Hunger Marches: 1931-32
The Washington, D.C. Hunger marches of 1931-32 gained nearly as much publicity at the time as the more enduring Bonus Army marchers of 1932-34.

With one-third of the nation unemployed, the call for a march demanding relief and jobs struck a chord throughout the nation.

Organized and led by the Unemployed Councils that were heavily influenced by the Communist Party, the marches were the subject of a fear campaign by officials who warned of a revolution. This only made the public more curious and thousands gathered along the arrival route to watch the Hunger March on December 6, 1931.

Two columns entered the city—one down Bladensburg Road and the other from Massachusetts Avenue NW. Thousands of District motorists had driven out to the spectacle to watch along New York Avenue.

Cars and trucks were parked at Bladensburg and Florida Avenue where they marched four abreast to John Marshall Place downtown where they were joined by other contingents.

The other contingent parked their vehicles at Thomas Circle and marched to join their compatriots.

The main chant form the marchers was “We want unemployment insurance” but others included singing “The Internationale,” and “John Brown’s Body, changing “Long live the Soviet government,” “Long live the solidarity of the Negro and the white workers. Down with Jim Crow and lynching,” “Down with charity! We want security.”

Buoyed by the arrival of several thousand others, close to 5,000 persons made their way past the White House to the Washington Auditorium where they joined in singing “The Internationale” and stood for a minute in silence to “martyred” comrades.

During their December 7th march, Vice president Charles Curtis refused to receive a delegation as did President Herbert Hoover. American Federation of Labor president William Green met with a small delegation and told them that he would not support them because they were dominated by communists and that he opposed unemployment insurance.

The divide between the government and labor institutions and the broad desire of people for the government to address their plight strengthened the radical left.

The marchers accompanied by thousands of police left town December 8th vowing to return with greater numbers.

Father James Renshaw Cox

Concerned about communist influence and taken aback by the lack of sympathy for the unemployed demonstrated by government leaders, Father Cox organized a caravan of 25,000 unemployed from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to march on Washington in January 1932.

It was the largest demonstration to date in Washington. Cox hoped the action would stir Congress to start a public works program and to increase the inheritance tax to 70%.

Even Pennsylvania's Republican governor Gifford Pinchot backed Cox's march. Pinchot hoped Cox would back his own hopes to wrest away the Republican nomination for president away from Hoover. Cox had other plans.

Herbert Hoover was sufficiently embarrassed by the march that a full-scale investigation was launched against Cox. The Republican National Committee wanted to know how Cox was able to purchase enough gasoline to get the marchers to Washington, suggesting the Vatican, or Democratic supporters of Al Smith funded the operation.

It turned out that Andrew Mellon had quietly ordered his Gulf Oil gas stations to dispense free gas to the marchers. This proved to be the pretext for Hoover to remove Mellon from his post as Secretary of the Treasury.

It also provided fodder for communists and other leftists to blast Cox for being funded by the wealthy and ultimately undermined his support among the downtrodden.

1932 March

The second Hunger March organized by the Unemployed Councils began in early December 1932.

This time disorders occurred as police clashed with the marchers as they made there way to Washington in Wilmington, DE and Uniontown, Pennsylvania. The Ku Klux Klan issued public statements threatening marchers in Cumberland, MD.

In Winchester, VA, a convoy of marchers was met with National Guard rifles.

Despite the problems on the way in and the massive police presence in the nation’s capital, the march by 3,000 and observed by upwards of 100,000 proceeded peacefully on December 6th.

Permission had been granted to march near the Capitol and this time a delegation led by leader Herbert Benjamin met with Vice President Curtis and Speaker of the House John Garner.

A number of prominent elected officials and other such as Lady Astor visited the Hunger March camp off of New York Avenue NE near the railroad tracks.

The hunger marches did not lead immediately to unemployment insurance, but helped to galvanize public opinion in favor of a relief system.

Wisconsin acted in 1932, followed by California, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Utah and Washington before the federal act passed in 1935.
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