“Had Harrington been born anywhere in Western Europe,
he would have become a major social-democratic party leader.”
When many people think of Missouri, they usually think of the core American principles of democracy and capitalism, but one of the most famous American socialist leaders in U.S. history also called the Show Me State his home. Michael Harrington rose to national prominence on the socialist platform with his look at “The Other America,” which made a lasting impact on American culture.
THE EARLY YEARS
Edward Michael Harrington was born in St. Louis on February 24, 1928. His father was an attorney and his mother a teacher. His middle-class, conservative, Jesuit upbringing gave few hints into his later socialist writings and political activism. The gifted student attended St. Louis University High School before heading off to Holy Cross College, where he graduated when he was only 19 years old. To keep his parents happy, he continued his studies at Yale University Law School, then by studying English at the University of Chicago.
RISE TO FAME
Harrington was poised to follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming a lawyer, but he claimed that the study of law bored him so he began looking for something more fulfilling. During a summer job in St. Louis, he had a so-called “conversion” to social activism after being exposed to the realities of the working poor. This experience in the slums changed the course of his life forever. He worked briefly for the Public Welfare Department in the public school system, where he came face to face with families in deplorable conditions. He knew instantly that he had to take action, so he moved to New York and joined the Catholic Worker Movement to help people living in poverty.
After a short time with the Catholic group, he again became disenchanted with their methods and began searching once again for an activist group to join. He hooked up with the Young Socialist League. He spent the next decade living in Greenwich Village socializing with well-known liberal writers, artists, and progressive socialist supporters. During this time, he gained a greater understanding of social policies while compiling information for a book.
SHOW ME SUCCESS
When his book The Other America: Poverty in the United States was published in 1962, it was an eye-opening look at how the poor lived in our country. The timing of the book (the “Happy Days” of the 1950s and early 1960s) was one of the key reasons it struck a chord with many people. For most Americans, times seemed to be good, but to a significant portion of society, it was something completely different. His book pointed out that the American government and society in general were not dealing with the problems of poverty that kept the poor trapped in a cycle of dependency. His book made such an impact that he was no longer just a fringe socialist but a major force in Washington, D.C., with a large number
of politicians coming to him for answers.
His ideas are credited with helping pass the “War On Poverty” legislation by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He made an impact on social policies throughout the 1970s and much of the conservative 1980s. In fact, when the political tides were swinging right, he went in the opposite direction and moved even further left. He left the American Socialist Party because he believed they were getting too conservative, so he founded a new group which evolved into the Democratic Socialists of America. Under his leadership, the group became one of the largest socialist groups in the history of the United States. Harrington died in 1989 and was hailed by people on both sides of the political spectrum as a valiant fighter for the causes in which he believed.
*Harrington is often referred to as the most prominent socialist in the United States from the 1960s until his death in 1989.
*He was an adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr.