Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Soapbox

Posted by Elyse Bruce on December 6, 2016

Oftentimes on social media and in real life, people will apologize for getting on their soapbox after speaking their minds.  Usually what they have to say is something they are passionate about and they feel compelled to share that passionate view with others.  When someone figuratively stands on his or her soapbox, that person is expression his or her opinion about a particular subject very vocally.

The Associated Press out of London reported on British communist and military trade unionist leader Jack Dash’s passing on June 9, 1989 and included the term in the obituary.  He was described as a “fervent British patriot” while at the same time reported that he “unswervingly defended the Soviet line.”  The obituary read in part:

The Transport and General Workers’ Union to which he belonged barred Communists from holding union office, so Mr. Dash operated strictly from the soapbox and became known as “unofficial king of the docks.”

In the October 29, 1945 edition of the Pittsburgh Press, Florence Fisher Perry wrote about attending an event to hear Roger Nash Baldwin (21 January 1884 – 26 August 1981), co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, speak at the First Unitarian Church in a Forum series.  Her article, “I Dare Say: Leftward The Course Of Thinking” made reference to soap box orators.

As always seems to be the case, the more Leftist ones is, the more articulate one becomes with the result that most of what we hear from lecturers, forums, dramatists, and definitely soap box orators, is Leftist talk.  The Rightists in any typical audience may feel deeply and even angrily, but they’re not apt to stand up and express themselves.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 1:  When the ACLU was first established, Roger Nash Baldwin stated that “Communism, of course, is the goal.”  As he became more and more disillusioned with Soviet-style communism, he began to refer to communism as it was in Russia as the new slavery. 

The Afro American newspaper edition of August 13, 1927 spoke about Garveyism and race riots in an article titled, “Go It Garvey.”  Jamaican political leader, publisher, journalist, and orator Marcus Mosiah Garvey Jr (17 August 1887 – 10 June 1940), founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL) in 1914.  Garveyism promoted the concept that African-Americans should be returned to African by way of his shipping and passenger line, the Black Star Line, and that European colonial powers be made to leave Africa.  In this article, the term was used thusly:

Constitutional rights, and racial equality advocated by every intelligent person constitute the Garvey creed, which soap box orators spout in fiery language.

In American novelist, journalist, and social activist John Griffith “Jack” London’s book titled, “The Road” and published in 1907, in the short story titled, “Two Thousand Stiffs,” he wrote of his hobo experiences back in 1894.  At the time he was working for an electric railway power plant shoveling coal.  He quit the job when he determined he was being exploited, and headed west to join General Kelly’s Army, meeting up with them in Omaha (NE).

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 2:  Stiff was the slang term for a tramp in the 1890s.

This army wasn’t an army in the military sense, however, its members intended on marching to Washington (D.C.) to join General Coxey’s Industrial Army in protest of unemployment numbers.   Army life didn’t suit him as much as he thought it might, and a month later, he left General Kelly’s Army in Hannibal (MO) and became a bona-fide hobo.  He wound up being arrested in Buffalo (NY) on June 29 of that year, charged with vagrancy, and spent thirty days in the Erie County Penitentiary upon conviction.   Years later, when he wrote about what happened, he used the term soapbox to explain

The city had treacherously extended its limits into a mile of the country, and I didn’t know, that was all.  I remember my inalienable right of free speech and peaceable assembly, and I get up on a soap-box to trot out the particular economic bees that buzz in my bonnet, and a bull takes me off that box and leads me to the city prison, and after that I get out on bail.  It’s no use.  In Korea I used to be arrested about every other day.  It was the same thing in Manchuria.

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 3: Charles T. Kelly was known as General Kelly, leader of General Kelly’s Army.  His group of slightly more than 2,000 unemployment men intended to march from San Francisco (CA) to meet up with Jacob Coxey’s Industrial Army, where they would continue marching to Washington (D.C.).  Unfortunately, few of the men in General Kelly’s Army were interested in making the trek on foot past the Ohio River.  A thousand men made it as far as Des Moines (IA).  By the time they arrived in Washington (D.C.), there were hardly any men left in his army.  His men added another hundred to General Coxey’s numbers when they marched on Washington (D.C.).

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE 4:  Prominent political figure and labor-rights advocate Jacob Coxey was known as General Coxey, leader of the Industrial Army.  He decided to lead a march to Washington (D.C.) to protest unemployment.  He claimed in the media that his Industrial Army would have more than 100,000 unemployed men by the time it arrived in Washington, however, he was mistaken.  By the time he reached Washington, there were only five hundred unemployed men with him.  Undeterred, he moved forward with his plan to have the United States Congress and President Grover Cleveland see things his way, and found himself arrested for trespassing on public property.  His followers abandoned him, and upon his release from jail he was sent back to his home state of Ohio.

In 1904, mainstream media in America referred to those making speeches at the National Convention of the Socialist Party of America as soap-box orators.  The Socialist Party of America was a Marxist group with headquarters originally in St. Louis (MO).  In January 1904, it was determined that their headquarters would be moved to Chicago (IL) as determined by Referendum B 1904.  Although the convention was referred to by the media as the First National Convention of the Socialist Party of America, it was actually the second  — the first having been the Unity Convention held in Indianapolis (IN) held from July 29 to August 1, 1901.  

The concept of a Speaker’s Corner has been around for some time, with some locations such as Hyde Park in the UK dating back to the late 1800s. The Parks Regulation Act 1872 stated that some areas in parks would be permitted to be used to allow people to meet and speak their mind in a peaceful way in public.  In the 1800s and into the early 1900s, manufacturers used wooden crates to ship wholesale merchandise to retail establishments. The heavier the merchandise, the stronger the box had to be, and soap was (and still is) some of the heaviest merchandise being shipped. This meant that wooden crates carrying soap were among the strongest.

When wooden crates that had once carried soap were turned over into makeshift platforms, they could easily bear the weight of an adult without fear of breaking while the person stood on it.  They were also very easy to carry around, making quick escapes possible for those who stood on their soap boxes delivering unscheduled speeches.

The tradition of soapbox speaking was seen in the 1992 general election in the UK when Tory leader John Major took his campaign to the people directly and delivered many political addresses from an upturned soapbox.

The term soap box referring to speaking one’s mind dates back to the late 1800s and continues to be used even in conversations more than 125 years later.

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