Archive for January, 2015

“Migrant Mother” and the real story of Dorothea Lange’s masterpiece

Posted on January 29, 2015. Filed under: American history, What History is For | Tags: , , |

Part 2 in our series on Reading Famous American photos brings us to one of the most famous photographs in world history: Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother: Lange-MigrantMother02 It was taken in 1936. The Library of Congress has annotated it thus: “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California”. The woman stares into the distance, her brow lined with worry, trying to perceive a glimmer of hope in her desperate situation. Her two daughters hide their faces from the camera, but the mother does not even seem to see it. Her mind is working to find some way forward, some way to feed her children, including the baby almost hidden in her lap. Their clothes are worn and dirty. Never did the future for Americans facing the Depression seem so bleak; there is no guarantee that this family will come through intact. The photo is beautifully framed in a classic triangle: you look at the mother’s face, then travel down her arm to the baby, then back up to the girl on the right, and across to the girl on the left—and then back again to that expressive, strong, but desperate face.

That Migrant Mother was Florence Owens Thompson, a migrant worker originally from Oklahoma. She married Cleo Owens and moved with him and their three children to California in the late 1920s, where he had relatives, and they worked in saw mills and farms in the Sacramento Valley. Owens died in 1931, leaving Florence pregnant and with five children to support at the height of the Depression. Florence met Jim Hill and had three more children with him, supporting her family by picking cotton, doing manual labor in hospitals, working as a cook—anything to bring in money. The family was on the road in March 1936, looking for work in the fields after finishing a hitch picking beets. Their car broke down on the highway, near a pea-pickers’ camp. That was bad news; worse was to come. There were around 3,000 migrant workers at the camp, all unemployed after a freezing rain had destroyed the crop. There would be no work for anyone. As Hill and two of the boys walked into town to get parts for the car, Florence waited in the camp with the younger children.

At this point, Dorothea Lange appeared with her camera. Lange was a photographer working for the Farm Security Administration to document the human toll of the Depression. She took six photos of Florence and her three youngest children, and wrote these notes: “Seven hungry children. Father is native Californian. Destitute in pea pickers’ camp … because of failure of the early pea crop. These people had just sold their tires to buy food.” Later, Lange described her encounter with Florence:

I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.

Lange sent her photos to the San Francisco News and to Washington, DC. When this photo ran in the newspaper, people were so moved and appalled by the conditions at the camp that the federal government sent 20,000 pounds of food to the camp. By the time it arrived just a few days later, Florence and her family had moved on to work at another farm.

So much is history, and legend. Florence Owens Thompson (she remarried in 1945), however, told a different story. She claimed that Lange never spoke to her at all, and just started taking pictures. She also ridiculed the idea that they had sold their tires for food—how would they drive the car if they sold the tires? “I don’t believe Dorothea Lange was lying,” Thompson said, “I just think she had one story mixed up with another. Or she was borrowing to fill in what she didn’t have.” Thompson also claimed that Lange had promised not to publish the photos. Thompson was humiliated by her family’s poverty and didn’t want it broadcast around the nation.

Luckily for her, the family’s name was never published, and the identity of the family and the Migrant Mother remained unknown until 1978, when a California reporter saw Florence in her mobile home and recognized her. The newspaper published his article that quoted Florence as saying “I wish she hadn’t taken my picture. I can’t get a penny out of it. She didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.” There was no way for Florence to know that, as a government employee, Lange gave up all rights to her work and never received any money from the photo herself.

The photo became more and more famous as the single best illustration of the nightmare of the Depression. In 1998, it was put on a U.S. stamp—the first time that living people (the daughter on the left and the baby in Florence’s arms) were featured on a stamp. According to her children, Florence was humiliated all over again by the celebration of the photo, but when she became ill in August 1983, her children appealed to the public for help, and over $25,000 in donations for the Migrant Mother’s medical bills came in. For the first time, Florence felt like she was more than a symbol of failure and shame.

Florence Owens Thompson died the next month. Her gravestone reads “Florence Leona Thompson, Migrant Mother—A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood.” Migrant Mother is rightly famous, but for Florence’s sake, this photo should have its due, too:

MigrantMotherandDaughters1979

This is a re-enactment of the photo taken in 1979. Katherine and Ruby stand on either side of their mother, and Norma, the baby in Florence’s arms, kneels beside her mother. Florence managed to provide for her family and get them through the Depression, despite all odds. Katherine’s tribute to her mother is fitting: “We never had a lot, but she always made sure we had something. She didn’t eat sometimes, but she made sure us children ate. That’s one thing she did do.” Next time: Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima

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Reading famous American photos: Migrant Mother, Flag-Raising at Iwo Jima, and The Soiling of Old Glory

Posted on January 22, 2015. Filed under: Civil Rights, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

We all know certain iconic photos from American history—a Migrant Mother staring down starvation during the Great Depression:

Lange-MigrantMother02

U.S. Marines and Navy soldiers raising the U.S. flag at Iwo Jima during WWII:

WW2_Iwo_Jima_flag_raising

and this photo of a black American seemingly about to be stabbed with an American flag during a civil rights protest:

flag stabbing

Each of these photos is misleading. In this short series, we’ll start with the last one. It was taken by Stanley Forman on April 5, 1976, in Boston, Massachusetts during a protest over court-ordered school desegregation—busing. It seems to show a white man about to stab a black man who is helplessly pinned and prevented from escaping by another white man. The attacker is Joseph Rakes, the black victim Ted Landsmark, the man pinning him back is Jim Kelly.

What they were really doing is this: Rakes, holding the flag, was swinging it at Landsmark in an attempt to threaten him, but was not running toward him to kill. You can see that Rakes’ feet are planted—he’s not moving. He was just at a point in his flag-swinging where the flag was horizontal. Rakes was against busing, but he was not trying to kill anyone.

The man holding Landsmark, Jim Kelly, was a Boston city councillor who was notoriously against desegregation of any kind—in schools, housing, anywhere. He was there to protest busing. Yet it is Kelly who is trying to get Landsmark out of the way of this man waving the flag because he was afraid Landsmark would be attacked. You can see that Kelly’s feet are moving. Ted Landsmark was a lawyer—you can see he is the only one wearing a suit—who had already been attacked by anti-busing rioters and had his nose broken. He seems to be resisting Kelly, perhaps thinking he is yet another white about to attack him.

Rakes later said that he first saw this photo on the bus as he rode to work the next day. It was on the cover of the newspaper someone else was reading.  “I saw the image and thought, ‘Who is that lunatic with the flag?’ Then I realized it was me.”

Even if Rakes wasn’t about to stab Landsmark with the flag, it’s a chilling image. Using the flag as a threat in any way is a cruel and sickening perversion of that national symbol. You don’t have to stab someone with it to soil Old Glory; just using it to protest democracy is soiling enough.

But taking the time to learn the truth about this image is more instructive than just being repulsed by what it seems to show. That Jim Kelly would protect a black man who was promoting busing tells an uplifting story about humanity and decency trumping racism, even if for a moment. And Rakes’ immediate reaction to the photo, in which he saw a “lunatic”, also cuts through the ideology of racism and reveals the basic indecency of any racial attack.

For each photo that we deconstruct here, we’ll offer one that is not so famous but should be. Here is the first:

Valerie Banks

On September 12, 1974, when the school year began in Boston with court-ordered busing despite the protests, white students at South Boston High School boycotted classes. Some refused to sit with black students. Others were afraid of the inevitable violence that would take place in and around the school. Black students also boycotted, for fear of being attacked. Only this young woman, Valerie Banks, bravely showed up to her geography class that day. This lone American, waiting with determination, patience, and courage for a better day, should be remembered.

Next time: Migrant Mother myth-busting

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Selma throws Lyndon Johnson under the bus of history

Posted on January 14, 2015. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , |

The movie Selma is being acclaimed by all and sundry for its depiction of the events surrounding the 1965 March on Selma that went down in history as “Bloody Sunday” for the unimaginable violence leveled at men, women, and children marching for voters’ rights in Alabama by state police. The approximately 600 marchers were led that day, March 7, 1965, by many brave Americans, including John Lewis, the Rev. Hosea Williams, Bob Mants, and Albert Turner. They crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma before they were blocked by state troopers and white militia. When Rev. Williams tried to talk with an officer, he was ignored, and the troopers began trying to physically push the marchers back. Then the beatings began, and mounted troopers charged the marchers, trampling many of them.

What made this attack, which was otherwise par for the course in the south, so unusual is that it was televised. The three major news networks were there and they did not hesitate to broadcast the violence (although they were themselves threatened if they did so). A photo of marcher Amelia Boynton lying unconscious in front of the bridge after being beaten unconscious by a trooper like the one still standing over her with his club made Americans across the country sick.

amelia_boynton

In response, a second march was organized, and it was led by Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. But black leaders were not the only ones taking action. President Lyndon Johnson was galvanized by the horrid spectacle and issued a statement “deploring the brutality with which a number of Negro citizens of Alabama were treated…”

Johnson did more than make statements, however, and that’s where the movie Selma goes so wrong. As the NYT review puts it,

…its depiction of Johnson as a laggard on black voting rights who opposed the marches and even unleashed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in an effort to stop Dr. King’s campaign. …

The movie’s depiction of Johnson’s attitude toward F.B.I. surveillance of Dr. King’s personal life, which began during the Kennedy administration, is particularly problematic, several historians said.

In an early scene, Johnson seems disgusted by J. Edgar Hoover’s suggestion that Dr. King — “a political and moral degenerate,” Hoover says — be taken down. But later the president, angered by Dr. King’s plans in Selma, asks to get Hoover on the phone. Soon after, Coretta Scott King is shown listening to a tape of anonymous threats, followed by the sounds of Dr. King moaning with a lover.

In fact, the tape, which Mrs. King listened to in January 1965, had been recorded and sent to the headquarters of Dr. King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in late 1964 by the bureau’s intelligence division, and had no direct connection to Selma or to Johnson, Mr. Garrow said.

“If the movie suggests L.B.J. had anything to do with the tape, that’s truly vile and a real historical crime against L.B.J.,” he said.

It’s a shame that John Kennedy has such a hold on the national imagination that historians will not put the blame for the slanders against King where it belongs: in his administration. Robert Kennedy pushed hard for an investigation of MLK, and FBI director Hoover was all too eager to oblige. Johnson had nothing to do with the investigation, but he is demonized in the movie for it, where he is portrayed as a terrible enemy to King and someone devoted to fighting the civil rights movement.

In rebuttal, we refer our readers to our post series of posts called Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” Speech, in which we point out that

President Johnson was one of those Americans who watched the footage from Selma and was infuriated and repelled by what he saw. Johnson was a sincere proponent of civil rights, and he had staked a lifetime of political clout on passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Everyone expected him to back down after that, and not “push” the Southern Democrats for anything more on the race front. Instead, Johnson went on TV himself, and spoke to the nation, one week after the attack at Selma, and asked the American people to live up to their creed and ensure the voting rights of black Americans….

[In his address to the nation on March 15, 1965, Johnson said in part]  “At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted. One good man, a man of God, was killed.”

Connecting—equating—the white policemen in Selma with the British regulars at Lexington and Concord and with the Confederate leadership at Appomattox was daring. Johnson is very clear here: the white police of Selma fought and killed Americans trying to exercise their rights and freedoms as Americans. There is no other way to define it. They were not protecting Southern society, or Southern womanhood, or keeping down violent blacks, or maintaining law and order, or upholding the law of the land, or any of the other justifications racial violence was so constantly wrapped in by its perpetrators.

“There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Selma. There is no cause for self-satisfaction in the long denial of equal rights of millions of Americans. But there is cause for hope and for faith in our democracy in what is happening here tonight. For the cries of pain and the hymns and protests of oppressed people have summoned into convocation all the majesty of this great Government—the Government of the greatest Nation on earth. Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country: to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man.

…There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans—not as Democrats or Republicans—we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.

…But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

And we shall overcome.”

—Here, listeners would have wondered if they had really just heard their uptight-looking, cantankerous white Southern president quote the famous rallying cry of the civil rights movement. And had he really just said that all Americans inherit the burden and shame of racism and injustice? Again, we see Johnson’s insistence that racism was not a “negro problem”, an issue that trouble-making radicals kept bringing up or making up, but part of the fabric of American life and the part that needed to be ripped out and replaced, not honored and enshrined as “tradition”.

…”As a man whose roots go deeply into Southern soil I know how agonizing racial feelings are. I know how difficult it is to reshape the attitudes and the structure of our society. But a century has passed, more than a hundred years, since the Negro was freed. And he is not fully free tonight. It was more than a hundred years ago that Abraham Lincoln, a great President of another party, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, but emancipation is a proclamation and not a fact. A century has passed, more than a hundred years, since equality was promised. And yet the Negro is not equal.

A century has passed since the day of promise. And the promise is unkept.”

Johnson was not kidding around. He moved the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through Congress at lightning speed and made his commitment to real racial equality in America very clear and very real.

Yet the director of Selma apparently chooses to ignore historical fact in this case. Her comments as presented in The Hollywood Review are these:

“I think everyone sees history through their own lens, and I don’t begrudge anyone from wanting to see what they want to see. This is what I see. This is what we see. And that should be valid. I’m not gonna argue history; I could, but I won’t.”

DuVernay continued, “I’m just gonna say that, you know, my voice, David’s voice, the voices of all of the artists that gathered to do this, of Paramount Pictures, which allowed us to amplify this story to the world, is really focused on issues of justice and dignity. And for this to be reduced — reduced is really what all of this is — to one talking point of a small contingent of people who don’t like one thing, is unfortunate, because this film is a celebration of people, a celebration of people who gathered to lift their voices — black, white, otherwise, all classes, nationalities, faiths — to do something amazing.”

“If there is anything that we should be talking about in terms of legacy,” DuVernay added, “it is really the destruction of the legacy of the Voting Rights Act and the fact that that very act is no more in the way that it should be, protecting all voices to be able to heard and participate in the electoral process. That is at risk right now. There’s been violence done to that act. We chronicle its creation in our film. And so I would just invite people to keep their eyes on the prize and really focus on the beautiful positives of the film.”

It is so bitterly ironic that DuVernay says we should be focusing on the destruction of the very Voting Rights Act that Johnson worked so fast and so hard to pass. It’s Johnson’s legacy that is destroyed in that instance. [Read more about the Act and how the Supreme Court dismantled it in 2013 here.]

More important, DuVernay is completely wrong about history. It’s not a melange of competing opinions. We don’t each get our own individual “history” of what we want to believe. There is a real history of real events that can be objectively verified by artifacts. It is the opposite  of “valid” to say, Well, whatever I believe or “see” is the truth. What if I choose to “see” that the marchers started the violence? I “believe” they shot at the state troopers, who were forced to defend themselves. Where do we draw the line when history becomes mere story?

No “celebration of people who gathered to lift their voices” for racial justice in the 1960s is complete or accurate if it excludes Lyndon Johnson from those people. If her movie is about justice, then she should do Johnson justice. He wasn’t perfect, but he did more to end institutional racism in this country than any president before him since Lincoln, and no president has come close to matching his record since.

Its objectively false representation of Johnson does not make Selma worthless. But it strikes a blow for myth over truth, and that’s unacceptable. Why go to the trouble of making a historically accurate movie in all respects and then tell a complete lie about a major player? If DuVernay needed a villain, why not Hoover, or every single one of the whites who beat the marchers? It doesn’t make sense.

History matters in every detail. You can’t tell a true story with a lie.

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Paul Revere’s time capsule opened to reveal… a pine tree

Posted on January 7, 2015. Filed under: American history, Colonial America, Puritans, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , |

The Old State House in Boston has been undergoing renovations, and two time capsules have been found in it. The first, laid away in 1901, was found inside the head of the gold-plated lion atop the building and was opened in October 2014 to reveal letters and business cards from Massachusetts politicians, and multiple newspapers from that great age of newsprint. The contents of the second capsule, which was found under a foundation stone, were just revealed to the public.

This second capsule is by far the more exciting. It was placed under the State House on July 4, 1795 by Governor Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, among others, to commemorate the impressive 20th anniversary of American independence. A rundown of the capsule and all of its contents is here, but we want to focus on one particular item in it: a “1652” pine tree shilling.

1652-massachusetts-pine-tree-shilling-large-planchet

This humble coin was one of the first revolutionary acts to take place in English America, but merely one in a string of stands for independence made by the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

In colonial America—from its beginnings in 1607 right up to independence—actual money was scarce. There were no mints in North America to mint coins. (Paper money as we know it did not exist.) In most colonies, there was either no metal to coin, or, as in Virginia, metal was available but the colonists did not have the wherewithal to mine it. Colonists had to rely on coins coming from England, usually via the Caribbean, where trade was strongest. Items called “Spanish dollars” were used most often as currency. These were not real coins produced in a mint. They were round slugs of silver with no markings that were quickly cut in New Spain so they could be sent to Spain and melted down for different purposes, from silverware to coins. But since these “cobs”, as they were called, were made of silver, they were hijacked in the Americas to be used as currency. As with all coins through human history, they were clipped: someone would trim the edges of the coins to make them slightly smaller, save the trimmings, and melt them down to make more coins for themselves. This meant that the value of the Spanish dollar was unreliable—one might weigh 3 ounces while another weighed 5. On top of that, counterfeiters would reproduce Spanish dollars by mixing silver and alloy. No one could be sure if their Spanish dollars were really worth what they were supposed to be worth. In New England, it was far more reliable to use wampum, which American Indians manufactured to strict standards of quality. Wampum was the most valuable currency in colonial America for many decades in the 1600s.

But Europeans still valued silver, too, and all that suspect Spanish silver coming into North America was causing enormous economic problems, so the MBC came up with a solution. In 1652, the General Court (Massachusetts’ elected legislature) ordered that the colony would begin producing its own silver coins. Here is part of that order:

…all persons what
soever have liberty to bring in unto the mint house at Boston all 
bullion plate or Spanish Coin there to be melted & brought to the
 allay of sterling Silver by John Hull master of the said mint and his sworn officers, & by him to be Coined into 12d : 6d : & 3d pieces which 
shall be for form flat & square on the sides & stamped on the one
side with N E & on the other side wth the figure XIId VId & IIId—
according to the value of each piece, together with a privy mark—which shall be Appointed every three months by the Governor & known 
only to him & the sworn officers of the mint.

The denominations represented in Roman numerals in the order are threepeence, sixpence, and one shilling. The coins are known as “pine tree shillings”  because they had an image of a pine tree on one side. Trees were a major export from the MBC, as the huge trees of North America made perfect masts for ships. All coins read 1652, to mark the year of the mint’s founding, which is why they are referred to today as “1652” shillings even if they were minted in 1662, 1673, etc.

The people of Massachusetts were willing to bring in their shifty Spanish dollars and bullion that had no practical use value to be melted down into MBC coins at the new mint. Indeed, they brought in silver bars, candlesticks, jewelry, and other items that were of no use to them and had likely been brought over with the emigrants from England for fear they might be stolen or lost track of by their agents and/or relatives.

The Boston shilling, as the coins came to be known, was enormously and immediately popular, and began circulating throughout North America, much to the chagrin of the Massachusetts government. The whole point of minting its own coins had been to keep silver money in Massachusetts to steady the economy. But the coins were flowing out of the MBC to other colonies, which meant that Massachusetts wealth (its people’s silver) was accruing in and enriching Virginia, New Amsterdam, and New France.

Its mint caused political problems for the MBC as well. Minting coins was something only a royal government had the authority to do. Colonists in America had absolutely no authority to mint coins—only the king of England could grant that. In 1652, of course, England had no king: Charles I had been executed in 1649 during the English Civil War, and the country was being governed by Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan Lord Protector. Remember how the pine tree shillings had an image of a pine tree on them? This was in place of an image of a king, which had always been on English coins. The establishment of a Puritan government in England led the Puritans in Massachusetts to believe that they had a good chance of getting away with establishing their own mint, and for eight years, they did. But when Charles II came to the throne in the 1660 Restoration of the monarchy (after Cromwell’s death and his son’s short stint in office) the renegade mint eventually came under attack from London. Charles II had no love for the Puritans who had executed his father, and he lent a friendly ear to those in his government who hated the Massachusetts Bay Colony in particular as a hotbed of treason and independence. These royal agents visited Boston in 1665 to “review” its laws and statutes, and demanded that the General Court of the colony change 26 of them to fall in line with British law. One of the demands was to immediately stop production at the mint.

The MBC resisted, sending two “very large masts” to the royal navy as a gift in 1666 and another shipload of masts two years later. (Charles II’s government was of course very wrapped up in government at home after 11 years of the Protectorate and the religious upheaval the Restoration caused, so the efforts to bring Massachusetts to heel took a back seat to more pressing matters during this time.) More masts were delivered over the years and this sufficed to keep the mint running while colonial agents tried to win permanent and official royal approval, pleading the colony’s loyalty to the king. They argued that the coins only grew the colonial economy, which could only mean more goods and profits flooding into England at a time when the country’s finances were precarious. But that argument was used by the crown against the colonists: to recover from its depression, the English economy needed to control its coinage, and issue and enforce the use of one English currency throughout its dominions.

Boston kept its mint open despite the mounting problems it was facing. In 1675-6, the devastating civil war known as King Phillip’s War weakened the economy and destroyed political unity in New England. Bickering between New England colonies after the war, which included appeals to London for mediation, contributed to the crown’s decision to revoke Massachusetts’ charter in 1684. The colony was no longer politically independent. It had to accept a governor appointed by the king rather than voted by representatives of the people. The mint was closed. Massachusetts would continue to struggle for independence, and one of the ways it did so was to begin printing paper money in 1690. It was the first government known to have established a paper currency in the history of western civilization.

But that’s another story. We keep our eyes on the pine tree shilling. It’s clear why one was saved, and placed with great pomp and ceremony into the time capsule in 1795. The pine tree shilling represented an early strike for American independence. It represented the Puritan commitment to independent government, and the role of Massachusetts in opposing royal political interference and control. Pine tree shillings were prized by Americans who knew them. With the pine tree shilling found in the time capsule now on temporary display, more Americans can learn about them.

The plan is to return the capsule to the State House foundation with its original contents, and items from 2015. The pine tree shilling that is now seeing the light of day for the first time in 220 years will return to the darkness of history. But one day it will be unearthed again, and it seems that nothing we could add to that time capsule today will outweigh the importance of that small coin, and when it is unearthed again it will steal the show once more.

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