"We march on starvation, we march against death,
we're ragged, we've nothing but body and breath;
From north and from south, from east and from west
the army of hunger is marching."
- Hunger Marcher's song, 1932
Hard Times have arrived in America.
A little over a week ago, Milwaukee saw its first food riot (or sorts) in many decades.
With that in mind I decided to repost a diary that didn't get much attention the first time around.
"If a modern state is to rest upon a firm foundation its citizens must not be allowed to starve. Some of them do. They do not die quickly. You can starve for a long time without dying."
- leader of Children's Bureau of Philadelphia, 1931
The first reported food riot of the Great Depression happened January 3, 1931, in England, Arkansas.
H. C. Coney, a tenant farmer from Lonoke County, was visited by a neighbor who was distressed because she was unable to feed her children. He decided that he must do something, so he loaded his truck with several other neighbors and headed to England to demand food from the Red Cross. Though the original group of men consisted of approximately fifty farmers, some armed, reports state that anywhere from 300 to 500 came together once in the city proper. The Red Cross, which lacked the forms necessary for people to apply for aid, took the brunt of their anger for the promised food never given to those in need. The merchants, either out of fear of what the mob was capable of or out of the kindness of their hearts, offered food to the people that day
There was no violence that day, so calling it a riot may not have been the best description.
However, it remains significant for one reason - it was the first, and last, food riot that the national media reported.
"Our children are crying for food and we are going to get it. We are not going to let our children starve."
- parent at England, Arkansas
The first real food riots in the Great Depression broke out in February 1931.
In Minneapolis, several hundred men and women smashed the windows of a grocery market and made off with fruit, canned goods, bacon, and ham. One of the store's owners pulled out a gun to stop the looters, but was leapt upon and had his arm broken. The "riot" was brought under control by 100 policemen. Seven people were arrested.
"Who has the most children here?"
- Minneapolis food rioter asked before handing out stolen bacon
Food riots broke out in San Francisco, Oklahoma City, St. Paul, Van Dyke, and many other cities. But I dare you to find any mention of them in the New York Times.
Meanwhile, millions of pounds of perfectly good food was being left to rot in the fields because there was no market for it. the hungry couldn't afford to pay for the food. It appeared that capitalism was breaking down.
It's become popular lore amongst Republicans these days that FDR's New Deal was largely responsible for the Great Depression. I have to wonder if those same Republicans would have voiced the opinion that federal work and food programs were bad while standing in front of hundreds of parents of starving children.
"There is no poverty in America."
- Dr. Ray Lyman Wilbur, Secretary of the Interior, 1931
As the Depression deepened and starvation spread across the country, the media reported it less and less.
Thousands of unemployed workers looted food stores (afraid of their contagious effect, the press usually did not report food riots); indeed, Irving Bernstein reports, "By 1932 organized looting of food stores was a nationwide phenomenon."
As far as the media was concerned, the poor in America were starving to death in silence.
But this was still America, and some people were determined to bring attention to the plight of the homeless and hungry no matter what the cost.
The First Hunger March
Empty is the cupboard,
no pillow for the head,
we are the hunger children
who cry for milk and bread.
We are the hunger children
who cry for milk and bread.
We are the worker's children
who must, who must be fed.
- song that was sang by children
at the gates of the White House, Thanksgiving Day, 1932, shortly before they were arrested
I'm spending my nights at the flophouse
I'm spending my days on the street
I'm looking for work and I find none
I wish I had something to eat
- the popular 'Soup Song' sung to the tune of 'My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean'
Local hunger marches started on April 1, 1931, when a large group of unemployed forced their way into the Maryland state legislature to demand relief.
Later that month 3,000 turned out in Columbus, Ohio. In May 15,000 unemployed marched on Lansing, Michigan. By the end of summer there had been 40 hunger marches in states all over the country.
Despite this growing movement, it was business as usual in Washington. A few of the more bold Democrats proposed modest relief packages which Hoover immediately vetoed. It required someone outside of the two parties to take this movement to the next level, and that someone was Herbert Benjamin.
Herbert Benjamin was an unapologetic communist until his dying day. A few months before he had returned from Moscow where he had received training on organizing the unemployed.
Unlike Coxey's Army in 1894, this hunger strike would have 1,670 "delegates" rather than being a ragtag group. Columns of unemployed represented by all races would leave from Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, and St. Louis, and all arrive on December 6. Marches from the west coast would leave earlier and meet up in either Chicago or St. Louis.
Each delegate wore an armband that said "National Hunger March, December 7, 1931", which was the day that Congress would open for a new session. There were ten marchers to a truck as well as a smaller car that would run ahead looking for hostile crowds and/or police. While the media and local governments were extremely hostile to the marchers (Mayor Mackey of Philadelphia advised them to "pass by" his city. Hartford closed its streets to them), the public often turned out in large numbers to cheer them on and protect them from the local police. The marches were given $40 for all expenses, but frequently local communities would furnish them food and medical care free of charge, or at cost.
All of the columns reached Washington D.C. on December 6, as scheduled. Both the Hoover Administration and the media was in an uproar.
Three days later, however, 14 persons appeared outside the White House as "hunger marchers." In a cold drizzle they unfurled their banners ("Mr. Hoover, We Demand Food & Lodging," "Mr. Hoover You Have Money for the Entertainment of the Fascist Assassin Grandi."). Promptly the police pounced on them, arrested all 14 for parading without a permit.
Next day the U. S. Secret Service paid Leader Benjamin the compliment of taking his "hunger march" seriously and thus helping to publicize it throughout the land. Chief Moran declared that his sleuths had learned the march was really a Communist demonstration on a large scale. "Marchers" from all parts of the country would be brought to Washington in 1,144 trucks, 92 automobiles. They would be lodged and fed along the way. They would have medical attention. They would defend themselves with stones. They would be organized in military fashion. They would petition the President and Congress for relief for the jobless. They would make trouble. Only one thing in their plans did Chief Moran fail to ascertain and that was where the money was coming from to finance such a large undertaking. As usual, Moscow was publicly suspected.
"The marchers were of several races, mostly whites and negroes, but among them were several scores of yellow men from various climes. Many women appeared in the column."
- Daily Mirror
1,000 police showed up for the march, as well as 1,000 Marines, and an unknown number of secret service. Another 500 police were in the Capitol. Police were armed with shotguns and machine guns.
Vice-President Curtis sent out word that no marchers could enter the Capitol grounds carrying placards that were critical of the president. [Hmmm. Doesn't that sound a little familiar?]
Congress refused to let them speak in the Capitol. Neither Democrat nor Republican heard their demands. In response the demonstrators sang the "Internationale". President Hoover also refused to see them. According to the Washington Herald, the marches who were arrested were beaten.
The march then went to the AFL Headquarters to meet with President William Green, who promptly berated the marchers.
The first hunger march was over and the marchers left Washington. However, it had forced the media to actually report on the hunger problem in America, something it was loath to do. It also pushed Congress to propose relief legislation, which the Hoover Administration promptly defeated.
"As I expected it was an orderly as well as an impressive demonstration."
- 77-year old Mayor Jacob Coxey
A grassroots movement grows
Father James R. Cox was known as Mayor of Shantytown in Pittsburgh because he was so active in helping the homeless.
The first hunger marchers had scarcely left Washington before Father Cox started his own Hunger March. Dubbed "Cox's Army", it started on January 6, 1932 at 12,000 in size, but grew to 25,000 by the time it reached Washington.
Father Cox hated communists and felt the need to reclaim the pressing issue of homelessness and hunger in America from the communists. In fact, Cox's march was funded by store owners in the Pittsburgh area.
President Hoover personally met with Father Cox and heard his proposals, which were then ignored after the photo-op was over.
In March 7, 1932, about 4,000 unemployed factory workers marched on the Ford Motor Company in Detroit. They were looking either to get their old jobs back, or unemployment insurance.
They marched from Detroit to the River Rouge plant. Their signs read, "We Want Bread Not Crumbs," "Tax the Rich, Feed the Poor," "Free the Scottsboro Boys," and "Stop Jim Crow." At the Dearborn line, the crowd was told to disperse. None of the marchers was armed, but teargas and fire hoses were used on the crowd. Finally, the order to shoot was given - scores were wounded. Killed outright were Joe York, Joe DeBlasio, Coleman Leny, and Joe Bussell.
The order to shoot was given by private thugs hired by Ford, who was violently anti-union at the time. Firemen hosed them with icy water in the sub-freezing temperatures.
About 60 men were wounded, mostly in the back as they ran. One later died. The police blamed communists for the violence and sought to arrest Communist leader William Z. Foster, as well as starting a crackdown on leftist organizations.
The Unemployed Council decided to hold a public funeral, and between 30,000 and 70,000 people turned out for what was later called the Ford Hunger March. The Detroit police wisely decided not to make a show of force that day.
A massive crowd, tens of thousands strong, took over the broad main street. Detroit police decided it was better to disappear. For several miles, through the downtown area, stopping all traffic and all business, the crowd escorted the victims to their graves. Nothing like this had ever been seen in Detroit.
[note: there was a Ford Hunger March reunion in Detroit during the deep recession of 1982, which also got little media coverage]
All of you there
All of you there
Pay the bonus, pay the bonus
For the Yanks are starving,
The Yanks are starving everywhere
- sung by Bonus Marchers to the tune of "The Yanks are coming"
They'll red-cross all the sick and maimed,
They'll wooden-cross all those who fall,
They'll iron-cross the hero guys,
and double-cross us all.
- also sung by the Bonus Marchers
After WWI the veterans were given IOUs that would pay them on average of $1,000. The veteran organizations lobbied for an upwards adjustment, which Congress approved several times. Each time it was vetoed by first President Harding, and then President Coolidge. Finally Congress over-rode the presidential veto in 1924, and the veterans were to get a bonus - in 1945.
As the Depression deepened, many popular figures began pressing for early payment of the bonus. They included retired Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler. The only political party that supported early payment was the communist party.
The leftist, Worker's Ex-Servicemen's League proposed that veterans should come to Washington to lobby for the bonus. It was only a proposal and there was no coordination involved. Nevertheless, on March 10, a few days after the WESL proposal, 300 veterans started for Washington from Portland, led by Walter Waters, a former Army sargent. Waters followers rode boxcars, hobo fashion, and somehow managed to spread the word of this march on Washington despite minimal press coverage.
When the veterans and their families began arriving in Washington they faced all sorts of petty harassment. For example, the water sprinklers on the Capitol grounds were left running around the clock so the veterans could not sleep on the grass. They occupied parks and a row of condemned buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue, between the White House and the Capitol. When those sites overflowed the Bonus Army camped in a Hooverville on the Anacostia Flats, a swampy area across the Anacostia River.
When it became clear that large numbers of veterans were actually going to stay, Hoover offered to buy them off with temporary housing for 6,000. However, the number of veterans arriving exceeded 15,000. Hoover refused to meet with the leaders of the Bonus Army throughout.
In a cynical political ploy, the House passed a bill awarding the bonus to the veterans with the intention of killing the bill in the Senate. On the day of the vote in the Senate the Anacostia Bridge was raised just as the veterans were about to cross it. Two other nearby bridges were also blocked. By the time that bridge was lowered the Senate had already defeated the bill.
Waters and the bonus army refused to leave Washington (they had nowhere to go) and that made the Hoover Administration nervous. As the long, hot months crawled by, tensions escalated.
On July 28th there was a confrontation. The government wanted to tear down the shantytown to build office buildings. Words were exchanged and some veterans threw rocks and bricks. The police responded by shooting one veteran to death. Quick to respond with force, the army was called in.
"You will have United States troops proceed immediately to the scene of the disorder. Surround the affected area and clear it without delay."
- Hoover's orders to MacArthur
Army Chief of Staff and Major General Douglas MacArthur watched a brigade of steel-helmeted soldiers precisely align themselves in a straight four-column phalanx, bayonets affixed to rifles. He nodded his head in satisfaction. Discipline was wonderful. Up ahead, Major George Patton kicked his heels against his mount, and the big horse reared forward to signal a line of cavalry. The riders drew their sabers, and the animals stepped out in unison, hoofs smacking loudly on the street. Five Renault tanks lurched behind. Seven-ton relics from World War I and presumably just for show, the old machines nonetheless left little doubt as to the seriousness of the moment. On cue, at about 4:30 p.m. on July 28, 1932, the infantry began a slow, steady march forward. Completing the surreal atmosphere, a machine gun unit unlimbered, and its crew busily set up.
This was no parade, although hundreds of curious office workers had interrupted their daily routines to crowd the sidewalk or hang out of windows along Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol to see what would happen. Up ahead, a group of weary civilians, many dressed in rags and ill-fitting, faded uniforms, waited in anticipation amid their sorry camp of tents and structures made from clapboard and sheets of tin covered in tar paper. Some loitered in the street. They had heard something was afoot -- expected it after what happened earlier. Now, a murmur rose from the camp crowd. Upon seeing the Army's menacing approach, they were momentarily stunned, disbelieving.
President Hoover was rightly worried about the political fallout of sending the military against the camp, but General MacArthur felt the bonus army was a communist threat.
When many of the veterans refused to flee before the guns and tanks, MacArthur's soldiers donned masks and began launching tear gas grenades at the Hooverville.
As cavalry dispersed a group of outnumbered veterans waving a U.S. flag, a shocked bystander, his face streaked with tears from the gas, accosted MacArthur as he rode along in a staff car. "The American flag means nothing to me after this," the man yelled. The general quieted him with a stern rebuke, "Put that man under arrest if he opens his mouth again."
The residents of Anacostia Flats were not given time to gather together what little possessions they had before their shacks were set ablaze by the troops. General MacArthur later lied and tried to claim that the veterans had set them on fire.
"For the banks of America, Hoover has prescribed oxygen. For the unemployed, chlorine."
- newspaper columnist Heywood Broun
Two veterans, William Hushka and Eric Carlson, were shot and killed. Two infants died from tear gas asphyxiation. One bystandard was shot and several veterans and children were hurt.
"The Department of Justice is pressing its investigation into the violence which forced the call of army detachments, and it is my sincere hope that those agitators may be brought speedily to trial in the civil courts."
- President Hoover
Unlike the slow starvation by the poor in their homes, the media couldn't ignore starving veterans getting rode down by calvary within sight of the Capitol building. The public was outraged.
Hoover had no choice but to support MacArthur's actions, or else he would look weak and not in command. In doing so, he left himself without any support at all.
The Second Hunger March, December 1932
Even before FDR's 1932 election there were plans for a second hunger march.
Unlike the first march this wasn't going to be a purely communist-sponsored march, and there would be twice as many delegates (3,200). Although there was some hope at the time that the Democrats would be more responsive to the unemployed than the Republicans were, it was agreed that there would be no letup in the pressure.
The marchers were met with the same efforts to discourage them, and it equally failed. On December 4, 1932, the unarmed, weary, and undernourished marchers were met at the outskirts of Washington by 1,200 policemen armed with sawed-off shotguns and submachine guns.
For three days the marchers were held in custody on a street on the outskirts of town with no water, no cots or beds, and no toilet. Eventually the marchers were permitted to build a toilet. Despite all this the marchers didn't give the police any provocations.
The treatment of the strikers was so out of line that not only did the police allow them to finish their march, but were even allowed to meet the presiding officers of the House and Senate.
Some people may be under the impression that FDR's election and the New Deal was simply a logical reaction to extreme hardships. That democracy naturally corrected itself.
That wasn't the case. It took a grassroots movement, working against all odds, to push the government into action. It's a lesson we should remember in 2009, even if a Democrat wins the White House.