The Newsies Strike of 1899

By | August 10, 2017

[August 10, 2017]  Legends are powerful stories about the past that are circulated, traditionally, by word of mouth.  Having lived in Brooklyn, New York one legend that always fascinated me was about the Newsies strike of 1899 in which newspaper-hawkers, nearly all young boys, refused to sell newspapers because of a hike in the price they were forced to pay.

A few days ago I was again reminded of the legend when I attended a play at the Surflight Theater in Beach Haven, New Jersey (see its Facebook page link here).  The play Newsies the Musical is a Disney-based theatrical production inspired by the real-life Newsboys Strike of 1899 in New York City.

The legend is truly inspiring.  It also brings forth several lessons in leadership that we all should pay close attention.  First, the strike was led by a boy, not an adult.  This was not a strike funded by, encouraged by, or run by any adult.  In fact, adults tried to shutdown the strike because of the economic impact it had on business throughout the city.  Leadership is not just an adult activity.

“Yer know me, boys!” began the Kid, and there were cries of “yer bet we do.”  “Well I’m here to say if we are goin’ to win this strike we must stick like glue and never give in.  Am I Right?”  [Cries of “Yes! Yes!”] – The Sun newspaper, July 25, 1899

Second, the most basic form of leadership is getting people to achieve a common goal.  That is what was happening when the New York City Sun newspaper quoted the de facto leader of the Newsies, Kid Blink (so nicknamed because he was blind in one eye and wore a patch over it).  Kid Blink knew the only way to make his strike successful against the giant newspaper publishers was to ensure all them acted together.

Third, a powerful vision and the will to carry it out is the very definition of great leadership.  Kid Blink and the Newsies acted together by holding rallies on the Brooklyn Bridge, shutting down much of NYC commerce, blocking “scabs” from selling newspapers, and provided some relief to the homeless kids who helped.

The thousands of Newsies joined to strike against the most powerful men in New York, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.  No one expected these media giants to concede defeat especially to a bunch of ragtag boys off the streets.  But the boys stood their ground until both Pulitzer and Hearst finally backed down and gave the Newsies what they wanted.1

Leadership, if applied at the right time, with the right leader who has a vision and the will to carry it through, can stand against tremendous odds.  The boys of New York City in 1899 went down in history as some of the most amazing and shockingly powerful kids in history.

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  1. http://newsboysstrike1899.weebly.com/kid-blink.html