The United States, in the 1880s, had become an industrial power in the world, but factory workers could hardly feed their families. Miners spent long days down in the dangerous dark, digging a wealth of coal out of the earth, yet they were dirt-poor. Farm families were going broke too. They barely had the money to pay rich bankers the interest on loans they took out to buy seeds or to pay what the railroad charged to ship the crops that hadn’t dried up in a drought or got gobbled by hungry grasshoppers. Many a broke homesteader went back east. Lettered on the covers of their wagons: “IN GOD WE TRUSTED. IN KANSAS WE BUSTED!”
Mary E. Lease, a Pennsylvania schoolteacher, went to Kansas, but she stayed there. And she was among the multitudes, who wondered why so many Americans were so poor in a country that was so rich? Where was the money going? Judging from what she read in the papers and heard down at the general store, the money seemed to be in the pockets of men who owned the mines, factories, railroads, and banks. And rather than pay people decent wages, they seemed to be paying politicians to make laws to help them stay rich and get richer. Sound familiar?
In the early 1890s, folks got together and formed their own “People’s (or Populist) Party.” What did they want? Fairness, more government regulations, less silver, and more printed paper money. It wouldn’t be worth as much; but at least there’d be more of it to go around! And right in the middle of this uprising was fiery Mrs. Lease.
At rallies around the Midwest, the South, even at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Mrs. Lease whipped up the crowds, crying out, “We are for humanity against the corporations – for perishing flesh and blood against the money bags!” People called her a “Patrick Henry in petticoats,” after the great Revolutionary War speechmaker. “Wall Street owns the country. When I get through with the silk-hatted easterners, they will know that the Kansas prairies are on fire!”
Oh, they knew it all right, for a while anyway. While it raged, this political tornado blew nine Populists into Congress. But the people’s movement fizzled out in the early 1900s. At least old Mrs. Lease lived to see some populist dreams come true. In the early 1930s, when so many Americans hit bottom, Franklin D. Roosevelt became President. Under FDR’s “New Deal” policies, the people got help from their very own government and the Wall Street banks and businesses were reined for a considerable time. Ah, but they’ve regained much of their former power and Mary E. Lease lies restless in her grave.
The perfect browsing volume for Women's History Month, Cheryl Harness's Rabble Rousers offers short, spirited profiles of twenty women who, like Mary E. Lease, impacted life in America by speaking out against injustice and fighting for social improvements. The folksy, friendly narrative introduces such fascinating figures as Sojourner Truth, abolitionist preacher; Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, a Civil War physician; Margaret Sanger, birth control pioneer; and Doris Haddock, a ninety-two-year-old champion of campaign-finance reform. The book spans over two hundred years of American history and includes time lines for such important social movements as abolition, woman suffrage, labor, and civil rights. Readers inspired by these fiery women can use the civil action tips and resources in the back of the book to do some of their own rabble-rousing. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "Mary E. Lease: Queen of the Populist Tornado." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 12 Apr. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Stories that Surprise and Inspire
In 1963, at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., President Lyndon Johnson awarded singer Marian Anderson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a president can give to a civilian (someone not in the military). He explained why this African American musician was being honored: “Artist and citizen, she has ennobled her race and her country, while her voice has enthralled the world.”
Twenty-four years earlier, however, some in Washington weren’t interested in honoring her but instead treated her unfairly. By then, she had given wonderful concerts of classical music in Europe and the United States, including at the White House. But in 1939, when a local university tried to have her perform at Constitution Hall, Washington’s concert hall, the managers of Constitution Hall wouldn’t let her, just because of the color of her skin.
Eleanor Roosevelt, President Franklin Roosevelt’s wife, was upset by this example of discrimination against African Americans and arranged for Marian Anderson to perform that spring at the Lincoln Memorial. More than 75,000 people filled the area in front of the memorial to hear Marian Anderson sing. Thousands more around the country listened on radio to a live broadcast of the performance. She started by singing “America,” then sang some classical pieces, and ended with spirituals, including “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” Newspapers and magazines wrote rave reviews, which let thousands more people learn about the dignified and courageous way she had triumphed over discrimination. Four years later, in 1943, she was at last invited to perform at Constitution Hall.
Did this end unfair treatment for this singer? Not exactly. In 1953, Marian Anderson was again denied permission to perform at a concert hall, this time by the Lyric Theater in Baltimore, Maryland. Luckily, this city’s music- and freedom-loving citizens came to her defense. Some wrote letters to newspapers complaining about “this insult to a great American singer.” Others threatened never to go to that concert hall again. Hundreds complained directly to the Lyric’s managers. Finally, Maryland’s commission on interracial relations persuaded the Lyric’s owners to let Marion Anderson perform there on January 8, 1954. The hall was filled to overflowing with her enthusiastic fans.
Ten years later, racial discrimination in concert halls finally became illegal. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin at any place that serves the public, including concert halls, theaters, stadiums, restaurants, hotels, and anywhere else.
Source notes for this Minute may be found be clicking here.
Amy Nathan is the author of Round and Round Together: Taking a Merry-Go-Round Ride into the Civil Rights Movement, which tells about many little-known and yet important stories in civil rights history, including the story of Marian Anderson being the first African American to perform at Baltimore’s Lyric Theater in January 1954, and also the story about the merry-go-round that’s located not far from where Marian Anderson gave her famous 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Nathan, Amy. "Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Victory." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 27 Feb. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/