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The Bloody Labor Crackdown Paramount Didn’t Want America to See

Executives feared their newsreel footage would “cause riots and mass hysteria.”

A Chicago citizens group led by the economist and future senator Paul Douglas made inquiries, to which a Paramount executive replied with a prepared statement: “Our pictures depict a tense and nerve-wracking episode which in certain sections of the country might very well incite…riotous demonstrations in theaters leading to further casualties. For these reasons of public policy these pictures…will stay shelved.” 

It would not. A committee led by Wisconsin Sen. Robert M. La Follette, Jr., elected on the Progressive Party line, subpoenaed the footage, and one of the nation’s top investigative reporters, Paul Y. Anderson, was granted permission to view it. Anderson then wrote a series of articles for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (reprinted by other newspapers) describing the film and interviewing some of the injured. Paramount completed a second version of its newsreel—and again failed to release it.

“We want to see that Paramount newsreel film of the Memorial Day massacre of steel-strikers by Chicago police,” wrote syndicated columnist John Franklin Carter. “We think we are sufficiently adult to sit through the spectacle of officers of the law firing on unarmed people, slugging women, shooting men in the back…We think we have a right to see that newsreel. A newsreel company covering one of the most dramatic events in the current labor war has deliberately suppressed what, from the accounts, is one of the great photographic news stories of our age.”

Dorothy Day, a journalist and co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, wrote in her organization’s newspaper: “We are sickened by stories of brutality in Germany and Russia and Italy. And here in America…there was a public exhibition of such brutality, but the motion picture film, taken by a Paramount photographer in a sound truck, was suppressed by the company for fear that it would cause riots and mass hysteria, it was so unutterably horrible.”

LaFollette left Paramount with little choice in the matter. To cap off three days of Senate hearings that were widely covered by the press, he screened the footage himself—some of it in slow motion, then a rare technique for news film—producing gasps and tears from the audience. Paramount responded by rushing out a third version of its newsreel. Even then some theater chains refused to screen it, and officials in some cities, including Chicago and St. Louis, and the state of Massachusetts, banned any screenings of the footage. But no riots were reported.

A coroner’s jury would ultimately conclude that the 10 deaths amounted to “justified homicide.” None of the officers involved were fired or publicly disciplined. Even so, Lippert’s footage had lasting impact. The resulting shift in public opinion against police helped the steel workers eventually gain recognition and new contracts. And the official depravity Lippert exposed encouraged labor organizers and police to shy away from violent confrontations.