Eighty years ago the Rev. James Cox arrived at the White House to present a petition to President Herbert Hoover seeking $5 billion for public works projects. That number is equal to about $80 billion today, based on changes in the consumer price index.
Father Cox, the pastor of Old St. Patrick's Church in Pittsburgh's Strip District, headed up a "jobless army" of between 10,000 and 15,000 unemployed men who arrived in Washington on Jan. 7, 1932. They held a rally in front of the Capitol, after which Cox delivered relief petitions to leaders of Congress as well.
The goals of the Depression-era demonstrators, many of whom were from Allegheny County, sound familiar. According to a Jan. 8 story in the Post-Gazette, they wanted Congress and the president to borrow money to create jobs building things like highways, rural hospitals, dams and parks.
They also wanted direct federal relief for the nation's 11 million unemployed. The new spending should be paid for by higher taxes on large incomes, gifts and inheritances, according to the petition that Father Cox presented to the president.
The Post-Gazette story described the event "as one of the most enthusiastic and orderly demonstrations of its kind" ever held in the nation's capital.
American Communists had held a "hunger march" in Washington in December 1931, and the members of Cox's jobless army -- many carrying American flags -- sought to distance themselves from that anti-government demonstration. "The band of the North Braddock volunteer fire department struck up a succession of patriotic and war-time tunes, and thousands of throats picked up the songs," according to the newspaper.
Post-Gazette reporter Robert Taylor had an eye for the humorous detail. After the Capitol rally, "Father Cox had traveled to the White House in a sedan bearing, by actual count, 18 of his followers, 14 of whom rode inside," Taylor wrote. He noted that the 11 men who were ushered into Hoover's office included "E.R. Franc, dressed in an Uncle Sam costume."
President Hoover was polite, but non-committal. "I greatly appreciate your coming here because I fully realize the conditions you have described," the president told the delegation.
Most of the demonstrators were transported to Washington in trucks, and some had to stand during at least part of the journey. While in the capital, they were fed two meals from portable field kitchens set up by a District of Columbia relief agency. According to the Associated Press, the men ate 2,800 pounds of sauerkraut, 1,500 pounds of hot dogs, 11,000 apples, 650 gallons of soup, 450 loaves of bread and 1,600 dozen doughnuts and rolls.
When the marchers departed that afternoon -- again in often overcrowded trucks -- there was not enough room for the last 200 or more participants. After they were left behind, Washington police called U.S. Rep. Clyde Kelly, of Edgewood, and asked him to make arrangements for their transportation.
He negotiated with the Baltimore & Ohio and the Pennsylvania railroads for a $4.50 fare -- about $72 in modern currency -- to carry each of the men home. Kelly then turned for financial support to the best-known Pittsburgher in Washington: Treasury Secretary Andrew W. Mellon. While Mellon was an implacable foe of government relief, he believed in private charity. He wrote a personal check for $1,242 -- equal to $17,000 today -- to cover the cost of transporting 276 men back to Pittsburgh.