The Progressive Era was a period that showed the goals and contradictions found in American society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Theodore Roosevelt summed up the Progressive/Reform feeling in his “Square Deal” speech – that it was all about morals, not economics. His goal was the “moral regeneration of the business world.” He preached that it was wrong for some people to get ahead in business and politics by tricks and schemes, while others were cheated out of the opportunity. This was the kind of talk that millions of Americans from all areas of society could understand and respond to.
Roosevelt simply acted in the interests of the common working man, fixing things that they found unjust. For years, the poor and immigrants were unhappy with treatment from their big-business employers. Their long working hours and exploitation of children were, among other things, exposed by the Muckrakers. The Muckrakers were journalists who exposed corruption in business and politics and made many of their readers angry. These new reformers took over the old Populist idea that the government should work for the public’s economic well being.
Reform groups near the turn of the century were interested in the moral changes of the way the government and businesses were run. They wanted the government to be more open and listen to the people. Also, they wanted the government to put more effort into protecting the well being of all citizens. This would require government action to regulate business, improve public health and safety and make sure that every citizen had the chance to succeed and to be happy.
Today there are also many reform groups. Just like the progressives of the early twentieth century, modern reformers are trying to change things for the better. One modern reformer is Ralph Nader. Nader is a leader in the consumer-protection movement. He organized investigative teams of young lawyers, consumer specialists, and students, popularly called Nader’s Raiders, to conduct surveys of numerous companies, federal agencies, and the U.S. Congress. Nader is a controversial man; his investigations have at times been criticized as biased against big business and government.
Cesar Chavez was another modern reformer. The issues that he dealt with included: Women Farmworkers, Farmworker Health Issues, and Migrant Labor. Many issues that progressives of the early 1900s dealt with are the core of many of today’s issues, however there are still some reforms that are different than those of a hundred years ago.
American reform movements have generally been started as a rebellion against the control of big businesses and corrupt government. The poor conditions of schools and the entire education system at the turn of the twentieth century were a major cause for reform. That reform movement has influenced the entire education system and has made it better and more suitable for students.
Civil rights for African-Americans and women was just beginning to become an issue in the late 19th century. Many progressivists spoke out for suffrage for women and equal rights for black people. Today, civil rights for minorities is still a big cause for reform. There are many different oraganizations whose goal is to reform the way society, the government and businesses treat any type of minority, including Hispanics, homosexuals and Native Americans. However civil rights is just one of the many causes of modern reform groups. Others include reform of huge companies and monoplolies, welfare programs, education systems and many, many other issues.
A reform movement is a shout against people, businesses, governments or ideas that are morally corrupt. Not all reform movements are successful in making an actual change, however even if a significant change isn’t made their message is still shared with the public. Reform group leaders are usually involved in the government and have a strong charisma, which helps them convey their message.
Jesse Louis Jackson is one of America’s strongest political figures. Over the past three decades he has played a major role in just about every movement for empowerment, peace, civil rights, gender equality, and economic and social justice. Reverend Jackson has been called the “conscience of the nation” and “the great unifier,” challenging America to establish just and humane priorities, and bringing people together on common ground across lines of race, class, gender, and belief.
Years before they were common positions, Reverend Jackson was advocating national health care, a war on drugs, dialogue with the Soviet Union, and negotiations in the Middle East. His strong stand against apartheid in South Africa in 1984 made it an issue on the national conscience. Jesse Jackson’s two presidential campaigns broke new ground in U.S. politics. His 1984 campaign won 3.5 million votes, registered over a million new voters, and helped the Democratic Party regain control of the Senate in 1986.
A strong point of Reverend Jackson’s work has been his commitment to the youth. He has visited thousands of high schools, colleges, and universities, encouraging excellence, and challenging your people to stay in school and away from drugs. Jesse Jackson has also been a major force in the American labor movement. He has worked with unions to organize workers, mediated labor disputes and he has probably walked more picket lines and spoken at more labor rallies than any other national leader.
In 1986, Jesse Jackson founded the National Rainbow Coalition of which he is President. The Rainbow is a national social justice organization devoted to empowerment, education and mobilization. Reverend Jackson is also the author of two books: Keep Hope Alive and Straight from the Heart.
Martin Luther King Jr. was a Civil rights leader, and one of the world’s best-known advocates of nonviolent social change. In December 1955, after Montgomery civil rights activist Rosa Parks refused to obey the city’s policy over segregation on buses, black residents launched a bus boycott and elected King as president of the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association. His house was bombed, and he and other boycott leaders were convicted on charges of conspiring to interfere with the bus company’s operations. But, in December 1956, Montgomery’s buses were desegregated when the Supreme Court declared Alabama’s segregation laws unconstitutional.
In 1957, seeking to build upon the success in Montgomery, King and other black ministers founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). As president, King emphasized the goal of black voting rights when he spoke at the Lincoln Memorial during the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom.
Southern black college students started a series of sit-in protests in 1960. Although King sympathized with their movement and spoke at the founding meeting of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee SNCC in April 1960, he soon became the target of criticisms from SNCC activists. Even King’s joining a student sit-in and his arrest in October 1960 did not calm everyone down.
Then King and his staff started a major campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, where white police officials were notorious for their anti-black attitudes. In 1963, clashes between unarmed black demonstrators and police with attack dogs and fire hoses generated newspaper headlines throughout the world. Mass demonstrations in many communities came together in a march on August 28, 1963, attracting more than 250,000 protesters to Washington, D.C. Addressing the marchers from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
In 1964 King received the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite the praise, King faced strong challenges to his leadership. In 1966, King encountered strong criticism from “black power” spokesperson Stokely Carmichael. Shortly afterward, white counter-protestors in Chicago physically assaulted King during an unsuccessful effort to transfer nonviolent protest techniques to the North. Nevertheless, King remained committed to nonviolence.
After his death, King remained a controversial symbol of the civil rights struggle, revered by many for his martyrdom on behalf of nonviolence and condemned by others for his rebellious views.
Jacob Riis was America’s first journalist-photographer and one of the first muckrakers. He was known as the “Emancipator of the Slums” because of his work on behalf of the urban poor. His brutal documentation of sweatshops, disease-ridden tenements, and overcrowded schools stirred up public indignation and helped effect significant reform in housing, education, and child-labor laws.
Riis lived in poverty in New York City for some time before he found a job with a news bureau in 1873. He became a police reporter for the New York Tribune and the Associated Press in 1877. Horrified by immigrant life, he began a series of exposes on slum conditions on New York’s Lower East Side. In 1884 he was responsible for the establishment of the Tenement House Commission.
In 1888 he left the Tribune for the Evening Sun and began work on his book How the Other Half Lives. Riis was among the first photographers to use flash powder, which let him photograph interiors and exteriors of the slums at night. He worked at first with two assistants but soon found it necessary to take his photographs himself. Mainly a writer, he wanted pictures to document and authenticate his reports, and to supply the vividness that would ensure attention.
Sections of How the Other Half Lives appeared in Scribner’s magazine in December 1889. The full-length book attracted immediate attention upon publication some months later and was reprinted several times. It had a powerful and lasting effect on movements for many kinds of social reform.
For the next 25 years Riis continued to write and lecture extensively on the problems of the poor. He published over a dozen books, including his autobiography, The Making of an American (1901), and many articles. He became known as “the father of the small parks movement” after his success in creating a park in the infamous Mulberry Bend section of lower Manhattan.
Jane Addams wrote eleven books, one of the most famous being Newer Ideals of Peace. She also wrote hundreds of articles on a variety of subjects such as, industrial conditions,
suffrage, civil rights, child welfare and many more. The legacy of Jane Addams began with a trip to Europe with two college friends. A stop in London’s East End showed her terrible poverty that came with industrialism. In England she also saw Toynbee Hall, a settlement house where students form Oxford and Cambridge helped to teach workingmen. This made Addams and her friend Ellen Gates Starr read every piece of literature on the works of social reform that they could find.
When they returned from Europe, both Addams and Starr considered the possibilities of setting up settlement houses in the many run-down streets of Chicago. After visiting many locations, they decided on the former mansion of a wealthy businessman that was serving as a rooming house in an Italian neighborhood in Chicago’s overpopulated West Side. This became known as Hull House. The main reason for doing this was for the poor, but another factor that played a role in this was to break away from the traditional roles given to women of that time.
The Hull House was given plenty of work to do. Addams and Starr took care of the children of working mothers, they arranged for medical care of the sick, and they even tried to fight against the waste and rubbish in the streets which had spread disease throughout the neighborhoods. Addams and Starr tried to enlighten and educate the women and children who struggled with daily poverty. Over time, interest in helping the poor had risen greatly. Addams traveled and spoke to women’s clubs, church groups, and college students. Addams was unique not because she was helping the poor, charity was fairly common, but because of all that she gave up to live and help in the slums of Chicago.
The impulse to reform strengthened in the 1890s, as settlement houses became more known and widespread. Addams’ pioneering efforts made her an obvious leader as her lectures and writings gave her the loudest voice of reform. Settlement houses demanded recreation facilities in crowded cities, better sanitation facilities, and protection for female workers, abolition of child labor, improvement of education, and women’s suffrage.
In the Spring of 1898, Addams became more involved not only with community concerns, but national concerns as well. After the US declared war on Spain, violent crime had immediately risen in the streets of Chicago. Over time, her complaints and protests reached the top as Charles R. Crane, a close friend of President Woodrow Wilson, sent the President a letter urging him to meet with Addams after he returned from Europe in 1915. “Of course she is the best we have and has been received everywhere as a spiritual messenger….Added to her great spiritual power is wonderful wisdom ad discretion. Every woman in the land and most men would be cheered by knowing that you and she were in conference.”
As the US entered World War I, it seemed as if those who tried to stop the war, including Addams, became more hated than applauded for their efforts to prevent worldwide involvement. She declined to work with the Red Cross because it had become part of the military and used to war to rally for their own support.
Despite recurring illnesses, Jane Addams worked for a way to give women a strong role in society as well as a sense of patriotism by keeping peace achievable but not seeming to go against the nation. Her dream was to give every child the happy childhood she had by giving them the safe feeling of, “being held up in a pair of dusty hands to see the heavy stone mill wheels go around.”
Theodore Roosevelt was an historian, a biographer, a statesman, a hunter, a naturalist, and an orator. His emormous amount of literary works include twenty-six books, over a thousand magazine articles and thousands of speeches and letters. In 1889 President Harrison appointed Roosevelt as a member of the Civil Service Commission of which he later became president. He kept this office until 1895 when he became the director of the Police Department of New York City. The New York City police department was extremely corrupt when Roosevelt took over his post. Roosevelt would find as an ally in his war against this corruption, Jacob Riis, the author of How the Other Half Lives, a book on the poor living conditions in New York’s slums. Riis was familiar with the city and its corrupt police force and how it operated. Bribery was not only rampant, but accepted behavior, with the payments being divvied out from patrolman up through the ranks. This was made all that much more apparent when the Rev. Charles Parkhurst, from the Presbyterian Church on Madison Avenue began a crusade against the corruption of the police force. With Roosevelt in charge, this behavior would no longer be acceptable.
In 1897 he joined President McKinley’s administration as assistant secretary of the Navy. While in this office he actively prepared for the Cuban War, which he saw was coming, and when it broke out in 1898, he went to Cuba as lieutenant colonel of a regiment of volunteer cavalry, which he himself had raised among the hunters and cowboys of the West. He became very famous as the leader of these “Rough-Riders”; whose story he told in one of his most popular books.
Roosevelt was elected governor of the state of New York in 1898, he would have sought reelection in 1900, since much of his work was only half done, had the Republicans not chosen him as their candidate for the second office of the Union. He held the vice-presidency for less than a year, succeeding to the presidency after the assassination of President McKinley on November 14, 1901. In 1904 Roosevelt was elected to a full term as president.
The ideals of the twentieth century were built on the work of reform groups. Reform groups still play a large part in changing the way large corporations and the government are run. Because of the constant need for change and reform, the turn of the twentieth century to the twenty-first could be called a progressive era just like the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century was.
Barbuto, Domencia. American Settlement Houses and Progressive Social Reform. New York: Orynx Press, 1999.
Buenker, John. Progressivism. Chicago: Schenkman Books, 1977.
Michaels, John. Reform in American History. 25 April 2000. ;http://www.salsem.ac.at/csacl/progs/hstindx.htm;
Miller, Randall A, ed. American Reform and Reformers: A Biographical Dictionary. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.