After the Panic of 1893, the worst gut-wrenching economic depression in US history to that time, Jacob Coxey, an Ohio populist, organized the first march on Washington by unemployed workers to lobby the government to create jobs by building roads and public works.
The march originated with 100 men in Massillon, Ohio, passed through Pittsburgh, Becks Run and Homestead, Pennsylvania picking up marchers on the way. Various groups from around the country joined the march. Many of these protesters were unemployed railroad workers.
William Hogan, a railroad worker, and some of his followers commandeered a Northern Pacific Railway train for their trek to Washington. They fought off federal marshals but were eventually stopped by federal troops.
Fifteen hundred troops were stationed in Washington to meet the marchers, and thousands more available in anticipation of further trouble.
Coxey’s Army of five hundred weary marchers made it to Washington on April 30, 1894.
Coxey and other leaders of the movement were arrested the next day for walking on the grass of the United States Capitol. That was the upshot. A bit of an anti-climax.
But it was the first significant protest march on Washington, in a long history of marches, and the origin of the expression, “Enough food to feed Coxey’s Army”.
The next big one—the veterans’ Bonus March of 1932—the self-proclaimed Bonus Expeditionary Force of some 43,000 marchers, composed of 17,000 World War I veterans, their families and affiliated groups hit the road to the nation’s capitol.
In the depth of The Great Depression the veterans were as destitute as just about everyone else.
On discharge from the army, they had been promised a bonus based on their pay in the service plus compound interest. The bonuses were to be redeemable in 1945, but the veterans wanted their money NOW!
Walter W. Waters, a former Army sergeant, led the Bonus Army and hammered Congress for immediate payment. There was some support in Congress for prompt redemption, but President Hoover and most Republicans in Congress opposed it because it would negatively affect the Federal government’s budget and depression relief programs.
The 43,000-plus Bonus marchers camping in Washington D.C. left a pretty big muddy footprint. They camped on the grass and lawns between government buildings where Coxey had been arrested. But the treatment they received was much different.
They were driven by federal troops from the capitol grounds, chased across the Anacostia River where they set up a Hooverville in a swampy, muddy area called Anacostia Flats.
Their camps were built from materials scavenged from a nearby rubbish dump. Hoovervilles had been proliferating across the country since the beginning of The Great Depression, named for their President whose flawed policies had brought them on.
In 1930, St. Louis, Missouri, had the largest Hooverville in America. The one in New York City’s Central Park existed from 1931 to 1933.
On July 28, 1932, Attorney General Mitchell ordered the evacuation of the veterans from Anacostia Flats. If they resisted, they would be shot. They resisted. Two of them were shot and killed.
President Hoover ordered the U.S. Army to effect the evacuation.
At 4:45 pm, that same day, commanded by Gen Douglas McArthur, the 12th Infantry Regiment and the 3rd Cavalry Regiment, supported by six battle tanks under the command of Maj. George S. Patton (later General of World War II fame), the US Army attacked its own veterans.
After a cavalry charge, infantry, with fixed bayonets and adamsite gas, a riot control agent, entered the Bonus Army camps and successfully evicted veterans, families and camp followers. They set fire to the campsites. Hundreds of veterans were injured, several were killed including William Hushka and Eric Carlson.
Hoover’s action outraged the nation and many believe the incident was the cause of his loss to Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt in the upcoming election.
The Bonus March of 1932 was a landmark of dissent and protest in the United States. Prior to that time, only the Women’s Suffrage march on March 3, 1913 when 5000 marched to support women’s voting rights could be compared with it.
After the Bonus March, marches on Washington went rampant.
In the 1960s, there was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom at which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech before 250,000 marchers.
From 1965 to 1969 there were eight marches on Washington protesting the Vietnam War, building to the two famous National Mobilizations to End the War—the Vietnam Moratorium at which 200,000 demonstrated on October 15, 1969 and again a month later on November 15, when a striking 600,000 demonstrated against the war in Vietnam.
On April 19, 1971, Vietnam Veterans Against the War organized 2000 veterans to camp on the Mall in Washington while others protested all over the city. It was the day veteran John Kerry testified in front of the Senate, making his feeling known about the war.
There were five other protest marches against the war in the 1970s, one calling for mass action by Vietnam anti-war militants to shut down the federal government.
On April 27, 1974, ten thousand marched on Washington calling for the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon. Shortly after that he resigned.
In July of 1978, thousands of Native Americans finished their “Longest Walk”, a 3200 mile hike from San Francisco to Washington D. C. where they rallied on the Mall for religious freedom for traditional American Indians.
The decade ended with a “tractorcade” on February 5, 1979 when 6000 family farmers drove their tractors to Washington to protest American farm policy and on October 14th when the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights took place. The first of its kind, the march drew 100,000 gay men and lesbians to demand equal civil rights.
The 1980s were distinguished by the AFL-CIO organized march of 260,000 unionists to protest the Reagan Administration labor and domestic policies and The Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament from Los Angeles, California to Washington D. C. to raise awareness of the growing danger of nuclear proliferation and to advocate for complete, verifiable elimination of nuclear weapons from the earth.
On October 11, 1987, a second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights took place, this time drawing half a million gay men and women, not only calling for equal civil rights but also demanding government action in the fight against AIDS.
Marches during the 90s were relatively sparse, but they did include a couple of big ones. In the last year of the George Herbert Walker Bush Administration there were Dual Marches against the Gulf War on January 19th and 26th 1991. Their estimated draw was 250,000 and 25,000 respectively. On April 25, 1993, there was a third March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights. Organizers estimate that one million attended. Then there was the Million Man March on October 16, 1995.
The 21st Century was met with a couple of major protest marches anticipating President George W. Bush’s attack on Iraq.
The first of numerous protests against a war with Iraq started on October 26, 2002 by ant-war umbrella groups including United for Peace and Justice and MoveOn.org that drew over 100,000 at the Washington protest, and again on January 18, 2003 when an estimated 200,000 attended.
Nonetheless, Bush attacked Iraq in March of 2003. Saddam Hussein was disposed of rather quickly, but the war dragged on through Bush’s interminable eight-year administration and is now in its 6th year and has become Obama’s war.
President Obama is now the owner of two wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, (when you break it, you own it, as Colin Powell so aptly put it) and he is not only planning to escalate the Afghan war but is looking forward to starting two more of his own, Pakistan (which he had already robot bombed) and Iran, which he has threatened while staring into the face of an oncoming depression.
When enough Americans lose their homes and their jobs and get thrown out on the street, they will also lose their apathy and start marching again.
Jacob Coxey, here we come!
STEPHEN FLEISCHMAN, writer-producer-director of documentaries, spent thirty years in Network News at CBS and ABC. His memoir is now in print. See www.amahchewahwah.com, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org