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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The Lessons of 1917 for the American Revolution

[This article originated in the pages of Rally Comrades! vol. 19.  It makes sense to look at this on the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution to learn the lessons for today.]

Communism: Practical resolution to immediate problems

Socialism is becoming more popular in America. According to an April 9, 2009 poll by Rasmussen Reports, only 53% of American adults believe capitalism is better than socialism. The same poll found that younger Americans are most favorably inclined with 33% of adults under 30 preferring socialism. Americans today are changing their minds about socialism and capitalism, but without a clear understanding of what socialism is.

At a moment in history when the transition from industrial to electronic production is forcing global economic and social reorganization, understanding the difference between capitalism, socialism and communism helps us envision a future society that meets the needs of all and a strategy to achieve it.

After decades in which socialism has been painted as evil, lawless, and totalitarian to forestall criticism of capitalism as an economic system, people’s minds have been opened by the turmoil of the economic crisis and the government’s bailout of the banks, not the people.

The ruling class has discredited alternative economic systems – socialism and communism – as unpatriotic or impossible by equating socialism and communism with dictatorship while treating capitalism and democracy as one and the same. In fact, both democracy and dictatorship are forms of political systems. Capitalism, socialism and communism are economic systems.

Socialism an economic system

Economic systems are the set of relations between people and classes in social production, essentially who owns the means of production and how the product is distributed.

Under the economic system of capitalism, the capitalist class owns the means of production (factories, transport, etc.) as private property – in contrast to public property (like schools and fire stations), or personal property (like homes and cars). The basic law of capitalism – competition in the production of commodities to maximize profits – results in poverty, war, colonial exploitation, monopolies, and crisis.

Capitalists hire workers to produce commodities, which are socially produced, but privately owned by the capitalists, and then sold for profit. The state provides an infrastructure to assist the capitalist class in maximizing profit and towards this end provides some basic necessities (such as schools, unemployment insurance, and social security) to maintain a workforce and ward off starvation, social chaos, and revolution.

Under the economic system of socialism, the means of production are not in the private hands of the capitalists, but are socially owned by the state or by cooperatives. Production is planned by the state with the goal of satisfying the constantly rising requirements of society through expanding production.

Under socialism, the product is distributed to those who work either directly in the form of payment for work or socially through public goods and services and the development of public industry. Money and exchange based on the value of commodities – which is the essence of capitalist production – continue to operate in some spheres and influence economic planning.

d488e178abdcf68f841e637309028151Under the economic system of communism, the means of production are publicly owned and capable of producing abundance sufficient to meet the needs of all of society. The use of money disappears because commodities are no longer produced for a market, but for distribution on the basis of need.

Socialism a stage

At every stage in the history of society, the development of the means of production make possible certain kinds of economic systems. The basic implements of animal husbandry and seasonal planting of crops made possible the economic system of slavery. The steam engine, factories, and ocean-going ships opened up the era of industrial production, which made possible the economic systems of socialism and capitalism.

The socialist movement was born in the period of transition from agriculture to industry as serfs and peasants were driven off the land to seek survival as wage-slaves in the deae1aecbfebeeb823a15bacb423a061--russian-propaganda-propaganda-artmiserable conditions of the earliest factories. In many countries political parties of the working class organized and led this new class in a political battle for power to control the state and their own destiny.

The Bolshevik Party of Russia was the clearest example of this struggle for socialism. It succeeded in leading the Russian proletariat to victory against the Tsar and the new capitalist class to win state power for the working people of Russia in 1917. This political victory enabled the Russian working class to establish socialism. After taking power they faced the challenge of wrenching a backward, agrarian economy out of semi-feudalism and building a domestic industry in the aftermath of WWI and the destruction of WWII. Socialism in the Soviet Union – and other socialist countries – was understood to be the first stage toward communism.

In the era of industrial production, the vision of a world without exploitation, hunger and war galvanized the working class movement for communism, but industrial production was unable to create the material conditions required for a communist economic system. The idea of communism preceded the possibility.

Today, in this era of electronic production, the reverse is true. Now, the material conditions for communism exist, but the ideas are lagging behind.

Communism possible today

The introduction of electronics into production has created the conditions for this abundance and thus Soviet style socialism of the 20th Century is no longer necessary or possible. In the 21st century, the global capitalist system has reached a stage where goods can be produced with little or no labor. The global capitalist system is no longer growing and expanding and is in a deep crisis as a result. The transition from industrial capitalism to electronic production is forcing global economic and social reorganization.

A level of production has been achieved through electronics that makes communism possible. This is the turning point at which we stand today.

Humanity today faces the choice: will we do away with private property and build a future for all or will a system of private property be preserved at the expense of human beings and the planet? Electronics is reducing a class that was once an essential element of industrial production to redundancy. Attempts to do no more than blunt the worst effects of capitalism may be well-meaning, but they divert energy from the tasks ahead.

More and more Americans are joining the ranks of those dispossessed by capitalism world-wide. A class that has nothing to gain from private ownership of the means of production has to take the reins of power and construct an economic system that can sustain a better world. The struggle today is not the struggle of the last century to expand industrial production. Nor is it the social-democratic struggle to increase the crumbs that fall from the table of the world’s billionaires. Though people may have different ideas about and different ways of describing it, at this moment in history, the essence of every struggle for a better life is objectively the struggle for communism. Communism is not just an idea, but the practical resolution to immediate problems. Nationalization of health care is a matter of survival for millions. The people of Detroit must take over the water corporations or go without water in their homes. Either we control the corporations or they control us.

In the U.S., the working class is skilled and educated. It has one of the highest levels of production in the world. It has two centuries of experience in the world’s first democratic republic. It is the inheritor of the American Revolution, a civil war that ended slavery, and broad movements for labor and civil rights. With the political power to transition private to public property, American creativity, efficiency and “can-do” spirit will make short work of the transition to an economic system in which the abundance we produce is held in common and benefits all.

November 7 in American History — Two Articles by Chris Mahin

The legacy of Elijah Lovejoy:  Let truth ring out!

BY CHRIS MAHIN

The event shocked the conscience of American and led directly to the Civil War. Although it is barely mentioned in most schoolbooks, the murder of editor Elijah Lovejoy on November 7, 1837 is one of the most significant events in U.S. history. The life of this courageous opponent of slavery should be celebrated by all those who love freedom.

lovejoy_grangerpressElijah Lovejoy might have led an uneventful life if he had been born in a peaceful time, but his era was anything but peaceful. He lived in a moment of history marked by intense conflict between the legislative representatives of the slave states and free states. This battle for control of the Union was particularly bitter in the Midwest. In 1828, Lovejoy began to feel the effects of this “irrepressible conflict” when he moved from his native Maine, a free state, to St. Louis (located in the slave state of Missouri).

Lovejoy, the son of a minister, became a partner in a St. Louis newspaper. His early articles dealt with subjects like the evils of tobacco, whiskey, and breaking the Sabbath. However, Lovejoy’s priorities changed after he went to study for the ministry at Princeton University. There, he came under the influence of America’s leading opponent of slavery, the impassioned Boston minister William Lloyd Garrison.

Lovejoy returned to St. Louis in 1833 and became editor of the St. Louis Observer. His position was uncompromising: Slavery is a sin and should be abolished. When the newspaper’s office was destroyed by a mob, he was forced to flee across the Mississippi River to Alton, in the free state of Illinois.

When Lovejoy’s printing press arrived in Alton, the crate was tossed into the Mississippi elijah-lovejoyRiver by a mob. Although some of Lovejoy’s friends begged him to refrain from discussing slavery, he continued his agitation. Twice more, presses used to print his newspaper were destroyed. Then, on the evening of November 7, 1837, a drunken mob of 200 people attacked the office of the Alton Observer. Five slugs from a double-barreled shotgun killed Elijah Lovejoy as he tried to protect his printing press. Lovejoy’s assassins were freed by the local authorities.

The death of this 35-year-old editor and minister set off a chain of events which transformed America. Former President John Quincy Adams called Lovejoy America’s first martyr to freedom of the press. Lovejoy’s murder convinced John Brown that slavery would never be abolished by peaceful means; Brown began planning how to counter the violence of slavery with violence.

Elijah Parish Lovejoy was the kind of person who emerges when a society is in crisis. At such moments in history, individuals step forward who are capable of seeing further than the average person can. Fired with a sense of mission, these leaders are the first to feel deeply about the moral choices facing society. They sense the answer to a problem and fight to make others grasp it. They search for ways to shake the mass of people out of their complacency.

Such leaders have always seized the weapons of the printed page and the speaker’s platform and used them to win people to new ideas. Sometimes, these leaders pay a terrible price for their devotion, falling in the struggle as Elijah Lovejoy did. But their victory lies in the minds which ultimately get opened as a result of their relentless agitation. Lovejoy’s heroic death helped people understand that slavery was wrong and that it endangered the freedom not only of the slave, but also of the people of the North and West as well.

a996884e1b785944997737bc3292f9caThe abolitionists of the 19th century felt an obligation to protest the most horrific wrong of their generation. They understood that economic, social, and political issues ultimately express themselves as moral choices.

Today, this country once again finds itself in the midst of economic dislocation and social strife. Just as in the pre-Civil War era, these issues come down to moral choices.

In Lovejoy’s time, the 10,000 families that controlled the largest Southern plantations (and owned most of the slaves in the United States) completely dominated the political life of the country. That handful of people, a tiny percent of the 30 million human beings then residing in the United States, were prepared to do anything necessary to maintain their political control. (They certainly showed that by killing Lovejoy.)

Today, 1 percent of the population of the United States controls 42 percent of the wealth – and 445 billionaires own 45 percent of the world’s wealth. In the country where chattel slaves once picked cotton, welfare recipients in the “workfare” slave-labor program now pick up filthy debris from the city parks with their bare hands. As in Lovejoy’s time, the crying need of the present is for those who see further and feel deeper to step forward. Once again, it is time to shake people out of their complacency. It is time for words as uncompromising as those of Elijah Lovejoy and William Lloyd Garrison to ring out again from the speaker’s platform and leap off the pages of the revolutionary press.

History will never forget Lovejoy, the man who dared to challenge the political domination of the United States by 10,000 slaveholders. If we honor him for courageously speaking the truth that “slavery is sin” even in the slave state of Missouri, don’t we have an obligation to speak truth to power today, to challenge the political control of this society by a small class of millionaires?

This article originally appeared in the November 1997 edition of the People’s Tribune. For more information about the People’s Tribune, go to: http://www.peoplestribune.org 

 

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Deported past the Statue of Liberty:  The Palmer Raids

BY CHRIS MAHIN

We were led to a cabin. … Then came a violent lurch; we were on our way. I looked at my watch. It was 4:20 a.m. …

On the deck above us I could hear the men tramping up and down in the wintry blast. I felt dizzy, visioning a transport of politicals doomed to Siberia. … Russia of the past rose before me and I saw the revolutionary martyrs being driven into exile. But no, it was New York, it was America, the land of liberty! Through the port-hole I could see the great city receding into the distance, its sky-line of buildings traceable by their rearing heads. It was my beloved city, the metropolis of the New World. It was America , indeed America repeating the terrible scenes of tsarist Russia! I glanced up — the Statute of Liberty!

— Emma Goldman, Living My Life

It had been a year of upheavals — and of strikes.

Early in the year, a one-week general strike had swept Seattle, ignited by a strike of 35,000 shipbuilders who had begun a fight for higher wages, an 8-hour day, and a 44-hour week. That same month, in Patterson, New Jersey, 28,000 workers in the silk mills went on strike. In the fall, the police of Boston struck. In late September, 365,000 steelworkers walked off their jobs, a strike which began simultaneously in dozens of cities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and other states.

It was the year 1919 — and the rulers of this country were worried.

World War I had ended on November 11, 1918 and the result was turmoil across much of the globe. Large sections of western Europe lay in ashes. In the East, the Russian Revolution had taken place.

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A Mitchell Palmer

In 1919, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson appointed a new attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer. Palmer was a Pennsylvania attorney with liberal credentials — including past support for workers’ rights and women’s suffrage — but he soon reversed his views. Alarmed at the militancy of workers around the world, Palmer came to believe that communism was “eating its way into the homes of the American workman.”

Palmer’s 24-year-old assistant J. Edgar Hoover was put in charge of a new division of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation, the General Intelligence Division. By October 1919, Hoover’s department had collected 150,000 names in rapidly growing files.

On June 2, 1919, bombs went off in eight cities, including Washington, D.C. (where Palmer’s house was partially damaged). Responsibility for these attacks was never established, although it was alleged by some that anarchists were behind them.

palmer-raids-1918-1921-nThe bombings gave Palmer the excuse he needed. Palmer and Hoover orchestrated a series of showy and well-publicized raids against alleged radicals, using the provisions of the Espionage Act of 1919 and the Sedition Act of 1918.

Beginning on November 7, 1919, Palmer’s men smashed into union offices and the headquarters of radical organizations. In December, Palmer’s agents seized 248 resident aliens and forced them on board the Buford, a ship bound for the Soviet Union. The deportees included Emma Goldman — the union organizer, feminist, and anarchist. Among the exiled were young boys. One of them was on crutches. Another, suffering from an ulcerated stomach, had been carried from his bed in the immigration station hospital to the assembly point to board the Buford.

Later, in January 1920, Palmer and Hoover organized the largest mass arrests in U.S. history, rounding up as many as 10,000 suspected troublemakers.

It has now been 98 years since immigrant workers were forcibly ejected from the United States, imprisoned on a ship which literally sailed past the Statue of Liberty with its inscription “Give me your tired, your poor, your restless masses yearning to breathe free.” Much has changed in the years since the events which are now known as “The Palmer Raids,” but there are some eerie parallels between the “Red Scare” of 1919 and today.

In both 1919 and our time, acts of terrorism have been followed by grotesque violations of civil liberties and attacks on immigrant workers.

It’s important to remember, too, that the deportation of the passengers on the Buford buford_cartoontook place right in the midst of what was then the largest and most sustained effort to unionize the steel industry in American history — the Great Steel Strike of 1919. In 1919, half the steelworkers in the United States were immigrants — and organizing steel was the key to unionizing all of basic industry. The anti-immigrant and anti-radical campaign waged by the Wilson administration and the arrest of key union organizers by Palmer and Hoover’s flunkies were not the only reason for the failure of the 1919 steel strike — but they certainly contributed to its defeat. That loss meant that this country had to wait until the 1930s to see a successful attempt to unionize steel and organize viable industrial unions.

Given this, can anyone doubt that creating hysteria about “Reds,” “terrorists,” and immigrants hurts all of labor?

November 7, 2017 marks the 98th anniversary of the beginning of the Palmer Raids. Attached and below is an article that I wrote several years ago about the raids, updated slightly. (The article was written for a union website.) — Chris Mahin

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Chris Mahin writes: On Thoreau’s 200th Birthday: His Plea For Captain John Brown

On Thoreau’s 200th Birthday: His Plea For Captain John Brown

by Chris Mahin

July 12, 2017 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of the writer Henry David Thoreau. Much of the commentary about this occasion has focused on Thoreau’s love of nature. This is understandable, given the current attacks on the environment.496e6f6286424697b36fa4e159c73599-640x433

But while “Walden” is justly celebrated, nothing Thoreau ever wrote did more good than the heartfelt essay he crafted on short notice to defend the opponents of slavery who attacked the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in the autumn of 1859.

Just two weeks after John Brown and his compatriots staged their daring raid, Thoreau stood up in a church in Concord, Massachusetts to defend them. On Sunday evening, October 30, 1859, he read aloud his essay, “A Plea for Captain John Brown.”

Describing Brown’s character, Thoreau said:

John_Brown_portrait,_1859“He was like the best of those who stood at Concord Bridge once, on Lexington Common, and on Bunker Hill, only he was firmer and higher principled than any I have chanced to hear of as there. … They could bravely face their country’s foes, but he had the courage to face his country herself, when she was in the wrong. …

“No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature, knowing himself for a man, and the equal of any and all governments. In that sense he was the most American of us all.”

In the days and weeks after the Harpers Ferry raid, Americans were stunned. Many were willing to let Brown and his men hang. Thoreau’s early, brave stance helped pave the way for other Northern intellectuals to speak out in defense of Brown and his compatriots.

I have been to Walden Pond. I have been to the church in Concord where Thoreau uttered his plea.

Both are shrines.

 

  • Chris Mahin

For more information about the Harpers Ferry raid and Thoreau’s role afterward, see the article “Harpers Ferry: Courage and clarity changed history once – and will do it again” in Rally, Comrades!, Vol. 19, Number 5, September-October 2009.

To read the complete text of Thoreau’s “Prayer for Captain John Brown,” click this link.

A commemorative U.S. postage stamp in honor of Henry David Thoreau has just been issued, which you can read about here.

WHAT IS MAY DAY’S MEANING FOR TODAY? By Chris Mahin

[Published 20 years ago in the People’s Tribune, this article remains relevant as we celebrate the workers’ one universal holiday.]

WHAT IS MAY DAY’S MEANING FOR TODAY?
By Chris Mahin

Holidays are important. Whether joyous celebration or solemn remembrance, each one conveys some meaning or teaches some lesson.

When we celebrate a particular holiday — or decide not to — each of us says something haymarket-reenactment-april-30-2011
about who we are and what we believe.

For the downsized and the dispossessed, one holiday stands above all others. It is the only one observed by victims of capitalism the world over: International Labor Day, observed on May 1 — May Day.

May Day began in America. The story of how it began needs to told; it is a tale of how dramatic changes in the economy created a new class of people. It is the story of how men and women of different nationalities, born in different parts of the world, stepped forward to lead a new class of poor people and were willing to pay a terrible price for that decision. Above all else, May Day is about the absolute necessity of the unity of the poor — white and black, male and female, immigrant and native-born.

The story begins in Chicago. By the 1880s, Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world. Something new had been introduced into the economy — steam power. The introduction of this new productive force led to a gigantic expansion of industry and created a new class — the modern industrial working class. In Chicago, this new class included people from all over the world, as immigrants flooded into the city.

In the factories of that era, the pay was low, the hours were long and the conditions terribly unsafe.

On May 1, 1886, workers throughout the United States engaged in a massive strike to demand the eight-hour day. Chicago was the strike’s center. On May 4, a rally was held at Haymarket Square in Chicago to protest a police attack on a group of strikers. As this peaceful rally was winding to a close, 176 cops moved in to forcibly disperse the crowd. Someone threw a bomb. It killed one police officer instantly and wounded many others. The police opened fire, killing many participants in the rally.

A wave of hysteria followed. Hundreds of workers were arrested. The police broke into meeting halls, newspaper offices and even private homes without warrants. Suspects were beaten and even tortured.

The extent of the hysteria can be measured by comments published in the respectable Albany Law Journal just 11 days after the Haymarket tragedy. The Journal called for “a check upon immigration, a power of deportation, a better equipment of the police, a prompter and severer dealing with disorder” and denounced Chicago’s union leaders as “a few long-haired, wild-eyed, bad-smelling, atheistic, reckless foreign wretches, who never did an honest hour’s work in their lives.” The Journal declared: “This state of things almost justifies the resort to the vigilance committee and lynch law. … It seems Eagle Columnsthat the penal law of Illinois would warrant treating all these godless fiends as murderers, and we hope they will be so treated and extirpated from the face of the earth.”

In June 1886, several leaders of the Chicago union movement were put on trial, charged with being accessories to murder at Haymarket Square and with a general conspiracy to murder.

Most of the defendants had not even been present when the Haymarket bomb was thrown, but that didn’t matter. They were revolutionary leaders and Chicago’s capitalists wanted their blood.

The trial opened on June 21, 1886, with only seven of the eight defendants in the courtroom. All seven had been born or raised outside the United States. Chicago’s newspapers had noted the foreign roots of most of the defendants and denounced them as “European assassins” and “foreign barbarians.” But just as jury selection began, the eighth defendant entered the courtroom. Albert Parsons was a native-born American. He had escaped the police roundup completely and had been living safely in Wisconsin, but bravely returned to stand trial with his innocent immigrant comrades.

Tried before a biased judge and jury, the defendants never had a chance. They were convicted; seven were sentenced to hang. (An eighth was sentenced to 15 years at hard labor.)

At that point, many people thought the case was closed, but they had not reckoned with Lucy Gonzalez Parsons, the wife of Albert Parsons and a leader of the Chicago labor movement in her own right. While the case was being unsuccessfully appealed, Lucy Parsons took her two small children and travelled across the United States, speaking to anyone she could about the case. In almost a year, she spoke to about 200,000 people in 16 states. Her heartfelt eloquence helped spark a movement to stop the executions.

Despite worldwide protests, four of the Haymarket defendants were hanged by the state of Illinois in November 1887. On the morning of the execution of her husband, Lucy Parsons was arrested and locked with her children in a cell for attempting to see her husband one last time.

On July 14, 1889, at the International Labor Congress in Paris, a delegate from the American Federation of Labor proposed that the Congress adopt May 1 as International Labor Day and a day to remember the “Martyrs of Chicago.” This was accepted. Ever since, May 1 has been a day for the workers of the entire world to march in unison.

Holidays do teach lessons; May Day teaches many. The Haymarket Affair shows that America’s tiny handful of rulers will throw away all pretense of democracy once the stability of their rule is challenged by vast changes in the economy. It shows that they will make scapegoats out of the immigrant workers. It shows they will do anything to hold on to their rule.

But Haymarket also shows us the weapon that a new class created by vast changes in the economy can wield against its rulers: unity. Perhaps the lesson of May Day can be summed up best in the words of Haymarket defendant Oscar Neebe. The last words of his autobiography read simply: “I call on all workingmen or working women of all nationalities and all countries to unite and down with your oppressors.”

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Haymarket Martyrs Monument, Waldheim Cemetery

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This article originated in the PEOPLE’S TRIBUNE (Online Edition), Vol. 24 No. 5/ May, 1997; P.O. Box 3524, Chicago, IL 60654.  For the current issue and archives to past issues see http://www.peoplestribune.org.

Ali Hangan writes – The Canary in the Cage: Black Families and the White Working Class

The Canary in the Cage: Black Families and the White Working Class

by Ali Hangan

Folks,

The black population’s history is one of tragedy and triumph. On the one hand, the population has suffered over 400 years of slavery and entrenched segregation. On the other hand, the Civil Rights movement is considered an American success story. The Civil Rights movement opened up a renewed sense of optimism for the future of the black working class and other oppressed groups. But in the late 1970’s and 80’s, that spirit of optimism began to wane.

American industry confronted with increased competition from abroad, cut costs by outsourcing work and adopting automation. A large swath of black workers in the cities that were once employed became unemployed and ultimately became unemployable. Those families that could move left to the suburbs leaving the remaining population on urban islands with few economic opportunities.

The lack of economic opportunities in the urban black communities provided a fertile ground for a drug economy. Crack cocaine and the culture associated with the drug began to spread at epidemic levels throughout the nation. In the wake of the crack epidemic more intensified policing policies arose in response. The purpose of these policies was not to stop crack per se, but rather to prevent its spread among the more politically organized suburban communities. The tactics to carry out these new policies became the genesis of increased militarization of the police.

The enhanced police tactics entered into the national consciousness by black Hip Hop th-6artists. In 1985, Toddy Tee produced “Battleram” about the LAPD armored vehicle used to smash in crack houses. In 1988, the song “Fuck the Police” by NWA told the story of police intimidation of young black males. And in 1990, “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy called upon black communities to defend themselves against the police.

While these songs brought a consciousness to the Gestapo tactics being used to police black communities, it paradoxically renewed old stereotypes about urban black males. With the music industry’s new marketing of music through videos in the 1980’s, they streamed images of black males as gang members into households across the country. This perception of a “black Armageddon” on MTV shifted public opinion toward support of a more comprehensive strategy to police urban black communities.

The new strategy fell under the auspices of the Federal drug enforcement policy, which became known as the “War on Drugs.” The War on Drugs began during the Nixon Administration in 1971. It was a Federal campaign for the prohibition of drugs and enhanced military intervention, with the stated aim being to reduce the illegal drug trade. In 1982, Vice President George H. W. Bush led a push for the involvement of the CIA and U.S. military in drug interdiction efforts. In 1989, under now, President George H. W. Bush, he authorized the creation of a Federal Drug Czar to oversee the war on drugs. Later, raised to a cabinet-level position by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Currently, the Federal Government spends 51 billion annually on the war on drugs. [citation]

The War on drugs has had a devastating effect on the black population:

“The US Department of Justice (DOJ) reports 2.2 million people are in our nation’s jails and prisons and another 4.5 million people are on probation or parole in the US, totaling 6.8 million people, one of every 35 adults. We are far and away the world leader in putting our own people in jail. Most of the people inside are poor and Black.” —- 40 Reasons Our Jails and Prisons Are Full of Black and Poor People, Common Dreams, June 2nd, 2015

“The War on Drugs targets Black people. Drug arrests are a big source of bodies and business for the criminal legal system. Half the arrests these days are for drugs and half of those are for marijuana. Despite the fact that Black and white people use marijuana at the same rates, a Black person is 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than a white person. The ACLU found that in some states Black people were six war-on-drugs1times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites. For all drug arrests between 1980 and 2000 the U.S. Black drug arrest rate rose dramatically from 6.5 to 29.1 per 1,000 persons; during the same period, the white drug arrest rate barely increased from 3.5 to 4.6 per 1,000 persons. ” [Ibid]

The same process that I have attempted to describe amongst the black population is reaching into much broader sections of the working class. Since the economic crash of 2008, capitalism has transitioned into a new stage of development. The increased demands on American companies to compete in the “Just in time” global economy has compelled each to be more flexible adopting more advanced automation and robots. The results have been increased productivity but at the expense of middle-income and unionized jobs impacting many white workers.

The latest wave of economic restructuring has had strong parallels to the process that began in the urban black communities in the 1980’s. This process of decay amongst the white working class has manifested in two visible ways:

1) The surge in the use of meth among the white population.
2) The groundswell of support by the white working class of Donald Trump’s proposals to scale back protectionist policies.

The first two articles that follow focus on the black population but, should be viewed more broadly as a canary in the cage for the entire American working class. In other words, the declining social conditions of the black population provides us with a window into the future for the entire working class as a whole. The flip side is this: As more sections of the working class become equally impoverished it creates a practical basis to move beyond silly notions of race to unify workers politically around a broader class struggle for their common economic survival.

What do you think?

One love,

AH
Excerpt from The incredible crushing despair of the white working class:

“Carol Graham, a happiness researcher at the Brookings Institution, recently analyzed Gallup’s data on life satisfaction and found that when it comes to their outlook on the future, the most desperate groups are poor and near-poor whites.

Gallup asks people to rate their current lives on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is the worst possible life they could be living and 10 is the best. Crucially, they also ask people to imagine what their lives will look like five years in the future.

Among the poor, whites are the demographic group least likely to imagine a better future for themselves, Graham found. Poor Hispanics were about 30 percent more likely to imagine a better future than poor whites. The difference for poor blacks was even larger: They were nearly three times as likely to imagine a better future than poor whites.”

“Part of the optimism gap is indeed because of “a shrinking pie of good jobs for low-skill/blue collar workers,” Graham said in an email. “Whites used to have real advantages (some via discrimination) that they no longer have … they are looking at downward mobility or threats of it, while poor blacks and Hispanics are comparing themselves to parents who were worse off than they.”

And paradoxically, while some inequalities between races are shrinking, other inequalities within races are growing. Across all races, for instance, the wealthy are gobbling up an ever-growing share of the income pie and leaving less behind for everyone else.”

The Average Black Family Would Need 228 Years to Build the Wealth of a White Family Today
KPCC Airtalk with Larry Mantle: The Movement for Black Lives platform and politics

Half of US jobs could be taken by robots in the next 20 years — here’s how likely it is that yours will be one of them

The incredible crushing despair of the white working class
— “The heights by great men [and women] reached and kept were not attained in sudden flight but, they while their companions slept, they were toiling upwards in the night.” —- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

On My Mother’s 120th Birthday: The Ideas of a New Generation

 

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Anna Rosenbaum with Meyer Lederman, 1922

LEW ROSENBAUM· SATURDAY, JUNE 25, 2016

My mother, Anna Hodos, was born June 24, 1896. The place was Oshmyany, a town at that time in Lithuania. I write “at that time” because it was close to the border with Russia, and, from time to time, was either in the Russian empire. . . or not. Borders are often political constructs imposed by imperial states, after all.

My grandfather brought his family to the United States ahead of the Russian (czarist) army attempting to conscript him (we believe that he assumed the name Hodos to escape conscription; when we talked about it, my sister Greta and I could never be sure what their real surname might be). They came to the U.S. after the failure of the first Russian revolution of 1905, traveling across Europe and shipping to the U.S. from Liverpool, England. Arriving in Ellis Island in 1906, my grandmother was turned away because she had an eye infection, trachoma. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, trachoma was the leading reason for immigrants to be deported from Ellis island. She returned to Europe with her youngest child, to return some time later through Canada. I can only imagine her fear at leaving her family behind to go back to Liverpool, knowing no English; her strength returning to Liverpool, only to fight her way back to her family in the U.S.

The family must have had some kind of network to rely on. It was a time of great Eastern European immigration to the U.S. The garment factories and the tenements where the garment workers lived in New York were filled with Jewish refugees from the pogroms of Eastern Europe. Upton Sinclair wrote about Lithuanian immigrants to Chicago in his epic novel of the same period, The Jungle. Several Lithuanian language newspapers served that large community and periodicals in nearly every other European language brought the news to those working in the stockyards and the steel industry. Branches of my family would settle in New York and Chicago, but my grandparents settled in the small industrial and farming community of Ansonia in Southern Connecticut. The town was situated on the Housatonic River valley, the home of metal industries and textile mills. My family must have brought some resources with them, because they established a feed and grain store serving the agricultural community.

I believe that my mother finished high school. She was slated to work in the store while her younger brother went to college. Regardless of her educational level, she was caught up in the intellectual ferment of the period. She would have none of being bound to the small town store. Greta told me that she ran away to New York to try to make her way there, but her father came after her and brought her back to Ansonia. She remained rebellious, however, and joined the radical movement of the time, the YPSLs or Young People’s Socialist League, and was influenced by the Russian Revolution of 1917. In 1919, John Reed (at that time perhaps the best known journalist in the U.S.) published his pathbreaking Ten Days That Shook The World, describing his observations while in Russia during the revolution. Anna got a letter from Reed along with a copy of the book. Reed wrote that “the Capitalist press is endeavoring to suppress the sale of the book,” refusing to review it and give it any distribution outside of the big cities in the Northeast. He appealed to the Comrades to help distribute the book and to make money for their collectives at the same time.

New ideas permeated the immigrant working class movement in this period. The big garment workers unions, headquartered in Chicago and New York, led organizing drives in New York and New England. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York in 1911 killed over 100 workers and sparked the fight for labor law reform for the next two decades. The Bread and Roses strike engulfed the textile mills of Lawrence, MA in 1912, with 23,000 workers taking to the streets, defying ethnic differences that the employers had used to keep them apart.. Workers and intellectuals around the world rallied in defense of the anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, accused of murder in 1920 and executed in 1927 in Boston.

In this turmoil Anna met Meyer Lederman, pictured above in 1922 with her. He styled himself something of a “socialist Zionist,” though I never knew what he meant by that. There was, among the socialist leaning Jewish workers of the period and going back to the late 1800s, a trend who argued that wherever there was a Jew, the Jewish nation existed. This group refused to integrate themselves into the revolutionary organizations of the nations in which they lived, demanding a separate organization for themselves. This strand of socialism sparked debates in the garment workers movement. Perhaps this was a fundamental disagreement between Anna and Meyer; that I do not know. After the Communist Party was formed, she became part of that movement, but she and Meyer remained friends to the end of his life.

But somewhere in the early 1920s she met George Rosenbaum, whose last name she would assume without ever getting married. George never became a citizen.. Anna considered him an anarchist if he had any definitive political philosophy. He made friends with people on Book Row in Manhattan, worked in the Dauber and Pine used book shop, and then opened up his own store as the depression deepened. The store went out of business in a few years, and from the store he took what he thought were some of the valuable titles — and about 25 volumes of Russian and Soviet politics and history. The fear of deportation hung over his head throughout his life. His and Anna’s memory of the Palmer raids to arrest and deport radicals (1919-1920) revived in the post WWII McCarthy witch hunt.

From this union came my sister in 1928, and me in 1942.

I’m thinking of Anna today, June 24, of course, since she would have been 120 years old on this day. But there’s more. We are immigrants, the objects of the kind of hatred that the presidential race in the U.S. today is stoking. My people would have been those Trump would ban from immigration: after all, we bore the infection of Bolshevism. We were the wave upon wave of immigrants who took jobs from Americans in the steel plants and stockyards, driving the wages down. We were the scum feared by the voters in the British election to exit the European Union. I’m thinking of Anna today, because the Lithuanian/Russian border is today even more a figment of the political imagination, as is the U.S./ Mexican border.

In the era of globalization information flows freely ignoring borders. Capitalist relations have flown freely to the far reaches of the earth, leaving no nation untouched. Attempts to limit labor migration fail very much for the reason that labor follows the trail of capital and information. You can no more build a wall against labor than you can against electrons. But just as in 1919, when John Reed wrote to my mother, the new ideas and experiences of the immigrants in our society add to our understanding of the world. A social revolution is brewing today, even more than in 1919, because of the globalization and the electronic/technological revolution that has taken place.

Anna died in 1983, the same year that the bookstore I worked in got a computer. She would not recognize the world of today, almost 100 years after the third Russian Revolution of 1917. She would see instantly that the expectations of her working class life no longer beckon to the class created by the computer. And I suspect she’d quickly understand, that broad equality of poverty represents something fundamentally different in the new class structure of America and the world. Her generation could expect to participate in the expanding economic benefits accruing to workers. Reforms would take care of that. This generation can only reform society by taking it over, by wresting power from those who control the means of producing what we need to survive. By wresting power from those who are accelerating their calls to ban immigrants and build walls.

Our ideas and hopes, which come from the lived experience of our expectations, pose the real danger to the rich and powerful. I think Anna would be eager to distribute these ideas, just as she was called on to distribute the ideas of her generation.

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