This Museum Exhibition will cover topics of inequality in America spanning from the Gilded Age until the Civil Rights Movement. It will focus on systematic inequalities seen in areas of wealth, labor, education, housing, and society that affected the lives of many people in America during this time. It will also present examples of how various leaders, organizations, and movements in the United States worked to make a positive change for those who were affected by these systematic inequalities.
During the Gilded Age massive wealth inequalities began to emerge in the United States due to the rise of large corporations. New machine tools, mass markets, subdivided labor, and mass production contributed to a major shift in industry during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Capitalist businessmen like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller took advantage of the new methods of industrialization and formed large corporations. Through vertical and horizontal integration, they were able to expand their businesses and control almost every aspect of the means of production. They were known as robber barons for the unethical business practices they used in exploiting their workers for profits. In addition to the immense amount of economic power these corporations held, these corporations were also able to influence politics through their generosity and appointments to positions of authority. The United States Government recognized that these large corporations were creating inequalities within America and took various steps to balance the scale. In 1883 it enacted the Civil Service Act which implemented a merit-based system to earn a government job. This was in hope to root out any corruption and ill-deserved government employment. In 1887 the Interstate Commerce Commission was established as a government agency to regulate commerce between states. At the time its main goal was to stop railroad and other transportation companies from charging different rates to customers for similar services. In 1890, congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act providing the government with measures to break up monopolies and ensure a fairer market for competition. In addition to these examples of government action to respond to some of these wealth inequalities, labor movements began to appear in America. Workers in the railroad industry continuously experienced wage cuts and responded with strikes. The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 marked a significant upheaval of workers for more pay, better working conditions, and a set work week that involved eight-hour work days. This strike, like many other, was broken up by state militias after successfully disturbing the flow of business in America. Despite being shut down, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 gave rise to many labor unions and a reform movement in America.
As the nineteenth century progressed urban areas become hubs for industry. Waves of rural Americans and immigrants flocked to these cities in hope to find employment. Many of these people found themselves living in shacks or crowded tenements working for low wages and in poor conditions. Jacob Riis, a muckraking photo journalist, sought to capture the lives of immigrant and poor people living in America’s urban centers and publish his photographs so that “the other half” would be recognized. Jane Addams was one of the first activists to provide adequate housing to some of these poor Americans and immigrants. She created the Hull House in 1889 which served as a settlement house to poor people in Chicago. Her hope was that by presenting these poor people with a place to live and learn from others that they would have a much better chance of improving their economic and societal standing.
The progressive era was marked by an overall period of growth in industry, population, and consumption. From 1900-1910 output in the United States rose by 85%. However, these years of aggregate economic prosperity was not free of its inequalities. Many low-wage manufacturing workers lived in poverty while business owners reaped the benefits of capitalism. At one point J.P. Morgan controlled about 40% of all the financial and industrial capital in the United States.
The New Deal came as a stimulus to the economic contraction felt during the Great Depression. FDR created many new programs aimed at improving infrastructure, increasing employment, and improving American society. Despite the optimism of these new initiatives, the New Deal allowed for inequality to persist in society. All over the country housing developments funded by the federal government were racially segregated. The Federal Housing Administration, established with the New Deal, insured mortgages that prohibited homes from being resold to colored people. Furthermore, the jobs created by the New Deal’s projects were mostly given to white people.
During World War II much of the United State’s focus was on supporting the effort to conquer evil abroad. President Truman based the war on providing the Four Freedoms of religion, want, speech, and fear to the world. This however was quite hypocritical of him due to the lack of some of those freedoms within the United States. African Americans were still discriminated against in all aspects of society. Many African American men wanted to fight for their country but were limited to the roles they could hold within the armed forces. The Double V campaign took off during the war with the goal of victory in the war abroad and victory in the fight against segregation.
The civil rights movement was one of if not the most prolific periods of inequality within the United States. Rosa Parks, famously known for refusing to give up her seat on a public bus, dedicated much of her life to criminal justice reform. Up until the mid-1960s, only white people had the right to vote. This also meant that only white people could sit on juries in criminal court cases. During this time many African Americans like Recy Taylor and Emmett Till experienced the inequality of the criminal justice system. Often crimes against African Americans would go unpunished or even without trial while rates of African American arrests were skyrocketing. This was due, in part to predominantly white police forces and white judiciaries. With both processes of arrest and adjudication done by mostly white men, discrimination was inherent to the criminal justice system.
A series of campaigns were a key part to balancing the inequalities during the civil rights movement. Numerous organizations rose up to work for the restoration of equality within society. The bus boycott took place from 1955 to 1956 in Birmingham, Alabama to stop the restriction of African Americans from sitting in the front of public buses. The movement was greatly successful in restoring an equal use of public buses mainly due to the large proportion of African American riders who stopped paying for the bus during the movement. As a result of this widely known victory, Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as a profound leader. In 1960 King began the sit in movement in Greensboro, North Carolina. This movement was embraced by African American students and entailed a peaceful way for lunch counters to become more equal. In 1964 the Civil Rights Act passed permanently outlawing segregation in the United States. Previously, Brown vs Board of Education was thought to have desegregated schools in America but proved to be ineffective. The Civil Rights Act provided enforceable measures such as withholding federal money to schools that refused to integrate. In 1965 many activists of the civil rights movement marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in an effort to gain voting rights for African Americans. The march was widely publicized and had a significant impact in Washington. Later that year the Voting Rights Act was passed and one more instance of systematic inequality was overcome.