“Mrs. Roosevelt called”, my landlady said.
“Fine”, I said, as though getting calls from Mrs. Roosevelt happened every day.
True, I was not in the mood for calls from anywhere, even the White House. I was starving. Quite literally, I had only had a glass of tea in the morning, and nothing since and nothing for two days before. For someone who expected one day to be part of the masses who took over the White House, I didn’t think this call was that much of a distinction.
The span of time between the early thirties, when I graduated from Duquesne High School (Duquesne Carnegie – Illinois Steelworks) as the class poet, and 1940, when this incident occurred with Mrs. Roosevelt, was less than ten years. I had written three sonnets for the commencement and when I had finished reading them I was to hear the superintendent of the schools say that “once in a generation would the audience ever hear anything like that”.
Great. The world was open to me, I had a right to believe. I wanted badly to go to the University of Pittsburgh or to any university that accepted me, but none did. Finally, I had to go down to “hunky John” who did the hiring at the steel mill and beg him for a job. I was told to wait.
And wait. And wait. And wait.
Mrs. Roosevelt had made it clear that anybody who had a problem should write to her. So I did write to her and, in due course, got a reply from her. Among other things, she advised me to join the CCC (The CCC was the Civilian Conservation Corp), which I did. I was accepted, but, true to my bad luck and my situation at home, my chronic osteomylitis flared up again. It took the shape of an abscess in my thigh and a high fever. I decided to ignore it and go to Pittsburgh, where I was to be assigned to a place in the CCC. There at Pittsburgh, some thirty of us boys, all in their late teens, were subjected to a physical exam. We stood naked, along the wall, where the doctor passed, examining us. We were all humiliated. Somehow the doctor passed me, and that night I was on a train with the other boys en route to Maryland.
In Maryland, I had to undergo another examination, and this time I was caught. The doctor said they couldn’t accept me in the CCC because of my osteomylitis. I began to argue with him. Since I had already been sworn in to the CCC the day before, I argued that technically I was already a member, and the CCC had to take care of me. Nothing moved the doctor. He ordered me to go back home which is just what I did. When I got home, my fever was high. I couldn’t choose to go to the hospital because the previous time I was there, it cost my father half his year’s pay. So next morning, after an unquiet sleep, I got a razor blade, disinfected by burning a match on it, and sliced the abscess open. No doctor, no hospital, no hospital bill. So much for Mrs. Roosevelt’s letter.
Two years earlier, I had gone south with my brother, when he was looking for work. During that trip I realized how widespread unemployment had become. He had meanwhile left home for good. And now, it was my turn to follow.
I will skip the details of how I left home and wound up in Washington D.C. where I became head of the Washington chapter of the Workers Alliance. The Workers Alliance was a union of the unemployed and those on Relief. The members were much abused and derided in the press, and they were accused of not wanting to work and living off the government. This year, the Congress had passed a resolution dictating, that after being on Relief for a year and a half, one was abruptly dropped and was told to go root hog or die.. This was a very cruel decision to make. The overwhelming majority of people on Relief were Black and the congressmen of the key committees were all white southerners.
It is interesting to note in passing that though most of the members were Black, I was their white leader—an anomaly explained to me by a Black member as being the only way they could get a hearing. And I? I was 22, white and not eating very often. True, our vice president was a Black whose name was Robert Robinson and who in reality dealt with the Black members while I presided.
It was this cruel dropping of thousands of desperate people from Relief that was behind the cry I had sent to Mrs. Roosevelt. And she had responded.
September 1, 1939. War. The Nazis had perpetrated a scheme by which they put Polish prisoners in uniform and accused them of attacking a German radio station. They declared war against Poland, and England, by previous declaration, now declared war on Germany, ostensibly in defense of Poland, but no defense came. Instead, a long inactive period—“the phony war” followed.
During the months of inactivity an incident occurred, which acutely highlighted the values at issue. The Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Marian Anderson to sing in their hall. The outrage that followed this refusal led Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, backed by Mrs. Roosevelt, to invite Marian Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial. At the same spot where more than a decade later Martin Luther King Jr. would launch his “I have a dream” speech. The Black contralto, Marian Anderson, sang. She opened with “My country ‘tis of thee...”, a song that had been flattened by years of uninspired use in the schools. To my great surprise I felt a thrill go through my body. I really did feel that this song belonged to us for the first time. So did 75,000 others who filled the mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Memorial that day that was never to be forgotten.
When the Nazis crossed into Poland, 250,000 Polish Jews fled eastward, to the protection of the U.S.S.R. Ironically, among those 250,000, there was a Jewish youth, Isadore Begun, who later as a premier of Israel, became a virulent enemy of the Soviet Union, which had saved his life. (There is no gratitude in politics.) It is of some interest to note that during this period the St. Louis, crammed with Jewish refugees, left Hamburg in search of a haven, which was refused to them everywhere, including the USA. The ship was returned to Hamburg from where most of the Jewish refugees were sent to the concentration camps and perished. In fact, it can be said that the Soviet Union saved European Jewry, a fact little noted in the west, except by Albert Einstein.
Although there was a war, we of the left declared our refusal to take part in it. There was enormous pressure to back Great Britain, but Great Britain itself was just as enormously reluctant to fight. Still, the progressive forces of the times kept their distance although we were politically opposed to the Nazis.
It was at this time the Roosevelt administration moved to give Holland funds for defense. It was this move that coincided with the Congress simultaneously cutting people off Relief after a year and a half.
The situation had become desperate for hundreds of poor people, mostly Black, mostly women heading their own households. All of this had fired me up and I sent a series of indignant letters to the Washington Post, including the one I reproduce here:
To the Editor of the Post—Sir: The Post’s only relief program is to cut, cut, and cut. It howled over the injustice to the upper brackets of an average $60 monthly income for WPA workers. It leaped to misinform its readers on the issues of the Woodrum Bill, even though it knew that the passage of that bill would bring harrowing misery to thousands of innocent men and women whose mortal sin was that they were unemployed. And when the reports of this suffering were established, The Post did not even have the decency to admit its part in bring it about.
The Post has never had the decency to come out with its plain and unvarnished position on relief: destroy WPA; to hell with all this pampering and coddling of the unemployed; let them starve! We revolt at the sickening hypocrisy of your editors who fill your editorial columns with sanctimonious phrases about “practical reforms in the system of relief,” when the only “practical reform” that your paper is interested in is to cut the costs of supporting the unemployed to the barest and thinnest dime possible.
That and that alone is the issue with you. To that and that alone are all your moral considerations reduced. To that and that alone do the salons of misrepresentation and the acres of sanctimony amount.
The “liberalism” disappears in direct ratio to the nearness of the problem; you would send millions to Finland and not one cent to the hungry in Washington, D.C. Your kept writers wrack their brains for all the phrases dignified by men of true feeling of the past—men who could not bear to touch your paper with their finger-tips today—and spread them over your columns in a cynical attempt to convince your readers that you possess some remnants of their high purpose and social conscience.
We challenge you to deny that you do not care a hoot whether a real program for the unemployed is ever advanced or not; that to you no program is feasible unless it cuts the costs of the unemployed to the lowest figure possible. We challenge you to show in any of your editorials of the past the slightest attempt to approach the problem of the unemployed from any other point of view than of forcing starvation upon them in order to save taxes for the ailing rich.
We challenge you because we know that you do not dare to face the problem squarely because your position is impossible for any decent man and woman to hold. It is the position of the bandit squatted on top of the money bags and determined to protect his loot with his life.
It is the position of the slick lawyer who appeals to the highest judge and the sacred Constitution to save the skin of his racketeering client. It is the job of those who have to spread perfume and flowers so the people need not hold their noses as they pass by. We do not envy your job. We intend to expose and continue to expose it. We challenge you to deny it.
District President, Workers Alliance of America
Washington, March 14 (Published March 16, 1940)
Indignation, but nothing happened.
Seventy years later these letters sound as though they had been written yesterday. The author was only 22 years old and as poor as a church mouse, when he spoke of hunger he knew what he was speaking of. The left should be proud of the position it took on these issues. Its support of Republican Spain and the volunteer soldiers that came from all over the world—including 3,000 from the United States—was a remarkable case of international solidarity.
This then was some hint of my political and personal background. It explains too why I seemed to be so casual about an invitation to the White House. In that period I was to meet with Mrs. Roosevelt three times. The first time I led fifty women, dressed in their finery to the White House. Dressed as they were, they didn’t look as though they were starving. But how could they go to the White House in their old clothes? I lined up the fifty women in the Oval Room. Suddenly Mrs. Roosevelt emerged from a door on the opposite side of the room from the door where we were waiting for her to emerge. I ran across the room crying, “How are you Mrs. Roosevelt?” But I had a statement all written and ready to read. It was then I noticed what was an innovation of Mrs. Roosevelt’s—the four or five reporters there were all women. That was unique at the time. I presented my ladies to Mrs. Roosevelt and she graciously received them. She asked each one of them how long they had lived in the district. I had no idea why she wanted to know. Later I learned that she had a very good reason. The Dixiecrat opponents of relief in Congress has been charging that transients were coming to Washington D.C. to collect the higher paid relief in Washington. Mrs. Roosevelt wanted to prove that most of the recipients of relief had lived in Washington D.C. for a long time. My appreciation for her political acumen rose sharply. After reading my statement I asked her to speak at a mass meeting, and she invited me to come to the White House for tea to discuss the program of the meeting.
Later that week I took a cab and told the cab driver to the White House please. He looked at me dubiously. The guard at the door asked me my name and checked it from a list which he had inside his cap. A small elevator took me to the second floor where Mrs. Roosevelt greeted me and introduced me to a small group whom she had invited to our tea meeting. There was a little girl in the room whose name was Diane. She was the daughter of Harry Hopkins, a key member of the Roosevelt administration.
Mrs. Roosevelt served the tea in little tea cups on a coffee table. Contretemps followed me all through my mishaps. This time too. I was sitting with my knees crossed and to make a point I suddenly uncrossed my knees and knocked over a tea cup. She gave a cultured little cry and then offered me orangeade in a glass, which I declined for another cup of tea. I could see however, I wasn’t quite ready for the White House.
Next came the mass meeting itself. The meeting was to be held in a church and I was scheduled as one of the speakers. When I got there that evening, there was such a crowd assembled, I had difficulty getting through. The head of our National Workers Alliance was there too. I was scheduled to speak first and did so making it very clear that our organization refused to get involved in the war. Then Mrs. Roosevelt spoke. From her very first words, when she denounced Germany as a “disturber nation”, she won over the entire audience, and it became a mass meeting, not for the unemployed but in support of the war.
Then she leaned over and said,“I’m sorry, Mr. Bonosky, that I had to disagree with you”.
“I am too”, I said.
Then, as the meeting was ending, I asked her to come down to the basement, where the overflow audience was still waiting for her. We went downstairs and opened the door. Nothing. She gave me a sharp look and I spread my hands.
“I was told there was an audience waiting here for you,” I said.
I led her out of the basement and the crowd was waiting for us at the entrance to the church. We came out behind them. The crowd did not see us. And without further ado, she climbed into her car and off she went. Before leaving, she opened her gold-beaded purse. She brought out a check and handed it to me. It was for $50. “ Please,” she said, “Don’t tell anybody.” Logically enough, the next day, when I tried to cash the check, the bank refused because I had no bank account. And that was the end of my short life with Mrs. Roosevelt.
The issues were eventually settled in the traditional way – by war. By itself. By death.