This day in Jewish history / The Socialist congressman who defeated Tammany Hall dies
After defeating the corrupt New York machine, Meyer London declared his intention, in Yiddish, to 'represent an entirely different type of Jew.'
June 6, 1926, is the day that Meyer London, the second Socialist candidate to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, died, after being hit by a car in New York. London served a total of three terms in Congress, between 1915 and 1919 and during 1923-1925.
London was born in Kalvarija, Lithuania, on December 29, 1871. His father was a onetime Orthodox scholar who had become a non-religious political revolutionary, before moving to the United States in 1888 to seek financial security. The family followed him three years later,making their home on New York's Lower East Side. There, Efraim London ran a printing business and published his own radical weekly, and the son became familiar with a number of political activists who frequented his father’s shop.
Meyer was studious as well as politically involved, and in 1896, he began law school at New York University, studying at night, while working as a librarian and tutor during the day. After earning his degree, he worked as a labor lawyer. In the last decade of the 19th century and first of the 20th, London was active in various incarnations of the Socialist party, and ran several times – unsuccessfully – for New York State Assembly. He also ran three times for U.S. Congress as a Socialist, in 1908, 1910 and 1912, and lost each time. In the interim, he raised funds both for victims of anti-Jewish pogroms in revolutionary Russia, after 1905, and for the non-Zionist Bund movement in his birthplace. He also provided legal services to a variety of trade unions in New York, most notably by guiding the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, in the massive 1910 Cloakmakers Strike, in which the union successfully fought an attempt by management to have the court issue an injunction ordering its 50,000 striking members back to work before their demands were met.
The reputation London gained helped him forge a coalition that enabled him, finally, in 1914, to defeat the Tammany Hall machine in New York, and win election to the House representing New York’s 12th Congressional district, only the second time a Socialist Party candidate did so. Speaking to followers in Yiddish following his victory, he declared his intention to “represent an entirely different type of Jew from the kind Congress is accustomed to seeing" – a clear reference to the more prosperous establishment Jews of “Uptown.”
It was during his second term, in April 1917, that London voted against America’s entry into World War I, one of only 50 representatives to oppose participation. He explained that he believed his election as a Socialist obligated him to oppose all wars, but declared at the same time that “I believe I am as deeply in love with the United States as any man who can trace his ancestry to the Mayflower.” Whichever constituents didn’t resent London for that vote surely were angry when, after the U.S. declared war on Austria-Hungary, he then felt obligated to support the war effort. This caused him at one point to say, “I wonder whether I am to be punished for having had the courage to vote against the war, or for standing by my country’s decision when it chose war.”
Similarly, as a Socialist, London was not an early supporter of Zionism, and refused to introduce a bill in the House expressing support for the Balfour Declaration, but he also did not explicitly oppose the move to establish a political homeland for the Jews. Such ambivalence did little to win him friends, and London lost his bid for a third straight term in 1918, to Henry Goldfogle, a Democratic-Republic “fusion” candidate, and a perennial opponent of London’s. Two years later, London defeated Goldfogle and returned to Congress for a final term, only to lose a bid for reelection in 1922.
Many of the progressive bills London introduced to Congress – bills that did not pass – decades later became the law of the land: bills calling for minimum wage, for unemployment insurance, for more progressive taxes. He fought for anti-lynching laws and even for paid maternity leave, a privilege still not guaranteed to women in the United States.
On June 6, 1926, London was crossing First Avenue, in Manhattan, when he got caught between traffic moving in both directions. He became disoriented, and was hit while standing in the middle of the street by one Louis Greenspan, of Newark, N.J. Later, at Bellevue Hospital, where he was brought for treatment, the dying London asked for charges not to be brought against Greenspan, reportedly saying that he was not responsible for the accident. He died later that night, at age 54.
After his body lay in state at the offices of the Forward newspaper, London was buried at Mt. Carmel Cemetery, in Queens, in a funeral attended by a reported 100,000 people. A Liberty cargo ship, the SS Meyer London, built during World War II, was named in his memory; it was torpedoed and sunk off the coast of Libya in 1944. And a Lower East Side elementary school is named for the late congressman.