In the footsteps of a labor activist

Actress marks Mother Jones' march with mill children

July 22, 2003|By Matt Donnelly | Matt Donnelly,NEWSDAY

Actress Betsey Means has spent the past two weeks getting a real feel for what it was like to be Mother Jones.

Since July 7, she's been traveling across New Jersey dressed as the union activist, stopping at parks to recite Jones' famous fiery speeches. She's honoring the 100th anniversary of the March of the Mill Children, when Jones (with children along for part of the way) walked from Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt's home on Long Island to protest the plight of child laborers. Mary "Mother" Jones had been inspired to do so during a tour of Pennsylvania, when she had seen 10,000 children working in textile mills for long hours for little pay.

So far, Means has been reciting history. But when she arrives at Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay, N.Y., on Monday, she's likely to relive it.

That's because, like Jones a century before, Means has been turned away by the officials at Roosevelt's home.

When Jones finally arrived there, Roosevelt's secretary told her the president was "unavailable." When Means called last November to schedule an event at the national historic site, she, too, was turned away. Officials told Newsday that possible forums for a performance, such as the front porch or museum, were under construction, and they weren't interested in letting Means use the site.

"This is one of those minor footnotes of history," said Charles Markis, spokesman for the Sagamore Hill site.

But in the spirit of Jones, Means used the rejection as an impetus - and an opportunity.

"I kind of liked it," Means said, "because this is the way she was treated 100 years ago."

When Jones, a self-described "hell-raiser" from Cork, Ireland, was in her 50s, she dedicated her life to fighting for mineworkers and, later, child laborers. She organized strikes and protests across the United States in support of the working class and was an activist into her 90s.

Mary Harris Jones' husband and four children had died of yellow fever in 1867 in Memphis, Tenn. Afterward, she moved to Chicago and started a seamstress business, but she lost her store and home in the Chicago Fire of 1871. By 1880 she had become a full-time union organizer. Jones died in 1930 at age 100 - though her age has been in dispute by some historians.

Jones' scholars say her accomplishments amount to more than a "footnote."

"The March of the Mill Children was important in Mother Jones' career because it was the first time she ever received extensive national publicity," said Elliott Gorn, a history professor at Brown University and author of Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America.

These days, "people who help shape popular ideas, like Mother Jones, with her charismatic ability to convert tens of thousands of people to the labor movement, are given much more attention," Gorn said.

Though Jones was turned away from the president's home, within three years the media attention she garnered contributed to Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York's passing the nation's first child labor laws. It wasn't until 1938, however, that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

Means, the Mother Jones impersonator, co-founded a Chicago nonprofit, WomanLore, dedicated to bringing Jones and other female activists the attention they seldom receive. When she learned of the anniversary of the March of the Mill Children, Means said she saw an opportunity to put Jones and her cause back at center stage.

"Her message is so tragically current in today's global economy," said Means, citing the working conditions of many children in such countries as India, Pakistan and Guatemala.

Means so far has given speeches in Philadelphia and a half-dozen New Jersey cities, all sponsored by either the individual municipalities or the New Jersey State AFL-CIO. At a rally in Princeton, Gov. James E. McGreevey addressed the crowd along with Means, and a plaque was dedicated at the spot where Jones spoke in 1903.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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