Tag Archives: recent American history

“A Full Life – Reflections at Ninety” by Jimmy Carter

Published 2015 – 238 pages, indexed, with photos, poems and artwork

I grabbed this book (off a give-away table) because I spotted a section on DIPLOMACY. And if there’s anything that might help our troubled world right now, that’s it.

I rapidly realized this book fits one of my favorite categories – accounts of times and events I lived through, but don’t really understand. I’ve investigated the Civil Rights movement, Kent State (does everyone recognize this reference?) and the Cuban missile crisis.

I read one of Carter’s earlier books, An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood. It would be worth reading even if Carter had not risen to the Presidency.

By way of a refresher… Jimmy Carter was born in Georgia in 1924 and served as the 39thPresident of the United States from 1977 to 1981, losing the campaign for a second term to Ronald Reagan. At 93, he is the longest-retired President in US history. (Wikipedia)

The social/historical thread that runs through A Full Life is race. Carter grew up deep in the segregated South. The US Naval Academy at Annapolis, MD, was segregated when he entered in 1943. In 1948, the US military and Civil Service were integrated by order of President Harry Truman. By the time he returned to Plains, GA, Carter had little tolerance for racial discrimination. So many years have passed, and our country still struggles with racial issues!

A Full Life – Reflections at Ninety is studded with surprises. I had forgotten that it was Carter who pardoned all the draft resisters from the Vietman war, allowing many who had left the country the option of return.

Carter’s account of the peace talks that led to the Camp David Accords (1978) is fascinating. As Egyptian President Anwar Sadat began to favor some of Carter’s suggestions, Sadat’s contingent became so angry that Carter feared for Sadat’s life, worrying so much he lost a night’s sleep, a rare problem for Carter. What would have happened if Sadat had been murdered in the US? (Sadat was assassinated 1981, in Egypt.)

Carter often sent family members overseas to represent him. Rosalynn Carter traveled to Brazil as part of an effort to convince that country not to refine nuclear reactor waste for use in weapons. OMG! The mere thought of nuclear states in South American gives me cold chills! (Yes, I recognize the irony…)

I very much enjoyed seeing Carter’s paintings, ten of which are reproduced in this book. As far as I know, he is a self taught artist. I’m impressed that he painted portraits. That’s much harder than a landscape or a picture of a house. I only skimmed Carter’s poems…poetry is not my strong point.

For anyone interested in the US Presidency,  A Full Life is worth a careful read. Carter is an excellent, incisive writer and an accomplished politician in the best sense of the word. I wish he could have served longer, and I admire his undertakings in retirement.

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In Honor of MLK Day (2) – Remembering Lillie Belle Allen and York, PA

In my January 16 post, I mentioned the danger of employment in the factories that I inspected. What were the hazards?

  • Dust. Most of the dirt was non-toxic, but I gained an appreciation for the concept of “while collar” work. Once in a while, I came home grimy.
  • Gases, vapors. Once I had to wear a mask. I was exhausted after a few hours. Once I exited a plant that made sticky labels with a definite buzz. What if I had worked there daily?
  • Hot metals. Foundries made me nervous. No two ways about it. I got a few burns in my clothing from sparks.
  • Equipment, including forklifts. OSHA style safety lines were in place, but I learned to stay close to my escorts.
  • Falls, overhead cables, ladders, tripping hazards. I wore a hard hat and developed a keen eye.
  • Noise and heat.

I learned that almost everyone likes to talk about his/her work, and most were willing to answer my questions, even outside the narrow focus of air pollution. I heard discussions about accidents. There were one or two fatalities in York during my time there. The first response always seemed to be to suggest that the victim had been drinking alcohol.

Once I was at an asphalt factory when there was an explosion. I went out with the manager, and watched an injured employee carefully evacuated by ambulance. He was in pain, but his life was not in danger.

Oddly, I had no contact with any OSHA inspectors, and didn’t know how to report the workplace hazards I observed. My estimate was that York County needed maybe three times as many OSHA inspectors as air pollution inspectors. Maybe 10 OSHA inspectors would have been enough to do the job right. Where were they?

I was also unable to report employees who looked too young for employment. I think the legal working age was 16. And I didn’t know how to report water pollution. It’s ALWAYS about communication.

How many people remember than Martin Luther King was in Memphis because of an occupational safety “incident” which led to a strike by sanitation workers? On February 1, 1968 two Memphis city employees collecting garbage had been crushed to death by malfunctioning equipment on the truck they drove. Safety features had been bypassed, the trucks improperly maintained. The workers died horribly, crushed and mangled. Even on a good day, a garbage collector’s working conditions and pay were abysmal. Rioting and confrontation in Memphis were inevitable.

What about the York riots? Were they similarly inevitable?

I refer you to the newspaper York Daily Record (www.ydr.com) which, on April 19, 2016, ran an article titled “Silent no more: The murder of Lillie Belle Allen”. See link with my earlier blog post. Ms. Allen is the African-American woman who died in the York Race Riots of 1969. She was 27 years old, just a little older than I was when I moved to York.

The cast of characters in this tragedy is extensive, and if you really want to follow it, you may need to sketch out a time line.

  • Lillie Belle Allen was visiting her sister when she drove into York.
  • Tom Kelley was a prosecutor who worked for the York County District Attorney, 30+ years later. He brought eleven men to trial.
  • Donnie Altman was part of the crowd that fired at Ms. Allen’s car. No one knows whose bullet killed her. Altman took his own life in 2000, when the murder case was reopened.

Why did York erupt in riots in 1968 and 1969? One trigger was a decision (several years previous) to adopt a very aggressive (punitive? military?) policing style. Beginning in 1962, barking police dogs patrolled York’s African-American neighborhoods night after night after night. Black leaders appealed for relief. It was denied. An officer fired on (or above) a group of Black teens who threw rocks at a police car. The officer faced no disciplinary action for his irresponsibility.

One thing that strikes me about these riots is that they were a form of “proxy” war. Not everyone was involved. Mostly, young men carried out the fighting, teenaged Black male youth against the White male police department. I’ve read the theory that war, in general, is a way that old men with power get rid of the young men who (inevitably) challenge their leadership over time. The subtlety is that two groups of old men oversee the destruction of EACH OTHER’S young challengers.

I can’t recount the whole history here. The York Daily Record article by Kim Strong provides a good summary and profiles a number of individuals, but I suspect there’s more to know. Wikipedia has an entry under “1969 York race riot”.

After the shooting of 22 year old Officer Henry Schaad (he died 2 weeks later), white police officers incited vigilantism on the part of white youths, telling them to “protect their neighborhoods” and raising the specter of Black militants (the Black Panthers) trying to “take over” York. Over time, a mob of armed white youths coalesced around the home of a white gang leader.

Lillie Bell Allen and her family unwittingly drove into this “ambush”. Many shots were fired in a short time.

York, a shocked and devastated city, somehow retreated into uneasy peace. There were no riots the next summer. No one was charged in either of the two riot deaths. Some people saw the outcome as a draw, one Black person and one white person dead. I don’t know if a comprehensive list of seriously injured people exists. Property damage, almost exclusively in African American neighborhoods, was extensive.

This was the city I moved to four years later.

What did I observe? I lived and worked in the City of York proper, not in a suburb. I saw de facto segregation in housing. (It seems to have been a feature of every place I lived until I reached Pomona, NJ.) I took an exercise class at the York YWCA. There was one black woman in a class of 30 or so women. There was noticeable poverty and considerable deteriorated housing. My church was located on the border of a dense urban neighborhood. All the attenders were white. Street crime seemed minimal. I heard ONE racial slur, from a blue collar, factory worker neighbor, but I also picked up less explicit white hostility. If there were gangs, they kept a low profile.

So whatever the racial situation was in York, I pretty much missed it. Two years is a short time to live in a community. I moved in a small orbit. It never occurred to me to go looking around outside of it.

Many years later, in 1999, the murder of Lillie Bell Allen attracted the attention of a young York County prosecutor. With very little information, the case was reopened (there is no statute of limitation on murder) and the murder was investigated. Many of the people involved were still living in York and the vicinity. Eleven men were charged, some with murder, others with lesser crimes There was one suicide. At least two men were sentenced to prison for second degree murder.

Additionally, two men were convicted of second degree murder in the death of Henry Schaad.

What did I learn by looking back on this? Hard to say. That the appearance of a community can be deceiving. That it takes a long time to understand what we now label as “white supremacy” and racism. That I still have a lot to learn.

Peace Pilgrim – Another Chapter

See my previous post about Peace Pilgrim, dated April 21, 2014. Peace Pilgrim’s life (1908 – 1981) is documented in several books and a decent Wikipedia entry.

Two or three years ago, a group of peace activists got involved in an effort to put Peace Pilgrim into the New Jersey Hall of Fame, posthumously.

Why not? It’s a platform, and a way to promote interest in Peace Pilgrim’s life and (much more importantly) her message of peace and personal responsibility. The first time Peace Pilgrim was nominated, she didn’t get enough votes. But in 2016, she was selected! (I think I voted both times.)

To me, one of the most fascinating aspects of Peace Pilgrim’s life was that she maintained two identities, and kept them separated for about thirty years. On the road, she was Peace Pilgrim, and refused to offer any other name or personal history. She wanted the emphasis to be on her message, not her “self”. Over time, Peace Pilgrim developed a mystique and unarguable dignity. How many people could keep this up for decades?

Those who, after her death, undertook to preserve her memory respected her wishes, and the dual structure created during her life was preserved after her death. Nothing linked Peace Pilgrim to Mildred Lisette Norman of Egg Harbor City, New Jersey, until a local movement emerged in the 1990’s opened the door. IMHO, the time was right.

It wouldn’t work in the year 2017, in the age of instantaneous communication via social media. America’s only “wandering holy woman” would have been picked apart by gossip and criticism. I’m glad this didn’t happen.

For the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Peace Pilgrim was represented by her sister, Helene Young, now age 102. Helene is my neighbor. At age 100, she was still out on the road bicycling almost daily, despite being legally blind. The years have now caught up with her, physically. Her mobility is limited. Mentally, she seems little changed, and is very good company.

I worried about the rigors of the Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, but Helene’s family and friends smoothed the way. She had to arrive in Asbury Park hours before the event, submit not just to getting dressed up but to wearing MAKE UP, and be available to the press. She wisely agreed to use a wheelchair, but walked across the stage to the podium with a little help. Seeing her at a distance, under harsh stage lighting, I was shocked by her aged appearance, but when she spoke, her voice was clear, strong and distinctive. What fortitude! I was delighted to be present as her friend and supporter. Yes, she went home tired. But I visited a few days later and found her largely recovered, and happy to chat.

What on earth would Peace Pilgrim think of the New Jersey Hall of Fame?! In many ways, it seems so totally contrary to the peace and simplicity she advocated. But life is complicated…so I am willing to accept the argument that she would have utilized almost any forum where she could deliver her urgent message:

“Overcome evil with good, falsehood with truth, and hatred with love.”

Each of us can find a different path towards this goal. We can all appreciate and celebrate the beauty of Peace Pilgrim’s life.

Ms. Edith Savage-Jennings

I found her! The woman I wrote about as “Elder Sister” is introduced below by the Women’s March in New Jersey website:

“Legendary NJ Civil Rights icon Edith Savage-Jennings needs no introduction but she gets one anyway for her boundless contributions to a better, fairer America. Edith has been the guest to the White House under every President of the United States since Franklin Roosevelt. At age ten, she met First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt when she was selected to hand the First Lady flowers on behalf of the NJ State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. Although told not to speak, Savage thanked Mrs. Roosevelt which led to the two becoming pen pals for the remainder of Mrs. Roosevelt’s life. At twelve years old Edith joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP.) At only 13 years old Edith helped to integrate the Capital Theater in Trenton, New Jersey when she refused to sit in the balcony which was the designated seating area for blacks. Her first job was in the sheriff’s office where she continued to speak out against discrimination. Edith Savage-Jennings has received over 100 awards and honors for her work in Civil Rights. In 2016 she was inducted into the New Jersey Women’s Hall of Fame. The city of Trenton proclaimed February 19, 2016 Edith Savage-Jennings Day.”

There are prophets among us! Picture from Wikipedia, taken one week ago in Trenton.

https://sites.google.com/view/womensmarchonnewjersey/home

Women's March on New Jersey 1 21 17 - 31640308853.jpg

“Peace Pilgrim – Her Life and Work in Her Own Words”

It’s time to tell this story, which is a small part of a strange and wonderful item of local history…

In 1993, I moved to Cologne, New Jersey. Cologne is an unofficial neighborhood, with a post office but no boundaries, located in sprawling Galloway Township. I moved to a small farm, on a street with more woods than houses, and rather little traffic. The nearest town is Egg Harbor City, three miles away.

One evening a woman bicycled into my driveway and introduced herself as Helene Young, representing the March of Dimes. We had a pleasant chat about the neighborhood, and the changes she had seen in the decades since she started collecting for the March of Dimes.

Helene wore a t-shirt bearing the name and logo of what I recognized as a “radical” film company. This was unusual in conservative Cologne, and I was curious. I asked about it. Helene replied, “They came to make a documentary about my sister. My sister was known as Peace Pilgrim. Did you ever hear of her?” 

Indeed I had! I had heard of a woman who travelled on foot and refused to identify herself except as Peace Pilgrim. She would show up, talk to people and groups about the importance of inner peace, stay in people’s homes, and then walk away. She carried no money and no possessions. You couldn’t contact her. If you were lucky, you might meet her. She was a mystery, a wandering “holy woman” or extreme eccentric. One of a kind…

That was all that happened at the time. Helene left on her charitable rounds. I wrote down her name and noticed her small house near the post office. I found and read the book Peace Pilgrim – Her Life and Work in Her Own Words, and recommended it to a few friends. 

That might have been the full extent of it, but one evening I walked up my street to Germania Cemetery and wandered around reading the gravestones, which carry many familiar local names. And there I found Peace Pilgrim’s grave, marked with both of her names! I was moved by it, because the mystique surrounding her hidden identity was so powerful. I stood there for a while, looking around, wanting to be sure I could find the grave again.

I decided to bring the children from my Quaker congregation to see Peace Pilgrim’s grave. One sunny day we met at the Cemetery, a dozen or so kids and adults. We read from the Peace Pilgrim book, talked about her unusual ministry and ate a picnic lunch. Someone produced paper and crayons and made a rubbing of the grave marker. It was a happy outing!

After that, events took on their own momentum. Barbara R, one of the picnickers, was especially impressed by Peace Pilgrim’s life and message, and she struck up a friendship with Helene Young. Steps were taken to preserve the clippings and other documentation of Peace Pilgrim’s travels.

Barbara decided it was wrong for Peace Pilgrim to be unknown in Egg Harbor City, the town where she was grew up. Now there is a park dedicated in her name, and annual events celebrate her life and message.

Helene Young, now almost 100 years old, continues to ride her bike along my street and up to the Cemetery where her sister and other family members rest. Her circle of friends includes many who are fascinated by Peace Pilgrim and her message. I count myself lucky to be Helene’s friend and neighbor.

What about the book? By all means, read it! It is not a “polished” offering. You can also find several web sites to fill out detail, and form your own opinion of Peace Pilgrim’s unique life and message.

John F Kennedy Presidential Museum and Library (Boston, MA)

I spent Christmas in Boston, and on December 26 I diverged from family and went (by myself) to the JFK Presidential Museum and Library. First, the location… Easily accessible by public transit. Whenever the Library is open, a free shuttle bus takes visitors to and from the Transit stop (named JFK/UMass, so you can’t miss it) to the Museum. 

So what’s in the Museum? In the waiting area for the introductory film, videos of Kennedy’s funeral play continuously. The casket, the riderless black horse, Jackie and her children… Real tearjerker moments. But the rest of the Museum isn’t like that.

The introductory film discusses Kennedy’s family and major life events. His assassination is downplayed. After a set of roughly chronological displays, visitors pass under a sign that says “November 22, 1963”. In a dimly lighted corridor, TV screens play two videotapes over and over – Walter Cronkite’s announcement of the President’s death, and a bumpy, grainy, chaotic video of the motorcade in the first minute after the shooting. That’s it. Nothing about Lee Harvey Oswald. Nothing about conspiracy theories. I was relieved.

The next room is a brightly lighted display about the heritage of the JFK years. Computers are available if you want to browse the archives.

I was interested in the special exhibit about the Cuban Missile Crisis. I remember watching the President address the nation on October 22, 1962. I was frightened. Nuclear annihilation felt like a real possibility.

So how close did we come? REALLY, REALLY CLOSE. Several of Kennedy’s advisors advocated unannounced bombing of the missile sites and the Cuban bases housing Russian “military advisors”. Others said that would be as dishonorable as Pearl Harbor. But Kennedy had accepted military advice that led to the earlier Bay of Pigs Invasion, an embarrassing failure. This time he chose the most modest possible response, a naval blockade. Khrushchev continued to threaten, then reversed himself and “caved in”. Castro was furious. At one point, a Russian submarine armed a nuclear weapon, but, following orders, did not launch it.

During the two weeks of the crisis, communications between Kennedy and Khrushchev suffered from a 12 hour delay. The famous “red phones” came later. Much of the special Cuban Missile Crisis museum exhibit was based on tapes made by Kennedy without the knowledge of his advisors. I heard Curtis Lemay advocating for bombing and possible invasion. 

Other important things were taking place during the short Kennedy years, especially concerning civil rights. 

I recommend the Museum highly. Presidential decision making is important to all of us.