Last night I was privileged to speak at the Mechanics Institute Library in San Francisco, the city’s oldest continuous library that was founded in 1854. In recognition of the tragic events that happened the next day 100 years ago, on July 22, 1916, I read excerpts from my biography of Marie Equi about the controversial War Preparedness Parades prior to the US entry into World War I. Here’s the segment:
A Troubling, Contentious Year
“Across the country 1916 was a troubling, contentious year fraught with foreboding and disruption. Americans felt uncertain and unsteady as the hostilities in Europe worsened and threatened the nation’s tenuous neutrality. Strikes flared east to west with picketing shoe workers in Philadelphia, steel workers in Detroit, housemaids in Denver, and loggers in Washington. It was a presidential election year with war and peace, woman suffrage, and labor rights dominating the political campaigns.
“Much of America accepted the message of war preparedness as necessary self-defense even if they objected to a foreign military adventure. For a full two-and-a-half years, Americans resisted the pull of war and took comfort in their distance from the changing, dangerous world beyond the country’s shores. At the same time, war boosters enthralled young men with visions of the glory that awaited them in the fields of France, far from their grinding factory jobs or farm work. Progressives feared that reform efforts at home would be scuttled by a government preoccupied with war and by a population consumed with nationalism. In this jumble of sentiments, a significant minority suspected “readiness” was a capitalist ploy that would inevitably lead to war with a grab for power and profits.
Preparedness – A National Watchword
“Preparedness became a nation watchword, and its spirit unified most Americans in the camaraderie of shared purpose. Throughout the summer of 1916, nearly every city and town outdid itself with a parade. In Chicago one million people rallied, waving flags and signing patriotic songs in an eleven-hour procession. New York City’s outpouring drew two hundred bands and fifty drum corps.
Bomb Disrupts San Francisco Parade
“Violence marred San Francisco’s parade, and its impact shadowed labor and civil rights for decades. On July 22, 1916, fifty-one thousand marchers assembled at the foot of Market Street around the Ferry Building. Thirty minutes into the parade, a bomb exploded with a force so great that it tore off legs and arms of bystanders, killing ten and injuring forty. No one knew who had placed the bomb, but the police arrested Tom Mooney, a radical Socialist and union leader, as well as Warren K. Billings, among others, who they suspected of promoting violence for political change. The proceedings against Mooney and Billings were scandalous from the start. Mooney was denied legal counsel for days. Evidence was specious; the witness, unreliable. Murder charges were drawn up by a jury selected by the district attorney, and a conviction followed. Only an international outcry kept Mooney from execution. He and Billings were left to languish at San Quentin State Prison with life sentences. They were not released until 1934.”
“Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions,” by Michael Helquist, published by Oregon State University Press, 2016. Available at bookstores and online sites.
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