Mr Zero in DC: 1921-32
Urbain Ledoux was a social justice advocate for the unemployed who was primarily active in New York City after World War I up until his death in 1941.

Calling himself “Mr. Zero” because he said he didn’t want any fame for himself, he made two major journeys into Washington, D.C.—in 1921 around the unemployment conference called by President Warren Harding and during the veterans Bonus March of 1932.

Ledoux was religiously motivated and joined the Bahá'í Faith that holds there is one God that all religions honor. Acceptance of diversity is emphasized along with service to humanity. The latter captured Ledoux’s desire to help the destitute.

The economic depression of 1920-21 threw tens of thousands out of work and there were calls from a number of quarters to do more than charity.

Ledoux organized a bread line called “The Stepping Stone” in New York City and gained widespread publicity. He followed this up with public “auctions” of unemployed in New York and Boston where bidders would offer terms of work to the jobless.

Following the widespread publicity of those efforts, he headed to Washington, D.C. in September of 1921, threatening encampments of the unemployed on the steps of the White House and Congress.

He quickly gained an audience with Harding and attempted to be admitted as a delegate representing the jobless to the President’s Conference on Unemployment. Ledoux failed to get delegate credentials to the conference, but was admitted as an official observer and given the opportunity to present testimony.

He set up a D.C. Stepping Stone hotel for the unemployed at 235 Pennsylvania Avenue NW where employers could seek employees by calling a telephone number.

He attempted to hold a “public auction of the unemployed October 17, 1921 at the small park at 7th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, a long-standing gathering spot for protesters and soapbox speakers.

Several dozen unemployed, along with perhaps a thousand spectators and two dozen or more police and as many reporters, gathered at the triangular park. The police declared Ledoux’s permit invalid and prevented him from speaking or holding an auction, but Ledoux’s unemployed rallied in front of the Stepping Stone several blocks away.

Ledoux told reporters, “I have found Washington a city of limousines and kid gloves but I will arouse them even if I have to conduct an auction of these men.”

Ledoux finally held his auction October 22nd when he auctioned off the 100 beds at the Stepping Stone hotel. The beds were sold, “with the provision that with each one went one of the unemployed, who was to be given a job at not less than $18 a week,” according to the Washington Post.

Most of the men received jobs at a lumber camp near Great Falls.

Ledoux and the jobless continued to picket at the unemployed conference, the District Building (Wilson Building), the Capitol and the White House and seized another opportunity when a international conference on limited naval armaments convened at Daughters of the American Revolution Memorial Continental Hall on 17th Street NW.

Ledoux renewed his call that companies that profited from World War I donate one-half of those profits toward jobs programs for the unemployed.

On December 16th, he was arrested at the arms Conference and brought into court. When the prosecutor asked Ledoux what he hoped to accomplish with his “one ring circus.” Ledoux responded that he carried a white umbrella, a lighted lantern and a Bible during his daily demonstrations because he was like Diogenes of the ancient world searching for an honest man. The court released Ledoux.

The following day, Ledoux showed up at the 3rd District Police Precinct and tried to swear out a warrant for the arrest of the arms conference participants for “trafficking in stolen goods.”

Ledoux cited, “Manchuria and Port Arthur, originally stolen from China by the Czar’s government of Russia, now held by Japan; Indochina, formerly held by its people and China, now held by France; Indian and a vast amount of property within and without its boundaries now in the possession of Great Britain; Mesopotamia, formerly the property of Turkey now held by Great Britain; Syria, formerly the property of Turkey, now held by France; the Philippine Islands, formerly held by Spain, then by its people, now held the United States.”

The police quickly refused Ledoux’s request, but once again he gained widespread publicity for his cause.

On December 27th, he called upon the great socialist leader Eugene Debs at his hotel. Debs had recently been released from prison for publicly opposing U.S. entry into World War I.

Debs, a labor leader and socialist, ran for president while imprisoned and received nearly a million votes.

Ledoux came to Debs hotel with his lighted lantern, a copy of the Sermon on the Mount and his white umbrella. Ledoux hailed Debs as “an honest man” and presented the sermon and the lantern to Debs.

He told Debs he had like Diogenes carried the lantern but, “since I have met you I have no further use for it.”

Ledoux went on to give a speech in which he likened the socialist leader to the force that moved mountains.

Debs accepted the lantern, but declared himself unworthy of it.

Before leaving Washington, he attended President Harding’s open house at the White House on New Year’s Day 1922. Harding gave him a “cheery greeting” according to the Washington Post, but made no commitments toward Ledoux’s causes.

Ledoux threatened to return to Washington in 1925 with an army of unemployed like Coxey’s 1894 march. But the effort never gained any real steam.

He returned to Washington for demonstrations with the Bonus Army of 1932, getting himself arrested along with two others in the more militant faction of veterans for attempting to lead an unauthorized march on the White House July 16th.

At his trial for parading without a permit, Ledoux said he would spend the 40 days in jail because he couldn’t pay the $40 fine. However, a war widow who was in the courtroom paid the fine and Ledoux was released.

The unauthorized march led President Herbert Hoover to make the decision to clear the Bonus Expeditionary Force camps—an ending in infamy for Hoover.

Ledoux continued his work among the jobless—mainly in Brooklyn’s Bowery and died in New York after a long illness in 1941.

Ledoux’s attempts at organizing the unemployed served as models for the Communist Party’s Unemployed Councils and the Socialists’ Unemployed Leagues of the 1930s and for later groups like the Black Panther free breakfast programs of the 1960s. Mr. Zero’s publicity antics also paved the way for the Yippie stunts of the 1960s.
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