Today is International Workers’ Day. Here in the United States, it’s also—technically—Loyalty Day, a recognized federal day of commemoration that has been marked by every president since Eisenhower.
Last year’s presidential proclamation on the occasion of Loyalty Day presented “nothing to quibble with,” in the words of the Los Angeles Times editorial board.
“Our Nation has always been at its finest when guided by a spirit of shared sacrifice and common purpose,” President Barack Obama said in his 2016 address.
But, the board writes, “the history of Loyalty Day itself is not so admirable.”
First celebrated in 1921 as Americanization Day, it arose in response to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and growing radicalism in a swelling U.S. labor movement. Congress formally recognized Loyalty Day in 1958, when Cold War-era anti-communist fervor led to a hunt for suspected subversives that cost countless leftists their jobs, prompted prosecutions for political beliefs, led governments to require employees and job seekers to take loyalty oaths, and propelled inquisitions by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
International Workers’ Day was started on May Day because that day is the anniversary of the 1886 Haymarket Affair, a Chicago conflict between police and demonstrating workers that took place in Haymarket Square. Labor leaders, in search of less exploitive hours for workers, were seeking to “redefine May 1 as a holiday set aside for the American laborer,” writes Jordan Grant for the National Museum of American History. In 1886, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Assemblies (a predecessor to the American Federation of Labor, or AFL) declared May 1 a universal strike day to protest for an eight-hour workday.
More than 30,000 Chicago workers struck, writes Grant. It was a step forward for the American labor movement, but tragedy followed. As the strike went into its third day, Chicago police fired at strikers outside a local plant and killed at least two. Then, as workers protested in Haymarket Square, an altercation between police and protesters left dead and injured on both sides.
“For many Americans at the time, the ‘Haymarket incident’ and the contentious public trials that followed sullied May 1, forever tying the day to anarchists, socialists, and other ‘radical’ groups that stood outside the mainstream of American society,” Grant writes.
The incident galvanized the international labor movement to make May 1 a formal workers’ day. In the United States after World War II, though, any association with collective action was linked with the specter of communism.
Although the date of Americanization Day/Loyalty Day moved around before Eisenhower made it official, it was settled on May 1 and “intended to replace” the labor movement’s holiday, writes Jon Wiener for The Nation.
Loyalty Day parades were a thing throughout the United States in the fifties and on, with some cities continuing to celebrate today.