May Day: A reflection on the Haymarket Riots

by Russell Allen May 1, 2023

Dignity in life. Dignity in Death. Those are guiding statements for us at KCADP. While our mission is focused on the dignity in death portion, we firmly believe the best way to get folks to the table on that conversation is to talk about and help illuminate the ways we still lack the dignity we deserve on a day-to-day basis and what we can do to get there.  

We firmly believe we must end the death penalty. Throughout this country’s history, the death penalty has been used to deter popular movements for change and individual actions that seek to bring dignity to the folks that our society deems unworthy or expendable. Countless historical instances illustrate this point, but today, we are focusing on the story of May Day, its fallout, and its fight for an 8-hour workday. 

After thousands protested initially on May 1st, a series of escalations by the authorities precipitated the Haymarket Riots on May 4th, 1886. The culmination of those escalations came the day before when a worker was killed while police protected strikebreakers at a local company. After a peaceful protest co-signed by the Chicago mayor, police swooped in on a smaller group of demonstrators and attempted the forcefully disperse the crowd. A bomb was thrown at police, and they began firing indiscriminately into the crowd, injuring civilians and their own. Seven police officers were killed and 60 others wounded before the violence ended; estimates of civilian casualties fluctuate between four to eight dead and 30 to 40 injured.

While the assailant was never positively identified, eight labor leaders were handpicked and arrested to stand for trial. Authorities purposely chose a group of men from a large subsection of ideologies that had come together to usher in the 8-hour work week. Seven of those labor leaders were sentenced to the death penalty, with two having their sentences commuted. Five of the men were still executed. Five years later, the surviving three “Haymarket Eight" members had their sentences commuted. The situation is regarded as one of the most grave miscarriages of justice in American history. 

The death penalty’s roots stem from some of the worst injustices in our history. That is true in Kentucky, and that is true in America as a whole. Many folks all across America have taken up this righteous cause. Today, we ask that you research the Haymarket Riots and reflect on the power of coalitions and collective action to correct an injustice. The lesson sticking with us today is how folks from so many different points on the political spectrum showed solidarity to secure a victory for people we still enjoy today. The fight may be challenging, but we can do it together.