The March of the Mill Children
The newspaper coverage of the “March of the Mill Children” helped make a strong case for enforcing existing child labor laws and changing laws so that children could be required to go to school rather than go to work in factories at a young age.
In 1903, 100,000 textile workers from 600 mills in Kensington, Pennsylvania went on strike. 16,000 of them were children. The Central Textile Workers’ Union had asked for a reduced work week, 55 hours down from 60. The workers were even willing to give up five hours of pay in order to shorten their work week. A union organizer named Mary Harris “Mother” Jones came to Kensington in order to help organize meetings, parades, and peaceful demonstrations. She noticed the little children who came into the union’s headquarters. Many of them were missing fingers, thumbs, or even whole hands.
On July 5, 1903, Mother Jones convinced 100 adults and 200 children to march 125 miles from Kensington, Pennsylvania to Madison Square Garden in New York City. She hoped to attract publicity for the striking workers, especially for the plight of the children who worked in the mills. The march began on July 7th. Some children carried American flags and signs that read: “More schools, fewer hospitals.” “We want to go to school.” “We only ask for justice.”
The marchers walked twelve hot miles to Torresdale. Mother Jones spoke to a crowd of 1,000 people, and after the speech, the children collected $76.40 for the Kensington Mill Workers strike. The next day was just as hot and many people went home. One hundred marchers stayed and went on to Bristol where Mother Jones gave another rousing speech to 2,000 people. Many parents and children left the march because of weather and bickering.
On July 9th, only 60 people remained and headed for the next town, Morrisville, Pennsylvania on the banks of the Delaware River. When Mother Jones and “her army,” as the newspapers called them, arrived in Morrisville, many of the children jumped into the river for a first-time experience—a swim. The next stop, Trenton, New Jersey was the first large city on the march. The mayor allowed Mother Jones to hold a rally. 5,000 people came to hear her speech. The marchers collected over $100. Best of all, the majority of the newspapers praised the bravery of the little children on the march. The publicity generated in Trenton spread beyond the local news. Many east coast reporters picked up the story. The case against child labor was beginning to be made in the hearts and minds of Americans.
The army marched on through New Jersey. In New Brunswick, the newspapers called Mother “a kind old woman.” In Elizabeth, they called her the “greatest female agitator in the country.” In Elizabeth, Mother Jones decided to extend the march all the way to Oyster Bay, the summer home of President Theodore Roosevelt. She thought seeing the children would move the President to do something to end the abuses of child labor. Mother Jones wrote to the President and requested a meeting. It was denied, but she decided to go on to Oyster Bay anyway.
The march continued to New York City. As they crossed the Hudson River by ferry, the children could see the Statue of Liberty in the harbor. The mayor of New York gave them two parade permits. Tens of thousands of people came out to see the children and hear Mother Jones speak. The children were invited to spend two nights on Coney Island. They got to see the Wild Animal Show, ride on carnival rides, and swim in the ocean. During her speech, Mother Jones put the children in the wild animals’ cages, a lion roared, and reporters wrote about it.
On July 29th, after walking 100 miles, Mother Jones and three children arrived at President Roosevelt’s home. They were not allowed to meet with the President, who said that it was up to the states, not the federal government, to set laws about child labor. The newspapers covered the story. Mother Jones achieved her goal of gaining publicity for working children.
The very next year, a group called the National Child Labor Committee was formed to fight for the rights of working children. Within a few years, child labor laws were improved, and the laws on the books were better enforced. The federal law prohibiting child labor was passed in 1938, thirty-five years after the “March of the Mill Children” and five years after Mother Jones died. Still, Mother Jones and the March of the Mill Children surely made a difference.
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From J. Moreillon, Coteaching Reading Comprehension Strategies in Secondary School Libraries. (Chicago: ALA Editions). Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.5/.