After Woodrow Wilson signed the Espionage Act in June 1917, it became illegal for U.S. citizens to express “disloyalty” when the nation was at war.
WITCH-HUNT FOR WAR RESISTERS
In its vagueness and ambiguity, this Act became a tool used to imprison anyone who spoke or wrote against the war, especially labor leaders and socialists, who opposed the war as “capitalist folly.” They argued that workers were sent to the slaughter while the ruling class, bragging of “patriotism,” grew rich from war profits.
In September 1917, government agents raided union meeting halls, seizing literature and arresting union leaders for antiwar conspiracy. Over 100 union leaders were found guilty of disloyalty and jailed, some with sentences of up to twenty years, including luminaries such as union leader Eugene V. Debs and Ralph Chaplin, author of the workers’ anthem “Solidarity Forever.”
O’HARE’S PLEAS FOR PEACE & FREE SPEECH
Kate Richards O’Hare (1876-1948), a socialist, advocate for working women, and mother of four, was arrested for giving an antiwar speech in North Dakota. It was the same speech she had delivered in at least 70 other towns and cities. She was sentenced to five years and sent to prison.
In prison, O’Hare wrote two books and befriended fellow inmate Emma Goldman. Because her imprisonment stirred nationwide outrage, she won an early release from Woodrow Wilson.
As soon as “Red Kate” was freed, she set out on a “Welcome Home” tour, agitating for amnesty for the other political prisoners.
By the spring of 1922, Warren G. Harding was president. O’Hare decided it was time to send him a “living petition.”
CRUSADE OF STORYTELLING WOMEN
Thirty-five women and their children began a truth-speaking tour. It was a journey of storytellers, poor and working-class, from midwestern cornfields and New England factories.
On their way to the White House, the Living Petition stopped in towns and cities to educate anyone who’d listen about the 113 men imprisoned for the crime of political dissent in the “land of the free.”
Media-conscious organizers called it the “Children’s Crusade for Amnesty,” hoping that the mention of children would catch the headlines they needed and the sympathy, too.
Their stories were about workers — tenant farmers, factory workers, lumberjacks, miners — union men, most of them “Wobblies,” the nickname given members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
It took courage to defend the right to express antiwar sentiments during a time of patriotic fervor, but speak they did, in city after city.
A “GRIEF PARADE”
One woman, known only as Mrs Hicks, was frail and sickly. She held a toddler named after the famous deaf-blind socialist, Helen Keller. She had a story to tell: In 1912, her husband, a pacifist and socialist, had written a letter to a friend in England about the possibility of war and the effect it might have on working people. Though it had been written before passage of the Espionage Act, he was sent to prison because of that letter.
With her husband in prison and seven little children to feed, Mrs. Hicks appealed to a county judge, pleading for help. Instead, the judge removed one of her children and threatened to take the others.
The storytelling women experienced a range of responses to their Crusade. In Indianapolis, the American Legion opposed their visit. City officials refused to let them march, speak, or distribute leaflets. In Cleveland, on the other hand, 2,000 turned out to greet the women and their weary children, and joined in calling for the release of all political prisoners.
In New York City, the women paraded from Grand Central Station up Madison Avenue with banners: “IS THE CONSTITUTION DEAD?” and “A HUNDRED AND THIRTEEN MEN JAILED FOR THEIR OPINIONS!” When she saw the procession, Mary Heaton Vorse, the great labor journalist and feminist, called it a “grief parade.”
That evening, the women told their stories at a mass meeting in Webster Hall. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the fiery labor organizer known as “the rebel girl,” was there that night. In her autobiography she wrote:
I remember most vividly Kate O’Hare, tall, gaunt, standing there speaking while she held Helen Keller Hicks asleep in her arms. There were no loudspeakers then, but Kate’s powerful ringing voice filled every part of the hall. “This,” she said of the sleeping child, “is a petition they cannot throw away!”
FROM “LIVING PETITION” TO PICKET LINE
The crusaders reached Washington, D.C. on April 29, exhausted but determined to meet with President Harding. He, however, chose to meet with Lord and Lady Astor that day instead.
When the president was still busy the next day and the next, the women and their children formed a picket line in front of the White House. They had come too far and been through too much to turn back now.
The women, with children in tow, picketed the White House through weeks of an uncommonly hot Washington summer. At night, they bedded down in a house that had been rented for them.
On July 19, President Harding reportedly groaned, “I can’t stand seeing those kids out there any longer!”
When a delegation was finally allowed to meet with the president, they handed him a petition with a million signatures. Harding expressed his sympathy for the prisoners and their families. Although he refused to grant a general amnesty, he agreed that each case should be reviewed.
The women and their children returned home with honor, carrying bundles of gifts from well-wishers.
TO GO DEEPER
“Kansas: Remembering ‘Red Kate’” by P. S. Ruckman, Jr. on Pardon Power (blog)
Kate Richards O’Hare: Selected Writings and Speeches, edited by Philip S. Foner and Sally M. Miller, Louisiana State University Press, 1982
From Prairie to Prison: The Life of Social Activist Kate Richards O’Hare by Sally M. Miller, University of Missouri, 1993
The Rebel Girl: An Autobiography, My First Life 1906-26 by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, International Publishers, 1973
“Women in the IWW” (1.25 mins.)
“I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier” The First Anti-War Hit Record (3 mins)