When I saw Mark Ruffalo holding a microphone in Detroit to bring attention to the horrific water shutoffs there, I thought immediately of Upton Sinclair. Like Sinclair, Ruffalo is not a one issue celebrity; over the last ten years, he has campaigned against the Iraq war, the attacks on women’s health privacy, and the dangers of fracking. When asked about speaking out politically, he told a Mother Jones reporter: “Artists have always been the front line; that's part of our responsibility. But a lot of the big actors come out, they get slammed, and then they retreat. I completely understand it—who wants to be cannon fodder for the right-wing media? It sucks. But we're living in some seriously pivotal times.”
Like Ruffalo, I see this era as a time of massive inequality, eerily similar to that of the early 20th century when Upton Sinclair came of age. As I wrote a new biography of Sinclair, I thought again about the role of strike sympathizers and the crucial impact that celebrity intellectuals can have in aiding social movements. Inspired by groups like the Women’s Trade Union League and the suffrage movement, Sinclair initiated some of the first efforts by intellectuals to gain widespread support for striking workers. Upton Sinclair invented new techniques of investigatory journalism and citizen action, creating novels, film, plays, and journalism that would keep the story alive long after the events were over.
Although we know about Sinclair’s advocacy for slaughterhouse workers through his novel The Jungle, his efforts for the miners in Colorado are largely unknown. In the middle of the Coal Wars in 1913, the United Mine Workers sent a delegation to New York City. Upton Sinclair attended their mass meeting in Madison Square Garden. That night, he told his wife Mary Craig, about the impact that a group of sympathizers could have by picketing the Rockefeller offices in New York. She objected: “They will surely arrest you.” He answered, “Of course they will; and this is what is needed.” As she predicted, and he had hoped, Sinclair was arrested for disorderly conduct and booked into a New York jail.
In 1923, longshoremen, sailors, and oil workers in the Los Angeles harbor at San Pedro went out on strike. The local police began mass arrests of strikers, raiding International Workers of the World (IWW) halls. Thousands of men, women, and children wound through the streets singing, with the jailed workers singing back from inside the San Pedro jail. Longshoreman Art Shields, who knew Sinclair from the picketing of Rockefeller headquarters, asked for help. Sinclair brought friends to a rally and told reporters, “We’re testing the right of police to suppress free speech and assemblage. You’ll hear what I say if you climb Liberty Hill.”
When he reached the summit, he recited the First Amendment. The Captain grabbed him by the collar and arrested him. For two days, no one heard from Sinclair. The IWW issued a statement saying Sinclair might be a victim of foul play. Two days later he was released from jail. Sinclair wrote the play Singing Jailbirds, set in the jail in San Pedro where the striking dockworkers were imprisoned, to reveal its shocking conditions. He then helped to launch the Southern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.
In 1934, Upton Sinclair staged a magnificent campaign for Governor, which he titled EPIC - End Poverty in California. Will Rogers told his readers that the famous author Upton Sinclair was running for governor — “a darn nice fellow, and just plum smart, and if he could deliver even some of the things he promises should not only be governor of one state, but president of all of ’em.” The depth of support for Sinclair was so strong that he received more votes in the Democratic primary than his six opponents put together.
Los Angeles County was the center of the movement; over eight hundred EPIC clubs were formed, most of them in or around Los Angeles. Carey McWilliams describes the campaign as one of the most successful experiments in mass education ever performed, with Sinclair’s pamphlets exhibiting “matchless skill, lucidity and brilliance.” What was unique about the EPIC Campaign was its use of popular culture to reach the public in an electoral contest, with events like a grand rodeo complete with rough riders, and cowboy bands. When a group of unemployed actors formed an EPIC troupe, Upton Sinclair found the time to write a one-act satire for them entitled Depression Island, which was performed at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.
Although Sinclair was defeated, 50 other EPIC-backed candidates won races for the state legislature and the Democratic Party was established as a progressive force in California. In 1964, four years before Sinclair died, Free Speech Movement founder, Mario Savio urged “You’ve got to put your bodies upon the wheels, upon the levers.” In reporting on the recent Netroots Nation water rally, Patrick O’Heffernan noted:
It turned out that the real draw was actor Mark Ruffalo, who apparently decided on his own to show up and speak at the march…On the day of the demonstration, a Netroots staff member spotted Mark Ruffalo backstage during the morning plenary session and asked him what he wanted. Mark wanted to get onstage and announce the march. Space was quickly made for him, he ran on the stage, made a brief announcement, urged everyone to attend and then ran off to demonstration. Word spread fast and over a thousand Netroots attendees and the national press joined Ruffalo and local residents at the demonstration.
The next day the Emergency Manager suspended the shutoffs.
Upton Sinclair would not have been surprised, but he would have been quietly exultant that 100 years after he picketed Rockefeller Headquarters, a celebrity named Mark Ruffalo picked up the torch.
Lauren Coodley Historian