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As we travel
north on Oregon's Highway Five, from Portland towards Seattle, places and
names go by: Castle Rock, Cougar, Mr. St. Helens, Onalaska.
A November rain is falling, light rain, blessed rain. We cross the
Chehalis river and then approach Centralia, Washington.
Alon K. Raab's "The Revolt
of the Bats"
appeared in the Fall/Winter
1993 Fifth Estate.
places whose names remain connected with the past, with a specific event
that will forever remind strangers of their existence. Bhopal, Selma,
Auschwitz, Soweto and Chernobyl are such places. People begin lives
anew on those sites, building houses, giving birth, loving, but the associations
persist. Centralia also has it beast of memory.
In 1919, a
fateful event, later known as "The Centralia Massacre," occurred in this
seemingly typical mill town. It was a time and place where local
businessmen, police, press and judicial system, combined to murder workers
and commit a travesty of justice. A town where the forces of hatred
were unleashed upon those who were perceived as less than human.
A town that is just beginning to address what happened.
On the day
before Thanksgiving 1994, seventy-five years after the events, my friend
Seth and I are on the road. We pass by a gigantic highway billboard,
erected by a local farmer. The specific targets of his attacks are
changed often, but the scorn heaped on anyone to the left of the John Birch
Society is constant.
we are assaulted by the acrid stench produced by the town's local mill.
When the road sign for Centralia appears, we take the exit into town, and
into a past full of darkness and shame, but also of resistance and into
a present that is slowly being streaked with light.
Taitinapam, Cowlitz and Nisqually tribes lived here for thousands of years
before being driven away, as the European conquest and destruction reached
the Northwest. Agriculture and the lumber industry soon controlled
the life of the town.
Class Combat Declaration
the second decade of this century, Centralia was not only a center of production
but also of workers' activity. The most influential group was the
IWW --- Industrial Workers of the World. The Wobblies, as they were
known, were radicals whose constitution opened with class combat declaration,
"The working class and the employing class have nothing in common."
Today, unions evoke images of corrupt leaders in cahoots with company owners,
but the IWW of the 1910s was a militant and revolutionary outfit.
mostly among miners, timber workers, women, and minorities, the IWW demanded
better working conditions and fair pay, but also advocated the overthrow
of the capitalist system by a general strike after workers were formed
into One Big Union. Using innovative forms of action, from slow-downs
and sabotage to humorous songs and art, the IWW was a culture of resistance.
class perceived the Wobblies as a serious threat and responded to IWW strikes
by firing upon workers, mass arrests on trumped-up charges, and assassinating
Wobbly organizers. In Centralia, on May 18, 1918, armed vigilantes
raided the local IWW headquarters and after destroying it, marched dozens
of Wobblies out of town, threatening to kill them. The Wobblies returned,
however and rebuilt their office. On Armistice Day, November 11,
1919, an American Legion parade was held amidst public knowledge that some
of the marchers had plans to attack the reconstructed IWW hall.
years is not a long time in historical terms. At the center of Centralia
we find Tower Street, where the parade marched. The Roderick Hotel
in which the IWW office was located, at Second and Tower was destroyed,
and the block was not rebuilt. Closing my eyes, I could almost hear
the sounds of the parade, the drums, the stomping, and then the storming
of the hall.
As the doors
were torn open, armed Wobblies defended themselves, and four Legionnaires
were shot to death. One of the Wobbly defenders, Wesley Everest,
fled towards the Skookumchuck River, but could not cross the swelling waters.
Cornered by his angry pursuers, he shot at them, wounding one, before being
captured. Led back into town, he was severely beaten by Legionnaires,
Boy Scouts, and town people, until his head was a bloody mass of welts.
He was taken
to the town jail, already crowded with his fellow workers, land tossed
bleeding on the freezing cement floor outside of the cell block.
As night fell, electricity to the city was suddenly cut off, and a mob
of armed men entered the jail and seized Everest. The other Wobblies
were behind locked cell doors and were thus spared. Everest was shoved
into a car, castrated, and led to a bridge over the Chehalis river.
A rope was fastened to his neck and he was tossed over the railing.
Still breathing, he was hung again and shot, to the cheers of hundreds
of Centralia's good citizens.
away, we stand by the old police station, still in operation. Next
to it is the office of The Centralia Chronicle. During the
first two decades of the century this paper fanned the flames of hatred
towards the "reds." The day following the lynching, it praised the
mob action as "the natural result of a red handed revolutionary getting
his just deserts without loss of time or the painfully slow process of
We enter The
Book Quest, a store, located in the town's center. Alongside the
popular books of Jean Auel and Chaim Potok we find a large selection of
books about regional history. The two young booksellers know of the
1919 events and show us several titles, including the 1920 pamphlet, The
Centralia Conspiracy, written by IWW writer Ralph Chaplin.
One of the
clerks goes next door and returns with his father, Roger Stewart.
An articulate man in his early fifties, he has lived here for the past
31 years. "It was a very conservative town when I moved down here.
Things have changed a bit, but just a bit," Roger says.
For many years
there was a code of silence about the events. The public library
was not allowed to keep materials abut the case, and in the town's official
history book a mere three lines are devoted to the events that make the
town famous. In the early 1980s, Jackie Morgan, a Historical Society
worker, tried to find out more, but her bosses warned her not to pursue
here all their lives. and their parents and grandparents were involved
in what occurred," Roger comments. Gesturing to a lawyer's office
across the street, Roger mentions that the man's father served as the lawyer
for the mill owners as well as the prosecutor in the trial of the Wobblies.
Roger goes on to describe how Wobblies were hunted like animals and charged
with murder. Eight of the men were convicted and languished in jail
for two decades.
None of the
lynch mob was ever tried even though their identities were well known.
They were all leading citizens, lawyers, doctors, store owners, church
goers. They hid their actions for many years, preferring to present
their version of what happened. "In this town there are just too
many skeletons in the closet," adds Roger. "Who wants to find out
their parents lynched a human being just because he thought differently?"
We see this
official history a few minutes later at the very center of town, by the
library. A long marble slab leads toward a large statue. On
it are the names of townspeople killed in U.S. wars, from World War I to
Desert Storm, with space left for the names of future cannon fodder in
the service of the empire. Entitled The Sentinel, the statue is a
larger than life soldier standing and gazing vigilantly outward.
On the base
of the monument is an inscription praising the Legionnaires who died during
the assault on the IWW headquarters, "slain while on peaceful parade.
It was their destiny --- rather it was their duty --- the highest of us
is but a sentry at his post." The statue and its location at the
heart of this town frame the context in which the city leaders chose to
enshrine the past in the collective memory.
his friend John Baker and informs him of our interest in the 1919 events,
and we are invited over. Baker is the owner of Sticklin Greenwood
Memorial Park, where Everest is buried.
the town, past taverns with "No Firearms Allowed" signs, down a street
lined with fast food restaurants and a lone cafe advertising espresso,
we turn north, and, by the freeway, see John. Tall and thin, with
sharp movements, bespectacled with closely cropped hair, he is raking leaves.
As we get out of the car he greets us with a handshake.
ago he taught philosophy in Florida, but his wife inherited land in Washington.
When he arrived, he discovered their 30 acres included the cemetery.
The marriage ended, but John remained. The walls of his house are
covered with dozens of paintings given to him by mourners. John tells
us he has become so immersed in the life of Wesley Everest and the events
surrounding his death that he even changed the last four digits of his
phone number to 1919.
I am always
amazed by people who retain every bit of information about the Kennedy
assassination or UFO sightings, and Baker possesses a similar memory.
Gesturing with his hands, he speaks passionately about bullet projectiles,
the position of the IWW workers when their hall was raided, the various
books that were written and the various shortcomings of their accounts,
as well as of his current research into the true identity of William Shakespeare.
is swirling with names and figures as we walk to the cemetery. My
favorite cemeteries are London's High Gate and Prague's old burial grounds,
full of shrubs and bent stones. Here, however, crypts stand in rows,
like cars in a parking lot, creating an eerie effect. After his murder,
Everest's body was dumped into an unmarked grave. 15 years later
a marker was erected bearing the IWW emblem. It announces simply
and without detail, "In memory of Wesley Everest, Killed Nov. 11, 1919,
age 32." A man's life squeezed into a single date. An identity
The dead Legionnaires
and the local elite are buried in the town's other cemetery, so Wesley's
peace is assured. Several years ago, a Centralia resident, Goldie
Horst, began to place flowers by the grave, fulfilling the request of a
friend who knew Everest. Only our visit and the sound of an occasional
crow make a dent in Wesley's eternal rest.
we go to the Lewis County Historical Society Museum where, for the first
time in 75 years, an exhibit about the 1919 events is displayed.
The museum sits by the Chehalis railroad tracks and an old military tank
is stationed at its entrance. Wondering what secrets this machine
of death is guarding, we enter.
resembles many other county museums I have visited --- a collection of
knickknacks honoring the lives of the area's pioneers and their wealthy
descendants, with barely a word about the Native Americans who inhabited
the land or the workers who made the wealth possible. Yet here, nestled
between dance shoes of society ladies and a fancy car from a bygone era,
is a small wall devoted to the events that drew us to the town.
consists of photos and newspaper reprints, with short captions. It
seems like an attempt to provide even handed treatment. The union
is presented as an organization with a clear and legitimate political agenda
and the repression it experienced is described. There is biographical
information about Wesley Everest, from his birth in Newberg and Portland
childhood, to his union organizing. There is even information about
his participation in a 1913 Coos Bay strike, where armed company goons
forced him to crawl in the streets and kiss the American flag before beating
him up and leaving him for dead in a ditch.
Brenda O'Conner explains that she tried to present "just the facts."
The exhibit has aroused much interest, she tells us, and save for the grumbling
of several older war veterans, has been well received. Another museum
worker, Jane Brock, a woman in her early fifties, joins the conversation.
"I grew up in Centralia, but I always believed the Wobblies' side of the
story. What was done to them was a terrible thing, a shameful thing.
It is good that at last the town is confronting its' past."
Ideology of Greed
exhibit is a step in the right direction. However, any attempt to
situate the events of 1919 in the context of other struggles for social
and economic justice is missing. 1919 is not just ancient history.
The forces that controlled the town 75 years ago ae the same ones still
dominant today, in Centralia, in Portland, everywhere. The local
mill owners have been replaced by multinationals and their methods of repression
are usually subtler since resistance has lessened. However, their
ideology of greed and their willingness to use violence against those who
would challenge their rule is as powerful as ever.
As we drive
out of town, passing by the spot where Wesley Everest's body swayed from
a trestle (still known as Hangman's Bridge), I think of the need to build
alternatives to the way the world was ruled in 1919 and still is today.
Not waiting for the revolution, but as Wesley Everest and the Wobblies
believed, engaging in the important task of creating the new within the
shell of the old.
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