anarchists. A History of the Red Terror and the Social Revolution in America and Europe
Image of Anarchy and Anarchists. A History of the Red Terror and the Social Revolution in America and Europe
Image of Anarchy and Anarchists. A History of the Red Terror and the Social Revolution in America and Europe
Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Anarchy and Anarchists. A History of the Red Terror and the Social Revolution in America and Europe
Short Title A History of the Red Terror, 1889
Place of Publication Chicago
Publisher F.J. Schulte & Co.
Creator Michael J. Schaack
Publication Date 1889
Number of Pages Title page, frontispiece, pp. 50–52, and 578
Call Number J 29 .795
Location General Collections 2nd floor

“A Picnic of the Reds at Sheffield”

From Anarchy and Anarchists. A History of the Red Terror and the Social Revolution in America and Europe, by Michael J. Schaack. 1889.

Image of A Picnic of the Reds at Sheffield

An illustration of political radicals’ supposed leisure activities. From Police Captain Michael Schaak’s history of the 1886 Haymarket events.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title A Picnic of the Reds at Sheffield
Publication Title Anarchy and Anarchists. A History of the Red Terror and the Social Revolution in America and Europe
Short Title A Picnic of the Reds at Sheffield, 1889
Book Title Anarchy and Anarchists. A History of the Red Terror and the Social Revolution in America and Europe
Place of Publication Chicago
Publisher F.J. Schulte & Co.
Publication Creator Michael J. Schaack
Publication Date 1889
Pages p. 453
Call Number J 29 .795
Location General Collections 2nd floor

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Workers and Socialists during World War I

The International Workers of the World (IWW) is a radical labor organization that formed in Chicago in 1905 and still exists today. The IWW, whose members are known as Wobblies, encouraged workers across the country and around the world to unite to take control of economic resources such as factories and land. Like the anarchists involved in the Haymarket Affair, the Wobblies believed that economic resources should not be owned by individuals or private companies, but should belong to everyone. The organization urged direct action, such as strikes, rather than participation in the political process through elections. It was one of the first labor organizations to welcome women alongside men and to embrace people of all races and ethnicities. The IWW became the target of federal raids as well as public animosity when it opposed the United States’ entry into World War I. The following articles portray a 1915 strike by women garment workers and the 1917 federal raids of the IWW’s Chicago offices. In 1917 the U.S. Congress passed the Espionage Act, a law that made it a crime to interfere with military recruitment or operations or to support U.S. enemies during wartime. The following year, the federal government prosecuted over 100 IWW leaders on the grounds that their antiwar and labor organizing tactics violated the Espionage Act. All were convicted and sentenced to prison.

Questions to Consider

  1. How does the article on the garment workers’ strike portray the women’s working conditions? What do the strikers hope to achieve? What is their relationship to the police and other authorities?
  2. How does the journal portray the federal raids on the IWW offices? How do the editors encourage IWW members to respond to the raids?  

“The Garment Worker's Strike”

From The International Socialist Review, November 1, 1915.

Image of The Garment Worker's Strike

Coverage of a 1915 workers’ strike that included many women. The article appeared in the journal of the International Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies).

Image of The Garment Worker's Strike
Image of The Garment Worker's Strike
Metadata Details
Item Type Magazine Article
Title The Garment Worker's Strike
Publication Title The International Socialist Review
Short Title The Garment Worker's Strike, 1915
Publication Date November 1, 1915
Volume Vol. 25
Pages pp. 260–264
Call Number J 2617 .422
Location General Collections 2nd floor

“Statement from the I.W.W.”

From The International Socialist Review, October 1, 1917.

Image of Statement from the I.W.W.

The journal of the International Workers of the World (IWW) describes federal raids on the party’s headquarters in Chicago.

Image of Statement from the I.W.W.
Image of Statement from the I.W.W.
Metadata Details
Item Type Magazine Article
Title Statement from the I.W.W.
Publication Title The International Socialist Review
Short Title Statement from the I.W.W. 1917
Publication Date October 1, 1917
Volume Vols. 17-18
Pages pp. 205–209
Call Number J 2617 .422
Location General Collections 2nd floor

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The First Red Scare

Anxiety about political radicalism and foreign influences further increased in the years following World War I as American politicians responded to events such as the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and a series of bombings in U.S. cities. The period, known as the first Red Scare (1919-1920), culminated in coordinated raids of the offices and homes of political radicals, trade union militants, and immigrants. The raids were organized by U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and came to be known as the Palmer raids. Critics objected that the raids violated civil liberties, the freedoms protected by the U.S. Constitution. But officials defended their actions on the grounds that the radicals posed a real threat to the security of the U.S. government. Twenty members of the Communist Labor Party were among those arrested in January 1920. They were accused of plotting to overthrow the government. The principle evidence against the men was, simply, their membership in the CLP. The well-known civil liberties attorney Clarence Darrow defended them in court. The following documents include an editorial published by the Chicago Federation of Labor responding to the Palmer raids and an excerpt from Darrow’s courtroom defense of the Communists.

Questions to Consider

  1. Why is the CFL editorial entitled “Terrorism”? Who are the terrorists according to this writer?
  2. How do the Palmer raids and prosecutions violate civil liberties, according to the CFL editorialist and Clarence Darrow?
  3. How does Darrow define freedom? Why does he believe that the government’s prosecution of the Communists poses a greater threat to the United States than the Communists themselves do?

“Terrorism”

Chicago Federation of Labor. From The New Majority, January 10, 1920.

Image of Terrorism

A labor organization responds to the federal government’s actions during the first Red Scare.

Metadata Details
Item Type Magazine Article
Title Terrorism
Publication Title The New Majority
Short Title Terrorism, 1920
Creator Chicago Federation of Labor
Publication Date January 10, 1920
Volume Vol. 3
Issue No. 2
Call Number Case Oversize HD6500 .N5
Location Special Collections 4th floor

Argument of Clarence Darrow in the Case of the Communist Labor Party in the Criminal Court, Chicago.

Clarence Darrow. 1920.

Image of Argument of Clarence Darrow in the Case of the Communist Labor Party in the Criminal Court, Chicago.

The civil liberties attorney Clarence Darrow defends members of the Communist Labor Party against charges of plotting to overthrow the government.

Image of Argument of Clarence Darrow in the Case of the Communist Labor Party in the Criminal Court, Chicago.
Image of Argument of Clarence Darrow in the Case of the Communist Labor Party in the Criminal Court, Chicago.
Metadata Details
Item Type Book
Title Argument of Clarence Darrow in the Case of the Communist Labor Party in the Criminal Court, Chicago.
Short Title Arguments of Clarence Darrow, 1920
Place of Publication Chicago
Publisher C.H. Kerr
Creator Clarence Darrow
Publication Date 1920
Number of Pages Cover and pp. 19–17 and 114–115
Call Number ZZ v. 24 no. 2
Location General Collections 2nd floor

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Union Organizing and Union Busting

Some owners of private companies feared that labor organizers would harm their businesses. They engaged in tactics, such as spying, to prevent workers from forming unions or joining radical political parties. Following World War II, federal and state governments as well as many private companies adopted a “loyalty-security program.” The program required employees to swear, not only that they had never committed treason or espionage, but also that they had never been a member or an associate of the Communist Party. The documents that follow represent an early incarnation of these Cold War loyalty oaths. The Chicago-based Pullman Company was a leading manufacturer and operator of passenger coach railroad cars in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The company consistently opposed unionizing efforts on the part of its workers and urged them, instead, to participate in a company-controlled “employee representation plan.” Nevertheless, in the 1920s, Pullman’s African American porters and maids organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph. The union fought racial discrimination at the company and demanded treatment and wages for its members that were equal to those of white employees. The Pullman Company responded by requiring employees to sign loyalty oaths, such as the one included here, and by recruiting informants to report on union activities. The Pullman Company agreed to recognize the union in late 1937.

Questions to Consider

  1. What do the porters promise by signing this oath? Why do you think a porter would agree to sign it? What might be the costs or benefits to an employee of signing the oath? What do you think the company accomplished by asking porters to sign the oath?
  2. Randolph and the BSCP had no ties to the Communist Party. Why do you think the porters were asked to renounce “Russian socialism” as well as the BSCP?
  3. What does Mrs. M. Butler witness at the labor rally? Why do you think she was willing to serve as an informant?
  4. Why do you think the company went to such lengths to prevent the union from forming? What kind of threat, if any, do you think the workers’ activities posed to the company?

“Loyalty resolution, Nashville, Tennessee”

March 19, 1928.

Image of Loyalty resolution, Nashville, Tennessee

A resolution signed by railroad porters pledging loyalty to their employer, the Pullman Company.

Metadata Details
Item Type Document
Title Loyalty resolution, Nashville, Tennessee
Short Title Pullman loyalty resolution, Nashville, TN, 1928
Publication Date March 19, 1928
Call Number Pullman Company Archives, Box 17, Folder 375
Location Special Collections 4th floor

“Labor Rally at Du Sable High School, May 9, 1937”

1937.

Image of Labor Rally at Du Sable High School, May 9, 1937

Flyer advertising a rally organized by the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and featuring the union’s president, A. Philip Randolph.

Metadata Details
Item Type Document
Title Labor Rally at Du Sable High School, May 9, 1937
Short Title Labor Rally at Du Sable High School, 1937
Publication Date 1937
Call Number Pullman Company Archives, Box 17, Folder 491
Location Special Collections 4th floor

“Report from Mrs. M. Butler to E. M. Graham, May 9, 1937”

M. Butler. May 9, 1937.

Image of Report from Mrs. M. Butler to E. M. Graham, May 9, 1937

An informant’s report to the Pullman Company on a meeting of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

Image of Report from Mrs. M. Butler to E. M. Graham, May 9, 1937
Metadata Details
Item Type Document
Title Report from Mrs. M. Butler to E. M. Graham, May 9, 1937
Short Title Pullman Report from Mrs. M. Butler, 1937
Creator M. Butler
Publication Date May 9, 1937
Call Number Pullman Company Archives, Box 17, Folder 491
Location Special Collections 4th floor

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The Second Red Scare

These two books represent examples of post-World War II anticommunist thought. This period, extending from 1946 into the 1960s, is known as the second Red Scare. We know now that Soviet espionage did occur in the United States, primarily during World War II. However, many prominent Cold War anticommunists, such as Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy, did not limit their investigations to evidence of treason or spying. They singled out people simply for membership in or affiliation with the Communist Party. Americans from a variety of professions and trades were investigated and pressured to provide names of others who would become targets of investigation. The books excerpted here offer ways of detecting Communists in the United States. Karl Baarslag had served as chairman of the Radio Officers Union in the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1931. His frustration in that position prompted him to write this advice manual on how to identify and counteract Communist influences in American labor unions. Anthony Trawick Bouscaren was a Wisconsin political science professor who specialized in United States-Soviet relations. He opened this guidebook with a 1956 quote from J. Edgar Hoover, warning that “the threat of Communist tyranny has not been lessened.” Bouscaren urged readers to “Know the enemy, then attack him.”

Questions to Consider

  1. What methods do Baarslag and Bouscaren suggest for identifying Communists? What beliefs do they associate with Communism?
  2. Do you think these guidelines would have been useful in finding hidden members of the Communist Party? Are these behaviors and speech patterns necessarily indicators of disloyalty to the United States?
  3. The anticommunist rhetoric and tactics used by McCarthy and others have been widely renounced in recent decades as unjust. However, during the second Red Scare, many Americans accepted them. Why do you think that the kind of advice Baarslag and Bouscaren provided seemed compelling to many people at the time?

“I Am Not a Communist, But...”

Karl Baarslag. From Communist Trade Union Trickery Exposed: A Handbook of Communist Tactics and Techniques, 1949.

Image of I Am Not a Communist, But...

Instructions for detecting Communists, written and illustrated by a former labor leader, during the second Red Scare.

Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title I Am Not a Communist, But...
Short Title I Am Not a Communist, But..., 1949
Book Title Communist Trade Union Trickery Exposed: A Handbook of Communist Tactics and Techniques
Place of Publication Chicago
Publisher Argus Publishing Co.
Creator Karl Baarslag
Publication Date 1949
Pages pp. 14–15
Call Number HD6511 .B2 1949
Location General Collections 2nd floor

“The Communist's Approach to Others and Conclusion”

Anthony Trawick Bouscaren. From A Guide to Anti-Communist Action, 1958.

Image of The Communist's Approach to Others and Conclusion

A Wisconsin political science professor offers guidelines for detecting Communists during the second Red Scare.

Image of The Communist's Approach to Others and Conclusion
Image of The Communist's Approach to Others and Conclusion
Metadata Details
Item Type Book Section
Title The Communist's Approach to Others and Conclusion
Short Title The Communist's Approach to Others, 1958
Book Title A Guide to Anti-Communist Action
Place of Publication Chicago
Publisher H. Regnery Co.
Creator Anthony Trawick Bouscaren
Publication Date 1958
Pages pp. 178–182
Call Number J 28 .111
Location General Collections 2nd floor

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Digital collection produced in conjunction with David Krugler’s History Channel seminar, “Spies, Subversives, and Government Surveillance during the Cold War,” on June 24, 2011.

This collection was last updated