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Conversation with Studs Terkel About May Day as well as Music Samplings About Labor from Around the World

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Amy is joined by Studs Terkel to discuss the history and significance of May Day. Terkel honors May Day every year, and shares his feelings on the importance of May Day. He tells the story of the Chicago Haymarket riot for the eight-hour day, which marked the first May Day. May Day commemorates the movement for the eight-hour workday. Terkel shares some history of labor organizations in the United States and speaks about the future of the movement. Terkel speaks about the shifts in the left-right spectrum in American politics and criticizes the way the word “liberal” has become a dirty word. Terkel also discusses his own life and the way he became involved with labor politics, as well as his experiences with Mahalia Jackson. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today is May Day. The movement for the eight-hour day for American workers is one of the beacon lights in the history of the American labor movement. Starting during the Civil War, the high point of the fight was reached in 1886 on this day, when more than 300,000 workers demonstrated in more than a dozen cities. As a result of the demonstration in Chicago, the famous Haymarket Square frame-up ensued. In 1887, four leaders of the eight-hour day movement in Chicago, the Haymarket martyrs, were executed. The miners were among the first to win the eight-hour day. Their victory was achieved during the famous strike of 1897, which was fought specifically for that reason.

PETE SEEGER: [singing “Eight-Hour Day”]
We’re brave and gallant miner boys,
who work in underground
For courage and good nature,
no finer can be found
We work both late and early,
and get but little pay
To support our wives and children,
in free Americay

If Satan took the blacklegs,
I’m sure t’would bid no sin
What peace and happiness t’would be,
for us poor workin’ men
Eight hours we’d have for workin’,
eight hours we’d have for play
Eight hours we’d have for sleeping, in free Americay.

AMY GOODMAN: And that was Pete Seeger. In Mexico, it’s called the Day of the Chicago Martyrs. And most of the world, from China to India, to Europe and Africa, takes the day off. But in the United States, where the modern history of May Day began a little over a hundred years ago in Chicago, Illinois, Congress has ruled that today is Law Day. But still, workplaces like Pacifica honor this day as a national holiday.

To help us navigate the history of May Day, we’re pleased to be joined today by Chicago writer and storyteller, Studs Terkel. And we want to start, Studs, by—isn’t it true that every year you have a special on May Day?

STUDS TERKEL: I do a May Day special. It’s in two dimensions. There’s the May Day of folklore: May 1st, spring festivals, going door to door, maypole dancing, the beginning of a new life, May Day, the May queen and May king, and all sorts of songs that are good and delightful. The other May Day, of course, the one you and I are thinking about, is the May Day that was celebrated by trade unions, labor unions, throughout the world, let alone the country. People took part, primarily people of the left, generally speaking; there were socialists and communists and whatever others there were who were challenging the establishment. And that was May Day. And, of course, it has very little meaning today as it once did, very little, oh, appearance today as it once did. Ironically enough—or perhaps not ironic—that in Germany today, May Day is being celebrated by German trade unionists, with marches, with parades, I imagine with songs, as well. It’s hard to separate songs, labor songs, from May Day.

My memory of—well, you know, it began in Chicago, really, unless I’m way off, with the Haymarket affair back in 1886, it was, 1886 when German anarchists, among others, were leading the strike against Harvester in Chicago. And the campaign was for the eight-hour day. It was the first fight for the eight-hour day. And I guess people who have a cursory sense of history know what happened. There was a bomb thrown during one of the speeches, long after the crowd had left, long after the speakers had gone. No one knows who did it. A cop was killed, a couple of others. A trial was held—it was a mockery, of course. Four of the Haymarket speakers, or leaders for the anarchists, were hanged. Three—four others were imprisoned. One killed himself. The other three were finally, years later, pardoned by a remarkable governor, perhaps the greatest any state ever had, John Peter Altgeld, who came from the Failed '48ers, the German liberals of 1848. He's a descendant of them. Altgeld was a remarkable governor, who looked over the records, said, “If there ever were a frame-up, this is it. Didn’t have a ghost of a chance,” and he pardoned them. That ruined his political career, but nonetheless, that’s how May Day began, celebrating the eight-hour day here in Chicago.

And today, well, who knows what May Day is or if it’s celebrated, aside from what I know about Germany? There used to be parades, of course, in all large cities—well, everywhere in the world, I think. They have banners flying, “Solidarity Forever” type songs, and “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “Hold the Fort,” and you name it. There were—in Italy, I suppose, there were some of the partisan songs, and in France, too. And labor took part, and other groups, several liberties groups, all took part. It was a day. It was sort of an alternative movement, or the other aspect of Labor Day. It was Labor Day, too, but called May Day.

[music: “The Internationale”]

AMY GOODMAN: This, of course, “The Internationale.”

WOODY GUTHRIE: [singing “Waiting at the Gate”]
Tell the miners’ kids and wives,
There’s a blast in the number five.
And the families I see standing at the gate.
The inspector years ago said number five’s a deadly hole,
And the men most likely won’t come out alive.

Waiting at the gate, we are waiting at the gate.

AMY GOODMAN: Woody Guthrie singing “Waiting at the Gate,” about miners. And now a South African song on miners.

SOUTH AFRICAN SONG: They dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig
the gold and the diamonds out of the earth
to make the white world the richest world
the white world the first world
and the African world, oh, the third world.

So, when they dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig
the gold and the diamonds out of the earth

AMY GOODMAN: And this liberation song from Haiti.

[music: Haitian liberation song]

STUDS TERKEL: It was a day. It was sort of an alternative movement, or the other aspect of Labor Day. It was Labor Day, too, but called May Day, but with more implications than Labor Day. And then things happened, didn’t they? And that’s the time we’re in right now.

AMY GOODMAN: The four anarchists that were hanged: August Spies, an upholsterer; Adolph Fischer; George Engel; and Albert Parsons, a printer. You came to know Albert Parsons’ wife, Lucy Parsons, didn’t you?

STUDS TERKEL: Lucy Parsons survived. Lucy was partly black, or, today you say, she had the lethal drop, makes her black. And so, she lived, survived, one way or another. And she used to speak at Bughouse Square. Bughouse Square was much like Union Square, New York, or Hyde Park in London. And I’d go there as a kid, because my folks, my mother primarily, ran this hotel near Bughouse Square, and so I’d go there often. And sure enough, I heard Lucy Parsons speak a couple of times. I’ll never forget. It was Lucy Parsons. An old, old woman was speaking, tattered clothes, sort of genteelly dressed, poorly dressed, but genteel. And she spoke, but she was fiery when she spoke. And they passed the hat. And someone passed her flowered hat around. I remember a guy dropping a bucket in. “Oh, my god, this guy!” This guy’s an old, battered Wobbly. I knew him; he lived at the hotel. He didn’t have much, though he dropped a buck in. He said, “I’m doing this for Lucy Parsons.” So, that’s my—that’s as close as I’ve come to the Haymarket people, but it was quite moving. I remember that. That was in the '30s, as far—as recent as the—as recent as the ’30s, but it's long after Haymarket. And these are memories.

I remember those parades, though, on State Street in Chicago, Michigan Boulevard. And there they were, especially following the New Deal. During the New Deal and the Wagner Act and the organization of the industrial unions, CIO—and there were the steelworkers, and there were the packing workers. And it almost sounds like an old Wobbly—it sounds like an old song of The Weavers or something. I see this. It was very moving, of course. And what is it now?

There was a guy up in Detroit, a labor lawyer named Ernie Goodman, who died recently. He was in all the battles of UAW and battles against McCarthy and everything. And Ernie Goodman, before he—he died recently at the age of—touching 90, I think. But about five years ago, I saw him. He has his law firm way, way up in the Cadillac building and mostly handled pro bono cases and civil liberties. He never changed. He said, “Look down below.” We went down below, and there’s a famous stool. There was a stool, a bench—not a stool, steps. People stood on it to make speeches. And they were clubbed by the cops, and they had—when came back again, others came up and made speeches. Today, they can make all the speeches they want, and nobody will stop them, but the only trouble is, nobody is there. And there was the stool. The city is deserted, nobody around. There’s the stool that was the center of all the battles. There ain’t no more battle of that sort. That’s, of course, free [inaudible] — anybody can get in to speak, be considered a kook, perhaps, but no one would hurt him. But there’s no one to hear him. May Day, reflections.

AMY GOODMAN: In 1886, the American Federation of Labor, I think was about five years old. Here we are more than a century later. Do you think there’s any hope of a rebirth of, a resurgence of, standing for the principles that people like those that marched in Chicago a hundred years ago, more than 40,000 of them, marched for?

STUDS TERKEL: Oh, that’s a good one, isn’t it? There’s always hope. Jessie de la Cruz is a Democracy Now! — retired, but she, one of César Chávez’s people, became an organizer, and it was very unusual, because she was a woman, and it was unusual then. And she became—and Jessie says, “We have a saying in Spanish,” something muerta última, última muerta — the point is esperanza, hope, dies last. Esperanza [muere] última, or something. Hope dies last. You’ve got to have that.

Well, something is popping. Something good, of course, happened with the Teamsters union, something remarkable, Carey beating the hoods, the Mafia, the stooges and all the others. But he has a tough battle again, because we have the press again, don’t we? Suddenly, you know, he won this election. It was a tight one. We have Jimmy Hoffa painted as an up-and-coming strapper, and hardly anything about Carey. This is our press again. But nonetheless, Carey won, and that’s a tremendous victory, I think—with the help of, by the way, TDU, Teamsters for a Democratic Union. And who are they? I spoke at one of their conventions. It’s middle America, guys and women, dispatchers, truck drivers, not at all fringe group, not at all, quote-unquote, kook, but middle America. And are they hip. Are they up on things. And of course they voted for Carey.

But we have a new constituency now, don’t we? Among—as more and more industrial unions are going by the wayside, not because of technology alone, but because of the movement of the big boys elsewhere, where they can get people working for a buck or two elsewhere. We have service unions. We have public employee unions. We have women, more. We have Asiatic women and Hispanic women, and guys and blacks. So there’s a new constituency forthcoming. So therein lies some hope. I assume that Sweeney, the head of the AFL-CIO, is serious about this grassroots movement of hiring more and more people to organize, organizers. It has to be that, by the way, has to be grassroots, you know.

If I could just editorialize for a moment—this is free association, anyway. The thing about the right, I’m not denying their dough—they have tremendous money, of course. But what they did have is also shoe leather. What they had were phone calls. What they had was knocking on doors. What they had was old—in addition to the new fashion, big, big buck and the computer, they also had knocking on doors. And that was missing, has been. So, time to go back to that again. I think they can’t get away from shoe leather.

AMY GOODMAN: Studs, we have to break for a minute, but when we come back, I want to talk to you about, well, a bunch of things, about what you’re doing now and also about your relationship with Mahalia Jackson during the McCarthy era, when a lot of redbaiting was going on and you were a major target, as was she. You’re listening to Democracy Now! Studs Terkel is our guest on this May Day. And after we finish with Studs, we’ll be joined by Father Michael Lapsley, priest and partisan, a priest, an Anglican priest, known in this country as an Episcopalian priest, who was a member of the African National Congress, and we’ll hear his story. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Studs Terkel in Chicago, Studs Terkel known for chronicling really our century. “Liberal” now is a dirty word. “Socialist” is almost forbidden, for someone to admit that they’re a socialist and try to be involved in mainstream politics of our day. What happened to the idea of socialism in this country?

STUDS TERKEL: Well, first, what happened to language? That’s the thing, see, how the word “liberal” is now used, see? Isn’t it funny? Liberals were scared. I mean, scared liberals were scared of being called “left.” Now they’re called the left of left, liberals, to be a liberal. Now, you see, when poor Dukakis—poor Dukakis—when this shallow guy was debating the other shallow guy, Bush, Bush called him a liberal, called him a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Card-carrying member” implied communist, a card-carrying C. Card-carrying member of the ACLU. And the guy denies this. He says, “I’m not really. Oh, I’m not really a liberal.” But of course I’m a liberal. Aren’t you?

All he has to do—I’m talking about the perversion of the American language. All he has to do is take out a dictionary, any dictionary—Webster’s, Oxford, unabridged, nickel dictionary. There are two definitions of the word “liberal.” One is liberal, generous of heart, liberal, generous of heart. With respect to those up against it, you mean we’re mean-spirited. That’s what you mean? We’re illiberal; we are mean-spirited, we are stony-hearted. But the second definition, more so, “liberal,” tolerant of the opinions of others. You mean you’re illiberal, you’re anti—you want to be totalitarian? Is that it? That’s all he had to do, Dukakis. But you don’t think in those terms. It’s a trigger word. It’s become the word “communist” for us today. This is how far we’ve gone.

So, the center, what is the center? If you lean—I can’t demonstrate this on the radio. I could demonstrate it physically if we’re on TV. A guy who walks straight ahead is left, because center is leaning a little to the right, you see? We have this—you watch the TV think tank babies on. You name them all—Enterprise Institute to Heritage, down the line, sponsored by Olin or sponsored by—name a—Bradley’s. There they are, the little boys with glasses and those not, and they are these—they are the moderates. They’re speaking for a right-wing group, but they’re moderates. Now, if you lean a little to the left this way, you’re a terrorist, pretty much. See, we’ve screwed up not only our mentality, but our language, as well. And so, instead of saying, “Of course I’m a liberal. You mean you’re not?” we go the other way. And so, that’s part of it, too. Something has happened to our thought processes, as well as to our spines.

AMY GOODMAN: Studs Terkel, you’ve spent your life talking to other people and chronicling their thoughts. But I wanted to ask you about you and how you came to be so interested in working people and really recording the plight of everyday people who spend their lives working or trying to work.

STUDS TERKEL: Oh, I don’t know. I think it was an—I call my life an accretion of accidents. I went to the University of Chicago Law School. I don’t know why. I dreamed of Clarence Darrow, you know; I woke up to Antonin Scalia, you know. Well, he’s a Chicago alumnus, he is. So is Bork. So is Ramsey Clark, which is a horse of another garage, you see. And so, I was not made out to be a lawyer. I was there—you know, contracts, real property and—it was driving me crazy. So, the Depression came along. My folks had this hotel. We didn’t lose the hotel, but vacancies more and more. And in the lobby of the hotel were all these guys. That hotel was my college; the lobby was. I romanticize it, but it’s true. There was a Wobbly. There was a fink. There was a scissor-bill. “Scissor-bill” is an old IWW word for someone who’s got—a capitalist with a hole in his pockets. It’s called a scissor-bill, one who loves his boss. “I love my boss; boss loves me. That’s why I’m so hungry.” You know the song, “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum!” And so we had all these guys debating and hollering and arguing. And I mentioned Bughouse Square. And there was this place called Bughouse Square. And so, somehow I just gravitated to it, and there it was. And one thing and another, I’m in trouble. In other words, I was a troublemaker, which I’m proud to say I was, and I hope—I hope, still am. And so, that’s more or less how it happened. And here I am, for better or for worse.

AMY GOODMAN: Studs, what are you working on today?


AMY GOODMAN: Are you working on a book?

STUDS TERKEL: Oh, well, I just finished—this book is an anthology, a quasi-anthology. It’s called My American Century, this century. And it’s all my books—that is, the introductions to all my books, plus five or six portraits from each one, and involves the Depression, of course, and World War II and the Cold War and age and race and work. And so, that’s it. And André Schiffrin is my publisher, New Press. He’s the one guy I’ve had all the time. And so, that’s coming out in, when, August.

AMY GOODMAN: How old are you now?

STUDS TERKEL: Well, I’m going to be 85 May. That’s my month, May 16th. I’m—I was born in 1912. That’s when the Titanic went down, right? And so, the Titanic went down, I came up. But then, who said life was fair? So, there you have it.

AMY GOODMAN: I remember when you came to New York to our studios here. You talked about Mahalia Jackson.

STUDS TERKEL: Oh, Mahalia, of course. I worked with her very closely. One little story about Mahalia, and we probably can call it a day, since it’s May Day. And I was under attack way back—you know, McCarthy days and all that—and so I was kicked off the air a couple of times. And then I worked with Mahalia, because I was the disc jockey—they called me, the black people in Chicago, the white disc jockey who made Mahalia known to the white—to white America. That’s the way they put it. Of course, the African Americans all knew Mahalia long before I ever heard of her. I heard this record one day, “Move On Up a Little Higher,” and I had a disc jockey show and played her a lot. So, Mahalia and I become friends, and so I’m now her—the host of a radio show on CBS Radio, Mahalia, Friday nights. I warm up the audience, and I—whatever script there is, little script, I’d write that and be the host of it, Mahalia’s program.

And one day a guy comes in from New York. Meantime, I had been knocked about a bit. A guy comes in from New York, from CBS, representing the big boy, one of his—and he—we’re rehearsing. I’m on stage. Mahalia is talking to the choral group, and I’m going over the script again with the conductor. And this guy says to me, “Oh, Mr. Terkel,” he says, “I’m from New York.” He names the big shot of CBS, says, “You have to sign this paper.” I said, “What’s that paper?” He says, “It’s a loyalty oath.” I said, “A loyalty oath? Well, I’m not going to sign. Does anybody else sign it?” “No, no, just you, because of the difficulties you’ve been in.” I said, “Well, of course I’m not going to sign it,” just as Mahalia’s walking by. I forgot she was eating something. She’s walking by. “Hey, baby. Is that what I think it is?” “Well, you’re probably right, Mahalia. What do you think it is?” “He wants you to sign something, but you’re not, so and so.” I said, “Yeah, Mahalia.” She says, “Uh-huh. You want to do it?” I said, “No.” She says, “Well, OK. Let’s rehearse.” The guy says, “But, Miss Jackson, I’ve come from so-and-so” — “I said, ’Let’s rehearse.’” And so, “But, Miss Jackson, I’ve got to have Mr. Terkel’s signature.” She says, “You don’t get to have anything. If he doesn’t do the program, you better find yourself another singer.”

And you know what? That was the end of it, the last we heard. The show went on for about a year or so after. That’s the last we heard. What does that tell me? The cowardice, the cravenness, the cringiness of the networks, and to all the big boys, Paley and the rest of them, of the agencies and of the sponsors, was obscene. If they stood up, nothing would have happened, is what we’re talking about. Mahalia had more character than all these guys put together. That’s the moral of that story.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Studs Terkel, I want to thank you very much for spending this time with us.

STUDS TERKEL: OK. Listen, Happy May Day!

AMY GOODMAN: You, too.

[Mahalia Jackson “Keep Your Hand on the Plow”]

AMY GOODMAN: Mahalia Jackson singing “Keep Your Hand on the Plow.” We’ve been talking to Studs Terkel, the great storyteller, radio host, author, written and edited numerous books, including American Dreams: Lost and Found, Working and Chicago. And it’s been a privilege to speak to him on this May Day.

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