On May the first, 1894, 120 years ago, a group of protesters called “Coxey’s Army” descended on Washington to protest income inequality. It was the first such protest the nation had ever seen. And the conditions that led to it may sound familiar.
The year before the 1894 march, the economy had crashed catastrophically. Unemployment shot up to over ten percent and stayed there for half a decade. In an industrializing economy, the very idea of joblessness was new and terrifying. There was no safety net, no unemployment insurance and few charities. A week without work meant hunger.
Suddenly panhandlers were everywhere. Chicago prisons swelled with men who purposefully set out to be arrested just to have a warm place to survive the winter. The homeless were blamed for their circumstances, thrown into workhouses for “vagrancy,” punished with 30 days of hard labor for the crime of losing their job. The wealthy took little pity. The fashionable attended “Hard Times Balls,” where a sack of flour was awarded to the guest wearing the most convincing hobo costume.
Jacob Coxey, a witty Ohio businessman and perennial candidate for office, thought he had a solution. He proposed a “Good Roads Bill,” a Federal project to help the unemployed and to give the poor the work that they needed, while also helping to maintain and improve America’s infrastructure. Coxey’s idea was radically ahead of its time—four decades ahead of FDR’s New Deal programs. But Coxey had faith in his plan, declaring: “Congress takes two years to vote on anything. Twenty-millions of people are hungry and cannot wait two years to eat.”
All kinds of people came from all over the country to join in the march. As they made their way to Washington, they gathered together in ever-enlarging groups that frightened the elite with threats of class warfare. Read about the march and find out what happened when they approached the Capitol, at Smithsonian.