Interview with Frank Little documentarian

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Jul 17 08:38:51 MDT 2003

Toronto International Film Festival 2002: Interview with Travis 
Wilkerson, director of An Injury to One
By David Walsh
4 October 2002

An Injury to One, directed Travis Wilkerson, centers on a significant 
episode in American labor history, the murder of Industrial Workers of 
the World (IWW) organizer Frank Little in Butte, Montana in August 1917. 
The film provides the historical background to the event, the 
decades-long exploitation of the region and its workers by the Anaconda 
Copper Mining Company.

The company’s Butte operations provided 30 percent of the US copper 
total, and 10 percent of the world’s, at a time when the need for the 
metal exploded thanks to its role in electrification. In 1917, provoked 
by low wages, dangerous conditions and reports of Anaconda’s war 
profiteering, Butte’s copper miners, organized in the Metal Mineworkers 
Union, walked off the job en masse. Socialist and left-wing tendencies 
had strong support within the city’s working population.

Obviously a remarkable figure, Frank Little—born to a white father and 
Cherokee mother in Oklahoma in 1879—had been a longtime activist for the 
left-wing IWW. As An Injury to One explains, shortly after his arrival 
in Butte, Little addressed 6,000 miners, denouncing the capitalist 
system and proposing a program of worldwide revolution by the working 
class. Ten days later he spoke to another meeting of 6,500, during which 
he termed President Woodrow Wilson a “lying tyrant,” and called on 
workers to “abolish the wage-system and establish a socialist commonwealth.”

Official Butte was outraged by Little’s activities. On August 1 a gang 
of vigilantes, none of whose identities were ever learned, abducted the 
IWW organizer from his hotel room, drove outside of town and, after 
dragging him behind their car, hung him from a railway trestle. They 
pinned a note on him that read “3’-7’-77”,” the dimensions of a grave in 
Montana. No one was ever arrested or convicted for Little’s brutal murder.

Wilkerson’s film also examines the present state of Butte, a 
much-decayed industrial city of some 32,000 people, blighted by the 
largest body of contaminated water in the US, the Berkeley Pit. This is 
the legacy of Anaconda, which abandoned the town decades ago. The 
company reportedly had extracted $25 billion worth of copper by that time.

Detective story writer Dashiell Hammett presumably based his fictional 
“Poisonville” in Red Harvest on Butte. Hammett, who worked as a 
Pinkerton detective from 1915 to 1922, claimed in interviews in later 
life that he had been offered $5,000 to take part in the murder of 
Little, a claim treated by many with skepticism.

The strength of Wilkerson’s film, which suffers from occasional bouts of 
self-consciousness, is its seriousness and intelligence in the 
examination of a history that is almost entirely concealed by official 
sources. It is an unusual and sometimes quite moving effort. We spoke in 

* * *

David Walsh: Could you tell me something about your background?

Travis Wilkerson: I grew up in the West. I was born in Colorado, lived 
there till I was 12 or 13, then my family moved to Butte in 1982. It was 
an interesting time to move to Butte. We moved into town when everybody 
was moving out of town. The mines had been slowing for years, but 1982 
was really when the bottom was falling out, so it was a very depressed 
time. Although it’s not really much better now.

I went to high school in Butte, which was a fascinating, weird 
experience for me. As you can imagine, it’s a fairly insular town at 
this point, so I was treated with a certain amount of suspicion, but 
over time I felt pretty comfortable there and liked it a lot. When 
you’re just a kid you probably don’t appreciate the history as much as 
you should, but I’ve come to love it.



The Marxism list:

More information about the Marxism mailing list