Thursday, October 1, 2015
In Memory of my Generation’s People’s Heroes
In every town are war memorials: statues, parks, shrines, and solemn ceremonies recalling those who donned uniforms and obeyed their officers, and indeed the travails of such people (on all sides and in all wars) can be considerable. Their suffering touches many, and their commemoration is accordingly social and official. Politicians and relatives alike glibly say that their sacrifice maintained American freedom, though what there is of American freedom has not been threatened from without since the War of 1812, most certainly not by Kaiser Bill, Ho Chi Minh, or Saddam Hussein.
Those who died for the people’s cause are fewer, and sparks of their memory (such as this) are obscure and idiosyncratic. Yet it is this group that has, by the purest voluntarism in most cases, sought to advance humanity as a whole in work that has laid the foundation of the comparative comfort enjoyed by many today. The grasping hands of the powerful will make no concession voluntarily; even the mildest of reforms come only when forced. Frederick Douglass was correct in his celebrated analysis and deserves quoting yet one more time.
If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. 
In other countries and in the USA in days gone by, the killing of political rebels was wholesale and unashamed. The first verse of the old song “The Red Flag” spoke no more than sober reality.
The People's Flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyred dead,
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts' blood dyed its every fold. 
Though every country produced such people’s martyrs, I mean here to commemorate only Americans. I conceive the group broadly otherwise, accepting as those who labored for a brighter future: community and labor organizers, socialists, anarchists, communists of various stripes, supporters of civil rights, feminists, ecologists and gay activists. I include people outrightly assassinated by law enforcement or military as well as some who ended their own lives as a political statement.  No scholar of American history, I simply write about the people whom I recall and a few others whose names I only recently learned. This list is unsystematic and certainly incomplete, but I feel that simply naming these few names is justified by simple respect for those who genuinely sacrificed for us all. Perhaps, as well, the young and others unfamiliar with the people mentioned here might learn. I welcome additions.
My own roll call includes only my generation and emphasizes the movements of the sixties, though I am aware of massacres such as those during the Homestead strike in Pennsylvania in 1892 (nine killed), at Lattimer -- another Pennsylvania mine near Hazleton, Pennsylvania -- in 1897 (nineteen dead), at Ludlow, Colorado in 1914 (twenty-six killed,) Everett, Washington in 1916 (twelve victims)and the 1921 Rising of Logan County, West Virginia in which between fifty and a hundred workers fell, the Little Steel Strike of 1937 when ten demonstrators were killed by Chicago police and sixteen more fell in Youngstown, Ohio . I am aware that controversy has muddied the narrative for such victims of the judicial system as Sacco and Vanzetti, the Rosenbergs, and Mumia Abu-Jamal. Whatever the details, like those regularly killed on urban streets by police officers, these people did not receive fair trials or just sentences and thus are victims of political persecution whatever their guilt or innocence.
Doubtless the greatest number of political killings occurred in the Southern Civil Rights Movement. Fortunately in this case, scholars have documented the deaths of activists, and they are remembered in the only such monument of which I am aware, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. Archivists have verified the deaths of forty-one people in the Movement from 1954-1968.  They include also a list of seventy-four others who had not yet been killed or for whom the historical research had been in process when the memorial was dedicated. Among those honored there are such well-known names as James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, who died in the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi as well as others such as Lamar Smith who had organized voters in his community and was shot on the courthouse lawn in midday in Brookhaven, Mississippi in 1955 and William Lewis Moore, a white postman from Baltimore murdered in Attalla, Alabama during his solitary march against segregation in 1963.
A late spasm of criminal racist violence occurred in 1979 when Klan and Nazi Party members killed five Communist Workers activists during a protest in Greensboro, North Carolina: Sandi Smith, James Waller, Bill Sampson, Cesar Cauce, and Michael Nathan. The dead included three physicians (one of whom served as president of a textile workers local). The police provided no protection; indeed, there were not present on the scene of the demonstration though it had been announced well in advance, and the assailants were acquitted by all white juries in spite of film documenting the murders.
The police regular reacted with fierce disregard for law during demonstrations in those days and were sufficiently reckless that occasionally someone died. Dean Johnson was killed in Chicago in 1968 at the beginning of the historic demonstrations around the Democratic Convention, and in 1969 James Rector died in Berkeley while demonstrating in behalf of People’s Park. Most everyone is at least aware of the 1970 attack at Kent State in Ohio in which National Guardsmen fired sixty-seven rounds at demonstrators, killing Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, William Schroeder, and Allison Krause. One hears considerably less about the deaths of Phillip Lafayette Gibbs and James Earl Green less than two weeks later at Jackson State in Jackson, Mississippi, or about Samuel Ephesians Hammond Jr., Delano Herman Middleton, and Henry Ezekial Smith who were shot and killed by police in 1968 at South Carolina State in Orangeburg while protesting a segregated bowling alley. The victims in Mississippi and South Carolina, needless to say, were black.
Many people remember television news reports of the dramatic suicide of the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức in Saigon in 1963. The evening news on the American networks showed the monk maintaining his meditation posture as his body burned. A few might recall the self-immolation of Quaker Norman Morrison in 1965 below Secretary of Defense McNamara’s Pentagon office. The fact is that a bit before Morrison’s act, Alice Herz, an eighty-two year Holocaust survivor, had similarly emulated Thích Quảng Đức in Detroit in 1965. A little later that year Roger Allen LaPorte burned himself in protest in New York City as did Florence Beaumont in Los Angeles in 1967, Bruce Mayrock in New York City in 1969 (protesting Biafran War policies), George Winne, Jr. burned himself in San Diego in 1970, as did Gregory Levey in Amherst in 1991 (protesting the Gulf War), Kathy Change in Philadelphia in 1996 (protesting “the present government and economic system”), and Malachi Ritscher in Chicago in 2006 in reaction to the Iraq War. 
It is difficult to calculate the precise number of wholly unjustified killings of Black Panthers by law enforcement. Their attorney Charles Garry claimed that police had wantonly murdered thirty Panthers between January of 1968 and December of 1969 alone. A hostile journalist challenged the circumstances of many of these killings, conceding only the deaths of Bobby Hutton, Fred Hampton, and Mark Clark as altogether unjustified.  Considering the state’s interest in lying or obscuring the facts in many of these cases and the unquestioned program by the government to foment violence among black activists, it may never be clear what happened in many of these cases.
The case of Hampton and Clark is particularly egregious. In one of the clearest examples of political assassination by the state in American history, the Chicago police with the aid of the FBI and an informer in the Black Panther organization drugged Hampton with secobarbitol and then burst into the Panthers’ apartment with guns firing in 1969, killing the two while they lay in bed and wounding four others. No one was ever prosecuted for the violence though the families of the dead and injured won a civil suit years later due to the overwhelming evidence of criminal behavior on the part of the government.
Throughout history the wealthy have held the power. They have never ceded a penny to others unless they had no choice, while the poor are regularly sent off to the front lines of imperialist wars and other military adventures. Through organization, struggle, strikes, and demonstrations the masses have gained a modicum of comfort in the developed world. If today slavery and child labor have ended, women have the vote, labor unions have won some measure of shorter hours, job safety, and a piece of the economic pie, albeit far smaller than workers deserve, it is only because of those who have championed the people’s causes. If you and I appreciate what we have of leisure, a portion of the fruits of our labor, and a bit of space in which to raise the next protest, it is only right that now and then we devote a moment’s thought to those who have been willing to put their bodies on the line in defense of us all.
1. West India Emancipation speech in Canandaigua, New York, August 3, 1857.
2. The Irishman Jim Connell’s song has been an anthem of the British Labour Party and the IWW, among other organizations. It was recently sung by those celebrating the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party Leader.
3. I do not include many righteous activists who were themselves wielding deadly force such as the Weather Underground’s Diana Oughton, Terry Robbins, and Ted Gold who died in the Greenwich Village townhouse in 1970 or Americans such as priest James Carney and former Green Beret David Arturo Baez who had joined insurgents and were killed by the Honduran military in 1983. In the case of Black Panthers the record is often obscure though the government’s desire to eliminate the organization is certain. (See note 6 below.)
4. Their list is available at https://www.splcenter.org/what-we-do/civil-rights-memorial/civil-rights-martyrs.
5. The New York Times story on Levey’s death in 1991 mentions two other self-immolations protesting the Gulf War and eight in protest to the Vietnam War but provides no further details.
6. See Edward Jay Epstein “The Black Panthers and the Police: A Pattern of Genocide?” in The New Yorker for February 13, 1971.