The March of Tears

By Morris Rosenfeld

Published March 15, 2011.
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Originally published in the Forverts, April 6, 1911

A black parade, a black day, a black sky and a black earth. Black rows of mourners walked through rain-soaked streets as black threatening clouds dragged through the air; it was as if the day had been custom-ordered for this singular soundless, deeply mournful funeral march.

Never have I seen such dreadful gloom, such sorrow, in New York. I’ve never seen such lamentation. Not even at the historical mourners march that extended out in protest to counter the pogroms against Jews during Russia’s savage empire.

What Russia’s awful triumvirate, Nicholas II, Krushevan and Stolypin never achieved, New York’s dreadful triumvirate, The Triangle Shirtwaist Company, did achieve. They reduced living beings to ashes and as a result we’ve had the largest mourner’s march in history.

America’s metropolis, this horrific funeral town, criminalized, its work going to unskilled laborers, its trembling hands on its head, its ranks, haggard and weeping, dragged themselves along in grievous rows.

In spring, when the plow should be tearing the awakened earth open for the planting of new seeds, the spade sweats at its work, digging hundreds of graves for its charred young sons and daughters.

The fledgling spring rain falls on the fresh graves, but it won’t bring the murdered beings back to life. No! Rain water will not occasion sprouting on these untimely graves in work’s vast cemetery. No! It will be the tears of the millions of sufferers that will wake the dead to life, to eternal life, in our hearts, and in the hearts of future generations.

Under the weeping sky the mass of 100,000 heads grew as waves of people spilled into the streets from all the buildings and with bowed heads aligned themselves in the funeral rows of mourning marchers.

Most haunting were the black flags and thousands of open black umbrellas that filled the space like black wedding canopies.

The ghastly march snaked past the dancehalls in silent gloom. And when it passed the wedding halls of the Jewish quarter on the East Side the horror doubled.

The immolated girls used to dance in these halls in their free time. And it was in these wedding halls that they hoped to drink from the wedding goblets. It was here where they were expecting to wear their white wedding veils. And now, unfurled beside those doors—death-flags wrapped in black cloth, black ribbons and black bands, radiated horror on the whole of humanity, on the entire sinful establishment. Carriages loaded with flowers were not there to grace bride and groom but fresh graves where burned bones lay.

Indescribable and moving was the moment when the survivors of the Triangle Fire, those astonishingly rescued at that devilish altar, appeared at the march. A silent shiver ran through everyone’s heart, the onlookers’ eyes lit up with frightened awe and incomprehensible feelings—agonizing elation and sympathetic excitement evoked burning tears.

Making a powerful impression were the American flags woven through with black cloth. They intermingled with hundreds of union flags and condolence and protest placards.

Looking at the much sung about American flag, Old Glory, The Red White and Blue, I saw it in its true colors for the first time — the thing that had been missing was that dreadful color, black, the color of poverty, death and isolation of the working masses over which it fluttered with an exaggerated conceit. At this mourners’ march, in memory of the fire-departed, I saw America’s flag not like it waves above New York’s City Hall.

In the large open space of Rutger’s Square, where the streets of the East Side flow together, where the Jewish gloom of the tenements expresses itself in bold strokes — yes on that square, I looked down from a window at the gathering, the walking-dead groaners of the sweatshops. This was the poor man’s day of grief, moving him alone. A rag-doll would not have brought a smile to the lips of any of those gathered. A fortune would not have brought joy to anyone’s countenance. Here the embodied lament, the despair, the tragedy alone marched in the hundreds of thousands of assorted visages of poor men and women.

Grievous was the picture of mothers and children looking out of tenement windows, pointing to their loved ones who were marching in that immense memorial.

What horrific thoughts must have come to the fore in a haggard, tenement mother’s mind as she pointed out to her little girl or boy the mourners of the immolated workers!

I shudder when I think of it. I grow faint when I imagine what such a mother might have thought. What is woven through her mothers’ broken heart? What transpires in her distraught mind — young children burned in a factory! Vey, what poor family doesn’t send its children to factories?

The train of lament snaked through the Jewish streets. Most of the mourners were Jewish but among the Jewish ranks were also Italian Christians, lamenting over the same devastation along with their poor Jewish neighbors.

The catastrophe of Washington Place, the locked hellish door to that firetrap that ate up young lives, that lacerated the hearts of Jews and Christians alike and gave them a joint grave of the unidentified fire victims at the city’s Evergreen Cemetery. Jews and Christians now have a common workers’ grave on which compassion lays a communal tombstone bedecked with an everlasting green laurel wreath.

This was the most forceful impression, the most unforgettable parade of tears that has yet been recorded in the annals of labor history. This was a silent protest against the modern slave industry, a silent rage that will never disappear.

A quiet march, with no music, no speakers. It was not necessary.

What significance could a mourners’ march have had on these streets, devoted to earthly instruments?

What experience would the sound of mortal lips have conveyed? What would the best speaker have told us?

Thousands of wounded souls thundered in a silent chorus.

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