After 99 Years, Frank Little Remembered

Book Review: Stead, Arnold, “Always on Strike. Frank Little and the Western Wobblies. Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2014.franklittletombstone

Almost anybody who looks at American labor history knows that Frank Little was a leader of the Industrial Workers of the World who was lynched in Butte, Montana, August 1, 1917. There are a lot of newspaper accounts, a movie, and one book about his death. However, almost nobody knows anything about his life.

He was extremely important, consequently this is a very welcome book. As far as I can find out, it’s the first published biography. Even 99 years after it should have been done, this is a very welcome work!

There’s not a lot in this work that one couldn’t find out from my own earlier postings on Frank Little, which the book’s author surely read. He mentions me three times in the book, but only in speculating whether or not I was telling the truth. The book is somewhat speculative about what really happened, and it’s filled in to a large degree with scholarly explanations of various philosophers who, I’m pretty sure, Frank Little had never heard of.

My other petty complaint about the book has to do with Big Bill Haywood, the President of the IWW. The author implies that there was bad blood between Haywood and Little. That caused me to go back and re-read The Autobiography of Big Bill Haywood (International Publishers, New York, 1929). Haywood mentions Frank Little as a Board member who was “an energetic worker, part Cherokee Indian, black-eyed, hot-blooded, and reliable.” (page 301) He doesn’t say anything about any disagreement.

Author Stead can’t be blamed for the paucity of information. After Frank was lynched, almost on signal, the U.S. Government under J. Edgar Hoover began the “Red scare” of the time. Nobody knows how many people were deported, killed, jailed, or horsewhipped during the period, but there were a lot of them. Just knowing Frank Little was a serious offense. Even his own family didn’t talk about him. I know that first hand, because I interviewed his niece in Yale, Oklahoma.

Every physical trace of Frank Little, except his grave and tombstone in Butte, disappeared.

In my opinion, the book might have emphasized Frank Little’s importance more than it did. He was the main leader of the free speech movement of his time. He pioneered nonviolent civil disobedience decades before Dr. Martin Luther King. He started the IWW in successfully organizing farm laborers decades before Cesar Chavez. At his last meeting of the IWW Executive Board, he lost a vote on firmly opposing the First Great Imperialist War. If he had won, history might have been different.

William Z Foster, another great labor organizer of the period, claimed that Frank Little agreed with him on “boring from within” the American Federation of Labor — a strategy that paid off in 1935 with the forming of the Committee for Industrial Organizing (CIO). Thus, if Frank Little had lived and continued as Chairman of the IWW Executive Board, they might have gone on to become an important part of the great labor upsurge of 1935-1947 and beyond.

But of course, he didn’t win that last vote and he didn’t live more than a few days longer. He went to Butte, where 194 workers had died in the Spectator Mine disaster, and made a speech in defense of job safety. He argued that the coming war was not an excuse to give in to the bosses on safety issues. Hoodlums, probably from the mine company, put a rope around his neck, knocked his crutches aside, and dragged him behind an automobile through the streets of Butte to a railroad overpass, where they strung up his wretched body and hoped everybody would forget him.

We never will.

–Gene Lantz

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