Soapbox Speakers

New York, CONEY ISLAND and Moses Baritz.

By the end of the 19th Century, New York’s Coney Island beach was fenced in by barbed wire – a resort for the rich, with playgrounds, restaurants, a racetrack, dance halls and a casino. Only a small strip of beach was publicly owned and it was there that socialist orators established a Speakers’ Corner in the late 1890’s.

Coney Island beach returned to public ownership in 1915 after lengthy legal battles in the New York Supreme Court. Between 1918-1920, the Socialist Party of America (S.P.A.) held forth in an area beside the Coney Island Municipal Baths. Only the best speakers were assigned there, for the audience always numbered in the hundreds. Visiting socialists were often invited to the Sunday forum. This was a risky business, because not all socialists spoke with one mind.

One such socialist was Moses Baritz, a British subject. In 1915 the British government introduced military conscription. Moses, then aged 21, fled England to Toronto, Canada. He may have arrived by courtesy of what was called the “Four Winds Fellowship” a secret underground movement especially for seamen. Their aim was to assist the escape of anti-war Britishers to the USA.

Moses had not always been a socialist. In his youthful wandering he visited Manchester (UK). An argument ensued between himself and a socialist who was speaking in Stevenson Square, Manchester’s Speakers’ Corner. Moses lost both the discussion and his Tory values and became a propagandist for the Socialist Party of Great Britain, established in 1904. It was his road to Damascus.

Moses Baritz was an active socialist in North America, making a reputation as a convincing speaker and a brilliant exponent of scientific socialism. The Socialist Party of America was a heterogeneous assortment of reformers and activists. They came under the influence of the Socialist Party of Great Britain when America entered World War I in 1917.

On several Sunday afternoons, Moses held the attention of the Coney Island audience for hours. However, the Socialist Party of America officialdom found his socialism far too radical, and barred him from speaking.

In 1918 he was arrested, detained and deported under the Espionage Act of 1917.

Moses Baritz could be described as a socialist at large on the world. He travelled the English speaking world spreading Socialism. He travelled to Canada, the United States, South Africa, New Zealand and Melbourne, Australia, returning to England in the latter half of the 1920’s.

He was a clarinet player and a music critic for the Manchester Guardian. In the early days of broadcasting he was on the air regularly lecturing on music for a gramophone record company. 

Moses Baritz was England’s first Radio disc jockey, broadcasting from 2ZY (Manchester) in 1923. The first BBC broadcast took place in 1924.

His health began to deteriorate in 1935. He died in 1938.

In 1920, the New York to Coney Island subway was completed. This enabled millions of New York workers to enjoy a day at a seaside resort. One of the many attractions was the Speakers’ Corner. However, Coney Island, like other New York Speakers’ corners, disappeared shortly after the end of World War II.

Steve Maxwell. plnsteve@gmail.com

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