Today is Keep Off the Grass Day. It may just be a clever way to stitch together Pot Smoking Day (April 20) and Earth Day (April 22). But there’s an event that it should represent, even though it happened a few calendar days later.
On May 1, 1894, a wealthy Populist named Jacob Coxey arrived in Washington, D.C. with an “army” of 500 men to demand the government create jobs building roads, bridges, etc. to help alleviate unemployment in the depression caused by the Panic of 1893.
Word of “Coxey’s Army” preceded it. In anticipation of its arrival, 1,500 soldiers were mustered, with thousands more ready to be mobilized if necessary. But during the march from Ohio, many lost enthusiasm and left to go home or find work. Other so-called armies, meant to converge on Washington around the same time, had dwindled to nothing before reaching there.
Despite his group’s militaristic name, Jacob Coxey had come not to stage a coup but to give a face to poverty-stricken citizens who desperately needed work. He set out to make a speech on their behalf in front of the U.S. Capitol building. But the moment he stepped on the Capitol lawn, he was arrested for walking on the grass.
Fifty years later on May 1, 1944, at the age of 90, Jacob Coxey was finally allowed to deliver his speech from the steps of the U.S. Congress. Here is a portion of it:
…Up these steps the lobbyists of trusts and corporations have passed unchallenged on their way to committee rooms, access to which we, the representatives of the toiling wealth-producers, have been denied.
We stand here today in behalf of millions of toilers whose petitions have been buried in committee rooms, whose prayers have been unresponded to, and whose opportunities for honest, remunerative, productive labor have been taken from them by unjust legislation, which protects idlers, speculators, and gamblers.
We come to remind the Congress here assembled of the declaration of a United States Senator, “that for a quarter of a century the rich have been growing richer, the poor poorer, and that by the close of the present century the middle class will have disappeared as the struggle for existence becomes fierce and relentless.”
…Coming as we do with peace and good will to men, we shall submit to these laws, unjust as they are, and obey this mandate of authority of might which overrides and outrages the law of right. In doing so, we appeal to every peace-loving citizen, every liberty-loving man or woman, every one in whose breast the fires of patriotism and love of country have not died out, to assist us in our efforts toward better laws and general benefits.
Today, Coxey’s words still ring true. Here’s to everyone who refuses to keep off the grass!