Tag Archives: history

Dream Things that Never Were

There are those who see things as they are and ask, why;  I dream things that never were and say, Why not?

–Robert Kennedy

Robert Kennedy died 49 years ago today by an assassin’s bullet.  “All the things he might have done and all he could have been…”

 

Kensington Park

Kensington Park, Michigan

Reconciliation Is More Beautiful than Victory

April 9, 1865, the signal act of reconciliation in American history took place –in the dusty hamlet of Appomattox, Virginia. The last embers of the Civil War were dying, as had 625,000 soldiers, blue and gray.  The courtly Southerner, Robert E. Lee, came to surrender his threadbare army, and he met the most unlikely of counterparts.  Union General Ulysses S. Grant had been a clerk in a leather goods store when the war began.  He wore his usual ordinary soldier’s coat, spattered with mud, and only distinguished by the three stars in each lapel.

When the papers were signed, Lee thanked Grant for his surprisingly generous terms.  Union soldiers watched respectfully as the gray-clad troops filed past; the order had come down from Grant that there was to be no celebration.  Most importantly, the terms of surrender ensured that there would be no retribution against Confederate officers.  Since General Grant,  hero to the public in the North, had signed the document, the radicals and newspaper editorialists could shout for trials and vengeance until they were hoarse, but it would avail them nothing.

The previous month, in his Second Inaugural Address, President Lincoln had anticipated the war’s end with the words, with malice toward none, with charity for all.  He pledged to bind up the nation’s wounds and to care for those who had borne the battle, and their widows and orphans.  Nowhere did he distinguish between blue and gray soldiers.

The common wisdom might be that the Southerners were the beneficiaries of Grant and Lincoln’s generosity.  The better  view of reconciliation is found in the words of Shakespeare.  The quality of mercy is not strained, the Bard wrote.  It is twice blessed, blessing him that receives, but also he that gives.  By choosing reconciliation, the victor eschews the darker, revengeful  side of human nature.  He is then touched, as Lincoln said, by the better angels of our nature.  Given the fertile soil of accommodation, the slow process of evolutionary growth can proceed.

Significantly, with the abandonment of post-war Reconstruction, the promise of reconciliation was denied the freedmen, even the 180,000 who had fought valiantly in the Union Army.  This retreat from equality remained a  stain on the nation’s record for a century.

In recent decades, the simple, but profound message of the meeting between the aristocrat and the former store clerk at Appomattox Court House has been lost in the noxious atmosphere of American politics.  Triumph at the polls is now the occasion for contempt, not respect, for the vanquished.  The new majority arrogantly rams through its agenda without concern for the minority’s deeply held values.  Reconciliation?  How quaint.  However, as Lincoln, Grant, and Lee knew, victory without reconciliation is a prescription for an endless cycle of rancor and revenge.

“Reconciliation is more beautiful than victory.”
Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, President of Nicaragua, 1990

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

Our Toils Obscure and A’ That

Canadian Pacific Railway

Canadian Pacific track, 1881, Fraser Valley 

 

 

Cascade Mountains

The green Armstrong plaid  had once been a fearsome sight along Scotland’s  border, being  the tartan worn by rustlers and ruffians.  Reluctantly adopting a more settled life, later generations of Armstrong men went down into the coal mine dungeons near Edinburgh to eke out a precarious living for their families.  The course of my family history began when my grandfather Armstrong  glimpsed brighter days in Canada’s West.  His sense of adventure may have been inspired by his cousin’s letters back to the old country from the Canadian frontier, filled with yarns spun from scouting a passage for the Canadian Pacific Railway through the forbidding barrier of the Rockies.

[I’m re-posting this today in honor of the birthday of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns (1759-1796).  The title is a line from one of his poems, “A Man’s a Man for A’That”]

Tam Armstrong secured passage for his family on a ship out of Glasgow, bound across the wine dark sea for Nova Scotia.  Along with various Stuarts, McEwens, and Smiths, they traversed the Atlantic, the convoy dodging U-boats during the First World War.  Upon arrival in Halifax, they took a train across the verdant  farmlands of eastern Canada to Toronto.  From there, the CPR tracks reached to the north shore of Lake Superior, left that great inland sea behind, and struck out through the tractless pines and muskeg of Ontario’s wilderness.  Finally, the train took the Armstrongs over the prairie, golden with wheat waving in the summer winds, to a coal-mining town on the eastern slope of the Rockies.

My mother often reminisced to me about her home town of Nordegg, an outpost of human activity encircled by the dark silence of the forests.     Over the years, I heard a hundred stories, and remain firmly convinced that a few at least were true.  Cougars sometimes strayed into Nordegg’s streets, and family legend held that one cat chased Uncle Andrew into his house.  The Stoney Indians often showed up in town, and later disappeared back into the wilderness after having beguiled the white man in the Indian barter.

Yet, this mining town’s frontier brashness often yielded to Old Country courtesies.  Nordegg was no rough-and-tumble mining camp, my mother insisted.  A golf course, albeit with sand “greens,” followed the Saskatchewan River, grey with silt from melting glaciers at its headwaters.  My mother’s Uncle Jock soloed on trumpet, when he was not anchoring the Nordegg brass ensemble.  Proudly, my mother recalled the Literary Club, where miners discussed novels and plays, naturally with a Scottish burr.  As her anecdotes sparkled, I imagined that the cultural life provided a welcome tonic for the deadening drudgery of mining coal.

But not all her memories spoke of the promise of spring.  One October day, the mine’s whistle had screamed.  Terrified wives and mothers ran to discover what they really did not want to know.  Twenty-nine families mourned.  Nordegg wore black.   Uncle Jock, a pit boss whose warnings on hazardous conditions went unheeded, was among those who did not come up from underground.  The newspaper articles about the disaster mentioned that Jock himself had lost a brother to a prior mine cave-in.

Beneath an autumn sky the color of lead, the funeral procession descended the hill along main street, black flatbed trucks each bearing six flower-draped coffins to the special cemetery plot.  The entire town turned out, many trudging behind the trucks, while others mutely watched from the sidewalk, men and women with bared heads bowed, their faces ashen.

Sometime after the empty trucks returned to the mine, and the sidewalk witnesses retreated to the privacy of their homes, to the privacy of their sorrow and despair, the mine workers’ union built a monument at the cemetery.  The simple stone sentinel bore the names of those lost.  Thirty years later, on a family vacation, I had watched my mother weep at the grave site.  “Jimmy McLaughlin, he was only eighteen,” was all she said.

The Nordegg mine, no longer profitable, closed after the Second War.  The town soon followed, and cougars met no people in Nordegg streets.  My grandparents, hoping to start anew, moved to nearby Edmonton.  Neither my grandfather nor his descendants ever went into a coal mine again.

The Spiritual in the Political: Dr. Martin L. King’s Birthday

Dr. King, 1967 Minnesota Historical Society photo

Dr. King, 1967
Minnesota Historical Society photo

Dr. Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrate today, infused the spiritual into American politics as no one else has–at least since Lincoln.  His “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 was one of the great uplifting moments in American history.  “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope,” King told the assembled crowd.

Before he became widely known, Dr. King addressed a church congregation in my home town of Detroit, and explained how faith inspired his political vision.

“There is something wrong with our world, something fundamentally and basically wrong,” he told a Detroit congregation in 1954. “The great problem facing modern man,” he said, “is that . . . the means by which we live have outdistanced the spiritual ends for which we live. . . . The problem is with man himself and man’s soul.”

Those words illuminate our current political culture with a light that is sadly lacking in today’s discourse.

A Conversion While Witnessing the Flames

One spring day in 1911, Frances Perkins, a young social worker,  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.

[Repost]

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.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving to all who are celebrating!

I did not know until a few days ago that Thanksgiving as a national holiday in the U.S. originated through the persuasive efforts of an early American feminist (and author of the children’s song, “Mary Had a Little Lamb”)  During the Civil War, she convinced Abraham Lincoln to proclaim the customary holiday as a national day of Thanksgiving in the midst of those great trials.  And so we celebrate it today.

Kensington Park, Michigan

Kensington Park, Michigan