Soapbox History: The Life and Lessons of Mother Jones



Second Major



Work, Labor, and Social Justice (WLSJ)


DeCesare, Catherine

Advisor Department





This is a non-traditional thesis project focused on the practice of public history, rather than producing a written academic paper. All of my work is meant to be freely accessible to the public. To access the materials produced for the Mother Jones Walking Tour, see the hyperlink attached to the provided abstract. Thank you!


Mother Jones, Labor History, Public History, Walking Tour

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.


Labor leader, Mary “Mother” Jones, has a lot to teach the working people of today. She believed that the working class had the power to fight economic repression and the harsh reality of life where industrialist and monied interests dominate our society. She fought the injustices of her time at the pulpit, at the picket lines, and through the media. From 1890 - 1930, She was a fierce advocate for immigrant and working class people, campaigning for unions all over the country, and helping to found the Social Democratic Party and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). For many, she was the hero of the working class.

Mother Jones became an icon and household name, especially in industrial and mining areas. Wherever she went she promised of victory for the worker. She traveled so much, from one strike area to the next, that she once said, “My address is like my shoes. It travels with me. I abide where there is a fight against wrong.” Her legend as a folk hero preceded her wherever she went. Factory and mine owners and their corrupt politicians, would ban her from speaking to the workers in their towns. They served one injunction after another, threatened her with force, and arrested her dozens of times. During this time, she was in her 70s and 80s, an old woman, often called the “grandmother of the labor movement.” Mother ignored these orders always found a way to rally “her boys”, even from a jail cell. Working families would literally sing her welcome. Choruses of the folk song written for her, “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” could be heard in working towns all over the country.

However, when she died in 1930, the labor movement was losing momentum. Without her and other orators, it lost its voice. She quickly fell into anonymity until the 1960s. The civil rights movement and the “new left” in academia saw a resurgence in the study of Mother Jones and the American labor movement. Now, in recent years, rhetoricians and public historians are looking to her to learn how to penetrate public consciousness. I believe that the best way to do that, is to bring her stories to the public.

This summer, I went back to Mother’s home base, Chicago. There I wrote and produced a public, historic walking tour on the life and lessons of Mother Jones. I have called this a “soapbox history” as a nod to the Progressive Era’s oral traditions, in which reformers would find the nearest soapbox, stand on top of it, and speak to the people. Then, just as now, the best way to educate the public was to make it your message easy and accessible. A walking tour is one step towards that end. This project is aimed at bringing working class history back to the working people. I believe that a working class which is aware of its labor history will be better informed when decisions are being made in the workplace and in government which affect their economic security and well-being, today. I hope that the words of Mother Jones will inspire more people to fight for economic justice and a better life for the next generation. In her words, “Pray for the dead, fight like hell for the living!”

This work and my history portfolio can be found at https://themotherjonesproject.blogspot.com/ or in the downloadable files section on this page.