Remembering Julian Bond – posted 8/23/2015

August 24, 2015 4 comments

When I think of Julian Bond, the first words that come to mind are grace, humor and wit. These are not the words you might expect for a battle-hardened, long-time civil rights activist. Bond died on August 15 from complications of vascular disease.

My initial awareness of Bond dates back to the mid-1960’s when he became nationally famous. After passage of the federal Voting Rights Act in 1964, Bond ran for the Georgia House of Representatives. At that time he was 25 years old. He had dropped out of Morehouse College to work for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee also known as SNCC. Bond was SNCC’s communication director. In that capacity, he travelled around the South, organizing civil rights and voter registration drives.

In 1965, gaining 82% of the vote, Bond won election to the Georgia House. However, the Georgia House refused to seat him. A few days before Bond was scheduled to take office, he had publicly supported a SNCC press release opposing the Vietnam war. Bond also voiced support for draft resisters.

At the time, Bond’s position on the war was not winning popularity contests among white Georgia legislators. The Georgia House accused Bond of treason because of his anti-war position. By a vote of 184-12, the Georgia House denied Bond his seat and declared the seat vacated. Bond then won two follow-up special elections which had been set up to unseat him. Each time, the Georgia House refused to recognize the election results.

Bond sued and amazingly, the federal court in Georgia sided with the action of the Georgia House. Bond had to take his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0 for Bond, holding that the Georgia House had denied Bond’s freedom of speech. The court decision upheld Bond’s right to political office. Among others, Dr. King had publicly supported Bond. These events made Bond a national figure.

Bond was early among activists in linking prosecution of the Vietnam war with persecution of Black people at home. He explained this more fully in 1967, stating:

“My position is that things that the United States does overseas are related to its behavior toward people inside the country and that there’s a relationship between what I consider our aggressive behavior in Vietnam and the treatment of minority groups inside the United States, that taken separately, both are wrong, and taken together, they’re even wronger. I imagine that – or rather I am of the opinion that our involvement in Vietnam is wrong, it’s illegal, it’s immoral, it’s un-Christian, it’s un-Buddhist, it’s un-Jewish, it’s un-Catholic; we ought not be there; we ought to disengage ourselves; and that there will never be decent treatment for minority people in this country until we begin to concentrate on freedom and justice and equality for those at home and stop worrying about puppet dictatorships and despotic governments in Southeast Asia.”

Bond had been very affected by the murder of his SNCC colleague, Sammy Younge. Younge was the first Black college student murdered in the civil rights movement. He had been an enlisted service member in the Navy where he served two years before a medical discharge and the start of his college career. In January 1966, Younge was shot in the back of the head by a white service station attendant at a Tuskegee gas station. Younge had been trying to integrate a “Whites Only” bathroom. Later an all-white jury acquitted Younge’s murderer. Bond said he learned from Younge’s example that even if you were a veteran, they would still shoot you down if you worked for civil rights in America.

In 1968, at the infamous Chicago Democratic convention, Bond was nominated to become Vice-President. He declined the nomination as he was only 28 years old. The Constitution requires vice presidents to be 35. Supposedly, Bond always liked telling that story.

Bond went on to serve 4 terms in the Georgia House and 6 terms in the Georgia State Senate. From 1998 to 2010 he was Chairman of the NAACP. Along with Morris Dees, he helped found the Southern Poverty Law Center.

There are a number of funny stories about Julian. Ben Jealous, former CEO of the NAACP, told one such story on Amy Goodman’s show, Democracy Now!. Jealous had asked Julian about his role in the famous 1963 March on Washington. Julian responded that his job at the march was to pass out Cokes to people who were really famous. Jealous said. “So what was the high point for you?”. Julian replied, “it was when Sammy Davis Jr. looked at me, winked and snapped his finger and pointed at me and said, “You know kid, you’re cool.”

Julian did have movie star good looks. He had a debonair quality and genuine charisma. He actually hosted Saturday Night Live one time in 1977.

In a Washington Post story after Julian died, his wife, Pamela Horowitz was quoted, saying:

“He had a wonderful sense of humor. You know that got him through the serious things he dealt with all his life. He used to joke that on his tombstone, one side would say “Race man” and the other side would say ‘Easily amused’. ”

Bond had a way with words. There are many good Julian Bond quotes. Here are a few of my favorites:

“Obama is to the tea party as the moon is to werewolves.”

“Violence is black children going to school for 12 years and receiving 6 years worth of education.”

“Good things don’t come to those who wait. They come to those who agitate.”

The journalist George Curry wrote that he always remembered a poem authored by Julian:

“Look at that girl shake that thing
We can’t all be Martin Luther King.”

Bond remained an activist until the end. He was not narrow. Along with 47 other people including NASA climate scientist James Hansen, he was arrested at a 2013 White House protest against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. He also was a strong supporter of LGBT rights. On gay marriage, he said, “Black people, of all people, should not oppose equality and that is what gay marriage is.”

In his last public speech in May 2015 at an event entitled “Vietnam: Power of Protest Conference” Bond said the following:

“We practiced dissent then. We must practice dissent now. We must as Dr. King taught us. “move beyond prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history.” As King said then, and as even more true now, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Julian Bond was a warrior for justice who never quit. It is hard to believe he is gone. He will be missed.

The NFL Concussion Settlement: A Very Problematic, Mixed Bag – posted on 8/16/2015

August 16, 2015 Leave a comment

With football returning, it is a good time to revisit developments in how the NFL is handling its achilles heel – the matter of concussions and repetitive head trauma. Deflategate is a sideshow. The deeper and darker side of the NFL is its handling of the players who have suffered repeated head injuries.

When I heard that Junior Seau’s daughter, Sydney Seau, was going to talk about her father at the Pro Football Hall of Fame ceremony earlier this month, I wondered if she would talk about her father’s brain injury. The NFL just posthumously entered Junior Seau into the Hall of Fame.

Apparently, the NFL also worried about what Sydney Seau might say because she was not allowed to give a speech at the ceremony. The NFL sidelined Sydney, allowing her only a few minutes on the NFL Network. How thin-skinned can you get!

It turned out that Sydney did not plan to use her speech to discuss her father’s brain injuries. Her remarks were a very moving tribute to her father. Considering that the Pro Football Hall of Fame ceremony went on for three and a half hours, it is sad the NFL could not allow the daughter of one of its greatest players her few minutes.

Concern about image trumped all other concerns. If Sydney Seau had gone off script and inveighed against football-related brain injuries, would the sky have fallen? The NFL money machine was taking no chances. They still balk at the simple and direct message: football produces brain injuries. Money always comes first with the NFL. Troubling images must be banished.

Probably the biggest pro football news of this year’s offseason was the settlement of the federal court class action lawsuit between the NFL and thousands of former players. On April 22, 2015, Federal Judge Anita Brody granted final approval to the NFL’s concussion settlement.

However, the lawsuit is certainly not over. Judge Brody must weigh final objections to the settlement and retired players must decide whether to opt out of the class. If individual players opt out, they could pursue individual lawsuits against the NFL. The class action case will definitely go to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

It is hard to feel too good about the settlement. While it does provide important, much-needed relief for players who suffer from Alzheimer’s, ALS, Parkinson’s and dementia, there is a big hole in the settlement agreement. The overwhelming majority of class members will receive nothing.

That is because chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, the most prominent disease affecting retired players, is not compensable under the terms of the settlement. CTE claims have an extremely narrow window. Only players who have died and were diagnosed with CTE at anytime between January 1, 2006 and the date of final approval of the settlement, April 22, 2015, can be compensated.

I suppose this is not unlike many settlement agreements. A number will get very fair compensation but the terms of the agreement for those who have or will have CTE are nothing short of disastrous. Tons of players are absolutely left out.

Attorney Paul Anderson, an expert on the NFL and concussions, described the lawsuit settlement this way:

“The NFL Concussion Litigation was initially framed as a CTE lawsuit, but as negotiations progressed it was transformed into a cognitive-disorder settlement, all-but eviscerating future awards of CTE. CTE has been described as “the industrial disease of football”. Some objectors analogized the failure to compensate CTE in this case to an asbestos settlement excluding compensation for mesothelioma.”

Without getting too technical, CTE is a neurodegenerative disease that can lead to dramatic changes in mood, behavior, and cognition. A critical indicator of CTE is the build-up in the brain of an abnormal protein called tau. Making things tricky, these changes in the brain can sometimes start years or decades after an athlete’s career is over. We know that repetitive brain trauma can trigger a flood of events leading to progressive destruction of brain tissue.

Symptoms of CTE can include irritability, depression, memory loss, mood swings and emotional lability. CTE is also connected to violence, explosivity, social isolation, drug overdoses, suicides and loss of behavioral control. The medical world has delineated four stages of CTE with dementia classified as the final stage. At present, CTE can only be diagnosed after death.

CTE causes tremendous pain and suffering for family members who watch their former world class athlete/relatives deteriorate before their eyes. Some CTE sufferers become unable to do the most basic activities of daily living like dressing, feeding, and toileting themselves.

The settlement agreement forecloses any future awards for CTE. So if a retired player dies and he is then subsequently diagnosed with CTE after he dies, he will receive zero compensation unless he can prove he was cognitively impaired. Many classic symptoms of CTE, mood and behavior difficulties, are not compensable under the agreement. The agreement remains in effect for the next 65 years.

Junior Seau is a perfect example of the type of player who would not be compensated under the agreement. The symptoms he exhibited do not fit the terms of the settlement and his family opted out. So far 200 ex-NFL players have indicated they will opt out of the settlement.

Seven retired players including Sean Morey and Alan Faneca have already filed an objection to the settlement arguing the agreement is a lousy deal for the players but a great deal for the NFL and class counsel. The players criticize class counsel for failing to do any discovery. Many wonder whether taking testimony from NFL officials and gathering documents from the league would show whether the NFL concealed the dangers of concussions from the players.

A leading Boston University researcher and neuropsychologist, Dr. Robert Stern, has criticized the agreement because of the way it handles CTE. After the agreement, Dr. Stern told the Associated Press:

“Repetitive hits to the head do not lead to Alzheimer’s disease. They lead to CTE, if anything.”

Dr. Stern has written that many former NFL players have significant changes in mood and behavior, resulting, in part, from repetitive head impacts, that have led to inability to maintain employment, homelessness, domestic abuse, divorce, substance abuse, excessive gambling, poor financial decision-making and death from accidental drug overdoses or suicide.

Dr. Stern believes that in the next five to ten years there will be an accurate, clinically accepted and FDA-approved method to diagnose CTE during life.

As probably is obvious, the science around CTE is in its infancy. With the current state of science it is difficult to prove causation of former players’ behavior and mood problems with CTE even though it is seemingly apparent. There is a provision in the settlement agreement that the parties confer at least once every ten years to determine whether adjustments to the qualifying diagnoses need to be made due to advances in science.

You do not have to be a cynic to know it is highly unlikely the NFL will voluntarily reopen the resolution of CTE cases relative to the settlement agreement. Probably the only way that will happen is if a court forces that.

I remain a football fan but I would acknowledge the nasty underside of the NFL. There is a litany of sins but I think its treatment of retired, injured players is probably the worst. Someone should write a book looking into the health issues of all the journeymen ex-players who were chewed up and spit out. Most players were not stars leading enchanted lives. It would be good to know how they are faring years after leaving the game. I think we have a very limited picture of that. I expect there is a wealth of material there.

It remains to be seen whether Judge Brody or the Third Circuit will allow the exclusion of CTE from the settlement agreement which lasts 65 years.

Relative to The Donald…- posted 8/8/2015

August 8, 2015 1 comment

After hearing Donald Trump’s comments regarding Megyn Kelly, the Fox news anchor, after the first Republican debate, I am reminded of this quote which struck me as particularly apropos:

“I am ugly but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effects of ugliness – its deterrent power – is nullified by money…I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honored, and hence its possessor…I am brainless, but money is the real brain of all things and how then should its possessor be brainless? Besides, he can buy clever people for himself…Does not all my money, therefore, transform all my incapacities into their contrary?” Karl Marx

The Witch Hunt Against Planned Parenthood – posted 8/2/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 8/5/2015

August 3, 2015 2 comments

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 8/5/2015.

Planned Parenthood is under siege. Long-term opponents have been working overtime to try and create a witch hunt atmosphere in an attempt to take down the organization. What is going on is a creepy form of McCarthyism based on maliciously edited videos. The videos have been edited to make it look like Planned Parenthood is profiting from selling fetal body parts.

I have been surprised that the media has treated this story as credible. Usually, there is an expectation of evidence behind a story. The concept of evidence implies some degree of reliability and authenticity.

In this instance, we have a group of zero credibility (the Center for Medical Progress, the group behind the videos) which falsely presented itself to Planned Parenthood employees over the course of three years in an attempt to get a gotcha moment. They then doctored the videos to manufacture wrongdoing and create a misleading impression. I would point out that the Center for Medical Progress, humorously named, had no online presence until a few weeks ago. Some of the actors involved have a long history with deceptively editing undercover footage of abortion clinics.

The news cycle becomes slow during the summer but this smear campaign doesn’t deserve the heading “news”. It is less newsworthy than shark bite stories.

The accusation that Planned Parenthood is illegally selling fetal body organs and tissue is patently false. Women, who have abortions, which is a legal medical procedure, can, in some states, donate fetal tissue to research if they choose to do that. That does not happen at Planned Parenthood centers in New Hampshire.

I would note that donating fetal tissues to scientific researchers can help contribute to our understanding of Parkinson’s, diabetes, muscular dystrophy, and eye diseases. Scientists at universities and at government labs have been using fetal tissues for many years. On July 28, the New York Times provided much more detail about the value of this scientific work. As the Monitor pointed out in its recent editorial, those Planned Parenthood affiliates in other parts of the country do not profit from donations of fetal tissue. The money Planned Parenthood receives only recoups the costs of collecting and preserving it and sending it to researchers.

Less reported than the videos has been the recent breach of Planned Parenthood’s employee database. Anti-abortion hackers who have the announced intention of decrypting and releasing personally identifiable information are behind this. Given the track record of the pro-life movement, I have to say this is scary.

Whatever the innocence of many in the pro-life movement, there is a dangerous minority of anti-abortion fanatics who want to stop at nothing to obtain their goal of shutting down Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood employees have a perfect right to be concerned and frightened. The extreme element of the anti-abortion movement has killed abortion providers. Dr. Tiller and Dr. Slepian come immediately to mind. The mainstream of the anti-abortion movement says precious little about its crazies. Maybe they are scared of them too.

The intent of releasing personally identifiable information is about harassment. Part of the strategy of the extreme sector of the anti-abortion movement has been threatening and stalking abortion providers. It is hard to know what these fanatics will do but past history is not reassuring.

I believe the story of vigilante action against abortion providers has been underreported. For those who doubt what I am saying, I would recommend the book Living in the Crosshairs by David Cohen and Krysten Connon. The authors document how every day men and women who are associated with abortion care are harassed, threatened, stalked, picketed, sent hate mail and terrorized.

I think this is a more worthy news story than the transparently phony videos devised by fanatics.

The blogger Rebecca Watson who blogs at Skepchick.org persuasively compares the Planned Parenthood video story to other examples of alleged heresy. I think of the blood libel against the Jews and the persecution of witches. Begin with a fake story, add hysteria (and social media) and voila – you have the recipe for a debacle.

Facts get lost along the way. In considering Planned Parenthood, we should remember that it provides health care, education and outreach to more than five million women, men, and adolescents. Nationwide only 3% of Planned Parenthood’s services are abortion-related. More than 90% of the abortion services are for first trimester abortions.

Planned Parenthood performed 400,000 pap tests and 500,000 breast exams. These services are critical for detecting cancer. It also has provided 4.5 million tests and treatments for sexually transmitted infections.

As a non-profit, Planned Parenthood has been a critical provider insuring poor women have access to basic medical care including birth control. Contraception accounts for 34% of its services. It is estimated that the work of Planned Parenthood prevents 516,000 unintended pregnancies a year.

There is an irony in the attacks on Planned Parenthood. Through its sex education efforts and its promotion and distribution of birth control, it has done more to prevent abortions than anybody.

Planned Parenthood has been around almost 100 years. It will not be as easy to take down as say, ACORN. It is the largest provider of reproductive services in the Unites States with over 700 locations. Historically, attacks are nothing new. When Margaret Sanger, her sister and another woman founded the first American birth control clinic in Brooklyn, they were arrested and jailed for violating the Comstock Act. Then the accusation was distributing obscene materials. That conviction was overturned.

I have come to believe that “pro-life” is really a misnomer for the anti-abortion movement. More correctly, I think it should be identified as “pro-birth”. A quote from Sister Joan Chittister makes the point:

“I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think you don’t?” Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation what the morality of pro-life is.”

The extreme right wing jihad against Planned Parenthood is disturbingly irrational. We now have 18 male House Republicans signing a letter committing to shutting down the federal government if Planned Parenthood is not defunded. In New Hampshire, the Executive Council is voting this week on Planned Parenthood’s state contracts. After the 2008 and 2012 national election defeats, I would have thought the national Republican party would have reconsidered whether attacking Planned Parenthood and denying women access to reproductive health was wise strategy.

I guess the war on women is not dead.

The Inspiring Example of Eugene V. Debs – posted 7/26/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 7/31/2015

July 27, 2015 1 comment

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 7/31/2015 under the title “Man of the People”.

Probably, like almost everybody, I have been surprised by the surge of Senator Bernie Sanders in the presidential race. At first, I thought, given the proximity to Vermont, he might do well in New Hampshire. Then I thought he might do well in Iowa. He has been drawing large crowds wherever he goes. That includes surprising places like Phoenix, Dallas, and Houston.

It does not take a political genius to realize that, at this time, his message is resonating in a powerful way. Sanders’ arguments about the dangers of income inequality are the same arguments he has made for the last 40 years.

I had read that Sanders was inspired by the example of Eugene V. Debs. There is a plaque of Debs in Senator Sanders’ office. Back in 1979, Sanders produced an audio documentary about Debs. In the liner notes for the documentary, Sanders wrote the following:

“It is very probable, especially if you are a young person, that you have never heard of Eugene Victor Debs. If you are the average American who watches television 40 hours a week, you have probably heard of such important people as Kojak and Wonder Woman, have heard about dozens of different kinds of underarm deodorants, every hack politician in your state, and the latest game between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. Strangely enough, however, nobody has told you about Gene Debs, one of the most important Americans of the twentieth century. Why? Why haven’t they told you about Gene Debs and the ideas he fought for. The answer is simple: more than a half century after his death, the handful of people who own and control the country, including the mass media, and the educational system still regard Debs and his ideas as dangerous.”

So who was this guy Eugene Debs and why does he matter? Is he as important as the Kardashians?

I think it is fair to say Debs was one of the most revered figures in the history of the American Left. He was the most popular and effective socialist figure ever to appear in America. Throughout his life, Debs advocated for fair wages, worker’s rights, social justice, and equality. For 30 years, from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, Debs was the spokesperson for a democratic socialist vision for America.

Really, those were the glory days for American socialism. It always has been a minority movement but, for a time, it had a significant following.

Debs did not come from Berkeley or Cambridge. He was born in Terra Haute, Indiana in 1855 and he grew up there. I know about Debs’ Indiana roots from reading Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut often wrote that he took pride in being from the same state as Debs. Vonnegut even named the protagonist in his novel Hocus Pocus after Debs.

Debs went off to work on the railroad at age 15. He started as a yard laborer, moved on to painter, and finally became a locomotive fireman. He helped to organize the first lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in Terra Haute. He then quickly rose in the National Brotherhood. In his job, Debs traveled around the country to organize and assist in the formation of new lodges.

Through his work and travels, Debs became familiar with almost every sector of the American working class. Always interested in politics, Debs was repeatedly elected Town Clerk in Terra Haute. He also got elected as a state representative in the Indiana state legislature in 1884 but he did not seek reelection there. His heart was more in organizing.

In 1893, Debs went on to organize the American Railway Union (ARU), an industry-wide union dedicated to the rights of every worker in the railway industry. Although he had previously built the Brotherhood of Railway Firemen, he found craft unionism too narrow. Debs believed solidarity could not be achieved under the old craft set-up.

After a significant victory in a battle over a wage cut by the Great Northern Railroad, Debs and the ARU faced off against George Pullman and his railroad company in the massive Pullman strike. The story is novel-worthy. A federal judge who had been appointed through the influence of George Pullman issued injunctions that forbid virtually all union activity. Also, the court had 700 strikers arrested including Debs and other ARU leaders.

Debs did six months in prison. With the ARU smashed, Debs had time in prison to reflect. He had started organizing with an idealistic, humanitarian perspective. He now saw the need for a class viewpoint. He came to see that all workers shared an identical interest. The Pullman strike reinforced Debs’ growing class consciousness.

He came to the conclusion that a workers’ political party needed to be organized to defend workers’ interests politically. At the same time, he favored a class-wide union to defend workers’ interests economically. In 1897, Debs went on to found the Social Democratic Party which became the American Socialist Party.

Debs made his first run for the Presidency in 1900. He subsequently ran for president four more times. During the next 18 years, he travelled the country incessantly. He went by train and spoke everywhere in the country, often giving 6 to 10 speeches a day. He threw himself heart and soul into the effort. Debs brought hundreds of thousands of people into the Socialist Party. Debs increased his vote totals as he ran. By 1912, he got 900,000 votes which was 6% of the total votes cast.

When the United States chose to enter World War I, Debs took an anti-war position and spoke out against the war. He believed the decision to enter the war was motivated by capitalism. In 1918, under the Espionage Act of 1917, Debs was arrested. The Espionage Act made it a crime to give speeches that interfered with the war effort. The court sentenced Debs to 10 years in federal prison.

Always quotable, in his speech to the court, Debs said:

“Your honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it and while there is a criminal element, I am of it and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

He went on to describe his general outlook this way:

“I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence. ”

In his last run for President in 1920, Debs received 900,000 votes. At the time, Debs was Prisoner 9653. He ran the race from jail. He remained incarcerated in a federal penitentiary in Atlanta. President Harding commuted Debs’s sentence in 1921.

When people consider greatest Americans, the usual candidates named are former Presidents. Lincoln does come to mind. However, I would place Debs in my own top five. His oratorical skills were legendary. He fought selflessly for working people his whole life. Debs was total salt of the earth. He identified with the down and out – not leaders or bureaucrats. He always remained down-to-earth, informal, with the democratic spirit of a Midwesterner.

For Debs, socialism was the movement for the emancipation of working people from the fetters of authoritarian government of whatever variety.

Bernie Sanders could not have picked a more noble person to serve as inspiration. I will leave the last word to Debs:

“If you go to the city of Washington, you will find that almost all of those corporation lawyers and cowardly politicians, members of Congress and mis-representatives of the masses claim, in glowing terms, that they have risen from the ranks to places of eminence and distinction. I am very glad that I cannot make the claim for myself. I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.”

No Basis for Northern Smugness in the Battle Against Racism – posted 7/19/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 7/22/2015

July 19, 2015 Leave a comment

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 7/22/2015 under the title “North has its own set of demons”.

It was encouraging to see the Confederate flag come down in Charleston, South Carolina. It does represent a victory of sorts for anti-racists. That flag is and has long been a hateful symbol. You have to overlook so much to celebrate that flag. Still, the victory should not be overstated. All over the South, there are memorials to the Confederacy – not to the victims of slavery.

The mythology of happy Plantation-land is widespread. There has been something of a delusional Southern world view. The Civil War has been characterized as the War of Northern Aggression, the War Between the States, and the War for State’s Rights.

To this day, racists everywhere in America still cry for state’s rights. It has been obvious for a long time that state’s rights is the ideological cover for racism. People can say what they will about the federal government but it is the federal government which has historically acted as the protector of civil rights for all.

The Confederate heritage advocates have tried to bury the matter of slavery as if it is an irrelevant detail. The history of lynchings, Jim Crow laws, and the Ku Klux Klan have been brushed off as no big deal. That is remarkable considering that in 1860, one in three people who lived in the South were owned as property.

Whatever the Southern sins and they were vast and unspeakable, I want to suggest that historically the North was not that much better. There is no basis to contrast the bad racist South with the good anti-racist North both before and after the Civil War.

The form that racism took in the North was simply different. Instead of slavery, the North featured deep segregation laced with the same white supremacist mentality. When the abolitionists started out in the North, they were a hated minority. According to Howard Zinn, as late as 1810, one quarter of the Black population of the North remained slaves.

While I would never belittle the tenacity and courage of the abolitionists in the North, it was not until the mid-1830’s that the abolitionist movement dramatically grew. Northerners regularly criticized the abolitionists for being too extreme.

In his book, Inhuman Bondage, the historian David Brion Davis writes:

“The Northern and especially New England reformers learned to their dismay that American society was not only deeply permeated with racism but that the basic institutional structures from the judicial system to the international economy were connected with slavery: Most Americans wore or consumed slave-grown produce; many Northerners’ jobs were tied in some way to Southern markets or to servicing the export of Southern products. To make matters worse, white workers, some of whom had seen black workers used as strike breakers, expressed deep fears that even a partial emancipation would lead to the northward migration of freed blacks, who would then literally work for starvation wages.”

Davis makes the point that before he became president, Abraham Lincoln believed there was a “Slave Power” conspiracy that united pro-slavery presidents, the Supreme Court, and Southern Senators and Congressmen. Lincoln felt the pro-slavers were intent on nationalizing the institution of slavery as the United States expanded.

In the aftermath of the Civil War and not counting the relatively brief interlude of Reconstruction, American apartheid was the general rule in the whole country. That lasted for a very long time – until the Civil Rights Movement. Whether in employment, housing, education, voting rights or health care, Black people were constantly discriminated against and relegated to second class citizenship. They were generally kept in a world apart with circumscribed opportunities.

Doubters need only look at the Kerner Commission report produced after the riots in urban areas in 1967. The report was mandated by President Johnson. The report famously stated: “Our nation is moving toward two societies – one black, one white – separate and unequal.” The Kerner Commission report remains a good read.

While it is impossible not to acknowledge the progress that has been made on race matters, I remain very unimpressed with the place we have reached. We are so far from any kind of racial or economic equality. America is still deeply enmeshed in institutional racism. If anything we have re-segregated while talking a phony line about colorblindness. The election of an African American president hasn’t changed that much for the masses of people although it probably has made America feel better about itself.

I think we have lacked the requisite will to tackle racism. One sick thing is how efforts to remedy racism like affirmative action are seen as racist. One can only ask: what has happened to our historical understanding?

In assessing America’s racial history, I want to mention three watershed moments which set us on our present course.

First, I would begin with the infamous three-fifths clause of the federal Constitution. The clause provided that representation in Congress was to be based on “the whole number of free Persons and three fifths of all other Persons”. The other persons were the slaves. The point of the provision was not that slaves were considered three fifths of a person. The provision allowed Southern states to get more representation in Congress because the three fifths clause gave the slave states more seats even though the slaves could not vote.

For 70 years, the three fifths clause enabled the South to block federal legislation hostile to slavery. It allowed there to be more pro-slavery representation in Congress so that slave states like Missouri and Texas became part of the United States. It also helped the South gain an advantage in presidential races through the Electoral College. The Electoral College allocated presidential electors based on the number of members of Congress each state had.

There is a terrible irony embedded in the three fifths clause. Slaves were counted to give the South more political power but they remained slaves and could not vote. That is why the great abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison described the Constitution as “a covenant with death, an agreement in Hell”.

When Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution after the Civil War, it abolished slavery and nullified the three-fifths clause. However, disenfranchising black citizens has remained a continuing theme. Witness the continuing struggles around voting rights. It was no accident that immediately following Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion in Shelby County v Holder, Southern states like North Carolina, Texas, Alabama and Mississippi almost immediately began efforts to restrict the franchise.

The second watershed moment was 1876. A disputed presidential election between the Republican nominee Rutherford B. Hayes and the Democratic candidate Samuel Tilden led to the compromise of 1877. In that compromise deal, the Democrats agreed to allow Hayes to become president in exchange for the Republicans agreeing to withdraw federal troops from the South.

The removal of the federal troops from the South was a betrayal of the former slaves. It amounted to losing their protection. In effect, the North acquiesced in what the writer Douglas Blackmon called reimposition of slavery by another name. Black people were left to the mercy of deeply racist state and local governments. Jim Crow followed.

Part of the story was the retreat of Northern liberals from the goal of racial equality. The country moved on from the old anti-slavery issue sort of like how we have moved on now. On June 1, 1876, the New York Times wrote, “Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison are not exactly extinct forces in American politics but they represent ideas in regard to the South which the great majority of the Republican Party have outgrown”.

Many abolitionists did oppose the retreat from Reconstruction but they lacked the political power to influence events. From 1875 to 1957, Congress did not pass a single civil rights bill.

The third watershed moment I would cite is the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plessy v Ferguson, the case that upheld separate but equal. In that case, Louisiana had passed a state law segregating railroad cars and requiring people of color to sit in the “colored” car. Homer Plessy, of light-skinned Creole ancestry, boarded the train in New Orleans and sat in the white section. He intended to be arrested and wanted to act as a test case. When the conductor ordered Plessy to move out of the coach, he refused. The police arrested him and he was ejected from the coach.

An almost unanimous Supreme Court ultimately upheld the segregation with only Justice Harlan dissenting. The Court wrote that separate facilities for blacks and whites were constitutional as long as they were “equal”. Of course, they were never equal. Until Brown v Board of Education, a long generation later, Plessy was the law of the land. It is hard to overstate just how consequential the decision was. Segregation was legitimated by America’s highest legal authority. With its reaffirmation of segregation, Plessy gave the green light to expansion of racist practices in public accommodations and in all areas of life.

While many people may have heard of Plessy and Dred Scott, it is shocking just how dismal the role of the U.S. Supreme Court was on race issues in the 19th Century. There are quite a few decisions which can most charitably be described as an embarrassment. For those historically inclined, I would mention United States v Cruikshank, the 1883 Civil Rights Cases and United States v. Harris. These are not the Supreme Court’s finest moments.

One story I did want to mention involves New Hampshire’s own former President, Franklin Pierce. Pierce opposed the abolitionists and saw them as the main threat to the unity of the country. In 1853, Pierce nominated John Archibald Campbell to the U.S. Supreme Court. Campbell,an Alabama lawyer, was quickly confirmed and he served 8 years on the Court. Campbell resigned from the Court three weeks after the first shots in the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter. He resigned to become assistant secretary of war for the Confederacy. Of note, when he was on the Court, Campbell voted against Dred Scott.

In the more recent era, with the exception of the Warren Court, the Court has not exactly clothed itself in glory on race cases. As was reflected in Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion in Shelby County v Holder, there is an out-of-touch quality there and a continuing lack of historical understanding of racism.

James Baldwin once wrote, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” Those words still ring true.

Shady, Bodie, and Bailee – posted 7/12/2015

July 13, 2015 2 comments

The pic is my dog Shady (on the left) with two of his brothers, Bodie (in the middle), and Bailee (on the right).

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