At least twice a week for the past year, I’ve listened to one song by the great country-rock renegade, Steve Earle. The song is on his album El Corazon, and it’s called "Christmas in Washington." It was written on the eve of the second Clinton inaugural. As the singer watched the news of Democrats preparing "for four more years of things not getting worse," he experienced a cry of the heart that became the chorus of the song. "Come back Woody Guthrie, come back to us now. Tear your eyes from paradise and rise again somehow."
The second verse of the song recounts a younger Earle’s folkie devotion to Guthrie. In the third verse he returns to the present scene, singing, "The fox is in the henhouse now, the cow’s out in the corn. The unions have been busted, their proud red banners torn." Then the chorus returns, but this time it goes, "Come back Emma Goldman. Rise up old Joe Hill. The barricades are going up, and they cannot break our will." Every time I’ve heard that chorus I’ve experienced a familiar catch in the throat. It evokes the spirit and flesh of the old, wild America of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A place where democracy was still considered an unfinished business.
In those days, a technological revolution had created great concentrations of private wealth and power called "corporations." Those entities impoverished millions of formerly self-sufficient farmers and artisans and ran roughshod over the lives of workers, families, and communities. In those days, workers and farmers fought those new economic powers, in the streets, and by any means necessary. When I heard Earle summon up those saints of struggle, I felt that old dream of a better world stirring in my chest again. Then that line about the barricades would always stop me cold. It seemed like a thin, false hope, driven more by nostalgia and the need for a rhyme, than by any assessment of political reality.
That was before November 30, 1999, and The Battle in Seattle. I heard the news that night, and I knew it had happened. The barricades were up. Emma Goldman and Joe Hill and Woody Guthrie were back. America was starting to look like its old self again.
I’m as committed to nonviolence as the next good Christian soldier, and I know rioting makes for bad PR, but I must confess that it even thrilled me when those wild children trashed McDonald’s and The Gap. For the long haul in America, we need a good, solid, family-church-and-community-based movement for a new economic order. And I know you don’t build that with crazies smashing windows and setting fires. But it may be that, at least for one day, America also needed to hear the sound of breaking glass cutting through its media-dazed torpor.
At any rate, the sun rose December 1, 1999, on a different America. A new chapter has opened in our ancient and honorable fight to bend the means of production and communication to the will of the people. This is thanks, in large part, to the leadership of John Sweeney and his new team at the AFL-CIO. We prophetic types can rant and rave, and occasionally crack the media monopoly, but until the energy and interest of millions of mainstream American working families were engaged, we could not mount a struggle that would really rock the foundations of corporate power. For several long decades, the unions were often the missing ingredient in the struggle for a new vision of democracy. They’re not missing any more.
Back in that old America of the last turn-of-a-century, there was an international workers’ campaign for the eight-hour day. It was to be launched by a general strike on May 1, 1886. The general strike didn’t come off that well. But workers rallied at Haymarket Square in Chicago, and somebody threw a bomb. Eight union leaders were framed for the murder of a cop and four of them were executed. The Haymarket Martyrs became the icons of the new labor movement, and May 1 became hallowed as the international Workers’ Day. All over the world parades were held, complete with those "proud red banners" in Steve Earle’s song.
In the 21st century, May Day should be replaced as the international rallying point. From now on let’s march on November 30. The weather’s not as nice. But something new entered history on that date, just as surely as it did on May 1, 1886. It’s up to us now to keep it alive, and, somewhere down the line, negotiate a new color scheme for our banners.
DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.