Who Shall Inherit The Earth? – Lew Rosenbaum

Who Shall Inherit the Earth?  

by Lew Rosenbaum

[First of all: apologies for the reproductions here, which come from my “phone” at the exhibit and consequently have all the defects associated with that.  Second, this exhibit has now left Chicago and will be opening at MoMA in New York in October, 2018; then at LACMA in Los Angeles in February, 2019. Do not miss this exhibit.  Last, with gratitude for having had the opportunity to meet Frances Barrett White, and her two children Jessica and Ian, and be welcomed into her home in the mid 1980s. — LR]

“Think! Think about what you’re tryin’ to do to me.” These lyrics from the song written by Aretha Franklin’s (1968, Aretha Now) are chasing through my head as I mull over my response to seeing the Charles White Retrospective exhibit in the Art Institute of Chicago. For the second time.  And I don’t go to exhibits more than once.  But I did make time for this exhibit, and these Aretha-lyrics come to me because of something Danny Alexander wrote.  It’s about the artist and the thought processes that galvanize the artist’s work, whether music to the ear or the visual music on paper and other media. It’s what the artist is telling the listener or viewer.  I am not skilled in the language of visual art, so I will leave it to others to comment on the techniques, of which Charles White was a master.  The force of the paintings, etchings, linocuts, drawings — everything — moved me to tears throughout the galleries.  Often tears of joy at experiencing something that struck so close to home that it felt like a personal communication, an embrace by what art should be conveying.

Thinking.  How do you capture brain waves on paper? The text accompanying “Awaken from the Unknown recalls White’s transformation after reading Alain Locke’s 1925 The New Negro anthology, and finding there “a new world of facts and ideas in diametric opposition to what was being taught in the classrooms and text-books as unquestionable truth.”  Maybe you start there, recalling what it was like, when your mother dropped you

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Awaken from the Unknowing – Charles White (1961)

off at the public library (it was at the Chicago Cultural Center then) at 7 or 8 years old, and you reconstructed the real world from what you read there, and then walked the few blocks to the Art Institute, wandering the halls, where you said your found the work of Winslow Homer particularly influential. At least that’s what Charles White did and said, and in this piece I see myself and imagine the subject of this piece on a road to discovery, perhaps after work, exhausted, and falling asleep over the piles of newspapers, just like I have done many times.  Falling asleep in the process of awakening, kind of a visual pun, I suppose.  She’s been asleep and here is the key to awakening. Discovering the new ideas that transform. Here’s a new idea that transforms: “Think! And let yourself be free!”

Much earlier in his life, Charles White contemplated what brought him to his own understanding.  He painted these two pieces in 1942, “Hear This” and “This, My Brother.”

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This My Brother – Charles White (1942)

Both these pieces speak to a kind of awakening, or different stages of awakening.  Referring to the title of the novel by John Rood, call “This My Brother”  social consciousness, the discovery not only that classes exist, but that the workers as a class, in this case the miners, have a class enemy. This form of learning comes directly from the struggle, the battles for a better life.  It evolves out of what is often called the “spontaneous movement,” though it should be clear that there is very little spontaneity even in this process.  But then you have “Hear This,” in which the two figures are engaged in, even fighting over, the written word.  One figure, grasping a book, tries to convince the other about its point of view;  the other, seems unconvinced

Hear This Charles White 1942

Hear This – Charles White (1942)

(the text next to the paintings implies that it referred to White’s own experience learning about the social struggle from communists).  They (the man with the book, the communists) introduced something new, something that came from outside the struggle itself, something that reflected that particular role that workers play in transforming society. Changing the social order is fundamentally different from the practical role workers have in fighting for better wages and working conditions. Looking at these two pieces gives a kind of visual representation  of the difference between the school of the strike struggle and the school of revolutionary propaganda. And, of course, the relation between the two: without the learning that comes from the practical struggle, the propaganda remains so much sectarian jargon.  But in these two paintings, along with that dramatic “Awaken” piece, comes a visual lightning bolt that 100 pages of explanation can never transmit so dramatically (or, dare I say, graphically).

* * * * *

Let’s take a step backward, talk about Charles White and this “communism” thing.  The text accompanying the exhibit alludes to it in a number of places aside from what is noted above.  For example, at the entrance to the exhibit, the text calls him a “political leftist who championed the rights of the working class.”  The text accompanying his mural work reads: “White aligned himself with a group of leftist artists [in Chicago] who drew attention to inequities in American society in order to effect social change.” It was much more than that.  Frances Barrett White wrote a memoir of her life with Charles White (Reaches of the Heart, Barricade Books, 1994, o.p.).  “Charlie’s art teachers,” she writes, “encouraged his talent and twice entered his work in statewide competitions. Both times he won, and both times when he appeared to receive the awards, they were denied to him.”  It was a mistake, he was told.  Someone else had actually won.  “By the time he was fifteen, Charlie had read . . . The New Negro many times.  The knowledge of his culture he found there was overwhelming. . .”  He began to dislike school intensely, stopped attending, and found as an alternative the “Arts Crafts Guild, a group of black artists who met every Sunday. It changed the direction of his art.” In his early meanderings in the Art Institute, he had been influenced by Winslow Homer and the Hudson River School, and this translated into paying attention to landscapes.  Now, with the Arts Crafts Guild, he took his easel “into the neighborhoods and painted people. Black people. . . on the streets, on the stoops of broken-down buildings, and hanging up their laundry.”  Winning another statewide competition this time brought him a one-year scholarship to the Art Institute.

He completed his course work in 1938, a time when the depression still ravaged the streets of the U.S. The government found work for artists through the Works Progress Administration; numerous arts organizations brought writers and people in the theater and visual artists together to talk about their individual crafts and also how to address the issues raised by the depression.  Along with the fight to survive came the attempt to grapple with the issues intellectually.  Within this ferment communists brought their understanding of the drive toward World War that was seizing Europe.  In the John  Reed Clubs and later the American Writers Congress, authors debated how to stop the threatening war. Artists joined the Lincoln Brigade of the International Brigades to stop the fascist offensive in Spain. Artists looked to Mexico and the mural movement there and the involvement of artists in workers’ struggles.  The current exhibit mentions only four murals he worked on;  but Fran White relates that he “joined the WPA where he painted murals in post offices, libraries, and public buildings throughout the country, never staying in one place any longer than the work required.” In 1941 he married Elizabeth Catlett, a prominent Black sculptor, and in 1942 won a $2,000 fellowship to study the role of the Negro in the development of America.  The two of them spent the next two years in the American South studying and sketching subjects from Black life.

Drafted into the army in 1944, he suggested to his Sergeant that he could use his skills as a combat artist. He was therefore assigned to the Jefferson Barracks in Missouri, where “he painted the mess hall, the tables, the benches, and the chairs again and again, always using the same color of green paint.” During a flood he and his fellow soldiers in the segregated battalion  filled and moved sandbags, as if in a prison gang.  And shortly thereafter he came down with tuberculosis, which affected him for the rest of his life.

These are some of the events that formed the context of his early life for the intellectual development that brought him, for example, to be an art director at Wo-Chi-Ca, or Workers’ Children’s Camp in upstate New York (where he first met Frances Barrett).  Led him to form binding friendships with some of the most prominent artists of the time — Margaret Burroughs,  Gordon Parks, and Rockwell Kent — and, when he settled in New York, to form an organization, the Committee for the Negro in the Arts, in the early 1950s, including Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Langston Hughes, and Oscar Hammerstein.  He appealed to friends in the Thomas Jefferson School of Marxist Studies (the Communist Party workers’ school) for help finding a place for an interracial couple to rent an apartment in New York.  These cohorts, his colleagues, his confreres stoked that intellectual fire and helped him conclude, as the text to the exhibit proclaims, “Art is not for artists and connoisseurs alone. It should be for the people.”

*****

Art isn’t only to illuminate horrors of the past.  It’s to envision, to hope for the future.  So yes there is “Birmingham Totem” printed after the 1963 bombing of the Birmingham church.  And there is the series of “Wanted Posters” that summon up all the demons of

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Oh Freedom – Charles White (1956)

past enslavement and degradation post slavery.  About that group of works, done in 1969 to 1971, White said: “Some of my recent work has anger. I feel that at this point  I have to make an emphatic statement about how I view the expression, the condition of this world and of my people . . . I guess it’s sort of finding the way, my own kind of way, of making an indictment.” But there is also the ecstatic “Oh Freedom,” expansive joy in the face of the subject, with the vigorous open-handed casting of seeds (in my mind, the intellectual seeds falling on fertile soil of the oppressed).

Look also at the determination in the eyes of the woman depicted in “Ye Shall Inherit the Earth.”  I dare you to think that this woman will allow her child to inherit an earth like the one into which we have been born.  She has her eyes on the prize and will protect not only him, but all children.  Of course the title is a reference to “Sermon on the Mount,”  but keep in mind that in 1953, when he drew this piece, he could not marry his wife in the state of Michigan; and that he could not easily

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Ye Shall Inherit the Earth – Charles White (1953)

find an apartment to rent in the city of New York.  To live in this land was not his birthright, and to imagine it, well, that almost smacked of treason.

In “Hope for the Future” and in “The Children” White again turns to a rendering of the child as a symbol of what is possible.  Where can we go from here, he seems to be asking, how can we extricate ourselves from this dilemma in which we find ourselves?  It is certainly the same question revolutionaries ask themselves today, knowing that hope for our future lies with those recently born. And, perhaps much like Charles White, here we stand trying to figure out how can we prepare for that future with the best possible art? The way Charles White does it, as revealed in this exhibit and these pieces in particular, is by showing that the best art is also the best propaganda, the best propaganda is the best art. How do you convey, with the necessary ambiguity to express the shifting ground on which you are standing? Look at the massy workers’ hands — I don’t know another way of describing the strength, the weight, the solidity of those hands — gently holding the child in “Hope for the Future.” Is she looking off to the side, and if so what is she seeing?

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Hope For the Future – Charles White (1945)

Is she presenting us with a gift, this child, this future? Are “The Children” looking through the window  with confidence, anticipation, hope . . .or is it with fear? Now that we see it, it is ours to do with what we will.  It is our future now.

*****

I saw the show for the second time on the Thursday five days before the exhibit closed (Thursday nights are free at the AIC).  It was much more crowded than the first time I went, and from the moment I entered I knew I was among a group of people who were there not simply to be seen at the latest big exhibit.  These were folks who really engaged with the art, some who were, like me, old enough to be contemporary with some of his working years; others born long after he had passed on (he died at the young age of 61 in 1979).  It was a conversation starting crowd, because of the excitement with the art and what it represented.  Like when I first

The Children - Charles White (1950)

The Children – Charles White – (1950)

came into the exhibit hall and looked over the shoulders of three older people no longer looking at “The Cardplayers,” but talking about what was life like in the 1940s during the war, and what did it mean to throw all the effort into the war, what did that mean for artists, and the older man, trying to remember, the word was right on the tip of his tongue, he couldn’t quite find it, it had something to do with limited quantities of goods available in stores, and just then a younger man, standing next to me, interrupted to say the word, and they all said Yes! Rationing, that’s it!  And how do you know about rationing? And so the conversation continued with young and old appreciating each other and then talking about what they appreciated in the art work. And then they moved on, new friends made and exchanging views until, much later in the exhibit they shook hands, even embraced and bid each other good bye.

It was a conversation starting crowd.  The secret smiles between two people as they saw the same things in the drawings.  Yes this is my favorite in the whole show.  I really like the “Wanted Posters”!  I don’t know how he created this sense of motion with his pen and ink.  And near the end, I found myself standing next to an older man, perhaps my age, who wondered why it had taken so long for a show like this to be mounted. He told the woman standing next to him, I don’t give the Art Institute credit really.  They should have done it a long time ago.  Of course I’m glad they did it now. You notice one thing about his work, he tells me, and that is the large hands and feet, the parts that engage in work.  The emphasis on these, and his voice trails off. And then he begins to tell me, you know why there are so few oil paintings?  It’s because oils are expensive, and he never had enough money to spend on oils.  Well, maybe this is true.  But I cannot get out of my mind Charles White’s own words, that art is not simply for the artist or the connoisseur but, most emphatically, for the people.  And his work was displayed and copied  and shared everywhere. Prints are a form adapted to this kind of art. Often people’s first exposure to a Charles White print was a poster on a telephone pole.  “Ye Shall Inherit The Earth” was used as a poster to advertise a 1960 NAACP rally in Los Angeles.

It is disappointing that the mural — “Struggle for Liberation (Chaotic Stage of the Negro, Past and Present)” — Charles White designed for the Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library was never installed.  He began the mural in 1940, near the end of his WPA days

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Study for Struggle for Liberation (Chaotic Stage of the Negro, Past and Present – Charles White (1940)

and before he and Elizabeth Catlett went into the South to gather material for the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship.  Striking out from the left panel of the mural is the insurrectionary John Brown, while more modern forms of protest form the core of the right panel.  A color study for the mural showing both panels is in the show, and it gives some idea of his bold ideas. The exhibit also presents a study for the mural, “The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America,” the result of the Rosenwald Fund

Study for the Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America - Charles White (1943)

Study for the Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in  America – Charles White (1943)

fellowship, and still installed at Hampton University in Virginia.  The text for the exhibit identifies fourteen figures in the mural, including his contemporaries Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, and Leadbelly. I listened in to the conversations around these murals, to the excited identification of the people in the murals, to the careful examination of the features of the black and white studies for the mural (Robeson and Denmark Vesey, for example).

Charles White grappled with the idea of how to introduce new ideas into widespread discourse all his life.  Roque Dalton wrote that “Poetry, like bread, is for everyone.”  Bertolt Brecht or maybe Vladimir Mayakovsky perhaps wrote, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it”;  Both certainly could have said this: it is congruent with their writing and their philosophy.  There is no doubt that Charles White, along with these other titans, saw his pen and brush as his weapon:  Art is, after all, not for the artist or the connoisseur but should be for the people.

*****

Huntington Museum acquires “Soldier”   

 

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Chris Mahin Writes: April 4, 1968 Dr. King Is Killed

[I’m glad to be able to reprint Chris Mahin’s essay, written for a labor union periodical some years ago, on this the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  For one thing, it celebrates the struggles for which he gave his life as a struggle of a class for its emancipation.  For another, how can we see the demand of the Black sanitation workers (“I Am A Man”) and not think of the contemporary “Black Lives Matter.” — LR]

50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King

April 4, 1968: Dr. King is killed defending labor’s rights

 BY CHRIS MAHIN

April 4 is one of the saddest days of the year. On that day in 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. While many events are held each year to honor Dr. King’s memory, too often people forget – or have never learned — why he was in Memphis that spring. Dr. King went to Memphis to help striking sanitation workers – and paid for his stand with his life. That makes April 4 an important anniversary not only in African American history (and in U.S. history in general), but in the history of the labor movement as well.

On February 12, 1968, hundreds of Memphis sanitation workers went on strike. At the time, they were making less than $1 an hour and were eligible for welfare. They decided that they had had enough of poor wages, terrible working conditions, and a viciously anti-union mayor.

The workers were members of Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The strike was the culmination of years of mistreatment. The workers worked 12 hours a day carrying garbage with busted, leaking pails. Some of the pails were infested with flies and maggots, and the workers had no place to wash up in the yard when they had to leave the trucks. Some of the workers had no running water when they returned home after work. The workers had no real benefits of any kind.

This dire situation came to a crisis point on Feb. 1, 1968, when the accidental activation of a packer blade in the back of a garbage truck fatally crushed workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker.

Almost 1,400 sanitation workers joined the strike. They shut the city down.

The workers and their supporters marched daily to pressure the mayor and the city Soldiers at Civil Rights Protestcouncil to recognize the sanitation unit under AFSCME Local 1733. The men wore signs which read “I AM a Man,” a slogan that was eventually recognized around the world.

Tension grew in the city as Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb called the strike illegal and threatened to hire new workers unless the strikers returned to work. On February 14, the mayor issued a back-to-work ultimatum for 7 a.m. on Feb. 15. The police escorted the few garbage trucks in operation. Negotiations broke off. The newspapers began to report that more than 10,000 tons of garbage was piling up.

It was in that tense environment that AFSCME organizers appealed to Dr. King to come to Memphis to speak to the workers. Initially, King was reluctant. He was immersed in work preparing for the Poor People’s Campaign. This was a huge undertaking, an effort to bring poor people of all ethnicities to Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1968 to protest poverty. But when AFSCME organizer Jesse Epps pointed out that the fight of the sanitation workers in Memphis was part of the same struggle as the Poor People’s Campaign, King agreed.

Once in Memphis, King immediately grasped the importance of what was unfolding there. On his first visit to the city, March 18, he spoke to a crowd of 17,000 people, and called for a citywide march.

On Thursday, March 28, King led a march from the Clayborn Temple, the strike’s 1522808459_maxresdefaultheadquarters. The march was interrupted by window breaking at the back of the demonstration. The police moved into the crowd, using nightsticks, Mace, tear gas – and guns. A 16-year-old, Larry Payne, was shot dead. The police arrested 280 people, and reported about 60 injuries. The state legislature authorized a 7 p.m. curfew and 4,000 National Guardsmen moved in.

On Friday, March 29, some 300 sanitation workers and ministers marched peacefully and silently from Clayborn Temple to City Hall – escorted by five armored personnel carriers, five jeeps, three huge military trucks, and dozens of National Guardsmen with their bayonets fixed.

In the last days of March, King cancelled a planned trip to Africa and made preparations to lead a peaceful march in Memphis. Organizers working on preparations for the Poor People’s Campaign in other cities were directed to leave those cities and come to Memphis, for it was clear that the Poor People’s Campaign could not be won without winning the fight in Memphis.

On April 3, 1968, Dr. King returned to Memphis. That evening, he gave an extraordinary speech to hundreds of people at Mason Temple. The speech has gone down in history as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. Anyone who reads it today will notice that it is an eloquent statement of support for the sanitation workers. (That night, King called ows_15228096861200them “thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering.”) But it is also a farewell speech, the oration of a man who knew he might not have long to live, and who was searching his soul to make sense of his life, and his place in history.

In the speech, King emphatically rejected the calls not to march again because of an injunction:

“[S]omewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right!”

At the end of his remarks he referred indirectly to the underhanded attempts by racists, the FBI, and other forces to sabotage his leadership and destroy the movement, declaring:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like everybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

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The assassination at the Lorraine Motel balcony, April 4 1968

Less than 24 hours after uttering those words, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead while standing on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Urban rebellions broke out in more than 60 cities. In response to pressure from all over the country, the federal government sent Labor Department officials to Memphis to mediate a settlement to the strike.

 

On Tuesday, April 16, AFSCME leaders announced that an agreement had been reached.  The agreement included union recognition, better pay, and benefits. The strikers voted to accept the agreement.

It was a bittersweet end to a long battle. The strike ended in victory, but at a terrible cost, the death of one of the foremost symbols of the fight for justice in that (or any) era. AFSCME’s victory in Memphis inspired other workers in Memphis to join unions, and other employees throughout the South to join AFSCME. The Poor People’s Campaign which Dr. King had been working on when he went to Memphis did take place later in the tumultuous year 1968. As King had hoped, it brought together poor people of all ethnicities to demonstrate in Washington, D.C. – African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and whites.

Given Dr. King’s role in the Memphis sanitation strike and the tremendous community support that the strikers received, perhaps the month of April ought to be a time to remember that not all labor leaders have an official position with a union — and that labor comes in all colors, and includes both employed and unemployed people. If we hold on to those lessons, we will honor what was won with such great sacrifice in Memphis in April 1968.

 

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Chris Mahin writes: The Triangle Shirtwaist fire and the origins of International Women’s Day  

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire and the origins of International Women’s Day  

BY CHRIS MAHIN

 There were no fire extinguishers. Flammable materials were stored throughout the factory. The building was illuminated by open gas lighting. The ninth floor of the 10-story building had only two doors leading out. By the time the seamstresses there realized the building was on fire, one stairwell was already filling with smoke and flames. The other door had been locked, supposedly to prevent workers from stealing materials or taking breaks. The single fire escape collapsed under the weight of the many desperate people trying to use it. The elevator stopped working.

 Realizing that there was no other way to escape, some of the women broke out windows and jumped to the ground nine stories below.  Others pried open the elevator doors and tumbled down the elevator shaft. (Few survived.) The rest waited until smoke and fire defeated their desperate efforts to save themselves.

 The fire department arrived quickly, but the firefighters were unable to stop the flames. (There were no ladders available that could extend beyond the sixth floor.) The tragedy claimed 146 lives; 91 people died in the fire itself, and 54 died in the falls.

 Most of the dead were young. The average age of the victims was 21. Workers as young as 14 perished that day. Most of the victims were Jewish and Italian immigrant women.

 Every executive of the company got out alive.

 The deaths at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City on the afternoon of March 25, 1911 stunned people across the United States. The fire played an important role in changing the public’s perception of union workers and union organizers. The Women’s Trade Union League and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union led many of the protests against this tragedy, including the silent funeral march which brought together over 100,000 people.

 The tragedy also intensified the effort – which had begun before the fire – to observe March 8 each year as International Women’s Day.

 For decades before the Triangle fire, rallies, marches, and protests by women workers had taken place in early spring, often in March.

 6963695829_b33ed9e0cc_bOn March 8, 1857, the New York City police attacked and dispersed a demonstration of women garment workers protesting terrible working conditions and low wages. Two years later, again in March, those women garment workers formed their first trade union to protect themselves on the job.

 On March 8, 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City to demand shorter hours, better pay, an end to child labor – and the right to vote for women.

 In 1910, an international conference of socialist organizations was held in Copenhagen, Denmark. There, Clara Zetkin, a distinguished member of the German Socialist Party, proposed that an International Women’s Day be recognized by all the organizations present at that conference as a way to mark the strike of the garment workers in the United States. Zetkin’s proposal was greeted with unanimous approval by the conference of more than 100 women from 17 countries (including the first three women elected to the parliament of Finland.)

 The decision of the Socialist International’s meeting had an effect. One year later — in 1911 – International Women’s Day was commemorated for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland. Over a million women and men took part in rallies. These events took place on March 19, 1911. Less than a week later, the flames poured out of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York.

 The Triangle fire spurred on those who were determined to expose the conditions facing535443654-newrose1 women workers, and gave tremendous impetus to International Women’s Day events. In speeches, newspaper articles, books, and publicity material promoting International Women’s Day events, the terrible conditions which led to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire would be cited again and again as vivid examples of the horrors women workers have to endure in an unjust economic order.

 After many decades in which people around the world commemorated March 8 as International Women’s Day, in 1978, school officials in northern California began an effort to observe Women’s History Week. This caught on. By 1987, the governors of 14 states in the United States had declared March to be Women’s History Month. That same year, the federal government also declared March to be National Women’s History Month.

 This year’s commemorations of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month are especially important because the issues which the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire brought into public view – such as the existence of sweatshops and the exploitation of immigrant workers – still exist. In fact, globalization under the control of a few billionaires has made these problems even worse for the majority of the world’s workers than they were for the workers of New York City in 1911.

 There is much we can learn from the attitude conveyed by Rose Schneiderman, a  prominent socialist and union activist, who spoke to a memorial meeting for the Triangle fire’s victims, held in the Metropolitan Opera House on April 2, 1911. Here are her words, directed to an audience made up largely of well-to-do members of the Women’s Trade Union League, an organization that had provided moral and financial support for some of the first protests at the Triangle factory:

schneiderman_rally “I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire.

 “This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.

 “We have tried you, citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers, and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable, the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.

 “Public officials have only words of warning to us – warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.

 “I can’t talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”

 Indeed, too much blood has been spilt. Today, as in 1911, it is up to our class to save itself.

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.

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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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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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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