Madera protest was watered down

July 29, 2020

Madera County Historical Society

This photo of the Madera police force shows Chief Logan Wells, second from the right. Wells was head of the Madera Police when protestors came to town in 1932. He was Chief from 1922 to 1935.

A friend of mine wrote a poem recently in which he is critical of the turmoil now going on in several cities across the nation. He entitled it, “A Pot of Egalitarians.”

 

That’s an interesting use of the word, “egalitarians.” Poets are like that. They use language that says more and says it more intensely than one does with ordinary language. In this case, the poet isn’t talking about folks who are trying to work to effect equality; he is writing about people who are grabbing and smashing for a number of reasons, one of which is this: they think they are owed everything without investing anything.

 

That concept is not new to Madera. It has been seen here before, like that time when some folks came through here on a protest march demanding that Mayor John B. Gordon pick up the tab for their room and board while they were here.

 

This particular brouhaha began in December of 1931. Gordon received a letter from a group calling itself the Unemployed Councils of California. It informed him that some members of their group were going to conduct a protest march from Southern California to Sacramento. The issue was low wages and unemployment, and they would arrive in Madera on January 6. They demanded that the city make arrangements for their stay in Madera, including food and lodging.

 

Now, Gordon was not one to turn his back on those in need, but neither could he be bullied or threatened. He was part of that generation of Maderans who put their shoulders to the wheel and built the town in the face of economic adversity and sometimes disaster.

 

Anyone knowing anything about our town at the time could have told the organizers of the march that they were barking up the wrong tree by demanding succor for agitators in Madera. The marchers were demanding $150 cash for every unemployed worker and $50 for each dependent, and they wanted Madera to pay for their room and board while they were in town.

 

Then, if the letter to Gordon wasn’t enough, the protestors sent the same message to The Madera Tribune, which was published.

 

A few days after receipt of the letter, the demands of the protesters were reiterated in person by Meyer Baylin, who came to Madera and described himself to the Tribune as the representative of the Los Angeles Headquarters of the Unemployed Councils of the California Hunger March Committee. Baylin issued a call for a mass meeting of the unemployed in Madera and reminded the community that Madera must make provisions to care for the “hunger marchers” who would be stopping here while en route to Sacramento to lay their demands before Governor Rolph.

 

Baylin held his “mass meeting” in the Progressive Hall on South C Street at 7:30 on Jan. 4, 1932, and, according to the Madera Tribune, the march organizer denounced the official attitude of the city and especially Mayor Gordon, who had thrown him out of his office. Fifty-five people attended the meeting, and a committee of three local men was formed to accompany the protestors on their march to Sacramento. They included J. Lawrence, M. Howard, and L. Barrera. Another committee of locals was formed to call on Mayor Gordon in an attempt to get him to change his mind about helping the marchers. They weren’t any more successful than Baylin. The Mayor informed them that any appropriation made in Madera for relief of the unemployed would be devoted to Madera’s own residents and not to strangers from other parts of the country. The Tribune reported that universal approval had been given to the city for its stand and organizations had volunteered to assist the police in the event of any disturbances when the marchers arrived.

 

Against that background, what happened when the marchers got here is not surprising. They arrived in the late afternoon of January 6 and immediately ran into trouble as they attempted to make it to South C Street. The police and fire departments and a large group of spectators were waiting for them at 6th and F streets. When the marchers saw the policemen and firemen, they began to boo, which proved to be a mistake.

 

In response to the derisive catcalls from the marchers, the firemen turned the fire hoses toward them and let go full force. The stream knocked some of the marchers off their feet and rolled four of them along the street. The rest were drenched to the skin. After their unexpected shower, the marchers went on to Progressive Hall where they made another mistake, at least as far as the fire department was concerned. When the protesters raised a cheer for Madera’s unemployed, the firemen took it for another round of boos, and this brought on a second stream of water from the fire truck which had followed them to their C Street refuge.

 

The marchers camped out in Progressive Hall that night, and the only assistance they received from Madera was a bath, courtesy of the fire department. The next morning, they packed up and left town, headed north. In stark contrast to their entry into Madera, their exit was uneventful. This time instead of boos, they gave Mayor Gordon a “silent cheer.”

 

Madera had not yielded to their demands for food or shelter, but it had given them plenty of water — enough to last them for quite a while.

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