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The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Today in Civil Rights History: May Day and the Haymarket Riot

May 1, 2009 - Posted by The Leadership Conference

A depiction of a riot between workers and police on a 19th century city street

The Haymarket riot

May Day, also called International Workers' Day, is a day to celebration the history and achievements of the labor movement, and to commemorate the Haymarket riot of 1886.

On May 1, 1886, more than 350,000 workers across the United States joined a national strike to demand an eight-hour workday. Two days later, during a confrontation between workers and strikebreakers outside the McCormick Reaper Works factory in Chicago, police fired at the striking workers, killing at least two.

The following day, people gathered at Chicago's Haymarket Square to protest the shooting. When police attempted to disperse the rally, a bomb exploded, killing a police officer and injuring dozens.  Police responded by firing into the crowd. Four workers and eight police officers were killed.

Although it was never determined who actually threw the bomb, the incident was used to attack and discredit the labor movement. Eight men were arrested, tried, and found guilty of conspiracy despite a lack of evidence. Seven of the men were sentenced to death; two had their sentences reduced to life in prison, one committed suicide in his jail cell, and the other four were executed on November 11, 1887.

Their trial has been called one of the worst miscarriages of justice in United States history. In 1893, Illinois Governor John Peter Atgeld pardoned the remaining three men after determining that they did not receive a fair trial, and that all eight were likely innocent.

In 1889, delegates at an international labor conference declared May 1 a day of labor solidarity, and since then May Day protests have been held annually worldwide.

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