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Jacob S. Coxey (1854–1951), a wealthy stone quarry owner from Massillon, Ohio, led the first organized protest of the unemployed. The protest culminated in a march of about 500 unemployed workers, known as Coxey's Army, through the streets of Washington, D.C., in May 1894.
In the 1890s, the United States experienced one of the most devastating economic depressions in its history. By 1894, many Americans had reached rock bottom with millions unemployed. A number of workers, notably laid off railroad construction workers, talked of marching on Washington, D.C., but few made it to the capital. One group that did was the Army of the Commonweal of Christ, led by Coxey.
A Populist with a son that he named Legal Tender in honor of monetary reform, Coxey had a longstanding standing interest in reform. By the early 1890s, his interest in providing good roads merged with his concerns over unemployment. In 1892, he proposed that Congress hire the unemployed to work on building better roads and he created the Good Roads Association to promote this legislation. In 1894, Coxey again sought to address the unemployment problem by combining his good roads program with a financing proposal that would fund the building of a variety of public buildings. With support from several people, Coxey initiated a protest march from Massillon to Washington, D.C., in March 1894. Coxey and his followers took six weeks to march 400 miles to the capital, where others sympathetic to the cause joined them. The national press followed the march and other "Coxey's Army" groups formed across the nation.
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Coxey's Army collapsed quickly when Washington police arrested Coxey for walking on the grass in violation of the Capitol Grounds Act and jailed him. He received a twenty-day jail sentence and returned to Massillon when released. However, Coxey's Army and the growing political strength of Populism struck fear into the hearts of many Americans. Critics portrayed Populists like Coxey as Socialists whose election would endanger property rights.
For a generation, Coxey's march remained vivid in the public memory. In countless homes, boys and girls grimy from play were warned to clean up or they would look like someone from Coxey's Army. Children also reenacted a version of cops and robbers in which youthful Coxeyites stole wagons and were pursued by federal marshals. These parents and children were perpetuating a widespread, but incorrect, notion that Coxey's Army was merely a collection of dirty thieves.
In reality, Coxey continued as a well-respected political leader. Although the march did not lead to passage of the proposed public works legislation, Coxey continued in the public limelight for years due to his orchestration of the event. In 1896, he unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Congress on the Populist ticket. He continued to be involved in politics and finally was elected mayor of Massillon in 1931. He had more success at business and died a wealthy man. In time, the march of Coxey's Army faded from public memory, although its call for public works jobs anticipated a crucial element of the New Deal programs of the 1930s.
McMurry, Donald L.Coxey's Army: A Study of the Industrial Army Movement of 1894. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1968.
Schwantes, Carlos A.Coxey's Army: An American Odyssey. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.