We look at the largely forgotten 1937 Memorial Day Massacre, when police in Chicago shot at and gassed a peaceful gathering of striking steelworkers and their supporters, killing 10 people, most of them shot in the back. It was a time like today, when unions were growing stronger. The workers were on strike against Republic Steel, and the police attacked them with weapons supplied by the company. The tragic story is told in a new PBS documentary. “The mass media, right up to The New York Times, was supporting the police story that they had no choice but to open fire on this mob,” says Greg Mitchell, who directed the new PBS documentary, Memorial Day Massacre: Workers Die, Film Buried, and edited a companion book that is the first oral history on the tragedy. The film can be viewed at PBS.org and was produced by Lyn Goldfarb.
AMY GOODMAN: As Memorial Day weekend begins here in the United States, we end today’s show looking back at the largely forgotten 1937 Memorial Day Massacre, when police in Chicago shot at and gassed a peaceful gathering of striking steelworkers and their supporters, killing 10 people, most of them shot in the back. It was a time like today, when unions were growing stronger. The workers were on strike against Republic Steel. The police attacked them with weapons supplied by the company.
The tragic story is told in a new PBS documentary, Memorial Day Massacre: Workers Die, Film Buried. It based on book with oral histories of eyewitnesses of the attack. The film begins with the great radio broadcaster Studs Terkel.
STUDS TERKEL: This is 1937, and the labor battles are going on. The CIO is being organized. And the steelworkers and the packing, they’re all being organized. And the Big Steel, the big steel companies, finally agreed. They recognized the union. But there’s one company in Chicago, Republic Steel, Tom Girdler: “I will not recognize the union.”
And so there was a strike. Memorial Day 1937. And there was a picnic. Strikers and their wives and kids are on the grounds of Republic Steel in South Chicago. Someone threw a stone, and cops were there at the behest of Girdler. And they shot down 10 people, killed them, in the back.
JOSH CHARLES: In the days that followed, newspapers from coast to coast portrayed the incident as a riot provoked by a dangerous mob, which left police no choice but to open fire, with 10 dead within days. However, the key piece of evidence, the only film of the tragedy, remained buried. Paramount News created, then suppressed, a newsreel airing the footage. When the hidden footage was finally screened, the shocking images drew national attention, with vital lessons for today.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the opening to the new documentary, Memorial Day Massacre: Workers Die, Film Buried. This is another clip, when an eyewitness describes how the police attack unfolded. We hear from reporter Harold Rossman and Mollie West, who was a teenager when she attended the Memorial Day gathering in support of the striking workers.
MOLLIE WEST: We just walked. And people were talking and holding hands, and the children were being carried by their fathers on their shoulders. And everybody was laughing, and it was a joyous thing. And as we came closer to the mill, the walking slowed a bit. It seemed like the entire police force of the city of Chicago was out there. But that didn’t deter. We were still going to go over to the mill and just conduct a peaceful mass picket line.
HAROLD ROSSMAN: I could see a few objects through the air. I could see some things being thrown. Not much. It wasn’t a lot of stuff, maybe a couple of rocks. There was a dry, crackling kind of a noise. It took me a moment to figure out what it was, and I realized it was gunfire. And by that time, the people were falling. And they were turning and trying to run, and the gunfire continued. It was clear that a whole number of these people had been shot in the back. They were trying to flee, and they were still being fired at.
MOLLIE WEST: And then a whole number of people were piled up on top of me, and I could barely breathe. Also, there was tear gas. People finally began to get off, get on their feet. And when I finally stood up, and I — total bewilderment. I looked around, and I saw a battlefield.
AMY GOODMAN: The new PBS documentary, Memorial Day Massacre: Workers Die, Film Buried, which just aired on PBS, is now online. It’s the latest project from longtime author and journalist Greg Mitchell, who’s written 12 books and made many films about U.S. politics and history.
Greg, welcome back to Democracy Now! This is a devastating documentary about a story very few people today know, what happened 86 years ago in Chicago. Take it from where we have just heard these eyewitness descriptions. How did this happen?
GREG MITCHELL: OK. Well, I’m happy to be here.
Yes, the police, in fact, shot 40 people, the vast majority in the back or in the side. Ten would die, within days. And then, they — as the film shows, they waded through the crowd, beating people over the head, sometimes with ax handles provided by Republic Steel. And so, there were another 50 people who were injured enough to be hospitalized. And then, again, as the film shows, the injured, instead of getting any medical treatment, were actually arrested and shoved into paddy wagons and taken to jail or taken to distant hospitals.
And this is all on the Paramount News footage, which was suppressed. So, we know the step-by-step things that happened. And you can watch —
AMY GOODMAN: Greg, your film is so good —
GREG MITCHELL: — almost all the Paramount footage.
AMY GOODMAN: Greg, your film is so good, I want to go back to another clip from Memorial Day Massacre.
JOSH CHARLES: A disturbing new account of the death of one man emerged. A photo of Earl Handley being carried by police, seemingly for medical attention, had appeared in newspapers earlier. Now the full story came out.
Handley, a 37-year-old carpenter, had been shot in the thigh, so a worker tied a tourniquet on his leg to stop the bleeding. The Paramount footage showed him being hauled to a worker’s car for a quick trip to the hospital. After the camera stopped rolling, however, police yanked him out of the car and carried him to their paddy wagon, as his tourniquet slipped off, and he bled to death.
A doctor who treated some of the wounded presented autopsy reports proving that nearly all of the dead had been shot in the back or in the side.
AMY GOODMAN: And this is another clip from Memorial Day Massacre about how progressive Senator Robert La Follette subpoenaed the suppressed footage of the attack. This was the first time film was shown as evidence in a Senate hearing.
JOSH CHARLES: Senator La Follette announced that the footage would be screened at both regular speed and slow motion. Pointedly, he asked the top Chicago police officials to take a seat to view the film. This was reportedly the first time film footage had ever been introduced as evidence in Congress.
The reaction in the hearing room: gasps, some tears, but stony silence from the top police officials. The slow motion revealed a murderous new detail. Much of the press coverage the next day now flipped to blaming the police, although many news outlets now claimed that the camera could indeed lie.
NEWSREEL: What happened at South Chicago, Memorial Day, 1937.
JOSH CHARLES: Also the following day, Paramount, after burying the first two newsreels, at last released a film based on its footage.
NEWSREEL: The following pictures, made before and during the trouble, are shown exactly as they came from the camera, without editing — as presented before the United States Senate committee in Washington.
JOSH CHARLES: The newsreel claimed that the footage was not edited, but this was false. Actually, it omitted this crucial footage: the deadly first 15 seconds. So Paramount was still withholding evidence from the public.
AMY GOODMAN: Another excerpt of Memorial Day Massacre: Workers Die, Film Buried, the director, Greg Mitchell, with us. I mean, this story of what the public understood happened, with 10 people killed, talk about the role of the media, and the police working with it, whether the camera was shut off, as we saw in that first clip, or Paramount suppressing this, Greg.
GREG MITCHELL: Yes. The importance of it was, to me, the mass media, right up to The New York Times, was supporting the police story, that they had no choice but to open fire on this mob. And Paramount had the footage, had the evidence. They created a newsreel, and then they decided not to release it. They created a second newsreel and didn’t release that. And it took the being subpoenaed by the La Follette hearing, and the screening on Capitol Hill then forced Paramount to release a third newsreel. And even then, city officials in Chicago, in St. Louis, in Massachusetts banned its showing. So, even in its final form, it was not released in full.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Greg, in this last minute, why is Paramount so significant? People might not understand that today. And what is the most important lesson to take of what took place?
GREG MITCHELL: Well, you know, as you know, the movies were incredibly popular then. This was before television, so most people got their — certainly their visual news from these newsreels, which were shown in every movie theater at every movie showing.
I think the lesson, among other things, is the importance of visual evidence when there’s police shootings and police brutality, as we see today. That’s why there’s such a focus on releasing bodycams and dashboard cams.
Of course, another lesson is, with the great labor activity today, that they stand on the shoulders of the people from the past who sacrificed so much. And that’s why I’m happy people can watch this film right now on PBS.org, everywhere in the country. And, of course, the book has the oral histories of all eyewitnesses and many of the activists who were wounded.
AMY GOODMAN: Greg Mitchell, director of Memorial Day Massacre: Workers Die, Film Buried.
And that does it for today’s show. Thanks to Tia Potenza Smallwood and Susan Hughes here in Cambridge. Also thanks to Denis Moynihan and Hany Massoud. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.