The Progressive Era: Introduction
Although the political term "Progressive" only became common around 1910, the kinds of reforms associated with it began in the mid-1890s and extended into the 1920s. And even though the Progressive Party only existed for a few years after it formed in 1912, many politicians and activists should be considered part of the progressive movement. Both the Republican and Democratic parties included progressive candidates. But it is also important to remember that numerous progressive efforts to challenge political corruption and social inequality took place at the local level. At all levels, progressivism was clearly an attempt to alleviate the harshest effects of the Gilded Age.
Ironically, even as equality and liberty were the keywords of the progressive movement, it was in this period that "Jim Crow" racial segregation was established in the South. In actuality, there was a common "logic" that wove through both progressivism and segregationism. Progressives sought to bring "order" to a rapidly changing society, as more and more people began to live in crowded, dirty, and dangerous cities--often in terrible poverty. This was paralleled by the racist view that black and white Americans could not live together in harmony, which led to the "separate but equal" policy of banning blacks from many "whites only" institutions and services. Of course, most black institutions and public services were denied needed resources, making them anything but "equal." Moreover, southern states restrained black voting rights, and the violence of lynching was further used to intimidate African Americans (and other ethnic groups) from claiming their full citizenship rights.
Black Americans did not take these abuses sitting down. Immediately, activists began to protest against Jim Crow and develop other methods of supporting the African American community from within. The roots of the Civil Rights Movement can be found in the Progressive Era. This activism was matched by the women's movement, which gained steam in this period. Women called for the right to vote--which was gained in 1920 with the Nineteenth Amendment--as well as better legal protections in the workplace and social and sexual liberation, such as access to birth control.
The following documents show this as a time of great social and political change, a period of both oppression and resistance that altered the shape of American society.
"The Progressive Era: Introduction" is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license by Prof. Stephen Duncan at Bronx Community College.