The Gilded Age or the idea of a better opportunity or quality of life, ‘covered in gold’, brought with it many different representations of people seeking this form of life. Between 1860 and 1900 alone the northern states grew almost fivefold. The bustling cities attracted native countryside migrants, European and Italian immigrants, and even African Americans. Cities like Chicago were heavily overpopulated, creating a cultural melting pot fueled by economic growth and attractive cultural amenities. The quality of life also created challenges, surrounding crowded housing, mixtures of the poor, unskilled, healthy and unhealthy alike.
The genuine concern for these issues garnered the attention of legacy social reformers like Jane Addams and Jacob Riis. The activists of The Gilded Age, raised questions still relevant today. “What, if any, responsibility do privileged Americans have for the poor?”, “What are the best methods for reducing poverty?”, “How can the rich and poor bridge the gaps that divide them?”, “Can the United States be both highly diverse and unified at the same time?”. These all qualifying calls for mobilization at this time, and the spear heading of social activism driven change.
Nobel Prize for Peace recipient Jane Addams and friend Ellen Star created a settlement house named ‘Hull House’. The very first of a series to follow, Hull House, while sectioned in the worst part of the city, created a social hub of opportunity for immigrants and poor alike. The goal being to speak directly to bridging the disconnect. Hull house provided cooking and sewing classes, programs and schools for children. The haven for the destitute and transitioning, even connected local professors to the less fortunate. The thought that it was important to connect, educate, and unify those both established and foreign for greater social change, magnified early activism as a tool to combat local issues.
Jacob Riis, an immigrant himself, utilized photography and his role as a newspaper reporter, as a platform beckoning change. His thought process and cause for concern were the living conditions of the poor. The articles and visuals he introduced to the cozy and privileged, gave direct perspective on how environment effected the morality and trajectory of an individual. These think pieces highlighted crime ridden streets, overpopulated tenement buildings, and the slums of the city. He was an early innovator of a tactic still used today as a form of social activism and mobilization.
A large population of the city of Chicago was made up of black migrants. While these individuals escaped some of the perils of the south, were also allowed to vote and attend schools with whites, they still faced challenges. Discriminatory tactics still presented themselves in being denied better job opportunities, housing and even civil rights being violated. Black focused activism groups like The National Association of Colored Women, created schools, hospitals, orphanages, and combatted national racial issues collectively in The Gilded Age.
The Great Depression brought about more challenges for all. Cases like ‘The Scottsboro Boys’ highlighted this when a group of black young men hopped a train seeking work, and a small altercation with a group of white men on the train, later led to heightened charges from the accusations of two white women onboard. The women accused the young black men of assault and rape. Even with a strong lack of evidence, the men were sentenced to death. Efforts to fight the case, included marches, rallies, even retrials, lasting until the end of the 1930’s, and supported by the NAACP and International Labor Defense, ultimately resulting in the charges being dropped for five defendants. Finally, all accused were absolved officially in 1976, with only one of the defendants still living. Revisited cases today are commonly overturned, some even resulting in significant payouts for the wrongly accused like the highly publicized Central Park Five'.
Post War conditions of the United States in modern America, even raised critique from scientist like Albert Einstein. The scientist, notorious for his political and socialistic views, was even a part of a committee defending the aforementioned ‘Scottsboro Boys’. He also opposed war and the use of atomic weapons, sharing thoughts that capitalistic competitiveness and advancement of technology, equaled less jobs. America, is still embattled with this type of economic struggle, as companies like Amazon gear toward a more technology driven consumer experience, often annihilating in store brand competitors. Social justice warriors like Professor Richard D. Wolff use speaking engagements and his radio show ‘Economic update with Richard D. Wolff’ to bring these issues to light.
Organizations like The Black Panther Party facilitated a more boots to the ground approach as opposed to forerunners of the civil rights movement. The party educated it’s members and community alike, and heavily critiqued public education offered at the time. Our current system is often accused of a ‘teach to test’ atmosphere. This approach is highlighted by the former ‘No Child Left Behind Act’, later replaced with the ‘Every Student Succeeds Act’. Professor of African American studies Mark Naison combats the political blanket treatment for education, by defending students and teachers against these policies. He co-founded 'The Badass Teachers Association' and utilized the voices of its contributors to bring these issues to the forefront via publication and social media.
Today’s activism is spearheaded by issues being brought to the light via public platform and creates a unified effort and social responsibility to galvanize and create change for us all.