Sunday, September 18, 2016


To anyone who has been visiting my blog, thank you.  For the past few months, I have not had the time to post any new episodes.  I have also been recording podcasts of these blog posts with links added to each post.

The reason for both of these things is that I am planning to launch a new blog / podcast devoted to the American Revolution.  This new project will involve me producing a weekly article and podcast following the events of the American Revolution, large and small in chronological order. After a few background articles on the Britain and the colonies I will launch into a series beginning with the French and Indian War, through the pre-war political battles over taxation and colonial rights, into the war itself, and then into the formation of the new Government.

I expect this new project to involve hundreds of episodes, produced over several years.  I hope that anyone looking for an introduction to any Revolutionary war topic, large or small, will find it interesting and useful.

For the past few months I have been reading and researching the issues that will cover the first episodes of this new project.  That has been taking all of my extra time.  Perhaps at some point I will get back to posting random articles of historical interest here, but for the foreseeable future most of my time will be devoted to the American Revolution.

My decision to create recorded podcasts of these articles is mostly a way to help me figure out the technical, acoustic, and editing requirements for a new podcast.  As these recordings are mostly for testing purposes, please forgive me if they don't live up to the final standards I hope to have in my new project.

Thanks again for your interest in my blog.  Once I make the new American Revolution Project available online, I'll be sure to include a link to it here.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

History of the Empire State Building

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The Empire State Building is one of the signature landmarks of New  York City.  Primarily admired for its height, the Building has a long and interesting history.

The original land on which the Empire State Building sits was used as farmland until 1859 when John Jacob Astor, Jr. built a mansion there.  His brother, William Backhouse Astor, Sr. also built a mansion on another part of the land a few years later.

William Backhouse Astor's grandson, William Waldorf Astor, tore down his mansion to build the Waldorf Hotel in 1893.  His  relatives in the mansion next door were not happy about this as they really didn't want to live next to a hotel.  A few years later in 1897, after William Backhouse Astor, Jr. died, the family tore down the other mansion and replaced it replaced with the Astoria Hotel,   Originally, the Astoria was mostly built to annoy the owner of the Waldorf by creating more competition.  Eventually, however, the two hotels were combined into a single complex known as the Waldorf Astoria.

By 1918, ownership was a mess. Astoria owner John Jacob Astor IV had died on the Titanic a few years earlier, and Waldorf owner William Waldorf Astor had moved to England to get away from family politics.  The family sold the hotel complex and land to Coleman DuPont, a rival hotel owner. Ten years later, DuPont decided to close the hotel and sold the land to the Bethlehem Engineering Group, to build an office building  A new Waldorf Astoria Hotel would be build a few years later at another location. It is possible that if Astor had not died on the Titanic, history might have been very different and the Empire State Building never built.

Original Waldorf and Astoria Hotels
The Bethlehem Engineering Group did not have any particularly exciting plans for  the new building. They planned to build a 25 story office building.  The Group ended up having money troubles and the bank took back the property.  It was then resold in 1929 to Empire State, Inc.  A group founded by former GM executive John Jakob Raskob, former Waldorf owner Coleman DuPont, and others.  Former NY Gov. Alfred Smith headed the corporation.

Despite lofty plans, the new team got to work on the new construction project with amazing speed. The architect William F. Lamb produced plans for the building in two weeks, basing their drawings on the Reynolds building on North Carolina.  They even had to deal with some not insignificant changes, such as increasing the building from 80 stories to 102.

Not even the Great Depression, which began in October 1929, slowed down progress.  The investors apparently had wisely sheltered their investment capital from the market crash.  In fact, the Depression actually reduced building costs as construction workers and others could be hired for much lower wages.  Total cost of the building was just under $41 million, and $24.7 million of that was for the building materials.  In inflation adjusted dollars that would be about $637 million.

Construction at about the 40th floor
Construction moved at an alarming pace, 4 1/2 stories per week.  Construction began in March 1930 and was complete by April 1931.  The construction crew of nearly 4000 workers assembled 57,000 tons of steel columns and beams, poured 62,000 cubic yards of concrete, and installed 6,400 windows, and 67 elevators in 7 miles of shafts.  Five were killed during construction.  On May 1, the Empire State Building officially opened for business.  By comparison it took four months longer to renovate the Building's lobby in 2008.

The Building was the tallest building in the world at the time.  Its builders thought it would contribute to a futuristic world.  The top of the building was designed to be a dock for dirigibles. People could fly into New York, dock at the top of the Building without worrying about a place to land, and simply take an elevator down to the center of the city. Sadly, this plan never worked.  Winds hitting the side of the building created updrafts that prevented dirigibles from docking safely.  Those plans had to be scrapped.

Although construction was a great success, the Building itself was a financial failure for many years. The Building itself was popular, but it was too far from the business district and nowhere near major transportation  hubs.  Often derided as the "Empty State Building" many of its floors went unoccupied.  In its first year, the Building made more money from tickets to its observatory than it collected in rent.  It was not until well after WWII that the building got close to full occupancy and became profitable.  The owners sold the Building at a loss for $34 million in 1951.

Fire following the 1945 plane crash.
The Building almost did not survive into the post war era.  In 1945, a B-25 bomber flying through fog crashed into the 79th floor.  Three people on the plane were killed as were 11 in the building.  Many more were injured.  The building was damaged terribly but survived.

The most notable feature of the building remains its height.  For 23 years, it was the tallest building in the world.  It remained the tallest building in New York until the World Trade Center surpassed it in 1972.  For a time, there was a plan to build several more stories on top of the Empire State Building in the 1970's in order to overtake the Word Trade Center. However, those plans never came to fruition.  Instead, the Building once again became the tallest in New York after the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.  It lost that title again with the completion of the new World Trade Center.

The iconic building has played a central role in numerous movies, beginning with King Kong in 1933.  In 1982 the Building was listed on the State and National Register of Historic Places.  In 1986 it became the National Parks Service recognized it as a National Historic Landmark.

One open secret about the Empire State Building is that the 102 story building has a 103rd floor. There is an area above the observation area originally designed for dirigible passengers to enter and exit their airships.  However, it is only accessible by building personnel.  As with many things in New York, the only way you will see it is if you know somebody. Above that is a series of TV and radio antennae for most of the City's broadcast stations.

The Building's official height is 1,250 ft. to the roof / 1,454 ft. to the top of antenna spire.  It has  2,768,591 sq. ft. of floor space. It has so many addresses that in 1980 it received its own zip code (10118).

Throughout the years, ownership in the iconic building has changed ownership numerous times. Even Donald Trump attempted to acquire an interest in the building in the late 1990s.  Today the building is owned by the publicly traded Empire State Investment Trust.

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Saturday, June 11, 2016

The President who killed a political party and almost destroyed a nation.

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At one time in American history, there was a political party that suffered from deep internal divisions. Southerns conservatives and northern business interests agreed on very little.  The main thing that held them together was their mutual hatred of the Democrats.  They deplored many actions by the other party that they deemed both damaging to the nation and unconstitutional.  They eventually nominated an outsider who only spoke of policy in vague generalities, was deeply hated by Mexicans, and who did not seem terribly committed to party principles.  Sound familiar?

Of course it does.  We are all familiar with the Presidency of Zachary Taylor, right?  Taylor was a long time military officer.  He had taken pride in the fact that he remain apolitical.  He had not joined any political party and had never even voted in an election.

Zachary Taylor
In 1848, the Whig party was trying to pick its Presidential nominee.  The pro-slavery southerners and the northern capitalists ran the party in an uneasy alliance.  Both groups generally opposed to the Jacksonian politics that dominated the Democrats, but had little else in common.  The Whigs were never a particularly powerful party in the US.  They were the remnants of the old Federalist Party, which had been crushed by the far more popular Democrats who dominated the first half of the 19th Century.

The only successful Whig ticket had been William Henry Harrison in 1840. Harrison had been a popular military General who was not overly focused on politics.  After plenty of internal squabbling, the Whigs chose a similar path for 1848. Gen. Zachary Taylor was a military hero.  He was not terribly popular with the Mexicans, having just crushed them in the Mexican-American War.  But that garnered him enough support among others to make him a credible candidate. Leading Whig politicians of the day largely opposed this outsider with no political experience.  He was a crude speaking westerner with no real polish or manners.  He did not seem to have any strong opinions on the issues of they day, but was seen by the masses as a strong leader.

The voters seemed to see Taylor as the anti-politician.  As late as 1846, he said that the idea of running for President “never entered my head … nor is it likely to enter the head of any sane person.”  Despite a career in the Army, Taylor had inherited a great deal of land and was one of the wealthiest Americans of the period.  He was not beholden to anyone and refused to make deals even with other Whig leaders.

During this period, it was considered unseemly for candidates to campaign for office.  They had to be seen as being drawn by others into the job.  Any campaigning had to be done in a subtle way.  Taylor would write letters to friends and family opining on his political views and what the country should do.  The recipients would leak these letters to the press.  While not as direct as modern day Twitter, they had their effect.  Voters got to hear about President Taylor and his views on the issues of the day, at least in a vague way.

Taylor generally refused to get specific on any issues.  He selected another moderate politician, Millard Fillmore as his Vice President.  Fillmore had been a New York Congressman, but had left office five years earlier and was now a private citizen. The Party even decided not to issue a platform of issues.  The campaign would be run on personality rather than policy.

The election was a difficult one.  The Democrats made things easier by nominating an unpopular candidate of their own.  Lewis Cass had been a senator and member of the Cabinet as Secretary of War.  He also had foreign policy experience as Ambassador to France. Four years earlier, he had been the favorite to win the Democratic nomination, but had lost after a dark horse candidate named James Polk came out of nowhere to win.  This time, Cass won the nomination.  Still he was not overwhelmingly popular, even in his own Party.  He tended to take calculated and moderate positions on issues when voters wanted a more decisive leader.

The major issue of the day was the expansion of slavery into the west.  Newly acquired territory from Mexico in the American southwest was ripe for settlement.  Southerners wanted to bring slaves into the territories while northerners wanted to keep them free.  Both candidates generally dodged the issue, saying that the people who settled in those territories should be able to vote on the issue and decide for themselves.

Voters were clearly unhappy with both major party choices.  A third party sprang up to field candidates. The Liberty Party, later morphing into the Free Soil Party, nominated its own candidate. Voter turnout was much lower than in previous elections despite the close outcome.  Both candidates won 15 States, though Taylor won a few of the larger ones, defeating Cass with about 47% to 42% with a third party winning just over 10%.

The big issue of Taylor's Presidency was what to do with the Mexican Session, the land from Texas to the Pacific coast that had been ceded during the Mexican War.  Taylor basically let the politicians in Congress work out a compromise.  The Compromise of 1850 turned out to be an utter disaster.  Under the terms of the Compromise:
  • The US admitted California as a Free State.
  • It set the western border of Texas, forcing it to give up claims to the New Mexico territory in exchange for the government taking over the State debt.
  • The settlers in the Utah and New Mexico territories would be allowed to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery.
  • It place a ban on the sale of slaves (but not slave ownership) in the District of Columbia
  • The Fugitive Slave Act required people in free States to assist with the return of escaped slaves.
Both sides seemed unhappy with the result.  Southerners realized that slaves states were destined to become a minority within the Union and that at some point they would be unable to protect the institution unless they got more aggressive in protecting slave rights now.  The idea of "popular sovereignty," that is letting new States vote on slavery, led to brutal violence in new territories.  Both sides used intimidation and murder to keep the other side out of territories prior to any vote.  The DC slave ban caused Virginia to take back its portion of DC so that slave auctions could continue in Alexandria.  The Fugitive Slave Act galvanized the abolition movement in the north.  Northerners could not longer ignore slavery in far off States.  Men in the north could now actually be forced into posses to help capture slaves and return them to servitude.

Taylor did not actually live long enough to see all of this.  He died suddenly in 1850, after just over a year in office.  His Vice President, Millard Fillmore signed the Compromise into law.  But the damage was done. In 1852, the Whig Party refused even to nominate their incumbent President for another term. Instead they nominated Gen. Winfield Scott, who went on to lose to Franklin Pierce. The Party broke up completely a few years later and did not even field a candidate in 1856.  The Whig party in America was dead.

The result of the Compromise of 1850 was increased violence and sectional tension throughout the 1850's, eventually leading to the outbreak of the US Civil war in 1861.  This would become by far the bloodiest war in US history and the closest the US has even come to a break up of the Union.

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Saturday, May 28, 2016

The murder that started a World War and led to the creation of the United States

The murder that started a World War and led to the creation of the United States

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Few people can claim to have a major impact on world history.  Those who do are simply in the right place at the right time to do something that tips a world already on edge.  That is the case with Tanachrisson, an Iroquois leader living in the Ohio Valley in the 1740s.

He was born a member of the Catawba tribe, a relatively small group living in what is today western North Carolina.  As a child, he was captured in a raid.  There is some dispute as to whether the Iroquois raided the Catawba or whether another tribe did and he was eventually traded to the Iroquois.  In any event Tanachrisson grew up as a Seneca tribe member, a member of the Iroquois Confederacy, in what is today western New York.
Tanachrisson, the Half-King

The Iroquois had become quite important throughout all of the Great Lakes area by the early 1700's. They had traded with Dutch Settlers in the 1600's and were one of the first tribes to have large numbers of guns.  With this advantage, Iroquois influence took control of a wide number of other tribes, ranging from New England, as far west as Illinois, and as far south as Georgia.

To control this vast region and the many other tribes inhabiting these lands, many Iroquois served as regional leaders.  They ensured that Iroquois policies were implemented among the local tribes, and controlled all negotiations with the encroaching English and French colonies.  Tanachrisson assumed such a role in the Ohio Valley, controlling the Delaware, Shawnee, and Mingo tribes living in that area.  The English called him the "half-king" which was essentially the role of a viceroy, or regent. Essentially, he could make deals on behalf of local tribes, but was always subject to the main Iroquois council in New York.

The Iroquois had a bad habit of selling out the lands of other tribes for profit and forcing the other tribes to accept the deal and move out. They remained most closely allied with the English. Tanachrisson personally profited from such treaties.  He also was no fan of the French.  He told people that the French had boiled and eaten his father.  It's not clear whether that was true or not, but cannibalism among warring tribes in that era did happen.

In 1753, the French began building a series of forts in the Ohio Valley, linking Lake Erie with the Ohio River, asserting control of the entire Ohio Valley.  The English, particularly Virginia, opposed this move and sent a force of about 150 militia to oppose this French incursion.  The Virginia militia leader was a 21 year old kid with no military or political experience.  His main credential was that he came from a relatively wealthy and well connected family and was very eager to prove himself as a soldier.  This kid got the Governor of Virginia to name him a Lt. Col. of militia, with authority to raise a force and lead it into the wilderness to challenge the French.

The new leader, whose name was George Washington, assembled his militia, and negotiated several guides and allies to assist him with his mission.  Washington convinced Tanachrisson and a few of his warriors to join the force.

The invasion was largely a failure.  Washington's troops lacked the necessary food and supplies to operate at full efficiency. They could not move very quickly as they had to cut their way through the forest.  Despite Tanachrisson's assurances, most of the local tribes did not join the English.  Rather, they tended to side with the French, who seemed less likely to move in and populate their land.

The French force at Fort Duquesne (modern day Pittsburgh) was alerted to the slowly approaching English force.  Since France and England were at peace, the French commander deemed it appropriate to send out a small force of men to reconnoiter the enemy, determine if they were a threat, and to deliver a message that they were trespassing on French territory.

Tannachrisson became aware of the French soldiers who made camp just a few miles from the Virginians, and alerted Washington.  Washington had just sent half his force in the other direction looking for the French.  So now with his force divided, he decided to sneak up on the French at night and make contact with them at dawn.

The French had not been on the lookout for anyone.  When English militia formed up in attack lines approached their camp at dawn, they all ran for their weapons and started shooting.  There is a dispute over which side shot first.  The English clearly had the upper hand.  A few people were wounded before the French commander called a halt to the shooting and announced that they were simply there to deliver a message.  Washington and his officers parlayed with the French to hear what they had to say.

At this point, the crisis probably could still have been averted.  The French could have delivered their message and returned to the Fort.  However, as the French commander read his warning to the English, Tanachrisson split open the commander's skull with a tomahawk and bathed his hands in the dead man's brains.  His warriors also killed most of the French wounded before the stunned Virginians could stop them.

Tanachrisson's motives for his attack on the wounded French prisoners is unclear.  According to some witnesses, he indicated that it was revenge for the French killing his father.  A more practical motive was that his authority came from Iroquois control of the Ohio Valley, and the Iroquois were solidly allied with the British.  Tanachrisson was picking a fight in order to keep the local tribes from drifting into French influence and away from his own.  A war would compel the local tribes to back the Iroquois against the French, thus strengthening Tanachrisson's authority and power.

Tanachrisson would not live to see the long term result of his action.  After the attack where Tanachrisson killed the French commander, Washington had proposed that they lead their smaller and poorly provisioned force forward to attack the much larger French force at Fort Duquesne. The half-king attempted to motivate the local tribes to joint them, but they refused.  Without their help, there was no chance of success.  Nevertheless, young Washington wanted to go forward and fight the enemy despite the odds.  The older and more experienced Tanachrisson saw this was folly.  He abandoned Washington, and took his warriors back into central Pennsylvania where they could live safely. Tanachrisson, later commented that Washington was "a good-natured man, but had no experience" was hurdling head-long into a no-win situation.

Tanachrisson was right that Washington's plan of attack was folly which resulted in many of his men being killed and the remainder captured.  Washington, however, survived the campaign and went on to other things.  Tanachrisson, who fled to safety, died the following year from pneumonia.

The result of the massacre of French troops by Washington and Tanachrisson caused the French to send a much larger force to capture the Virginians.  Washington's small attack force retreated and were eventually forced to take a desperate stand.  Many were killed in a battle a few days later. Washington and his remaining force had to ask for terms.  They were permitted to return to Virginia, but only after signing a document taking responsibility for the murder of the French commander whom Tanachrisson had killed.  The French used that document to declare war on Britain, starting the Seven Years War, known as the French and Indian War in America.

That war put Britain into so much debt, that Parliament decided to impose a range of taxes on the colonies.  The resulting dispute over those taxes eventually led to the American Revolution.  That, in turn led to the creation of the United States.  All of this may have unfolded very differently if one Indian had chosen not to kill a few captured Frenchmen one day in 1754.

The day of this posting, May 28, 2016, is the 262nd Anniversary of that attack that changed the world forever.

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Saturday, April 23, 2016

Blowing up the US Capitol

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Terrorism is a sad fact of life today, but it is nothing new.  There have always been radicalized people willing to wreak destruction to make some political point.  The US Capitol alone has been a target on several occasions..

The 1814 Attack:

The first attack on the US Capitol came, not from terrorists acting in secret, but from an invading Army.  The British Army invaded Washington DC during the War of 1812, damaging much of hte new city.  During their raid on August 24, 1814, they destroyed the White House and many other government buildings.  They also set fire to the Capitol.  British soldiers, piled up furniture in the Capitol, mixed in rocket powder (yes, they had rockets back then) and set a fire, destroying much of the Library of Congress, then located in the Capitol, the Supreme Court, also in the Capitol, as well as the two Congressional chambers.  At that time, the Capitol was not even completely finished.  The only thing that saved the Capitol from complete destruction was a strong rain which put out the fire..

British sack of Washington DC 1814
Still the damage was quite serious.  Congress had to meet in a hotel for a time.  The following year Congress held its sessions in a brick building where the US Supreme Court now stands, until the Capitol could be occupied again in 1819.

For the next century, the Capitol itself was relatively free from attack.  There were a few shootings and brawls inside the building but no attempts to destroy the building itself.  There were also a few fires and small explosions due to accidents, but nothing deliberate. During the Civil War, Confederate forces never attempted to fire on Washington.  The Capitol remained safe during the war, and even got a new dome.

The 1915 Bomb:

In 1915, the Capitol once again became a target.  Former Harvard Professor Erich Muenter had lost his job a decade earlier.  He had to flee an arrest warrant for suspicion of killing his wife.  Despite the outstanding warrant, Muenter, using name Frank Holt, avoided arrest and continued living his life as a free man.  He had even received a PhD from Cornell University and began teaching there, with no one aware of his true identity nor the murder charges still pending in Massachusetts.

The German born Muenter became upset that the neutral US was selling arms and ammunition to Great Britain in its war with Germany.  The government and private New York financiers like J.P. Morgan were actively engaged in supporting the war against his homeland.

On July 2, 1915, Muenter began his mission.  He entered the Capitol.  Security was far more lax than today, especially when Congress was out of session, as it had been for months. Although the Senate chamber was locked, Muenter was able to access the Senate's reception room where he hid a package of dynamite under a telephone switchboard.  He set the dynamite to a timing mechanism, so that it would explode shortly before midnight.

Muenter then headed over to nearby Union Station where he watched the explosion, then boarded a train to New York City.

Because the explosion took place on a holiday weekend at night, there were no serious injuries.  Capitol Hill police were on duty and one had been in the room only a few minutes before the explosion. Fortunately, he left in time to prevent casualties. Damage was mostly limited to the Reception Room itself.

Reception Room of US Senate 1915
Sadly, the attack on the Capitol was only the beginning of a rampage.  The following day, Muenter went to the Long Island weekend home of  banking financier J.P. Morgan, knocked on the front door.  Morgan answered the door himself and received two bullets from Muenter's pistol.  Morgan survived the attack, however, without any serious long term effects.

Muenter was also suspected of attempting to blow up a New York Police Station and a transport vessel carrying supplies to Britain, although evidence indicates he may not have been involved in those two attacks.  After the attack on Morgan, Muenter was imprisoned and his outstanding warrants exposed.  He committed suicide in prison a few days later.

The day after the explosion at the Capitol, the building was again open to tourists, some of whom even saw the damaged room.  Repairs were affected rather quickly and Congress continued its work.  The US went on to declare war against Germany two years later, killing tens of thousans of Muenter's fellow countrymen.

The 1971 Bomb:

Men's bathroom, site of the 1971 explosion.
On Monday March 1, 1971, in the early morning hours, Capitol Hill Police received a phone call that there would be an explosion in a few minutes, in protest of the US invasion of Laos.  A few minutes later, a bomb went off in bathroom underneath the Senate Chamber.  The explosion took place when the Capitol was largely empty and there were no injuries, nor much damage beyond the bathroom.

A letter purportedly from a radical group known as the Weather Underground claimed responsibility for the explosion.  However, no individual was ever arrested for the crime.  Some have accused Bill Ayers the "terrorist" whom the Republicans accused President Obama of "paling around with" might have been involved.  Ayers alluded to the bombing in some of his later writings, but no actual proof of his involvement is known.  There are a few people who have accused the Yippies of involvement, although given other events, such an attack seems much more like something the Weather Underground would do.

Authorities repaired the damage relatively quickly and continued the war in Laos, killing many thousands of Laotians.

The 1983 bomb:

The 1983 bombing had a number of similarities to the 1971 bombing.  Minutes before the explosion, an anonymous phone call warned of the explosion.  The timed explosion went off around 11 PM with no injuries.  Once again, it was the Senate side that was attacked.  The bomb was hidden under a bench just outside the Senate Chambers.  It did mostly cosmetic damage to the immediate area that was repaired relatively easily.

The 1983 Capitol Bombing
The day following the explosion, National Public Radio received an anonymous letter which had been mailed prior to the explosion.  It was entitled "Communique from the Armed Resistance Unit."  The letter claimed the purpose of the attack: "We attacked the U.S. government to retaliate against imperialist aggression that has sent the Marines, the CIA, and the Army to invade sovereign nations, to trample and lay waste the lives and rights of the peoples of Grenada, Lebanon, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, to carry out imperialism's need to dominate, oppress, and exploit."  The letter also expressed for "FMLN/FDR" a leftist guerrilla group in El Salvador, as well as the PLO in the Palestinian territory.

After a five year investigation, six people were eventually arrested for the Capitol bombing as well as attacks on several other government buildings.  In 1990, Marilyn Buck, Laura Whitehorn and Linda Sue Evans were convicted of  conspiracy and malicious destruction of government property.  The Court dropped charges against three other defendants, who were already serving prison sentences for related crimes.

Following the 1983 bombings, Capitol Hill Police closed off more of the Capitol to the public and implemented use of ID cards for Congressional staff.  They also installed metal detectors for the first time for everyone entering the Capitol and attached buildings.

Other Actions:

In addition to these, there have been multiple failed attempts to set of bombs at the Capitol.  There are also  numerous shooting events, including the time in 1954 when Puerto Rican nationals opened fire on the House Chamber from the Visitors Gallery.  Five members were injured.  Of course, the most potentially damaging failed attack was the Sept. 11 airplane that crashed in Pennsylvania.  It is suspected that the terrorists were headed for the US Capitol.

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Further Reading:

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Indians Aiding the Irish

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While working on my last post about Irish history, I cam across an interesting story.  In the midst of the Irish Potato Famine, the Choctaw Indian Tribe donated $174 to the Irish people.

The amount given was not significant.  It would be about $4000 in today's dollars.  What was truly amazing was that the Choctaw had, only a few years earlier, been forced off their land in Mississippi and forced to walk the "trail of tears" to what is today Oklahoma, a bleak and barren land where little would grow.  They had been forced into abject poverty by the European descendants who had taken their property.  Despite, this, they felt compelled to help people on the other side of the world who were at the moment suffering more than they were.

Potatoes in Ireland

Potato infected by the blight
The Potato Famine itself is a terrible natural disaster combined with such human indifference. It has become a landmark historic event.  Europeans introduced potatoes to Ireland from South America around 1600. Because the plant allowed the growth of so much food on very little land, the crop soon became a popular staple to the land starved hungry Irish.  For decades the new crop flourished.  But when blight began to hit the crop, it had no natural ability to resist, as many native crops would, and was utterly destroyed.

Massive crop damage is nothing new to farmers. Disease can wipe out a crop. Potatoes, however had become so critical to the common diet in Ireland that the complete loss of a crop left millions without any food at all.  What made the Potato Famine so different was that it covered the entire Island and hit successively for several years in a row.  Some Irish farmers grew other crops, but these were cash crops for export. Starving Irish had to watch this food leave for England while they had nothing to eat.

Irish Government

In a democracy, politicians looking to curry favor with voters would stumble over themselves rushing to bring aid and assistance to the victims of this sort of tragedy.  Most Irish, however, could not vote in 1845.  Voting was limited to land owners.  Ownership of all land fell to a relatively small number of Protestant nobles.  These were the descendants of those who benefitted from the British confiscation of land from Catholic leaders centuries earlier. Catholics could not own land, and as a result also could not vote.  Many of these land owners did not even live in Ireland but simply owned the land while living in London. These few nobles, were the only "voters" that were of any concern.   The Act of Union in 1800 had made Ireland part of the United Kingdom and included Irish representation in Parliament.  But again, these members of Parliament were chosen by the Protestant aristocracy, not the Irish Catholic people. Just to be sure, Catholics were barred from serving in Parliament.

Ireland, before the famine
For the Irish commoner, potato farming was difficult even in good years.  Most had farms that were extremely small, often 1-10 acres, to grow all the family's food for the year. Farmers planted potatoes in March and harvested in September or October.  July and August were often known as the "starving months" when the previous year's crop was gone and the new one not quite ready.  Since farmers ate most of their crops, there was no money to buy any extra food.  What little money they could raise paid for the rent on their land.  They stored harvested potatoes in covered underground holes to get them through the next year.

In case the Irish Catholics wanted to better themselves, English Penal laws prevented them from doing so.  As already mentioned, Catholics could not own land or vote.  They could not serve as an officer in the army or navy.  They could not hold any government office, practice law, attend school, or serve an apprenticeship.  They also could not own weapons.  Irish could not export goods to countries other than England and policies effectively prevented any industry or manufacturing on the island.  So, Irish Catholics were stuck in subsistence farming on land owned by their Protestant masters, with no options to do anything else.
Starving Irish

While there were some attempts at reform, little had changed for centuries.  In 1835, Gustave de Beaumont, a French sociologist, visited Ireland: "I have seen the Indian in his forests, and the Negro in his chains, and thought, as I contemplated their pitiable condition, that I saw the very extreme of human wretchedness; but I did not then know the condition of unfortunate Ireland...In all countries, more or less, paupers may be discovered; but an entire nation of paupers is what was never seen until it was shown in Ireland."  This was the condition of the Irish people before the Potato Famine struck.

The English at this time viewed the Irish as simply lazy and ignorant.  Farming left long periods of time with relatively little work to do outside of the planting and harvest period.  Many Irish could not afford to rent land at all. Without other opportunities for employment, they survived by begging. The English ignored the lack of opportunities and simply saw a lazy unproductive population worthy of scorn.

Potato Famine Strikes

Those were the good times.  In 1845, things became much worse as the potato blight swept across the island.   An airborne fungus (phytophthora infestans) floated across waiting fields of potatoes in the fall of 1845, incubating and growing inside the millions of potatoes.  Farmers, finishing the "starving months" eagerly anticipated the harvest.  Harvested potatoes quickly turned black and shriveled within days of exposure to air.  The crop was completely inedible.

An Irish funeral during the Famine.
There were, of course, many reasonable political options that could have relieved the suffering.  Food was plentiful in many other areas of the world, and trade was ready and willing to ship tons of food to paying customers.  If the British Government had acted quickly and in the best interests of the Irish people, the famine could have been a minor agricultural blip in history that meant almost nothing.  In fact, significant compassionate aid might have improved the outlook of the Irish people toward their British rulers and led to better relations in the future. Of course, none of that happened.

Rather than recognize the impossible position of the Irish people, English tended to blame their laziness and lack of work ethic.  They ignored a political system that had drawn virtually all excess wealth of the island for generations, creating no room for such a downturn. Some English even saw the blight as a just punishment from God. There were a few efforts.  Britain provided about £100,000 worth of American corn meal to be sold at cost to the Irish population.  It was a cheap import that could provide food.  There were many problems though.  The corn meal had to be ground in a country that had almost no mills.  The Irish found the corn hard to cook and digest.  It led to diarrhea and also lacked vitamin C, leading to scurvy in those who survived on it.  Beyond this, it was simply insufficient to replace the roughly £3 million loss of the potato crop.  It was also assistance based on the assumption that the following year's crop would be fine.  When the 1846 harvest was even worse, there was no attempt to continue the program.

Irish Family During the Famine
To make things even worse, British corn laws heavily taxed the import of any food from abroad. This was designed to keep food prices high and protect English farmers from foreign competition. Failure to repeal or even temporarily wave such laws in 1845 prevented cheap food from entering Ireland. Although it was proposed, English land owning farmers opposed any change to the tariffs. They could vote, while the starving masses in Ireland could not.  Nothing changed.

The Famine Continues

Many Irish had survived 1845 by selling what few possessions they owned, even their clothes, in order to buy food or pay rent on their farms.   Essentially they bet everything on a good harvest the following year.  When the crop failed a second year, they had no resources to use.  While the English government did finally repeal the tariffs on food imports, food prices world wide had grown due to crop shortages in Europe.  Some imported food prices tripled for people who had no more money anyway.   Britain refused to provide any food assistance.  Its primary involvement was to provide soldiers to shoot desperate and starving people who tried to prevent other crops from being exported to England.  There were a few public works projects designed to provide very low paying jobs.  This terrible low paying work was highly desired, even though a few workers literally dropped dead at work from the hard work and malnutrition.

By 1847, the works projects ended and soup kitchens began to provide direct assistance.  But this was too little, too late.  There simply was not enough food to feed the starving masses.  After a year, even the soup kitchens closed, leaving nothing

Landlords, unable to collect rents, had tenant farmers sent to jail for non-payment.  Their families were thrown in the streets to die.  The government continued to demand property taxes, so landlords even if inclined to provide some mercy, would have to take huge financial losses if they did not do something to put the land to profitable work.

More than 1 million people, on an island of 8 million, died from starvation or disease related to the malnutrition.  An estimated 1.5 million more fled the island.

Final Solution: Go Away

The English, tired of providing any assistance to Ireland, began to encourage emigration.  Ships to British North America (Canada) dumped thousands of starving disease ridden emigrants in small towns throughout Canada.  Most of these people died from the harsh conditions and lack of support. Many had even died before arrival on the "coffin ships" that carried them across the Atlantic.

Irish Refugees escaping the Famine
Some Irish traveled to England and Wales, where jobs and assistance was better.  The British reaction to this was to ship most of them back to Ireland, forcibly, where most died.

Many Irish traveled to the United States.  Because travel to America was more expensive, those suffering the most often could not make the trip. Even in America, they faced difficult conditions and anti-Catholic hostility from the Protestant population.  Many settled in Boston, where the laws a few centuries earlier permitted the execution of any Catholic Priest found in the Colony.  This fiercely Protestant town eventually received thousands of Irish immigrants.   Today there are more people of Irish descent living in the greater Boston area than there are in all of Ireland.  Other large cities, including New York and Philadelphia became homes to Irish refugees.  Life was hard and grueling 12 hour work days were common.  Local lynchings of Irish immigrants were not unusual.  But the benefit of being able to feed their families made the new life far more preferable to life in Ireland.

Private Assistance

The British government provided far too little assistance to help Ireland cope with this disaster.  However, as this disaster began to unfold, private groups began to contribute what they could. No private group was large enough or wealthy enough to provide the necessary assistance for systemic relief.  But basic compassion from many, resulted in efforts to provide what assistance they could.

The British Relief Association was formed 1847 by Lionel de Rothschild, a Jewish banker in London. This private association solicited donations worldwide, raising relief funds in Venezuela, Australia, South Africa, Mexico, Russia and Italy. It coordinated the receipt of over 15,000 individual contributions raising about £400,000, which was used to establish schools for Irish children, and provided free lunches at school.  While this was one of the most well funded organizations, it started late and existed for only a little more than one year.

Quaker Soup Kitchen
Ireland contained a small Quaker population of a few thousand. This group was relatively well off, but more importantly had associations with Quaker groups in American and England. Through these connections Quakers raised probably the largest amount of any private group, distributing close to £200,000 in the first two years of famine.

One of the largest outside groups was a group of British subjects in Calcutta India, who provided around £14,000 worth of aid.  The money was donated not by a few wealthy leaders, but through a massive fundraising campaign. Many British soldiers in India were Irish.  They contributed generously.  Many Hindu princes also gave donations, as did many Indian workers who worked closely with the soldiers.

Pope Pius IX made a large personal donation to famine relief in 1847.  More importantly, he issued a papal encyclical to Catholics worldwide, appealing for both prayers and financial assistance.

Small groups of people in US cities who were either Irish immigrants or sympathetic to the Irish plight also raised hundreds of dollars in small contributions from poor working people.  Vice President George Dallas held an appeal to raise relief funds.  President James Polk kicked in a mere $50.  However, he also made two US naval vessels available to ship private food donations to Ireland, despite the fact that the US was at war with Mexico at the time.

Not only was the British government cheap in providing government assistance, it also went out of its way to discourage some private aid as well. When the Sultan of Turkey (who was looking to ingratiate himself with the British Government) offered £10,000 in assistance, the British Consul advised him to lower his assistance.  It might offend royal protocol if he sent more money than the British Queen had donated (£2000). The Sultan dutifully reduced his donation to £1,000.

Private fundraising efforts reached around the world.  Many people contributed.  What fascinates me most are the very small contributions made by those who could least afford it.  Former slaves in British colonies in the Caribbean made donations from Jamaica, Barbados, and St. Kitts. Britain had only ended slavery less than a decade earlier.  While these people still lived in terrible poverty, they were moved to contribute something to the suffering Irish.  Perhaps part of this was in thanks to Daniel O’Connell, an Irishman who played a leading role in ending slavery in the British colonies.

Not only former slaves, but current slaves in America also made donations.  A number of contributions in the American South came from collections in slave churches.  Even children in a pauper orphanage in New York, as well as prison inmates in Sing Sing were moved to join the call for donations.

Ending Famine Assistance

The worldwide assistance generally came to an end when the English declared the Famine over in 1848. They did this, despite the fact that more Irish died in 1849 than any other year.  The Famine is now generally considered to have lasted until 1852. The British were simply embarrassed by the foreign outcry for assistance and no longer wanted the attention is was garnering.

Exact numbers of casualties of the Famine are unknown as the British did not keep written records. But the population of Ireland in 1840 was estimated at over 8 million.  By 1850, it was less than 6 million.  Further suffering and hardship caused continuing depopulation.  Even today, after many decades of recovery, the total Irish population is only around 4.5 million.

The Choctaw Donation

Amidst the wave of international fundraising, one of the most fascinating contributions comes from the Choctaw Indian Tribe.

The Choctaw Indians originally inhabited much of what is today the States of Mississippi and Alabama.  They were one of the "civilized tribes." They lived in stable farming communities with permanent homes and had adopted many of the white customs.  Many spoke English and had converted to Christianity  Some even owned rather large plantations and black slaves.  Despite all this, white southerners coveted their land.

The "Trail of Tears"
After the election of President Andrew Jackson in 1828, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, essentially requiring all Tribes to move west of the Mississippi River.  The Choctaw received miserable desert lands in what is today Oklahoma and removed from their native homelands.  At gunpoint soldiers forced men, women and children to walk to their new home in what has become known as the "Trail of Tears"

Alexis de Tocqueville, the French philosopher, saw first hand the Choctaw removals while he was visiting in Memphis, Tennessee in 1831 "In the whole scene there was an air of ruin and destruction, something which betrayed a final and irrevocable adieu; one couldn't watch without feeling one's heart wrung. The Indians were tranquil, but sombre and taciturn. There was one who could speak English and of whom I asked why the Chactas were leaving their country. "To be free," he answered, could never get any other reason out of him. We ... watch the expulsion ... of one of the most celebrated and ancient American peoples."

To say the travel to Oklahoma was difficult is a understatement.  Of the roughly 17,000 Choctaw who began the trip, about one-third died along the way.  Forced to abandon most of their possessions, the surviving tribal members lived in poverty on inhospitable land.  Despite these hardships, they remained on relatively good terms with the US and continued to interact with the rest of the country.

When the call came to support Irish Famine relief, many Choctaw willingly contributed what little they could.  They had known suffering and starvation themselves on the Trail of Tears and thereafter. The fact that the suffering Irish were Europeans, much like those oppressing the Choctaw did not dissuade them.

Years later, the Choctaw contribution to the Irish Famine has received more attention.  In the 1990's there were Irish delegations to the Choctaw nation in Oklahoma and Choctaw delegations to Ireland commemorating the act of generosity.  A plaque on Dublin's Mansion House remembers the Choctaw contribution: "Their humanity calls us to remember the millions of human beings throughout our world today who die of hunger and hunger-related illness in a world of plenty."

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Further Reading:

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Irish Independence

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World War I changed the map of Europe in many ways. It had a particular impact on Ireland.  One hundred years ago, the Irish Easter Revolt of 1916 struck a blow for independence.  It was a key event in the eventual creation of an independent Irish Republic.

Easter Uprising Proclamation
To understand the Irish independence movement, it is important to remember its origin.  Ireland had been under the control of Britain since the 12th Century when the Normans, who had completed their conquest of England, moved into Ireland to take control there as well.  In the Centuries that followed, however, Ireland went through periods of relative independence when England essentially ignored them, to periods of invasion and control when the English feared they might pose a threat to British control.  Ireland had its own parliament, but was controlled by the Lord Deputy of Ireland, appointed by the King of England.  The Irish paid taxes and tribute to English rulers.

In the 1500's King Henry VIII and his successors engaged in a concerted effort to bring Ireland under greater control of England.  Several decades of warfare finally resulted in the "flight of the Earls" when Irish lords finally fled the island for Europe after being defeated by English forces.

The English attempted to force changes that the Irish violently resisted.  England's attempts to convert the Irish from Catholicism to Protestantism created schisms that continue to this day. England also engaged in mass colonization, bringing in Scottish and English colonists, who settled primarily in northern Ireland, to exert better control. Only Protestants could serve in the Irish Parliament, and only land owning males could vote. Oliver Cromwell seized all land owned by Catholics and gave it to Protestant nobility.  As a result, the Irish people had no real say in their own government.

Catholics could not inherit property, bear arms, or serve in any government position, including the army.  They remained under English control for centuries, suffering this unjust and degrading second class citizenship.  Occasionally rebellions would break out, but English military might could not be overcome.  A major rebellion in 1798 resulted in the "Act of Union" which dissolved the Irish Parliament and merged Ireland into the United Kingdom, entirely under the control of the British Parliament.

Despite becoming a part of the UK, the Irish people remained either abused or neglected by the British government.  When the Irish Potato Famine began in the 1840's, Britain simply allowed millions of peasants to starve to death, literally.  No significant food or assistance was offered as people died with nothing to eat.  In fact much of the food that did grow in Ireland during this time was exported to England as the Irish people had no money to buy it.  Grain tariffs remained in place, making imported bread too expensive for most commoners. The population of Ireland dropped from over 6.5 million to just over three million over the next few decades as the Irish people either died or fled the country.

The result of this passive genocide was a renewed call for Irish political reform, to create a government of, by, and for the people.  In the late 1800's a powerful home rule movement began to grow in Ireland.  Several home rule bills were proposed and defeated.  The Irish grew more radicalized over time as they saw legislative reform was impossible.

Not all Irish wanted home rule.  A Home Rule Bill in 1912 inspired the creation of the first modern paramilitary organization in Ireland, the Ulster Volunteers.  Ironically this was a group of Northern Irish Protestants who opposed home rule.  They had no desire to fall under the control of the Irish Catholics whom they had oppressed for so many centuries.  The Catholics in response created the Irish Nationals and the Irish Republican Brotherhood.  The country seemed to be gearing up for a civil war after the Home Rule Bill passed.  Then, in 1914, WWI began and home rule was delayed for the duration of the war.

For Irish Republicans, this delay was unacceptable.  Not only did they continue to live under oppressive English rule, but Irish were being conscripted into the British Army to go fight a war in Europe.  Some Irish Republicans met the the German government, encouraging a German invasion of Ireland, or at least providing assistance to Irish resistance against England.  The British navy sank a German U-Boat attempting to deliver arms and ammunition to the rebels, just days before the Easter uprising was scheduled to begin.  The planned uprising for Easter Sunday was delayed a day until Monday.

Street fighting during the Easter Uprising.
On Monday, however, 1200 men attempted to secure key locations around Dublin.  Several other cities also participated in coordinated attacks. Soldiers, police, rebels, and civilians were killed during the fighting over the following week.

The British reaction was overwhelming and brutal.  More than 16,000 troops were rushed to the area.  British soldiers invaded homes and bayoneted civilians and rebels alike.  Several pro-republican activists who had no role in the uprising were summarily executed under the orders of British officers.  Artillery was used to demolish parts of Dublin, killing many civilians.  Under modern standards, all of these actions would be considered war crimes.  At this time, however, no punishment or even criticism was expressed by the British government.

Dublin's devastation following the British suppression
Overall about 500 people died and another 2200 were wounded.  The majority of dead and wounded were civilians, with no involvement in the fighting.  After the fighting had ended, British retribution remained just as brutal. Within weeks, 90 men were tried by military courts martial, sentenced to death, and executed by firing squad.  More than 3500 people were arrested and detained, either without trial or by summary military trial. Roughly 1500 of those were held longer term in internment camps, many without any proof of their participation in the rebellion.  Many were held simply because of their stated Republican beliefs, which were deemed to constitute a danger.

The British crack down only increased political support for independence.  The following year, the Sinn Fein party was created, and went on to landslide victories in the Parliamentary elections of 1918.  Finally, in 1922, the British permitted Ireland to form the Irish Free Republic, which covered most of the Island, other than the section of Northern Ireland dominated by the decedents of Protestant colonists.  That area remains part of Britain and remains a source of contention to this day.

Ireland today remembers 1916 the same way Americans remember 1776. It was the year that the modern fight for Irish Independence began.  Although the fight would take several years, the actions of the 1916 Easter Uprising were critical to its ultimate success.

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

Further Reading:

If you would like a full book on the topic, I recommend 1916: The Easter Rising Paperback by Tim Pat Coogan (2005).

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Meet Bill Hitler, US Navy

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It's tough to have a family name like Hitler.  Association with one of the most hated and despised names in modern history cannot be easy.  But that was the situation that William Patrick Hitler had to endure during WWII.

William Hitler
William did more than simply share a surname with Adolf Hitler.  Adolf was the boy's uncle.   Adolf's half-brother Alois fathered the child in England in 1911.  Alois abandoned the family a few years later.  William's British mother raised him as a normal British child.  He had no contact with his father or anyone else in the Hitler family while growing up.  In fact, his mother had been told that his father was dead, which she believed for many years.

When William was a teenager, he found out his father was still alive. Naturally curious to learn more about his father, he went to visit him in Germany in 1929.  He visited several more times over the next couple of years, attending a Nazi rally and meeting his Uncle Adolf.

In hindsight, it is easy to be critical of the boy's association with the Nazis. But at this time, Adolf Hitler was simply the leader of an extremist political organization.  He was not yet guilty of the crimes against humanity that he would commit a decade later. Back in England, William wrote several articles about his Uncle. While not yet a war criminal, the British people saw Adolf Hitler as a threat.  William's association caused him to lose his job in Britain and made it impossible for him to find another.

William Hitler with mother
NYC, 1939
Rejected by the country of his birth, William decided to move to Germany, where his association with the up and coming political leader might benefit him.  He worked in Berlin for a bank and later a car company in the early 1930's.  Uncle Adolf, however, saw the boy as a threat.  He seemed to have divided loyalties between Britain and Germany and also seem to enjoy discussing his uncle's embarrassing family history.

Adolf did not want a close family member making trouble.  Government officials kept a watch on William.  Several times, he was summoned to speak with his Uncle Adolf, who berated him and made his life generally miserable.  There is some evidence that William tried to threaten his Uncle by revealing family secrets, which if true would have made their relationship even worse.

In 1936, William decided to cut his ties with Hitler and Germany and move back to Britain.  Anti-Hitler sentiment in Britain had only gotten worse in the intervening years.  To prove his loyalty, William attempted to join the British military.  He was, however, rejected due to his relationship to Adolf Hitler.  William decided he would never really have acceptance in either Germany or Britain. In 1939, he decided to move to America and make a life for himself there.

In America, William did not try to hide his relationship to Adolf Hitler. Instead, he tried to build a career out of it.  He began a lecture tour in the US, sponsored by William Randolph Hearst discussing the dangers of the Nazis.  In 1939, He published a lengthy article in Look magazine entitled "Why I Hate My Uncle" which tried to awaken the American people to the growing Nazi menace.

William also tried to join the US military.  But for some reason, recruiters questioned whether William Hitler, a recent German immigrant, might pose a security risk. His applications were rejected.  Eventually after the war began, William wrote directly to President Roosevelt, begging to be allowed to fight. The White House referred the application to the FBI for investigation.  After, several years of investigation J. Edger Hoover, gave approval and William Hitler enlisted in the US Navy.

In March 1944, William Hitler joined the US Navy in New York City.  He served for three years as a pharmacist's mate, even receiving a Purple Heart for a minor injury.   He served honorably but relatively obscurely until his discharge in 1947.

Despite his loyal service, the Hitler surname only continued to cause him trouble.  He decided finally to change his name to William Stuart-Houston.  It is not clear why he chose that name, but it is clear why he wanted the change.  The name change allowed William to live a life of quiet anonymity.  He married a German born American wife and had four children.  He settled into a home on Long Island and lived a normal life until his death in 1987.

None of his four children had children of their own, bringing the family line of Hitlers in America to an end.

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Further Reading:

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Malcolm X meeting with the KKK

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Malcolm X remains a controversial figure in the civil rights movement.  Many see him as an early promoter of black pride, as a men who encouraged African-Americans to stand up for their rights and fight the injustices imposed by the white majority.  He is remembered as being more militant in his fight for civil rights, contrasted with the non-violent resistance of Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  What many forget was that Malcolm and the Nation of Islam were not fighting for integration but for black separatism.  Even more shocking is that Malcolm X once sat down with leaders of the Ku Klux Klan to discuss their common interests.

Malcolm X
Malcolm X had become a leader in the Nation of Islam during the 1950's.  While this group sought to promote the interests of African Americans, it took a very different approach from other civil rights groups.  The difference was not just violence vs. non-violence to achieve one's goals.  The Nation of Islam did not seek better relations with the white population.  It did not want to desegregate the country. Rather, it sought black separatism.  The white and black races, it argued, could never get along.  The best option was for African Americans to separate completely from the white population and to form their own communities.

This was an area of agreement that the Nation of Islam had with the Ku Klux Klan.  Both wanted to see a separation of the races.  It was thought that they might work together toward this goal.  The meeting took place in 1960, but Malcolm did not discuss it publicly until 1965 less than a week before his death:

"In December of 1960, I was in the home of Jeremiah, the minister in Atlanta, Georgia. I’m ashamed to say it, but I’m going to tell you the truth. I sat at the table myself with the heads of the Ku Klux Klan. I sat there myself, with the heads of the Ku Klux Klan, who at that time were trying to negotiate with Elijah Muhammad so that they could make available to him a large area of land in Georgia or I think it was South Carolina. They had some very responsible persons in the government who were involved in it and who were willing to go along with it. They wanted to make this land available to him so that his program of separation would sound more feasible to Negroes and therefore lessen the pressure that the integrationists were putting upon the white man. I sat there. I negotiated it. I listened to their offer. And I was the one who went back to Chicago and told Elijah Muhammad what they had offered."

Beyond Malcolm's comments, relatively little is known about the details of the meeting.  It was a very private meeting with no publicity or pictures.  Neither side had much incentive to publicize it.  In retrospect, it obviously came to nothing.  A few years after this meeting, several landmark civil rights laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made any such segregated area a legal impossibility.

American Nazis at Nation of Islam Rally
This was not the only controversial meeting that Malcolm had with hard core racists.  In 1961, several members of the American Nazi Party attended a speech given by Malcolm X.  According to reports, the Nation of Islam seated the Nazi's prominently in the front row and that during a request for contributions, the Nazi's made donations.  Nazi Leader George Lincoln Rockwell commented on the Nation of Islam:  "I am fully in concert with their program, and I have the highest respect for Elijah Muhammad."  The two groups shared a hatred of the Jews, as well as a desire to separate blacks and whites.

Still, the two groups never really found a way to work closely.  In 1962, Rockwell was permitted to speak after Elijah Muhammad at a Nation of Islam rally.  Among his comments, he said: "You know that we call you 'niggers.' But wouldn't you rather be confronted by honest white men who tell you to your face what the others all say behind your back?"   Later in the speech, he continued: "I am not afraid to stand here and tell you I hate race-mixing and will fight it to the death, but at the same time, I will do everything in my power to help the Honorable Elijah Muhammad carry out his inspired plan for land of your own in Africa. Elijah Muhammad is right. Separation or death!" 

It absolutely stuns me that an avowed white racist could stand before 12,000 radical militant blacks at a rally in Chicago, call them "niggers" and walk out of there unharmed.  But in fact, Elijah Muhammad actually criticized the audience in a later article for behaving somewhat coldly to Rockwell's speech and not applauding more.

Malcolm X clearly was uncomfortable with such associations.  His father, a Christian black separatist, had been killed allegedly by white supremacists.  Near the end of his life, he disavowed these associations. After leaving the Nation of Islam, Malcolm sent a telegram to Rockwell and the Nazis:

"This is to warn you that I am no longer held in check from fighting white supremacists by Elijah Muhammad's separatist Black Muslim movement, and that if your present racist agitation against our people there in Alabama causes physical harm to Reverend King or any other black Americans who are only attempting to enjoy their rights as free human beings, that you and your Ku Klux Klan friends will be met with maximum physical retaliation..."

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

Further Reading

You can view a video of Malcolm X discussing is KKK meeting here:

The text of Malcolm's speech:

An article discussing the Nation of Islam's association with the American Nazi Party:

More on the Nation of Islam and the American Nazis.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Before Rosa Parks

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Most of us have heard the story of a black woman who stood up to segregation in Montgomery Alabama by refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white person.  She then led a legal battle all the way to the Supreme Court to see such laws struck down as unconstitutional.  That woman of course is the famous Claudette Colvin.  Perhaps you were thinking Rosa Parks, but you would be wrong.

Claudette Colvin
On March 2, 1955, 15 year old Claudette Colvin was riding home from school on a public bus in Montgomery Alabama.  White people sat in the front seats while "colored" people as they were called at the time had to sit in the back.  Ms. Colvin dutifully took her seat in the back of the bus, near the front of the colored section.  However, as the bus made its rounds, the bus began to fill up.  In such cases, the white section got pushed further back to make more seats available for white passengers.  Black passengers would have to give up their seats and stand.  Even more obnoxious in this case, there was an empty seat across the aisle from where Ms. Colvin was sitting. A white passenger had sat down there and everyone was seated.  But the law prevented colored passengers even from sitting in the same row as white passengers.  Colvin essentially had to give up her seat so that it could remain empty, simply because a white woman had sat down in the same row.

The bus driver demanded Colvin give up her seat.  She refused saying "It's my constitutional right to sit here as much as that lady. I paid my fare, it's my constitutional right."  In a later interview with Newsweek magazine, she said:  "I felt like Sojourner Truth was pushing down on one shoulder and Harriet Tubman was pushing down on the other—saying, 'Sit down girl!' I was glued to my seat." Colvin had been on the bus with several of her friends.  Apparently, all but one of them obeyed the bus driver's orders.  The other friend remained seated next to Colvin until the police arrived, then lost her nerve and obeyed the police order to get out of the seat.  At that point, Colvin was alone.

Many years later, Ms. Colvin described her arrest in another account:

"Well, they asked me to get up, and I refused. And one of the policemen was a traffic policeman at Court Square. And he yelled to the bus motorman that he had no jurisdiction here, and he got off. So the bus driver moved the bus to Bibb and Commerce, and then two squad car policemen came on the bus. And they—I became more defiant. And when they asked me the same question, and the gal, "Why are you sitting there?" I said, "It’s my constitutional right. I paid my fare; it’s my constitutional right." And he said, "Constitutional rights?" And then one kicked at me, and when one—and he knocked the books out of my hand—out of my lap. And then one grabbed one arm, and one grabbed the other, and they manhandled me off the bus. And after I got into the squad car, they handcuffed me through the window and took me to booking and then to—not to a juvenile facility, but to an adult jail. And I stayed in jail three—approximately three hours, until my pastor, Reverend H.H. Johnson, and my mother came and bailed me out."

According to the police, she struggled against their attempts to arrest her.  She kicked and scratched the officers.  You can read the arresting officers' account in the original arrest record.    She was charged, not only with violating segregation laws, but also misconduct and resisting arrest.  She was tried as a juvenile, found to be a juvenile delinquent, and put on probation.

By all accounts, Colvin's decision to resist was a spontaneous one.  She had been learning about the growing resistance to the racial injustice in Montgomery's African-American Community.  In some of her accounts she alludes to the fact that her school had just finished black history month (yes, some places had that even in the 1950's) and that she was inspired by those stories.  Her reaction that day though, seemed to be one made without much forethought.

A segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama
The African-American community was rallied by this injustice and began to hold meetings as people tried to decide how to react.  There was some discussion of a bus boycott and the local NAACP chapter considered bringing a civil suit.  In the end though, they decided that Colvin would not make a good public face for the issue.  There are a variety of reasons given by different people.  Some said that she looked "too black" and that it would be better to have a lighter skinned more attractive woman as the poster child of this injustice.  Some argued that as a teenager, she might not be up to all of the controversy she would have to face.  Some were concerned about the fact that she had apparently fought the police and might be seen as a violent, out of control teenager.  In a later interview, Ms. Colvin commented "I knew why they chose Rosa. They thought I would be too militant for them. They wanted someone mild and genteel like Rosa." A few months after the incident, Ms. Colvin, still a teenager, became pregnant, allegedly from a married man.  That seemed to settle the matter. Her personal story now seemed just too scandalous.

Nine months later, in December 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for the same offense.  Ms. Parks was a lighter skinned woman deemed more attractive and an adult who could manage herself well in the spotlight.  She was an employee of the NAACP and some argue that she deliberately provoked police into arresting her so she could be the flash point of a real challenge to the law.  I think provocation is a strong word.  It seems Ms. Parks, who rode the bus to and from work, sat at the front of the "colored" section of the bus when possible, and probably resolved ahead of time that if asked to move she would refuse.  But resolving to refuse an unconstitutional order is not provocation.  It is simply standing up for one's rights.  By the time of Ms. Parks' arrest, the African-American community was organized and ready to begin the now famous bus boycott.  Rosa Parks became the poster child and a young Montgomery pastor named Martin Luther King Jr. began a civil rights movement.

Claudette Colvin's story, however, did not end with Rosa Parks' arrest.  Lawyers on behalf of Parks filed suit in Alabama State Court.  It appeared that the State judiciary was going to drag out the case forever so that it would take years to get either a positive resolution or a final decision that could be appealed to federal court.  As a second option, lawyers representing Claudette Colvin and three of her friends from the bus that day filed suit directly in federal court.  That case, decided by a three judge panel in district court found Alabama's bus segregation laws unconstitutional  A few months later, in December 1956, the Supreme Court refused to overturn that finding, making the decision final.  Days later, Montgomery began to allow all riders to use buses on a non-segregated basis and the boycott ended.  It was Colvin's case, not Parks' case, that ended bus segregation in Montgomery.

Claudette Colvin was active in the NAACP, but like many black activists, she was seen as a trouble maker by the white community and could not find work in Alabama.  In 1958, at age 18, she moved to New York City where she eventually found work as a nurse's aide in a Manhattan retirement home.  She worked there for the next 35 years, with few of her coworkers knowing about her civil rights record.  Although she is retired now, Claudette Colvin still lives in New York City.

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

Further Reading