Hunger Marches

views updated


When the Great Depression began, the Communist International called for unified protests by the unemployed on a single day. In the United States, the Communist Party and allied organizations publicized International Unemployment Day in their newspapers, in leaflets, and in preparatory demonstrations and meetings. Hundreds of thousands of unemployed people turned out in cities across the country on March 6, 1930, for militant protests for "Work or Wages," to which the police responded harshly. The Communist movement then organized Unemployed Councils, neighborhood organizations of the unemployed that fought evictions and put pressure on governmental authorities to provide assistance. Major protests were often dubbed "hunger marches."

In 1931 there were local hunger marches and marches on state capitols in about a dozen states, often with marchers converging from different parts of the state to demand relief and unemployment insurance. The first national hunger march took place on December 7, 1931, timed to coincide with the opening of Congress. The demands of the march included unemployment insurance and a social insurance system to cover maternity care, illness, accidents, and old age. There were local demonstrations and conferences to select 1,670 delegates who converged on Washington from four separate columns. The marchers were unsuccessful in their attempts to address Congress or meet with the president, but they held mass meetings on their return homeward and brought public attention to the plight of the jobless.

The most famous of the hunger marches was the March 7, 1932, Ford Hunger March. Three thousand marchers gathered in Detroit with the goal of presenting demands at the Ford employment office in the suburb of Dearborn, a company town where Ford's main complex was located. Police used tear gas to stop the marchers from entering Dearborn. In response, some marchers threw stones. When the marchers reached the plant, the police opened fired, killing five. Authorities initially blamed Communists for what they called a riot, sought to arrest Communist leader William Z. Foster, and launched raids against left-wing organizations reminiscent of the hysteria following the Chicago Haymarket bombing of 1886. The massive funeral march of thirty thousand and the growth of left-wing organizations after the march indicated that repression would not break up the movement. Even within the company town of Dearborn, the Unemployed Council developed a significant base.

The second national hunger march in December 1932 had about twice as many delegates (3,200) as the first march. Delegations this time were able to meet with the presiding officers of the House and the Senate to present demands for cash winter relief, unemployment insurance, an end to military spending, and the taxing of corporations. Some members of Congress visited the hunger marchers' encampment.

Three months later, Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal established federal support for state relief efforts and jobs programs for the unemployed, but the organizations of the unemployed continued their activity. They provided sustained grassroots and leftward pressure on the administration. The hunger march tactic was still employed and a combination of repressive measures against demonstrators, as well as concessions by the authorities, likewise continued.

Hunger marches were interracial events both in their composition and their attention to the issue of racial injustice. Marchers emphasized the higher rate of black unemployment, racial discrimination in relief programs, and the heavier repression of the African-American unemployed. Delegations of hunger marches conducted street meetings to explain the Scottsboro case and marchers protested segregated eating and sleeping facilities on the route to the nation's capital. African Americans were prominent in the leadership of the movement.

Although the Communist-led Unemployed Councils were the principal organizers of hunger marches, Socialists and followers of A. J. Muste also created substantial organizations of the unemployed. The Socialists emphasized lobbying, hearings, and conferences, while the Musteites focused on self-help groups, but both movements also conducted demonstrations and helped individuals with their grievances. The three unemployed movements united in 1935 into one organization, the Workers Alliance, which lobbied for relief funds and unemployment insurance, negotiated with relief agencies and the Works Progress Administration on behalf of recipients and relief workers, conducted public demonstrations, and supported trade unions.

In conducting hunger marches, fighting against evictions, helping to solve grievances, and speaking out for racial equality, activists in the unemployed movement developed as class-conscious workers while they helped to inspire a new moral vision of caring among a large section of the public. Many of these class-conscious workers went on to lead unionization campaigns, helped along by the sympathetic public opinion and worker hopefulness that the unemployed movement did so much to develop.



Fine, Sidney. Frank Murphy, Vol. 1: The Detroit Years. 1975.

Folsom, Franklin. Impatient Armies of the Poor: The Story of Collective Action of the Unemployed, 1808–1942. 1991.

Keeran, Roger. The Communist Party and the Auto Workers Unions. 1980.

Lorence, James J. Organizing the Unemployed: Community and Union Activists in the Industrial Heartland. 1996.

Piven, Frances Fox, and Richard A. Cloward. Poor People's Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail. 1977.

Rosenzweig, Roy. "Organizing the Unemployed: The Early Years of the Great Depression." In Workers' Struggles, Past and Present: A "Radical America" Reader, edited by James R. Green. 1983.

Solomon, Mark. The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917–1936. 1998.

Sugar, Maurice. The Ford Hunger March. 1980.

Martin Halpern