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The American Experience
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Introduction | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

Anything Seemed Possible (45 minutes)

Across America, the presidential campaign was the great fall entertainment. Never before had candidates campaigned so hard, so far, or spent so much money. William Jennings Bryan, just 40 years old, was a firebrand, criss-crossing the country, speaking, 6, 8, even 12 times a day. But the Republicans had their own young powerhouse, the 41-year-old vice-presidential nominee. "I am as strong as a bull moose," Theodore Roosevelt told reporters, and no one doubted him.

He becomes the sensation of the 1900 campaign. He can match William Jennings Bryan as a campaigner. Bryan could campaign 18 hours a day, so could Theodore Roosevelt. Bryan could draw big crowds, Theodore Roosevelt could draw bigger crowds. Bryan could excite crowds by what he said, Theodore Roosevelt could excite crowds by who he was.

By September, the Republicans appeared to be taking the lead. With the economy strong, Bryan was having a hard time drumming up enthusiasm for his anti-imperialist campaign.

He can't get any fire going. He can't arouse the public. He's campaigning out in Kansas, and he's going on about "How terrible it is and what a danger it is to the country that we have this empire that's gonna drag us down," supposedly one farmer looked at another one and said, "Price of hogs is 60 cents a pound. Guess we can stand it."

With the election just two months away, Bryan decided to change course, and began to attack McKinley for his alliance with big business. Bryan blasted the president for his support of the Trusts, the giant corporations that were swallowing up many of America's small businesses. The Trusts were destroying competition, manipulating prices, buying and selling politicians.

Bryan is appealing to the plain people. Bryan is saying very clearly that the railroads, the manufacturers, the bankers, Wall Street were all fleecing the common folk, the farmers, the workers.

Bryan was a demon, an absolutely frightening character for the upper classes for the wealthy. And there are moments in 1900 where fear ripples through the upper classes.

But for all his fiery oratory, Bryan still faced an uphill battle. Prosperity was the Republican rallying cry. A full dinner pail the party slogan. But that September, coal miners in the anthracite fields of Pennsylvania, were threatening to walk off the job. A strike could throw the economy into turmoil, and give Bryan one last chance.

This can shut down the factories. This can shut the productive manufacturing side of the American economy down fast. The other thing is that anthracite coal was the chief home heating fuel. So that a miners strike could bring a long, cold winter.

It's the kind of wild card that no politician and particularly not somebody who is as commanding and controlling as William McKinley ever wants to see happen.

Throughout 1900, there had been ugly labor disputes everywhere. Bricklayers and carpenters, cigarmakers and brewers, stone masons, hod carriers, mill hands, all were demanding better working conditions and higher pay.

In the Pennsylvania coal fields, the president of the United Mine Workers had been trying for more than a year to organize a divided group of miners.

John Mitchell was only 30 years old. He wore a jeweled ring and a Prince Albert suit, but the miners liked and trusted him. He was one of their own. His father had been a miner, and Mitchell himself had begun work in the mines when he when he was just a boy.

Child labor is common practice. The average miner is making about $400 dollars a year; it wasn't enough to support a family. Consequently, when you were 9, 10 years old you were pulled out of school whether you liked it or not, and off you went into a place called a "breaker," which is a huge factory for the processing of coal. And there, the boys would sit and coal would come down in chutes underneath them. They couldn't wear gloves because they had to go into the coal by hand and pick out the slate and the rock from the coal as it came roaring down under them. And they had bosses, working behind them with bull whips. And there was so much dust in the breaker that the kids would wear bandannas across their faces and they'd take them off and all you would see was just the little whites of their eyes.

Mitchell knew first hand the misery of mining, but he also knew how difficult it would be to unite a divided work force...Welsh, Slavs, Italians, Poles, Irish.

Mitchell's main challenge was that the work force is divided along ethnic lines. And there's deep hatred. When the Slavic miners were brought into the region, they were brought in, it was believed, to depress wages and they got a great American welcome when they come off the trains. They were stoned by the Irish miners.

John Mitchell had an exceedingly difficult task ahead of him, one that had frustrated every other organizer. Beginning back in the 1850's. Every union movement had failed because of these ethnic divisions and differences. And a lot of his advisors counseled him that he was facing an absolutely impossible task.

The summer heat wave lingered into September across much of the country.

In Galveston, Texas, the beaches drew tourists from as far away as Kansas City. Down at the Pagoda bathhouse, bathers were enjoying the heavy surf. Few paid any heed to the report on September 4 that a hurricane was building out in the Gulf of Mexico.

Galveston was a popular vacation destination. They had music in public parks. There was even a man who invented a buggy with a sail on it who sailed along the beach.

Despite daily warnings about the storm, it was business as usual down at Galveston's deepwater harbor. More than a hundred ships lined the stone-capped piers.

Galveston was really the main hub of commerce in the entire state of Texas. It was the main export for almost all of the Texas crops, particularly cotton. It was one of the most prosperous cities in the entire country. Some people even called it "a second New York City."

Washed by Galveston Bay on one side, and the Gulf of Mexico on the other, Galveston was a city of 36,000, sitting precariously on a narrow sand island, rising only a few feet above sea level.

Galveston Island is a barrier island. It sits out there and protects the mainland from the power of storm surge. It is a barrier against hurricanes. And nothing at all protects Galveston. There had been talk of building a wall against the sea along the ocean shore, but a sea wall was expensive, and a bond proposed to raise the money never even came up for a vote.

The people of this island denied the power of that Gulf of Mexico out there for years and years. They respected the gulf but they were not afraid of it. The 10 to 12 foot natural sand dunes that had been on the front of Galveston had been removed so tourists could have easier access to the beach. So one of the natural barriers was gone. They thought they could ride out anything, anything.

On September 8th, the head of the National Weather Service in Galveston woke early and was down at the beach by 5am. Isaac Cline didn't like what he saw.

"The storm swells were increasing in magnitude and frequency," he later wrote. "Great danger was approaching."

Cline was a careful, meticulous man. He lived with his family in a house he had built near the beach which he thought could withstand any storm. He was unaccustomed to rash judgments.

When he telegraphed the Weather Bureau in Washington, he tried to restrain his mounting anxiety: "Unusually heavy swells from southeast... Such high water with opposing winds never observed previously." But that day in downtown Galveston, no one paid much attention to warnings about the weather.

It was a Saturday morning and many people worked at least half a day that morning. I remember my grandfather telling me about playing in the surf and how grand it was to see the waves smashing on the beach.

But as the wind increased hour by hour, the tide inch by inch, Cline began to fear the worst. At noon, he hurried to the beachfront, warning everyone, that "great danger threatened."

He went up and down the beach telling people, "Seek higher ground. Move into the heart of the city." But for the residents of Galveston, keep in mind "higher ground" is very relative. Along the sea front it was two-and-half feet above sea level, downtown, four-and-half feet, and somewhere out in the Gulf is a 20-foot tidal surge heading full force for Galveston. By the middle of the afternoon, winds gusted up to 60 miles an hour, the tide had reached 8 feet. Bridges washed out, trains stopped running, there was no longer any way to leave the island.

"An awful disaster," Cline wrote, "was upon us." At 3 o'clock, Cline reported to Washington one last time.

"Gulf rising, water covers streets of about half city."

Then the lines from Galveston fell silent. The city perched on the edge of the sea was entirely cut off from the outside world.

Galveston reeled as the winds punished its unprotected shores. The sea rose higher and higher, flooding the downtown, reaching as high as a man's chest.

Estimates of the wind speed were 120 miles, ah, an hour and upwards. That's the kind of wind that will drive a straw through a palm tree, or it's full of sand, will abrade the hide right off of you.

Kline left the telegraph office and fought his way home. "I waded nearly two miles to my home through water, often above my waist," he wrote. "Hurricane winds were driving timbers and slates, roofs of buildings were flying through the air.

Around seven-thirty a great tidal surge hit the south side of the city. It knocked buildings off of their foundations. And houses fell upon houses and whole blocks of houses.

The rapid rise of water drove Isaac and, and his family higher and higher, up to the second level of their--their home and there, they could see all of the debris being whipped around by all the water

Suddenly a quarter mile section of trolley track tossed loose by the storm slammed into the Cline home.

"The house creaked," Cline wrote, "and was carried over into the surging waters. With my wife and six year old child, I was carried down under the wreckage. My wife's clothing was entangled and she never rose again... A flash of lightning revealed my baby girl floating on wreckage a few feet away. I struggled out of the timbers and reached her."

Cline and his daughter drifted in the darkness for hours, enduring the fury of the storm.

"Sunday, September 9th, came with a clear sky," Cline remembered "almost a calm and quiet sea. A most beautiful day. But oh, the horrible sights that greeted our eyes."

Nearly half of the homes of Galveston had been swept away. In one area where 20,000 people had lived, not a house remained.

Galveston was like a war zone that had been bombed. All the homes along the Galveston beach front had been splintered and overturned. Galveston lost between 6,000 and 7,000 people out of a population of 36,000. That's one in six. The day after the storm, they tolled the bell for people who died until they reached the point where they would be constantly tolling the bell and so they stopped. There was nothing but wreckage and bodies on this island. It was a sandbar piled high with death and full of destruction.

It had been the worst natural disaster in the nation's history. The first reports from Galveston spoke of a city "lifeless and bloomless, streets choked with debris and corpses, the vomitings of a maddened, retching ocean."

9 days after the storm, Clara Barton and the Red Cross arrived to tend the wounded and the homeless. Aid poured in from all over the country. As soon as he got word, President McKinley ordered troops to Galveston with tents and emergency supplies.

But in the face of the overwhelming disaster, even as they grieved, the people of Galveston began to rebuild. The bridges would be higher, the buildings stronger, the wharves reconstructed, as one resident said, to withstand "even such a hurricane as the one we have just experienced."

The people of this little sandbar showed a great deal of grit and determination. They rebuilt, they came back, they tried to bring this little city together again.

There was a tremendous feeling of optimism and wanting to build back and to reclaim their city, and it's a source of great pride to those who stayed here.

It was 14 days before Isaac Cline was able to file his formal report on the hurricane. He concluded, "It appears that a sea wall would have broken the swells and saved much of the loss of both life and property."

Isaac Cline recommended that something had to be done to protect this city from catastrophic storms in the future. What they had thought about years ago was what he thought they should do now. They should build that sea wall. Nothing had ever been done like this before. Three miles long, 100 feet wide, 16.5 feet high.

Galveston still sits precariously on a sandbar, protected by the sea wall built after the most destructive hurricane in the nation's history --the hurricane of 1900.

Two weeks after the Galveston hurricane, on September 17th, in coal towns throughout northeastern Pennsylvania, the United Mine Workers issued a call for a strike, demanding recognition of their union and a living wage.

But on the morning of the strike, when the work whistle blew, no one knew - not the press, White House, or even the union - what the miners would do.

Union President John Mitchell was asking bitterly divided miners to challenge the mightiest monopoly in America, a handful of wealthy coal operators, controlled by America's most powerful financier, J. Pierpont Morgan.

By 1900, J.P. Morgan Enterprises, just about wrapped up the entire anthracite region. So you're fighting a distant corporation way off on Wall Street and how do you reach out to that? How do you reach out even to communicate with it? And it's the largest industrial conglomeration, the largest industrial consolidation in the country, this anthracite empire.

The miners feared the coal operators, but they distrusted one another even more. The men came from different countries, spoke different languages, and Mitchell had spent years trying to unite them.

He had sent in teams of organizers before he arrives in the anthracite region and they worked inside the community, learning the languages of the people, appreciating what they ate, appreciating their customs.

And when he spoke to miners, it was this: You don't have to drink, if you're Irish, with Italians, but you work with them and to get anything done in the way of improvements in the work force at the job, at the job site, you've got to bury your antagonism, temporarily, and join with these people in a common effort. Otherwise, you know, you're just fodder, cannon fodder for the capitalists.

He had a refrain. Everywhere he went it was the same. "The coal you mine is not Slavic coal. It's not Irish coal. It's not Polish coal. It's not Italian coal. It's coal.

By the day of the strike, Mitchell had convinced nine thousand miners to join the union. But more than 140,000 miners had not. Unless most of them went on strike, the union would be broken, the union men thrown out of their homes and fired, never to work in the mines again. In one home after another, miners and their wives struggled with a difficult decision. At dawn in the little coal towns across northeastern Pennsylvania, every miner wondered what his neighbor would do. Then slowly, men began to drift from their homes in their Sunday best.

To the astonishment of everyone, 90,000 men stayed out of the mines that first day. Some marched from one mine to the next, urging those who were still at work to come out and join them.

These are not radical people. They're fighting for a piece of the American pie, in a sense, so little, a decent living wage so they could continue to support their churches, support their communities and support their families.

By week's end, 120,000 miners had joined the strike. By the second week well over 90% of the mines were closed. But the mine owners refused to negotiate.

As the strike continued, Mitchell was becoming a hero, especially to the boys in whose ranks he had once stood, the breaker boys.

"As I saw those eager eyes peering at me, " he said, "the fight had a new meaning for me. I felt that I was fighting for the boys, fighting a battle for innocent childhood."

By the middle of October, the miners had been out for a month. They had no savings and little help from the union. Some were reduced to scavenging the woods for food. Still, they held on.

The miners at times were actually starving. They couldn't buy from the company store because they, they didn't have the credit. They had to mine the coal to get the credit. And the big companies, the companies that owned the mines, could care less. They thought, "Well, we'll starve them out. If they--if they, they're going to strike, we'll, we'll stop it. They'll either work or else."

As the strike wore on, mills, factories, and homes across the country were running low on coal, and prices began to skyrocket. With the election and cold weather coming on fast, the strike had become a campaign issue.

Mitchell timed the strike perfectly. He timed the strike to occur just before the national election to make a fool out of McKinley with his campaign slogan of "a full dinner pail". I mean you can't even heat your homes in New York City and Philadelphia and places like that. Also you throw the issue to William Jennings Bryan. Bryan's running a campaign against these large industries that are wrapping up the economy. With the union and the coal operators stalemated, McKinley grew more and more concerned.

He's especially worried as the weather gets colder and people's homes are going to start getting cold and that maybe people will blame him or blame the Republicans. So, what he does is he has his friend, his political colleague, Senator Mark Hanna, meet with the mine owners.

Hanna approaches the owners and he lays it right on the line. "If this strike is successful, it's gonna be Bryan, rather than McKinley, and you're in some real hot water at that point because this is the guy who's going after the major monopolies and corporations. You people are running one of the most tightly knit and far-reaching industrial monopolies in the history of the world.

And you don't want Bryan in the presidency. You want Mr. McKinley.

But despite the pressure from Hanna, the mine owners still refused to bargain.

When they refuse, he goes over their heads to Pierpont Morgan, and Morgan puts heavy pressure on, and all of a sudden signs begin to appear that "Yes, we're open for work at an increase of 5 and 6 percent in the wage scale, but no recognition of the union. That's one thing they would not do and wouldn't do.

Mitchell rejected the offer. On October 28th, just 1 week before the election, the mine owners made a new proposal. They still refused to recognize the union, but they now offered a ten percent increase in pay.

Mitchell accepted. The strike was over.

What they offer is hardly anything. But the miners are bankrupt. They're starving and they're willing to go back to work because they have to go back to work to support their families.

They got, in a sense, a de facto recognition of the union, that it existed, that Mitchell existed, that the UMW was there and there for the long term. But, believe me, you know, this thing wasn't over because it's just a dress rehearsal for something bigger.

In the fall of 1900, John Mitchell had done what many thought impossible - uniting a divided group of workers.

When Mitchell leaves the region, he leaves a work force of over a hundred thousand men organized in a national union.

In every worker's home after the 1900 strike there would generally be a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and right beside it would be a picture of John Mitchell. "Johnny de Mitch", they called him, ah, "our Lincoln, our savior"...

And when he leaves, the breaker boys get together and they give him a gold medallion which he wears around his neck. And as his carriage leaves Hazelton, um, as many as 5,000 breaker boys followed it outside of town.

With the miner's strike over, Bryan had nothing left to run on.

His attempt to label McKinley an imperialist had failed. So had his hopes to paint the president as a tool of big business. Most Americans didn't seem to care.

When the votes were counted, it was McKinley's picture that flashed on giant screens in cities across the country. Americans had voted their pocketbooks.

Prosperity had carried the day as it would so often throughout the coming century.

The policy of the Republican party - building an industrial powerhouse at home and expanding American power abroad - became the policy of the nation.

But while most Republicans were celebrating, the Republican from North Carolina was being forced out of politics.

Congressman George White had not run for reelection - because he knew he could never win.

Across the South, Black men had been kept from the polls by new laws, intimidation, and violence. Even White's own family had been terrorized.

In his farewell speech, White would rise to challenge his colleagues for the final time.

It would be the last speech that any black would give to Congress for the next 28 years.

"These parting words," White said, "are in behalf of an outraged, heartbroken, bruised, and bleeding people, but industrious, loyal people, rising people, full of potential.

"This Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the Negroes' temporary farewell to the American Congress. But let me say, phoenix-like, he will rise-up someday, and come again."

Yes, it is a period of demoralization 1900... African Americans, they've had a bad time, Jim Crow is there. But they're not slaves, the world is open to them. And they want things to get better and they're working to make it better.

It's amazing that this song "Lift Every Voice and Sing" was composed in 1900. It has become the African American national anthem. And what is there to sing about. Sing about the past. And sing about how far we have come. In spite of the oppression, lift your voices and sing.

It's a new century. This is 1900. This is a new day.

As 1900 drew to a close, stories of change continued to herald a new era. In Boston, on Dec. 30, the last horse drawn trolley was replaced by an electric bus. That same week, the first overseas telephone call was made between Key West, Florida, and Havana, Cuba. And on the last day of the 19th century, scientists reported they were searching for messages from Mars. Never had a nation risen so fast and gone so far as the United States had in the past 100 years. America appeared to have everything. There was good reason for hope and confidence: it was more than the wonder of artificial light or ice in the summer and heat in the winter and bath tubs with running water--the possibilities in America seemed greater than they'd ever been.

Only a few were asking whether America had grown too rich and too powerful to live up to its own democratic ideals. At midnight, on December 31, 1900, Americans welcomed the 20th century. 150,000 people gathered in downtown New York. Kansas City blazed with thousands of crimson, incandescent lights. In town after town, newspapers and magazines were predicting marvelous things in the 100 years to come: great Air-Ships would fly across the seas; wireless telephones would span the world; people would watch moving images in their own homes. Someone, someday, would walk on the moon. There were even predictions that the 20th century would see an end to poverty and war. America was the richest and most powerful nation on earth, with a popular president who would lead the country into the new century. Anything seemed possible.

On September 6, 1901 Leon Czolgosz made his way through the enormous crowds at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY. Czolgosz was headed for the Temple of Music - where he would wait for the president of the United States. In his pocket was a short-barrelled, 32 caliber, Iver-Johnson revolver. At 7 minutes past 4, as McKinley reached out to shake the hands of those who had come to greet him, Czolgosz fired twice, and the president fell wounded. For a week, McKinley's life hung in the balance.

He called for Ida on the last day, Friday the 13th. As she bent over him and held his hands, he was heard to murmur, 'Nearer my God to Thee.' Then she was helped from the room.

"My precious left us this morning around 2 o'clock," Ida wrote in her diary. "I hope the dear Lord will take me very soon."

As the country mourned, the Pan American Exposition dimmed its lights. For 2 days, the festival of progress meant to herald the 20th century stood like a silent monument to the dead president. Then, as the new president, young Theodore Roosevelt, made his way to Washington, the Exposition reopened its doors, and turned on its lights.

That night, there were fireworks over Lake Erie.

Introduction | Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

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