Remembering Frank Little, 100 years after his murder



One-hundred years after the assassination of labor organizer Frank Little in Butte and the nationwide shattering of the Industrial Workers of the World, a new generation of Wobblies is set to memorialize the centennial in the mining city alongside Little's great-grand-niece and her new book documenting the unknown chapters of Little's life.

Anyone who knows the story of Frank Little in Montana knows much the same thing: He challenged anti-free speech practices in Missoula, spoke out against the First World War in Butte, led the miners in a strike and, on Aug. 1, 1917, was dragged from bed by Anaconda Copper Mining Company thugs, driven to the edge of town and lynched from a railroad trestle.

Beyond those details and the scattered stories of earlier labor fights, little was known of Little's early years, the circumstances leading to his trip to Butte, or what happened to his family after his death. Jane Little Botkin, the great-granddaughter of Little's sister, aims to fill those gaps with her recently released book, Frank Little and the IWW: The Blood That Stained an American Family.

After Little's murder, the IWW was crushed under the weight of pro-war hysteria, the first Red Scare, mass deportations, internal divisions, the poaching of members by rival workers movements, and the Sedition Act.

While the organization lived on, it never again reached its pre-war prominence. Montana's chapter limped along until last year, when a new generation of labor activists reorganized in the wake of the presidential election and resurgent white nationalism in the Flathead. Missoula IWW chapter member Brenna Gradus says the branch is organized as a registered student group through the University of Montana and counts about 30 regular members, all of whom joined in the last year.

She says some older professors were shocked to see Wobblies advertising on campus.

"They didn't know we were still around," she says.

While the Aug. 1 anniversary last year consisted of a smattering of aging leftists and Butte state Rep. Amanda Curtis singing labor spirituals from the Little Red Songbook at Little's grave site, Gradus says she expects 30 to 50 new and old Wobblies, as well as whatever crowds Curtis and Botkin might draw, for this year's centennial events.

A plaster death mask of IWW organizer Frank Little created after his assassination in Butte on Aug. 1, 1917. - PHOTO COURTESY BUTTE-SILVER BOW ARCHIVES
  • photo courtesy Butte-Silver Bow Archives
  • A plaster death mask of IWW organizer Frank Little created after his assassination in Butte on Aug. 1, 1917.

The resurgent Missoula IWW chapter planned its centennial celebration before members knew that Curtis and Botkin were planning their own commemorations, and the groups are now cross-advertising. Botkin will host a reading and book signing at Butte's Clark Chateau at 7 p.m. on July 31. The Wobblies plan a gravesite ceremony at 10 a.m. on Aug. 1 followed by a picnic at the murder site and a 7 p.m. music memorial at Butte's Carpenters Union Hall hosted by the Southwestern Montana Central Labor Council.

Botkin says her uncle's legacy of non-partisan populism has earned him admirers across the political spectrum, with groups from libertarians to Trotskyists elevating Little to their emancipatory pantheons.

Botkin says that, based on her research, Little's ideology lined up best with libertarian socialism, an anti-authoritarian strain of Marxism contrasted by the Bolshevism that took power in Russia just months after Little's assassination. Little was apolitical, and resigned from the Socialist Party of America as part of the IWW's constitutional refusal of "all alliances, direct or indirect, with any political parties or anti-political sects."

The IWW values direct action over the ballot box, which has historically put the organization at odds with more moderate unions and progressive political parties that push reform instead of revolution. Nonetheless, Gradus says, the Wobblies are inviting the Montana branches of the AFL-CIO and the Democratic Socialists of America to the centennial in the spirit of solidarity. Centennial observances are open to all.

Botkin attributes Little's modern resonance to his advocacy for free speech and nonviolent direct action, widely respected protest techniques she says he pioneered decades before they were encoded in popular history by the mass movements of the civil rights era. It's those techniques for which Botkin wants him remembered.

She says that though Little's assassination was the climax of Butte's labor struggles, it wasn't the climax of his life.

"He's bigger than the 13 days he spent in Butte," Botkin says.


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