Reported ArticleHousing

When the Unemployed Fought Back

During the Great Depression, unemployed people organized and put their lives on the line to keep each other in their homes.

Unemployed men queue outside a soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone in February 1931. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Unemployed men queue outside a soup kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone in February 1931. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Drastic times call for drastic measures.

During the Great Depression in the early 1930s, Americans who were desperate for work and housing stood up to officials who seemingly had few answers to the compounding crises affecting their lives.

In city after city, eviction was an ever-present threat for renters, and it was often the physical presence of countless unemployed people who prevented folks from losing their homes. Although the threat of bodily injury and death was ever-present, demonstrators stood firm in the face of opposition. During one mass demonstration in Chicago in 1931, with police about to remove a family from their home, one Black man broke through the crowd and told police:

“You can’t shoot all of us and I might as well die now. … All we want is to see that these people, our people, get back into their homes. We have no money, no jobs, and sometimes no food. We’ve got to live some place. We are just acting the way you or anyone else would act,” according to a report in The Nation written by esteemed Black journalist Horace R. Cayton Sr.

Just like the millions of renters who today stand on the precipice of losing their homes thanks to the compounding impact of too-high rents, low wages, and the incalculable toll of years’ worth of mental and physical damage wrought by a global pandemic, renters who fought for the right to housing in the 1930s placed little faith in government to protect their shelter. And much like today’s patchwork of rent relief efforts, where aid has reached only a fragment of those who need it most, families who couldn’t afford housing during the Great Depression had few options available to them when times got tough.

The organizing work undertaken by the unemployed in the 1930s echoes efforts being made today to keep people in their homes, and shows how the tireless, determined organizing of everyday people can keep folks housed.

Mass Refusal of Evictions

The harsh economic reality of the early 1930s proved to be a potent breeding ground for a more systemic critique of American society, and housing was one of the most vital concerns taken up by left-wing organizers.

Mass refusal of evictions was itself prompted by the widespread risks facing the poor. Chicago was particularly hard-hit by unemployment, with an estimated 40 percent unemployment rate in 1931. Much like today, that rate varied greatly across racial lines, and in Chicago’s Black Belt—the concentrated area in the city’s South Side where incoming southern Black migrants had been forced into overcrowded housing—thousands of residents faced eviction and homelessness.

The high unemployment rate in Chicago and elsewhere led to great opportunities for political agitation and organizing for the American Communist Party.

At the time, the party had a nationwide membership of around 9,000, and a Chicago membership of 1,963, according to Red Chicago, which documents the history of the Communist Party’s organizing in the Windy City. In an effort to advance its policy goals and grow its base, the party established “Unemployed Councils” in hundreds of cities and towns across the country—the largest ones in places like New York, Detroit, and Chicago.

Unemployment rally at local Communist Party headquarters at 1337 7th Street NW in Washington, D.C., most likely on March 5, 1930, prior to picketing the White House the next day. Photo via Flickr, by Washington Area Spark

While Unemployed Councils participated in varied activities in city to city, they typically mobilized unemployed workers to participate in mass demonstrations and protests to fight evictions and to demand unemployment relief, and they held dozens of marches and other direct actions.

According to the University of Washington’s “Mapping American Social Movements” project, Communist Party and Unemployed Council members carried out more than 700 protests nationwide between 1930 and 1932. Chicago’s 42 recorded actions were second-most to New York’s 103 during this time, with other major manufacturing centers like Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Toledo registering lesser but still significant numbers of major actions documented in the Daily Worker, the official newspaper of the Communist Party.

While the party originally hoped its efforts would resonate with skilled white workers, the Unemployed Councils saw a stronger response in Black neighborhoods, where a lack of jobs was particularly acute. The councils were among the first sites of cross-racial organizing in Chicago, where just over a decade before 23 Black people were killed by police and white vigilantes in the 1919 Chicago race riots. According to scholar Lizabeth Cohen, “by 1934 Chicago’s Blacks provided 21 percent of the Unemployed Council’s leadership and 25 percent of their membership,” compared to just 6 percent leadership and 5 percent membership in the city’s Communist Party.

“For unemployed Black workers to see white people actually being committed to militant organizing, that was very new, especially for the Black migrants who had come north in the context of World War I and had experienced Chicago’s race riots in the postwar years,” says Red Chicago author Randi Storch. “The communists put their bodies in harm’s way around issues related to unemployment.”

Building strong networks on a block-by-block level allowed Unemployed Council organizers to fight evictions. In Chicago and elsewhere, the councils created a thorough, if hierarchical, response network, one that was determined by the needs of a specific community, with housing issues a common concern across many neighborhoods and cities. According to Hunger Fighter, a biweekly publication tied to Chicago’s Unemployed Councils, “A block committee is composed of three or more workers who canvass the block, going from house to house to get the support of the workers, employed and unemployed, for the relief of the desperate cases in the block. The block committee calls the neighbors together to decide what action to take when some family in the block is to be evicted or is starving…. If the committee needs assistance or the advice of more experienced workers, they can go to the neighborhood council to which the block committee sends delegates.”

In Detroit, the intimate scale of block committee organizing, and its ability to catch neighborhood disturbances almost as soon as they happened, “practically stopped evictions” from happening. According to historian Roy Rosenzweig, “one landlady actually called the Unemployed Council to ask whether she could evict her tenant yet.” Tenants themselves began to see the councils as a vital lifeline, according to St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton’s Black Metropolis, a comprehensive look at life in Chicago’s Black Belt in the early 20th century. When an eviction was imminent, “It was not unusual for a mother to shout to the children, ‘Run quick and find the Reds,’” according to Drake and Cayton. Such effective responses were essential when tenant protections were so limited, and existing support systems inadequate to the challenges that so many faced.

The battle against evictions was fraught with danger for Communist organizers, including the real possibility of physical harm. On the morning of Aug. 3, 1931, a 72-year-old Black woman named Diana Gross was evicted from her home at 50th and Dearborn. Charles Banks, a leader of the Unemployed Council, was arrested, with police giving warning to other council leaders: “If any of you go out on any more evictions today you’re goin’ to get drilled,” according to Red Chicago. Despite the threat, an agitated mix of the unemployed and council leaders left nearby Washington Park later that afternoon, determined to restore Gross to her apartment.

Given the threat of physical harm made that morning, tensions ran high outside Gross’s apartment. Soon, violence broke out between police and the crowd, with weapons thrown into the massed bodies and shots fired in both directions. While accounts vary, the outcome was clear: police shot and killed three Black people who were there to defend Gross’s home. Three officers, and a fourth protester, were wounded.

The response from newspapers and radio stations aligned with the police and landlords, and those aligned with the tenants and organizers, were diametrically opposed.

In the Chicago Tribune, fears of “further Red rioting” were followed by calls for military mobilization to prevent further unrest. While claiming that “there was no antagonism between the races,” the article blamed “Red propaganda” for riling up anti-eviction opposition among the Black population, which the paper acknowledged had been hit hard by “rent troubles.” Still, the article insisted, “The more solid elements among the colored residents of Chicago . . . have been opposed to the spread of the Red doctrines through the race.”

In The Daily Worker, the official paper of the Communist Party, there were countervailing claims that police “fired with riot guns on the unemployed workers of the city.” The paper described the deaths as a “cold-blooded massacre” and a “deliberate, planned murder,” and said, “the wholesale eviction of these workers from their homes was undertaken by the authorities for the benefit of the parasitic landlords.” Predicting that “bitter struggles are ahead,” the paper made a series of demands, which included increased relief payments to the unemployed and an end to evictions.

Far beyond the scope of the organizers’ everyday agitation, the killings on Aug. 3 galvanized eviction defense work in the city. Later that night, an impromptu response brought together 7,000 to 10,000 people in Washington Park; a larger march, carried out several days later, drew 60,000 marchers and more than 40,000 onlookers, according to newspaper accounts at the time, suggesting to its organizers the potential for revolutionary activity among the disaffected working classes. In reality, the march was perhaps the high-water mark of an organized response to the Great Depression housing crisis, and it would have a profound impact in the years to come.

Responding to the Eviction Crisis

When the pandemic first broke out across the United States in March 2020, eviction moratoriums were implemented within weeks to curb the sudden displacement of millions of people who found themselves out of work. In addition to statewide eviction diversion efforts, a limited nationwide moratorium was put in place with the passage of the CARES Act in late March 2020, followed by a more comprehensive mandate put in place by the Centers for Disease Control in September 2020. Such measures reflected a painful reality: untold numbers of low-wage workers, already stretched thin and overburdened by rental costs before the pandemic began, would have otherwise been evicted with the sudden loss of employment brought on by COVID-19. Slowing evictions has been one limited solution to keeping people in their homes, even as research has found that their patchwork implementation has led to 433,700 additional COVID-19 cases and 10,700 additional deaths nationwide.

Another key plank of the recovery efforts, the distribution of rental assistance, has been underwhelming as well. Despite a $46.5 billion federal outlay, confusing rules and bureaucratic headaches has meant that only $7.7 billion has been distributed, leaving 83 percent of the funds unspent as of September. Illinois has been one of the most effective states at getting funds distributed, disbursing 84 percent of its available resources, and opening a fresh round of assistance in November 2021.

Despite the inadequate distribution of relief funds to renters during the pandemic, evidence from the Great Depression suggests that government officials and charitable organizations then were even less prepared than groups working to protect renters today. It was largely the impact of the eviction defense killings that led to the creation of a citywide eviction moratorium in Chicago, put in place as a stopgap to discourage further radical activities by authorities who sensed the simmering frustration of working people.

On the day after the “rent riot” of Aug. 3, as authors Edith Abbott and Katherine Kiesling called it in 1935 in an article for Social Service Review, the Tribune called for authorities to use “firmness in dealing with communistic eviction disorders.” But Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, out of town when the demonstration occurred, insisted that evictions be paused until a new policy seeking “every humane consideration to be given [to] the hundreds of penniless families” was put into place. This was eventually codified in a formal eviction moratorium enacted in December 1931, buttressed by a relief system that soon proved grossly inadequate.

Abbott and Kiesling noted that the money provided by both private charity and state sources never kept up with tenant need. They argued that “the payment of rents from state funds was allowed only in cases where eviction was imminent,” with rental relief often coming in the form of one month’s rent at a new apartment, after a tenant had been asked to leave their previous unit. While the stopgap moratorium slowed formal evictions, landlords turned to intimidation tactics, such as turning off lights, gas, heat, and water, and even removing window frames, to remove nonpaying tenants. For example, while water shut-offs had been “‘practically unheard of’ before the rent moratorium,” Abbott and Kiesling documented 135 such cases in one month in early 1932.

The resulting system left landlords and renters uneasy, and treated a family’s continued tenancy as an afterthought, thanks to scarce funds available for emergency assistance. As Abbott and Kiesling wrote: “By a policy of shrewd guesswork, the workers were supposed to save the relief funds from any unnecessary payment of rent on the one hand; and, on the other hand, the office must act promptly enough to prevent an actual physical eviction.” The authors noted that larger landlords were also able to more effectively screen for tenants who secured rent relief, leaving small building owners more likely to take on struggling renters during the moratorium. The results were predictable: overcrowding was rampant, the unhoused population grew, as well as the number of people living in flophouses or single-room-occupancy units, often the only shelter that many could afford. Housing stock quality also deteriorated, and especially in Black neighborhoods, there was a growth in “kitchenette” apartments, with larger units chopped into housing for more families and rented at an inflated rate.

Chicago’s eviction moratorium lasted until 1933, the same year that Mayor Cermak was killed by an assassin’s bullet that was likely targeted at newly inaugurated President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The moratorium itself is a bit of a misnomer, as evictions continued during this period, tempered by greater efforts to disburse emergency rental assistance to needy families. According to Abbott and Kiesling, evictions grew 100 percent from 1930 to 1932; by 1932 about 5,000 people were in eviction court each month, 80 percent of whom were relief clients of various state or private agencies. Despite receiving emergency assistance, untold numbers of people nevertheless lost their housing during the harsh early years of the 1930s, slowed only slightly by relief sources and organizing efforts. Still, it seems clear that without the direct actions taken by Unemployed Councils, countless others would have lost their homes much earlier in the Depression, a secure right to housing then only a dream.

Short Memories

If there’s a lasting comparison to be made between the radical unrest of the 1930s housing crisis and our own, it might lie in the raised expectations that everyday people place in their government, and one another. While government spending on housing is still inadequate in a climate where more than one-third of renters nationwide are cost-burdened by their housing, the pandemic has reawakened questions about why the needs of so many are not being met, and what we should expect from government officials when it comes to housing for all.

Meanwhile, organizing is where a “Housing is a Human Right” framework is most likely to be cherished and enacted today, with mutual aid groups and other community institutions unwilling to wait to ensure that people are securely housed. Though these grassroots efforts lack the resources to meet the vast need that clearly still exists, their stubborn refusal to wait around for further government intervention is itself a challenge to authorities to do more, laying bare how such a core human need still has not been met.

“Unfortunately, our memory as a nation is very short, and most people aren’t thinking to what went on in the context of the Depression and World War II,” Storch says. “But the activism that was so fundamental to creating a middle class decades ago is the same as today: people are still knocking on doors, having conversations, hosting meetings. That kind of hard work hasn’t changed.”

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