While recent economic indicators have been positive, a significant percentage of those seeking work remain unable to find it. Analysts on both the left and the right have proposed solutions to the plight of those out of work six months or more, who face particular difficulty in re-entering the job market. While this debate has provided fodder for policy wonks, it has not had much influence on Capitol Hill which seems poised to allow federal unemployment benefits to lapse without much of an alternative strategy for getting the long term jobless working again.
This is far from the first time that the out of work have struggled to find a voice to represent them in the public square. The same challenge, on an even larger scale, faced the unemployed in the winter of 1932. In that cold winter, a voice representing the jobless of the nation came from a most unexpected place: a classical styled Catholic parish in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, Old St. Patrick’s.
The Strip District of Pittsburgh, an unusually flat strip of land in the hilly terrain of Western Pennsylvania, sits between the Allegheny River and Pittsburgh’s Hill District. By the 1920’s the area had become an industrial neighborhood full of warehouses, railways, and wholesalers. The Strip District’s St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, descended from the first parish in Pittsburgh, was in a sorry state when it was assigned to a young priest, Fr. James Cox. Fr.Cox immediately set out restoring the parish to it’s former glory. In 1925, Fr. Cox began one of the earliest religious media outreaches in the nation taking full advantage of the latest medium of radio to broadcast Sunday Mass and his sermons.
Pittsburgh, like the rest of the country, was devastated by the Great Depression, the Strip District dependent as it was on a thriving industry and trade being especially hard-hit. With unemployment quadrupling, Fr. Cox set up a soup kitchen and a medical care clinic. He established a distribution center to provide coal, milk, and clothes to families in need. His ministry was a pastoral response to the immediate needs of his flock and his parish, an opportunity for the Church to fulfill its obligation to clothe the naked and feed the hungry. (The primary responsibility for taking care of one’s neighbor was on the individual, the community, and the parish.) Fr. Cox was said to have told his housekeeper, If you turn one away, Mary, I’ll strangle you. Soon, this generosity led to a shantytown growing up in the Strip District around St. Patrick’s and Fr. Cox himself being described as the mayor of Shantytown as he increasingly assumed responsibility for the community’s order and well being in addition to social welfare services.
As the Depression deepened and another winter approached, Fr. Cox was deeply disturbed by the inaction of public policy makers in Washington D.C. Again, Fr. Cox’s concern was deeply pastoral. He had seen the influence of communism grow among the starving desperate workers of Pittsburgh and he was concerned if action was not taken to assist the jobless the evils of communism would spread. Having heard of a planned march on Washington by the Communists, Fr. Cox countered with an idea of his own: A march of the jobless on Washington.
On January 5, 1932, a march of the jobless set out from Pittsburgh to Washington D.C. But only after Fr. Cox had offered morning Mass at Old St. Patrick’s. The marchers, numbering twenty thousand by the time they reached D.C., became a national sensation, and Cox’s Army had received a hero’s welcome in town after town on their way to the nation’s capital. Fr. Cox expressed his belief that it was necessary for the nation’s political leaders to see the jobless, not as an abstraction but as real flesh and blood people. It’s not charity these men want but jobs, he repeatedly told the newspapermen sent to cover the march.
Fr. Cox presented a petition and his proposals to President Hoover at the White House. The president received him politely but declined to act upon any of Fr. Cox’s ideas. Fr. Cox himself though silent at the time would describe the President’s response as woefully inadequate. Again Fr. Cox stressed the need for policy action: They won’t do anything unless we force them to it. It isnt a question of Democrats and Republicans. It isn’t a question of politics. Both parties are looking at the demand for national relief from a political angle-and that’s the wrong way to look. The jobless of the nation don’t want doles; they don’t want Socialism or Communism. They want jobs and the right to work.
Boosted by the success of the march but concerned that neither party were making the unemployed a priority, Cox made plans to run for president. After a rally of the jobless at Pitt Stadium which drew fifty thousand, Cox began organizing a convention in St. Louis for the newly established Jobless Party, no credentials were needed, the only requirements for being a delegate were the same as the rules for attending the march to Washington, no guns, no liquor, and no grouches.
Cox’s platform was a mixture of bank regulation, public works programs and relief measures such as unemployment insurance. A January 1932 Central Press report on Cox opened with the words, a new deal is in order for the American people six months before the Democratic nominee for president would use the same phrase to describe his platform at the Democratic convention in Chicago. Following the pattern of third party campaigns in American history, the party fizzled but the ideas were co-opted by others and in September Cox dropped his presidential bid and endorsed Franklin D. Roosevelt. Indeed, many of Cox’s ideas from flood control, to public works, to unemployment relief, to reforestation were essential elements of FDR’s New Deal. But Cox saw himself as simply trying to put Catholic Social Teaching into practice. He looked forward to the day when the crisis having passed decentralization would be the order of the day and viewed the crisis as primarily a moral one, warning of the persistent temptation to greed and avarice of the world’s most powerful nation.
After his brief foray into the national limelight Cox continued what had always been to him his primary responsibility, the spiritual and material well being of his parish. He rebuilt Old St. Patrick’s after a fire nearly destroyed it. He organized an annual pilgrimages to Lourdes, a devotion which he had acquired at an early age when he was cured of a serious eye ailment through the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes. He was reported to have offered the first airborne Mass while leading one of his post-war pilgrimages. Yet he always maintained a keen interest in the working class and poor, he served on the Pennsylvania Recovery Board and Commission on the Unemployed. He ministered to union organizers and worked with other clergy in labor schools to prevent the spread of communism. He was equally vocal in his opposition to the Nazis and engaged in a long running feud with another famous radio priest, Father Charles Coughlin. He accused Coughlin of spreading the heresies of Hitler and being in the vanguard of the bigot brigade for his anti-Semitism. When he died in 1951, he was heralded as the pastor of the poor and shepherd of the jobless.
To borrow a phrase from another priest, an Argentinian one with a parish slightly larger than Old St. Patrick’s, Fr. Cox was a shepherd who had the smell of his sheep upon him. Perhaps then it’s no coincidence that today the cause of the unemployed, the jobless and the marginalized is most forcefully articulated by Pope Francis. Another man of the cloth who warns of an economy of exclusion and the dangers to the human soul of a throwaway culture where the dignity of labor is not prioritized. Another shepherd of the jobless. Fr. Cox would understand.