The First May Day: The Haymarket Affair (1886)

The tradition of celebrating May Day stems from the tragic events of the so-called Haymarket Riot or Haymarket Affair in Chicago on May 4, 1886. Beginning as peaceful protests for an eight-hour workday (the single most advocated issue of the late-19th century—at the very least since the 1860s—and far into the 20th [see our post about the Finnish-led IWW in northern Ontario], as many as 80.000 workers marched up Michigan Avenue in Chicago with slogans such as “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for What We Will!“ organized, among other anarchists and radical labour activist, by Lucy Parsons, sewing workers organizer who, herself born a slave in Texas, became one of the most memorable names of union history.

Another march was called on May 4 in protest against police brutality as on May 3, the police killed one and injured several workers as they were trying to intimidate striking workers and protect strike-breakers. At the end of the protest, the last 200 workers were attacked by an almost equal number of armed policemen. Then someone, still unknown to this day, threw the first dynamite bomb ever used in peacetime history of the US. In the resulting chaos, seven policemen died, only one directly accountable to the bomb, and four workers were killed. In the following few days, labour leaders were rounded up, houses searched without warrants, and union newspapers and printing presses closed down.

In Chicago, labor leaders were rounded up, houses were entered without search warrants and union newspapers were closed down. Eventually eight men were selected to be tried and four of them, including Albert Parsons, were ultimately hanged on November 11, 1887, with another, Louis Lingg, mysteriously dying in his cell on November 10. The trial and its relentless media coverage have also fuelled the xenophobia and anti-union sentiment already present in American cities, and foreigners and labour organizers became explicit targets in the Haymarket’s aftermath.

In July 1889 (the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution), thanks to a delegate from the American Federation of Labor in Paris, May 1 was made the International Labor Day in memory of the Haymarket Affair.

Recommended Reading:

Chicago History Museum. The Haymarket Affair Digital Collection. Highlights:, Full collection:

Chicago Historical Society and Northwestern University. The Dramas of Haymarket. Online project.…/overview/over.htm

Lucy Parsons, Lucy Parsons: Freedom, Equality & Solidarity, Writings & Speeches, 1878-1937, ed. Gale Ahrens (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2003)

Women’s History Information Project. “Lucy Parsons: Woman of Will”

– A broadside advertising the protest march on May 4, 1886.

– A famous illustration of the Haymarket Affair by Thure de Thulstrup, “The anarchist riot in Chicago: a dynamite bomb exploding among the police” Wood-engraving published in Harper’s Weekly, May 15, 1886. Source:

– A broadside from 1986, referencing the strike against the Chicago Tribune a century after Haymarket. The Newspaper Unity Council pointed out the parallels between 1886 and 1986 and planned a protest in front of the Tribune building on the 100th anniversary of the Haymarket meeting. Source:…/aCenturyAndCounti…

– An illustration of the key figures in the case against the imprisoned anarchists, a popular form of media at the time. Their portraits are arranged at the bottom of the image. Photographic collage by M. Umbdenstock & Co., 1886. Source:…/visua…/36V0640r.jpg

– The Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument in the Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Hill, IL. Since no cemetery in Chicago would allow the martyrs to be buried within, they were placed in Waldheim Cemetery. There was some reluctance, but the cemetery’s policy accepted everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, or politics.
The monument was dedicated on June 23, 1893, thanks to Lucy Parsons and the Pioneer Aid and Support Association. On the front of the granite monument is a figure of a woman representing justice standing over a fallen worker. The bottom of the monument features the final words of August Spies, one of the executed workers: “The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.” The Forest Home cemetery features the graves of many remarkable activists, including Lucy Parsons and Emma Goldman. Source:…/haymarket-martyrs-monument-a…