RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Raise Hell to Keep Dreams Alive

Driving through southern Illinois on my way back to mid-Missouri, the story on Trump’s new anti-student college financing scheme hit the news. Besides cuts in Pell grants, the scheme might cut a program that allows public service to pay off some debt. And it will reduce the number of lenders to reduce competition.

What is the message to that generation? What will they be able to hope for? How will they plan a future that includes family and an ordinary life? Since I’ve spent time with college kids, as a teacher and as an employer on my farm, their pain is real to me. They enter the classroom bright and excited about the future, and the reality of the government’s cruel game creeps up slowly. But education is the key to a brighter future, for the kids and for society as a whole. And we need not only young folks trained in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, as the promoters for STEM tell us, but young folks trained in critical thinking and history — the liberal arts!

Clearly, it was time for me to pull my distracted self off the road for a brief meditation and visit with Mother. I guess I was hearing her shout, “Sit down and read. Educate yourself for the coming conflicts.”

So I pulled off in Mount Olive, Ill. (population just over 2,000), final resting place of Mother Jones, the hell-raising organizer, who rests in the Union Miners’ Cemetery. Just off I-55, and close to old Route 66, it took decades for the state to put a sign on the highway directing folks to her gravesite, but hand-made signs have always marked the turn-off. I’ve always thought the signs were made by the same fellows that keep the graveyard tidy.

She was an immigrant. Mary Harris was born in Cork, Ireland, on the cusp of the Great Famine that killed or drove from the land so many of her fellow Irish. The Harris family emigrated to Canada. Mary was lucky enough to find the Toronto Normal School, tuition free and paying a stipend to each student of one dollar per week for every semester completed.

She moved to the United States to teach, married a laborer and union organizer, George A. Jones, settled in Memphis and became a seamstress. When yellow fever took her family, she moved to Chicago and opened another shop, which was consumed in the Chicago Fire. As unions were organized to rebuild the city, she became involved. Unlike most female activists her age, she never embraced suffrage. Instead, she said, “I have never had a vote, and I have raised hell all over this country. You don’t need a vote to raise hell! You need convictions and a voice!”

At her most effective, she worked with the United Mine Workers and they built the Mother Jones monument in sections as inspiration and love were able to pile up money. First, there was a marker hand-made from red clay and surrounded by pebbles, with “Mother Jones” stamped out in block letters.

In time, the Mine Workers added an imposing obelisk flanked by statues of two miners in their gear and a brass plaque inscribed, “I count it death to falter, not to die.” Finally, years later, granite slabs were added to mark the exact site of the body, and a modern carved stone inscribed, “Mother Mary Jones.”

Somewhere along the line, somebody added a glass case for visitors’ union-related notices, cards and stickers. This year, along with cards from AFL-CIO, AFSCME, Iron Workers, Brick Layers and dozens of others, there was the addition of notices from the two-year-old union at University of Illinois at Springfield, where faculty went on strike last spring. The UIS United Faculty, 160 strong, had tried for two years to get attention from the administration for such things as fair contracts, a salary increase, and a grievance policy that shields them from “administrative retribution.”

Illinois — all the state offices — is in the worst imaginable shape. With a credit rating just above junk-bond status (maybe AT junk-bond status by the time you read this), the Land of Lincoln is a morality tale for the rest of us. Nobody knows exactly where to put the blame, but years of mismanagement have taken their toll. Still, it’s absolutely true that education should be the place where new solutions are tried. They need a visit with Mother Jones.

When they get to the monument, they’ll find the last contribution by donors — a bench and a shady shelter, where her words surround on bronze plaques. “My address is like my shoes. It travels with me. I abide where there is a fight against wrong.” “I’m not a humanitarian, I’m a hell-raiser.” “I am not afraid of the pen, or the scaffold, or the sword. I will tell the truth wherever I please.”

And, finally, “Reformation, like education, is a journey, not a destination.”

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo., and co-hosts Farm and Fiddle on sustainable ag issues on KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2017

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