Tag Archives: civil rights

“What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815 – 1848” by Daniel W Howe, part of “The Oxford History of the United States”

What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford History of the United States)

Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday I spent many hours in the car, driving to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, then to a suburb of Washington DC and finally home to New Jersey. Recorded books make grueling trips bearable! My fellow traveler is working his way (selectively) through The Oxford History of the United States.

The Oxford History (conceived in the 1950s and published starting in 1982) will eventually consist of 12 volumes. They are not strictly sequential. (Some deal with a topic rather than a time period.) We are making no effort to read them in order. My husband began with The Republic for Which it Stands, covering 1865 to 1896 (Reconstruction and the “Gilded Age”). Then we jumped back in time to What Hath God Wrought.

Initially, this book was going to be titled Jacksonian America. Wow! I didn’t realize how much there is to hate about Andrew Jackson! His attitudes toward African Americans (enslaved or free) and native Americans were ugly. The rest of the world was turning it’s back on the “peculiar institution”. How would America move forward? The US was on shaky moral ground.

Taking a step back, the value of this book is that it shows how unprecedented and experimental the newborn United States was. The future success of our country was by no means assured.

Okay, I admit to having slept through a good deal of the recorded text, but it didn’t matter. What I learned was interesting! Consider, for example, the role of violence in civic life. Why so many riots? This book was published in 2007, but it has a remarkable amount to say about politics and behavior in 2018.

Three issues in this book that particularly engaged me were

  • the abolition movement
  • “Indian removal”, as in The Trail of Tears
  • women’s rights, especially suffrage

Sometimes supporters of these movements aided each other, and sometimes they found themselves at cross purposes.

When I’m on the road, I often need music or conversation, but well written history also makes the miles roll past. Previously I’ve read popular books about World War II. Shifting towards these more scholarly works has been worthwhile.

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“Having Our Say: Women of Color in the 2018 Election”, a lecture by NJ Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver

Personal note! Living near a college (in my case, Stockton University) is an advantage. Something is always happening. In the past few weeks, I’ve attended three lectures. Unrelated to the University, I stepped out for one speaking engagement. I will blog about all of this. Stay tuned!

Institutional note! FIFTEEN years ago Stockton University initiated the Fannie Lou Hamer Human and Civil Rights Symposium. What a great program! Every Fall, a distinguished guest speaks about RIGHTS. Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977) was an amazing example of a person who acted to expand human rights in our country.

Now to discuss the event and the featured speaker. Sheila Oliver was preceded by about 45 minutes of music, dance, welcome and introduction. It was interesting to note which earlier civil rights leaders were mentioned in either the introductions or Ms. Oliver’s presentation:

  • Shirley Chisholm
  • Coretta Scott King
  • Angela Davis
  • Mary McLeod Bethune
  • Eleanor Roosevelt

The auditorium was dark, so my note taking was limited. Ms. Oliver pointed out that in this election cycle, many women are choosing to run outside of the two major parties. The importance of state legislatures (when the US House and Senate are polarized and paralyzed) was emphasized.

I’m always curious how a leader is shaped by her education. Ms. Oliver mentioned A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens) and The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck) as foundational for her, and also recommended Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, by S and E Delany.

Ms. Oliver was not long winded, but many students left before the Q/A period. Maybe shorter preliminaries would reduce this attrition?

The panel assembled for feedback and discussion was distinguished. I won’t try to cover everything said. The standout was Christabel Cruz of the Rutgers Center for American Woman and Politics. Emerging leader! She was the youngest panelist and the first (only?) speaker to address discrimination against the LGBTQ community. She is energetic and articulate and exactly the right person to reach out to millenials. After all, this event was intended to engage STUDENTS. I hope Ms. Cruz stays in New Jersey.

In honor of MLK Day (1) – Remembering Lillie Belle Allen and York, PA

Silent No More

(The Murder of Lillie Belle Allen.)

First, the link above… an exceptional article.

What do I remember about York, PA? I lived there from 1973 to 1975, call it two years, my first two years after finishing college.

Why write about this? Because I just stumbled on a Facebook post pertaining to the “York race riots” of 1968 and 1969. I lived in York for TWO YEARS, only five years later, without know anything about this calamity. Without hearing a word about two people who died (Ms Allen, named above and a police officer named Henry Schaad) and the state of war that had existed between the police and government of York and its African American citizens. HOW DID I MISS THIS? And can I learn something from it now, almost 50 years later?

Why York, PA? What was I doing there? Why write about it now?

First I should explain that I “finished” college with two degrees, BS in Chemistry from Michigan State University in 1971 and MS in (Analytical) Chemistry from The Pennsylvania State University in 1973. I had graduated from high school in 1967, so you can tell I went through college in a straight line, four years for the BS and two more for the MS. But most of my summers were not devoted to study. I spent two summers working as a lifeguard (easy, but long hours), three summers traveling (8 glorious months, total!) and one summer on the Penn State campus, doing the laboratory work for my MS degree. I never returned to academe as a student.

Penn State was a great platform for job hunting, and 1973 was not a bad year for Chemistry graduates. I had numerous on campus interviews, traveled to visit some big name employers (like Dupont) and was invited by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources to work in its Bureau of Air Quality at a district office in York. I accepted that offer.

For someone with my educational background, this was a career change, undertaken before I had a career. The first Earth Day, in 1970, while I was at Michigan State, had raised my conscious (or at least altered it) and I was less interested in the science of chemistry and more interested in its application to the problems of environmental pollution. Required, at Penn State, to choose among the traditional disciplines of Chemistry (organic, physical, analytical and inorganic), I focused on Analytical Chemistry, for two reasons.

  • I thought I could always count on getting a job in Quality Control, somewhere.
  • And I thought the Chemistry of pollutants would be interesting and relevant.

So, at Penn State, I learned that pollution was studied by engineers, and I took a few engineering courses. Very few. Two air pollution classes, and three or four single credit seminars in water pollution and solid waste management. This meager list qualified me as an “expert” in those early days of environmental regulation.

I’ve no idea why I was assigned by the Bureau of Air Quality to York. I didn’t look very closely at the City itself. The office was new, located in a shabby rental downtown, and very small. We peaked at one supervisor (very young), four air quality inspectors and two support staff.

The work had nothing at all to do with chemistry, and I was on a fast learning curve. We inspected factories, reviewed emissions inventories, investigated complaints of smoke and malodors and serviced a few simple air sampling devices. We kept records when the state sent its stack testing team to our area. We testified in court when we caught a polluter in the act. It was varied and interesting, and we felt we were fighting “the good fight”.

What about York? A friend of a friend was teaching at York Penn State. An apartment was available in the house where she lived. I moved in with my meager graduate student furnishings. Adult at last!

What did I think about York? Well, compared to what? Suburbia? The campus of a large public university? I was decisively an outsider in York. When I called about moving into the apartment in my friend’s house, the owner asked me to meet her at the mall. We had a cup of coffee, discussed the rent and my desire to paint the rooms, and made a deal. The landlady asked “Are you a teacher or a nurse?” I explained about being an air pollution inspector, but I don’t remember her reaction. I knew (but I can’t say how), that the meeting over coffee had been a color check. I was a “desirable” tenant.

Having watched the integration efforts in off campus housing at Michigan State, I was not surprised.

York was a shabby industrial city, with all kinds of manufacturing mixed into the neighborhoods of apartments, row houses and slightly nicer homes. A cement factory loomed over West York, slowly turning it to stone. (Not kidding.) An iron foundry operated on the east side of town. A national corporation produced sports equipment and 500 pound bombs just north of the city. (Again, not kidding.) A smelly old factory turned out asphalt roofing. What else? Potato chips, and (!) York Mints. Yes, you can still buy them. Where are they made today? In all, about 1000 industrial sources operated in my working territory. A few dozen qualified as major pollutors.

For me, every day was an adventure. I drove around York, Adams and Franklin counties, occasionally striking fear into polluters, who didn’t take their air pollution issues very seriously, and who hated being challenged by a young, female college graduate. I was ignored until the first “certified nastygram” arrived in a corporate office, threatening legal action. At most, fines of around $100 were levied, but business owners HATED to pay up.

If there was an obvious piece of the American social agenda unfolding around me, it pertained, not to race, but to workplace health and safety. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) had been enacted two years earlier (1971) and the first enforcement “pass” through York had been fierce. So when I walked in to enforce air pollution regulations, the reception was frosty. However, the experience of being inspected and judged (and occasionally dragged into court) by a young woman was so novel that most business managers, entirely perplexed, treated me with reasonable politeness. My male colleagues were hassled a bit more than me, but none of us was harmed. (I had one close call.)

The federal government was in the process of taking over or at least regulating occupational health and safety, and environmental protection. These were big, important changes with significant consequences. I observed that the factories I inspected were rather dangerous places.

To be continued…

My Days in Court – Reflections on Jury Duty

Somehow, I avoided jury duty for much of my adult life.

  • I worked for County government, and was classified as an “essential employee”.
  • I was teaching, and they couldn’t figure out my vacations.
  • I had primary responsibility for a child under age 16.
  • They forgot about me.

Then I turned 50, and started getting regular greetings from the County court system. Every two years I was summoned to Civil Court, hung around for a day or two, and watched other people be put onto juries. Once I was called for grand jury, an even more solemn venture, but two 16-member panels were generated without my name being called.

I was called to Civil Court again this month and was (again) not seated as a juror, but was exposed to a new, higher level of judicial seriousness. Hence, these comments…

I’ve always been called to Civil Court, and each case has involved assignment of responsibility and financial compensation. These are not criminal cases where someone may be sent to prison. I assumed, therefore, that I was unlikely to be exposed to something violent or sordid. Wrong.

In my current service, I began by waiting through the selection of a jury to determine who was responsible for damage to a house – homeowner vs contractor – but it was implied that the next case coming up was “big” and might last more than a week.

So on my second day of duty, the jury assembly room was crowded. The group led into the courtroom was so large that all seats were occupied and at least 20 people stood along the walls. The judge introduced himself and the case, which dated back to 2010. A city police officer arrested a man carrying drugs, who was convicted of possession and (I think) served prison time. That, of course, was the criminal side of the case.

The civil case resulted from an accusation that police brutality was committed during the arrest, in violation of the civil rights of the suspect. In this civil case, the police officer was the defendant; the man arrested was the complainant. The jury would decide whether the actions of the officer constituted a violation of rights, and if so, how much money should be awarded to the complainant.

The details of the alleged brutality were sufficiently grim as to send a wave of distaste across the prospective jurors. I felt like I could hear my neighbors’ thoughts, predominant being “I don’t want to deal with this.” The first stage of jury selection, excuses for hardship, began. A quarter of the potential jurors departed. Then came the issues of knowing any party to the case (including a long list of witnesses), familiarity with the location of the arrest, etc. Some potential jurors asked to speak to the judge privately.

We were handed long sheets of standard voire dire questions and told they would be supplemented by additional, case specific questions. All questioning was handled orally, one potential juror at a time. We were advised to pay attention.

After lunch the first panel of 8 jurors was seated. Each had to rise and introduce him or her self, following a list of questions supplied by the court and including “how do you spend your spare time?” and “do you have any bumper stickers on your car, other than political election stickers?” Bumper stickers, it turns out, are rare in this County.

My mind was racing. Should I tell the judge that I don’t believe in the war on drugs? That it has become a war against the poor and disadvantaged? That it isn’t reducing drug use or making us safer? I have considered this carefully. I would be unwilling to convict in certain drug cases, on religious/moral grounds. But this was a civil case. No one would be sent to jail. I could very likely get myself off the case by expressing my opinions to the judge. Should I do so?

My one and only bumper sticker would probably get me off in any event. “War is Not the Answer”. It also appeared that anyone with education beyond a Bachelor’s degree was being excused from duty. The judge repeatedly told us not to “take it personally”.

As time wore on and the slow process was carried forward, I realized that the TRUTH about this case was very important. If police are brutalizing suspects and breaking their own ground rules, we-the-public need to know. Conversely, if this is a false accusation, the police officer in question has to be defended. I consider false accusation to be especially heinous, because the damage done to an individual may be so far beyond repair.

Considered as a process being conducted in service of truth, this case seemed to me to be more and more weighty as the day passed.

As the afternoon wore on, juror after juror was “thanked and excused” by one side or the other. The pool was down to perhaps two dozen tense and tired citizens when the jury of eight was finally sworn in late in the day. The lawyers and their clients rose and turned to face us as we filed out, a polite gesture many did not appear to notice.

What did I learn? Does “the system” work? I don’t know, but I am not as cynical about it as some of my friends. I felt that the judge and the eventual jury were acting in serious good faith. If we aren’t going to use this system to determine truth and defend rights, WHAT IS THE ALTERNATIVE?

I assume this case is important enough so that I will eventually find the outcome in the newspaper. I deeply hope that it will be based on truth.

But even if it is, there’s still something troubling me. The jury trial process is so unremittingly adversarial. One side or the other will WIN. The other will LOSE – completely. Might the “truth” be somewhere in between?

Either way, the resolution of this case will do nothing to restore the faith the between police and community which has been so very badly damaged in our country over the past year or so. It will not rebuild trust or understanding.

There is a new concept on the horizon – RESTORATIVE JUSTICE. The idea is to facilitate some kind of reconciliation between perpetrator and victim in criminal cases. It’s hard to see how it would apply to the case described above. RESTORATIVE JUSTICE has been around long enough to have an entry in Wikipedia. Maybe, over time, “the system” can be changed to serve us all better.

I welcome comments from anyone who wants to discuss his or her experiences with jury trials and the pursuit of justice.

Remembering the Sixties

The Eve of Destruction – How 1965 Transformed America by James T. Patterson, 2012.

I wondered how a description of the sixties would match up to my memories. I finished high school in 1967, which means I rode out 1965 in a rather protected, suburban corner of the world. Different authors have picked different years as the crux of the sixties. Patterson emphasizes how fast attitudes changed (from hopeful to anxious) during 1965.

Two themes run through this book – Vietnam and civil rights.

To me, the important aspect of Vietnam was the draft. It was a cloud on the horizon in 1965, but before I was out of college, some draft boards called up every eligible man in their region. I was reminded that, in 1965, two Americans killed themselves by burning to protest the draft. News coverage at the time was scanty. 

Details about the civil rights movement were similarly interesting.

This book provides a good review of an important part of our history. Patterson (a professor at Brown University) has written (at least) seven other books. Several deal further with civil rights, and one is about cancer.