Category Archives: History

A Youtube Glimpse into Leadership and Love

the road less traveled by

Window-shopping youtube for glimpses of insight, I  happened upon a grainy, black-and-white clip of a  poignant moment in American history.  Decades have passed in procession since the airing of this television program, yet the images and words posed a timely question about  current American politics.

The United States was enduring a wrenching time when the show aired.  Only a few months before, President John Kennedy had been shot by a sniper on the streets of Dallas.  Grief weighed on the nation; the public was still in disbelief of the loss.  Robert Kennedy, the slain president’s younger brother, had retreated to the seclusion of his grief and despair after the murder.   He chose the late night conversation show hosted by the urbane Jack Paar to re-emerge in public.

As the youtube clip began, Paar spoke thoughtfully  of “a man whose own life reminds us what brother really means, the distinguished Attorney General,” and then Robert Kennedy walked to the stage. How unimposing he looked.  He cut a slight figure in a plain suit,  and sported a haircut far from stylish.  Kennedy did not stride with the brisk gait that politicians have since adopted.  As he took  his seat, the audience rose as one and erupted in applause.  The camera panned the crowd, and I sensed they were grateful  to express their love for their martyred president through this  show of affection.

 After waiting for the applause to fade and the audience to settle back, Paar opened with a question about the young widow, Jacqueline Kennedy: how was she dealing with  her grief.  Bobby answered in a voice colored with tenderness, “She spends most of her time with her children.”   Paar then asked Kennedy what he thought the late president’s greatest contribution had been.  Without hesitation, he answered, “He made America feel young again.”  The expression seemed to surprise Kennedy himself.   John Kennedy had given Americans a new confidence in themselves, Robert elaborated.  President Kennedy had also  instilled confidence in others that America stood for certain principles and values and would fight to protect them, if need be.

Confidence: the word stood out for  me.  Yes, America then had confidence in her leaders.  I thought of the U.S. Army, in the summer of 1961, facing down Soviet tanks in Berlin and preventing them from intimidating freedom’s  isolated outpost.  I remembered televised scenes of federal marshals escorting a lonely figure of courage, the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi, despite the mobs egged on by the erratic governor of that state.  The nation’s feelings were of accomplishment and possibilities.

When Kennedy paused, the audience again applauded,  giving voice to  their pent up emotions. Robert let the applause roll over him, knowing I am sure that it displayed the American people’s love for his brother.  And perhaps that they dared to hope that the youthful confidence the country had gained had not been stolen by the furtive assassin.  The ensuing years, I regret to say, have cast this confidence into the shadows.

The short clip of a leader’s re-emergence and an audience’s love told a story tinged with possibility–a sense of what leadership means and how it can instill the courage to face trials.  Could the sense of confidence so palpable in this snippet of history be revived in our country?  There can be little chance of real leadership without a love earned by a president’s moral courage and as felt by that audience in 1964. Such love is not to be confused with its counterfeit, adulation—whose filament may shine brightest just before it burns out.   When leadership is tested and shown to be formidable, it proves worthy of popular respect.  Only then can the people draw confidence from their leader.

Love never fails; but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish.

Paul, I Corinthians 13:8

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A Conversion While Witnessing the Flames

      One spring day in 1911, Frances Perkins witnessed one of the most heart wrenching scenes in American history. The epiphany she then experienced led her to a path less traveled, as she became  the first female Secretary of Labor and the leading architect of the 1930s New Deal.

She was lunching that afternoon with friends at a small café in the Greenwich Village district of New York City. Nearby, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory occupied the upper floors of a grimy, rundown building. In crowded quarters, young immigrant women sewed clothes in nine hour shifts, six days a week, for paltry wages.

The Witness

While Perkins was sipping tea and conversing, a hidden fire smoldered in the lint and scraps of cloth  in the factory. When it flared up, the women ran to escape.  The fortunate discovered  a  way out, but many workers found exit doors impossible to open. Banging and pounding on the doors proved futile, and their desperate pleas went unanswered. One hundred feet above street level, they were trapped with the flames. The Triangle owners  had locked doors from the outside, so they could control the workers leaving the plant.

Smoke poured from the upper floors, and Perkins went into the street to see what was happening. Women climbed out of the windows and stood precariously on the  ledges, hoping for a miracle. The fire trucks arrived, but their ladders did not reach high enough. The firemen watched helplessly as women began to jump to their deaths, driven by the searing flames. One hundred forty-six workers perished. The youngest among them were fourteen year-old Kate Leone and Rosaria Maltese.

In a civil suit resulting from the fire, the plaintiffs were awarded $75 per deceased victim.  Two years later, one of the owners was found guilty of again locking factory doors during working hours, and he was fined $20.

The Path Less Traveled

Perkins, then 31, was a social worker by profession, but after watching the horror of the Triangle fire, she chose a  new direction. She threw herself into political reform to advocate for the working class. When women won the right to vote in 1920, more doors opened for skilled and dedicated women to rise in the progressive movement.

Perkins joined the administration of Governor Franklin Roosevelt in New York. When FDR became president in 1932, with the country prostrate and demoralized in the Great Depression, Frances Perkins became the Secretary of Labor. She was the first woman to serve in the Cabinet. She found herself right at home in the rough and tumble of national politics.  Perkins was tough, but she was also persuasive. She knew how  to work with people on their terms—an invaluable skill, particularly for a woman in the 1930s.

Perkins became the New Deal’s chief policymaker, overseeing reforms that would allow blue collar workers greater participation in American life. The American middle class flourished in this fertile soil. In the process, Roosevelt’s Democratic Party grew to be a broad coalition, with the working class as an integral  partner. This realignment of American politics endured for two generations.

The Charlatans

In 1968, a young man wrote a book entitled Revolution for the Hell of It. Abbie Hoffman was a leader of the late 1960s counter culture and the icon of a new social type, the celebrity protester. He was famous for being famous, and the television cameras, like faithful puppies, followed him from protest to protest.   His remarks, however inane, regularly made the evening news.  As his book’s title implies, Hoffman mocked the diligent efforts of reformers in the mold of  Frances Perkins. He was, indeed, openly derisive of the American working class and its culture and values.

It has been remarked that as the Vietnam War became more unpopular with the American public, the anti-war protestors became even more despised.   While this might seem a paradox, the attitude and behavior of the Abbie Hoffmans of that era dispels any apparent contradiction.  Although the vast majority of anti-war protestors demonstrated peacefully, the fringe who instigated violence were always sure to attract the media’s attention, and the American public reacted.  The provocateurs’  contempt for working class Americans goes a long way to explain the election of conservative Republican Richard Nixon as president in 1968 and his landslide re-election four years later.

Yet, a strange thing happened after the Democratic Party’s presidential election debacle in 1972. As the years went by, through the 1970s and the 1980s, the attitudes held  by the 1960s extremists migrated from the fringes to become more  prevalent in the Democratic Party. Perversely, repeated defeats led to a doubling down on failure.  Instead of a searching self-examination, Democrats of the leftist persuasion blamed the  voters, especially those in the working class who were white. This arrogance was no longer confined to the activists, but came to permeate the party leadership.

Frances Perkins would have been appalled, both on a personal and political level.  The Democratic Party had not only turned its back on her constituency, but it had also eschewed her politics of persuasion.

 

When the Authentic Was Not a Mirage

Robert Kennedy, campaigning in 1968

Robert Kennedy, campaigning in 1968

The authentic is an elusive quality in public life today, like a shimmering mirage on a summer day that continually retreats into the distance until it disappears over the horizon.

I was reminded of this absence, by contrast, last evening. While surfing YouTube, I stumbled upon a clip of Robert Kennedy speaking to students at New York’s Columbia University when he was running for Senator. I had forgotten how unimpressive a figure he cut. Bobby had a bad haircut, his rumpled suit hung limply on his spare frame, and he seemed to protect himself against the crowd by hunching his shoulders. He nervously clenched a rolled-up paper in one hand. His speaking style, sometimes hesitating, never with an easy flow, revealed he was not really comfortable in this kind of crowd scene.

The unscreened questions from the students, while not hostile, challenged Kennedy on key issues of the campaign. As he answered each question, occasionally jabbing the air for emphasis, he won the students over. While watching, I soon understood why they responded. It was not on the basis of his policies or proposals, but due to the feeling with which he touched them. The students sensed something about Bobby Kennedy, something palpable, based on his plain words and on his prior record as Attorney General during the early battles for civil rights. Simply stated, Robert Kennedy meant it. Whether they agreed with him or thought he was a reckless liberal, the students realized after a short time that they were seeing a public figure who meant it.

When Kennedy left the auditorium, the students stood and applauded. They felt connected to the authentic.

Spiritual Resistance in the Crucible of American Slavery

Flight to freedom (photo, public domain)

Flight to freedom (photo, public domain)

 Inspiration  shines like a beacon  from great films when the screen portrayal reflects historical truth. In the 1989 movie, Glory, blue-clad soldiers of the famed 54th Massachusetts regiment sing hymns around a campfire on the eve of a Civil War battle.   The former slaves—the United States Army’s first black unit—invoke their religious tradition to steel their hearts,  as they testify to their faith in God and their faith in each other. “It don’t much matter what happens tomorrow,” one fiery soldier says, “because we’re men now, ain’t we!”  The chorus responds, “Yessir!” and “Amen.”

 [Repost from April]

The historical truth is that the religion of American slaves played a crucial part in preserving their humanity in the face of a brutal system that tore down their human dignity. There was no escape from this existential threat. Slave revolts in the American South proved suicidal. Flight was possible, but so fraught with peril that it was available to only a heroic minority. For the vast majority who remained on the plantations, there was cultural resistance, and the center of that culture was the slaves’ religion.

The slaves’ Christianity taught that there was a power higher than that of the plantation owner, and that before Him the slaves were the equal of any man, with an equal claim to human dignity. Their religion also provided a source of solidarity and collective identity. These were powerful messages in the face of the master’s pervasive control of the slaves’ lives, providing an enclave for the slaves’ human spirit, an inner space protected from the toxic corrosion of slavery.  Religion promised a better future, but also fortified the slaves’ community to endure in the here and now.  100 years later, the civil rights movement’s great orator echoed this spirit. “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope,” Dr. King avowed before the Lincoln Memorial.

The story of this cultural resistance in times that  tried men’s souls is  told in a remarkable book published two generations ago, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, authored by Eugene Genovese. The title itself says so much. Slaves in the American South have often been portrayed as passive, even submissive, and as victims. In Genovese’s account, they are the active subjects who make history, not merely objects to be used and abused by actors who wield greater power. From his narrative, it becomes clear that the slaves’ social labor and their collective struggle to maintain their human dignity contributed as much to the history of the American South as the actions of the planter aristocracy or the exploits of the great political families.

Genovese’s achievement  in writing Roll, Jordan, Roll merits admiration today. Although he is passionate, his book is reliably objective, untainted by the self-righteous tone that so often mars the current spirit in politics. His history reads from the bottom up, giving ordinary men and women their due as historical actors. For an activist and scholar on the left (as Genovese was then), it was a signal mark of creativity to recognize the critical part the spiritual played in enabling the slaves to maintain their humanity.

We are urgently in need of such objectivity and creativity in our politics today. As Abraham Lincoln said in the rancorous 1850s:  ” If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.” Indeed, with contemporary efforts to ban religion from public spaces and airbrush religion from American history, Roll, Jordan, Roll and its tale of communal spiritual strength speaks to us as a timely voice from the past.

A Mettle Forged into Legend: Iron Brigade

Iron Brigade Monument, Gettysburg

Iron Brigade Monument, Gettysburg (Photo by Robert Swanson)

 

Through Maryland’s green and rolling meadows, a stream the color of chocolate winds on its unhurried way to the Potomac River. Blown by summer breezes, cirrus clouds coast across the blue sky, trailing their shadows like the tails of kites across the tasseled corn. In this pastoral landscape, a battlefield seems out of place. One autumn day in 1862, the clash of musketry and cannon fire erupted in the normally languid air near Antietam Creek. Continue reading