George Houser, civil rights veteran, is 99

Anyone reading this knows who Bayard Rustin was. In case you missed the 2012 exhibit on his life and local roots at the Chester County Historical Society, see my observations here.

I wrote an earlier series on Rustin, which included “Bayard Rustin and West Chester.” 2/6/11, and “Bayard Rustin, PBS, and CCHS,” 1/16/12

This photo from a email today from the Fellowship of Reconciliation shows Rustin with George Houser:

Houser and Rustin

I wrote about them in “George Houser / Bayard Rustin / civil rights,” 5/21/11.

Houser and Rustin organized together the very first Freedom Ride to mobilize opinion against racial segregation in interstate commerce in 1947. Rustin would now be 103 years old. Houser is the only survivor today of the 1947 ride, which showed the way to the civil rights era of the 1960s, the 1963 “I have a dream” march (which Rustin organized), the movie Selma, and on to today’s protests and unveiling of seemingly unstoppable national disgraces.

To see what Rustin, with Houser and their courageous colleagues, went through in 1947, along with his inimitable philosophy of positive non-violent action even in a North Carolina prison, read his “Twenty-two days on a chain gang,” which as far as I know can be found online only in an earlier post on my blog.

Houser’s own account of the 1947 ride and its aftermath is “The Freedom Rides: From Project to Mass Movement,” Fellowship of Reconciliation, 5/24/11.

That’s history worth remembering!

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How the system works: who gets on the ballot?

In honor of primary election day (today), I am reposting this, first posted in the Times of Chester County.

People go in to vote every May and November (at least, that’s what both major parties hope they do). But voters mostly can’t imagine how those names got on the ballot.

Access is basically in the hands of the Republicans and Democrats in our 2-party system.

Independents can get on the ballot in 2 ways:

1) By winning a party primary. That can happen only in a “cross-filed” primary for school board or for judge of the court of Common Pleas or Magisterial District Judge, most likely only when a party doesn’t have at least one candidate for each position open; or

2) By filing “nomination papers” over the summer, for any position.

The chances of an Independent ever winning in November are, to say the least, remote, which means 20% of the local electorate have virtually no chance to serve in elected office. (For practical purposes, “minor parties” rank as Independents, unless they meet a % requirement to get candidates on the primary ballot, which they usually can’t.)

The campaign season begins in February, when candidates circulate petitions to get on the ballot. They need 10 signatures for municipal offices and school board, 100 for Magisterial District Justice, 250 for countywide offices (including Court of Common Pleas), 1,000 for US Congress, and so on up the ladder.

This is why in late February and early March, candidates and their representatives come around to regular voters’ doors, to meet the needed number of signers. Maybe it’s also why some voters register Independent, so no one will hunt them down for a signature.

Some signatures will turn out to be invalid: either the signer is not really registered, or is not registered in the party required, or is registered somewhere else, or signed 2 petitions for an office limited to one signature, etc.

Usually, opponents will look through candidates’ signatures and file a challenge if they can. So, if you need 100 signatures, you’d want to try for 150+ to be safe, etc.

Signers must be registered voters in the party of the candidate, except that for cross-filed positions, campaigns get R signatures to be on the R ballot and D signatures to be on the D ballot. The circulator of a petition must be a member of the same party as the signers except for cross-filed judges. (Why? Who knows!)

Suppose you are a R candidate and want to cross-file for school board but can’t find a D to carry a petition for you. No problem, you just get a friend or relative to change to D for a few days and get those signatures from D’s. PA doesn’t have early voting or at-the-polls registration, but we have instant party-switching back and forth.

Now, who patrols this complex system? That’s where it gets really interesting. Suppose you are a candidate and discover that an opponent broke a rule; for example, he doesn’t have enough valid signers, or her petition was not circulated by a member of the signers’ party. Well, obviously the County would keep people off the ballot if they don’t follow the rules to be on it, right?

Wrong! No doubt because of state-level regulations, the County takes candidates’ fees but all Voter Services looks at is, as far as I can see, whether all blanks have been filled in on the form and the number of signatures (valid or not). Imaginary people could sign, and the candidate would be on the ballot unless an individual goes to a lot of trouble to keep him off. This happens, but only rarely, because it is a real burden:

You document the invalid signatures or circulators

You get a lawyer to write cover letters and fill out forms

You make 4 copies

You go to one County office to file your paper work and pay $173.

You take a stamped copy to another County office to get your court date.

You take a copy to Voter Services

You take a copy to the person whose presence on the ballot you are challenging.

You wait to hear if you did it all right and then, when you get a date, you and your lawyer go to court to make your case.

And see what the judge says.

Good luck! Wouldn’t you think there would be a better way to see that people who break the rules don’t get on the ballot than to go to a busy judge and say: “We hereby demonstrate that M. Mouse is not registered to vote in West Goshen” or “We hereby show that the Republican candidate is not a Democrat”?

Now, back to those poor neglected Independents. Suppose you, a Green, want to get on the ballot for Prothonotary (that’s the county office where you pay the above-mentioned $173). That office is on the ballot this year. According to the applicable rules:

“… the minimum number of signatures required is two percent of the largest entire vote cast for any officer (except a judge of a court of record) elected at the last preceding election held in the same electoral district, but it may not be less than the number required for nomination petitions for political party candidates for the same office (exceptions to this rule apply to new electoral districts.)”

To file those nominating papers, that number would work out this year to 874 signatures. “What?!” you say, “As an Independent I need over 3 times as many signatures as a D or an R to get on the ballot?”

Yes, Virginia, welcome to the 2-party system.

Still, the Democrats or Republicans who get on your November ballot do deserve credit for overcoming a lot of obstacles, rounding up signatures, paying their filing fees, navigating their own parties’ approval process, and committing to serve in office.

And they are counting on people just like you (except Independents) to turn out and vote in this year’s May 19 primary election.

And then, the winners will appear on the November 3 general election ballot. Put that in your calendar too!

Posted in Voting | 1 Comment

Richard Wright and democracy at home

I recently read Richard Wright’s Black Boy, an autobiography of the novelist and poet born in 1908, depicting his early life in the South and his years in Chicago, from 1927 to 1937, until he moved on to New York and, after World War II, to Paris, where he spent the last 15 years of his life.

I exclaimed at the conditions under which he grew up, worried over his arrival as a teenager alone in a big northern city, admired his steps toward self-sufficiency (including work in the post office), and was inspired by his self-education program.

For a penniless African American boy whose formal education did not extend beyond the 9th grade to become a famed writer and friend of Sartre and Camus is quite an achievement.

As part of my reading, I dug out a forceful article of Wright’s, “Not My People’s War,” The New Masses, 6/17/1941.

The article, his take on the impending American involvement in World War II, contrasts the ideal of freedom to the realities of everyday American life.

As we read it, it is hard not to reflect on where this country may or may not have made progress in the last 74 years, and where in fact the clock is even being turned backwards.

Here is one excerpt (p. 9):

Our primary problem is a domestic problem, a problem concerned with the processes of democracy at home. We need jobs. We need shelter. We urgently need an enormous increase in health, school, recreational, and other facilities. We need to see the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution enforced. We need to see the Bill of Rights translated into living reality. We need to see anti-lynching bills and anti-poll tax bills passed by the Congress of the United States. We need to see Congress guarantee the right of labor to organize, to bargain collectively, to strike in defense of their hard won standards of living when they deem it

So true still, most of it. No political analyst could say it more clearly. There is a lot to be said in favor of all of us, and students in particular, reading creative literature at least as much as the “factual exposition” type of writing that seems lately to have become privileged in our education system.

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April 15 and September 11

Few Americans look forward to April 15, income tax day.

Abraham Lincoln died of assassination on April 15, 1865.

The Titanic sank on April 15, 1912.

And the Boston Marathon bombing, April 15, 2013, with the trial 2 years later, in case we needed reminding.

September 11 is another bad one.

People tend to forget September 11, 1777: The Battle of Brandywine, right here in Chester County. George Washington didn’t expect the British to ford the river upstream of his position at Chadds Ford and attack his right flank. The British won and occupied Philadelphia. The war dragged on till British general Cornwallis finally surrendered at Yorktown on October 19, 1781.

September 11, 2001: the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and Pentagon, as anyone reading this remembers all too well.

Is it just a coincidence that the terrorist attack occurred on the anniversary of the worst American defeat in the War of Independence? Or perhaps the Bin Ladens of the world have a sense of history?

September 11, 1714, also marked the fall of Barcelona to the Bourbon monarchy and the beginning of the Spanish occupation of Catalonia which has continued ever since. Somewhat perversely, the date of that disastrous defeat has become the Catalan day of national celebration; it’s true, the war and siege ended only after heroic resistance against overwhelming odds.

Look up any day here. All have good and bad associations, but the two days just mentioned seem particularly to have particularly bad karma.

Americans, however, tend to think more of places than dates. Have you noticed how many of the symbolic place names of our history reflect disasters, death, and destruction: Wounded Knee, Gettysburg, Pearl Harbor, Selma, Attica, Guantánamo, Ferguson…? And yet, as in most conflicts, people who don’t care to celebrate a victory in connection with such emblematic places can celebrate resistance and renewal.

We seem to have gotten through April 15, 2015, without any unusual disasters. Good! We and the world need to take things day by day at this point.

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The 1911 Triangle Fire, other disasters, and progressive eras

People keep talking about the 1960s as if that were the only progressive period in American history. It’s the only one people who weren’t around in the 1930s can recall, and of course people are very conscious now of Bloody Sunday and the voting Rights Act of 1965 because of the 50th anniversary and the movie Selma; but the 1960’s are not the only progressive period in our history or the one with the longest influence. The last 45 years have chipped away at the legacy of the 1960’s, and the US Supreme Court is in the process of demolishing the last important legal vestige of the 1960’s, voting rights.

Most of the legacies of the 1930’s, such as worker rights, have slowly dwindled away too, and Social Security has been under threat of diminution and privatization for a long time.

It’s discouraging to realize that American society doesn’t really change until people go to jail or die for their rights. In the women’s suffrage movement, the crisis came when women were (unconstitutionally, of course) arrested and packed off to cruel prison conditions, as in “Iron Jawed Angels,” a movie I wrote about in 2013.

That movie begins in 1913, two years after an industrial fire in New York City that killed almost 150 women, mostly young immigrants, which galvanized both the American labor movement and the women’s suffrage movement. Tomorrow is the 104th anniversary of the Triangle Factory fire.

Triangle fire(photo from the Kheel Center)

“The Triangle Fire” on PBS was an amazing documentary in the American Experience series of which you can still buy the DVD for about $20.

The film begins with New York City’s tribute to those victims still unidentified a few weeks after the disaster of March 25, 1911. A hundred years later, the last six unidentified victims were finally identified; see more on them and their identification at the Cornell University site The Triangle Factory fire and in “100 Years Later, the Roll of the Dead in a Factory Fire Is Complete,” New York Times, 2/20/11.

As the Times put it:

…And so, for the first time, at the centennial commemoration of the fire on March 25 outside the building in Greenwich Village where the Triangle Waist Company occupied the eighth, ninth and 10th floors, the names of all 146 dead will finally be read….

A shirtwaist, by the way, was basically a button-down blouse that was  ready-to-wear, fashionable, and symbolic of the growing role of women outside the home, according to PBS (page no longer active).

I first heard about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (about 35 years, I am embarrassed to say, after my formal education ended) in the poem “Shirt” by former US poet laureate  Robert Pinsky (text at; you can also listen to Pinsky reading the poem there):

…One hundred and forty-six died in the flames
On the ninth floor, no hydrants, no fire escapes–

The witness in a building across the street
Who watched how a young man helped a girl to step
Up to the windowsill, then held her out

Away from the masonry wall and let her drop.
And then another. As if he were helping them up
To enter a streetcar, and not eternity….

That’s the sad gist of the story. Here are some further themes from the documentary, from PBS’s Triangle fire home page (no longer active), from “Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire” in Wikipedia, and from other sources identified above and below.

The film emphasizes that 1909-11 was the period when intolerable working conditions stimulated the growth of the union movement in New York’s sweat shops:

Progressive reformers had been shining a light on the growing inequalities in America for twenty years…  But their calls for government to rebalance the relationship between employers and their employees went largely unheeded.

Does that sound familiar?  And do our current downturn in regulation and decline of the union movement seem like an ironical commentary of the sacrifices and losses of life in 1911?

Ironically, the Triangle Factory workers themselves–who were at the forefront of the movement, courageously staying out on strike while they were brutalized by hired thugs and scorned by official New York, and their families went short of food–did not succeed in unionizing their own place of employment.

Ironically, the daughter of J. P. Morgan and other “society ladies” and woman suffragists  publicly supported the strikers (up to a point) and enlisted socially prominent picketers.

Ironically, owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris had emigrated as young tailors from Europe to the US 20 years earlier; now, their policies caused the deaths of 146 mostly Italian and (like the owners) European Jewish immigrants or their children, almost all of them women, half of them teenagers (the youngest: 14).  The owners were acquitted on manslaughter and actually received more in insurance than the cost of the physical damage to the facilities.

Ironically, the factory was in the Asch Building (it was not, however, reduced to ash and is now part of NYU).

The owners on the 10th floor, notified by telephone from the 8th floor where the fire started, escaped to the roof.   But of the 240 workers on the 9th floor, more than half died.  There was no fire alarm; one stairway was locked (the foreman escaped to the street with the key in his pocket); the external fire escape collapsed; the freight elevators began to melt and were weighed down by bodies falling down the shafts; fire ladders reached only the 6th floor.

Over 50 victims chose death by falling to the sidewalk rather than by being burned up.

As the New York Times said:

“…The fire was a wrenching event in New York’s history, one that had a profound influence on building codes, labor laws, politics and the beginning of the New Deal two decades later….”

Things can’t get worse than the Triangle fire, right? Actually, “Deadliest Workplace Accidents” at PBS catalogues 37 other industrial and manufacturing accidents of US facilities. Of those, eight have even higher death tolls than the 1911 disaster, ranging up to 581 in 1947.

And let’s not forget the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. From Wikipedia:

The Ludlow Massacre was an attack by the Colorado National Guard and Colorado Fuel & Iron Company camp guards on a tent colony of 1,200 striking coal miners and their families at Ludlow, Colorado, on April 20, 1914. Some two dozen people, including women and children, were killed. The chief owner of the mine, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., was widely criticized for the incident….

Surely management-imposed labor disasters don’t happen any more, right? Unfortunately, they do: the PBS list ends with six 21st-century disasters: death in an oil refinery, a sugar refinery, a power plant, two mines, and of course the Deepwater Horizon oil well explosion of April 20, 2010, which killed 11 workers and produced the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

It takes a lot of guts to be an industrial worker in the US, doesn’t it?

At least we don’t have any more sweatshops, right?

Alas, from the Cornell site:

Even today, sweatshops have not disappeared in the United States. They keep attracting workers in desperate need of employment and illegal immigrants, who may be anxious to avoid involvement with governmental agencies. Recent studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor found that 67% of Los Angeles garment factories and 63% of New York garment factories violate minimum wage and overtime laws. Ninety-eight percent of Los Angeles garment factories have workplace health and safety problems serious enough to lead to severe injuries or death.”

As I wrote in 2012 in “Burning up workers,” reflecting on the fire in a Pakistani garment factory that killed twice as many workers as the Triangle fire.

“Wrenching events,” in the Times’ expression, happen around us all the time, in fires, mass shootings, car accidents, environmental disasters, wars, and the steady erosion of our social fabric. Will those too have “a profound influence”? Or is our society totally adjusted to such events, as it seems for now to be to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings and their almost monthly sequels, as an everyday cost of doing business? Is living among self-generated death and destruction just how it is to be Americans these days?

Posted in Labor | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Do countries have friends?

Today I had a rare moment of agreement with Realpolitik, as practiced notably by Henry Kissinger.

Realpolitik is “politics or diplomacy based primarily on power and on practical and material factors and considerations, rather than explicit ideological notions or moral or ethical premises” (Wikipedia).

My moment of realization came in reading Linda Chavez, “Abandoning our friends Obama-style,” Daily Local News, 3/20/15.

In the comment section I posted:

Let’s not get too sentimental here. People have friends; corporations have clients; countries have allies. Russia was our ally, then our enemy. The British, who burned the White House, are now our allies. Values, like friendships, can change; and who always lives up to their own values and friendships… or alliances, for that matter?

Why don’t all countries just go out and act like Hitler and Mussolini—to name two dictators whose countries were highly civilized when Columbus set sail to the New World. Sure, acting like those two (or like Columbus, for that matter) isn’t nice, it isn’t moral, and it kills a lot of innocent people; but countries go right on invading others, killing civilians, reducing whole populations to poverty by sanctions and occupations, and setting up coups against foreign governments.

The real mitigating factor, at least in our time, is world opinion. The US “lost” the war in Vietnam (which we kindly took over from the French) but it would have been easy to “win” by dropping a few nuclear bombs. But we wouldn’t have looked like a very good role model to the rest of the world, would we? After all, in 1945 we became the only country ever to drop nuclear bombs on actual people; twice would become a pattern.

Actually, presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was perceived as suggesting the nuclear solution in May, 1964; although he later hedged on that position, it sure didn’t help his results in November, 39% to LBJ’s 61% (I was in France at the time, and I went through a lot of hoops to cast an absentee ballot in my first presidential election).

But how about this? Chavez writes:

…history is not the primary reason we have always stood by Israel and must do so today. We are part of the same civilization. Our values are the same, part of a continuing tradition that traces its roots back some 4,000 years. Our Founders understood the profound importance of Judeo-Christian values in the American conception of individual rights….

The most cursory look at world history shows that being part of a noble civilization and its ostensible values does not guarantee good behavior. Every European country has played a significant role in western civilization, its great composers and writers, its contributions to democratic thought and government; and every one of them has done the most horrendous things to others.

As a Francophile (yes, as an individual human being, I can have friendly feelings toward a country), I listened intently yesterday to a BBC news report, “Algeria’s War of Independence,” which you can find here.

Beginning in 1830, French settlers took most of the good land and maintained their own institutions and political control. The Algerians started a resistance movement in 1954 that France countered with 500,000 troops, widespread bombings of civilians, destruction of whole villages, use of napalm against suspected militants, and the death of about 1,000,000 Algerians over eight years. Finally France decided in 1962 to let its colony (theoretically a non-contiguous part of France, as Alaska and Hawaii are of the US) go its own way; but for some time the settlers’ “Secret Army” (OAS) continued the battle for Europeans to retain control.

If any country should qualify as our friend, it’s France. Without French support, the US would not have won its war of independence against Britain; without the US, France would have long remained under Nazi rule. As a country, we have never fought against France.

But no, countries aren’t friends, and shared values mean little on the world stage. If they meant more, we wouldn’t have mortgaged our economy to China over the past generation in order to buy cheap plastic goods, when we could have been patronizing countries who “share our values” in Europe.

People can ask Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, but my view is: in foreign policy we should act in our own interest, follow our own governing principles as much as possible, and look like good global citizens. Unfortunately those three desiderata are often in conflict; but at the least we shouldn’t violate all three at the same time.

French soldiers search Algerian
French soldiers searching Algerian, from BBC

Posted in Foreign policy | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The Night of the Bulldozers (Charleston, 3/18/03)

Poetry and politics can meet. “The Night of the Bulldozers” was written twelve years ago this evening, on a trip to Charleston SC, when the then US president announced that the attack against the then Iraqi dictator was about to begin. I keep bringing this to the top on March 18 because it remains so timely.

In Charleston it was a stormy night, the thunder and rain making it hard to hear the news broadcasts–a fitting prelude to a disastrous war. The next morning we went, with about a hundred others, to an anti-war demonstration in downtown Charleston. It was quite civil; I remember the demonstration leader going off to have a cup of coffee with the chief of police.

Every day we see the worsening devastation that occurs when “the big ones” take on the power to do as they wish with the lives of ordinary people. The “patient restorers” and “feeders of children” haven’t been able to make enough headway in the disrupted lands of what used to be the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East.

The Night of the Bulldozers
(Charleston, 3/18/03)

In a room with rain on the roof boards
we wait for the shooting to start
it is not our own children who carry the arms
nor our own children against whom arms are carried

The man who holds his finger on the trigger
is adjusting the aim of his cannons this evening
is tuning the edge of his bombers’ wings
bringing his friends to heel in the palm of his hand

The people holding the bulldozers back from the houses
thought they had an agreement but a woman
among them yesterday kneeling was bulldozed
crushed on the sand by a man with his hand at the wheel

Over our roof sound thunderclaps or airplanes
the rain beating doesn’t let us know which
they could be resounding from the hands of the gods
or from the men who have their fingers on the bombs

A handful of big little boys strut their boots on the sand
their shiny toys gleam in the high sun
closer to each other down the main street they swagger
it is close to noon one minute short of noon

Others try to hold the bombers back with their bodies
to find out if the man with the biggest arms in his hands
will bulldoze his own into a valley carved in the sand
to pile on top of the others bulldozed there before

Through our roof with the rain on it sirens sound
police are chasing or ambulances racing
far away sirens will sound shrill and long in the night
of the bulldozers the night of the bombs

The men with the big toys bestride a narrow land
the moment nears in the dust of the sand
down the main street of the world they strut
hands poised on their overflowing holsters

We wait you knit we will not turn back the dial
will not let the voice of the man with the bombs in his heart
enter this old room over the radio music of the strings
over the voice of the dove mourning in the evening garden

The big ones who strut oh they never are struck down
by the thunderbolt of a god by the hands of the good
by the tearing apart of the heart
before the guns can speak

With raindrops on the roof in the streets
on the waves of the ocean
we make our peace as we can
peace with our own minds

There is no more to be done but to wait
for the killing which has not started to end
for the day of the patient restorers the feeders of children
to come once again once again

Posted in History, International, Peace and War | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments