206. Coxey’s Army

“Congress takes two years to vote on anything. Twenty-millions of people are hungry and cannot wait two years to eat.”        Joseph Coxey

This weekend marks the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. It wasn’t the first march.

When I was a kid, my father would occasionally say something like, “That kid eats enough to feed Cox’s army!” We’d all laugh. It was just a saying. I was an adult before I realized where the phrase came from, or that “Cox” was actually Joseph Coxey.

Long before our present financial difficulties, even long before the Great Depression, the American economy has had a history of booms and busts. The origins of the Panic of 1893 are complex, but the result was clear. Unemployment rose dramatically – to 25% in Pennsylvania and 43% in Michigan.

There were few resources for the unemployed and hunger spread. Everybody had a theory as to the cause of the problem. Everybody had a different solution. Does this sound familiar?

Among those who spoke out was businessman Joseph Coxey. He called for government expenditures, not for handouts, but for a massive program of public improvements. He was branded as a crank for his position. Thirty years later it became the New Deal.

In order to push his agenda, Coxey organized a march on Washington. Leaving Massillon, Ohio in March of 1894, he and his followers marched approximately fifteen miles a day along the National Road.

The National Road was the first major highway built in the US by the federal government. It represented the kind of public improvement Coxey was calling for. Ironically, construction on the road had been stopped in 1837 by an earlier financial panic.

The press dubbed the group Coxey’s Army, and spread the word. It would be easy to forget, in our cell-phone world, that instantaneous communication is not new. It began in the mid nineteenth century when the telegraph advanced along with the railroads. The railroads had to have the telegraph to coordinate their trains; the newspapers co-opted it to carry local news throughout the nation.

Newspaper reporters followed along, reporting the progress of the march. Local people gave the marchers places to camp and donated food to sustain them. The local unemployed would join the march for a day or so, although few stayed for the whole journey.

A second march, called Kelly’s Army left San Francisco, also heading toward Washington. A few made it all the way by July. Fry’s Army from Los Angeles used a stolen train for part of their attempt to reach Washington.

About 400 of Coxey’s Army reached the Capitol on May first, but were stopped by police. Coxey and a few others climbed a fence and were arrested for trespassing on the Capitol grounds.

Coxey achieved nothing immediate, but began a long tradition of marching on the seat of government. Wikipedia lists well over a hundred marches, calling for everything from jobs, to peace, to abortion rights, to an end to abortion, to labeling on genetically engineered foods.

The most important of these was the 1963 march where Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech.


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