Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Progressive Party of Massachusetts Revisited

If you feel that neither the corporate-sponsored Republicans nor the corporate-sponsored Democrats offer much of an electoral alternative for anti-corporate Massachusetts voters these days, your feeling is not an historically unique one. After World War II, Massachusetts supporters of Henry Wallace's unsuccessful 1948 Progressive Party presidential campaign attempted to provide progressive voters in Massachusetts with an electoral alternative to the Democrats and Republicans by forming the Progressive Party of Massachusetts.

By the mid-1950s, however, the Progressive Party of Massachusetts had pretty much disappeared as a factor in Massachusetts electoral politics. But one of the campaign songs for its 1949 Boston mayoralty candidate, "The MTA Song", was recorded by The Kingston Trio in the late 1950s and remained on Billboard's "Top 40" list of hit records for six weeks during the summer of 1959.

In its 1952 platform, the Progressive Party of Massachusetts characterized the political situation in Massachusetts at that time in the following way:

"Today fear and desperation are in tens and thousands of Massachusetts homes…

"Stop the shameless corruption and chiseling, the politicians' junkets and sheer waste and inefficiency and tens of thousands of dollars would be available for the real needs of the people of Massachusetts.

"Second, end the greater graft and chiseling represented by Massachusetts' outrageous income tax law, under which the man who gets a hundred thousand dollars pays at no higher rate than the worker who earns $2500. The burden of all our state activities is shifted onto the shoulder of our working people. Taxation according to ability to pay thru a graduated income tax law, would make millions of dollars available for state needs…"

In its 1952 platform, the Progressive Party of Massachusetts also called for such things as:

1.a public works program to provide jobs for unemployed Massachusetts residents;
2.an end to "Jim Crow policies of public utilities (gas, electric, telephone, etc)" in Massachusetts "who employ the basic minimum number of Negroes;"
3.a stop to police brutality and racist attacks in Massachusetts;
4.a state rent control law;
5.tax exemption for small homeowners; and
6.free state college education for all qualified youth in Massachusetts.

In its November 17, 1952 post-election analysis, however, the Progressive Party of Massachusetts indicated why--despite its visionary platform and its popular anti-war position--it failed to attract many Massachusetts voters during the Korean War era:

"…There is an automatic distrust of the Progressive Party and of everything that they propose.

"…There is considerable isolation between progressives which prevents that all important feeling of oneness.

"These realities are best understood if we delve for a moment on the root causes. Most outstanding is our lack of personal contact in the community. By this is meant that while we take certain issues and enter the community to get petitions signed, distribute leaflets…we lack the all important factor of developing a person-to-person relationship.

"Clearly related to this question is our lack of follow-up on the contacts that we do make…

"Of course not to be overlooked was the general black-out of all news of the Progressive Party in the press, radio and TV. This lack of fair presentation of the fact that there was an opposition party contributed in no small way to the size of our vote and our inability to reach people effectively…"

Four years before, in 1948, the Progressive Party of Massachusetts' executive director, Walter O'Brien, had entered the Democratic Party's primary in Boston's 10th Congressional District and had actually won the Democratic nomination there, by securing 20,000 votes. Although O'Brien subsequently lost in the heavily Republican district to his Republic opponent, Christian Herter, in the general election, 59,000 voters did cast ballots for O'Brien in November 1948.

The following year, O'Brien was the Progressive Party of Massachusetts' candidate for Mayor of Boston. And hopes were initially high among the approximately 1,500 party members in Massachusetts that their executive director might actually win the 1949 Boston mayoralty election. The minutes of the Progressive Party of Massachusetts State Committee meeting of June 24, 1949, for instance, noted how O'Brien summarized the state's political situation at that time:

"Reports opportune year for stepping up activity. Unemployment prime issue in Commonwealth. Lawrence should be major concentration due to mass unemployment there, though Boston has many big problems, such as Nation's worst slums…"

Another party leader, Amos Murphy of Lawrence, also reported that workers in Lawrence were "filled with angry and righteous resentment" and the possibilities were "enormous for placing Lawrence in vanguard of national progressive movement."

Born in Portland, Maine, O'Brien had been a shop steward in the CIO's Industrial Union of Shipbuilding Workers of America, prior to volunteering for the U.S. Merchant Marine in 1943. After World War II, he moved to Boston and was active in the Boston Tenants' Council before first running for Congress in 1948.

At the time of the 1949 Boston mayoralty campaign, 25,000 to 30,000 workers were unemployed in Boston, so O'Brien proposed that a city public works program be established. He also came out in favor of rent control in Boston and in opposition to the MTA fare increase that inspired his campaign's famous "MTA Song".

The "temporary" fare increase on MTA lines was put into effect on August 6, 1949, after its approval by the Department of Public Utilities at a 90-minute closed hearing. Although O'Brien's subsequent stirring speech at an anti-fare increase rally on the Boston Common--that thousands of protesting Boston commuters attended--was well-received, the favorable crowd response did not translate into votes for the Progressive Party of Massachusetts candidate in the 1949 Boston mayoralty election. Less than 3,300 votes were received by O'Brien, while Democratic Mayor Curley received over 126,000 votes and the Boston corporate establishment-backed candidate, Hynes, won the election with over 137,000 votes.

To draw votes away from O'Brien's 1949 campaign, the Democratic Party machine in Boston also entered another candidate whose last name was also "O'Brien". The Democratic Party machine's hope was that the dissatisfied voters who wanted to vote for "Walter O'Brien" would, in this way, get confused and end up casting meaningless votes for "Thomas O'Brien", instead.

The Progressive Party of Massachusetts' 1949 mayoralty candidate in Boston charged that a "generation of misrule in Boston" and an "unholy alliance of State Street and City hall" had "kept Boston a sink-hole of reaction and corruption." O'Brien also accused the Democratic Party's Curley Machine of squeezing people to pay for obtaining city government contracts and leaving most Boston residents poor, while Curley "posed as anti-bankers." Following its 1949 electoral defeat in Boston, the O'Brien for Mayor campaign attributed Hynes' victory to a "deluge of expensive advertising, radio and billboard blurbs and assorted maneuvers" and his endorsement by a "coterie of Republicans" and a Truman Administration cabinet member named Tobin.

Despite its 1949 defeat in the Boston mayoralty election, in December 1949 the Progressive Party of Massachusetts still had 18 genuinely active political clubs in Massachusetts. Its leaders also felt that these clubs should then begin to concentrate their organizing efforts in Worcester, Lawrence, Springfield, Dorchester, Roxbury, East Boston and South Boston. And in 1950, Progressive Party of Massacusetts members were attempting to win the following demands in Boston:

1. better housing in the South End;
2. breaking Jim Crow in city jobs;
3. end to police brutality;
4. increased welfare benefits;
5. more modern fireproof schools and playgrounds; and
6. a better city medical center.

But in Lawrence, Massachusetts, a local Progressive Party of Massachusetts leader complained about the lack of support from Boston members for their party's 1950 campaign to elect Amos Murphy to political office there. In a November 11,1950 letter to Boston party leader O'Brien after the 1950 election, for instance, an Amos Murphy campaign supporter wrote the following:

"Dear Wally,

"To us, Progressives in Lawrence, it is clear that to date Boston Progressives, including yourself, have failed to see the significance of the Murphy campaign in Lawrence. This is apparent from the lack of support from Boston.

"This political blindness must be corrected now…"

The following year, a November 17, 1951 "Report of the Administrative Committee to the State Committee" of the Progressive Party of Massachusetts indicated why the party was generally unsuccessful in attracting African-American voters in Massachusetts, despite its anti-racist political program:

"White supremacy attitudes are latent in the Progressive Party organization, its attitude toward Negro membership and especially toward Negro leadership in the Progressive Party."

Ironically, in the 21st century, some of the same political problems and weaknesses that characterized the Progressive Party of Massachusetts 60 years ago have also plagued some of the third-party alternative groups that are currently seeking to use the Massachusetts electoral process to immediately end poverty and homelessness in Massachusetts in 2011.

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