Remembrance Of A Hunter Of Stories

Eduardo Galeano died in April 2015.  I think of him often, I was overjoyed to hear that Hunter of Stories would be published posthumously in Nov. 2017. This is excerpted from a post I wrote a year earlier, November 2016, on this blog:

Eduardo Galeano sat at my dining room table in my Chicago apartment on Lill Street one block away from Guild Books, pen poised and a stack of books to be signed at his side. Breakfast consumed, he had reluctantly agreed to sign some books in advance of his appearance at the bookstore later that Saturday, 1988.   He was anxious, it seemed, and we had been warned that his health was mending after some heart issues. We didn’t press him to sign books, but were delighted when he agreed with our suggestion that some folks might just want to purchase a signed copy without talking with him.

I sat mesmerized with the tremendous accomplishment of getting Galeano to Guild; even more amazed by the good fortune of giving up my bedroom to him and my relocating to the living room couch. How did that happen?

Three years earlier, in 1985, I’d been a bookseller at Midnight Special Books in Santa Monica, California. I had done many things at the bookstore, but in 1985 I was mostly the person in charge of ordering books. While the consolidation in book selling and publishing had been well underway, it was still a few years before the tremendous expansion of super stores. It was still important for sales representatives to call on booksellers for book orders.

Doug Hodges, who later became a national sales manager for Random House, s0ld the Random House catalogue to me then. He always came to see me early in the season. He told me I prepared more thoroughly than any of his accounts for our meetings, and, even with the smaller number of imprints under the Random House rubric than I would later have to deal with, meeting with Doug could be an all day event. Start at 9 AM, break at noon for lunch, then come back to wrap up from 1 to 3. All independent bookstores relied heavily on Vintage paperbacks, Pantheon literary and political titles. Less important for us were the books in the venerable Knopf imprint, the Random House titles and Crown and Villard were least important. Nevertheless I always combed through each of those catalogs to find the gems, which was one reason Doug came early to see me. He said he learned a lot about the importance of some of the books that no one else knew about. This day in 1985 was going to be one of those days.

In the Pantheon catalog I found Eduardo Galeano’s Genesis, “the extraordinary first volume of a great and ambitious project” reads the flap of the book jacket. This is probably part of the catalog copy that leaped out at me. And the first thing I said to Doug as we sat down to the Pantheon list was: “We want Galeano in our store when he tours for the book. He has GOT to come here. No place else in Los Angeles area would know what to do to promote this book or who has the connections to get people to hear him.”

Hodges sat dumbfounded. “Who is he?” Doug asked.

I told him about how a generation of Mexican and South American intellectuals had cut

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Galeano signed Genesis at my breakfast table

their critical thinking eye-teeth on Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America (two decades later Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez would choose to present a copy to recently elected President Barack Obama); how that was the most consistent best selling book on Latin American history in that section of the store; how the most important Latin American studies departments/teachers in the Los Angeles area from UCLA to UC Irvine to Cal State Los Angeles relied on that book, all of whom we knew and to whose students we therefore had a direct line. And when I got through Doug reiterated that was why he came to the Midnight Special first. He had never heard of Galeano, he now had something to tell other booksellers when he showed the catalog.

But Random House was not planning on touring him, it was not in their plans at all, he was too unknown in the US, Random House could not afford to bring him from Uruguay where he lived. Excuse after excuse met my rants and raves and criticism of their short sightedness.

Random House did not bring Galeano to the US in 1985.

The situation repeated itself, complete with rants and raves and refusals from Random House in 1987, when the second volume, Faces and Masks, was published. This time, however, Doug knew who Eduardo Galeano was and thought he would pre-empt my tantrum by telling me in advance that Galeano was not coming to the United States.

At the end of 1987 I packed my Toyota Station Wagon with its rebuilt engine and its 200,000 miles and drove to Chicago to join the Guild Books staff. One of the first sales representatives I met was Random House’s Mary McCarthy. While poring over the Pantheon catalog I saw that Galeano’s third and concluding volume of the Memory of Fire Trilogy, Century of the Wind, would be published that season (1988). I guess the cumulative brow beating Random House reps had gotten from the likes of Richard Bray at Guild and me at Midnight Special must have taken its toll on the Random House touring brass.

This time Galeano would come to the US.  Richard had come to know Eduardo Galeano’s agent in New York, Susan Bergholz, who insisted that Galeano needed peace and quiet while he was here, recuperating from his illness. Some place away from what she anticipated would be a flurry of activists tiring him out and keeping him from getting the rest that he needed on what looked like a very strenuous tour. He hid out in my bedroom.

So there he was, in my dining room, at the table at which he had just finished breakfast, signing books, including all three volumes of the trilogy, Open Veins, Days and Nights of Love and War, and a copy of each signed to me, all signed “gratefully, mil mil abrazos,” and more importantly with the caricature of the pig with the flower in his mouth, a trademark he said he reserved for special autographs.

But, he said, “I will not read.” OK, we thought, we don’t want to press him on this, make him angry or more anxious. Yes bookstore patrons, our bookstore patrons, want the author to give them a taste of what is in the book and talk about it.   But here is a man who is clearly nervous about the upcoming event. So we backed off, and Eduardo went for a walk, returning directly to the bookstore an hour or so before the event was to start, declaring himself willing to sign more books in advance if we wished. And yes, we wished.

As he signed, the people began to arrive for the book signing. He was seated in the back room, but heard the commotion beginning to build, glanced into the store area, and said, “I think I will read. But I left my book with my notations in your apartment.” I ran to the building, ran up to the third floor apartment (yes, we had cleared with his agent that walking up 3 flights would not be too strenuous for Eduardo), found his book and ran back with it in time to start the program.

The crowd hung on his words, as he read in English but also in Spanish, and then answered questions, altogether about an hour and a half, and then began signing books, as the line snaked throughout the store. He talked with each person as much as the person wanted; he took pictures with the customers and their children. I stood at his side doing the task that all booksellers do in this situation: open the books to the pages preferred for the signature. And about 45 minutes into the signing ritual Eduardo turned to me with a broad but incredulous smile: “They like me. They really like me!”

Before he left, Eduardo toured the 3,000 square feet of the book store and spent some time looking at the political and labor posters we had for sale, on display in a rack. He fingered the display, took some notes, and left. The next morning friends of ours recorded an interview with him on video and took him in search of Haymarket Square, a search that proved unsuccessful.

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The Haymarket monument, sculpted by Mary Brogger, located just north of Randolph on DesPlaines, was not in place when Eduardo went in search of Haymarket Square in 1988

Four years would pass before Eduardo would return to Guild. In May, 1992 my divorce from my first wife was finally becoming a reality, my marriage to my second wife a month away, and the book Eduardo would be signing would be The Book of Embraces. The existence of the bookstore itself was tenuous as both a Barnes & Noble and a Borders had opened in the neighborhood and as the neighborhood became less affordable for our regulars. Our core clientele were moving away. We had to close one third of the bookstore and the Guild Complex, the not-for-profit literary organization we had spawned to take up the promotion of literary events, had to move (they occupied a performance space in the South Loop called The Edge of the Lookingglass. This is where Eduardo was going to read.

This time Eduardo stayed in a hotel off Michigan Avenue. We agreed to meet in the lobby of his hotel. There were some items he had to buy while he was on tour, and we could talk while I accompanied him on his rounds. We went to one of the “Magnificent Mile’s” most appealing shopping attractions, the Water Tower Place, where Eduardo wanted to pick up some CDs for his daughter and where I knew there was a small CD store. He picked up a couple of classical CDs and a jazz CD, off the sale rack at the front of the store, but then was stymied in finding the CD his daughter wanted.
Eduardo walked to the checkout counter and asked the sales clerk, in faltering but carefully pronounced words, “Do you have anything by the [clearly and slowly enunciated] Butt Hole Surfers”? A quizzical and sheepish look spread over his face as he said it, almost apologetic. But the clerk was the one who apologized, saying that he wished the store would carry them, but probably the best place to try would be Wax Trax Records (which was right across from the Guild Book Store!).

That evening at the Guild Complex at the Edge of the Lookingglass, Eduardo Galeano read to an even larger crowd than he had the first time in Chicago. And among the things he read was this tribute to Guild Bookstore, the “largest bookstore in Chicago” in this anecdote:

Forgetting
Chicago is full of factories. There are even factories right in the center of the city, around the world’s tallest building. Chicago is full of factories. Chicago is full of workers.

Arriving in the Haymarket district, I ask my friends to show me the place where the workers whom the whole world salutes every May 1st were hanged in 1886.

It must be around here,’ they tell me. But nobody knows where.

No statue has been erected in memory of the martyrs of Chicago in the city of Chicago. Not a statue, not a monolith, not a bronze plaque. Nothing.

May 1st is the only truly universal day of all humanity, the only day when all histories and all geographies, all languages and all religions and cultures of the world coincide. But in the United States, May 1st is a day like any other. On that day, people work normally and no one, or almost no one, remembers that the rights of the working class did not spring whole from the ear of a goat, or from the hand of God or the boss.

After my fruitless exploration of the Haymarket, my friends take me to the largest bookstore in the city. And there, poking around, just by accident, I discover an old poster that seems to be waiting for me, stuck among many movie and rock posters. The poster displays an African proverb: Until lions have their own historians, histories of the hunt will glorify the hunter.

* * * * * * * * *

We know now where the Haymarket was, where the rally was for which the Haymarket

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In his 1992 book of critical essays, We Say No, Eduardo wrote: “We say no to some people. And we say yes to Diana and Lew.

martyrs were arrested and imprisoned and executed. In 2006 Henry Holt published Eduardo’s Voices of Time, continuing the epigrammatic form he has worked with, this time “stories that I lived or heard.”   At the Guild Complex we convinced Susan Bergholz to take Eduardo’s strenuous tour through Chicago once more. He read for us at the Museum of Contemporary Art to a packed audience. For many, this was the culmination of what Guild Books had been about. For us, it was an opportunity of bringing memory, forgetting, and not knowing at all together, these themes that strike at the heart of Galeano’s work and of the revolutionary process.

May Day, 2006, just weeks earlier, I walked among almost a million Chicagoans along a route from Union Park to Randolph into the Loop and Grant Park. The steel, concrete and glass canyons resounded with the chants of marchers, many of them recent immigrants from Mexico and Latin America. “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido” reverberated from the walls of those buildings, the marchers swelling into the streets in a mass farther than anyone could see.

But before coming to the loop, just a few blocks out of Union Park, we came to Randolph and Des Plaines. I stepped to the sidewalk, stood in the shadow of the corner building and looked north as the throng walked by me. The contingent from one union, also looking north, paused briefly and saluted the sculpture across the way – a recreation of the platform from which the speakers addressed their audience that May, 1886. Most marchers seemed unaware of the historic place through which they were walking, although well aware of the historic day on which they were marching.

How could we bring this reality of American consciousness to the reading that Eduardo was going to do? We made sure that some of those union leaders representing the marchers and their consciousness of May Day introduce Eduardo. And so they did, and we had the chance to talk about the sculpture, the march, and that although many marchers did not know where Haymarket square was, the fact that their march reclaimed not only the memory of the martyrs but the reality of the struggle which continues.

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And that’s how the blog post ends,  with shop floor union leaders who had been in the leadership of forming that march talking with Eduardo about the significance of that march, a way for us to return to the Book of Embraces, in a way to embrace this chronicler of the historic struggles of the international working class.  As I told Eduardo about this march that was more than a march, I explained that I had been to many May Days in my life.  They were travesties of what May Day used to be like.  I recounted to him how my father had walked in May Day marches in New York, as part of the insurance workers union (I didn’t know this then, but one of the largest unions in Chicago in the 1930s was the union of workers who worked for large insurance companies). In a way I felt cheated, because my sister, 14 years older than I, stood on the sidewalk with my mother while the parade went by.  But my May Days were small gatherings of at best 100 people.  And here, in 2006, hundreds of thousands of workers marched in the streets, while the ideologues had their small meetings and groused because “these were immigrants, not really workers”!

The National Museum of Mexican Arts celebrated the publication of Hunter of Stories in December, 2017. Sandra Cisneros, among others, read from the book.  She chose to read this selection:

May Day is the most widely celebrated of all holidays.

The entire world stands still to pay homage to the workers hanged long ago in Chicago for the crime of refusing to work more than eight hours a day.

On my first trip to the United States, I was surprised to learn that May 1st was a day like any other.  Not even the city of Chicago, where the tragedy occurred, seemed to notice. In The Book of Embraces I confessed that such willful forgetting pained me.

Much later I received a letter from Diana Berek and Lew Rosenbaum of Chicago.

They had never celebrated the holiday, but in the year 2006, along with the largest crowd they had ever witnessed, they paid homage to the workers sent to the gallows long ago for their bravery.

In the letter, Diana and Lew told me they finally understood the discomfort I described in the Book of Embraces.

“Chicago embraces you,” the letter said.

Hunter of Stories is a collection of  memories, sometimes gentle, sometimes sharp, alwaysGaleano Hunter of Stories penetrating.  There are, for example, two recollections of his book Open Veins of Latin America. One recounts how his native country, Uruguay, at first did not ban the book thinking that it was a book of anatomy. They discovered their error quickly.  The second, tells of the soccer player who carried the book that found its way across continents, a book pierced by a bullet that entered the back of a guerrilla fighter from El Salvador, killing him, found its way back to the hands of its author.  The book is a kind of a pearl necklace, an embrace of images of a lifetime strung artfully together for reminiscence . . . or for meditation on what is next.

 

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Can We Put Humpty Back Together?

Can We Put Humpty Back Together? by Lew Rosenbaum

In the last year, so much of our thinking seems to be conditioned by elections coming up at the end of 2018. We get evidence, every day something new, that the corporate billionaires are enriching themselves exponentially while those of us at the bottom are losing what little we have. It seems we are so frightened by the currently frightful national political situation, that so many are obsessed with kicking out the Republicans and restoring a majority of Democrat officeholders.  It’s not exactly historical amnesia; it’s more like inability to think outside the paradigms we have come to accept as the natural world.  Some abstractions like “lesser of two evils” don’t help, as people confront a fight to maintain basic services.  A look back at the legislative history of the Humphrey-Hawkins “full employment” Act in the 1970s shows what we are dealing with.  In the wake of Watergate, with Nixon forced to resign and his VP Gerald Ford in office, the Democrats won both houses of Congress in 1974.  In 1975 Congressman Gus Hawkins of

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Gus Hawkins was elected from Los Angeles as the first African-American Congressman West of the Mississippi.

Los Angeles and Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota brought to the floor of their respective chambers a bill promising full employment.  Despite a veto-proof Democrat majority, the bill failed to gather enough support.  By the time the Full Employment and Balanced Growth bill passed and was signed by Jimmy Carter,(1978), negotiations with Carter had significantly weakened the bill to almost meaninglessness (note: it was the icon of progressivism Carter who forced those concessions).  (See a more complete history of this legislation in this New York Times article). Humphrey died before the bill was signed.  At the signing ceremony, Hawkins — the first African American Congressman West of the Mississippi — himself declared the final bill was “symbolic.”

The conflict around this bill took place as a major change was just beginning in workplaces around the country.  Deindustrialization by outsourcing to other countries and the beginning electronic revolution was causing unemployment to soar (it exceeded 8% in 1975). The last breaths of capitalist expansion within the US coughed and gasped. The world as we had known it during the earlier part of the century was turning upside down.  Full employment was magically defined as 4% unemployment in a legislative trick that eventually expired in 2011.  It’s been downhill for four decades.

Can we act the same way we did in 1975, when Humphrey-Hawkins posed a reform goal that they asserted was possible?  Almost two decades after Humphrey-Hawkins, Entering and Epoch of Social Revolution was published, and the Communist Labor Party, which had published the report, was disbanded. An organization of revolutionaries was formed on a different basis, for a different task. Nelson Peery, the author of this report, also wrote a piece on “Polarization in U.S. — Basis for a Workers Party,” for Rally Comrades! and collected in the Epoch pamphlet.  The last two sections of that article are reprinted below. It is decisive in describing what’s different now and why the old tactics will no longer work.  If anything, the self-destruction of the two parties is much more evident today than then.

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Nelson Peery, shown here with Studs Terkel on his right, is the author of Entering an Epoch of Social Revolution

Humpty Dumpty is teetering on the edge of the wall.  Some would even say he has fallen over and lying shattered on the ground.  And that we are obsessed with trying to put the Humpties back together again.  But it can’t be done.  And the growing social movements that are widely scattered are nevertheless seeking some political expression, when the trade unions are not capable of providing one.  This is in part because they are inextricably tied to the Democrats; more fundamentally, because large sections of the working class, sections that are no longer working or working only contingently and part-time, have little allegiance to a trade union movement, fatally weakened by legislation such as Taft-Hartley, that has left them behind.

The only question left is, under what conditions will our thinking change to conform to the new reality, and what will the products of the new thinking be?  I think this helps:

V REFORM TO REVOLUTION
. . . The shift from reform to revolution doesn’t just happen. It is a process and like all processes involves destruction of the old to make way for the new. It includes destruction of the old organizational forms, and the destruction of the methods of dealing with the old.
The first thing is that we simply cannot apply the same tactic to an objectively reform movement and to an objectively communist movement. If we are correct regarding the development of an objective communist movement, wouldn’t it be deadly to carry the same tactic over from the fight for reform? Theory tells us that this objective movement is going toward communism. Do we have to direct it, keep it under our wing or try to pull it in a certain direction as we did with the reform movement? Or should we develop the tactic of pushing it forward from the inside? That means recognizing that it does have an objective goal, accepting the actual struggle of the revolutionary section of the class as the basis for our program, and pushing for its accomplishment.
The second thing is that we cannot have the same organizational relationship to the movement under these various circumstances. When a reform movement is fighting for reform within the system, a communist party must create a relationship with this objective movement that reflects that reality. Clearly we have to adapt our organizational forms to set up a proper relationship to an objectively communist movement.
The real skill of the professional revolutionaries is shown by their ability to grasp the quantitative aspects of a qualitative leap, their ability to change with the changing process.
We are at a very early stage of polarization, but we can see where this thing is going. Economic polarization developed on the basis of electronic technology applied to production by multinational corporations serving the world market. In every country, the qualitative increase in productivity by the workers so cheapens their value that absolute poverty becomes the condition for absolute wealth. Economic polarization creates social polarization. The unity of national and other social groups is destroyed as economic polarization regroups society according to wealth and poverty. The Los Angeles rebellion is testimony to this stage. Social polarization, in turn, is the basis for the next inevitable stage — political polarization.
VI AN ORGANIZATION OF REVOLUTIONARIES
Marx states in the Manifesto, “The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.”
What is the future of this current motion? Marx continues, “every class struggle is a political struggle.” Further, he points out, “this organization of the proletarians into a class, and, consequently into a political party…” This means that as the workers are objectively formed into a class, they necessarily are, on the subjective side, formed into a political party. One is the expression of the other.
The next big and very difficult step will be the formation of a workers party. It will not be a populist, hybrid, “third party,” but a party of the class. It would be more than an electoral party. It would be the organizational center for the struggles of the class — strikes, demonstrations, protests, and elections. Such a party would create political programs to achieve the immediate demands of the class. A task that, under the existing conditions, is the unnatural responsibility of our Communist Labor Party (CLP). When such a workers party exists, the task of the communists will be to plan out the strategies and tactics of the proletarian revolution and win the mass leaders to that line.
Our proper role as communists is to become the most advanced and resolute section of the working class party, that section that pushes forward all others. Only by doing this can we establish the proper relationship between ourselves and the actual movement for communism.
We must do what we can to prepare the workers for and help them form this party. The starting point is grasping the concepts of and differences between economic, social and proletarian revolution. Secondly, we must see and prepare to work within the various stages of struggle and organization that lies between now and then.
We must put an end to the talk about liquidating the Communist Labor Party in order to form a workers party. We cannot form a workers party. Such a party is the result of consciousness on the part of the workers. On the other hand, an organization of revolutionaries is absolutely indispensable to the formation of a workers party. We intend to disband the CLP in order to build such an organization of revolutionaries.
This is an exciting historical moment. Skirmishing in the epoch of the final conflict has begun. All the objective factors are in place or almost so. From now on the subjective factor, our skill, clarity, astuteness and determination become the decisive factors. This is the moment we have waited for. We need wait no more.

In Search of Grown-Up Anger

In Search of Grown-Up Anger by Lew Rosenbaum

I’m forever grateful to Lee Ballinger, for writing his review of Grown-Up Anger in Counterpunch. (Read the review here)  I don’t have to do the work he did to dig into the history of the Upper Peninsula or the Dustbowl. I don’t have to spend the time Grown-Up Angerrecounting the incomparable connections that author Daniel Wolff draws between Dylan and Guthrie (the subtitle of this book is The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913), or to spend time on the music (which I am not skilled enough to do anything more than sketch). Instead I can dwell on the title, Grown-Up Anger, and why that is such an important part of this story.

At 18 years old, I was angry about Yale rejecting me, angry that my father wanted me to go to work rather than go to college, angry that Columbia accepted me without automatically giving me a scholarship, angry as an outcast at school, angry that my mother wanted me to stay close to home. I packed my resentment in my suitcases and fled from New Haven, Connecticut to Los Angeles, California to get far away from everything that made me angry. That’s how I started, and that’s what I brought to the table when I started to read Daniel Wolff’s Grown-Up Anger.

“You could start elsewhere,” Daniel begins his book. Elsewhere meaning other than being 13 and angry. “You could start here,” he writes to end the book, describing the molten lava at the core of the earth, at the core of the story of Calumet, at the core of the story of the music of both Guthrie and Dylan. But Wolff starts not with economics, not with anthropology, not with geology. The author starts with music, with hearing a raw voice coming out of the radio, the first time he heard Bob Dylan, “Like A Rolling Stone” representing what anger is all about at 13, and who isn’t angry at 13? Angry at everything, adults dismissing that anger, and, Wolff says, “I swore I’d never forget that look. Never forget how adults dismiss what kids say . . .”

Stay with me now. This is not “just another book glorifying or justifying teenage angst.” Quotes because I can see readers my age shaking their heads with knowing smiles of actualized wisdom. This is a book about perception and reality. Daniel conjures up the pictures of the angry young Dylan and Guthrie, how they see themselves and the world, how their portraits correspond to reality – or not. And, even more important, how these pictures change with changing circumstances.

So Daniel Wolff was an angry 13 year old when he first heard Bob Dylan (on the radio) singing “Like A Rolling Stone.” The more he heard it, the more everything about the song declared, “Outrage was the only way to respond to the world, the only way to get out from under the crust of lies to something like the truth.” And there you have it in one short sentence. There is a world that is a trickster and a sham. But, there is a truth that lies beneath the lies. We are justified in being angry that the world lies to us. How do we penetrate those lies to uncover liberate the truth?

Wolff discovers “Like A Rolling Stone,” discovers Dylan, goes poking around in record bins to find more, and happens a few years later, when in college, on an album by Woody Guthrie. Listening to Guthrie, Daniel Wolff finds it easy to see what Dylan learned from Guthrie. But in searching for more Guthrie (hard to find) he finds an album recently released by Guthrie’s son Arlo, with a song Woody wrote called “1913 Massacre.” Reaper - blog copyThe tune, he recognizes, was what led him to Woody in the first place, a tune used by Dylan in his first album, an homage called “Talkin’ Woody.” Now this is a story of how everything is connected, not in some imaginary way grafted on to reality to make it seem to fit like a Procrustean Bed. This is pure dialectics. That Guthrie and Dylan are tied together through this “Talkin’ Woody.” But that the tune of “Talkin’ Woody” comes from an actual Woody Guthrie tune, “1913 Massacre,” that is linked to the context in which both songwriters/singers were coming to terms with the reality, the truth of the world around them.

One thing that’s really great about this book is how Daniel Wolff unpacks the context of the thread he is following—by the time the first chapter ends you know that you will find clues in the massacre in 1913, where more than 70 children died for money and greed. Dylan’s anger, from the days of “Like a Rolling Stone,” has transformed into some kind of icon; while Guthrie’s hopeful music of the world yet to come has receded into some kind of history. “Is that what happens to anger? Is there no way for it to grow up.”

Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie both created myths about themselves, and one part of the book delves into what is the truth, what isn’t, and does it really matter? Or put another way, when is the myth truer than truth? And while it may seem that this question is in the realm of biography, which so often is falsified (especially in terms of celebrities), Wolff also takes his lens to the truth and myth of Calumet on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and the massacre that happened there in 1913. It does matter if the doors in that building opened in or out. It does matter how the mineowners treated their workers. It does matter how the union responded to the demands of the miners. This book is about perception and reality, about context, and, near the end of the book Wolff returns to pursue the theme of anger growing up. Here’s Woody Guthrie, writing about two kinds of anger:

What is an outlaw? . . . [T]he outlaw is beat. Beat to start with. The whole world is against him. Reason why is because he’s not organized. He’s just by his self. Wants to holler, cuss, fight, work to change the world around a little bit better . . .but he’s by his self. Bound to lose . . . Why do people set down and write great songs and ballads about their outlaws?

Here’s why. An outlaw does it wrong . . . And the Union does it right . . . [But] an outlaw does one big thing. What? It’s easy.

He tries.

Tries his best.

Dies for what he believes in. Goes down shooting.

 

In “East Texas Red,” Guthrie’s song tells the story of a group of hobos who against a railroad brakeman, known to be the meanest man on the line, who has kicked over their dinner, a pot of stew, and sent them packing. They kill the brakeman next time he threatens them, then sit down to eat their stew, “no compromise” says Wolff, “an outlaw likearollingstoneballad about grown-up anger.”

I don’t mean to imply that Grown-Up Anger is prescriptive. The book is a quest for “The history of anger. Hope. The truth.” Quests are journeys, not end points. An extended description of “Like A Rolling Stone” three quarters of the way through evokes the feeling of listening to the song even years after the author first heard it. The music of the book is as much the author’s poetic voice as his fugal musical sensibility. Far from prescriptive, the most satisfying part, in a way, is how the geology, anthropology, economics, and history of Calumet are also metaphor for the music of the book. For what else is the fiery magma contained within an 1800 mile rock shell and a 5 mile crust holding lead, copper and sulfur than some kind of rage waiting to break free? “You could start there.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Battle of Lawrence, 1912: Lessons for Today by Chris Mahin

The Battle of Lawrence, 1912:

Textile workers’ victory contains lessons for today

BY CHRIS MAHIN

“We want bread – and roses!”

“Bayonets cannot weave cloth!”

“Better to starve fighting than to starve working!”

More than a century ago, thousands of men, women, and children shouted those slogans – in many different languages – in the bitter cold of a Massachusetts winter.

On January 12, 1912, thousands of workers walked out of the textile mills of Lawrence, HT_020_004_min_wage_hb_160411_4x3_992Massachusetts and began a strike which lasted until March 24, 1912. At its height, the strike involved 23,000 workers.

Located in the Merrimack River Valley, about 30 miles north of Boston, Lawrence was a city of 86,000 people in 1912, and a great textile center. It outranked all other cities in the production of woolen and worsted goods. The woolen and cotton mills of the city employed over 40,000 workers – about one-half of Lawrence’s population over the age of 14.

Most of the Lawrence textile workers were unskilled. Within a one-mile radius of the mill district, there lived 25 different nationalities, speaking 50 languages. By 1912, Italians, Poles, Russians, Syrians, and Lithuanians had replaced native-born Americans and western Europeans as the predominant groups in the mills. The largest single ethnic group in the city was Italian.

At the time of the strike, 44.6 percent of the textile workers in Lawrence were women. More than 10 percent of the mill workers were under the age of 18.

Despite a heavy tariff protecting the woolen industry, the wages and living standards of textile workers had declined steadily since 1905. The introduction of a two-loom system in the woolen industry and a corresponding speed-up in the cotton industry led to lay-offs, unemployment, and wage reductions. A federal government report showed that for a week in late November 1911, some 22,000 textile employees, including foremen, supervisors, and office workers, averaged about $8.76 for a full week’s work. This wage was totally inadequate, despite the fact that the average work week was 56 hours, and 21.6 percent of the workers worked more hours than that.

To make things worse, the cost of living was higher in Lawrence than in the rest of New Lawrence-kids-1912England. The city was also one of the most congested in the United States, with many workers crowded into foul tenements.

The daily diet of most of the mill workers consisted of bread, molasses, and beans. Serving meat with a meal was very rare, often reserved for holidays. The inevitable result of all this was an unhealthy work force. Dr. Elizabeth Shapleigh, a Lawrence physician, wrote: “A considerable number of the boys and girls die within the first two or three years after beginning work. … [T]hirty-six out of every 100 of all the men and women who work in the mill die before or by the time they are 25.”

The immediate cause of the strike was a cut in pay for all workers which took place after a new state law went into effect on January 1, 1912. The law reduced the number of hours that women and children could work from 56 to 54. The mill owners simply sped up the machines to guarantee they would get the same amount of production as before, and then cut the workers’ hours and wages.

On Thursday, January 11, 1912, some 1,750 weavers left their looms in the Everett Cotton Mill when they learned that they had received less money. They were joined by 100 spinners from the Arlington Mills. When the Italian workers of the Washington Mill left their jobs on the morning of Friday, January 12, the Battle of Lawrence was in full swing. By Saturday night, January 13, some 20,000 textile workers had left their machines. By Monday night, January 15, Lawrence had been transformed into an armed camp, with the police and militia guarding the mills through the night.

The Lawrence strike began as a spontaneous outburst, but the strikers quickly realized that they needed to organize themselves. At a mass meeting held on the afternoon of the strike’s first day, they voted to send a telegram to Joe Ettor, a leader of the Industrial Workers of the World, asking him to come to Lawrence to aid the strike. Ettor arrived in 1912_Lawrence_Textile_Strike_2Lawrence the very next day, accompanied by his friend Arturo Giovannitti, the editor of “Il Proletario” and secretary of the Italian Socialist Federation.

Although only 27 years old, Joseph J. (“Smiling Joe”) Ettor was an experienced, militant leader of the IWW. He had worked with Western miners and migrant workers, and with the immigrant workers of the Eastern steel mills and shoe factories. Ettor could speak English, Italian, and Polish fluently, and could understand Hungarian and Yiddish.

Under Ettor’s leadership, the strikers set up a highly structured but democratic form of organization in which every nationality of worker involved in the strike was represented. This structure played a decisive role in guaranteeing the strike’s outcome. A general strike committee was organized and a network of soup kitchens and food distribution stations were set up. The strikers voted to demand a 15 percent increase in wages, a 54-hour week, double time for overtime, and the abolition of the premium and bonus systems.

Despite the fact that the city and state authorities imposed a virtual state of martial law on Lawrence, the strikers remained undaunted. They pioneered innovative tactics, such as moving picket lines (in which thousands of workers marched through the mill district in an endless chain with signs or armbands reading “Don’t be a scab!”); mass marches on sidewalks; and sending thousands of people to browse in stores without buying anything. They organized numerous parades to keep their own spirits up and keep their cause in the public eye.

The agents of the mill owners struck back. When the police and militia tried to halt a parade of about 1,000 strikers on January 29, a bystander, Annie LoPezzo, was shot dead. Ettor_and_G_postcard_001
Despite the fact that neither Ettor nor Giovannitti had been present at the demonstration, they were both arrested the next day. They were charged with being accessories before the fact to the murder because they had supposedly incited the “riot” which led to the shooting. That same day, an 18-year-old Syrian striker, John Ramy, was killed by a bayonet thrust into his back as he attempted to flee from advancing soldiers.

In early February, the strikers began sending their children out of the city to live temporarily with strike supporters. The city authorities vowed to stop this practice, and on February 24, a group of mothers and their children were clubbed and beaten at the train station by cops. This act horrified the country, and swung the general public over to the side of the strikers.

Concerned that the growing outrage over the conditions in Lawrence might lead to public support for lowering the woolen tariff, the mill owners began to look for a way to end the strike. First the largest employer, the American Woolen Company, came to an agreement. Then the others followed. The workers won most of their demands. By March 24, the strike was officially declared over and the general strike committee disbanded. It was a tremendous victory – but not the end of the battle.

On September 30, 1912, the murder trial of Ettor and Giovannitti began. It lasted 58 days. The defendants were kept in metal cages in the courtroom while the trial was in session. The prosecution accused Ettor and Giovannitti of inciting the strikers to violence and murder. Witnesses proved that the two were speaking to a meeting of workers several miles from the place where Annie LoPezzo was shot. Across the United States and the world, concerned people expressed outrage at the prosecution’s attempt to punish two leaders for their ideas.

Before the end of the trial, Ettor and Giovannitti asked for permission to address the court. Ettor challenged the jurors, declaring that if they were going to sentence Giovannitti and himself to death, the verdict should find them guilty of their real offense – their beliefs.

He said:

“What are my social views? I may be wrong but I contend that all the wealth in this country is the product of labor and that it belongs to labor. My views are the same as Giovannitti’s. We will give all that there is in us that the workers may organize and in due time emancipate themselves, that the mills and workshops may become their property and for their benefit. If we are set at liberty these shall be our views. If you believe that we should not go out, and that view will place the responsibility full upon us, I ask you one favor, that Ettor and Giovannitti because of their ideas became murderers, and that in your verdict you will say plainly, we shall die for it. … I neither offer apology nor ask for a favor. I ask for justice.”

Giovannitti made an impassioned speech to the jury, the first time he had ever spoken publicly in English. His eloquence drew tears from the most jaded reporters present.

On November 25, the jury found the defendants not guilty. Pandemonium broke loose in the courtroom.

There is something especially poignant about the Battle of Lawrence – and something especially important about learning its lessons. The Lawrence textile strike took place at a time when the mill owners lacked maneuvering room because they had to maintain public support for a high tariff on woolens. That was certainly a factor in the workers’ victory. So was the fact that the textile workers comprised such a large percentage of the population of Lawrence. But those factors do not change the reality that the victory at Lawrence was won by the bravery and intelligence of the workers themselves.

The victory at Lawrence disproved the vicious lie being circulated at the time by the leaders of the American Federation of Labor that immigrant workers could not be organized. It showed that immigrant workers and women workers would not only support strikes – if given the chance, they would gladly lead them, and lead them well. The strikers in Lawrence won their demands because they never let themselves be divided on ethnic or gender lines, because they were militant (and creative) in their tactics, and because they found a way to appeal to the conscience of the general public.

One other feature of the Battle of Lawrence made it especially significant. It’s summed up in the famous slogan of the strike – “We want bread – and roses!” The textile workers who braved the Massachusetts winter in 1912 wanted more than a wage increase. They were inspired by a vision of a new society, one where the workers themselves ruled. In this society, every human being would have “bread” – a decent standard of living. They would also have “roses” – the chance to learn, to have access to art, music, and culture; a society which would allow the flowering of everyone’s talents, the full development of every human being.

On this anniversary of the Lawrence textile strike, we should take courage from the bravery of the strikers, learn from their clever tactics, and dare to think as far ahead as they did. The Lawrence strikers believed deeply in the idea expressed so well in one of the verses in the labor song “Solidarity Forever.” That verse confidently proclaims, “We can build a new world from the ashes of the old.” Despite all the misery we see in the present, a new world is possible. The cynics of today are as wrong to deny the possibility of qualitative change as the AFL leaders in 1912 were to deny the possibility of organizing immigrant workers. If all of us act with as much foresight and courage as did those who fought so well in Lawrence in 1912, the vision of those strikers can become reality, and we can win a world with both bread and roses for everyone.

 

 

 

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Saying “Merry Christmas” Again?

Saying “Merry Christmas” Again?  by Lew Rosenbaum

So what’s wrong with being able to say “Merry Christmas” again? There’s the historical reason, and here’s a four minute synopsis of Xmas celebrations in the US (Christmas was

puritan-christmas-ban

General

banned in Boston by the Puritans; General Sherman presented the captured Savannah to President Lincoln as a Christmas gift).  There are also personal reasons, such as the fact that not everyone celebrates Christmas in the US today (when I was a child my family did not exchange gifts at Xmas or at Chanukah). I don’t deny the reality that this country in which we live is a “Christian” country, despite the various religions and non religions that make up the landscape. Despite laws to the contrary, Christianity is as much the national religion as a religion can be – if you take account of the fact that Christianity has more incarnations than a hydra’s head. English, French and Spanish colonialists conquered the Americas in the name of their religion(s). Today the US is still one of the most (fundamentalist) religious countries in the world. And of course the religion has merged with the worship of commerce. Still, even today I resent it when people wish me Merry Christmas, because it assumes I share their religious beliefs (in a way that is different from when someone says “Bless you” after I

ShermanLincolnTelegram.jpg.CROP.article920-large

Gen. Sherman’s tele-gram to Pres. Lincoln

sneeze). The historical emphasizes the word again;  the personal takes issue with Merry Christmas itself.

But there’s a third category of why I cringe when I hear Donald Trump declare we can now say “Merry Christmas” again. It’s a philosophical category. It is related to the historical, but in some sense transcends it. It’s because “saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again” creates an alternative reality, creates what Trump himself calls “alternative facts.” It assumes a false history and a false composition of what makes up the USA.  What Trump excels in, as a propagandist, is repeating alternative facts so often that they come to be regarded as reality. We could laugh this off, because, after all, it’s not reality. But it belongs in the same sphere as “the greatest tax reform in a quarter century,” and Clinton winning California because of the undocumented worker vote, and terrorists streaming across the US-Mexico border. When Hitler employed this tactic, we called it the big lie. Said often enough it takes on the quality of truth. And that is what we are witnessing in the White House.

While it may seem that “saying Merry Christmas again” is harmless drivel that will end once the holiday season is over, the reality is no. It’s not going away. The ability to create

Thomas Nast Xmas il_570xN.285056923

Thomas Nast popularized the figure of St. Nick in the 1850s

fact and reality out of nothing will only snowball and build on itself. The active intent of the administration in Washington is to undermine scientific investigation and assessment of reality. In a sense it is a return to the mediaeval reliance on a central supernatural authority (then in the hands of the clerics of the Church whose responsibility it was to interpret the word of God as written in the Bible). But nothing is a return to an earlier period. Today the White House declares itself the sole interpreter of reality. This is a cultural gambit toward fascism.

That’s why it’s so important for those of us involved in spreading new ideas about what is possible to take this moment seriously. Laughing it off is the work of sectarian snobs. The moment is now to enter the battle for the morality of the American people, find that center, the stable base that has joined in the ongoing and spreading battle for survival (as the oligarchs in Washington and on Wall Street raise their champagne glasses). This is where we find a social force that can and must reorganize society, to develop vision based on the realities and possibilities of today.

Things I Know I Love About You

Things I Know I Love About You: A Poem at 75     by Lew Rosenbaum

I don’t know when I first read Nazim Hikmet’s “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved.”  He wrote it a year before he died of a heart attack, but it smacks of the kind of reflection that strikes one who sees the end pending and who savors all the moments remaining.  Or of observing

nazim_hikmet2_s

Nazim Hikmet (1902, Salonica – June 3, 1963, Moscow)

the slow demise of a loved one and sees for perhaps the first time every motion, every sound that makes that person special.  Hikmet was 60 then, the year was 1962.  

Hikmet, generally considered one of the most important 20th century poets, was a Turkish revolutionary.  This is what the poets.org site has to say about him:

Raised in Istanbul, Hikmet left Allied-occupied Turkey after the First World War and ended up in Moscow, where he attended the university and met writers and artists from all over the world. After the Turkish Independence in 1924 he returned to Turkey, but was soon arrested for working on a leftist magazine. He managed to escape to Russia, where he continued to write plays and poems.

In 1928 a general amnesty allowed Hikmet to return to Turkey, and during the next ten years he published nine books of poetry—five collections and four long poems—while working as a proofreader, journalist, scriptwriter, and translator. He left Turkey for the last time in 1951, after serving a lengthy jail sentence for his radical acts, and lived in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, where he continued to work for the ideals of world Communism

He died in Moscow in 1963.  

Of course the poem made me think of what I didn’t realize I loved — especially as I approached surgery last year and wondered how much longer I would be able to appreciate those things.  But even more I began to think of what I knew I loved. And I thought about how to respond to Hikmet’s poem in a way to affirm that love.  This is what came out;  it is my poem for Diana on my 75th birthday.  

 

It’s 2017, November 13

Night has fallen as I drive home

and though I feel like a “tired bird on a smoky wet plain”

I love anticipating

walking in the door

sitting down next to you

and offering you dark chocolate

 

I didn’t know I love the earth

the working of it

until you come in, trowel in hand,

gloves soil-brown, loam aroma in your hair, and then

I know I love how you revere this, our mother

 

I know I’ve loved mountains whose peaks0004926-R1-063-30

pierce the sky, while rivers cascade

down their sides eating canyons into the stone

and the ancient sequoias that people

the slopes and valleys

and while I look up at the mysteries reaching for heaven

I love that you focus on tiny yellow and blue miracle flowers underfoot

 

I knew at once that I love the way you fight

to understand the world around you –

do you remember that salon where we watched a film

Bethlehem Wedding I think it was

and after, you explained the entire history of European feudalism

me with my mouth wide with wonder

 

I didn’t know I loved all trees

the way you showed me to see them as friends

to stand under the arching cottonwoods and

examine their ribbed bark

to hail the procession of springtime flowers

maples, chestnut candles, fragrant basswood, the long beans of the catalpas

all this and more I know I love about you

 

Do you remember the first timePortraits of Diana

you came to my apartment,

remember the blue sweater you wore,

remember how I demanded to take your photograph

I know I loved that intense look in your green eyes –

even though I thought they were blue –

what I love now is your patience,

you gave me a second chance, you must have wondered

why the photos, what’s wrong with himPortraits of Diana 1

I don’t regret them: one thing I love about you

is those portraits, those eyes of crystalline jade

 

And I know I love about you other pictures

the portraits with Greta

that introspective and far away look

I know I love how you seized the snapshot of David at Starved Rock

and transformed it into a meditative painting

of a fourteen year old young man

Portrait of David

Diana’s portrait of David in Nelson Peery’s Future is Up To Us

gazing at sand

spilling through outstretched fingers

contemplating eternity

 

I know I love how you drew resistance

how in one lone image you captured technological innovation

and the promise of a future abundance

a mandala of heads and open mouths

words and notes

hammers, scythes

playing with mother boards and keystrokes

and real-if-not-artificial intelligence

emerging from past class antagonisms

I know I love how you play with dialectics

 

I know I love the red chair in your Oxbow painting

Red Chair

The Red Chair at Oxbow

the sheathe of yellow sun light streaking across the grass,

green with yesterday rains

exuberant in the blustery winds off the Eastern Lake Michigan shore

I know I love the memory of standing in the fading sun

atop corn-rowed-hills at summer’s end

a quilted landscape draped before us

the aroma of hot dry husks flaring our nostrils

all finding their way onto your canvas

 

I know I chuckle every time I pass

the denim constructions stitched to the earth

because I know I love the rents in the fabricStitched to the Earth #1: In Joy And Sorrow

that show the working class pedigree

I laugh at our joke that someone has torn this painting

I know I love the way we laugh together

we have also cried together

 

I know I love that we can hold each other

while our children and all around us whirl toward destruction

and we grasp for the new world in birth

I know I love that you changed my life 25 years ago

And continue every day to change my life

And I love that I didn’t need to reach 75 to know I love all this about you.

 

 

 

 

The First National Hunger March confronts the U.S. Congress by Chris Mahin

 

The First National Hunger March confronts the U.S. Congress

In 1931, the unemployed sang “The Internationale”  on the steps of the U.S. Capitol

 

BY CHRIS MAHIN

They traveled in automobiles so dilapidated they were nicknamed “tin lizzies.” They had only gunny sacks and blankets to protect them from the extreme cold. There were 1,670 of them, but each was a delegate representing many others. They had come to confront

Hunger March Tin-Lizzy

Tin Lizzy

the U.S. Congress, to insist that it give aid, not charity, to the unemployed.

December marks the anniversary of the First National Hunger March, which arrived in Washington, D.C. on December 6, 1931, and marched to the U.S. Capitol and the White House the next day.

When the Great Depression began, there was no such thing as unemployment compensation or welfare. What little help the poor received, they obtained from private charities, mainly religious ones. Employers took advantage of workers’ desperation to slash wages – sometimes as much as 10-20 percent. A wave of evictions took place.

The call for the march demanded: (1) unemployment insurance; (2) the seven-hour workday with no cut in pay; (3) a federal work program paying union wages; (4) an end to racial discrimination, and an end to deportations of immigrant workers; (5) support
for the demands of the veterans and poor farmers; and (6) that all funds being built up for making war be used instead to help the unemployed – and be administered by the Unemployed Councils.

Hunger March Detroit

1923 Ford Hunger March Detroit

The National Hunger March was carefully organized. The first step was a series of actions at the state level. In April 1931, five columns of unemployed marchers started out from different points in Ohio. They met in Columbus. Despite a heavy rain, 3,000 people came out to greet them. During the last week in May, four columns of marchers started out from different parts of Michigan. As they marched, large gatherings of workers greeted the contingents in Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, Pontiac, Wayland, and Detroit. Some 15,000 people were present when the columns met in Lansing, the state capital. These protests were followed by hunger marches in at least 40 other cities.

While the state-level marches were meticulously organized, the national march to Washington was planned with military precision. The caravan was not a mass procession of the jobless; it was strictly limited in size.

Here is how historian Franklin Folsom described the huge logistical challenge facing the march’s organizers:

“Plans called for the formation of four separate columns, all of which would meet in Hunger March National ManifestoWashington on December 6 to be on hand for the opening of Congress the next day. On December 1, Column 1 was to leave Boston and Column 2 would leave Buffalo. On November 30, Column 3 would leave Chicago and Column 4 would leave St. Louis. Delegates from the West Coast would leave cities there on November 23 and would join columns in either Chicago or St. Louis. …

“It was no simple matter to get 1,670 delegates transported, fed, clothed, and sheltered – all on a strict schedule. Each delegate wore an armband reading, ‘National Hunger March, December 7, 1931.’ Each truck, which typically carried ten delegates, elected a captain, and each column of trucks elected a guiding committee and a leader. In every truck there was a map telling exactly the route to be followed, and with each column went a scout car, sometimes pushing ahead to look for difficulties and sometimes following behind to watch for breakdowns. Each column also had a medical aid squad and a mechanic.”

En route, the National Hunger March had to deal with local authorities who were often very hostile, and had to respond to a media campaign designed to discredit the march. In Hammond, Indiana, the police tried to stop a rally called to support the march, but the crowd was so large and militant that the police gave up. The New York Times claimed that the marchers would be “furnished with rifles.” This was completely untrue, and even the Secret Service felt compelled to dispute the claim.

Hunger march in picturesWhen the marchers entered Washington, there were as many cops lining the streets as there were marchers. Secretary of War Patrick J. Hurley had ordered all soldiers at nearby Fort Myer to be ready for active service. Two companies of Marines had been called up. Nearly 1,000 additional Marines were brought from Virginia to the Marine barracks in Washington. Four hundred police officers were also brought in from Eastern cities to bolster the Washington, D.C. police force.

On the morning of December 7, the marchers met at John Marshall Place. On their picket signs were slogans such as: “We demand unemployment insurance equal to full wages”; “Down with charity slop; we demand cash relief”; “Milk for our children”; “We American workers refuse to starve”; “Not a cent for war — All funds for the unemployed.”

At John Marshall Place, Washington’s commissioner of police, Pelham Glassford, sped around on a bicycle, dressed in civilian clothes and smoking a long-stemmed pipe. He had deliberately laid out the longest routes for the marchers to march, to tire them out.

Two rows of policemen — about 1,000 officers in all — stood along the line of march. More than 400 additional police officers were stationed at the Capitol. There, the marchers were forced to move into a roped-off area where they were a wide distance from the thousands of people who had come to watch them. Machine guns were pointed at the marchers. The police officers present were armed with sawed-off shotguns and tear-gas guns. (One journalist reported that there were also hand grenade launchers.) An ambulance stood by.

Vice President Charles Curtis had decreed that the marchers could not enter the Capitol grounds with signs that criticized the president or Congress or that were offensive. But since the authorities had not issued any regulations about music, the marchers’ band struck up the battle song of the world’s working class, “The Internationale.” On the steps of the U.S. Capitol, the anthem’s words rang out:

Arise, ye prisoners of starvation!

Arise, ye wretched of the earth,

For justice thunders condemnation,

A better world’s in birth. 

The march’s organizers had wanted to send committees of delegates on to the floor of the House of Representatives and the Senate to present their demands, but marchers were not admitted to either the Republican-controlled Senate or the Democratic House. (In fact, on the Senate side of the Capitol, the delegates had to present their demands to the sergeant at arms while they were standing at a basement door.)

From the Capitol, the demonstrators proceeded to the White House. The White House grounds were swarming with police officers. Ambulances and patrol wagons were stationed nearby. President Hoover was inside the White House when the delegates from the Hunger March called, but he refused to see the marchers.

Unable to secure meetings with members of Congress, the hunger marchers headed home. At each place along the return route that the caravan stopped, mass meetings were held, with marchers reporting on what had happened when they tried to speak to the president and the members of Congress. While some newspapers sneeringly described the marchers’ return to their original assembly points as a “retreat,” that term was not accurate; the marchers proceeded back to their starting points exactly as planned.

Determined, militant, and impressively organized, the National Hunger March of December 1931 re-asserted the right of the American people to go en masse to the capital city to petition for change. It showed unemployed workers that they could organize themselves. It forced Depression-era America to admit that the hunger stalking the land could not be ended simply with charity. It compelled the federal authorities to face the fact that to end the massive poverty in the country, the economy was going to have to be restructured in some way.

Within a year, another Hunger March had taken place. This time, the vice president and the speaker of the House of Representatives had no choice but to meet with marchers. Later, the first Unemployment Insurance Bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Congressman Ernest Lundeen from Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party. Ultimately, the first system of federal Social Security, including a national unemployment compensation law, was enacted early in the New Deal administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The National Hunger March (and the preparatory marches which took place before the

Hunger Marach England

Hunger marches were an international phenomenon

main march to Washington occurred) had far-reaching effects. They helped spur on the fight not only of unemployed workers, but of employed workers as well. A state-level hunger march that took place in Pennsylvania before the national march helped inspire 40,000 miners in Pennsylvania to go on strike. Local hunger marches in Ohio stimulated efforts to organize steel workers into a union.

The Hunger March of 1931 helped pave the way for the establishment of a social contract in the United States. Today, that social contract has been torn to pieces by developments in the economy. But even as different as the world is today from what it was in 1931, there is still much to learn from the First Hunger March. The delegates and captains of that protest understood that nothing would change until people spoke up. They understood that pressure had to be put on Congress (even the part of it controlled by the Democrats). They deliberately timed their protest to coincide with the opening of a session of Congress.

The more news that comes out about Congress, the more timely the demands of the Hunger March of 1931 seem to be. That’s especially true of the demand to stop all deportations of immigrant workers, and the demand that all the money being set aside for war preparations be used instead to help the unemployed. Clearly, our predecessors in the fight against hunger were on to something!

 

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