On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. Before it was over, 146 shirtwaist (today called blouses) makers, the majority of them young immigrant women, died in the fire that broke out on the eighth floor of the factory, or jumped to their deaths. Many were unable to escape because the doors on their floors had been locked to prevent them from stealing or taking unauthorized breaks.
Two years earlier, in 1909, there had been a walkout of workers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, seeking to become a part of he International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) to address the horrible working conditions. Only 20 percent of the workers were involved and the company locked out its employees when it learned what was happening until the attempt to unionize failed.
In addition to the locked doors; there was no workable alarm system in the building, so by the time they realized what was happening the fire was already blazing around them; there were only a few exits available; and only two freight elevators that went to ground level; a group of 24 people who tried to escape on a shoddily built fire escape fell to their deaths when it collapsed. This left only two stairwells, one of which was blocked by fire below the workers and one that was locked from the outside; to avoid the flames 62 workers jumped to their deaths in desperation .
In the Shirt Waist factory where mostly young women labored nine hours a day, Monday through Friday and seven hours on Saturday in a poorly ventilated environment where highly flammable cotton scraps accumulated in large bins, and a supervisor had to unlock a door for the employees to visit the bathroom, few outsiders were aware of the conditions that were well-known to the managers and owners who saw maximum profit as the bottom line.
It was not the first disaster in which workers had died, but it struck a chord, especially when word of the locked doors began to spread. It must have been a surprise for most of the factory owners when more than 100,000 people participated in the funeral march for the victims.
Reform did not happen overnight, but within eight years, 90 percent of the factory workers in New York City had unionized and were creating better working conditions for their members. Even more importantly, many with money and social status, most of whom had never worked in a factory were shocked into radicalization.
Many political experts today see the death of 146 workers at the Shirtwaist factory, caused by pure greed, as the event that launched the progressive movement in this country and turned many Americans into sympathizers with the poor and downtrodden.
It was not the worst disaster involving the death of ordinary working people during that period of history in the United States, but the timing, the publicity and the public uproar changed the history and direction of this country.
On the evening of June 17, 2015, another such event — I believe — took place at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, when a racist thug named Dylann Roof, allegedly killed nine people with a handgun at a prayer meeting, because, in the words of a surviving witness, they were black, raping white women and trying to take over the country. That is how he evidently saw it in his twisted perspective of life.
While the nation was reeling from the mass killing inside a church, pictures emerged of Roof wearing flag patches on his coat from the now defunct nations of South Africa and Rhodesia where whites ruled blacks with an iron fist and kept them segregated from whites. In some of those pictures, he was waving the Confederate battle flag and burning, trampling and spitting on the American flag.
The Confederate battle flag, which was not the official flag of the Confederate states, has long been a sore spot with black Americans and many progressive whites, but every time it was mentioned as offensive, advocates declared the flag to be nothing more than a symbol of Southern cultural heritage; many of whom no doubt sincerely believe it, while failing to recognize that for black Americans and progressives it stands as a symbol of slavery and a shameful period of our history.
Within a day of the church massacre, thousands of South Carolinians — black and white — gathered at the capitol and demanded that the Confederate battle flag be taken down. Particularly galling, it seems, was that all other flags were at half mast because of the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, while the Confederate flag flew full mast.
While I can’t predict the future, I can extrapolate from history, and I believe the Confederate battle flag will soon cease to be part of any official American branch of government. I think it will go to the museums as President Obama suggested and will only be seen in the hands of who reenact Civil War battles, on belt buckles, license plates and the jackets of diehards still waiting for the South to rise again.
For the first time, Southern politicians and wise presidential candidates seem to realize the tide has turned and they must break with those who cling desperately to the past or lose those who are firmly planted in 21st Century United States. How long it will take for two-thirds of the South Carolina legislature to agree on removing the flag, I don’t know, but I think it has now become inevitable. Sometimes it takes a tragedy to spur needed social changes.
I believe the massacre of nine black Americans inside the sanctuary of a church by a seemingly twisted, frustrated little racist thug has created the impetus that will take down the physical symbol of oppression to so many people so and that the nine people murdered in Charleston — like the 146 people who needlessly died in a factory fire –will not have been totally in vain.