Editors’ note: This article is from NPQ’s spring 2015 edition, “Inequality’s Tipping Point and the Pivotal Role of Nonprofits.”
One hundred years ago, progressive thinkers and activists who called for women’s suffrage, an end to lynching, the right of workers to form unions, health and safety standards for workplaces, the eight-hour workday, a federal minimum wage, a progressive income tax, old-age insurance, and government-subsidized healthcare were considered impractical idealists, utopian dreamers, or dangerous socialists. Fifty years ago, those who called for women’s equality, laws protecting the environment, civil rights for gays and lesbians, and greater numbers of black and Hispanic/Latino elected officials were also considered clueless or hopelessly radical. Now we take all these ideas for granted. The radical ideas of one generation have become the common sense of the next.
Just three years ago, the idea of a $15/hour minimum wage was also considered a crazy notion; but in 2014, Seattle passed a citywide minimum wage at that level. This “radical” idea has now become almost mainstream, and in a growing number of cities, local elected officials are proposing similar policies. The dramatic change in so short a time didn’t happen by accident. It is the culmination of years of grassroots activism, changes in public opinion, and frustration with the political gridlock in Washington.
Significant changes come about when people dare to think beyond the immediate crisis, propose bold solutions, and work for steppingstone reforms that improve people’s lives and whet their appetites for further reform.
Helen Keller was once asked if there was anything that could have been worse than losing her sight. Keller replied: “Yes, I could have lost my vision.” Keller was a lifelong radical who participated in the great movements for social justice of her time. In her investigations into the causes of blindness she discovered that the poor were more likely than the rich to be blind, and she soon connected the mistreatment of the blind to the oppression of workers, women, and other groups, leading her to embrace socialism, feminism, and pacifism.1 In a 1924 letter to Senator Robert M. La Follette Sr., Keller wrote: “Superficial charities make smooth the way of the prosperous; but to advocate that all human beings should have leisure and comfort, the decencies and refinements of life, is a Utopian dream, and one who seriously contemplates its realization indeed must be deaf, dumb, and blind.”
Four decades later, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. made a similar observation: “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”
Keller and King were both practical visionaries. They reflected a long-standing American tradition of radical reform. They wanted philanthropy to be bold and to challenge the system of economic exploitation and social injustice that created so much misery. But they also wanted to see immediate changes that would improve people’s lives today, without waiting for an overhaul of society.
Reformers and Radicals Confront Inequality
That radical reform tradition came of age in the late 1800s and early 1900s. At the time, America was a country dominated by rampant, unregulated capitalism, during what was sometimes called the “Gilded Age.” It was a period of merger mania, an increasing concentration of wealth among the privileged few, and growing political influence by corporate power brokers known as the “robber barons.” New technologies made possible new industries, which generated great riches for the fortunate few—but at the expense of workers, many of them immigrants, who worked long hours and under dangerous conditions for little pay.
American cities were a cauldron of seething problems—poverty, slums, child labor, epidemics, sweatshops, and ethnic conflict. Corruption was widespread. Businesses routinely bribed local officials to give favorite corporations private monopolies over key public services, which were typically run inefficiently. Cities were starved for cash but businesses paid little taxes.
Out of that turmoil, activists created a progressive movement, forging a coalition of immigrants, unionists, muckraking journalists, settlement-house workers, middle-class civic reformers and suffragists, and upper-class philanthropists; while these activists spoke many languages, the movement found its united voice through organizers, clergy, and sympathetic politicians.
Some wealthy Americans—mostly college-educated women—contributed their time, talent, and money to battles to improve the lives of the immigrant poor. Jane Addams, Alice Hamilton, Florence Kelley, Lillian Wald, and others founded the settlement-house movement—the nation’s first generation of community organizers—and embraced crusades for workers’ rights, public health, housing reform, women’s suffrage, civil rights, and peace. During the great “Uprising of the 20,000” in 1909 and 1910 (the largest strike by American women workers at the time), upper-class women affiliated with the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) raised money for the workers’ strike fund, lawyers, and bail money, and even joined the union members on picket lines. It was through her work with the WTUL that a young Eleanor Roosevelt was first exposed to the suffering of the poor, an experience that transformed her into a lifelong progressive. Frances Perkins was a recent college graduate working for the Consumers League in New York City when the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in March 1911 took the lives of 146 garment workers, most of them young immigrant girls. Perkins led the campaign to get New York State to adopt laws protecting workers from dangerous sweatshop conditions. When she became Secretary of Labor during FDR’s New Deal, she championed reforms such as the minimum wage, workers’ rights, and Social Security. Another ally was Anne Morgan, the daughter of Wall Street chieftain J. P. Morgan. She recruited other upper-class women—and a few men—to walk picket lines and raise money for families whose daughters were killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Some of them came to the picket lines in their fancy clothes, so union organizer Rose Schneiderman referred to them as the “mink brigade.”
One of the Progressive Era’s great crusades focused on improving living conditions of the urban poor. Jacob Riis’s book, Ho