Jerry Summers: Mother Jones In Memphis

Thursday, July 29, 2021 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

As the controversial image for the progressive movement in America that began in the early days of the 20th Century, Mother Jones was actually named Mary Harris Jones and she physically lived in the Bluff City for a number of years.

            She was born in Cork, Ireland in 1837 and at the young age of 10, witnessed the horrors of the potato famine which started the great western migration of the poor Irish to America and Canada.

After traveling to Toronto, Canada with her family, she became a skilled dressmaker and teacher, who in her early adulthood moved to Monroe, Michigan, Chicago, Illinois, and, after a few months, she arrived in Memphis, Tennessee.

            Shortly before the start of the Civil War, she met and married a skilled foundry worker who was a member of the International Iron Molders Union by the name of George Jones.

Their union would produce four children, but in 1867 a yellow fever epidemic hit Memphis and resulted in the death of her husband and children.

Her life as a symbol of conflict, protest, and as a revolutionary figure standing up for the alleged poor and oppressed began as a 30-year-old widow who moved to Chicago.

She ran a dress shop that was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1871.

For 25 years she suffered many setbacks as an old widowed Irish immigrant who had survived plague, famine and fire in Tennessee and Illinois.

Mary Harris Jones became Mother Jones who became involved in the women’s reform movement as an elderly (exaggerated) old woman who dressed in black dresses when she appeared in public as an opinionated American female who portrayed herself as “the mother of downtrodden people throughout the world.”

            She traveled throughout the country for a quarter of a century as the “Johnny Appleseed of political activities.”

The labor union United Mine Workers and the Socialist Party in America paid her a stipend as a traveling protestor against both the government and big corporations.

In 1976, the progressive (liberal) publication, Mother Jones, started as a magazine above a McDonald’s Restaurant in San Francisco, California. In 2019, it claimed around 46,000 individual donors and a paid magazine circulation of more than 190,000 subscribers and several million readers each month on the world wide web and other outlets.

            As a leading voice for the far left, the image and symbolism of the old lady in the black dress and the magazine have traveled a long and controversial route from Memphis.

            Whether you support or oppose the ideals that she supported, her life history is an interesting adventure of individual protest and activism on behalf of many popular and unpopular causes.

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)

 


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