restricted access 1. The Effects of the Crash: The Youth Problem from New York City to Harlan County, Kentucky, and Back Again
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Seeing the Problem and Envisioning a Plan PART I 21 The Effects of the Crash The Youth Problem from New York City to Harlan County, Kentucky, and Back Again I make an appeal to your heart, your understanding, your prescience, that you tell me, a boy of eighteen years, what hope there is for me in this world, for the future. —John D. Bell to Franklin D. Roosevelt1 The Great Depression’s effects reached all strata of society, leaving virtually no one unscathed. There were social, cultural, and political effects to be sure, but the economic effects were, by far, the most pressing , even for America’s youth.Young people were generally unconcerned with the stock market, having no vested interest, and thus the crash of 1929 barely registered a mention in the documents they left behind. For them, the Great Depression was not about money lost, but about the present and future viability of making a living. The stock market crash provides a context for understanding what young people hoped America ’s economy would become rather than a siren’s call for what it once had been. They did not yearn for a gilded age gone by; they sought to implement their burgeoning radical vision by using the economic catastrophe to usher in more equal and just economic and political systems for America. The catalyst for the maturation of both their vision and their method was their attempt to aid striking coalminers in Harlan County, Kentucky . Activist youth were appalled by the conditions of the miners.James Wechsler, a New York City native and Columbia College freshman at the time of the strike, who would soon become a radical youth leader, later explained that the coal miners 1 22 Seeing the Problem faced hunger and starvation. Their children continue to die of flux because they lack sufficient and proper food. Attempts of the miners to preserve and broaden their National Miners Union, the only instrument for improving the conditions under which they live and work, are still met with the bullets and black-jacks of the coal operators and their faithful servants, the state and county administrations .2 It was the National Student League (NSL), whose members were more inclined to practice “trade union communism” than the members of other radical groups that organized a bus trip of 80 students to Harlan County as a show of solidarity with striking coal miners.3 Yet the NSL’s radicalism sprung not from foreign inspiration, but something very near to home for City College of New York students.The college newspaper’s editor was suspended in 1930 for criticizing the college president and the NSL was created by outraged students to spearhead protest efforts for the months-long fight for student rights.4 The trip to Harlan County took weeks of planning by NSL leaders, who invited students from all over the Northeast and beyond to participate , irrespective of their social or economic beliefs. James Wechsler, writing in 1935, noted that instead of political ideology, “the one common denominator was their curiosity and their courage”5 to undertake this journey, which its coordinators hailed as “a student laboratory in political science.”6 Only those attended who could cover the costs of travel themselves, or raise funds to defray those costs. One participant, noting the varied nature of the group, reported that they “had in common only the fact that they were students, a rather indefinite interest in labor problems and a somewhat vague liberal sympathy with the working class.”7 Once they made the commitment to go to Harlan, the volunteers raised relief funds from other students and faculty members to be given to the striking miners.8 The students, from colleges mostly located in New York City, though some were from Boston, Cincinnati, and Tennessee, as well, left from Columbia University on March 23, 1932 with moral support officially provided by 175 professors. They hoped, once they reached Harlan County, to be able to support and assist miners who had been on strike since the spring of 1931.9 Foreshadowing the freedom rides of the 1960s, one of their goals was to investigate allegations of repression, brutality, and violence against the strikers and to then publicize the miners’ plight in order to gain public sympathy for the oppressed.10 They were armed “with The Effects of the Crash 23 questionnaires and plans to interview miners, coal operators, representatives of the Red Cross, local officials and the townspeople.”11 However, they...