The State of Workers' Welfare in the Early 20th Century
On March 25, 1911, a fire started at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York City, and proved to be one of the most deadly and destructive industrial disasters to occur in the city to date. Nearly 150 people died of fire, smoke inhalation, or jumping out of the buildings, creating a substantial and horrifying loss of life that shed light on a number of labor abuses that were happening in early 20th century America (p. 638). Much of this was focused on newly arriving immigrants who were not being taken care of properly; the publishing of the book The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, as well as the Triangle Fire, helped to expose just how poorly industry was treating their workforce, leading to the upholding of concepts like liberty of contract.
The most egregious crime levied against the managers of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company was the fact that the doors to the exits and stairwells were closed, preventing anyone from being able to escape when the fire broke out; the reasoning for the managers was to prevent workers from taking breaks and stealing goods. However, this also meant the deaths of many when the fire broke out, as many were forced to attempt to jump to the streets below. This event alone led to a substantial reevaluation of the treatment of workers at Triangle and other factories and sweatshops (p. 638).
The piece of literature most influential in the reform of worker's welfare and rights was Upton Sinclair's 1906 book The Jungle, in which an industrial slaughterhouse is described in excruciating and unsanitary detail, particularly in its description of the sale of rotten meat to their customers (p. 642). "Jonas had told them how the meat that was taken out of pickle would often be found sour, and how they would rub it up with soda to take away the smell, and sell it to be eaten on free-lunch counters; also of all the miracles of chemistry which they performed, giving to any sort of meat, fresh or salted, whole or chopped, any color and any flavor and any odor they chose" (Sinclair, Ch. 14). It is also said that The Jungle was one of the factors that led to the Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act of 1906, as legislation was put forward to deal with the increasing media exposure of unsanitary, oppresive work conditions and food quality coming out of industrial factories (p. 643).
The combination of The Jungle and the effects of the Triangle Fire directly led to the decision found in Lochner v. New York (1905), in which companies were required by law to limit the number of hours employees were made to work. The goal of this was to ensure that workers were not put at risk for injury and disease, due to extended bouts of time in unsanitary and dangerous workplaces. The long, arduous hours that were forced upon the workers of factories like the Triangle sweatshop and the meat factory that is the subject of The Jungle were indirectly leading to their deaths, due to lack of nutrition and overworking. As a result, the Progressive outcome of Lochner v. New York helped to vindicate those workers, mostly immigrants, who were being used and abused by greedy industrial managers.
Yellow Journalism and the Spanish-American War
The 1890s saw the beginning of muckraking and yellow journalism, which offered sensationalist headlines and images to spur people to outrage or interest - the more popular the image, the more popular the message. The first use of the image to convey a feeling or have an effect on the American people was due to the actions and initiative of the yellow journalist and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. He was one of the very first muckrakers - long before the journalists focused on reform, Heart wanted to increase his circulation by creating sensationalized news stories that would capture the public's imagination.
On February 15, 1898, the USS Maine suddenly suffered a catastrophic explosion while docked in Havana Harbor, Cuba. The ship had been sent there to guard American interests while the Cubans staged a revolution against Spain; with the ship gone and nearly 300 soldiers killed, Spain became the scapegoat (p. 627). This event demonstrated the supreme power that muckrakers like Hearst had over the hearts and minds of the American people, starting the "Splendid Little War" that was the Spanish-American War.
The most important bit of fallout from the explosion of the USS Maine was the journalistic and public relations aftermath, which directly led to the beginning of the Spanish-American War. When the ship sank, William Randolph Heart helped to sway popular opinion toward blaming the event on the Spanish; using yellow journalism and muckraking, he managed to create the impression that Spain had performed the deed as an act of war. With that in mind, the United States declared war on Spain, engaging in years of fighting over an incident that had not been proven to be the fault of the presumed guilty party. The iconic image of the sinking of the Maine became a rallying cry for the American people to call for war. The image in the World of the Maine spectacularly exploding was exaggerated and appropriately dramatic; this image horrified audiences and increased their rage and anger against Cuba, to the point where this single image eventually started the Spanish-American War. It is here that the power of the image to sway public opinion was established, a power that would increase with use over time.
The war itself was short-lived but successful, John Hay calling the Spanish-American War "a splendid little war." Given the mere four months it took for America to intervene in the Cuban War of Independence and defeat Spain, the blase nature by which America in general treated the war ignores the very dangerous implications of how America became involved (p. 630). America gained an extremely easy win against Spain in Cuba, galvanizing the American people, increasing morale and taking the public mind off the difficult process of Reconstruction, which was still lingering over everyone's minds.
The influence of yellow journalism, in which muckrakers like William Randolph Hearst twisted and distorted the news to the point of sensationalism, shaped the national consciousness to the point where war was nearly inevitable. In this instance, the power of media to affect real policy was made clear, and its potential for abuse was illustrated clearly.
The Struggle for Equal Rights for African-Americans post-Civil War
After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, African-Americans and freedmen were still beset with problems - lack of education and lack of federal representation. The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States, adopted in 1868, was a Reconstruction amendment that ensured that no man could have his or her civil and political rights taken from any state. As a Reconstruction Amendment, the spirit of this legislation was meant to offer freedom to the recently freed slaves (as per the Thirteenth Amendment) (pp. 537-538). While this Amendment did not extend voting rights to blacks, it still provided punishments for those states who would infringe upon black citizenship and rights. The Amendment proved to be one of the most important additions to the Constitution, as it purported that every man , regardless of race, was worthy of representation by the federal government.
After this landmark decision, further issues of what African-Americans would do now that slavery was no longer the sole option became very important. One of the most vital concerns for many freedmen was a lack of education; Booker T. Washington, in fact, noted that in order to adjust to freed life, vocational skills needed to be learned. To that end, he borrowed money and helped create the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. This Institute educated blacks based on vocation, teaching them job skills and training instead of academics. To that end, the Institute focused on the immediate and desperate need for African-Americans to enter the workforce and be able to provide for themselves, now that the pressure was upon them to work and live within segregated communities (p. 622).
However, despite the work by Congress to grant blacks equal rights, and the work of Booker T. Washington to create a means of job education for African-Americans, Plessy v. Ferguson created a system of 'separate but equal' that served as a barrier for greater, more progressive efforts to obtain equality. Homer Plessy, arrested in 1892 for violating the 1890 Louisiana Separate Car Act, sought to argue that the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments allowed him to do as he pleased, as states could not infringe upon his rights due to his race. However, the defense argued that these amendments did not apply, as railroad cars that operated solely in a state could not be regulated under federal law. As a result, the courts ruled in favor of Ferguson (Zimmerman). This effectively established a precedent for separate but equal treatment of races, starting a pattern of deep and pervasive segregation that would only be undone with Dred Scott vs. Board of Education.
The road to freedom blacks have had to endure since the end of the Civil War has been dramatic and difficult. While the Fourteenth Amendment offered blacks equal rights under federal law, and the Tuskegee Institute providing a high-profile example of the beginnings of black education, Plessy v. Ferguson represented a large step back in progress. This decision turned blacks into a confirmed set of second-class citizens, as their required 'separate' accommodations were often inferior to those whites enjoyed, with many schools being "as bad as stables" (p. 614). By maintaining the concept of 'separate but equal,' segregation was protected under federal law, and stopped the ongoing arch of progress toward full equality with whites that was the natural extension of Emancipation.