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
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.
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 Washington 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.
When 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
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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