Soapbox Speakers

9. New York, Part Two: Free Speech in New York’s Union Square – an anarchist.

by Steve Maxwell

(Union Square: 14th to 17th Street, Broadway and Park)

In the 1850’s, New York experienced massive growth that pushed the limits of the city beyond Wall Street into the whole of Manhattan Island. Town planners developed Union Square as an upper class precinct.

During the American Civil War (1861-1864), Union Square became a rallying place for torchlight processions of the “Wide Awakes”, Lincoln’s young Republican supporters. Moreover, it was from Union Square that Union troops marched off to the front.

Then in 1863 Draft Riots began after a rally in Union Square. Thousands of poor people protested against compulsory military service. More than 100 people were killed. The riots only stopped when Union troops restored order in the streets of New York. The riots had the effect of driving down land values in the precinct.

As the old mansions became subdivided into tenements, the poor working class began to move into the precinct. It was then that Union Square became a regular Speakers’ Corner where radical issues were discussed. By 1866, organized labour began to rally in the square, culminating in the world’s first labour parade. On September 5, 1882, twenty-five thousand marchers gathered under a banner of the Knights of Labor, and circled the square to demonstrate their support for an eight-hour workday and a ban on child labour.

In 1886 the first May Day march was held in the square to protest against the hanging of six Chicago Anarchists (The Haymarket martyrs). It was the heyday of the radical left. For the next half century, Union Square produced many of America’s greatest radical speakers. Among them were many fine women orators such as Anarchist Emma Goldman, (1869- 1940). At her first public speaking engagement, Goldman was unable to remember the material on her topic, “the campaign for the eight-hour day” and panicked. She spoke instead of her great ideal – Anarchism.

Emma recalled: “I could sway people with words. Words that welled up from within me from some unfamiliar depth.” So powerful was her oratory that Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated US President McKinley, claimed that Emma Goldman’s speech had set him on fire. There was no evidence linking her to the assassination, but it made her public enemy number one.

Emma’s first love was Alexander Berkman (1870-1936), also a soapboxer and an anarchist. They often shared the platform in Union Square. Berkman made an unsuccessful attempt to take the life of Henry Clay Frick, the manager of Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills. Berkman was sentenced to 22 years prison. 
 Both Goldman and Berkman were influenced by Johann Most, an anarchist who urged the use of violence, including assassinations.

Emma’s second lover was Dr. Ben Reitman (sex doctor). He too was a noted soapboxer. He pioneered the treatment of venereal disease in Chicago’s red light district. Emma Goldman and Ben Reitman were leaders of the Birth Control League. Both were repeatedly arrested under the Comstock Law, which prohibited the dissemination of “obscene, lewd, or lascivious articles” — including information relating to birth control.

J.Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, called Goldman “one of the most dangerous anarchists in America”. The Espionage Act of 1917 gave Hoover the powers to silence many radicals. Hoover managed to get Goldman and Berkman deported to the Soviet Union, along with Big Bill Haywood of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) who also spoke regularly at Union Square. Haywood died in the Soviet Union. 
 Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman became totally disillusioned with the Soviets. They had expected that the anarchists would gain power in Russia, but it was ultimately the Bolsheviks who seized power.

Depressed by pain, Alexander Berkman committed suicide on 28th June, 1936.

Goldman remained politically active and lived on in France until she died on a visit to Canada in 1940, aged 70. Dr.Ben Reitman arranged for her body to buried in Forest Home Cemetery, Chicago Illinois, close to where the executed Haymarket Riot defendants are buried. Her tombstone reads “Liberty will not descend to a people, a people must raise themselves to Liberty.” Ben Reitman gave the eulogy. One year later, Ben died. He was buried near Emma.

Main reference: “The Damndest Radical” by Roger A.Bruns (It’s a biography of Ben Reitman)

Steve Maxwell.

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