When Being a Red Meant Risking Your Life

This year marks a century since the First Red Scare, which decimated the ranks of the US left. One of the worst episodes was the Centralia incident — where a reactionary mob tortured and killed a group of IWW members to drive them out of the Washington town.

The burial of Wesley Everest, with armed National Guard unit. Wikipedia

“To be a red in the summer of 1919 was worse than being a Hun in the summer of 1917,” wrote John Dos Passos in 1919, his novel of the war years. The nation was war-weary as the year began, still reeling from the deadly influenza — the “Spanish flu.” It yearned and deserved “normalcy,” politicians argued — a return to the familiar, to a rural America, to a country of farms, small towns, and the leafy prosperity of the new suburbs. It wanted to leave behind the battlefields and bloody revolutions of the old world.

Yet the Armistice celebrations — enormous and near universal in the United States — had hardly stilled when that “normal” was erased and new disputes emerged, exposing deep fissures that presaged an extraordinary year to come. On November 11, 1918, clothing workers in New York began a general strike, demanding a forty-four-hour workweek and wage increases. They were joined on picket lines by returning soldiers and sailors. Scarcely a month had passed, and far across the continent, shipyard workers in Seattle voted to strike, rejecting the wage offers of wartime government regulators.

And strike they did, clearing the way for the Seattle General Strike, the first and only one of its kind in the United States, challenging not just managerial authority but civil as well. For a full week in February, committees of ordinary workers saw to it that the sick were cared for, that the garbage was collected, that babies got their milk, and that there was order on the streets.

Seattle was just the beginning. Workers’ moods had shifted steadily to the left. They were moved by the new radicalism of the times, not just in the United States but internationally. New solidarities had been constructed, ethnic isolation had diminished, and appetites had enlarged. Conflicts spilled out of the workplace and into working-class neighborhoods. At the same time, the mainstream American Federation of Labor was confronted as increasing numbers of workers came to reject its traditions and practice — conservatism, collaboration with employers and the state, and strict insistence on the sanctity of contracts and the authority of trade union leaders.

All this came to a head in 1919, a year like none other. Some3,630 strikes were recorded, involving 4.6 million workers. In the wake of the Seattle walkout, four harbor-wide longshoremen’s strikes broke out in New York, the last tying up shipping for six weeks. The year ended with national walkouts of coal miners and steel workers, the latter one of the largest US strikes ever: 375,000. The Open Shop Review, an organ of the employers’ associations, insisted it was an attempt by foreigners, “Bolsheviks and anarchists,” to destroy the government. In Pittsburgh, representatives of the Interchurch World Movement investigating the steel strike indeed found “the Slavic workers were radical and impatient with the conservative pleas of their leaders,” though they were neither Wobblies nor anarchists. The national coal strike was settled in November, but conflict continued in southern coalfields, culminating in insurrection in the armed march of 10,000 miners into Logan County, West Virginia — the “Battle of Blair Mountain.”

This was not what employers wanted, not what they had fought for, even as, for the most part, they were still winning. There were cracks in American society in 1919 — perhaps even large enough to be expected — but this was a chasm, and a living affront in the boardrooms and residential districts of the Babbitts of the land.

Employers were intent on rolling back wartime concessions to workers — above all, wherever they had won the eight-hour day and the union shop. Countless employers’ associations were reborn or rebounded, and myriad employment plans were produced, all of which came under the umbrella of the “American Plan.” The American Plan revived the “open shop” strategies of the 1910s, based on the idea that strikes were illegal and trade unions were “un-American.” In 1919, this was revised: now it was the reds. The “Red Scare” and the Palmer Raids would follow — along with the infamous Centralia incident.

The Wobblies

Dos Passos was quite right to point out the lumbermen and their war with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies). The Wobblies, always a minority within the labor movement, were in many ways the heart and soul of that movement. They believed that when the day came, “control of industry would pass from the capitalists to the masses and the capitalists will vanish from the face of the earth.” The workers would then possess the machinery of production and distribution, enabling them to create “a new society without poverty, police, jails, armies, churches . . . blessed with freedom and abundance.”

But they were trade unionists as well. They championed industrial unions, direct action, the strike; they savaged “business unionism” and the racism of the AFL unions. They organized Mexican copper miners in Arizona and black Louisiana timber workers; their leadership included Ben Fletcher, the black Philadelphia longshoreman, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the Irish firebrand, and Frank Little, the western organizer who self-identified as American Indian.

The Wobblies gave as good as they got. Their victory in the Spokane free speech fight helped make the Pacific Northwest a stronghold, with Seattle as base camp. They fought on dozens of fronts, leading many of the biggest strikes of the period despite numbering about 200,000. One of their greatest victories came in the 1917 strike in timber — some 50,000 loggers and mill workers struck for and won the eight-hour day.

But they always paid a price. Frank Little was lynched in Butte, Montana. The socialist Helen Keller, writing for the Liberator, reported: “In Washington State . . . ‘IWW’ members have been arrested without warrants, thrown into ‘bull-pens’ without access to attorney, denied bail and trial by jury, and some of them shot.” In 1917, local authorities placed Spokane under martial law, and the lumber owners insisted on more of the same, above all from the federal government. They demanded that the IWW be outlawed. “Syndicalism” (a form of workplace radicalism, it was what the employers called militant trade unionism) was criminalized. Wobblies were beaten in the streets, their halls were smashed, and their publications were banned. The federal Bureau of Immigration joined in to arrest and deport “IWW aliens” who were deemed “undesirable” or “pro-German in their activity.” The roundup quickly filled the Bureau’s own detention centers, forcing it to scatter prisoners throughout the county jails of western Washington.

The lumbermen had been humiliated in the great timber strike that year. In 1919, they got their revenge, with the help of the federal government. On the morning of September 5, US attorney general Thomas Watt Gregory ordered federal action against the IWW. John Reed, the radical journalist just back from Moscow, described what was at stake.

One Big Union—that is their crime. That is why the IWW is on trial. In the end, just such an ideal shall sap and crumble down capitalist society. If there were a way to kill these men, capitalist society would clearly do it; as it killed Frank Little, for example — and before him, Joe Hill . . . So, the outcry of the jackal press, “German agents! Treason!” — that the IWW may be lynched on a grand scale.

Coast to coast, federal agents raided IWW offices and homes, seizing tons of material. The national offices of the IWW in Chicago were raided, its records seized. Not mincing words, Gregory explained, “Our purpose being, as I understand it, is very largely to put the IWW out of business.” The Justice Department organized a Chicago grand jury that proceeded to indict 166 Wobblies, accusing them of “interfering with congressional acts and presidential proclamations, conducting strikes which constituted criminal conspiracy, influencing members to refuse to register or to desert the armed forces, causing insubordination with the armed forces and lastly conspiring to defraud employers.”

Roger Baldwin, a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU),  later explained that the IWW “wrote a chapter in the history of American liberties like that of the struggle of the Quakers for freedom to meet and worship, of the militant suffragettes to carry their propaganda to the seats of government, and of the Abolitionists to be heard.” He insisted that in no case did the IWW resort to violence, but the “violence used against them was colossal.” He estimated that ten Wobblies were killed and two thousand jailed in the free speech fights alone.

Even before the raids, more than one hundred IWW leaders had been convicted and sent to the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. Eugene Debs, the symbol of American socialism, had been incarcerated in the Atlanta penitentiary, found guilty of opposing war. Thousands had been jailed, others deported. The IWW was, in practice, extinct. The strikers of 1919 would fight on, but without their best-known leaders, with no center and the odds overwhelmingly against them. Industrial unions, the hallmark of the IWW — unions for the unskilled, for immigrants, for blacks and Mexicans — were stillborn.

But this was not enough. Dos Passos:

On Memorial Day, 1918, the boys of the American Legion in Centralia led by a group from the Chamber of Commerce wrecked the I.W.W. hall, beat up everybody they found in it, jailed some and piled the rest in a truck and dumped them over the county line, burned the papers and pamphlets and auctioned off the fittings for the Red Cross.

The Centralia Incident

Centralia, Washington was a mill town of seven thousand that sat on the mainline rails from Portland to Seattle. As with so many other towns in southwest Washington, Centralia was a backwater, but one with its own reactionary, small-town elite and an active branch of the American Legion. A small group of individual IWW members had nonetheless held on; they refused to work the twelve-hour day and encouraged others to do the same. Many were youngsters, some veterans, men of “uncommon courage,” thought Harvey O’Connor, their contemporary, then a writer in Seattle.

The Centralia Wobblies were determined to reopen their hall and had found space among the flophouses and shacks in an out-of-the-way section of town. They soon learned of a not-so-secret cabal led by the lumbermen and the American Legion to use the Armistice Day parade as cover to raid the hall. It was typical of their utter decentralization and local autonomy that apparently it did not occur to any of the Wobblies to get in touch with the western headquarters in Seattle on a matter that was to prove important to the entire IWW movement. Their only question was whether they had a right to defend their hall; they were advised that they did. More to the point, they believed it would be cowardly to run. So they armed themselves and made plans to defend the hall. Several would be stationed inside, others (some armed) would assemble across the street on Seminary Hill. “Prudent men,” remembered O’Connor, “would not have done this, but prudence was not a Wobbly trait. Rather their shining glory stood out in audacity, courage, and stubbornness in defense of their rights, and for that they are remembered in history.”

On a dreary, drizzly November afternoon, the patriots’ march set off from the town center, led by the American Legion, all in fine regalia. The Legionnaires passed the IWW hall, held back, then reversed, returning to the hall, where they joined the town’s postmaster and a minister, each dangling a noose in his hands. Shouts came from the mob: “Come on boys! Let’s get them!” The marchers paused, then dashed toward the hall and rushed the door, pushing their way in. They were met with gunfire, first from inside the hall, then from the hill across the road. Four Legionnaires were killed and several more wounded.

In a fury, the Legionnaires swarmed the hall, overcame the IWWs, and dragged them out — all except Wesley Everest, an ex-serviceman, a sharpshooter. Everest escaped, killing two of the invaders on his way, but was chased by the mob, some firing. They caught him as he attempted to ford the nearby Skookumchuck River. They knocked his teeth out, then dragged him through the streets to jail with a belt around his neck.

That night, the town lights went out. A group of men forced their way into the jail and wrested Everest from his cell. They threw him into the back of a car and castrated him there. “For Christ’s sake, men,” Everest appealed, “shoot me, don’t let me suffer this way.” At the bridge, he was dragged out and hanged, but he still was not dead. He was then hanged again until dead. The killers amused themselves by shooting at the swaying body. In the morning, they retrieved the body and displayed it in front of the prisoners to terrorize them.

Another contemporary, Walker Smith, wrote:

A grisly kind of perverted humor marked the coroner’s report of Everest’s death. Everest had broken out of jail, the coroner said, and taken a rope with him to the bridge. There he tied the knot around his neck, jumped off, but failing to kill himself, climbed back up and jumped off a second time; still alive he climbed back up, shot himself in the neck and jumped off the bridge again; woke up at seven in the morning, cut the rope, fell in the river and was drowned.

Centralia was overwhelmed with angry, “patriotic” mobs, demanding vengeance. Those imprisoned were tortured. The authorities scoured the surrounding hills, looking for anyone who might have escaped. Across the state, more than a thousand were arrested; the plan was to use the criminal syndicalism statutes to try them all at once. The hysteria spread, and calls rang out: “exterminate the IWW”; “forget due process.” Senator Miles Poindexter and representative Albert Johnson, both of Washington state, were received with wild applause when they asked Congress how much longer the government would wait before crushing “‘this miserable human vermin which seeks to destroy civilization.” Johnson demanded all-out war on “these damnable traitors and curs.” The shots that killed the heroes of Centralia had, he said, “been aimed at the heart of the nation.”

Trial and Legacy

In the wake of the Centralia massacre, the governor of Nebraska declared it a crime to be a member of the IWW. On November 15, in a violent police raid on the IWW headquarters in New York — authorized by the Lusk Committee (a federal panel formed in 1919 to investigate seditious activity) — Wobblies were bludgeoned and hurled into the street, their premises wrecked. In Seattle, the labor council’s widely read Union Record bravely defended the Centralia prisoners. In retaliation, on November 13, the Justice Department raided the paper, seizing the plant and arresting its editorial staff, all on sedition charges. Barrels of documents were carted off to the Federal Building. The hearing judge ordered the paper and its equipment returned, though back in print the post office refused to deliver it. Still, Seattle was not Centralia.

The trial of the Centralia Wobblies was held in the Grays Harbor County town of Montesano, where the courthouse was surrounded by infantrymen from nearby Camp Lewis. Fifty Legionnaires assembled each morning to occupy the courtroom’s benches. George Vanderveer, the Seattle lawyer who won the Everett case but lost in Chicago, made the defense in vain. Three of his witnesses were arrested for perjury immediately upon stepping down from the stand. On April 5, 1920, the jury found seven of the nine defendants guilty of second-degree murder, though none were found to have fired the shots that killed the invaders.

Eleven Wobblies had been charged with murder. Two were acquitted, one was found not guilty by reason of insanity, two were found guilty of third-degree murder, and the other five were convicted of second-degree murder. While the jury recommended leniency, the judge refused to accept this verdict since Washington state law did not recognize a charge of third-degree murder. After a few more hours of deliberation, the jury changed its verdict for those two prisoners. Those convicted were sentenced to prison terms of twenty-five to forty years, a sentence that shocked both the jury and the prisoners. The seven convicted IWW members appealed their lengthy sentences to the state Supreme Court, which unanimously affirmed Wilson’s judgment in April 1921.Six of the jurors would later testify under oath that they had been terrorized into finding the verdict of guilty.

“The Centralia incident,” the historian Melvyn Dubofsky later wrote, “was of little intrinsic importance to the IWW. It affected no strike, involved no important leaders, destroyed no affiliate. And brought about no real change in IWW attitudes or policies.” What it did do was reveal the lengths to which public authorities and private citizens would go to destroy the organization. In the days just after Centralia, prominent Washington state lumberman T. Jerome wrote to an associate: “Ordinarily I do not believe in mob law but the action taken by the citizens of Centralia in hanging the leader of the ‘Reds’ [Everest] was the only right and proper thing. . . . I sincerely trust that . . . the people of the state will take such action as will result in the wiping out of the entire Red gang.”

The Centralia Wobblies had their supporters, and they joined the long list of “class-war prisoners” still held in the ’20s. The “lynchers,” so called, were identified but never charged. It was not until the new decade and the new normalcy of the ’30s that the prisoners were released, though with little fanfare.

In 1930, one of the prisoners died in jail, and another was let out. In 1931, three prisoners were paroled. 1933, the newly elected Democratic governor commuted or pardoned the sentences of three of the prisoners. The last prisoner, Ray Becker, continued to maintain his innocence and refused to be paroled. In 1939, his sentence was commuted to time served.