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the work of history

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    Fifty years after their murder in Mississippi by the Ku Klux Klan, activists Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney, and Michael Schwerner were among 19 people awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom today by President Obama.

    The three men were slain while participating in the CORE-organized “Freedom Summer” voting registration campaign, though all three had actively participated in civil rights organizing prior to the summer of 1964. Over the course of that summer, thousands of workers and locals were arrested, beaten, and in some cases even killed for their participation in the campaign. Monitoring, threats, beatings, murders, bombings, etc., were not carried out independently by the KKK but by an insidious network of local governments, state agencies, citizen organizations, police departments, and the KKK, of which there was considerable overlap: the county police officer who arrested the three men the night they were ambushed and murdered was at the time both deputy sheriff and active klansman. Those deeply-embedded inequities at the root of the highest structures of state-level authority allowed for this activity to flourish more or less with impunity. In this case, which became known as the “Mississippi Burning” case, seven men were sentenced to at the very most 10 years in prison, and none served longer than six until the case was reopened in 2004.  

    In light of recent events and ongoing situations (including the killing of Michael Brown and continuing demonstration in Ferguson) living relatives of the men have expressed doubt about the commendations - they worry that the award “distorts history” by creating a neat bookend to a continuing struggle. Rita Schwerner, widow of Michael Schwerner and herself a CORE worker, told the Associated Press:

    There were not just three men who were part of a struggle. There were not just three men who were killed…You know, the struggle in this country probably started with the first revolt on a slave ship, and it continues now.

    She also stated:

    It would be more significant if I could look at these fifty years and say, Boy, we are in a much better place today… I think it’s terribly important to understand that this struggle is not over. 

    Chaney’s sister said that the award is "really about all of those families," (referring to families of other civil rights activists killed in those years), and that "It’s really about the history of the pain of the African-American experience in Mississippi."

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    “Thus on the moral level I propose that we view the whole of American life as a drama acted out upon the body of a Negro giant, who, lying trussed up like Gulliver, forms the stage and the scene upon which the action unfolds. If we examine the beginnings of the Colonies the application of this view is not in its economic connotations at least too far-fetched or too difficult to see. For then the Negro’s body was exploited as amorally as the soil and climate. It was later, when men drew up a plan for a democratic way of life, that the Negro began to exert an influence upon America’s moral consciousness. Gradually he was recognized as the human factor placed outside the democratic master plan, a human natural resource who, so that the white man could become more human, was elected to undergo a process of institutionalized dehumanization.”

    - Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act

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    Two and a half years ago, I picked up Life Magazine, and I read an editorial which said, “it’s time to pay attention, because this disease is now beginning to strike the rest of us.” It was as if I wasn’t the one holding the magazine in my hand. And since then, nothing has changed to alter the perception that AIDS is not happening to the real people in this country.

    It’s not happening to us in the United States, it’s happening to them — to the disposable populations of fags and junkies who deserve what they get. The media tells them that they don’t have to care, because the people who really matter are not in danger. Twice, three times, four times — The New York Times has published editorials saying, don’t panic yet, over AIDS — it still hasn’t entered the general population, and until it does, we don’t have to give a shit. Vito Russo, 1988.

    ACT UP posters and materials, 1980s-90s.

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    There again, there are those who always say to Negroes, “Why don’t you do something for yourself? Why don’t you lift yourselves by your own bootstraps?” And we hear this over and over again…

    A man was on the plane with me some weeks ago and he came up to me and said, “The problem, Dr. King, that I see with what you all are doing is that every time I see you and other Negroes, you’re protesting and you aren’t doing anything for yourselves.” And he went on to tell me that he was very poor at one time, and he was able to make by doing something for himself. “Why don’t you teach your people,” he said, “to lift themselves by their own bootstraps?” And then he went on to say other groups faced disadvantages, the Irish, the Italian, and he went down the line.

    And I said to him that it does not help the Negro, it only deepens his frustration, upon feeling insensitive people to say to him that other ethnic groups who migrated or were immigrants to this country less than a hundred years or so ago, have gotten beyond him and he came here some 344 years ago. And I went on to remind him that the Negro came to this country involuntarily in chains, while others came voluntarily. I went on to remind him that no other racial group has been a slave on American soil. I went on to remind him that the other problem we have faced over the years is that this society placed a stigma on the color of the Negro, on the color of his skin because he was black. Doors were closed to him that were not closed to other groups.

    And I finally said to him that it’s a nice thing to say to people that you oughta lift yourself by your own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he oughta lift himself by his own bootstraps. And the fact is that millions of Negroes, as a result of centuries of denial and neglect, have been left bootless.

    - Martin Luther King, Jr., The Other America.” (Stanford University, April 14, 1967).

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    The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality we will find ourselves organizing clergy- and laymen-concerned committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. Such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.

    In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which now has justified the presence of U.S. military “advisors” in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counter-revolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Colombia and why American napalm and green beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru…

    Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken — the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.

    I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

    - Martin Luther King, Jr., "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence." (New York City, April 4, 1967).

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    In 1863 the Negro was freed from the bondage of physical slavery. But at the same time, the nation refused to give him land to make that freedom meaningful. And at that same period America was giving millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant that America was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor that would make it possible to grow and develop, and refused to give that economic floor to its black peasants, so to speak.

    This is why Frederick Douglass could say that emancipation for the Negro was freedom to hunger, freedom to the winds and rains of heaven, freedom without roofs to cover their heads. He went on to say that it was freedom without bread to eat, freedom without land to cultivate. It was freedom and famine at the same time. But it does not stop there.

    In 1875 the nation passed a Civil Rights Bill and refused to enforce it. In 1964 the nation passed a weaker Civil Rights Bill and even to this day, that bill has not been totally enforced in all of its dimensions. The nation heralded a new day of concern for the poor, for the poverty stricken, for the disadvantaged. And brought into being a Poverty Bill and at the same time it put such little money into the program that it was hardly, and still remains hardly, a good skirmish against poverty. White politicians in suburbs talk eloquently against open housing, and in the same breath contend that they are not racist. And all of this, and all of these things tell us that America has been backlashing on the whole question of basic constitutional and God-given rights for Negroes and other disadvantaged groups for more than 300 years…

    And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay.

    Martin Luther King, Jr., The Other America.” (Stanford University, April 14, 1967).

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    Long March in Panjiayuan Antique Market 2 (2004), Hong Hao

    Long March Project

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    Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. 

    Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification… Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

    - "Politics and the English Language"

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    February 13, 1965: President Johnson authorizes Operation Rolling Thunder.

    In late July 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson declared:

    There are great stakes in the balance… If we are driven from the field in Vietnam, then no nation can ever again have the same confidence in American promise, or in American protection… We did not choose to be the guardians at the gate, but there is no one else.

    President Johnson won his presidency by a landslide in 1964 on a platform that asserted “power exercised with restraint” and above all “the preservation of peace.” It was to this objective, to a “quick and honorable end,” that the Johnson administration terminated its policy of restricted overt American intervention and formulated a sustained bombing campaign against North Vietnam, codenamed Operation Rolling Thunder. For a virtually uninterrupted stretch between March 1965 and November 1968, Rolling Thunder dropped, by some estimates, nearly a million tons of bombs on North Vietnam. Contemporaries criticized the tepid rate of its escalation. And by some accounts the U.S. military theoretically pursued a policy of minimizing excessive collateral damage, yet this was a strategic bombing campaign, a tactic undergird by ravaging morale by ravaging populations. Ultimately, the bombardment inflicted some 72,000 civilian casualties.  

    "Its cornerstone," writes Robert Pape,"was to destroy industrial war potential so as to wreak havoc on the political and social fabric of North Vietnam." A gradually-escalated bombing campaign would hypothetically and through stranglehold force Hanoi to negotiate (that is, to end its support for any kind of guerrilla resistance in the south). The operation and the looming prospect of deepening intervention prompted criticism from Senator Frank Church, of the President’s own party. Within a week Church warned that in "newly emerging nations" such as Vietnam, which had only just liberated itself from France’s colonial grip, "the specter of Western imperialism is dreaded more than communism.”

    In March 1965, 3,500 Marines arrived at Da Nang airbase. In July, President Johnson committed 125,000 U.S. troops, his “guardians at the gate,” to Vietnam.    

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    Sir Galahad (1862, 1899), George Frederic Watts & H.W. Peckwell

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    Pale Blue Dot (February 14, 1990), photograph of Earth taken by Voyager 1 six billion kilometers away on its (ongoing) journey into interstellar space

    From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

    The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

    The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

    - Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994), Carl Sagan 

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    Ellis Island Photographs from the Collection of William Williams, Commissioner of Immigration, 1902-1913

    1. Bavarian man
    2. Albanian soldier
    3. Italian woman
    4. Slovak woman and children
    5. Gypsy [sic] family 
    6. Guadeloupean woman
    7. Algerian man
    8. Lapland children, possibly from Sweden
    9. Greek woman
    10. Rev. Joseph Vasilon, Greek-Orthodox priest


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    via California Historical Quarterly, Vol. 50 No. 3

    via California Historical Quarterly, Vol. 50 No. 3

    February 19, 1942: Franklin D. Roosevelt authorizes Executive Order 9066.

    The presidential executive order, issued in the wake of the United States’ official entry into World War II, granted to the Secretary of War the authority to “prescribe military areas… from which any or all persons may be excluded” in order to provide “every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage.” It formed the basis for broad racial policies that imposed curfews, restrictions, and eventually internment on approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans (70,000 of them citizens) living on the West Coast. Certain restrictions and internment also applied to several thousand individuals of German and Italian descent, but support for the indiscriminate removal of these groups lacked the hysterical vigor with which the government - and ordinary citizens - accused Japanese-Americans of espionage and treason.

    This was not a spontaneous act; the FBI and military intelligence had, by the 1930s, already begun to compile lists of potentially dangerous civilians, many of whom were detained in the months between Pearl Harbor and the executive order. Executive Order 9066 granted these efforts expansive and systematic dimensions by way of murky wording which made no explicit reference to any ethnic group, but nevertheless existed to provide authority for the wholesale removal of entire populations from their homes. Washington and many American citizens likely shared WDC Commander John DeWitt’s shrug that “A Jap’s a Jap.” The Supreme Court agreed as well; it affirmed the constitutionality of curfews in Hirabayashi v. United States(1943) and later the entire order in Korematsu v. United States(1944). In Korematsu, dissenting justice Frank Murphy labeled the majority ruling a “legalization of racism.”

    Nevertheless, the government soon shipped over a hundred thousand Japanese-Americans to different prison camps across the country. The most widely-known of these camps is Manzanar, where, surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers, some 10,000 prisoners lived, and maintained their own prison, for three years. After the end of the war, the War Relocation Authority allocated to each incarceree travel money providing for their return home, but by that time many had suffered irreplaceable material loss (of abandoned property) and profound psychological harm. 

    Executive Order 9066 was repealed in 1976, and a 1980 government study concluded that the internment had little legitimate security rationale, that its reasoning instead lay on grounds of “racial prejudice, war hysteria and failure of political leadership.” Reparations payments and apologies to surviving internees began in 1990.

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    March 2, 1807: The U.S. Congress passes the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves.

    One stipulation of the United States Constitution ensured that the country’s part in the international slave trade would stand for twenty years after the Constitution’s ratification. According to Section 9, slave importations would “not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight.” On March 2, 1807, the House and Senate approved a bill that was to go into effect in 1808 which declared that

    from and after the first day of January, one thousand eight hundred and eight, it shall not be lawful to import or bring into the United States or the territories thereof from any foreign kingdom, place, or country, any negro, mulatto, or person of colour, with intent to hold, sell, or dispose of such negro, mulatto, or person of colour, as a slave, or to be held to service or labour.

    By 1800 nearly 900,000 slaves lived in the United States. Importation had continued on into the new century, even as the country’s founding fathers attempted to awkwardly reconcile that which they considered a “cruel war against human nature itself,” their own ownership of slaves, and the liberal ideals that philosophically undergird the country’s founding. Some Americans did recoil at the horrors of the Middle Passage, which seemed a relic of a less civilized century. Still others (or the very same individuals who proclaimed their moral disgust) had practical reasons for supporting an end to importation. At the Constitutional Convention, Charles Pinckney of South Carolina pointed out that George Mason’s state of Virginia would benefit from an end to slavery, because “her slaves will rise in value, and she has more than she wants.” Oliver Ellsworth observed that “slaves multiply so fast in Virginia and Maryland that it is cheaper to raise than import them.” They could not have overestimated the future vitality of the domestic slave trade, which exported a million black slaves from primarily the upper South into the expanding plantation-kingdoms of the deep South.

    In the Chesapeake, tobacco and the slave labor required to cultivate that staple were growing increasingly unprofitable and unappealing to the point that planters could feel financially relieved, in addition to morally, when they weaned themselves off the institution. Even before 1808, the domestic slave trade was a booming enterprise, a system of enterprising enslavers, markets that economically integrated whole regions, black slaves fungible as currency and valuable as commodities; this was a trade so horrific - entailing broken families, forced 700-mile marches, iron chains and coffles - that historians dubbed this internal trade the “Second Middle Passage.”

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    San Francisco Examiner (1925)

    Seven Questions in Dispute (1924)

    March 21, 1925: Tennessee passes the Butler Act, a law prohibiting its schools from denying the Biblical account of human origins.

    That same year, the media flocked to Dayton, Tennessee, to witness and document a court case that unfolded out of one substitute teacher’s violation of the act, which became a microcosm for schisms within American culture between theology and science, fundamentalism and secularism, Jesus and Darwin. Specifically, the Butler Act - named for the state representative who introduced the bill and who thought evolution might steer his children away from Christianity - decreed that:

    it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals and all other public schools of the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.

    In the ACLU-backed Scopes Trial, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the law on the grounds that they could not “see how the prohibition of teaching the theory that man has descended from a lower order of animals gives preference to any religious establishment or mode of worship.” The state legislature repealed the law in 1967, when another teacher disputed his dismissal and argued that the law violated his right to free speech.

    Many of the basic principles of Charles Darwin’s theories had become widely accepted among scientists and the religious alike within Darwin’s own lifetime. Even in the United States, debate prior to World War I focused primarily on scientific alternatives to Darwinism and how Christians might reconcile science and faith. But anti-evolution sentiment gained significant traction in the country after World War I. The great populist politician William Jennings Bryan (who later faced Clarence Darrow during the “Scopes Monkey Trial”) campaigned against the teaching of evolution on the grounds that, as he wrote in 1922, teaching evolution weakened Christianity and therefore morality. Bryan opposed these teachings believing that Darwinism undermined the whole basis of societal morality. A man most famous for his campaigns against the corrupting forces of modernity - of elites, monopolies, and banks, imperialism - opposed evolution on the same grounds, linking Darwinism with Social Darwinism and scientific justifications for economic, social exploitation. He wrote in 1925 that “science is a magnificent material force, but it is not a teacher of morals.”

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    Illustrations for The Boy’s King Arthur (1922), N.C. Wyeth

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    Weird Tales (December 1937), Robert Bloch & Virgil Finlay

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    Saying, we need a home. And we’ll do anything to get a home, even if it means making others homeless… I want a rich fabric of some sort, which no one can fully comprehend, and no one can fully own. I never understood the idea of this is my place, and you are out. I do not appreciate going back to the origin, to the pure. I believe the major political and intellectual disasters were caused by reductive movements that tried to simplify and purify.

    I don’t believe in all that. I wouldn’t want it for myself.

    - Edward Said (August 2000)

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    Illustrations for Paradiso, The Divine Comedy (1320) by Gustave Doré

    Canto XVIII: The saintly creatures flying, sang, and made
    Now D. now I. now L. figur’d I’ th’ air.

    Canto XXVIII: All, as they circle in their orders, look
    Aloft, and downward with such sway prevail,
    That all with mutual impulse tend to God.

    Canto XXXI: In fashion, as a snow-white rose, lay then
    Before my view the saintly multitude

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