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May Day: A complicated path from massacre to workers to loyalty

May 01, 2012|By Michael Muskal
  • Police officers in plain clothes form a cordon as demonstrators, not in the photo, march past during a May Day protest in Barcelona, Spain. Tens of thousands of workers marked May Day in European cities Tuesday with a mix of anger and gloom over austerity measures imposed by leaders trying to contain the Eurozone's debt crisis.
Police officers in plain clothes form a cordon as demonstrators, not in… (Emilio Morenatti / Associated…)

Politics makes strange bedfellows and even stranger ironies. Take May Day, a holiday that was as much born in the U.S.A. as Bruce Springsteen but was spurned by Americans in the 20th century because the elites feared it was too radical.

If you think May Day is a spring festival for dancing around some pole while throwing flowers and hoping to see a fantastic creature like a unicorn, you're in the wrong century and probably the wrong dimension.

Pagan Europe celebrated May Day as a summer holiday, but Christianity changed that -- turning to a real calendar that caused, in a way, a time shift. May Day then became a spring celebration of planting and of those who labored on the soil. Over the centuries, it became stylized into a ribbon-loving frolic that attracts some even today. Those were the cultural and social roots of May Day.

But it was the politics of the 19th century that shaped the modern observation of May Day, an experience as real as the guitar-led protest march by the Occupy Wall Street movement in Manhattan or the demonstrations promised in U.S. cities to fight unemployment or to encourage  immigration reform.

The modern May Day holiday, or International Workers Day, was born out of the May 4, 1886, massacre in Haymarket Square in Chicago. Protesters, as part of a general strike for the eight-hour workday, had gathered there, and a bomb was tossed at police. They responded by shooting into the crowd, killing dozens, including some officers.

Several years later, the Second International -- a gathering of socialist and labor parties -- made commemoration of the incident one of the groups' causes, with celebrations moving to May 1 by 1894.

Ten years later, Socialists had anointed May 1 as a proletarian holiday when workers and other progressives would demonstrate for their causes. As socialist-themed parties took state power, May Day eventually evolved into a holiday with massive displays of state military power as the rule. In countries such as the former Soviet Union and China, May Day became a nationalist holiday rather than one for the workers.

With socialists embracing May Day, the reaction by the western elites was just a matter of time. By the early 1920s, Americans were celebrating “Americanization Day” to extol the virtues of the United States while at the same time casting cold water on socialists as foreigners who were unfriendly to the values of hard work and freedom that made America unique.

The day morphed by the late 1950s into Loyalty Day, a Congress-authorized holiday. The first official observance was on May 1, 1959, when President Eisenhower issued a proclamation – a tradition that President Obama followed on Tuesday.

“More than two centuries ago, our Founders laid out a charter that assured the rule of law and the rights of man,” Obama noted in his proclamation. “Through times of tranquility and the throes of change, the Constitution has always guided our course toward fulfilling that most noble promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve the chance to pursue their full measure of happiness. America has carried on not only for the skill or vision of history's celebrated figures, but also for the generations who have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents.

"On Loyalty Day, we reflect on that proud heritage and press on in the long journey toward prosperity for all.”


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