Week 3: 1920s Capitalist Conflict to the Great Depression

Reading:  Foner, Chapter 20, "From Business Culture to Great Depression:  The Twenties, 1920-1932"

In the year following World War I the worsening conditions of unemployment and poor working conditios for returning veterans and for civilians provoked civil unrest and massive protest.  Worker mobilization had accelerated in the Pacific Northwest during World War I, including in towns like, Astoria, and cities like Seattle.  When workers at the port of Everett, north of Seattle mobilized in 1916, authorities used deadly force to attack a barge of union workers who were being sent from Seattle to Everett.  This event was known as the Everett Massacre. Chief among these were the Seattle General Strike of 1919, an unprecedented event in American history in which a whole city was shut down by the call for a universal or general strike by all workers in support of better labor conditions and power.  To break the strike authorities resorted to hiring University of Washington students as thugs to reinforce police lines and to act as attack squads.  Later that year we find another attack on workers at Centralia, Washington that resulted in attacks and a lynching of IWW Wobblies workers.  

Capital and Crisis – Culture and Economy of the Twenties and Thirties
The boom and bust of the 1920s and 1930s present opportunities for research that may be compared to the boom and bust cycle of the first decade of the 21st century.  Howard Zinn’s chapter, “Self-help in Hard Times,” in his A People’s History of the United States  provides a succinct and engaging analysis of the social consequences of this period, while David Kennedy’s Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, provides a sweeping and detailed survey of these pivotal decades.  This is also a fruitful area for research by students interested in culture.  The Harlem Renaissance is a golden era of African American cultural renaissance.  The career of Duke Ellington and Josephine Baker are  indicative of successful efforts by African American intellectuals to succeed in an era of extreme segregation and white racist purges.  White racism and the open organization of the Ku Klux Klan surged in the 1920s and was reified in D.W. Griffin’s racist interpretation of the Civil War in his film Birth of A Nation (1915)W.E.B. Du Bois the African American scholar and activist for the NAACP responded through the creation of The Crisis, the first national journal for African Americans.  In his monthly editorials and columns during the period from 1916 to the early 20’s Du Bois critiqued the reality of institutionalized racial violence directed against African Americans and other minorities. The great African American jazz singer Billie Holiday provided the cultural response to Griffin in her haunting song, Strange Fruit (1930) that referenced the lynchings of southern African Americans by white mobs.  This is also an era in which the form of the documentary prevails and becomes prominent.  The changing use of film and photography and issues of race and class as well as the rise of documentary form and the use of photography and film by the Farm Security Administration is ably discussed in Ardis Cameron, Looking for America:  the Visual Production of Nation and People, (2005).

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