As the semester has ended, I’ve had the occasion to read for pleasure. I picked-up a copy of Dorothy Day’s autobiography The Long Loneliness, which had sat on my bookshelf unread for quite some time. Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement in the 1930s and before that a journalist in the radical New York press during the 1920s, writes of journalism, labor rights and community. The first two of which provide useful lessons to movements against income inequality and for workers rights in 2011, nearly a hundred years after she started out as a reporter for the New York Call, a Socialist daily newspaper.
Day can be remembered today as a journalist who lived what she wrote of—feeding the hungry, walking picket lines with strikers, challenging Church hierarchy to embody its principles in the mist of the Great Depression and opposing all wars, no matter their genesis.
On journalism, she provides a picture of the importance of the press in its heyday:
We started publishing The Catholic Worker at 436 East Fifteenth Street in May 1933, with a first issue of 2,500 copies. Within three or four months the circulation bounded to 25,000, and it was cheaper to bring it out as an eight-page tabloid on newsprint rather than the smaller-sized edition on better paper we had started with. By the end of the year we had a circulation of 100,000 and by 1936 it was 150,000. It was certainly a mushroom growth. It was not only that some parishes subscribed for the paper all over the country in bundles of 500 or more. Zealous young people took the paper out in the streets and sold it, and when they could not sell it even at one cent a copy, they gave free copies and left them in streetcar, bus, barber shop and dentist’s office. We got letters from all parts of the country from people who said they had picked up the paper on trains, in rooming houses. (p. 182)
Of course is overly simplistic to narrowly draw parallels between the astounding circulation growth of The Catholic Worker and the role of new media as tools for social movements in spreading their messages today. Forums for dissenting views are not new, nor are the social ills they confront. For example, this except from an early issue of The Catholic Worker sounds strikingly similar to the narrative of Occupy Wall Street:
People are becoming conscious of the inequalities of the social system and are awakening to their responsibility toward their neighbor. Down in Staten Island a young manager of one of the Roulston’s stores was fired with no explanation. He was the only one in the family working and his father was a cripple. The neighbors and all the people who traded at Roulston’s organized a protest, and keeping the petition at an adjacent butcher shop they got signatures from everyone who came in, to send to the management of the store, asking for his reinstatement. A year or so ago they would not have been so alive to the need for social action. (Day, D. The Listener. The Catholic Worker, July-August 1933)
What is “new” is the speed at which information can circle the globe and the potential for real time conversations across wide geographical regions. However, it is important to remember that activists use whatever tools they have at their disposal, including the press, to win others to their cause. Activists distributed paper copies of the Occupied Wall Street Journal in New York in early October and the 15M Indignados movement in Spain has similarly published a newspaper. The interesting questions are how activists are using the various old and new media technologies to reach internal and external audiences. See for example, the September/October edition of the Technology Review on Arab Spring.
On workers rights, we’ve lost ground on many fronts in Wisconsin over the past year, from collective bargaining for public sector employees to voting rights to basic social services. But it bears in mind to remember that we must measure progress beyond our current effort to recall Gov. Scott Walker. As Day writes of the Depression-era labor struggles:
In the labor movement every strike is considered a failure, a loss of wages and man power, and no one is ever convinced that understanding between employer and worker is any clearer or that gains have been made on either side; and yet in the long history of labor, certainly there has been a slow and steady bettering of conditions. Women no longer go down into the mines, little children are not fed into the mills. In the long view of the efforts of the workers have achieved much. (pp. 216-217)
I am reminded of a conversation I had back in February while washing my hands in the restroom of a restaurant on Capitol Square with one of the Assembly Democrats. I do not know her name, as we talked in passing, but identified by her bright orange “Assembly Democrats Stand with Working Families” t-shirt. I thanked her for what she was doing standing up for workers rights. She in turn thanked me, saying that they could not be doing it with out the thousands of us filling the Capitol and the streets.
Day’s memoir is a reminder that the fight for social justice in all its forms has never been easy and that today we benefit from the hard-won victories of those who came before us. But the hundreds of thousands of people in Wisconsin, along with countless more around the country and world, standing up for social and economic justice are on the right side of history. Reading of the sit down strikes, suffragists getting rocks thrown at them in front of the White House and arrested, the breadlines, migrant workers organizing and ordinary people fighting a litany of other social injustices during the first half of the 20th century is a reminder that we too must take a long view of history.
Dorothy Day’s memoir The Long Loneliness: An Autobiography was first published in 1952 by Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. It was reprinted in 1981 and 1997, following her death in 1980. To learn more about Day and the Catholic Worker Movement visit here.