by Jane Little Botkin
On August 1, 2017, in Butte, Montana, I was honored to give Frank Little the eulogy he never received. He was a revered IWW leader who minced no words. I wanted those in attendance marking the centennial of his brutal murder to know that he had had a family and an upbringing that led to his hate of corporate greed and empathy for the common worker. His fight is still alive today.
Frank Little was my great-grand uncle, and I had grown up knowing little. My family had protected Frank from prosecution with their silence. Even after his murder, they stopped talking. They had been afraid of the Bureau of Investigation, today’s FBI. My research took me almost ten years while I walked his path across ten states.
Frank hadn’t been afraid. He traversed the West speaking out against big corporation mining, logging, and farming, its hired thugs and free speech suppression. That is why he was murdered. He spoke too vehemently — and honestly.
For young IWW members, let me tell you something about one of the grandfathers of the organization. Frank Little was born in Illinois but moved first to Missouri, a hotbed after the Civil War, and then to northeast Indian Territory when he was about nine. He attended an American Indian mission school—not because he was Native American, but because his father doctored in the area. He grew up reading dime novels about heroes, and he had firsthand knowledge of famous outlaws: the James and Dalton gangs, who were born of the same stripe as he, and who fought against unfair capitalist ventures in Missouri and the Territory.
After his widowed mother lost the family farm to a local cattle baron who had shrewdly loaned money to Frank’s desperate father, young Frank left the farm, heading for the gold mines of Arizona. His heart, full of resentment for Oklahoma’s indifference to struggling farmers who became slaves to merchants and cattle barons, guided him.
In Mojave, California, Frank first joined its Western Federation of Miners (WFM) #51 because Bisbee, Arizona, where he worked, was a closed shop. In Bisbee, he radicalized and soon became a “walking delegate” for Globe’s WFM local #60. There, with little to no pay, Frank found his voice and organized miners, arguing for a three-dollar eight-hour-day and better working conditions. By 1907, Frank Little had become a Wobbly.
Fresno’s Free Speech Fight (1910-1911) brought Frank’s activism to the forefront. Exposing how city governments shut down dissident speech, Frank led three waves of free speech fights. He taught local members how to soapbox in the face of law enforcement, even if only reciting the Declaration of Independence, to purposely get arrested and pack the underfunded jails. He learned legal defense strategies, argued for impounded workers and their rights to the first and fourth Constitutional amendments, and lustily sang, “Solidarity Forever.”
IWW GEB Chairman Frank Little was jailed, and often beaten, multiple times in Missoula, Spokane, Fresno, Peoria, Duluth, Superior, Virginia (MN), and Kansas City; kidnapped in Superior and Duluth; beaten in El Paso; given the “water-cure” in Fresno; mock-hanged in Iron River (MI); and starved in Spokane.
After arriving in Butte to assist with an ongoing strike, Frank was kidnapped out of his boarding house room at three in the morning, brutally beaten, tied to a Cadillac’s rear bumper, and dragged through the granite-paved streets. Under a railroad trestle and atop the black car, an unconscious Frank Little, “half-breed hobo agitator,” was hanged. All because of his words.
Frank Little had fought “for the real thing”—a voice.