GUEST BLOGGER: Tom Copeland on Remembering the Centralia Tragedy of November 11, 1919

A rare photo from 1919 of Centralia, Washington, showing the American Legion’s memorial service held a few days after the Armistice Day violence.

As we remember and celebrate the veterans of all America’s wars this Armistice Day 2011, our Guest Blogger Tom Copeland reminds us of heroes on the home front who also took couragous stands to protect our freedoms.

On November 11, 1919, during an Armistice Day parade in the central Washington State town of Centralia, a crowd of World War I veterans stormed the local branch building of the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.).  This sparked a violent confrontation in which four veterans were shot dead and one I.W.W. member was lynched.

The Centralia Tragedy – portrayed briefly in the new film J. Edgar starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the 48-year director of the FBI — represented the high-water mark of the suppression of domestic labor radicalism after the Great War.  (Click here for (a) more detail on the violence itself and (b) some rare video of the aftermath.) 

During the 1920s, the Centralia case became a national cause célèbre.  Juries found four Wobblies guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced them to over a decade in jail. No one was ever charged with the mob lynching of “Wobbly” (as I.W.W. members were called) Wesley Everest.

I became interested in this case in the early 1970s, while attending Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. I discovered that a 1910 graduate, Elmer Smith, had advised the I.W.W. that they had a right to defend their hall that day in 1919 from the anticipated attack by the American Legion.

I spent the next 20 years tracking down Smith’s life by interviewing surviving relatives (Smith died in 1932), uncovering his partly censored FBI files, and piecing together records from historical archives across the country.  In 1993, the University of Washington published my biography of Smith: The Centralia Tragedy of 1919: Elmer Smith and the Wobblies.

Smith’s life as a lawyer fascinated me, particularly his tireless dedication to the rights of working people through his defense of the I.W.W. prisoners.  Smith was arrested numerous times for speaking out on behalf if the I.W.W., kidnapped briefly by the American Legion in California after quoting Abraham Lincoln, disbarred from practicing law (partly for telling a joke!), and later reinstated. The Centralia case became the driving force in his career, and his work kept alive the cause of the I.W.W. prisoners and eventually led to their freedom.

Smith, a nonviolent man, knew that his 1919 advice to the I.W.W. helped precipitate violence.  His lifelong efforts to free the imprisoned men ignited anti-radical passions wherever he went.  Roger Baldwin, founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, called him “a determined advocate and an admirer of the men he defended.”
 Smith’s personal life mirrored the optimism and crushing reality of I.W.W. fortunes in the Pacific Northwest after World War I.  He was a man of many weaknesses.  He had a rigid morality caused and was sometimes naïve, judgmental, and driven by guilt for his role in the Centralia case.  Although  outwardly confident, he took on more responsibility that he could handle, and constant pressure from his work created stress that eventually ruined his health.

Poster to honor I.W.W. victim of
the 1919 Centralia lynching.

 Despite these flaws, he was admired by workers and displayed extraordinary fearlessness in standing up to intimidation and personal threats of violence, and he never responded in anger. “It was hard for Elmer to believe that a person could be a no-good-son-of-a-bitch,” one of his friends remembered. “The weakness with Elmer is that he trusted too easy. His strength was also his weakness. He had an overwhelming faith in the goodness of his fellow man.”

The Centralia Tragedy has been largely forgotten outside the Pacific Northwest. On this 92nd anniversary, let us remember those workers (and lawyers!) who fought for their rights to organize against great obstacles. As Smith once said:

“How they say to me ‘Elmer, you are fanning the fire of discontent with your speeches!’ Of course I am! Did ever anything worthwhile ever come to pass in the history of the world without fanning the fire of discontent? No! … By the Almighty I will fan the fire of discontent till I draw my last breath.”

By fanning the fire of discontent during his lifetime, Elmer Smith helped keep the flame of justice alive for later generations.

Tom Copeland is the author of The Centralia Tragedy of 1919: Elmer Smith and the Wobblies.  He is also an independent consultant: