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Eric Foner: The Power of Outrage

This time the Bush Administration could not hide the dead bodies--or the walking wounded, whose abandonment by American society began not in the hurricane's wake but many years earlier.

The only bright spot in this man-made disaster has been the wave of public outrage at the Bush Administration's abject failure to provide aid to the most vulnerable. Indeed, it is hard to think of a time, other than at the height of the civil rights movement, when the plight of poor black Southerners so deeply stirred the conscience of the nation. Perhaps Hurricane Katrina will go down in history alongside Bull Connor's fire hoses in Birmingham and the Alabama State Troopers' nightsticks at Selma as a catalyst for a new national self-awareness regarding the unfinished struggle for racial justice.

But a better historical analogy, although not one that immediately springs to mind, may be the Lawrence strike of 1912, best-known for giving the labor movement the slogan "bread and roses." Thousands of poor immigrant workers walked off their jobs in the city's giant woollen mills to protest a wage reduction. Bill Haywood, leader of the Industrial Workers of the World, who had been invited in to help direct the strike, devised a plan to send the workers' children to live with sympathetic families in other cities for the duration.

By 1912 the Progressive Era was well under way, but the sight of the pale, emaciated children marching up Fifth Avenue transformed public opinion regarding the strike (leading the governor of Massachusetts to pressure the mill owners to accede to the workers' demands). More important, it broadened public support for efforts to uplift the poor and placed the question of poverty, and the federal government's obligation to combat it, front and center in the presidential campaign of 1912.

"I have worked in the slums of New York," wrote Margaret Sanger, "but I have never found children who were so uniformly ill-nourished, ill-fed and ill-clothed." Today, as in 1912, the shameful (and growing) presence of poverty has been thrust from invisibility onto the center stage of national discussion.

Let's hope the country finally awakens to the consequences of years of trickle-down economics, tax cuts for the rich, privatization of public responsibilities and the demonization of both government and the poor.

Reprinted with permission from the Nation. For subscription information call 1-800-333-8536. Portions of each week's Nation magazine can be accessed at http://www.thenation.com.

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