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100 years after deadly Centralia clash, debate continues over what happened

Lewis County Historical Museum
Marchers in the 1919 Armistice Day parade in Centralia, before events turned violent.

On Nov. 11, 1919, the United States was marking its first-ever Armistice Day. World War I had come to a close just a year earlier.

In Centralia, a parade for the occasion turned violent. The American Legion and the Industrial Workers of the World – union members known as “Wobblies” – engaged in violence that ultimately left six people dead, and many more wounded and injured.

This weekend, events throughout the city will commemorate what some people call “The Centralia Tragedy,” and others call “The Centralia Massacre.”

“Massacre, I think, is totally inappropriate,” said Tom Copeland, who wrote a book about the incident in 1993. “Massacre implies that somehow the union members, the IWW members, were sitting in ambush and fired on a peaceful parade and therefore the paraders were massacred. But that’s not what really happened.”

Copeland, who will speak at 11 a.m. Sunday inside the Centralia Train Depot, prefers the term “tragedy.”

Tensions were high in 1919 toward organized labor in general, but especially the IWW.

“The IWW was a radical labor union, which advocated for both better wages and working conditions – as well as for workers to take control over industry through strikes, that would lead to a social revolution,” Copeland said.

They led strikes during World War I, and organized marginalized groups, such as African Americans and women.

Copeland says the American Legion in particular saw the Wobblies as anti-American. Many union members opposed World War I, though the union itself did not officially do so. And while some Wobblies stayed home from the war, others – including Wesley Everest, who was lynched in the 1919 incident – were veterans.

So when word came that Centralia’s first Armistice Day parade would pass by the IWW hall, the union worried its hall would be raided, and not for the first time.

“They asked the police, they asked the mayor to protect them. They refused,” he said. “They printed up fliers asking for help … nobody responded.”

Debate continues today over exactly how the events unfolded.

“There was no coordinated plan, but some of the Wobblies had guns, some of the Wobblies positioned themselves on hotels and Seminary Ridge, to defend themselves,” he said.  

The controversy, Copeland says, is over whether the Wobblies fired first or the Legionnaires raided the hall first. Both sides spun the story to their own ends, and it remains unresolved to this day.

“I don’t mean to say that Centralia is a hotbed of people yelling and screaming at each other – that’s not the case,” he said. “Through this 100th anniversary there’s some efforts to reconcile.”

But he says what happened then has shaped us as a country today, and that the Centralia Tragedy of 1919 is a cautionary tale.

“Today I see a lot of fear against immigrants, blacks, women, Jews, the gay and transgender community, and that people who fear others – some of them believe that violence and oppression is an acceptable way to protect their own interests,” he said. “We have the atmosphere today of this hatred and violence. I just think we need to pause and say ‘Wait a minute, what are we doing?’”

Ed Ronco came to KNKX in October 2013 as producer and reporter for KNKX’s Morning Edition. Ed started in public radio in 2009 at KCAW in Sitka, Alaska, where he covered everything from city government, to education, crime, science, the arts and more. Prior to public radio, Ed worked in newspapers, including four years at the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune, where he covered business, then politics and government.