May Day, 1933

An account of the birth of the Catholic Worker Movement on May 1, 1933, in New York City’s Union Square, from the opening paragraphs of “All Is Grace: a Biography of Dorothy Day,” by Jim Forest. “Dorothy found more bewilderment than enthusiasm from those who had the paper thrust into their hands. They all knew The Daily Worker, a Communist paper that was a militant supporter of unions and strikes. But a radical paper, a paper for workers, put out by Catholics?”

A clear contralto voice filled Union Square in New York with the words, “Arise, ye prisoners of starvation.” In moments tens of thousands of voices joined in singing together the Internationale, the socialist anthem. “Arise, ye wretched of the earth.” Tears sparkled in the eyes of those whom editorial writers and politicians sometimes described as godless, heartless and witless radicals. “For Justice thunders condemnation.” Large numbers of police, some on horseback, watched from the sidelines of the huge crowd. “A better world’s in birth.”

It was May Day, 1933. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been in the White House only a hundred days. The Great Depression was in its fourth year. Industrial production was barely half what it had been in 1929. In a population of 123,000,000, more than 13,000,000 workers were unemployed. The majority of America’s banks had collapsed, while those which survived were busily repossessing houses, shops and farms whose owners couldn’t make mortgage payments. Hoovervilles — shanty towns for the homeless made of tin, cardboard, canvas and scrap wood — had sprung up in vacant lots all over the country. No Social Security program yet existed. Beer could be legally purchased once again — the end of Prohibition was in sight. “King Kong” was a hit on movie screens. Mickey Mouse was five years old. The first modern sighting of the Loch Ness Monster had been reported in Scotland. Hitler was the new chancellor of Germany. Stalin had been ruling Soviet Russia for five years and was thought of, by those on the Left, not as a tyrant or mass murderer, but as a benevolent liberator.

Denouncing Hitler and praising Stalin, the speakers at Union Square called for worker ownership and control of industry. Despite hard times, their audience was in a festive mood. There were brass bands, red flags, and faces that were hopeful about the future, as if to say, “In my lifetime the revolution will happen.”

One of those present, a young writer named Dorothy Day, remembered that the square was filled with “a hot undulant sea of hats and sun-baked heads, over which floated a disordered array of banners, placards and pennants.” But Dorothy Day wasn’t carrying a placard or paying attention to the speeches. She was one of four people handing out the first issue of a small, eight-page tabloid newspaper, The Catholic Worker, and wasn’t even asking for its penny-a-copy cover price. An Irishman objected that a “penny” was an English coin and therefore was far too much to ask.

Dorothy found more bewilderment than enthusiasm from those who had the paper thrust into their hands. They all knew The Daily Worker, a Communist paper that was a militant supporter of unions and strikes. But a radical paper, a paper for workers, put out by Catholics? Everyone knew that the Catholic Church was far more anti-Communist than pro-worker.

Many copies of the first Catholic Worker quickly found their way into the nearest trash barrel, but some were read and seen as a welcome sign that a fresh wind was blowing in the Catholic Church.

An editorial on page four declared this new paper was published “for those who are huddling in shelters trying to escape the rain, for those who are walking the streets in the all but futile search for work, for those who think that there is no hope for the future, no recognition of their plight.” The Catholic Worker would let its readers know “that the Catholic Church has a social program” and that there are people “who are working not only for their spiritual, but for their material welfare…. Is it not possible to be radical and not an atheist? Is it not possible to protest, to expose, to complain, to point out abuses and demand reforms without desiring the overthrow of religion?”

The editorial made light of the paper’s fragile economic foundations: “The first number of The Catholic Worker was planned, written and edited in the kitchen of a tenement on 15th Street, on subway platforms, on the ‘El’ [the elevated railway], on the ferry. There is no editorial office, no overhead in the way of telephone or electricity, no salaries paid.” The cost of printing 2,500 copies of the first issue — $57 — was paid by a few small contributions, plus the editors’ savings, and what could be spared by not paying gas and electric bills. “By accepting delay, the utilities did not know that they were furthering the cause of social justice.”

What they were doing, the editorial declared, was no more reckless than the way Jesus and his friends had lived in Galilee. “It is cheering to remember that Jesus Christ wandered this earth with no place to lay his head. ‘The foxes have holes and the birds of the air their nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’ And when we consider our fly-by-night existence, our uncertainty, we remember (with pride in sharing the honor) that the disciples supped by the seashore and wandered through cornfields picking the ears from the stalks wherewith to make their frugal meals.”

The text was modestly signed “The Editors.” Who were “The Editors” who had delayed paying their gas and electric bills? It was just one person — Dorothy Day, thirty-five years old.

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