Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way: Pt. 2

Series: Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way
Entry 2:

Pinching Pennies–’til They Screamed

(This is the second entry in a series on The American Way. Be sure to start with Entry 1 in order to understand the following material in context.)

The previous entry in this blog series started out with an infographic about the devastating effect for smaller nearby businesses that the opening of a Walmart in a city or town often leads to. (In some cases it has almost destroyed whole small communities, when Walmart would move in with a Supercenter, eliminate the competition, become the “only game in town”…and then decide to abandon the community because business wasn’t quite as profitable as it had hoped. Some small towns have never really recovered.)

In response we explored the fact that this “Walmart Way” of doing business wasn’t in any way “some new thing” in the U.S. The same devastation was wreaked on small businesses a century ago with the rise of the iconic department stores such as Macy’s, Marshall Field, and Siegel-Cooper. (Shown below…the Rug Department of Marshall Field in Chicago 1917.)

marshall field 1917Another anti-Walmart infographic is also making the rounds. This one emphasizes billionaire Walmart’s penny-pinching approach to employee compensation. (They are said to have a profit of something like $17 billion a year these days.)

walmart info2I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the claims in this infographic. But recent news stories have added to this picture. Walmart is currently in the process of building three new stores in the Washington, DC, area, and had announced plans for building three more stores in the near future. But these plans have been put on hold as a result of a bill passed by the DC City Council this past Wednesday (7/17/13). A Washington Post article clarifies what the brouhaha is all about:

Should the bill be signed by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and pass a congressional review period, retailers with corporate sales of $1 billion or more and operating in spaces 75,000 square feet or larger would be required to pay employees no less than $12.50 an hour. The city’s minimum wage is $8.25, a dollar higher than the federal minimum wage.

Once the bill was passed, Walmart came forward and declared that if the bill went into effect, Walmart would not only abandon plans for the three other stores, but perhaps not even finish the stores that are already under construction.

A Huffington Post article gives some background on this stand-off.

It might not surprise you that Walmart is fighting a ‘living wage’ bill in DC, but, if they win, you might be surprised at how it affects the future of your town. The massive retailer’s recent threat to cancel plans for additional stores in Washington, D.C., is part of a strategy to stifle wages for their own benefit that in turn stifles wages for the entire workforce in an area.

First, some background: theWalmart empire originally spread from Arkansas throughout the rural areas and suburbs of the U.S. These comparably low-wage markets are now tapped out. So, Walmart executives’ next targets are urban areas, where strong union membership and liberal populations help to drive up wages significantly in comparison to rural and suburban areas. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2011 urban households received an average of $15,779 more in yearly income than rural households. [This is likely in part a result of a significantly higher cost of living in many urban areas than in many rural areas, and thus stronger pressure for higher wages.] Walmart’s low, low wages aren’t greeted kindly amongst city populations accustomed to their comparably higher pay. After seeing Walmart’s devastating effects on rural and suburban America, where Walmart has driven already-low wages even lower by crushing the competition and leaving nowhere else to work or shop, cities like Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC decided that Walmart’s business model wasn’t right for them. So Walmart went about breaking down that political barrier in any way that they could.

Years before Walmart had a solid plan for a store in DC, the company quietly moved in, joining the DC Chamber of Commerce, making donations to local charities, and hiring lobbyists to help them cozy up to politicians. Construction began on three Walmart stores in the District, with plans for three more in the works. With public construction under way, DC residents began to notice and speak out against Walmart. The DC City Council passed a measure this week that would force Walmart and other giant retailers (any store larger than 75,000 square feet and whose parent company has at least $1 billion a year in revenue) to pay employees a starting hourly wage of $12.50.

In response, Walmart has sought to leverage its political power to strong-arm DC Mayor Vincent Gray into vetoing the bill and enabling Walmart to pay its standard low wages to workers in the District while depressing wages in the surrounding communities as small businesses fail and people have nowhere else to work or shop. Sadly, this is not the first time that Walmart has used these tactics to worm its way into unwelcome markets.

Yes, a similar effort by local government in Chicago in 2006 was undermined by Walmart’s strong-arm tactics. Walmart “persuaded” then-Mayor Richard M. Daley to veto the bill. It had called for “mega-retailers” to pay $10 an hour and an extra $3 in benefits. Instead, a full-time Walmart employee in Chicago, seven years later, still gets just $8.25 an hour. (And, of course, close to half of the employees are prevented by company strategies from working full time.)

The HuffPo article declares:

Mayor Vincent Gray should not allow himself to be bullied out of doing what is right for the workers of Washington, DC. After all, retailers can thrive while still paying a living wage. Costco, which pays its employees an average of $45,000 per year, has reported profit increases in recent quarters while Walmart’s sales have suffered. One reason for Walmart’s decline is that many of Walmart’s customers are also employees who, with more and more hours being cut, can’t afford to buy as much as they used to.

Bringing jobs to Washington, D.C. doesn’t need to come at the expense of a living wage, and nor should it. After all, the more you pay your workers, the more money they have to spend buying your products, and the higher your revenues become. Take it from Costco: the living wage works.

It’s not just the “starting wage” at Walmart that causes concern for many folks. Another HuffPo article explains the realities of long-term employment with the company.

Last year, HuffPost published internal Walmart documents detailing the company’s wage policies, showing the limited raises many workers see over time. A cart pusher who started out at $8 per hour, for instance, can expect to be earning about $10.60 per hour after six years and a promotion. The company told HuffPost last year that half of its hourly associates in the U.S. make less than $10 per hour.

So is the problem that Walmart, with a $17 billion dollar a year profit, can’t “afford” to pay its employees a living wage, at least enough to keep them from needing public assistance just to feed and house their families? (Although in DC they could afford to pay just one person $10,000 a MONTH to do obscure lobbying for them…lobbying that wasn’t even successful in stopping the minimum wage bill. And let’s don’t get into the likely salary range of executives of the corp. The reality is that they are not a company that has to pinch pennies to keep afloat these days.)

Asked if Walmart objected to the living wage bill because the company couldn’t sustain a $12.50 starting wage, Lundberg said it was more about all retailers being held to the same standards, rather than the largest companies having to play by different rules.

“What it comes down to is a matter of fairness,” he said.

Has the way Walmart has used its financial clout across the country to decimate its competition been “fair”? That is no doubt debatable depending on your personal approach to economics and government, and such topics as taxes, unions, and lobbyists. But is it “UnAmerican” and unprecedented? Nah, Walmart’s methods are as American as Ice Cream, Hot Dogs, and Apple Pie. And have been typical of corporate/capitalist methods since the American Industrial Revolution really got going in the mid-1800s.

Walmart is only imitating the tactics of its forebears of a century ago, the monolithic department stores. So once again, let’s examine what it was like back in those Good Old Days.

Before Huffpo, before Michael Moore’s documentaries, before Mike Wallace’s 60 Minutes exposés, even long before the invention of the radio, reporters were busy doing investigative reporting and exposing the unpleasant underside of many American corporate institutions. One outlet for the work of such reporters a century ago was McClure’s Magazine:

mcclure indian

McClure’s or McClure’s Magazine (1893–1929) was an American illustrated monthly periodical popular at the turn of the 20th century.The magazine is credited with having started the tradition of muckraking journalism (investigative, watchdog or reform journalism), and helped shape the moral compass of the day.

McClure’s published such writers as Willa Cather, Arthur Conan Doyle, Herminie T. Kavanagh, Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, Lincoln Steffens, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Mark Twain.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, its major competitors included Collier’s, the Saturday Evening Post, and The New Yorker. [Wikipedia: McClure’s]

McClure’s covers often featured pictures of pretty young girls.

mccjuly1913Although, since a large proportion of their readers were female, they weren’t averse to the occasional beefcake picture.

mccbeefcakeThe October 1910 issue of the magazine featured an extensive study that had been done on the lives of working girls in New York. It particularly focused on “shopgirls,” young women who were employed in sales or stock work at various New York department stores.

You’ve probably seen old-timey pictures of what women looked like in the pre-World War 1 era of the 1900s in the US. It’s the period shown in the popular musical Music Man, which was set in 1912. A dress like that worn by Marian the Librarian in this pic below would have likely been bought at one of the department stores, or by mail-order from one of their catalogs. From the prices in catalogs at the time, I’d say Marian’s dress likely set her back $2.50 or so. Yes, indeed, prices were different back then, but of course so were salaries.

music manSo let’s explore what it would have been like to be one of the shopgirls who waited on the elegant ladies who bought such frothy dresses. From the McClure’s story:

(These articles are based upon information obtained through an investigation conducted by the National Consumers’ League, and covering the earnings of working-girls — wages, overtime work, loss from slack seasons, their expenditure for shelter, food, clothing, etc., down to the last penny of their earnings, and their uncertain struggle to preserve health and vitality. Editors.)

One of the first saleswomen who told the League her experience in her work was Lucy Cleaver, a young American woman of twenty-five, who had entered one of the New York department-stores at the age of twenty, at a salary of $4.50 a week. [Think that through … with the typical six-day work week of the time, that would be less than 75 cents a day. At a nine hour day, that would be less than 9 cents an hour.] In the course of the five years of her employment her salary had been raised one dollar. [That’s one extra dollar per week.]

She stood for nine hours every day. If, in still moments of trade, when no customers were near, she made use of the seats lawfully provided for employees [state law required employers to provide such seating—but did little or nothing to enforce the law], she was at once ordered by a floor-walker to do something that required standing. During the week before Christmas, she worked standing over fourteen hours every day, from eight to twelve-fifteen in the morning, one to six in the afternoon, and half past six in the evening till half past eleven at night. [Think THAT through—from 8 AM to 11:30 PM.]

To put this in perspective, take a look at the shoe styles of 1910.

1909 shoes macysYou can clearly see that these are typical shoes for the shop girls of the time, in this photo from the McClure’s article of a group headed to work in the morning.

group of girlsTHAT kind of pointy-toed, high-heeled shoe is what Lucy would have been wearing as she stood for anywhere between 9 and 14.5 hours a day. No “comfortable running shoes” or the like. Nike-style shoes wouldn’t be invented for another 50 years or so. One of the earliest “sneakers,” Keds canvas shoes with rubber soles, weren’t even invented until 1916. And even if they had been invented earlier, and Lucy owned a pair, she wouldn’t have been allowed to wear them to work. She was expected to dress primly and formally and look like she “belonged” in a fashionable setting…even though she didn’t.

So painful to the feet becomes the act of standing for these long periods that some of the girls forgo eating in order to give themselves the temporary relief of a foot bath. For this [Xmas season] over time the store gave her $20, presented to her, not as payment, but as a Christmas gift. The management also allowed a week’s vacation with pay in the summer-time and presented a gift of $10.

And loyal service to an employer under such exhausting conditions was worth nothing…

After five years in this position she had a disagreement with the floor-walker and was summarily dismissed. She then spent over a month in futile searching for employment, and finally obtained a position as a stock girl in a Sixth Avenue suit store at $4 a week, a sum less than the wage for which she had begun work five years before. Within a few weeks, dullness of trade had caused her dismissal. She was again facing indefinite unemployment. Her income for the year had been $281.

OK, so what did Lucy splurge her $4 or so a week on?

She lived in a large, pleasant home for girls, where she paid only S2.50 a week for board and a room shared with her sister.

Perhaps Lucy and her sister had a room much like this 6 ft. X 13 ft. one shown in the McClure’s article.room

Without the philanthropy of the home, she could not have made both ends meet. It was fifteen minutes’ walk from the store, and by taking this walk twice a day she saved carfare and the price of luncheon.

She did her own washing, and as she could not spend any further energy in sewing, she bought cheap ready-made clothes.

The standard working outfit for almost all shopgirls was a “shirtwaist”—often shortened to “waist” (what we now call a blouse)—usually with long sleeves and high starched collar, and a long skirt.

shirtwaistsIn order to keep up appearances, and look appropriately prim and proper, she’d have to have a freshly cleaned, starched, and ironed waist every morning, although she could get by with just two skirts.

This [buying cheap ready-made clothes] she found a great expense. Cheap waists wear out very rapidly. In the year she had bought 24 at 98 cents each. Here is her account, as nearly as she had kept it and recalled it for a year: a coat, $10.00; 4 hats, $17.00 [As you can see from the picture below from the McClure’s article, of shopgirls leaving at the end of the day, every woman of all ages absolutely had to wear one of those huge hats all the time! And they no doubt took quite a beating in sun, rain, and snow—and jostling crowds—and had to be replaced several times a year ]…

dept store at closing

…2 pairs of shoes, $5.00; 24 waists at 98 cents, $23.52; 2 skirts, $4.98; underwear, $2; board, $130; doctor, $2: total, $194.50. This leaves a balance of 86.30. This money had paid for necessaries not itemized — stockings, heavy winter under wear, petticoats, carfare, vacation expenses, every little gift she had made, and all recreation.

She belonged to no benefit societies [cooperative working class groups that would pool “dues” to help pay for health insurance and such], and she had not been able to save money in any way, even with the assistance given by the home. So much for her financial income and outlay. After giving practically all her time and force to her work, she had not received a return sufficient to conserve her health in the future, or even to support her in the present without the help of philanthropy. [In other words, comparable in a way to Walmart workers who must rely on government programs for the poor.] She was ill, anemic, nervous and broken in health.

And think about those clothes she had. There were no Laundromats back then, no electric washing machines, and no “permanent press” materials.  It is highly unlikely that Lucy had access to the latest improvements in washdays, shown in this 1910 ad for the Happy Day Ball Bearing High Speed washing machine.

happy day(See the lever? You pulled it back and forth continually to make the innards “agitate.”)

No, no Happy Wash Days for her…she likely washed at night, using the poor woman’s washing machine—a tub and washboard. And I doubt if such a tub could hold more than one of those loooong skirts, or even petticoats, she wore.

washboardThe processes involved in doing laundry were very harsh, and the kind of waist made out of cheap cloth that was all Lucy could afford would be worn out very soon by the rough handling necessary for cleaning.  Thus Lucy’s purchases of two cheap waists per month. White cloth in particular would need lots of effort to keep it looking white—usually with the help of a chemical called “bluing.”

White fabrics acquire a slight color cast after use (usually grey or yellow). Since blue and yellow are complementary colors in the subtractive color model of color perception, adding a trace of blue color to the slightly off-white color of these fabrics makes them appear whiter. Laundry detergents may also use fluorescing agents to similar effect. Many white fabrics are blued during manufacturing. Bluing is not permanent and rinses out over time leaving dingy or yellowed whites. A commercial bluing product allows the consumer to add the bluing back into the fabric to restore whiteness. [Wiki: Bluing]

Most detergents in modern times have a built-in bluing agent, but back in Lucy’s day, using bluing in a rinse was a separate step in doing the laundry. She probably used Mrs. Stewart’s.

bluingShe did her own laundry, including the processes, not only of rubbing the clothes clean, but of boiling, starching, bluing, and ironing. This, after a day of standing in other employment, is a vital strain more severe than may perhaps be readily realized. Saleswomen and shop-girls have not the powerful wrists and muscular waists of accustomed washerwomen, and are in most instances no better fitted to perform laundry work than washerwomen would be to make sales and invoice stock. But custom requires exactly the same freshness in a saleswoman’s shirtwaist, ties, and collars as in those of women of the largest income.

The amount the girls of the St. George’s Working Club found it absolutely necessary to spend in a year for laundering clothes was almost half as much as the amount spent for lodging and nearly two thirds as much as the amount originally spent for clothing. Where this large expense of laundry cannot be met financially by saleswomen [by taking the clothes to a commercial laundry or independent laundress], it has to be met by sheer personal strength. One department-store girl, who needed to be especially neat because her position was in the shirtwaist department, told us that sometimes, after a day’s standing in the store, she worked over tubs and ironing-boards at home till twelve at night.

And lest we forget…Lucy would not have been using an efficient electric iron. Back then it would have been irons that you regularly set on a stove to reheat.

flatironLucy’s story was not anything unusual at all for the time. It was pretty typical. Here’s another young woman with an equally grim story.

Story of Alice Anderson, a Check Girl

… Anderson, a girl of seventeen, who had been working in the department- stores for three years and a half. [Meaning she had started at age 13 or 14.] She was at first employed as a check girl in a Fourteenth Street store, at a wage of $2.62 1/2 a week; that is to say, she was paid $5.25 twice a month. Her working day was nine and a half hours long through most of the year. But during two weeks before Christmas it was lengthened to from twelve to thirteen and a half hours, without any extra payment in any form.

She was promoted to the position of sales woman, but her wages still remained $2.62 1/2 a week. She lived with her grandmother of eighty, working occasionally as a seamstress, and to her Alice gave all her earnings for three years. It was then considered better that she should go to live with an aunt, to whom she paid the nominal board of $1.15 a week. As her home was in West Hoboken, she spent two and a half hours every day on the journey in the cars and on the ferry. During the weeks of overtime Alice could not reach home until nearly half past eleven o’clock; and she would be obliged to rise while it was still dark, at six o’clock. after five hours and a half of sleep, in order to be at her counter punctually at eight.

By walking from the store to the ferry she saved thirty cents a week. Still, fares cost her $1.26 a week. This $1.26 a week carfare (which was still not enough to convey her the whole distance from her aunt’s to the store) and the 1.15 a week for board (which still did not really pay the aunt for her niece’s food and lodging) consumed all her earnings except 20 cents a week.

Alice was eager to become more genuinely self-dependent. She left the establishment of her first employment and entered another store on Fourteenth Street, as cash girl, at $4 a week. The hours in the second store were very long, from eight to twelve in the morning and from a quarter to one till a quarter past six in the afternoon on all days except Saturday, when the closing hour was half past nine. After she had $4 a week instead of $2.62 ½, Alice abandoned her daily trip to West Hoboken and came to live in New York.

But instead of things looking up for Alice, they went downhill from there.

Living on Coffee and Rolls at Twenty Cents a Day

Here she paid six cents a night in a dormitory of a charitably supported home for girls. She ate no breakfast. Her luncheon consisted of coffee and rolls for ten cents. Her dinner at night was a repetition of coffee and rolls for ten cents. As she had no convenient place for doing her own laundry, she paid 21 cents a week to have it done.

Her regular weekly expenditure was as follows: lodging, 42 cents; board [food], $1.40; washing, 21 cents; clothing and all other expenses, $1.97: total, $4. Of course, living in this manner was quite beyond her strength. She was pale, ill, and making the severest inroads upon her present and future health. Her experience illustrates the narrow prospect of promotion in some of the department-stores.

And how about the “benefits package” back then?

… In many of the large department- stores, monthly dues, varying with the wage of the employee, are deducted from the pay of each, although in many cases she does not know what the return for the dues is to her. These dues assure to her, while she remains in the store’s employ, a weekly benefit in case of illness, and a death benefit. But if she leaves the store, or is discharged, the management retains the amount she has been forced to pay to it, and receives no return whatever in case of her subsequent sickness or death. While she is in the store’s employ, the sick benefit varies from one half the girl’s wage to a regular payment of $4 a week for from five to thirteen weeks, according to the particular rules in each store. The employee must be ill five days or a week in order to draw it. Otherwise she is docked for absence.

As was often done by the muckrakers of the time, one of the investigative researchers found a job in one of the stores to get an inside look at the life of the shopgirl.

Another kind of meanness in human relations was abundantly witnessed by Miss Johnson, the League’s inquirer, who worked in one of the stores during the week of Christmas good will. The “rush” had begun when Miss Johnson was transferred in this Christmas week from the neckwear to the muffler department on the first floor of one of the cheaper stores. All the girls stood all day long — from eight to twelve and from one to eight at night on the first days; from one at noon to ten and eleven at night, as the season progressed; and, on the last dreadful nights, from noon to the following midnight. The girls had thirty-five cents supper money. Except for that, all this extra labor was unpaid for.

The work was incessant. The girls were nervous, hateful, spiteful with one another. The manager, a beautiful and extremely rough girl of nineteen, swore constantly at all of them. The customers were grabbing, insistent, unreasonable from morning to evening, from evening to midnight. Behind the counter, with the advance of the day, the place became an inferno of nervous exhaustion and exasperation. In the two weeks of Miss Johnson’s service one customer once thanked her; and one tipped her five cents for the rapid return of a parcel. Both these acts of consideration took place in the morning. Miss Johnson said that this was fortunate for her, as, at one word of ordinary consideration toward the end of her long day’s work, she thought she must have burst into tears.

All of this would be unbearable for most of us even if we were in the best of health. But with no “sick time” available for most of the workers, what was it like to have to work through an illness?

… One girl came, looking so ill that Miss Johnson was terrified. “Can’t you stop, Kitty? You look so sick. For heaven’s sake, go home and rest.” “I can’t afford to go home.” Cross and snappish as the girls were, they managed to spare Kitty, and to stand in front of her to conceal her idleness from the floor walker, and give her a few minutes’ occasional rest sitting down. She went through the first hours of the morning as best she might, though clearly under pressure of sharp suffering.

But at about ten the floor-walker, for whom it must be said that he was responsible for the sales and general presentability of the department, saw her sitting down. “Why aren’t you busy?” he called. “Get up.” At midnight on Christmas eve, as the still crowd of girls walked wanly out of the great store into the brilliant New York Street, someone said, “How are you, Kitty?” She made no reply for a minute. Then she said wretchedly: “Oh — I hope I’ll be dead before the next Christmas.”

Yes, the time of year that looks so jolly and practically “heavenly” in the old-timey pictures most of us have seen from the turn of the last century…

xmasvintage1910familychristmas 2…was actually the most hellish time of year for many low class workers. Including especially those who were forced to rub shoulders most closely with the throngs of holiday shoppers.

[New York law regarding minors]… No female employee between sixteen and twenty- one years of age shall be required, permitted, or suffered to work in or in connection with any mercantile establishment more than sixty hours in any one week; or more than ten hours in any one day, unless for the purpose of making a shorter work day of some one day of the week; or before seven o’clock in the morning or after ten o’clock in the evening of any day. This Section does not apply to the employment of persons sixteen years of age or upward, between the eighteenth day of December and the following twenty-fourth day of December, both inclusive.”

That is to say that, for the holiday season, the time of all others when it might seem wise and natural to protect the health of the younger women working in the great metropolitan markets, for that season, of all others, the State specifically provides that the strength of its youth is to have no legal safeguard and may be subjected to labor without limit.

Indeed, many of these young women were reported to have worked from eight in the morning until ten, eleven, even twelve o’clock at night during the “Christmas Rush”…with a cheap supper furnished by the store as often the only “bonus” they received for this overtime work.

You might be wondering how the big department stores avoided having its high-class clientele be made aware of just HOW underpaid and overworked its staff of young women were. Surely that would be a distasteful bit of knowledge that might mar the pleasure of the luxury shopping experience. Well, the owners of the elegant new Siegel-Cooper store that opened in New York in 1896 knew how to take care of that! The New York Times included a story leading up to the grand opening that included this cheerful assurance: “Persons visiting Siegel, Cooper & Co.’s store will be spared the annoyance of seeing over-worked shop girls behind the counters and children of stunted growth running up and down stairs. There will be separate elevators for the use of the employees.”

Wouldn’t want little Fauntleroy to get an unpleasant glimpse of a ragamuffin while he and mummy were busy picking out a new velocipede for him in the toy department.

fauntleroyAs I originally read these stories of Lucy, Alice, Kitty and others recently, a song popped into my head from my childhood in the 1950s. When I’d hear it on the radio back then, it put such a warm glow around the experience of “Christmas Time in the City,” it made me nostalgic for something I’d never even experienced, it seemed so idyllic! Check it out:

Little did I know. I’ll never think of Christmas Time in the City the same way again.

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks
Dressed in holiday style.
In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas.
Children laughing, People passing
Meeting smile after smile
And on every street corner you’ll hear.


Silver belIs, silver beIls
It’s Christmas time in the city.
Ring-a-ling, hear them sing.
Soon it will be Christmas day.

Not many smiles for Lucy and Alice and Kitty from all the grumpy, demanding shoppers in the pressing crowds who would rush home with the treasures they’d bought in the Christmas Rush at the Big Box stores of the day. And I doubt many of these young women had the slightest joy in their Christmas Day. It was no doubt just a day of total exhaustion, resting up…to go right back to the grind the next day.

Check out  the next installment of this series and learn some more about The American Way that didn’t start with Walmart, in

Plausible Deniability

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Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way: Pt. 1

Series: Oh Say Can You See? V: The American Way
Entry 1:

Un-American Activities?

A few days ago, someone on my Facebook feed posted an interesting info-graphic.

walmart info

The implication is obvious. Numerous articles on the Internet confirm the details. Consider this excerpt from the New York Daily News, about efforts in 2011 by Walmart to establish stores in Metropolitan New York.

The big-box giant has tried unsuccessfully to sweet-talk its way into our city twice already with promises of jobs, jobs and more jobs. And now it’s knocking again, hoping to capitalize on high unemployment and a protracted recession to scare New Yorkers into thinking that Walmart – and Walmart alone – can propel our struggling communities straight to prosperity.

If history is any indication, nothing could be further from the truth. Chicago’s struggling West Side learned the hard way that Walmart’s stores destroy more retail jobs than they create.

In 2006, the big-box retailer promised to bring jobs to the cash-strapped community. But according to a landmark study by Loyola University, the company’s rhetoric didn’t match reality: Within two years of Walmart’s opening its doors, 82 local stores went out of business.

Instead of growing Chicago’s retail economy, Walmart simply overtook it – absorbing sales from other city stores, and shuttering dozens of them in the process.

Researchers at Loyola dubbed Walmart’s store a wash – generating no new sales revenue for Chicago, and no new jobs for hard-off residents.

Chicago’s cautionary tale isn’t isolated. Countless communities, and peer-reviewed surveys across the country, all reach the same conclusion: When Walmart moves in, small businesses, and jobs, move out; Main St. dies. [ New York Daily News ]

There is an unspoken assumption in articles like this, and I’d like to speak that assumption clearly in this blog series. The key term in the quote above is “Main Street.”  When a “big box store” like Walmart moves in, “Main Street” dies.

The author above doesn’t define what is meant by “Main Street,” but what I suggest to you is that it has long been a “short hand term” for the idea that The American Way of Life has, throughout our history, been based on the economic model of the “small independent business.” The promise of The American Dream has been that with hard work and integrity, any man can become a financial success, provide a good and prosperous life for his family, and ensure a continually “better life” in the future for his children and grandchildren. And the most typical outlet for that hard work and integrity would be to be an entrepreneur, provide a service or product of superior quality, and establish a prosperous, well-respected business on “Main Street” in his home town. Joining the collection of other such independent businesses already there.

Each such Main Street in this myth is viewed as being similar to the main street in the fictional Busy Town that my daughter, now in her 40s, remembers seeing in the bubbly, optimistic children’s books of her youth (and later TV shows and video games of her children’s youth) illustrated by Richard Scarry.

busytownscarry merchants Or maybe just like the other main street of her childhood, Sesame Street. There’d be a bike shop, a bakery, a flower shop, a fix-it shop (like Luis’s), a general store owned by a clone of Mr. Hooper.



This idea of American Society being anchored to such a bustling little Main Street has long endured—in spite of the fact that for well over a century, “bustling small town America” has been dwindling, and has long since been almost snuffed out of existence. I even have a number of friends who seem to base their economic theories—and their speculation on how we can “rescue America” from imminent financial collapse—on superimposing a template of that mythical Main Street and its theoretical underpinnings—on top of a whole Babylon of multi-national mega-corporations.

Too many Americans think in terms of what I have elsewhere termed their own historical “Time Ghetto.” All they really know about American history is what they have lived through themselves, or what they have gleaned from snippets of stories from their parents and grandparents, from fading Kodachrome and black and white photo prints in family albums, and what they have absorbed from pop-culture historical—or,  more often, historical fiction—movies and TV shows. They evaluate current circumstances, whether in politics or economics or even religion, as being only the outcome of negative factors extant since they themselves reached adulthood. All time before that was America’s Glory Days. For many people I know, when “looking backward” those Glory Days begin with the 1950s and extend back through our glorious triumph in WW2, our glorious triumph in WW1, the heyday of Teddy Roosevelt, the Gay Nineties, the period of our glorious Conquest of the West, and on back into the mists of history.

And, to keep focused on the general purpose of this blog—relating to “Panic About End-Time Prophecy”—they all too often conclude we are just on the edge of The Great Tribulation and close to the Return of Jesus because the USA no longer matches up to the Myths that they hold about its glorious past.

The issue of the evil, “un-American” exploits of Walmart is only one tiny factor in all this. But it seems to me a good place to begin an examination of “how did we get to this stage” of the Deterioration of the American Way? To read the articles about Walmart, one would think that this attack on Main Street sprang out of nowhere just in this latest generation, like a great dragon swooping down on a peaceful, prosperous nation of villages happy in their Main Street simplicity.

Sorry folks. Reality Check:

Before 1880 businesses like department stores did not exist; what did exist were neighborhood dealers, small dry goods firms, and large wholesalers that fanned out through distributing outlets into cities, towns, and villages. In the next twenty years, however, cities throughout the country would be filled with large retail establishments—multifloored, multiwindowed buildings of great concentrated selling power. … Substantial middle-class stores were constructed in many cities and even in small towns at such a rate as to outpace anything comparable going on elsewhere in the world. “You find stores of this category not only in New York, in Chicago, and in Philadelphia,” observed one startled Swiss merchant during a visit to the United States in 1915, “but also well-known stores of enormous dimension in many other cities throughout the United States.”

Department stores overshadowed the scene through the sheer rapidity and size of their expansion, which started in earnest, if chaotically, in the early 1890s as merchants began to tack new wings onto older stores, often creating “shreds and patches without unity or dignity,” as one architect complained. They, along with retailing chains and mail-order businesses of all kinds, dominated merchandising after 1895. And they did so because they contributed to the creation of a new powerful universe of consumer enticements. The mass market merchants succeeded as well because they sold a world of new goods under one roof, concentrated ownership and controlled large capital sums (like other corporations), crushed or absorbed their competitors, and demonstrated great individual skill. [Leach, William R. (2011-06-15). Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (Kindle Locations 547-571). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this blog entry are from this LOD source.]

NO, Walmart didn’t invent the tactic of offering a centralized shopping experience and a wide variety of goods, able to cut prices because of volume production and distribution, able to take advantage of cheap labor in far-flung places, and all the other factors that make it despised by smaller merchants now. Frankly, Walmart can’t hold a tiny candle to the flaming splendiferousness—and soul-less cut-throat business practices—of the department store movement of a century ago.

More than other businesses, department stores revealed the totality of what the American economy was producing and importing. In the 1880s, most stores had only fifteen small departments, but by 1910, many offered upward to 125. Siegel-Cooper’s [New York City] sold in the late 1890s not only staples, yard goods, notions, ready-made clothing, machine-made furnishings, and hundreds of name-brand pianos but also photographic equipment in the largest photographic gallery anywhere, and monkeys, dogs, cats, birds, lion and panther cubs, and tropical fish in its huge pet department.

seigel color

Yes, you may be used to a “department store” like JC Penney or Belk in your local mall. The term originally just meant that they sold more than one type of goods, in various “departments.” But as noted above, by the turn of the last century many went far beyond just clothing and household goods departments.

Stores from Bloomingdale’s and Siegel-Cooper’s in New York to The Fair in Chicago sold huge quantities of preserved and refrigerated meats, canned foods, fresh vegetables, cheeses, breads, candies, numerous coffees and teas, and gourmet specialties.

Macy’s, the first large retail store to merchandise kosher foods, according to the store’s food buyer, William Titon, by 1914 was selling “all the rare tropical fruits and vegetables, irrespective of season.” Its food department had dietetic foods (granola, wheat bran, wheat flakes, peanut butter, whole wheat foods, yogurt, and so forth); 265 different kinds of wine, claret, and champagne; also an assortment of beers, gins, brandies, rums, whiskies, and liquors of “all descriptions,” and, under Macy’s own label, Red Star Brand cocktails (pre-mixed manhattans and martinis).

Wait a minute … you mean that health foods and pre-mixed cocktails aren’t a modern phenomenon? Yup, that’s what I mean. And if you think it took until late in the twentieth century to have a store like Walmart that provided you the convenience of a beauty shop, a branch bank, and an optometrist along with your weekly grocery shopping, think again. Here is a description of the opening of the Seigel-Cooper Department Store in New York, the first of the truly BIG department stores.

seigel largestOn September 12, 1896, the New York Times announced that the store would open that night at 7:30, and thus “end a period of uncertainty for thousands of women who had a live interest in the scheme to equip New York City with a department store which should be the rival of any such establishment in the world.

“The Times reported that 150,000 people had attended the opening of what they called “a shopping resort.” The store was prepared for 190,000 visitors a day, and employed 8,000 clerks and 1,000 drivers and packers. In addition to the usual vast array of merchandise of department stores then and now, Siegel Cooper had a telegraph office, a long-distance telephone office, a foreign-money exchange, stock-trading services, a dentist, and an advertising agency.

But wait…there’s more:

In addition to the expected goods – silverware, linens, clothing and china, for instance — Siegel-Cooper sold groceries (canned goods were canned on the premises), furniture, pets and hardware. An enormous refrigerated room kept meats and dairy foods fresh.  In the fish department, huge tanks displayed the live fish for the shopper’s ease of choice. On the roof, a vast conservatory offered giant palms, orchids and rare plants for sale.

Francis Morrone and James Iska, in their “The Architectural Guidebook to New York City,” wrote “The quintessential New York experience was to buy a five-cent ice-cream soda and sit beside the fountain, taking in the pageant of fashionably attired women making their shopping rounds.”

Of the 124 departments, some were found in no other shopping establishment. The store offered both a dentist and doctor office, a beautician and a barber shop, a post office, an office for theatre tickets and a bank.  In the basement the store operated its own plant for power, lighting, heating and ventilation.  The bicycle department had a track for test rides.

So just how well do you think the mom and pop businesses in the area flourished after this behemoth opened?

Oh, but it wasn’t just a giant flea market with all this stuff scattered about. Visiting it to shop was an experience in itself, more akin to a day at Walt Disney World than to a day shopping at a modern strip mall.  Or Walmart.

The $4 million that Siegel and Cooper spent on their “gracefully ornamented” building bought them the largest department store in the world. The scope of the structure was unheard of – six stories tall and a full block wide, stretching back to Fifth Avenue. Lavish Beaux-Arts ornamentation in marble, yellow brick, terra cotta, copper and bronze recalled “the grandeur of ancient Rome.”

(That grandeur is still there today, although as you see in the current picture from today, the building is now full of separate stores such as Bed, Bath, and Beyond.)

seigel color2

Two gigantic bronze, fluted pillars supported the triple-arched entranceway. On the second floor over-sized windows allowed passengers on the 6th Avenue elevated train to window shop. A ramp enabled those same passengers to enter directly into the store on the second floor. In ornamentation, sheer size and grandeur, Siegel-Cooper outdid all competitors.  Henry Siegel deemed it “The Big Store.”

… Central to the first floor was a fountain in the center of which was a 13-foot high statue of “The Republic,” by Daniel C. French.

In a bid to connect the store’s cultural reputation to the famous 1893 World’s Fair Columbian Exposition that had been held in Chicago, this statue was an authorized replica of the 65 foot statue that had dominated the landscape of that fair.

statue 65

The miniature version was immediately recognizable, as you can see in this colorized photo from the early 1900s.

seigel fountain

Costing $15,000 it was brass with face and arms of white marble. Colored lights illuminated the fountain. “The figure is a heroic one of a female in classical garb,” said The Times. “The arms are extended upward. One hand supports a staff of Liberty, the other a golden orb, on which an eagle perches. On the globe glows an electric star, the light of which is in vacuum and opalescent…”

And so the business of the Department Store Behemoths began in earnest. Seigel’s was just one of the earliest manifestations. I do remember in my childhood in the Midwest in the 1950s hearing of Macy’s Department Store in New York.

macysYou couldn’t miss knowing that name, because they sponsored the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade that began in 1924 and  has been televised for many years, right up to the present. Starting in 1927 the most popular feature of the fair were the huge helium balloons of currently popular characters. The very first, in 1927, was Felix the Cat.

felix 1927Mickey was added in 1934.

mickey 1934

Superman was featured in 1940.

super 1940

Here’s another one from 1940. It’s not quite clear why this fellow was included–it’s Eddie Cantor, past his prime and never all that popular with kids, but someone must have thought he’d make a jazzy balloon.


Of course the parade has kept pace with the times, and as characters like Cantor and Mickey have faded in appeal, new ones have been added!

parade spongebob 2009

Yes, I’d heard of Macy’s, but always just attached to the word “parade.” Until only recently, I had thought that Macy’s was one of a mere tiny handful of iconic “metropolitan department stores.” I was wrong. The most famous incarnation of the store, shown in the picture, was built on Broadway in 1902. And within a short time it was only one of many monster stores strewn across the nation. They came on the national scene practically over night, and “changed the game” of the retail system in the country almost single-handedly.

The Retail Wars of the 1890s

The success of the mass market retailers was due to more than their capacity to summon large amounts of capital or to offer a huge assortment of goods under one roof or through a single catalog. There were other, more direct means, which included alliances among merchants, reformers, and state governments to defeat the opposition. In the 1890s, retail wars, emblematic of the turmoil involved in what Alan Trachtenberg has called the “incorporation of America,” erupted (especially in the western states) to challenge even the legality of department stores. “The all-devouring monsters” were destroying the “little man,” some New York City grocers said in anguish.

Even earlier, small merchants began to organize against bigger merchants to resist extermination, reflecting a process underway in Paris and London as well, where, as historian W. Hamish Fraser has written, it seemed as if “retailing were passing out of the hands of the small vendor into those of larger firms.”

In America, however, the resistance of small dealers against bigger merchants unfolded on a larger canvas. “This is a free country,” said the president of a small traders’ group in Kansas City in 1891, “but if this city is to have two or three big stores that are to do all the business, all the little ones must perish.” “I am being victimized by three department houses, and street peddlers,” complained a Kansas City dry goods dealer in that same year.

In the wake of the 1893 depression, small retailers blamed their miseries on the department stores. The “big store,” one retailer argued, “removes much in the matter of independence for men and women in small ways, and compels a dependence which, while it may give more money to the fortunate ones, renders them subject to a central power which in time becomes a tyranny which will leave no boundless America offering homes to the oppressed.” [LOD]

Yes, long before Sam Walton invented his own brand of one-stop shopping, America’s small business men were fighting a war against his more prolific and more powerful predecessors.

Laws were introduced in state capitals from California to New York to tax “the octopus which has stretched out its tentacles in every direction, grasping in its slimy folds the specialist or one-line man”—the florist, the shoeman, the grocer, the jeweler, the furniture dealer, and the like. Butchers and liquor dealers often led the fight. [LOD]

The 2011 battles in Chicago to keep out Walmart, mentioned above, couldn’t hold a candle to the battles of the 1890s and early 1900s.

The struggle was especially heated in Chicago, where, in the wake of the 1893 depression, hundreds of firms went bankrupt. Stores like Marshall Field’s on State Street weathered the storm and even prospered, having straddled the center of the Chicago business district, driven up real estate values to levels unaffordable to small competitors, and cut deeply into the small firms’ clientele by selling the whole range of goods. Since the 1880s, Marshall Field (and his smart second-in-command, H. Gordon Selfridge, later founder of Selfridges in London) had been at pains to persuade all the leading Chicago retailers—John V. Farwell and Co., the Boston Store, Mandels, and even Field’s archenemy, Carson, Pirie, Scott—to cluster closely together on State Street so they could function like an irresistible unified magnet of selling power. “He wanted to build up State Street,” a Field’s executive later recalled of his boss; he “went a long way to get Mandels established and then to keep them there,” and also “helped set up the Boston Store.”

Marshall Field was accustomed to crushing his adversaries. He set his teeth against all labor unions, dismissed any employee who had any ties whatever with unions, and time and again enlisted “professional toughs” or heavily financed the National Guard out of his own pocket to break up strikes.

Real estate values,” said City Council members and the mayor in February 1897, “have been unreasonably and enormously enhanced by the centralization” of the big stores “into one giant retail district.” [LOD]

The parallels between the downside of Walmart and the downside of these forerunners of long ago don’t end with the power-and-profit-hunger of the owners. There is the matter of a creepy parallel between the behavior of the patrons then and now:

Last fall on the day after Thanksgiving (commonly referred to these days as “Black Friday,” when stores like Walmart open in the wee hours to offer Big Bargains to Xmas shoppers) there were the usual reports of ill-behaved mobs jostling one another to claim coveted items. And in the midst of it all, there was one shooting in Florida that ended in the death of a Walmart shopper. A very tragic story.

One of the folks on my Facebook feed bemoaned this development, commenting “Isn’t it awful?! And it’s only going to get worse.” This person was referring to their theory that we were sliding in America toward chaos at best and the Great Tribulation at worse. And they added, “It wasn’t like this a hundred years ago in this country!”

Ah, yes. The theory that our American great grandparents were SO much more altruistic and such better Good Citizens than the greedy slobs today duking it out on Black Friday. The American Way was in its heyday, and Americans were all a shining example to the world of civic responsibility and good manners.

Reality Check:

Seigel-Cooper NY opening 1896

According to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “The formal opening of the Siegel-Cooper company store at Sixth avenue and Nineteenth street, New York, took place this morning, and because the doors were not opened until 9 o’clock there was a jam of several thousand persons in front of the place who were squeezed in a manner which they never experienced before”

seigel open 1896The article is titled “Jam at Siegel-Cooper’s: Caused by a Reported Sale of Cheap Bicycles: Traffic Blocked on Sixth Avenue and the Police Reserves from the Tenderloin Precinct Called Out” and goes on to say,

“The jam was so fast that the captain himself and Policeman O’Malley and McKenna of the City Hall station were wedged in so between the crowd and the building that the captain nearly had his arm broken and McKenna was taken to the hospital with a rib crushed in. O’Malley had his foot badly crushed”

The mob scene or “jam” was apparently caused by a false rumor that bicycles would be sold for “pin-money”Pin money is defined in the 1896 edition of Webster’s Dictionary as “an allowance of money, as that made by a husband to his wife, for personal and private expenditures.”

Further details of the bedlam:

In September 1896 a rumor circulated that Siegel-Cooper would be offering a sale on bicycles — $100 bikes would be sold for $9.99. Before dawn on September 14, 1896 several men in bicycle suits had lined up. By 7:00 the crowd had grown to a few hundred.

And it continued to grow.

An hour and a half later Police Captain Chapman estimated the number at 40,000, blocking 6th Avenue from 17th Street to 22nd. When the doors to the store were finally opened, one patrolman suffered two broken ribs in the crush of the crowd.

Upstairs in the bicycle department “The counter was overturned. The railings were broken. Cases of wheels were knocked down and men in trying to extricate themselves stepped on the bicycles and broke some,” reported The New York Times. “During the trouble dresses were torn and a few women fainted. No one besides the policemen were hurt much.”

There had never been any bicycles on sale that day.

The problems of today in our society, in our politics and our economy, and in every other aspect of our current way of life have not arisen out of nowhere. They are not isolated modern phenomena. They are the end result of a long, long history of the outworkings of the good, the bad, and the ugly of human nature. Simplistic answers that rely on trying to restore an ideal, mythical American Way of Life are doomed to failure.

I don’t personally like the “fallout” of Walmart stores going in across the nation. But I’m not under any illusion that the problems they present are “some new thing.” What Walmart does may be despicable…but it’s not somehow “un-American.” It is, in fact, quintessentially American, part of the American Way of Business for a long, long time! It has been typical throughout American history for big American mercantile businesses to pathetically underpay their employees. It has been totally typical for the desire for huge profits to drive businesses to be cutthroat with their competition. And it has been totally typical throughout our whole history for big merchandisers to have zero interest in whether “Main Street” is preserved.

It is my conviction that zealous modern American Christians who get swept up into trying to bolster a “movement” to somehow “return American society to its nature of a century ago” are investing their zeal in an erroneous goal. And frittering away their limited time, energy, and resources that could be much better invested in finding ways to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with a spiritually hungry generation.

It is also my conviction that if such folks could understand more of the factors of the past that have affected the present, they would be better equipped to move productively into the future.

Continue on to the next installment of this series with

Pinching Pennies–’til They Screamed

Posted in Oh say can you see? series | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Oh Say Can You See? IV: The Rise of Big Brother: Pt. 6

Series: Oh Say Can You See? IV: The Rise of Big Brother
Entry 6: “Big Sister Is Watching You”

(This is the 6th entry in a series on The Rise of Big Brother.
Be sure to start with Entry 1
in order to understand the following material in context.)

An earlier entry in this series, “Band of Big Brothers,” shared the story of the World War 1-era American Protective League (APL) and its infamous slacker raids. “Slacker” was the term particularly used at that time to label men who tried to avoid the war-time draft, as well as those men working on the home front in factories and elsewhere who didn’t give 100% in their part of the war effort—and didn’t enthusiastically and regularly buy War Bonds to help raise the billions of dollars necessary to pursue the US’s war aims.

slacker paintThe APL story specifically focused on the men of the United States during the war period, from the declaration of war on April 6, 1917 to the armistice on November 11, 1918.  And it described the incredible level of “volunteer” surveillance going on in the country—male citizens spying on, tattling on, and strong-arming other male citizens into behavior believed to be absolutely necessary to Patriotic Americans.

But that could leave an inaccurate perspective on the role played by American women during the Great War. Some posters from the period may leave the impression that women’s main role was just to “give reason”—as wives and mothers—for men to go off to war, staying home to “keep the home fires burning” for when the men would return victorious.

for homeMost modern folks seem aware of the role that women played in World War 2, particularly as a result of the continuing popularity even today of the famous Rosie the Riveter “We Can Do It!” poster, and Norman Rockwell’s rendition of Rosie for a May 1943 cover of the Saturday Evening Post. (The generic name Rosie the Riveter was used as shorthand to refer to all the women who had stepped in to “do a man’s job” … such as using riveting guns to piece together metal in the munitions industry.)

rosie1rosie2But I’ll bet many…including me until recently…haven’t realized how involved women were also in World War 1. Yes, they were needed back then in the factories also, with so many men leaving their jobs to go off to the war front, such as these women making bombs.

bomb factory…and these making machine guns.

machine gunsMany women also served as Red Cross nurses …

red crossnurses…and in various functions in the Salvation Army.

salvation army2salvation armyThen there was the “Woman’s Land Army.” American crops were desperately needed to feed the US population, to feed our own soldiers and those of our Allies on the front lines in Europe, and also for the starving populations in many war-torn European countries. Yet large numbers of male farmers and farm workers had left the fields and gone off to serve in the military. So women, particularly young women, many of them from city backgrounds totally unfamiliar with farming, were recruited to work the farms of America.

land armyposterland armyThe city slickers were even given a crash course in farming, sort of like a boot camp!

farm training

These active female roles in the war effort, some even close to the front lines, were filled more often than not by single young women. But what of younger married women with children, and women perhaps too old to do factory labor? There was a common expectation that everyone ought to be taking some sort of active role in the war effort, by at least purchasing War Bonds, and also by cooperating with all sorts of programs promoted by the government. Posters encouraging “Victory Gardens” were plastered everywhere—every woman who had access to even a small plot of ground was encouraged to organize her family to “grow their own” vegetables.

garden2gardenThose who didn’t participate whole-heartedly in every type of victory program were considered slackers. So yes, there were “female slackers” abroad in the land.

And thus there arose “Bands of Big Sisters” to deal with them. To spy on them, tattle on them, and strong-arm them…sometimes with just peer pressure, occasionally with actual physical intervention. For of course everyone needed to toe the patriotic line.

Just as with the rise of the APL, these were not groups imposed from the top down by the government, but grass roots, volunteer, in many cases vigilante groups. And one might think that they arose because of an extended period of “brain washing” by government propaganda, like that in Orwell’s dystopian future of 1984, forcing them to “group think.” No, this was not the case. Strangely enough, in 1916, much of the country, and particularly the women of the land, tended to a position, regarding the “European War,” of neutrality at least, and often of pacifism. In early 1917 even President Wilson was still taking a stand against US involvement. There WAS no government pro-war propaganda. But once war was declared in April, suddenly what some historians have labeled a “war hysteria” seemed to spring up out of nowhere.

There is no doubt that very soon the government did develop an elaborate program of propaganda, through the “Committee for Public Information.” And that program did tend to play upon the hysteria already present. But it didn’t cause it. The initial zeal of so many groups, including the APL and the “General Federation of Women’s Clubs” that will be mentioned below, seems to have been truly a grass roots phenomenon.

It was NOT necessary to have a period of “brain washing” or “indoctrination” by government propaganda to get women to spy on one another. They were more than ready and willing as soon as they were given opportunity.

Diatribes against the “woman slacker” soon filled the popular press and the minutes of women’s clubs. A wartime editorial in Ladies’ Home Journal described the woman slacker as “a woman who cannot take anything seriously, . . . who cannot put aside her little dolls and playthings: who must consume in social frivolity the time and strength that other women are putting into salvatory work.” Selfishness perplexed the politically engaged women who were daily giving all to the nation. Like the draft dodger and the conscientious objector, the woman slacker had cast off the burdens of citizenship with a shrug of her shoulders, leaving others to carry the load.  [From Uncle Sam Wants You: World War 1 and the Making of the Modern American Citizen (USWY). Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this entry are from this source. Any underlining, bolding, or italics in quotations have been added for emphasis.]

Although some men came forward and volunteered for military service with little or no prompting at all after war was declared in 1917, it took a concerted program of enlistment posters, the draft, and other types of encouragement to mobilize the huge army necessary to do America’s part in winning the war. The same was true for getting women involved in war work. There was a flurry of enthusiasm among some women to get involved, but without some coordinated supervision, many worried that it would be ineffective.

Government officials and leaders of major organizations also worried that uncoordinated voluntarism would be inefficient. Among draft-age men, unmediated voluntarism was thought to be prompted by boyish excitement, a gung ho goodwill that Selective Service System administrators sought to channel and put to good use. Reckless female voluntarism was different, frequently dismissed as a frivolous search for entertainment that needed to be controlled rigorously lest it detract from the serious business of war. Student Anna Davenport Sparks told her Smith College classmates that their service, “if it is to be efficient, must not be in an orgy of enthusiasm, but rather in sane, well-planned, quietly-executed activities.” The Ladies’ Home Journal urged readers to serve but serve smartly: “Let every woman … be sure of her talent, and not hinder or complicate by offering herself for work for which she is not fitted.” These concerns reflected the political culture of the era.

Even worse than uncoordinated efforts would be efforts that were all “show” destined to bear no fruit—merely “playing at” volunteer work.

No one could quite decipher what women’s wartime voluntarism was; since it wasn’t work, they feared it might merely be leisure. And so the nation’s clubwomen attempted the same solution the War Department did: selective service under a broad regime of voluntary registration.

During the early months of the war, women’s organizations canvassed their members, dutifully filling note cards with lists of skills that might be useful to the war effort: nursing, sewing, driving, shooting. Philadelphia women gathered ninety-five thousand cards “during the hot summer months” of 1917. Rhode Island and New York included women in the counts of each state’s “Military Census”; the General Federation urged a full government-administered census of women to replace piecemeal registration work within clubs.


honor rollThe General Federation of Women’s Clubs was founded in 1890. Leaders of a Federation delegation to the White House in 1914 are shown here.

gfwcIt’s still an active organization:

Accomplishments during GFWC’s first century include: establishing 75 percent of the country’s public libraries, developing kindergartens in the public schools, and working for food and drug regulation.

GFWC clubwomen are true volunteers in action—in 2009, GFWC members raised over $39 million on behalf of more than 110,000 projects, and volunteered more than 4.1 million hours in the communities where they live and work. [Wiki article on GFWC]

In some ways, the GFWC functioned in a similar way to the APL during the war years.

Their first task was to establish a unified home-front fighting food force. And so, on April 12, 1917, just days after the declaration of war, the General Federation asked every member to pledge to conserve food: “I will use only those amounts of food required for adequate nourishment. I will endeavor to control the waste in all kinds of materials in the household and to live simply. I will begin now.”

foodfood2The government cooperated in helping remind everyone of such pledges through posters. Bread was the focus of many of these, because wheat was considered one of the most important exports necessary for the soldiers at the front. Homemakers were encouraged to severely limit the amount of wheat baked goods and cereals that their family ate, substituting corn and rice and other grains.

eat more cornbreadbread2Special groups, such as immigrants, were even targeted by some posters.

immigrants wheat

The rank and file responded wholeheartedly. The New York State Federation of Women’s Clubs supported food conservation in a November 1917 resolution; Dallas women joined in, too. Thirteen thousand Minnesota clubwomen signed the GFWC pledge. Women’s clubs expanded their pledge drives nationwide under the auspices of the U.S. Food Administration, and as they blended state action and civic voluntarism, they also began to blur the line between mobilization and social control.

The Hoover Pledge Drives—so called because they were administered by U.S. Food Administration and its director, although in fact Herbert Hoover had very little to do with them—sought the signature of every woman who ran a household.

pledgeBy the time that blank Hoover Pledge Cards began circulating across America, thousands of clubwomen had long since pledged their loyalty, and these volunteers—almost 500,000 of them—now turned their attention to women outside their own organizations, explicitly taking on the task of regulating the political obligations of other women. Responding to a series of three drives in June and October 1917 and June 1918, as many as fourteen million households signed the pledge.

filing pledgesAnd make no mistake, the “pledge” was viewed by most as much more than just an idle promise.

Women’s adherence to their pledges was also enforced. “Anyone neglecting or refusing to comply with our government’s food regulations will be marked as a traitor in the community,” announced South Dakota’s Food Administration head in 1918. P. M. Harding, who ran the USFA in Vicksburg, Mississippi, announced public hearings, “so that persons failing to co-operate in the nation’s hour of emergency may be known to their fellow citizens.”

And just how did Mr. Harding expect to know that any given family was ignoring the food regulations at their family dinner table?  There would have been no bayoneted soldier going door to door at dinnertime to see if little Johnny was not eating all his food, or Mother was being too generous with piling portions on Dad’s plate, or serving beef too often instead of fish or chicken.

fishNo, no soldier would be needed. Just nosy neighbor ladies.

Sugar was another important food item which citizens were urged to conserve. It could be used in canning certain food items, as part of a diligent effort on the part of women to preserve food from their family victory garden to get through the winter.

victory cannerIn Macon, Georgia, in July 1918, Emma Furman’s daughter Bess returned from the Red Cross knitting circle with news that a neighbor, who had been permitted to purchase twenty-five pounds of sugar after pledging that she would use it for canning, had been caught baking “sweets galore” for her daughter. “She was visited by authority and ordered to show the preserves or the sugar,” Furman noted in her diary. “Not being able to do either [she] was put under a $300 bond.” Furman didn’t pause to identify the “authority” in question, perhaps because authority at that moment was so diffuse.

You can bet that no official government agent was bothering to go door to door to check for “sweets” in houses across the land. They didn’t need to. I have little doubt that some of this lady’s own friends or neighbors tattled on her, perhaps after stopping by her house for tea and noticing the fresh baked sweets on the counter in her kitchen.

Or maybe someone right inside the home might tattle.

Compulsion could even be internalized within the household itself. Mary Aldis found half a slice of bread in her kitchen garbage can during the war. She recounted to readers of the Journal of Home Economics how she “call[ed] my household staff together” and “asked who was the guilty one.” Hanging in Aldis’s kitchen? Not only the Hoover Pledge poster, but also a sign, “in red letters”: To waste a crust of bread is an act of treachery to the nation.”

Gives new meaning to “hyperbole,” doesn’t it! Yes, hyperbole was often the method of choice on posters at the time, such as this one about the “Greatest Crime in Christendom”:


Whatever level of nosiness neighbor ladies may have naturally had, it was magnified and legitimized by all sorts of people in authority.

At times, women’s efforts brought them foursquare into the dynamics of home-front policing. They monitored other women’s loyalty closely. Fear rocked clubrooms in Philadelphia after Red Cross officer Albert Staub told women there of the discovery of surgical dressings soaked in poisonous chemicals, which Staub attributed to sabotage. “You women of Philadelphia must clean house. Go over the list of your members and make sure of the loyalty of every one.… You do not realize the desperate extremes to which those who are against us will go.”

Settlement house workers at New York City’s Greenwich House collaborated with army and navy intelligence bureaus. The New Jersey Federation of Women’s Clubs established an espionage committee, “asked to be ‘eyes and ears’ for the government, to report suspicious actions, seditious remarks, interference with government meetings and the circulation of false reports concerning war organizations.” Members boasted that “reports sent through this committee to the Department of Justice at Washington were of material assistance to the government.”

Yes, all across the land, the reality was that “Big Sister Is Watching You.”

Americans who wanted to do their part for the war found explicit instruction in an editorial in New York State’s Albany Journal akin to those published in thousands of wartime newspapers: If you ever, on the street or in a trolley car, should hear some soft-shell pacifist or hard-boiled but poorly camouflaged pro-German, make seditious or unpatriotic remarks about your Uncle Sam you have the right and privilege of taking that person by the collar, hand him over to the nearest policeman or else take him yourself before the magistrate. You do not require any official authority to do this and the only badge needed is your patriotic fervor. The same thing applies to women.

Every American, under provisions of the code of civil procedure, has the authority to arrest any person making a remark or utterance which “outrages public decency.”

And all across the nation, among the men of the APL, and the women of the various women’s organizations, this concept of vigilantism was embraced.  However, by the end of the war, it had become obvious to even some of the most enthusiastic that this wasn’t necessarily always a good thing.

In Seattle, Washington, during this era there was a group called the Seattle Minute Men that eventually merged its efforts with the APL. Author Susan Newsome notes the following in an article titledThe Seattle Minute Men: Amateur Spies, Gossip and Lies”:

The methods used by the Minute Men and the information they supplied was often questionable. There are numerous reports that lack evidence other than simple gossip or that show a definite dislike by the agent for the subject he is investigating. Herein lies the greatest problem with volunteer spy organizations such as the Minute Men or the American Protective League: They are not held accountable for their actions or the results thereof. To begin with, many of the reports submitted were lacking any basis for an investigation. Stating that a certain man or woman is pro-German is not enough to warrant an investigation. More specifics are needed such as, What did the man or woman say? Who did they say it to? Were there reliable witnesses? Often times these questions were never answered. …

A good example of one such frivolous report is dated February 21, 1918 reported by C.F.B. The report is based on a complaint from Mrs. Chas. F. Boyd who was not pleased that Mrs. Emory Winship, whose husband was in charge of the Navy Recruiting Office at Bremerton, had a German born maid. Mrs. Winship had testified that her maid was, “as much American in feeling as anyone could be.” Mrs. Boyd felt that someone should do something about this German woman, “on the grounds that this is a poor time to be taking chances on the loyalty of a German woman working in a place where it is possible for her to pick up valuable information for the enemy.” The reply to this report stated that Mrs. Boyd was an overly suspicious woman and over-zealous to accuse. Here is an instant where the German born maid could have lost her job and her only means of support because of the thoughtless gossip of an old woman with too much time on her hands!

Many people today have great concern about the “intrusiveness” of technological surveillance in the US. The latest news about the National Security Agency and its secret (well, formerly secret…) gathering of massive amounts of data from telephone and email traffic, as well as from internet social media such as Facebook certainly brings up visions of Big Brother and Orwell’s dystopian vision of 1984. What concerns ME is that so many folks seem to think this is “some new thing” in America, and mostly evidence of a plot by the current administration to impose some sort of totalitarian regime. There is much hand-wringing about how we Americans have “lost our freedoms” and are being manipulated in ways totally foreign to our historical experience. If only we could rise up in rebellion and “take back” the country, returning it to the idyllic bastion of democracy that we had a century ago, all would be well.

I find this incredibly naïve. There has never been a technology that wasn’t almost immediately used…in this country and around the world…in intrusive ways by the authorities. And, in fact, in some ways the intrusions into freedom of speech and freedom of communication were MORE Orwellian a century ago than now, even though the technology was far simpler. Yes, computerized meta-data is impressive, but for the average “man on the street” the ability of the government to gather it may well not end up affecting him personally nearly as much as did the gossipy ladies, uber-patriotic men, and all the huge file-card collections they amassed back a century ago.

And consider the modern concerns about the “Mainstream Media” being a stooge of the administration as many claim today, helping it to establish an Orwellian grip on the populace—back 100 years ago, the government imposed a complete blackout on ALL news in ALL newspapers having even the slightest thing to do with the war effort, other than official news reports provided by the government itself. Absolutely NO speculation or criticism was allowed in the press regarding governmental decisions.

“Regulations for the Periodical Press of the United States during the War.” These regulations— they were not billed as “Guidelines” or “Suggestions,” but as “Regulations”— carefully divided news into three categories, “Dangerous, Questionable, and Routine,” each to be treated differently. Within the “Dangerous” category were three subcategories, “General, Naval, and Military.”

The list of forbidden items under the “General” rubric included all stories of naval and military operations in progress, except for what was officially given out; the movements of official missions; threats against the life of the president; news relating to the Secret Service or confidential agents; and the movements of “alien labor”— that is, foreign-born U.S. workers. Under the “Naval” category, journalists were forbidden to report on the position, number, and identification of U.S. and Allied warships; informational details relating to lights and buoys; the names of arrival and departure ports; data relating to marine mines and mine traps; signals, orders, and radio messages to and from ships; anything relating to submarine warfare; general information on ports, dry docks, and repairs; anything relating to convoys, including their makeup and schedules. Forbidden under the “Military” category were stories about fixed land defenses and fortifications; troop movements; the assignment of small detachments; the concentration of troops at ports of embarkation; and experimental weaponry or aircraft. Of course, any information furnished by the CPI [Committee for Public Information, under its head, George Creel] was always acceptable.

The “Regulations” placed under the “Questionable” heading all matter that might be acceptable for publication, but only with caution— and, usually, only with the explicit approval of the CPI. Here Creel fudged, declining to offer a detailed listing, but instead suggested some example subjects, including training camp routine, technical inventions, and the publication of rumors, especially those of a sensational nature (such as the outbreak of an epidemic in a camp). Anything outside of the “Dangerous” and “Questionable” categories was deemed “Routine,” which meant that it could be published without prior approval; however, Creel urged editors to submit to the CPI anything about which they entertained even the slightest doubt. Such articles would be reviewed and stamped “Passed by the Committee on Public Information,” which meant that they contained no objectionable material but had not been checked by the CPI for accuracy, or “Authorized by the Committee on Public Information,” which meant that the material had been both cleared in terms of security and, after investigation, had also been found to be factually accurate.

And there was no email, but…

…almost immediately after the declaration of war, President Wilson ordered the U.S. Navy to seize all commercial “wireless establishments” (radio stations) and ordered radio operators, amateurs and professionals alike, to cease broadcasting. On April 28, three days after Koons’s order to postmasters, Wilson issued an executive order tightly clamping down on cable, telephone, and telegraph messages leaving or entering the United States.

In other words, during the War there was no such thing as “investigative reporting.” All reporters having anything to do with reporting on the war were taken under the wing of the government, not employees of independent news-gathering agencies that could “go where the news took them.” They produced official news under official guidelines that was distributed through official channels.

The U.S. Army and Navy thought they needed near-absolute secrecy. Creel believed that what they really needed was a good press agent, an “official machinery for the preparation and release of all news bearing upon America’s war effort … a running record of each day’s progress.” The objective was not to serve history but to create among the “fathers and mothers of the United States… a certain sense of partnership,” what a later generation of PR professionals would call “buy-in,” buy-in to a war to which American parents were yielding up their young men.  To accomplish this mission, Creel instantly grasped that the government could not impose itself on the press but would have to co-opt the press, not merely by hiring journalists but by identifying newspapermen “of standing and ability” and swearing them in to government service, placing them “at the very heart of endeavor in the War and Navy departments, in the War Trade Board, the War Industries Board, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Labor.” The media would be thoroughly integrated into the government, made one with it.

Whereas conventional censorship was designed to keep the press out, Creel’s plan was to take the press in. Whereas conventional censorship was designed to stop the flow of information, Creel’s army of journalists, pledged to government service, were “to take the deadwood out of the channels of information, permitting a free and continuous flow.” The trouble with censorship as conventionally conceived was that it created a vacuum where the people’s perception of reality should be. Popular opinion, sentiment, and belief all abhor a vacuum. Denied information, the people will look to whatever sources present themselves— enterprising reporters, rumor mongers, panic-stricken parents, spies— to fill the vacuum. The CPI would make sure that the mental and emotional space of the American people was always full, full of the reality it supplied.

…Under the CPI war regime, news was not to be the result of investigation, the proprietary product, as it were, of private enterprise, but public property to be apportioned equally to all. The Creel Committee effectively nationalized the news. Not only did it come from a government source, it was treated as government property.

In 2013 one of the biggest issues for many Americans is the way that the current administration in Washington justifies tampering with the freedom and privacy rights of Americans by insisting it is necessary for the common defense. But this is precisely how the administration 100 years ago justified its tampering too, and in many ways I find their approach to have been even more suffocating. The current administration may be listening in to the criticism of its policies all over the Internet, but it does very little to stop such criticism. You really can still get away with calling Obama the Antichrist on your blog, and threatening the government on your Facebook page with armed rebellion if they try to take your gun away. And newspapers and cable news shows can get away with just about any criticism they can throw, no matter how nasty. This was NOT possible a century ago in the media of the time! If you tried to get on the Facebook of the time…the conversational crowd around the pickle barrel at the local grocery store…and indulge in a rant about the president, you didn’t have to worry about an FBI spy collaring you—the sweet little old lady from down the street would take care of the job for him.

Yes, “Big Sister Was Watching You.” As was Big Brother, Li’l Brother…and almost everybody else.

Many of my friends are now paranoid about the power of the governmental Users of Big Technology. I don’t blame them—the possibilities are pretty scary. But I am convinced that there is a power more powerful than that, which they would do well to worry more about. The power of the misguided zealotry of the common man. It is not bounded by time in history, or by the need for technology, although it can harness technology to its own purposes.

We see it in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. I’m put in mind of the Apostle Paul before his conversion. The fears of the earliest Christians weren’t about the secular Big Government of the Roman authorities, with its armies and its modern effective road and communication systems. The misguided religious zeal of a Paul was enough to strike fear in any of them.

Galatians 1:13-14

For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. (NIV)

Acts 8:3

But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.

9:1-2 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.

I am personally convinced that American Christians ought not to view their biggest worry about the future as an Orwellian-style Group Think being imposed from above by a totalitarian dictatorship some day.  I suggest that they may eventually find instead that they should have been more worried about the fruit of a grass roots swell of misguided zeal of their own neighbors.

We’ll explore this possibility in coming installments of Oh Say Can You See?

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Oh Say Can You See? IV: The Rise of Big Brother: Pt. 5

Series: Oh Say Can You See? IV: The Rise of Big Brother
Entry 5: “Li’l Brother Is Watching You”

(This is the 5th entry in a series on The Rise of Big Brother.
Be sure to start with Entry 1
in order to understand the following material in context.)

 If you were a “Child of the 1930s”—or 40s, 50s or 60s—you may well have aspired to being a “Crime Stopper” Assistant to the great comic strip detective, Dick Tracy.


And you were in luck…with just the right combination of cereal box tops and/or stamps or change, you could “send away” (“sending away” for “premiums” was a prime pastime of children of that era) and acquire your very own Dick Tracy Crime Stopper’s badge, to prove your status to the world.

tracy badgeBy 1961 you could send away to the Chicago Tribune and get a whole gen-yoo-wine Crimestoppers Club kit, which would allow you to make gen-yoo-wine fingerprints, gen-yoo-wine secret codes, and much more. There was even a blue “Summons” pad, so that you could fill out an official form and give to the criminals you stopped.

dick tracy 1961 chi tribAlthough ads for such badges and kits, at least by the 1950s, occasionally showed aspiring young female Crimestoppers too, I think these tended to be viewed by most folks as male-gendered items. For the young lady of the family, there was a different Dick Tracy-themed item…in 1951 Dick and wife, the former Tess Trueheart, welcomed baby Bonnie Braids into their family. And it didn’t take long for the toy industry to churn out a Bonnie Braids doll. I became the proud owner of my own Bonnie in 1952, at age 6.

bonnieBut I must admit that didn’t deter me from also dreaming about owning my very own Dick Tracy Wrist Radio. As early as 1945, you actually could get your own “It Really Works” wrist radio.

radioOf course, this was just a teensy little crystal radio, that only picked up commercial radio stations. And look  closely at the illustration… you obviously needed to have a wire antenna connected to a nearby radiator or some such to magnify its pickup. It was painfully clear once you got past the hype in the headlines that this was not an actual “two way radio” you could use to contact Police HQ.

But by the 1960s you could get The Real Thing. Check it out on Youtube.

1961 Dick Tracy Wrist Radio ad

Well, not exactly… the wrist mike was only a part of the gadget…you had to have a big walkie-talkie outfit with a protruding big antenna strapped to your tummy to make it work. Not quite the convenient gadget that Tracy had been using for three decades by then.

But you know what? Even if I had my very own Crimestoppers Badge and Kit and a working model Wrist Radio as a kid, I would never have been under the illusion that I was a REAL crime stopper. I would have known I was just a kid playing pretend. And I’m pretty sure virtually all the other 6 or 8 or 10 year old kids with their badges and summons pads would have understood the same thing. We would have “arrested” each other in pretend games of Cops ‘n’ Robbers, and then parted ways to go home and watch Hopalong Cassidy on TV.

And I’m also convinced that our parents and teachers would have been equally sure that our Crimestopping antics and our summons pads were just child’s play. For after all, the emotional, social, and mental maturity level of most ten-year-olds doesn’t give them the knowledge and wisdom and self-control necessary to be responsible for “policing” others in their community.

I say all that to say this—for some reason, this common sense conclusion about the level of responsibility of ten year olds seems to have utterly escaped the adults of a century ago. To learn more about this odd phenomenon, come along with me back to the Good Old Days of the “Anti-Yellow Dog Clubs.”

The best place to start a look at the America of the early 19-teens (1910 to 1919) is on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. By 1916 you could find Post covers graced by the homey nostalgic paintings of Norman Rockwell. Here, for instance, is his very first Post cover, May 20, 1916. As with many of his later covers, this one focuses on young lads I would expect were about ten years old.

postfirst may 1916

And here is one of his War Years covers, from May 15, 1918, with another lad about the same age.

post rockwell 1918 may 15During this period, Rockwell also painted covers for other magazines, and here is one for the Literary Digest from August 7 that same year. This one also features a boy I would guess is about ten, a young red-white-and-blue patriot proudly displaying various buttons he has received for his “support for the war”—Rockwell titled the painting “Doing His Part.”

doing his part 1918 aug 7Collecting such buttons and badges was as popular at the time as collecting buttons and badges from radio and TV shows was in later decades. Looks like this lad was particularly dedicated in contributing to the Red Cross and Liberty Bond drives.

But after reading about some other “patriotic” efforts of lads his age, I am left wondering if that’s all he did to “do his part.” I’d be curious to know if he was a member of an AntiYellow Dog Club.

Two weeks before the Boy-Meets-Clown cover magazine above was on the stands, a different artist did the Post Cover.

post yellow dog 1918 May 4There were no young boys on this cover this time, but inside the magazine, they were running amok in a short story by an author named Henry Irving Dodge. The story, called “The Yellow Dog,” was obviously aimed at young male readers, although adults were certainly encouraged to read it too—and hopefully pass it on to the young males among their family and friends. And passed along it was! In fact, it became so popular that later that year it was separately published as a small book. And by October, it had been made into a motion picture!

In the story, a super-patriotic man named Albert Walker is discouraged and concerned about the effect on his town’s war enthusiasm and morale because of the presence of “German sympathizers, spies, draft evaders” and others who voice doubts about US involvement in the War and about how the government is managing the War effort.  Walker labels these problematic people “yellow dogs.” He uses the slang term yellow dog to refer to non-descript,  generic mutts, which often tend to be yellow or tan color, the kind of mongrels that live in junk yards. Such dogs were often considered an unwelcome source of disease and fleas to the “nice” pet dogs in town, dogs of specific breeds like bulldog, boxer, Dalmatian, or Cocker Spaniel. In his mind, people who “spread” unflattering comments about the government, unfounded rumors about the progress of the war, and/or criticism of any kind about America are the human equivalent of a yellow dog.

When the adults in town fail to join forces to stop this threat, Walker enlists a group of young boys to become the “Boy Detectives of America.” Their mission is to “confront” any Yellow Dog that they hear saying anything negative about the War, the US, or the US Government, and to boldly ask the person “HOW DO YOU KNOW?” If he didn’t have an immediate, satisfactory answer, he was to be handed a Yellow Dog card.

Walker first came up with the idea when he noticed young boys in his neighborhood “tricking” neighbors at night by ringing their doorbells and then running. Reminiscing about similar stunts he pulled in his own childhood, he notes, “For devilish ingenuity of the teasing kind give me the small boy. Everywhere and always full of mischief. Everywhere and all at once.” And that made him sit up with a jerk and exclaim, “By Jove! I’ve got it! The small boy—the red corpuscle of the country’s blood—the universal policeman—everywhere and all at once!”

Hmm. What a mature idea. Send totally immature, thoughtless, reckless pranksters out to accost adults regarding their convictions about the most controversial political, moral, ethical, and emotionally-charged questions of the day. And praise the hooligans for it. What a plan.

A plan accepted by millions in America, as we shall soon see.

In Dodge’s story, Walker equips the corpuscles with cards full of slogans and ways to identify Yellow Dogs. They embellish and add to these. Sample:

Anybody that says US Bonds ain’t the safest investment in the world, ask him HOW HE KNOWS. If he can’t answer you he’s a yellow dog.

Any man that won’t buy a bond isn’t willing to pay his share of the expenses of our [older] brothers in the trenches who are risking their lives fighting for him.

The income tax dodger is a Yellow Dog.

Anybody that says Colonel Vanderbilt loaned France forty millions is a yellow dog. He ain’t got that much.

We’re the Boy Detectives of our town. There may be Yellow Dogs in Danforth, but there ain’t any yellow pups.

Soon even Walker was amazed at the results. The Red White and Blue Pups embarked immediately on their Children’s Crusade. And it was merciless…

Walker had forgotten how resourceful the small boy really is, how effective his patriotism becomes, once given a chance to express itself along the lines of adventure. He had thought to kindle a bonfire in Danforth. But he found he’d started a conflagration. The air was full of it. Metaphorically, it smarted the eyes and stung the nostrils of everybody. It was not long before every yellow dog in Danforth had been served with a card of identification.

And this included a large proportion of the population…because even those who weren’t “pro-German” or “anti-war” often cheated on their taxes!

A reign of terror had descended upon the place. It got so a man didn’t dare talk sedition even to his wife in the middle of the night in his own bed, lest from out the darkness come—liked the far-famed clarion, Excelsior—the awful, incriminating: “HOW DO YOU KNOW?”

The loyal little Boy Detectives didn’t give their parents away, but they didn’t hesitate to take them to task for anything that savored of sedition. Paterfamilias [the head of the household] found that his redoubts of authority were crumbling before the constant, pin-prick fire of the “HOW DO YOU KNOW?” Paterfamilias hated it and became careful about what he said. He couldn’t take refuge in “Jones told me,” because he knew his boy would go and ask Jones. So paterfamilias began to think. He thought hard. In trying to convince himself he was right he convinced himself he was wrong. He began to realize that the Boy Detective movement was the concrete result of the careless words he and others had spoken; the shafts they thoughtlessly sent out against the Government had returned to torment them.

And now we have arrived back at Orwell’s vision of the future. Except …it’s a vision of the past. But it’s not Big Brother listening in on you in your bedroom. It’s Li’l Brother. A whole platoon of little brothers.

If I had disguised this story just a bit to not make clear the time frame, I think most readers would assume it was a cautionary bit of fiction about a dystopian future. But the readers in 1918 didn’t think it dystopian at all—they embraced the notion of a “reign of terror” by little “red corpuscles,” and thought of it as wonderfully inspiring and patriotic. So much so that they began requesting reprints of the story. At which point it became re-typeset in book form and sold by the caseloads. And turned into that movie I mentioned earlier. AND …was brought to life.

As part of the promotional efforts for the book and movie, author Dodge actually officially organized the Anti-Yellow Dog Club and began advertising it across the country. It took off like a skyrocket. Look at this article I found on the web in an old collection of newspapers from Hollywood, California. This is from the Holly Leaves newspaper of August 18, 1918, just three months after the story appeared in the Post.


Organization of Boy Detectives. Will Help Stamp Out German Propaganda in Hollywood

The latest patriotic organization to be formed in Hollywood is a branch of the “Anti-Yellow Dog Club,” composed of boys of ten years and up, who pledge themselves to act as detectives in ferretting out the “yellow dogs,” otherwise known as pro-Germans. Henry Irving Dodge of New York is the founder and his representative, Edward Lansing Cowles, is organizing the movement in this locality. Early in the week he had seventy Hollywood boys enrolled and a meeting was called at Wilcox Hall for Friday evening to complete the organization. Capt. C. A. Phelps, vice president of the California Loyal League, is scheduled to deliver an address. Paul Winfield of 1975 Cahuenga avenue is the District Supervisor.

Every boy of ten years and older is eligible to become a Boy Detective and lend his aid to running down and eliminating German propaganda Each boy who enrolls as a Boy Detective of the Anti-Yellow Dog Campaign will be given a membership card, a book of rules and a number of Yellow Dog summonses which they will be instructed to hand to everyone whom they hear making an unpatriotic statement.

Yes, just like in the Dick Tracy Crime Stoppers Kit, each Boy Detective got his own summonses to pass out. Except these weren’t just for playing cops and robbers with buddies in the alley. They were for an audacious ten or twelve year old to hand out to any adult stranger within earshot who might say something that his young mind might question. The summons wasn’t really a legal document, of course. And it only summoned the Yellow Dog to appear before the “Court of his Conscience.” But the matter MIGHT not stop in that private courtroom.

After the boys have been recruited they will be divided into squads. Each squad will be under the leadership of a Lieutenant-detective selected from among themselves.

Each lieutenant will have direct charge of, and be responsible for his squad of Boy Detectives, and will report at regular intervals to a District Supervisor appointed by the Anti-Yellow Dog Club.

In Los Angeles, as in every other city in the United States there is a certain element of alien malcontents, whose influence is anything but a patriotic stimulant. Many of them are deliberately hostile to the government, and when these are found by the Boy Detectives their names will be handed over to the regular police authorities for prompt official action.

The other species of Yellow Dog is the born American who thoughtlessly “knocks” the government. This type of Yellow Dog will be brought to his senses by the campaign of ridicule that forms the ammunition to be fired by the Boy Detective force.

The slogan of the Anti-Yellow Dog Club that will be constantly kept in the minds of the Boy Detectives is “Free speech,—yes! Free lies,—no!”

Among the rules of the club are the following:

“Whenever you hear a man say anything against the Government, step right up to him and ask: ‘How do you know?’

“If he don’t know, he is attacking the Government. He is a Yellow Dog spreading discouragement and discontent.

“Hand him a Yellow Dog Summons.

“If he apologizes, take back the Yellow Dog Summons. If he don’t apologize, walk away and let him keep it.”

And Hollywood was by no means an isolated venue for the Boy Detectives. I found similar articles in a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, paper even earlier, on August 11; a Prescott, Arizona, newspaper for September 1918; and another in a Ludington, Michigan, paper for that same month. In Prescott and Ludington, the efforts were being organized by YMCA personnel. (In many other cities they were evidently directly organized by local schools.) The Ludington paper also noted that the clubs are approved by Theodore Roosevelt.

Historical references indicate that there were around 1,000 branches of the club across the country. This would indicate tens of thousands of such boys, perhaps a hundred thousand or more. And that was just official groups of the original Dodge efforts. The idea seems to have caught on with adults as well, with copycat groups forming. Printer’s Ink magazine, a journal for advertising men, reported in its July-Sept 1918 edition that the Cleveland Advertising Club was forming its own plan to “fight down German propaganda,” through the forming of a “Yellow Dog Clubber’s Club.” Their tactics were similar to those described in the Hollywood story, but seemed to be planned to be carried out by adults. Another report I saw online mentioned the formation of related groups in factories across the land, sometimes recruiting hundreds of men at a time.

I don’t doubt that all these efforts did a lot to silence open expression of dissent among the populace. But from what I can tell, virtually all the efforts of ANY of these vigilante groups, child or adult, to ferret out any actual “German spies” failed totally. And there was very little success at even finding and targeting actual enthusiastic “German sympathizers.” The primary fallout was the treatment of Americans of German descent—there were 3 million or so of them at the time. Many of these would have been in America for generations, and I would think the majority were likely American citizens. That didn’t make any difference.

The Patriotic American of 1918 was not just incensed at the militaristic current German government. He was carefully primed by peer pressure to hate “the German race.” And EVERYTHING German. Libraries burned classic literature by German authors, orchestras refused to play music by classical German composers. A movement swept across the country to expel all German language classes from American high schools—one school that didn’t cease and desist immediately was even burned down. Frankfurters were re-named Victory Sausages or hot dogs, sauerkraut became Victory Cabbage or Liberty Cabbage . The popularity of owning dachshund dogs plummeted, and some owners took to referring to their pets as “Liberty Hounds” to play down the German connection.  Towns changed German street names. In some places it became illegal to speak German on the telephone…elderly German ladies talking to friends on a party line could be turned in to the authorities.

And just a German last name would get you on the “profiling” list of the Boy Detectives, and other vigilante groups.

The Smallest Soldiers: Teaching Children to Hate

The ‘National School Service’ was sent to public schools throughout the country to assist teachers in making “every school pupil a messenger for Uncle Sam.” Thousands of books from mysteries to comics and adventure stories were published with hate-German propaganda especially geared for children. The School Service had a circulation of 20,000,000 homes, and it was successful. Children in St. Louis, for example, were praised in the local paper for “doing their duty” in the war movement by stoning the daily delivery wagons of a German grocer.

Here’s a picture of my American German paternal grandfather, Lloyd Newbauer. He would have been in his 40s about that time in history. I wonder how he fared as the owner of a small business in Dayton, Ohio?

newbauerAs noted with the American Protective League in previous installments of this series, the US government at the time was definitely engaged in attempting to persuade the American public to support the war efforts enthusiastically. But the government really was not the primary “enforcer” of a gung-ho pro-war mentality in the country. That role was voluntarily taken on by the APL, the Yellow Dog Clubs, and many other vigilante groups. And indeed the federal government was grateful.

By mid-1918, the Department of Justice was receiving fifteen hundred letters a day related to loyalty charges. Attorney General Gregory boasted that, “Never in its history has this country been so thoroughly policed.” To which CPI [Committee on Public Information] director George Creel added, “Not a pin dropped in the home of anyone with a foreign name but that it rang like thunder on the inner ear of some listening sleuth.” [Darkest Before Dawn: Sedition and Free Speech in the American West]

So we’ve come around once again to my recurring question in this series…was a century ago “the Good Old Days” of America? Should I yearn to go back there, to a time when every man’s home was his castle, no one interfered with his “freedom,” and the administration in Washington hadn’t become unbearably intrusive like it is now?

No thank you. I have no desire to live in an era that gave birth to whole mindless, cloned armies of both Big Brothers and Li’l Brothers fully prepared to attempt to police my every thought and opinion.

But wait. Was this all just a male phenomenon? Nah… stick around for the next entry in the series when we will explore The Rise of Big Sister.

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Oh Say Can You See? IV: The Rise of Big Brother: Pt. 4

Series: Oh Say Can You See? IV: The Rise of Big Brother
Entry 4: “Band of Big Brothers”

(This is the 4th entry in a series on The Rise of Big Brother.
Be sure to start with Entry 1
in order to understand the following material in context.)

 The US Government was far too busy at the beginning of the US involvement in WW1 to place a major federal emphasis on trying to track down draft-dodgers…labeled “slackers” in early 20th Century slang. It had neither the manpower nor the bureaucratic organization in place to effectively deal with this issue. So government officials were pleased as punch when the home-grown super-patriotism of hundreds of thousands of US citizens prompted them to join the volunteer ranks of the American Protective League—and the League volunteered to rally all its volunteers to take on the task of tackling the slacker problem.

Voluntarism also shaped the “slacker raids,” vast dragnet operations of interrogation conducted by the 250,000 volunteer members of the American Protective League. … the American Protective League put a local face on a distant federal power, but that power was only possible in the first place because citizens voluntarily participated in the league. This was what bottom-up state-building was all about.

The idea for slacker raiding developed from within the American Protective League itself. The Bureau of Investigation depended on the APL’s detective work, and many operatives—even if they were not technically authorized to make arrests—did so. (They also eagerly claimed the $50 rewards that the U.S. Army offered for the delivery of alleged deserters to military camps.) Similarly, league men had been making individual interrogations and small-scale raids on their own initiative for some time. [Uncle Sam Wants You: World War 1 and the Making of the Modern American Citizen (USWY)]

alleged slacker reportslacker file notecard

The federal government had done its part in trying to bring down the numbers of those avoiding the draft, including through hard-sell propaganda posters that used “shame” to promote enlistment.

slacker daddy

But that wasn’t enough, and it appeared as if hundreds of thousands of men were shirking their patriotic duty. So…

In the spring of 1918, authorities in the War Department, responding to the offers of the eager patriots of the APL, contemplated using their services to bring in slackers.

…Its first citywide sweeps took place in Minneapolis and Pittsburgh on March 26, 1918…These were followed by the first multi-day, large-scale slacker raid, which took place in Chicago from July 11 to 14, 1918. There, more than 10,000 men from all branches of governmental authority participated, interrogating more than 150,000 men in the course of a few days.

The Chicago incident typified slacker raids nationwide. For one thing, a wide variety of men claimed the authority to detain possible slackers. Chicago’s APL operatives joined professional Department of Justice agents, city police, and soldiers and sailors on furlough in the city. Evidence from the Chicago raids and later ones in New York suggests that despite the presence of military personnel and local police, the Justice Department and the APL called the shots; the league handled about 75 percent of Chicago’s cases. [All further quotations in this entry are from USWY]

What was a slacker raid like?

The Chicago slacker raid was a thoroughly modern phenomenon. It targeted places of mass entertainment and congregation: railroad stations, movie theaters, even a baseball game at Comiskey Park. It used automobiles to shuttle detainees across town, as well as telephones and telegrams to communicate with their draft boards. The scope and scale of the Chicago raid testify to the APL’s ambition; this was no Sunday picnic. Modern bureaucracy came in handy, too: what happened to a man during a slacker raid had little to do with his political views or, ironically enough, whether he was actually liable for military service. What mattered was his ability to demonstrate a state-sanctioned identity, age, and classification status to the satisfaction of the authorities by showing his card.

Those of draft age were expected to carry their registration card with them at all times. But draft registration had only been around for a few months. Remembering to put your draft card in your pocket every time you stepped outside your home was no doubt a habit instilled in very few men…before the slacker raids. And what of those men who didn’t “look their age”? The Selective Service Act of May 18, 1917, required men ages 21-30 to register. This was changed in August, 1918, to 18-45.  In either case, men just a few years younger than the minimum might well look draft age, and could be stopped and interrogated. And if the interrogator was convinced the young man might be of draft age—and he couldn’t produce “proof” of his age—he was liable to being taken into custody. The same would be true of men a year or more older than the upper age limit. If they appeared to be draft age, they were liable at any time to being stopped and asked for proof of age, and for proof of registration if they were of draft age.

licenseProof of age might be a driver’s license…which a large proportion of young men would not have possessed, since only 1 in 13 families in the US owned a car in 1918. Or it could have been a birth certificate. But how many people, even today, go around with a copy of their birth certificate in their pocket? Most people back then probably didn’t even own a copy of such a certificate.  The original would just reside in a court house somewhere.

The zealous APL men had absolutely no interest in the issue of false arrest. They had invented a job to do, and they did it with a vengeance. To very little good purpose, as it turned out.

As would be repeated nationwide, the number of draft evaders rooted out during Chicago’s raids was trifling in comparison with the effort required to carry them out. Questioning in Chicago yielded some 20,000 detainees (mostly for failure to carry identity cards), of whom 1,200 alleged draft evaders were turned over to army authorities; nearly all were hastily released. These dismal results would be reproduced in cities across the country during the summer of 1918.

The Chicago slacker raid met with general approval. The Spy Glass, the APL’s official newsletter, noted that “there was little or no disturbance and few attempts to resist the authority of the League men who conducted the roundup. Most of the young fellows took their arrest as a disagreeable joke due to their own neglect and waited patiently until their identification could be completed.”

The power of the APL was not just regional. Men from all parts of the country were eager to possess an imposing membership card, wear a flashy badge, and take part in slacker raids!

apl cardapl badge

…Slacker raiding reached a fever pitch in the late summer of 1918, with raids at New York City’s Coney Island on July 21 and in Trenton on August 2 (with a follow-up raid later that month). League men hit Atlantic City on August 15 and Galveston, Texas, on July 3 and August 28. On September 1, they rounded up San Francisco’s slackers, moving on to Sacramento two days later.

They also raided Los Angeles, as shown in this headline clipped from an August 1, 1918, Los Angeles paper.

headline la august 18 1918

And that brings us to New York City. Just fifty years earlier, New York City had been the site of the horrendous four-day draft riot that devastated much of the city and injured or killed so many, described in the previous entry in this series. But the mood of the US populace had definitely shifted in the intervening years. I wonder just how those pugnacious Irishmen of the 1860s would have dealt with the stuffed-shirt, middle class APL men who wandered the streets of New York in early September, 1918, accosting men who were minding their own business.

But of all the earlier drives, none matched the New York City slacker raids of September 3 to 5, 1918—in size or in controversy.

…For the patriot volunteers of the American Protective League, the time for action was now. And the place for action was New York City: “we find that the great states of each coast are practically foreign—New York most of all,” bemoaned Emerson Hough. The War Department offered its own bit of foreshadowing for the raids, announcing in New York newspapers on September 1 that “a great organization, extending into every State … has been constructed to hunt down those attempting to evade the new selective service law.” As Provost Marshal General Enoch Crowder noted in the same article, “The registrant’s protection is to have with him at all times his registration cards.… Failure to carry these credentials will render him liable to arrest at any time.” The Justice Department would later point to this article as “fair warning” of events to come.

Conveniently, the Justice Department also shut down the offices of the New York Civil Liberties Bureau and the New York Bureau of Legal Advice two days before the raids.

I’m always surprised at people today who rant how their “rights as citizens” are being trampled on by whatever regime is present in Washington, as if this is some new thing! And when they do, it is often for the most minor irritation. How would they have liked to have been a 22-year-old man without his draft card, minding his own business out on the town in New York City, perhaps in a soda shop having a sundae with his lady friend, on September 3, 1918?

Beginning at 6:30 A.M. on a hot, sticky day with on-again, off-again rain, the New York City slacker raids marked a unique marshaling of American political culture’s powers of enforcement. The APL later estimated that somewhere between twenty thousand and twenty-five thousand men participated: city police, government agents from the Department of Justice, more than two thousand soldiers and one thousand sailors, and thousands of American Protective League operatives. For three days, they scoured the city’s streets and public places, interrogating somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 men.

A man who lacked a draft registration or classification card found himself escorted by these self-appointed authorities to the nearest police station and from there to one of the city’s armories or, in some cases, municipal jails.

Yep, they were herded just like cattle, as can be seen from this snapshot taken during that infamous three-day Raid.

slackaer raid

Although some men did complain afterward of rough handling, operatives had been cautioned to be “courteous but firm,” and there is remarkably little evidence of physical violence; the Nation later marveled at “the long-suffering patience of the public.”

The raiders began their work that busy Tuesday morning by surrounding the exits and entrances of every train, ferry, subway, and elevated station; before rush hour was over, nearly 2,500 men had been seized from the stations alone.

And there is no question that the raiders had absolutely no sense of “mercy rather than justice” in special cases.

One couple, fresh from their wedding in upstate New York, stepped off the train in Grand Central Terminal and found themselves accosted by a sailor. “We were only married in Plattsburg [sic] yesterday, and you don’t suppose I thought anything about draft board cards?” the husband asked. Unmoved by the couple’s newfound marital bliss, the sailor whipped back, “Hard luck, but you’ll have to come along.

There was no limit to where they would accost men in their single-minded quest to ferret out slackers.

By noon, the raiders had shifted their attention to Manhattan’s midtown and downtown business districts, often cordoning off whole blocks and interrogating the men on the street. Later, they raided theaters, saloons, billiard parlors, and boarding houses. Sailors wandered through the city’s restaurants, moving from table to table inspecting the cards of diners. Frequently, they then moved from the dining room to the kitchen…

Nor did raiders show any partiality to those who were “on their side.”

By 1:00 P.M., authorities had gathered “a considerable crowd” at Lafayette Place and Fifth Street. A nearby truck driver volunteered to haul the men to the armory at Twenty-Sixth Street, but after performing his bit for the country, the driver was unable to produce his own draft card and had to leave his truck at the curb and go inside the armory.

Operatives were soon told to cease interrogating drivers at the wheel because abandoned vehicles were interrupting the flow of traffic.

Nor did the raiders show any favoritism to celebrities.

One of the more dramatic raids took place at the Lexington Avenue Theatre, where soldier-actors from nearby Camp Upton performed the musical comedy Yip, Yip, Yaphank before a crowded house. Just before one of the intermissions, a slacker patrol—made up primarily of navy men, but under the direction of an APL inspector—entered the orchestra pit and, as the curtain fell on the act, demanded to see the registration cards of all the eligible men in the audience. Confusion ensued, and the investigation was put off until the end of the show, thanks to the intervention of a military officer: Sergeant Irving Berlin, the musical director of Yip, Yip, Yaphank, who was responsible for the men in the cast and furious that his performance had been interrupted.

berlinBy the second day of the raid, New Yorkers had already learned to carry their draft cards; the intensity of the raids did not abate, but the number of arrests did. “Young men walking for two or three blocks in Times Square were usually held up six or seven times in that distance, but few complained,” a reporter noted. “Nearly every one had his draft card handy and showed it with a smile.” Many made hasty efforts to document their identities. So many men crowded the offices of the State Military Census Bureau looking for duplicate registration cards that the police had to be called in to disperse the crowd after the forms ran out.

I wonder how many of these super-patriots had ever been in the military service themselves? And if not, I wonder if they had the slightest twinge of cognitive dissonance about their crusade. Probably not. I suppose some might have served in the Spanish-American War…

By the third day, the draft dodgers still did not appear, and some slacker raiders’ initial enthusiasm began to wane. Others stepped up their methods, raiding a restaurant on the Lower East Side, where they captured a handful of men who had been wanted in association with socialist agitation (although their draft papers were apparently in order). Army privates and military police invaded the city’s financial district, interrupting trading at the Wall Street curb market and closing off the Equitable Building, where they interrogated the building’s seventeen thousand employees. They uncovered just twenty-two men without registration or classification cards; all of them were eventually released.

You’d kind of think that with up to 500,000 men interrogated in just three days, there would have been a real bonanza of slackers forced to jump on the patriotism bandwagon. Not so.

But authentic slackers and enemy aliens were few and far between. By the end of the three days, 60,187 men had been detained in New York City and its surrounding suburbs. But of these, only 199 were actual draft dodgers who would later end up in military uniform. And the number of “willful deserters”—men who had deliberately ignored Uncle Sam’s call-up and were therefore eligible for court-martial—was even lower. New York City’s draft director, Martin Conboy, could identify only eight men who were actually shipped off to Camp Upton as a result of the raids.

So for every real “slacker”…

…there were approximately three hundred men who spent the night in a city jail solely because they could not document their identity, age, or draft registration status to their interrogators.

The next time you are tempted to gripe about how much you think “liberty” in America has been infringed upon in recent years, and to wax nostalgic about how much better you think it would have been a century ago…take a little reality break and consider the Slacker Raids. You didn’t need some central “Big Brother” figure to keep an eye on you back then…you had a whole gigantic Band of Big Brothers ready to box your ears if they even THOUGHT you might have gotten out of line.

But don’t stop there. Come check out the next entry in this series, and let’s examine even more of what it was like to live in the Land of the Free in the Good Old Days of a century ago. Back when you didn’t need to just worry about Big Brother … because the reality at the time was

Li’l Brother Is Watching You

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Oh Say Can You See? IV: The Rise of Big Brother: Pt. 3

Series: Oh Say Can You See? IV: The Rise of Big Brother
Entry 3: Burning More Than Draft Cards

(This is the 3rd entry in a series on The Rise of Big Brother.
Be sure to start with Entry 1
in order to understand the following material in context.)

 The administration asserts the right to fill the ranks of the regular army by compulsion…. Is this, sir, consistent with the character of a free government? Is this civil liberty? Is this the real character of our Constitution? No, sir, indeed it is not…. Where is it written in the Constitution, in what article or section is it contained, that you may take children from their parents, and parents from their children, and compel them to fight the battles of any war, in which the folly or the wickedness of government may engage it? Under what concealment has this power lain hidden, which now for the first time comes forth, with a tremendous and baleful aspect, to trample down and destroy the dearest rights of personal liberty?

Guess by whom, where, and when the speech excerpt above was delivered. I’ll follow up with the answer in a few paragraphs.

I graduated from high school in June 1964, and entered college in the fall of that year, just as the US military involvement in Viet Nam was heating up.  That left me keenly aware of The Draft. As a female, I wasn’t subject to this potential governmental disruption of my life. But plenty of my male friends were. And very early on, some of them didn’t take it lying down. In May 1964, the first of the Draft Card Burnings took place.

card burnaustralia 1966Oh. Wait. That isn’t a poster from the US Viet Nam Era…that’s from Australia! Yes, they had their own draft resistance when their government started drafting men to be sent to fight in Viet Nam, and young men there borrowed the draft card burning idea from their contemporaries in the US. That poster is from Melbourne in 1966. Here is a pic of a home-grown draft card burning event in Central Park in New York in 1967.

card burn 1967

Although I was aware of the draft in 1964, I actually had no concept of when and how it had become a part of the American Way of Life. And, in fact, only in recent days have I looked into the history of the institution of “conscription”—forced military service—in the US.

I don’t remember what my assumptions were back in my teen years, but I think it was likely that I just assumed the US federal government had, from Colonial Times, put in place a system that could draft men into a national army, to be used if and when the country was threatened by external military forces. If so, I would have been wrong.

In America before 1862, combat duty was always voluntary, but white men aged 18 to 45 were usually required to join local militia units. Colonial militia laws—and after 1776 those of the states—required able-bodied white men to enroll in the militia and to undergo a minimum of military training, all without pay. Colonial Pennsylvania (controlled by Quakers) did not have such laws. Members of pacifist religious denominations were exempt. When combat troops were needed some of the militiamen volunteered for short terms of service, for which they were paid. Following this system in its essentials, the Continental Congress in 1778 recommended that the states draft men from their militias for one year’s service in the Continental army; this first national conscription was irregularly applied and failed to fill the Continental ranks.

In 1814, President James Madison proposed conscription of 40,000 men for the army, but the War of 1812 ended before Congress took any action. An 1840 proposal for a standing army of 200,000 men included conscription, but it never passed and military service was voluntary before 1862.[Wiki: Conscription]

The quote at the beginning of this blog entry was made in 1814 in relation to Madison’s proposal for conscription. It was delivered by Daniel Webster in a speech in the US House of Representatives, in protest against the conscription bill being considered in Congress. Webster was very passionate about the topic:

The services of the men to be raised under this act are not limited to those cases in which alone this Government is entitled to the aid of the militia of the States. These cases are particularly stated in the Constitution — “to repel invasion, suppress insurrection, or execute the laws.”

The question is nothing less, than whether the most essential rights of personal liberty shall be surrendered, and despotism embraced in its worst form. When the present generation of men shall be swept away, and that this Government ever existed shall be a matter of history only, I desire that it may then be known, that you have not proceeded in your course unadmonished and unforewarned. Let it then be known, that there were those, who would have stopped you, in the career of your measures, and held you back, as by the skirts of your garments, from the precipice, over which you are plunging, and drawing after you the Government of your Country.

The administration asserts the right to fill the ranks of the regular army by compulsion. It contends that it may now take one out of every twenty-five men, and any part or the whole of the rest, whenever its occasions require. Persons thus taken by force, and put into an army, may be compelled to serve there, during the war, or for life. They may be put on any service, at home or abroad, for defense or for invasion, according to the will and pleasure of Government. This power does not grow out of any invasion of the country, or even out of a state of war. It belongs to Government at all times, in peace as well as in war, and is to be exercised under all circumstances, according to its mere discretion. This, Sir, is the amount of the principle contended for by the Secretary of War (James Monroe).

Is this, Sir, consistent with the character of a free Government? Is this civil liberty? Is this the real character of our Constitution? No, Sir, indeed it is not. The Constitution is libeled, foully libeled. The people of this country have not established for themselves such a fabric of despotism. They have not purchased at a vast expense of their own treasure and their own blood a Magna Carta to be slaves.

I’d never seen this speech before today. I’m suspicious it may have been quoted a number of times back at the height of the Anti-War movement in the 1960s and 1970s! Read the complete speech here.

No, there had been no national draft until the Civil War. At the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, both Union and Confederate leaders may have felt that their causes were so compelling that the men in their “nations” would gladly swell the ranks of the armies as volunteers. This may have been true at the beginning of the war, but it wasn’t long before disillusionment of the common man set in, and fewer and fewer came forward.

At that point, unable to raise enough soldiers to fill the needs of their military forces by volunteers, both sides in that ignominious war resorted to creating a system of conscription.

The Confederacy had far fewer inhabitants than the U.S., and Confederate President Jefferson Davis proposed the first conscription act on March 28, 1862; it was passed into law the next month.  Resistance was both widespread and violent, with comparisons made between conscription and slavery.

Both sides permitted conscripts to hire substitutes to serve in their place. In the Union, many states and cities offered bounties and bonuses for enlistment. They also arranged to take credit against their draft quota by claiming freed slaves who enlisted in the Union Army. [Wiki: Conscription in the United States]

draft poster CWdraft poster2draft poster3Although both sides resorted to conscription, the system did not work effectively in either. The Confederate Congress on April 16, 1862, passed an act requiring military service for three years from all males aged eighteen to thirty-five not legally exempt; it later extended the obligation. The U.S. Congress followed with the Militia Act of 1862 authorizing a militia draft within a state when it could not meet its quota with volunteers. This state-administered system failed in practice and in 1863 Congress passed the Enrollment Act, the first genuine national conscription law, setting up under the Union Army an elaborate machinery for enrolling and drafting men between twenty and forty-five years of age. Quotas were assigned in each state, the deficiencies in volunteers required to be met by conscription.

…In the Confederacy, the “Twenty Negro Law” permitted one owner or overseer of any plantation to exempt themselves from military service; this proved extremely unpopular with many Confederate soldiers and contributed to the oft-spoken adage of “a rich man’s war, and a poor man’s fight.” [ibid]

Resentment and resistance was much worse in the North, culminating in the July, 1863 “New York Draft Riots.”

The New York City draft riots (July 13 to July 16, 1863; known at the time as Draft Week) were violent disturbances in New York City that were the culmination of working-class discontent with new laws passed by Congress that year to draft men to fight in the ongoing American Civil War. The riots were the largest civil insurrection in American history.

draft riot1 1863President Abraham Lincoln diverted several regiments of militia and volunteer troops from following up after the Battle of Gettysburg [which had occurred only two weeks earlier] to control the city. The rioters were overwhelmingly working-class men, primarily ethnic Irish, resenting particularly that wealthier men, who could afford to pay a $300 commutation fee to hire a substitute, were spared the draft.

Some historians note that a major precipitating factor bringing on the riots was that political leaders of the time had persuaded many immigrant Irishmen to apply for citizenship so that they could vote. What these new voters didn’t realize until too late was that their new status would also make them liable to being drafted!

The Democratic Party political machine of Tammany Hall had been working to enroll immigrants as U.S. citizens so they could vote in local elections, and had strongly recruited Irish, most of whom already spoke English. In 1863, with the war continuing, Congress passed a law to establish a draft for the first time, as more troops were needed. In New York City and other locations, the new citizens learned that they were expected to register for the draft to fight for their new country. Black men were excluded from the draft as they were not considered citizens, and wealthier white men could pay for substitutes. Free black men and immigrants competed for low-wage jobs in the city.

… There were reports of rioting in Buffalo, New York, and certain other cities, but the first drawing of numbers on [Saturday] July 11, 1863 occurred peaceably in New York City. The second drawing was held on Monday, July 13, 1863, ten days after the Union victory at Gettysburg. At 10 a.m., a furious crowd of around 500, led by the Black Joke Engine Company 33, attacked the assistant Ninth District Provost Marshal’s Office, at Third Avenue and 47th Street, where the draft was taking place. The crowd threw large paving stones through windows, then burst through the doors and set the building ablaze. When the fire department responded, rioters broke up their vehicles. Others killed horses pulling streetcars and smashed the cars. To prevent other parts of the city being notified of the riot, they cut telegraph lines.

But the destruction of the draft office was only the beginning of the rage. The crowds began roaming the streets of New York and destroying everything in their path.

… The Bull’s Head hotel on 44th Street, which refused to provide alcohol to the mob, was burned. The mayor’s residence on Fifth Avenue, the Eighth and Fifth District police stations, and other buildings were attacked and set on fire. Other targets included the office of the New York Times. The mob was turned back at the Times office by staff manning Gatling guns, including Times founder Henry Jarvis Raymond. Fire engine companies responded, but some of the firefighters were sympathetic to the rioters, since they too had been drafted on Saturday.

…Rioters turned against black people as their scapegoats and the primary target of their anger. Many immigrants and the poor viewed free black men as competition for scarce jobs, and worried about more slaves being emancipated and coming to New York for work. Some rioters thought slavery was the cause of the Civil War. The mob beat, tortured and/or killed numerous black people, including one man who was attacked by a crowd of 400 with clubs and paving stones, then lynched—hanged from a tree and set alight.  [Actually, 11 black men in all were lynched during the riots, with at least another 100 blacks killed. At least 20 whites were killed, and likely over 2000 people wounded.] [Source]


The military did not reach the city until after the first day of rioting, when mobs had already ransacked or destroyed numerous public buildings, two Protestant churches, the homes of various abolitionists or sympathizers, many black homes, and the Colored Orphan Asylum at 44th Street and Fifth Avenue, which was burned to the ground. [ibid]

Yes, not even young children escaped the mindless wrath of the mad mob.

The rioters’ targets initially included only military and governmental buildings, symbols of the unfairness of the draft. Mobs attacked only those individuals who interfered with their actions. But by afternoon of the first day, some of the rioters had turned to attacks on black people, and on things symbolic of black political, economic, and social power. Rioters attacked a black fruit vendor and a nine-year-old boy at the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street before moving to the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue between Forty-Third and Forty-Fourth Streets. By the spring of 1863, the managers had built a home large enough to house over two hundred children. Financially stable and well-stocked with food, clothing, and other provisions, the four-story orphanage at its location on Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street was an imposing symbol of white charity toward blacks and black upward mobility.

At 4 P.M. on July 13, “the children numbering 233, were quietly seated in their school rooms, playing in the nursery, or reclining on a sick bed in the Hospital when an infuriated mob, consisting of several thousand men, women and children, armed with clubs, brick bats etc. advanced upon the Institution.” The crowd took as much of the bedding, clothing, food, and other transportable articles as they could and set fire to the building. John Decker, chief engineer of the fire department, was on hand, but firefighters were unable to save the building. The destruction took twenty minutes.

asylumIn the meantime, the superintendent and matron of the asylum assembled the children and led them out to Forty-Fourth Street. Miraculously, the mob refrained from assaulting the children. But when an Irish observer of the scene called out, “If there is a man among you, with a heart within him come and help these poor children,” the mob “laid hold of him, and appeared ready to tear him to pieces.” The children made their way to the Thirty-Fifth Street Police Station, where they remained for three days and nights before moving to the almshouse on Blackwell’s Island—ironically, the very place from which the orphanage’s founders had hoped to keep black children when they built the asylum almost thirty years earlier. [Source]

It’s not clear from the record how many rioters may have taken part in the four days of rioting, but since it took 4,000 armed soldiers to put an end to the rioting, there were no doubt several thousand people involved.

I had never heard of the New York Draft Riots of 1863 until just this week. But when I mentioned the topic to my husband, I was surprised to find out he knew a lot about them. Not because he is a reader of history books…but because he saw Martin Scorsese’s 2002 movie Gangs of New York, that starred Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Cameron Diaz. Set in 1863 New York, the climax of the film is a recreation (not totally historically accurate, but very effective in accurately portraying the mood, the look, and the level of violence of the event) of the Draft Riots. Here is a link to a clip of 3 minutes or so of that cinematic climax. I do not doubt in the slightest that the real-world event was this bad…or far worse. Be forewarned, you may find the images disturbing if you are not an aficianado of violent movies.

Gangs of New York clip

I share all this preliminary information to make clear just what a risk the US government was taking in 1917 in choosing to establish conscription as a major building block in its World War 1 military planning.

This was the nation’s first experience with mass conscription; drafted men made up just 8 percent of soldiers in the Union army during the Civil War, but they constituted 72 percent of Uncle Sam’s forces in World War I. [Uncle Sam Wants You: World War 1 and the Making of the Modern American Citizen (USWY)]

This is not to say that the government didn’t make an effort to “learn the lessons” of the Civil War draft fiasco.

… The Selective Service Act of 1917 was carefully drawn to remedy the defects in the Civil War system and—by allowing exemptions for dependency, essential occupations, and religious scruples—to place each man in his proper niche in a national war effort. The act established a “liability for military service of all male citizens”; authorized a selective draft of all those between 21 and 31 years of age (later from 18 to 45); and prohibited all forms of bounties, substitutions, or purchase of exemptions. … In 1917 10 million men were registered. This was deemed to be inadequate, so age ranges were increased and exemptions reduced, and so by the end of 1918 this increased to 24 million men that were registered with nearly 3 million inducted into the military services, with little of the resistance that characterized the Civil War, thanks to a huge campaign by the government to build support for the war, and shut down newspapers and magazines that published articles against the war. [USWY]

Yes, this time the draft wasn’t limited to poor working men from the ghettos.

houdini draftgershwin draft(Harry Houdini, age 44 and already famous at the time, whimsically listed his middle name on his registration as “Handcuff.” George Gershwin, only 19 at the time, already listed his occupation as actor and composer. )

And that brings us back to the American Protective League—the beginning of the rise of Big Brotherism in America. No, there was no one central Big Brother, no Fuehrer, no Hitler or Stalin or Mao-like totalitarian leader to insist that everyone toe a certain line. The American President couldn’t pull that off. There was no shadowy small junta of men in secret rooms establishing and dictating—and enforcing—exactly what all “loyal Americans” must speak and believe. The fragmented political scene in America, with Democrats, Republicans, and extra parties vying continually for power, didn’t allow any one small group to be endowed with that much power.

It turns out it was “We The People,” self-styled “True Patriots,” who developed a passion for imposing conformity on the US populace. And not by wholesome dialogue and persuasion, but by tactics that can be characterized as bullying at best and terrorism at worst. In the “person” of the APL organization—

America’s vaunted culture of voluntarism intersected with and amplified state power, rather than acting as a check on it.

A Big Brother “state” did not develop a clandestine program for identifying and recruiting a cadre of snitches and bullies—the snitches and bullies came blatantly knocking down the door of the government in Washington in broad daylight, demanding to be given authority…and endorsement for their own narrow vision of “whipping the country into shape” for the war effort. Civil liberties? Civil rights? Protection from unreasonable search and seizure? HooHah! said the pseudo-Secret Service agents of the APL.

And thus arose the Slacker Raids. Come along and join the Merry Band o’ Raiders in the next entry in this series:

Band of Big Brothers

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Oh Say Can You See? IV: The Rise of Big Brother: Pt. 2

Series: Oh Say Can You See? IV: The Rise of Big Brother
Entry 2: All in the Family: Uncle Sam and Big Brother

 (This is the second entry in a series on The Rise of Big Brother.
Be sure to start with Entry 1
in order to understand the following material in context.)

There is no question that we are living in an intrusive age. Surveillance and inspection really do play a part in our daily lives. You can’t even go visit Mickey Mouse in Disney World’s Magic Kingdom without having a security employee of Disney World rifle through your purse, camera bag, and back pack before you are allowed to enter.

disneyAll across the country, even in smaller towns and cities, cameras have gone up at some busy corners to record every single vehicle passing through the intersection, and spot drivers who fail to obey the traffic signals.

redlightWhen the ticket comes in the mail showing a clear photo of your car entering the intersection after the light has turned red, you realize that you have no wiggle room to argue about the fine.

ticketMore despised by most people are the airport security inspections, that may include pat-downs or even full-body scans. And although not quite as intrusive, arbitrary traffic checkpoints (for such issues as auto emissions problems or sobriety checks) are a real hot button issue for some people.

checkpointSome would like to insist that these intrusive procedures mean our American society is now almost to the point of being “just like” the Orwellian society of the novel 1984. And that this is because we have a national government…perhaps even a single national leader, Barack Obama…who is “just like” Big Brother of Orwell’s novel. “Oh,” they insist, “if only we could return to the Land of the Free as it was 100 years ago. Back when Big Government didn’t exist, and you could come and go as you liked without any fetters on you.”

Is this true? Did we “once upon a time”…and until not all that long ago, maybe at least until the end of the 1950s…have an idyllic country, void of any hint of “totalitarianism,” peopled with “fiercely independent” men who would not tolerate any interference with their “personal sovereignty”?

We might first ask…is the type of surveillance and inspection I’ve described above really “just like” the tactics of Big Brother? Yes, the technology really has progressed to the point that the “system” used by Big Brother is now possible, in a way it wasn’t in 1948 when Orwell wrote. Video transmission methods now would make possible imposing two-way transmitters in every home. But the purpose of the use of that system in the novel wasn’t for security purposes, for safety purposes, or for dealing with the threat of physical terrorism. It was used very specifically to indoctrinate and brainwash the total civilian population to accept a mindless existence, and to have no opinions or wants of their own.

Is that really the purpose of inspecting bags at Disney World, or body cavities at the airport? Is it really the purpose of traffic checkpoints or red light cameras?

I am in full agreement with those who think that some of the intrusive methods used in society these days exceed common sense, and have been imposed as an over-reaction to perceived threats, especially after 9/11. There is no doubt that some governmental agencies should be required to tone down some of their activities, and citizen lobbying for that to happen is a good idea.

But no, I do not think that Barack Obama is some sort of mesmerizing puppet master using such technology to turn people’s brains to mush and allow him to “take over” permanently as a dictator. If that is his intent, he’s certainly a very ineffective puppet master! He has continual problems getting adequate support from the public or from Congress for even his most cherished programs.

The specific question being addressed in this “Rise of Big Brother” series is this: Whatever level of interference in “personal freedom” you may think is prevalent in our society now, do you think you would have been SO much happier with “the way it used to be” 100 years or so ago?

Let’s examine that possibility.

Back in 1913, the US had just elected a Democratic president for his first term, Woodrow Wilson.

wilsonBefore the end of his second year in office, a major war broke out among the European nations. The general mood in America regarding becoming involved “over there” at the time, and for the next three years, was contrary to such involvement. Reflecting this attitude of the populace, Wilson himself made every effort to keep the country neutral, and to attempt to “broker a peace” among the combatants in Europe.

Fast-forwarding a half-century—are you old enough to remember the 1964 presidential campaign, that pitted the incumbent Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, against Republican candidate Barry Goldwater? One of the pivotal incidents of that campaign was the airing of an ad by the Johnson campaign that featured a two year old girl. This classic ad, that barely takes a minute to watch, is called “Daisy Girl.”  Pause here and have a look at it.

Though only aired once (by the campaign), it is considered an important factor in Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater and an important turning point in political and advertising history.

… “Daisy” aired only once, during a September 7, 1964 telecast of David and Bathsheba on The NBC Monday Movie. Johnson’s campaign was widely criticized for using the prospect of nuclear war, as well as for the implication that Goldwater would start one, to frighten voters. The ad was immediately pulled, but the point was made, appearing on the nightly news and on conversation programs in its entirety. [Wiki]

Goldwater’s campaign had indeed provided fodder for this ad, since he openly promoted an aggressive US military. Johnson implied at the time that he was in favor of de-escalating or limiting the US involvement in the Vietnam War, while Goldwater was enthusiastically supportive of the military action there and even suggested the possibility of the US using nuclear weapons to gain the victory if necessary.  In the fall of 1964, in comparison to Goldwater’s hawkish attitude, Johnson looked like a Dove to the large proportion of the US population that had no stomach for sending its young men to die half-way around the world for obscure reasons that seemed to have little relevance to American security. Looking back with hindsight, of course, we all know that Johnson actually headed up a period from 1965 on of drastic escalation of the war effort, and sparked an era of anti-war protests.

As casualties mounted and success seemed further away than ever, Johnson’s popularity plummeted. College students and others protested, burned draft cards, and chanted, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” Johnson could scarcely travel anywhere without facing protests, and was not allowed by the Secret Service to attend the 1968 Democratic National Convention… [Wiki]

And therein is an amazing analogy with Woodrow Wilson.

Going into the 1916 election season, incumbent president Woodrow Wilson was the “candidate of peace.” A visitor from another country could have figured that out immediately from the campaign buttons people were wearing.

peace pinThe main slogans promoted by those campaigning for him were variations of the phrase “He kept us out of war.”  Such as the entry in the campaign poster list on this campaign truck: “Who keeps us out of war?”

wilson truckOr the slogan on the poster on the wall in this British cartoon of the time: “Vote for Wilson who kept you out of the war!”

wilson cartoonSome voters were pacifists by nature. They felt military solutions to world problems should be abandoned. Even among those Americans who were not opposed to the basic concept of war, a significant proportion felt that a European war was none of our business. Many even thought that it was being fought, on both sides, for purely “imperialistic” and/or economic purposes by all the powers involved. Americans saw no need for American Democracy to shore up the territorial claims of ancient monarchies across the sea.

Actually, there’s no evidence Wilson’s opponent, Republican Charles Evans Hughes, was particularly “hawkish” on the war. His campaign was much more focused on domestic issues. But the Democratic campaign did push the notion that a Republican victory would likely lead to war with both Germany and Mexico. (The Germans had approached Mexico with a bargain…if they would join Germany against the US, they would get back most of the territories they had lost to the US in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona–but not California.)

Wilson won, but just like Johnson, he had barely taken the second oath of office when circumstances led him to change his mind. After German submarines sank seven U.S. merchant ships, Wilson requested that Congress issue a declaration of war on Germany. Congress approved such a declaration on April 6, 1917.

But how to make war? The previously neutral US had barely 120,000 men in a standing army. The first step was obviously to encourage men to volunteer for military service. And thus was born the most famous poster in American history.

uncle samAnd it was followed by many more.

navyAlong with popular songs and sheet music on the same theme.

musicBut there wasn’t time for a gradual build-up of enthusiasm for volunteering—the war had already been raging for three years and if the US was going to be of help to the Allies, it needed to become a force to be reckoned with very quickly. Yet by six weeks after the declaration of war, only 73,000 men had volunteered for service. Added to the 120,000 already in uniform, that was barely 200,000. Wilson was asking for a million-man army—just for starters!

The only logical option seemed to be to institute the first draft of civilians since the Civil War. “Conscription” had been suggested for some years as an option to create a bigger standing army as part of just general “preparedness” for the country.  But it had been a highly controversial idea. Some protested against a draft because they felt an all-volunteer Army would be more efficient. Others protested that a draft was against principles in the Constitution itself. Others insisted that a democracy such as the US shouldn’t use “imperialistic” methods such as forced conscription.

President Wilson himself had been publicly on record as being opposed to conscription as late as February 1917. But once war was declared, it very quickly became clear that relying only on volunteers to man the war effort would be impossible. Secretary of War Newton Baker (who had never been in the military and who had a reputation as a pacifist at the time he had been appointed to his position by Wilson in 1912) recommended to Wilson that he support a draft. Baker’s plan for such a draft was submitted to Congress, which enacted the Selective Service Act May 18, 1917. It required all males ages 21-30 to register for military service. (In August 1918, that age range was changed to 18-45.) By the end of the war, around 2 million men had eventually volunteered for various branches of the armed services, and another 2.8 million had been drafted.

President Wilson had an odd way of introducing this new draft. One would tend to think of the term “draft” as meaning that someone who had not individually wanted to be in the Army was being forced by the power of the US government to show up for induction, under penalty of law. For of course, if most of the men of the country had been just itching to do their patriotic service for their country, they could have swelled the ranks of the volunteers immediately after the declaration of war. But instead of admitting this reality, Wilson chose to put it this way in his proclamation about the Selective Service Act … for the term “selective service” was carefully chosen:

“It is in no sense a conscription of the unwilling; it is, rather, selection from a nation which has volunteered in mass.”

From the evidence of history, there was a measure of truth to his statement. On the first official registration day, June 5, 1917, 9.6 million men between 21 and 30 showed up at the 4,000 national registration sites … “for what Newton Baker correctly predicted would be a day of “festival and patriotic occasion.”

As the months rolled by, the US government was immersed in its own priorities of running the war effort. Although it was aware that a certain percentage of draft-age men were evidently avoiding registration, it had neither the manpower nor the technology at the time to pursue these men and “make them do their duty.” And it was more focused on the actual needs of the troops, administering war-time production of food, armaments, supplies, and more. No, there was no governmental “Big Brother” in place to deal with those who had avoided the draft, to have its 2-way cameras in place everywhere, spying on who was and who wasn’t 100% American.

But I’m here ta tell ya that one aspect of the spirit of Big Brother WAS already alive and well and beginning his rise. He just wasn’t where you might have expected to find him, in some secret room in the basement of the White House. And just as Orwell’s Big Brother was likely not any one man, but just an “icon” representing a group of men, this Spirit of Big Brother was manifested in multiple groups of people. (I kind of look at it as a “many-headed monster.”)

People who were convinced that they were “on a mission.”  A mission to make everyone conform to their own view of exactly what America should be all about. And exactly how “real Americans” should behave themselves. And exactly what “real Americans” should think. As Orwell coined the word in his novel, they were bound and determined to impose “Groupthink.”

Let me take you back a century and introduce you to some of these people, and give you a glimpse of their modus operandi. When we’re done, you tell me … do you really think you would have preferred to live back in those “Good Old Days”? Are we really living in the “Worst of Times” in the 21st century, with “less freedom” than US citizens “used to have”?

So let’s start with a definition.

The 1960s made the term “draft dodger” almost a household word. It meant, of course, someone who was subject to the draft who refused to cooperate with the system. He might avoid registering in the first place and hope to “fall through the cracks” of the system and be ignored. Or if “called up,” he might refuse to be inducted into the Army, or even emigrate to another country, like Canada, to avoid having to serve in the US military.

This term wasn’t common during the period of World War 1.  At that time, the household word for such a person was a slacker. We still use the word slacker today in slang, but now it particularly seems to imply a person who has no “work ethic,” who is lazy. In 1917, it was particularly applied to a person who tried to avoid doing their civic duty by serving in the Armed Services when called upon by “their country” to do so, or who didn’t give “110%” effort at their war-time job. Notice the statement using the word “slacker” at the top of this motivational poster from the War period, signed by Woodrow Wilson.

slacker Of course the slacker was universally despised, including in Britain…

british slackersAnd in Canada.

canadian slackersSo what was to be done about slackers as the draft efforts of the country ramped up? It became as big…or bigger…an issue to just plain ol’ citizens as it was to the government.

During the course of the war, thousands of letters arrived at selective service headquarters alleging slackerism or disloyalty on the part of neighbors, colleagues, and even family members. Edna Shaw of St. Louis, Missouri, wrote to draft officials to turn in her friend Otto Schaflitzel. “I wouldn’t say anything about it,” she wrote, “only he is so disloyal for only being 24 years of age and single. [He is] hurting my feelings, when he talks about the country, ‘cause I have brothers in service and I will almost think … if I only had a gun I would kill him.” To ordinary Americans like Edna Shaw, giving herself over to the spirit of selective service required confirmation that the government would do its part to make sure that draft-age men were honest about their situations. [from Uncle Sam Wants You: World War 1 and the Making of the Modern American Citizen]

You didn’t even have to deliberately “avoid” the draft to be labeled a slacker:

Citizens also came up with their own definitions of draft evasion. In Worcester, Massachusetts, a French-Canadian machinist, whose skilled work in a war industry had exempted him from the draft, appeared before his local board eager to be reclassified as draftable: “Say, my girl says it’s all bunk, this line of talk of me being more use here than in the army. If I don’t go into the army, she won’t marry me. She’s right and you’ve gotta put me back in Class 1.” When the board refused, the young man’s girlfriend soon appeared, and she said, “I don’t care how many classes you have or what the rules say. Down my way, all single fellers between twenty-one and thirty-one are divided into just two classes, those who go, and those who don’t go. That’s my classification. Now if [he] don’t go, I’m through with him. He simply has got to go.” The board bowed to her request and reclassified the man; he soon found himself in uniform. In the end, the “draft dodger” was both a formal category created by the terms of American law and a figment of the nation’s collective political imagination. [ibid]

The slacker was widely perceived as a scourge on the integrity and honor of the United States of America. He was not to be tolerated. But what to do? The government was too busy to deal effectively with this undesirable element in society. So into the gap stepped some gung-ho volunteers. By the hundreds of thousands. Let me introduce you first to the most well-known of these. Well, well-known by those who have read a lot more American History than that in the average high school history text.  Actually, I’d never heard of this group or its activities until a few months ago, even though the stories about them are pretty stunning.

May I present to you, the Zealots of the First World War, the American Protective League:

At the outset of the war, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation had fewer than three hundred federal agents on staff, and letters pleading for the investigation of disloyal Americans were already swamping its offices. Among the first to arrive was an offer from a group of Chicago businessmen to create an “American Protective League,” a new organization dedicated to guarding the home front. In March 1917, even before the declaration of war, the bureau’s harried leader, A. Bruce Bielaski, accepted. By June, the American Protective League (APL) had one hundred thousand members in six hundred cities, and by the time the group dissolved in February 1919, as many as 250,000 men—and a handful of women, too, although official regulations denied them membership—may have served in this secret organization. The APL, a blend of local and federal power, and of old and new methods of social control, was the product of a political culture of coercive voluntarism. [ibid]

The APL was, to all intents and purposes, an extra-legal “vigilante” group. We’re used to old western movies showing vigilantes forming to deal with some very specific, local problem such as horse thieves.

vigilante movie elliotvigilante movie red ryderBut the power and influence all across the nation—and sheer massive numbers—of these new-style vigilantes of the early 20th century pale all of that into insignificance.

What kind of men were part of the APL?

The volunteers of the American Protective League were professional men, typically above draft age or otherwise exempt. They joined out of patriotism and a sense of duty, to feel important in their communities, or just for something to do. Surviving documents from the Kansas chapters of the APL record white men in their forties and fifties with ties to a wide range of professional and fraternal organizations. They included a doctor, a bank cashier, a barber, an undertaker, a minister, a wrestler, insurance and real estate salesmen, some sheriffs and farmers, a lot of lawyers, the business manager of the Atchison Railway, Light and Power Company, and a reporter for the Emporia Daily Gazette, personally recommended for service by its prominent editor, William Allen White. [ibid]

And what kind of vigilantism did they indulge in?

League men embarked on unwarranted searches and seizures, detained and arrested draft-age men without charges, intimidated allegedly disloyal Americans, and broke up strikes. Sometimes deputized en masse by local police, sometimes warned that they had no right to make arrests, operatives rarely paused over the difference. There was too much work to do, and too many enemies waiting: “Bolsheviki, socialists, incendiaries, I.W.W.’s, Lutheran treason-talkers, Russellites, Bergerites, all the other-ites, religious and social fanatics, third-sex agitators, long haired visionaries and work-haters from every race in the world.” [ibid]

In spite of the image they tried to project to the public, they weren’t really “government officials,” but the government, through the Department of Justice, did end up “indulging” their egos.

The American Protective League had an ambiguous legal status. Members wore identification badges mailed out from headquarters in Washington and noted in their literature that they were “authorized by and auxiliary to the Department of Justice.” [ibid]

Yes, those cool badges …

apl badge secret service

“Secret  Service”! Sounds ominous. But the label carried NO legal power with it, and they didn’t “take orders from” the Justice Department. Most of the time they just went on their merry way doing what they thought needed doing. Yes, they dabbled in a wide variety of pseudo-policing, with seldom any interference from actual constituted authorities.

I’m guessing they got the same sort of ego boost that kids did back in the 1950s when they sent away enough box tops from Sugar Corn Pops to earn a “premium” from their favorite TV western—a gen-yoo-wine Junior Deputy Marshall badge.


Except they weren’t little kids—they were grown men, who could create a lot of grief for anyone in their cross-hairs. It wasn’t child’s play, as you can tell from the title of their regular newsletter.

spy glassAnd, as you can tell from the comments above regarding anyone who could be labeled as some kind of “-ite,” they didn’t waste any energy trying to hide any of their personal prejudices. Nor did they have any scruples about “civil rights.”

Initially, the American Protective League handled a wide range of cases: investigations of the character and loyalty of citizens and aliens, the circulation of seditious material or “enemy propaganda,” claims for draft deferments. But by the spring of 1918—probably because of agitation by rank-and-file league men—draft dodging became most chapters’ primary concern. Armed with earnest patriotism, their badges, and Section 57 of the Selective Service Act of 1917—which required men to carry their draft registration or classification cards at all times and show them to law enforcement personnel when requested—the 250,000 men of the American Protective League embarked on a series of large-scale interrogations that came to be known as slacker raids. [ibid]

I had never heard of a slacker raid. So when I first read the description of these “events,” I was utterly dumbfounded. If you think some governmental interference today with your total freedom of coming and going is problematic, be prepared to put it in the perspective of what US citizens put up with 100 years ago.

Read on in this series to see what I found out about this astounding phenomenon. In the next entry, we’ll take a flashback to the 1800s, to set the stage for a vivid description of the World War 1 raids:

 Burning More than Draft Cards

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Oh Say Can You See? IV: The Rise of Big Brother: Pt. 1

Series: Oh Say Can You See? IV: The Rise of Big Brother
Part 1: 1984 Revisited

Dealing with the regimes of both Hitler and Stalin in the 1940s left Americans and Brits in horror at the idea of totalitarianism.

The term ‘an authoritarian regime’ denotes a state in which the single power holder – an individual ‘dictator’, a committee or a junta or an otherwise small group of political elite – monopolizes political power. However, a totalitarian regime attempts to control virtually all aspects of the social life including economy, education, art, science, private life and morals of citizens. “The officially proclaimed ideology penetrates into the deepest reaches of societal structure and the totalitarian government seeks to completely control the thoughts and actions of its citizens .”

So it’s not surprising that in 1944 British author George Orwell capitalized on this paranoia with plans for a dystopian (that’s the opposite of “utopian”) science fiction novel that would tell the chilling story of a bleak totalitarian future for Planet Earth. He completed his novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, in 1948. Here’s the original cover, as seen in the 1949 edition.

1949 british first edition

Nineteen Eighty-Four is set in Oceania, one of three inter-continental super-states that divided the world among themselves after a global war. Most of the action takes place in London, the “chief city of Airstrip One,” the Oceanic province that “had once been called England or Britain.” Posters of the Party leader, Big Brother, bearing the caption “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU”, dominate the city, while the ubiquitous telescreen (transceiving television set [able to both transmit pictures to the viewer and take pictures to be seen by the broadcaster] ) monitors the private and public lives of the populace. The social class system of Oceania is threefold:

(I) the upper-class Inner Party, the elite ruling minority

(II) the middle-class Outer Party, and

(III) the lower-class Proles (from proletariat), who make up 85% of the population and represent the uneducated working class.

As the government, the Party controls the population with four ministries:

  • the Ministry of Peace (Minipax), which deals with war,
  • the Ministry of Plenty (Miniplenty), which deals with economic affairs (rationing and starvation),
  • the Ministry of Love (Miniluv), which deals with law and order (torture),
  • the Ministry of Truth (Minitrue), which deals with propaganda (news, entertainment, education and art)

The protagonist Winston Smith, a member of the Outer Party, works in the Ministry of Truth as an editor, revising historical records to make the past conform to the ever-changing party line and deleting references to unpersons, people who have been “vaporised”, i.e. not only killed by the state, but denied existence even in history or memory. [Wiki]

There is a lot more to the plot line, and if you’ve never read this classic sci-fi novel, you might want to seriously consider adding it to your repertoire.  If you don’t want to buy an inexpensive paperback version, almost every library in the English-speaking world likely has a copy to borrow. Or you don’t even have to leave your desk to read an online ebook version for free at this link. A free online audiobook version is even available.

Not much into reading? Then how about watching on Youtube a 1954 TV adaptation of the novel from the BBC, starring Peter Cushing (Governor Tarkin in the 1977 Star Wars, for anyone too young to remember his earlier career in classic horror films)?

cushing 1954

A “loose” U.S. film adaptation was released in 1956, but it got fairly poor ratings.


A better version, made in Britain, was actually released in the target year of the title, 1984, starring John Hurt and Richard Burton.  If you happen to have Amazon Prime, you can watch it on instant streaming at no cost. Otherwise you can rent or buy it from Amazon.com .


Although there are many aspects to the plotline, perhaps the most famous factors in the book, even to those who have never read it, are the name and person of the totalitarian leader Big Brother, and the fact that his regime is using two-way tele-equipment to keep an eye on everyone in the whole society lest they stray even slightly from the ideology of the System.

Actually, it’s not even clear in the book whether Big Brother is an actual person, or a manufactured iconic head for the System around which the masses can rally. He is never seen by the masses “in person,” just as an onscreen persona. In any event, his picture shows up on posters, billboards, and video screens in every nook and cranny of the society. Here’s how he looks on a poster on the cover of a 1950 “pulp fiction-style” edition of the book.

1984 cover

Here he is onscreen in the BBC 1954 TV version.

1954 bbctv

Here he is on a poster and a billboard in the 1956  movie.

1955 big brother

1955 bb2

But I’m kind of partial to his look onscreen in the 1984 movie version, shown here at a mass rally.

1984 movie bbThis version is much more evocative of the original models Orwell was likely thinking of when he wrote his novel.


I bring all this up because references to Big Brother are extremely common these days on the Internet, particularly in politically-inclined blog writings. Authors use lots of hyperbole to try to convince me that the US has become or is well on the way to becoming, an Orwellian environment. It’s a common “meme” to see posters of Barack Obama cast in the part of Big Brother.


obama ingsoc

Then again, comparing a US president to Big Brother is nothing new. There were earlier Internet memes on the opposite side of the political spectrum …



So is this true? Am I being watched every minute of every day by whatever regime is in Washington, so that it can control my every thought? Honestly … to read some blogs, it is obvious that some people do believe that this is “the reality” on every street in every town and city in America. Is my daily life now, or in recent decades REALLY like this scene from the 1956 movie, with the All-Seeing eye of George Bush or Barack Obama checking me out?

1955 screen

Sorry, I don’t buy it. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I have no doubt that a whole lot of “surveillance” is going on in the name of various branches of government, including Homeland Security. Yes, I would be frisked and poked at and looked at with cameras … both externally and internally … at many airports. I don’t mean to minimize a certain amount of gross intrusiveness in some settings. And yes, I suppose all my emails are stored somewhere in a Cloud and could be accessible to rummage through if someone was inclined to do so, to see if I’m a subversive. Although it seems with the multiple billions of emails being churned out by even just Americans, it would be pretty counterproductive for some shadowy governmental spook to be checking on which Cat Video I am passing along to my forum buddies at any given moment.

No, I don’t believe that our US society (in spite of indeed some heavy-handedness by government in some areas) is currently, or is in position to anytime soon be, a carbon copy of Orwell’s dystopian vision. Nor do I believe that Barack Obama (or George W. Bush before him) is an incarnation of Big Brother … or The Antichrist.

But I have titled this blog series “The Rise of Big Brother.” Why?

Because…There is an aspect of US society, both in our present and in our history of the past century and more, that is a much better fit as a reflection of the idea of Big Brother than just a president with a two-term limit.  I am fully convinced that Barack Obama is going to wander on out of office in early 2017 without fulfilling a “prophetic role” and setting up a Big Brother Society … and without accomplishing a lot of the things he hoped to accomplish. Just as George W Bush never panned out as the permanent Big Bad Wolf envisioned by the meme-makers of past years.

But when Obama passes from the scene, just as Bush did, there will be a “presence” in our society that will still be here. The “spirit” of Big Brother began rising a long time ago, it’s here now, and it will be here in the future. If we recognize it, and take steps to contain it, maybe it will not be able to ascend to the kind of total power of the Big Brother of Orwell’s imagination.

If you’d like to be part of the Resistance Movement, come along as we explore the topic in this series, starting with the next entry in the series:

“All in the Family: Uncle Sam and Big Brother.”

Posted in The Rise of Big Brother | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Oh Say Can You See? III: 12 Ground Zero pt. 9 (conclusion)

Series: Oh Say Can You See? III
Entry 12: Ground Zero: Part 9 (Conclusion)

Click here to go to Ground Zero: Part 1

 After the Tulsa Race Riot Commission was finished with its work of preparing a meticulously detailed report of the events of 1921, it discussed suggestions for what might be “done about” their findings. The final report recommended a number of acts, including establishing a relatively small fund to pay token reparations to the few remaining very elderly riot victims or their immediate (aging) survivors.

While discussions were beginning about how the government would respond to these recommendations, Commission founder, State Representative Don Ross (D) of the Oklahoma House of Representatives joined a fellow state congressman on an interview show in 2001 to debate this possibility. Representative Bill Graves (R) took the “against” position. A tiny excerpt from that discussion:

REP. DON ROSS: Well, I agree in theory with the findings [of the Commission]. We have to understand that a deputized white mob destroyed the black community. In doing so, it institutionalized hate in parts of the soul of the city, an evil of which neither race has fully recovered. And I think reparations of some kind repairs that inhumanity and brings some closure to this sordid, hard affair of some eighty years ago.

REP. BILL GRAVES: Well, I — you know, what Representative Ross has described is an outrage and a disgrace to the city of Tulsa, and I sure could never ever condone any kind of action like that. I think it’s terrible, a terrible injustice on the black community up there. And one thing that makes it even worse, in my mind, is that these people were working hard to pull themselves up and become productive citizens and working hard. And as they called it, Black Wall Street there, they were following the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, who was one of my heroes. [I’ve recently read enough about Booker T to understand why he is very popular among southern white conservatives such as Graves…in the late 1890s and early 1900s he advocated that “negroes” be very, very careful not to demand anything of whites in the way of racial equality. They should humbly submit to segregation and all that implies, and settle for just being allowed to do “skilled labor” as part of the US industrial base, to make themselves so valuable that the whites would be willing to support their—segregated—efforts at improvement of the race’s future prospects.]

And then they had an outlaw element up there that came in and destroyed what they were doing. I think it’s a terrible injustice. At the same time, I think it would be an injustice on people now, eighty years later, to ask them to pay reparations for something they were not responsible for, which is what would be happening here. And that’s why I would — I oppose reparations being paid now. And, you know, it was a wrong occurred in 1921, but two wrongs don’t make a right. And so I would oppose reparations only we — you know, if we pay them now based on a sense of guilt, which I think is a sense of false guilt, since the people now alive are not responsible for what occurred in 1921, and that’s kind of my position on it.

REP. DON ROSS: The state had nothing to do with the Oklahoma City bombing, nothing. However, the state took full knowledge the summer its citizens were unjustly killed in that notorious and horrific event. I voted and the legislature voted to put $5 million dollars in that memorial. We have disasters here, particularly tornados, had one a couple of years ago. All the resources available from the state goes into repair that damage from tornados or hurricane or flood.

So it seems to me if we do it for a national disaster routinely, why can’t we do it for a human disaster, a disaster provoked by hate, whenever it happened? Bill well knows that the spirit of racism at that time and now, and that a full cover-up that this is — this is — eighty years it’s taken. It’s taken eighty years for those citizens to petition their government to reconcile this good state with its history.

REP. BILL GRAVES: Well, let me — if I can say, I agree with Don, it was a spirit of hate back then. Fortunately, that’s an age that’s dead and gone, and we Americans and Oklahomans moved forward and granted a great deal of equality to blacks.

By the way, in this same interview, Rep. Graves commented that he was against the US legislation…actually approved by the US Congress in 1988 and signed into law by President Reagan…that gave reparations to the American citizens of Japanese descent who were unjustly interned during World War 2.

Something like 120,000 had been removed from their homes practically over night in 1942, only allowed to take the possessions they could actually carry, and beyond that many lost everything…their jobs, homes, cherished family mementoes, everything.

jap family

It was VERY much like the situation that led to the Trail of Tears for the Cherokee described in a previous series in this blog. Notice the same kind of “soldiers with bayonets” who drove out the Cherokee, in this description of the situation from a former “internee”…George Takei, “Sulu” from the Star Trek franchise.



Seventy years ago, US soldiers bearing bayoneted rifles came marching up to the front door of our family’s home in Los Angeles, ordering us out. Our crime was looking like the people who had bombed Pearl Harbor a few months before. I’ll never forget that day, nor the tears streaming down my mother’s face as we were forcibly removed, herded off like animals, to a nearby race track. There, for weeks, we would live in a filthy horse stable while our “permanent” relocation camp was being constructed thousands of miles away in Arkansas, in a place called Rohwer.  [Source]

George at four:


I recently revisited Rohwer. Gone were the sentry towers, armed guards, barbed wire and crudely constructed barracks that defined our lives for many years. The swamp had been drained, the trees chopped down. Only miles and miles of cotton fields. The only thing remaining was the cemetery with two tall monuments.


It was never shown that any of these people hastily shoved in concentration camps were an actual threat to the US, and many of the young men sent there subsequently fought valiantly on the US side on the European front of the war.

20,000 Japanese American men and many Japanese American women served in the U.S. Army during World War II.

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was composed primarily of Japanese Americans, served with uncommon distinction in the European Theatre of World War II. Many of the U.S. soldiers serving in the unit had their families interned at home while they fought abroad.

The famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which fought in Europe, was formed from those Japanese Americans who did agree to serve. This unit was the most highly decorated U.S. military unit of its size and duration. Most notably, the 442nd was known for saving the 141st (or the “lost battalion”) from the Germans. The 1951 film Go For Broke! was a fairly accurate portrayal of the 442nd, and starred several of the RCT’s veterans.

In January 1945, with no fanfare:

The freed internees were given $25 and a train ticket to their former homes. [Source]

If their homes still existed. If you and your family were suddenly snatched from your home next week and sent away for three years, with no one to look out for your interests “back home,” no one to care for a house if you owned it, no one to personally store your possessions that were left in your apartment or house…how much do you think you’d “come home to”? And what would be the chances that your “old job” was still there waiting for you?

But Rep. Graves thought that it was foolish to think that “the country” should do anything about this grave injustice. After all, that was long ago, and Japanese Americans now have rights. The US congress and some presidents who signed reparations bills, offered official apologies, and so on (including Gerald Ford and George HW Bush) disagreed with him. (But being honest, I am quite sure that a significant proportion of the “white population” of the US have agreed all along with Graves, and resented any attempts at somehow “making right” what was so wrong.)

When pressed about the Japanese situation, Graves added, “In the matter of the Japanese Americans that were relocated, or interned, as some people say, that was the federal government that did the relocation or internment. In Tulsa, it was the private citizens that instigated the riot.”   This, of course, ignores totally the reality that the “private citizens” didn’t just “instigate” a simple “riot.” They systematically burned down over a thousand homes and hundreds of businesses without any evident interference from the duly constituted civil authorities of Tulsa. In fact, in numerous instances, they were aided and abetted by those very authorities. In other words, instead of protecting the lives and property of the black citizens, the authorities were complicit in the destruction.

I think Representative Graves could use a good vocabulary lesson. There are two “legal” terms he seems to be mixing up in his mind: De Jure and De Facto.

At the time of the Tulsa riots, the truth is that black citizens had all sorts of “rights” that were de jure—a term that means “concerning the law.” They really DID have the right to safety of their persons and property according to both US law and Oklahoma law. But out in the real world, rather than in theory, they were subject to the de facto—a term that means “concerning fact”—reality that these rights were ignored.

Yes, in many parts of the US at that time in 1921, there were de jure situations that left blacks with unequal rights. Including segregated schools and public facilities such as buses and water fountains. State governments had the right under the US governmental system of the time to establish such “laws” that made blacks second-class citizens. But the Tulsa Holocaust wasn’t ever a matter of the blacks needing “equality” in terms of the later issues of Civil Rights. It was a matter of protecting the de jure rights they did have at the time. It was a matter of thousands upon thousands of white men flouting the law and indulging in totally illegal terrorist acts—without interference from the police at the time, and without ever having to face trial for any of them later. They were “outside the law.” For the reality—the de facto situation—in Tulsa in 1921 was that the law didn’t apply “in fact” to whites who wanted to “Run the Negro out of Tulsa.”

Rep. Graves seemed to think that the Civil Rights acts passed in the US at the national level in the 1950s and later somehow “changed” the de facto reality in the hearts of men. It did not. Not in Tulsa, not in anywhere else. There is no question at all that racial prejudice is a wide-spread problem in Tulsa to this day—otherwise there is no reason at all that the black citizens should be still primarily de facto segregated!

The thousands upon thousands of men who perpetrated the Tulsa holocaust never offered an apology, never offered to pay reparations for the losses suffered by thousands upon thousands of blacks. The government of the city never offered an apology for the failure of its police department to protect the innocent. Nor did it pay any reparations either, or get around to prosecuting the thousands of those involved in the terrorism—even though there were even photos of many of the men in action.  Decades went by, and there had not been the slightest PUBLIC evidence of any change of heart at all. Indeed, there were no doubt at the time of the holocaust and in the ensuing decades many white Tulsans who did not harbor hatred in their hearts for blacks. There were no doubt many who felt embarrassment and shame at what “the City” had done to its black citizens. At the time of the immediate aftermath of the riot, many did try to help out homeless blacks. But these people of good will never affected the de facto reality of a public cover up on a large scale.

An age that’s dead and gone,” Rep. Graves termed it. I beg to differ with him.

As evidence I offer the current phenomenon of the Sundown Town.

What, you’ve never heard the term?  I hadn’t either until recently. But after studying into it, I realized that actually I had heard of the reality behind the term over two decades ago.

I used to live in the capital of Michigan, Lansing. The small town of Charlotte, Michigan, was nearby. In 1989 my family became involved with a small Christian outreach program in Charlotte. A congregation there had established sort of a “Christian Coffee House” setting for Friday and Saturday nights in their informal church building. They built a stage and a sound booth, set up seating at banquet tables for up to 200 people or so, provided free refreshments, and invited Christian musical performers from around the state to come and perform on a “donation” basis.

“Abba’s, the Alternative Entertainment Center” had been in operation for a couple of years by the time we discovered it, and had developed quite a reputation around the state as an uplifting and wholesome place for families to come. A wide variety of groups performed. There were people who played old-timey instruments like dulcimers. There were Southern Gospel singers. There were Hispanic Gospel bands, CCM  (Contemporary Christian Music) bands, Country Music Bands. And then there was the Black Gospel band.

I was chatting with the pastor of the congregation one day several months after we began attending these gatherings when he said something that really startled me. He admitted that the congregation was taking a risk inviting the black group to play at Abba’s…because it was “common knowledge” around the area that blacks were not welcome “after dark” in Charlotte. And that it would be dangerous for them to flout this custom. And dangerous for anyone to encourage them to do so. The church pushed back against the custom, and the band bravely came on various Friday and Saturday nights. And while I was involved there, no one was ever directly threatened. I’m not sure now, but I think the pastor may actually have “escorted” the group out of town when the performances were over late at night, when they first started coming to town.

“HEY,” I thought … “this isn’t the 1960s in the Deep South. This is pushing up close to the beginning of the New Millennium, and in the far north state of Michigan. Often a destination of the Underground Railroad back in ante-bellum days! How could this situation exist??”

I was later to discover that Michigan had long been a hot spot for the KKK in its heyday, and that the Charlotte area was a notable Klan center…Klan meetings were even openly held in the basement of the local county courthouse in earlier decades, perhaps up into the 1970s. We moved to Charlotte in 1992, and I was soon to discover that the Klan was still a force in the area. We lived in a home just a block away from that county courthouse—and I became very nervous in 1994 when the national Klan leadership announced a planned “rally” for the Courthouse lawn in Charlotte, Michigan!

For some reason, before it came to pass, the plans were changed to have the rally at the Capitol lawn in Lansing instead. I looked it up just now. Online records show that the Lansing Public Works department paid $200,000 that year to build a fence around the demonstration and provide security. And ended up using tear gas to subdue the nearby counter-demonstrators.

Only recently did I discover that the situation “after dark” in Charlotte was a common phenomenon throughout both South and North in the US, so common it had a name. Such communities are dubbed “Sundown Towns.”

sundown book

Yes, a Sundown Town is one where blacks know not to be caught inside the city limits after sundown. Although this is an “unspoken custom” these days, back before the current national Civil Rights laws were put in place, such policies were even openly advertised on signs at the edge of some towns.

whites only

Hawthorne, California, was even more blunt on its city limit sign: “Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Set on You in Hawthorne.”

The local racial reality was often openly advertised in real estate offerings for towns, such as this public service ad of the 1920s issued by the town of Mena, Arkansas.


One of the most notorious current Sundown Towns is Anna, Illinois.

Anna, Illinois, is a chicken-splat wide spot in the road in Union County that was notorious nationally as a Sundown Town.  Anna’s 1954 signs prohibiting blacks were commented upon in the national press.  Furthermore, the residents of Anna used to, and still will, tell newcomers a not very funny “joke”: the town’s name “Anna” stood for “Ain’t No Niggers Allowed”.  [Source]

And not much has changed in Anna for the past sixty years. For instance, here’s a little 2001 vignette:

“Is it true that ’Anna’ stands for ‘Ain’t No Niggers Allowed’?” I asked at the convenience store in Anna, Illinois, where I stopped to buy coffee.

“Yes,” the store clerk replied. “That’s sad, isn’t it?” she added, distancing herself from the policy. And she went on to assure me, “That all happened a long time ago.”

“I understand racial exclusion is still going on?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied.
“That’s sad.”

-conversation with clerk, Anna, Illinois, October 2001 [Source]

Another blatantly obvious current Sundown Town (or County, in this case) is in Kentucky.

McLean County, Kentucky, is one such Sundown County.  It has been blissfully (to it) white for longer than anyone can remember.  There are two African-American families that have been allowed to live in peace there.  They are not embraced, but are merely tolerated (they have lived there for many decades).  The populace of the county treats these blacks as tokens, and they use them to congratulate themselves about their forward-thinking and to show publicly they are not racist. (“See?  There’s our black people, right over there – both of ’em!”)

Yet, without having a sign that clearly says “Whites Only”, McLean County (and more onerously its county seat of Calhoun) is a Sundown community.  The word “nigger” can be heard off-handedly any day of the week in Calhoun.  Racist jokes that the denizens think are funny are told and retold.  Livermore, Kentucky (a town in McLean County), hosted a lynching in the mid 20th Century.  The mere handfuls of token blacks who live in the area of Calhoun do not live in the midst of concentrated white populations.

Not one of the “good” Christians who live in the county would openly admit they discriminate or are racists.  In 2010, the local Catholic Church (the only one in Calhoun) was sent its new priest after the older one retired.  He happened to be African (from Kenya).  The priest moved into the church rectory – after settling into his new digs, he made the mistake of going out to walk around his new town.  Police response was immediate, and he was detained on the street unnecessarily while he tried to explain (in his heavily accented English) who he was and why he was walking around Calhoun.  He lives there and conducts his Church services.  But, unfortunately, the community does not embrace him, and they quietly resent his presence as both a black man and as a “foreigner” (of whom they are all suspicious).

As proof of Calhoun’s (and McLean County’s) Sundown status a look at the most recent 2010 US Census data bears out the claim.  In 2010, McLean County’s roughly 60 black Americans accounted for 0.6% of the county’s total population.  Unlike the counties in northern Idaho [mentioned earlier in this article as having few blacks just because of historical settlement patterns that didn’t include black migration], however, this is no accident of demography – the counties surrounding McLean County had black populations ranging from 4.5% up to 6.6% of their populace.  The Commonwealth of Kentucky in the 2010 US Census reported over 9% of its population as African-American or black.

McLean County’s paltry 0.6% black population (when compared to its neighbors and the Commonwealth at large) is proof of its racist Sundown status. [Source]

The author of another blog post on Sundown Towns eloquently addressed the history and present reality of Sundown Towns this way:

There is no need to utter the word nigger, post signs, or blow a whistle as the Sun sets, when the borg mentality of a sundown community shows in word and deed the hatred and contempt it has for its fellow Black American citizens. When that hatred is condoned, accepted, and not challenged. Some say that only a few bad apples live in sundown communities, but, if there were “good people” who lived in these communities, they would rise up and challenge the wrongs perpetuated by sundown societies—therefore, these “good people” do not exist. Their silence is acceptance of the cruelty and venom of sundown communities.

In contemporary Germany, Hitler’s rise brought anti-Semitism to a frothing boil.  Germany had many Sundown Towns with signs reading “No Jews Allowed”.  Surprisingly, when the 1936 Olympics came to Germany, Hitler ordered these signs removed to avoid embarrassment in the face of the international community that would soon be in his country.

Hitler’s order is in direct contrast to Southern California’s response during the 1932 Olympics.  Apparently, it was okay to not welcome blacks in California towns, because the City of Los Angeles, the County of Los Angeles, the State of California, and the United States Government did not require any of the communities surrounding the Olympic Games venue to remove their Sundown billboards and signs.  It is amazing that even Hitler recognized the importance of downplaying such racism under global scrutiny when Los Angeles (and America) could not. 

Yes, all these US towns finally took down the signs, under pressure from newly-minted Federal laws that were finally put in place in the 1960s and later. But taking down the signs didn’t change the hearts of those who put up the signs, and those who wish they could put them up again. Nor, in many cases, did it change the de facto practices of many communities. Sundown Towns (and cities) small and large exist across this nation, both north and south, to this day.

No, Rep. Graves, “that age” is NOT “dead and gone.” The Spirit of the Age has just gone under cover. Yes, we no longer have public lynchings where children receive token toes from the burned bodies for souvenirs like they did in my parents’ lifetime. Yes, we no longer have any towns with blatant billboards advertising their rabid racism. Nor do we have city paper editors writing headlines glorying in the violent routing of negroes from the community. There are strong legal sanctions about such things now, particularly on the national level. So most of the time racists and bigots of all sorts are forced to “sublimate” their disdain for those who don’t look like themselves. And they are forced to restrain their natural tendencies to want to engage in violent acts to protect their environment from encroachment by racially inferior folks.

But sometimes it surely bubbles VERY shallowly below the surface of our “civilized” communities. For most of my life I have admired pictures of the period of the early 20th century. Everyone looks soooo civilized.  Think of the impression given by this scene below in the Music Man movie, which is set in 1912… just seven years before the “Red Summer” that saw the US wracked with at least 25 major white-on-black race riots, and numerous lynchings—including eleven in which men were burned alive. In public settings, while white men, women—and sometimes children—looked on…with many having their pictures taken for postcards commemorating the event.

music man1

Who’d ever think huge crowds of people who looked pretty much like this could be capable of such heathen barbarism?

Below are some pics from catalogs of 1927. Who would think that some people who could have ordered from these very catalogs, full of the “best that civilization has to offer,” could have just six years earlier taken part in acts of barbaric civic terrorism in Tulsa (and elsewhere)? In fact, I’ll bet that some of the hats, suits, and ladies’ frocks that showed up in even later postcards of lynchings came from these very catalogs or later versions of them.



women 1921

No, thinking that the vast majority of folks in the US are deep down inside now so much “more civilized” than those who lived in the era depicted above, are all far less “prejudiced” than their parents or grandparents or great grandparents were, do not harbor any racism or bigotry in their hearts…is extremely naïve. The evidence of such factors as the perpetuation of Sundown Towns belies this extreme optimism.

Getting to the Biblical Bottom of the Story

So what are we left to conclude about this whole matter? This blog series has chronicled an amazing litany of hellishly vicious acts perpetrated by US citizens, against US citizens in their midst, merely because of the genetic makeup of those being victimized. This hasn’t been a description of one or two isolated freak circumstances. It has been details of a few examples of a pattern of evil that was widespread through every part of the country, and lasted over many decades—and which has had repercussions clear down to the present.

What does the Bible have to say about a “civilization,” a “nation,” a “people” who have such a historical record?

At the beginning of the history of the “Nation of Israel,” when God was about to take them to their “Promised Land” where they had a “manifest destiny” to be a light to the world and eventually even bring the truths of God to the nations of the world, God told them the following in no uncertain terms, recorded in the Book of Leviticus:

Leviticus 19:33-34 (Message version)

“When a foreigner lives with you in your land, don’t take advantage of him. Treat the foreigner the same as a native. Love him like one of your own. Remember that you were once foreigners in Egypt. I am God, your God.

By the time we reach the book of Jeremiah, it becomes pretty obvious that, as a nation, they failed in obeying this command throughout their history. The portion of the “people of Israel” known as the House of Israel—the northern tribes—had already gone into captivity as a result of ignoring this and many other biblical commands. So God gives the remaining tribes, the House of Judah, one more chance to have a change of heart and “get it right this time.”

Jeremiah 22: 1-4

This is what the Lord says: “Go down to the palace of the king of Judah and proclaim this message there: ‘Hear the word of the Lord to you, king of Judah, you who sit on David’s throne—you, your officials and your people who come through these gates. This is what the Lord says:

Do what is just and right.

Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed.

Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.

For if you are careful to carry out these commands, then kings who sit on David’s throne will come through the gates of this palace, riding in chariots and on horses, accompanied by their officials and their people.

But if you do not obey these commands, declares the Lord, I swear by myself that this palace will become a ruin.’”

That “palace” did become a ruin, though, because there was never any heartfelt, permanent national repentance by the people and their leaders.

The New Testament tells us why all these details of the Old Testament are relevant to us today. The Message paraphrase really drives home the point…

1 Corinthians 10:11

These are all warning markers—danger!—in our history books, written down so that we don’t repeat their mistakes. Our positions in the story are parallel—they at the beginning, we at the end—and we are just as capable of messing it up as they were.

There are many 21st century Christians who are absolutely adamant that the USA was literally founded as a “Christian nation.” They are convinced it was established by God Himself as a direct parallel to the ancient nation of Israel. They feel that through most of its history it was marching forward with a manifest destiny to be a “shining city on a hill” to light the way of the world. They feel that the evidence of astonishing military might and an ever-burgeoning gross national product compared to the rest of the nations of the world—starting  particularly at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries—is evidence that the US was God’s Favored Nation. And that it continued in that state of grace through the Glory Days of the 1950s.

And they are now chagrined that we as a nation seem to be slipping from that high pinnacle. This they blame on current and recent social trends, in particular gay marriage and acceptance of abortion. “If only” we can somehow vote in the right leaders, we can push back those trends and “get back to” the level of “righteousness” we had in 1900, and 1920, and 1940 … and once again recapture our role as that beautiful City on a Hill.

I would submit that this “closed narrative” of US national history is deeply in error. I offer as evidence the tip of the iceberg I’ve shared of the incredible level of institutionalized, totally unreasoning hatred toward and violence done to … our version of the Bible’s mention of “the foreigner among you.”

We allowed, from the very beginning of the US with its Constitution in 1789 (in spite of our claims that “All men are created equal…), for “our” citizens to acquire other human beings as slaves and bring them into permanent residence in our nation. Most folks are willing to admit that those who were slave owners at the time did NOT treat these foreigners “the same as the native,” nor did they “love him like one of their own.” We like to excuse those back in ante-bellum days as just not “enlightened” enough to know better. They just needed a bit more time for the country to become more “modern” in its thinking.

But most will not admit … or perhaps do not even know…that once we eliminated de jure slavery as an option in the country, we NEVER, “as a people,” replaced it with the biblically-mandated treatment. Never. Not in 1900, not in 1921 at the time of the Tulsa holocaust, not any time from then to now. In recent decades the federal government finally limited some unfair treatment of blacks (and other despised minorities among us) with some legislation, but there is no indication that this changed hearts. It’s good the laws are in place, but they don’t indicate that the vast majority of the white population of this “Christian nation” treats minorities “the same as the native” nor that they “love them like their own.” Far from it. Many just grudgingly “put up with” the laws related to Civil Rights. And in many places, they navigate around them with all sorts of subterfuges…and revel in their Sundown Towns.

So let’s look at just two more admonitions by the ancient prophets, line up our record as a nation, and see what we might be in for…

Zechariah 7:8-12

And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah: “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’

“But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears. They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the Lord Almighty was very angry.

Ezekiel 22:1-4,6-7 (NIV)

The word of the Lord came to me:

“Son of man, will you judge her? Will you judge this city of bloodshed? Then confront her with all her detestable practices  and say: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: You city that brings on herself doom by shedding blood in her midst and defiles herself by making idols…See how each of the princes of Israel who are in you uses his power to shed blood. In you they have treated father and mother with contempt; in you they have oppressed the foreigner and mistreated the fatherless and the widow…

To those Christians who are convinced that “who” needs to repent to “turn back the anger of God” from our nation is solely “people unlike themselves” who support gay marriage and abortion, I say that they may find some day that God has a much bigger laundry list than they do of what in our national historical record cries out for recognition, admission, introspection, and repentance.

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Oh Say Can You See III: 11 Ground Zero pt. 8

Series: Oh Say Can You See? III
Entry 11: Ground Zero: Part 8

Click here to go to Ground Zero: Part 1

 The Disneyfication of American History

A few years back, through mutual friends, I met an interesting couple. They were both died-in-the-wool, card-carrying Disney Geeks. Both absolutely loved the classic Disney animated movies and the Disney theme parks. They first met at Disneyland in California, carried on their courtship there, and held their wedding right at the park.

By the time I met them, they were living near Walt Disney World in Florida, had their first child, a little boy who is about three now, and had carved out for themselves a joint Dream Job: They have built a cottage industry around their Disney fandom. They spend almost all their time at the Florida Disney parks, and research and write free-lance articles about everything Disney for publication.  They have a major Disney-themed website that brings in income also.

My Facebook feed includes family chit-chat from them, mostly covering the latest adorable thing their cute little one has done at a Disney park. By the time most little kids are three, you may notice them in the back seat of the car on the way to the store spontaneously breaking out into the lyrics of the latest ad jingle for McDonald’s or some breakfast cereal they heard on TV. Not this little one. He breaks out into… the COMPLETE narration for the Catastrophe Canyon attraction at Disney Hollywood Studios! He’s been on the ride so many times that he has just “internalized” the patter of the guide. I’m sure he can do this for multiple rides and attractions.

For each Disney attraction has a “narrative” that plays out exactly the same every time. If you go to the Carousel of Progress at Magic Kingdom, you will see a typical American Dad, who is going to talk about the never-ending improvements that electricity has provided to the lifestyle of the average American since the turn of the last century.

carousel 1900

This is because the attraction was originally created for the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, paid for by General Electric as an “infotainment” attraction promoting its electrical appliances. The audio-animatronic Dad has his standard patter that he does in each scene of the attraction, followed by belting out the tune to the attraction’s theme song—“There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow”—as the audience seating room revolves around the center stage to encounter the same Dad in his ever-improving electrical home.

carousel 1920

As you continue on around the stage’s pie-shaped sections to other eras, you hear a super-abbreviated narrative about the ways that electricity has made the American Dream of ultimate home convenience come true.

carousel 1940

carousel mod

I say all that to say this … it’s a “closed narrative.” If you visit the attraction over a period of years, you will hear the same thing every time. You will not go there and suddenly encounter a scene outside the ideal home where Dad lives. There will never be a hint, for instance, of what “modern living” was like for the millions in the slums of New York and other American cities in 1900.

ny slums 1900

There will never be a peek inside the dark coal mines where horribly dangerous and abusive child labor is allowing cheap prices for the coal that fires the electrical plants of the time to power the conveniences of Dad and his family.


No, it’s a bright, colorful, neat, tidy, cheerful little closed narrative that allows the viewer to join Dad in singing praises for the Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow that “all Americans” have always enjoyed.

Now mind you, I’m not complaining! I love the Disney parks, and the Disney attractions. I expect to hear and see the same thing every time I go in a certain attraction. Like many geeky Disney park fans, I’m irritated when they retire one of my favorite attractions, like Horizons at EPCOT, that was discontinued in 1999.


Or World of Motion, that was retired in 1996.


I even balk at them tinkering with scenes or narration in attractions. I was shocked—shocked I say!—when  they pulled the authoritative voice of Walter Cronkite from its job guiding me through the Spaceship Earth depiction of the history of communication, and replaced it with a totally unfamiliar voice. I like to become familiar with the narrative…and then keep it permanently!


Yes, I don’t mind that the audio-animatronic white-washed version of history at the Disney parks plays out to a closed narrative. But I AM concerned that it seems “real” history out in the “real” world is mostly treated the same way. I am convinced that what almost everyone does… me included, in the past… with what they learn about American history over the early years of their life is subconsciously construct a cohesive “narrative,” that very early becomes set in concrete. It starts with their earliest memories of historic tidbits in kindergarten such as making “handprint turkey” pictures to go along with the Indian feather headdresses and Pilgrim hats that they make out of construction paper for the class Thanksgiving Play and luncheon.


The cast of the 5th grade Thanksgiving play at
Santa Ana, CA, Franklin Elementary School in 1931.

It continues as they read simplified stories in their grade school American history textbooks that skim rapidly over the “high points” of “how our country grew.” They may make little Pioneer dioramas with Conestoga Wagons, and read Little House books.

little house

And do projects to help them remember the names and order of the Presidents.


Woven into all of this is an underlying current of a set of Ideals expressed in our early founding documents, and in such later pronouncements as FDR’s Four Freedoms—Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, equality, the brotherhood of man, freedom from want and fear, freedom of speech and religion. And among it all, the notion that Americans have all been “free to be all that they could be” throughout our history. (Well, at least after the slaves were set free in 1865.) That all it took was strong desire and hard work, and, why, any shoeshine boy might become a titan of industry!

(Which of course reminds me of the Tulsa Riot … which traces back to a story of a shoeshine boy. But doesn’t end up being a success story.)

This closed narrative that we each create in our subconscious, and the snippets of events that go into its construction, is reinforced for most of us throughout our lives by what you might call Civic Public Relations.  Popularized Patriotism. You see it in the attraction “American Aventure” at EPCOT.

american adventure

You see it on floats in Fourth of July parades.


If you were around in WW2 you were utterly inundated with patriotic government posters. I even collect (digitally) the old WW1 and WW2 patriotic/propaganda posters and get all misty as I see the stirring messages on them designed to rally the American populace to sacrifice.

poster3 poster2 poster1

(See my growing collection of over 400 posters at this link on Pinterest.)

Yes, don’t get me wrong again …this kind of sentimental patriotism grabs at my heartstrings too. My dad was a WW2 Marine in the South Pacific–Guadalcanal and all that. I boo-hoo when a Marine Corps marching band goes by in a parade stirringly playing some patriotic song like “The Stars and Stripes Forever.”


But in recent years I’ve come to understand that TRUE patriotism does not consist of feelings of pride for everything my country has ever done. It doesn’t consist of a desire to sweep under the carpet all the unpleasant truths about the less noble things that have been done.

My feelings of patriotism, of love of my country, doesn’t rely on me creating an artificial, stunted, closed narrative. My own personal extended family has had all sorts of good guys and bad guys in it. A comprehensive picture album of all of its history would include moments of triumph and moments of ignominy. It didn’t quit being my family when “bad stuff happened.” But neither would I gain any more “love” of my family if I would be able to fool myself that it had nothing but good and glory in its history. What I would do if I tried that would be to lose the integrity and honesty that makes me who I am.

Why should I treat my “American family” and its history any differently? Yet this is what most people do. Including me in the past. I built my understanding of the flow of American history out of a hodgepodge of class lessons, TV shows—anybody remember “You Are There” from the mid-1950s?…

you are there

…museum exhibits, magazine articles, even pop music songs… like “Battle of New Orleans” by Johnny Horton!

I bought into, essentially, an “American mythology.” It was a closed narrative about an America that never really was, outside of on Main Street in Disneyland and WDW Magic Kingdom. And it had given me a warped interpretation about what is going on in America today.

It also gave me a warped perspective on facing any information that I ran across that conflicted with my mythology. This is where the concept of “cognitive dissonance” comes into play. (For a detailed explanation of this psychological theory see the material on my Field Guide to the Wild World of Religion website on the topic.) Basically, this theory explains that when we try to hold two opposing concepts in our mind…when a piece of evidence conflicts with an assumption we have accepted…we experience “dissonance” in our brain. A jangling feeling that something isn’t quite right. It makes us uncomfortable, and we do whatever is necessary to make it stop.

Because our “Prime Directive” is usually to hold on to all of our long-held assumptions, most folks have a couple of main solutions they usually rely on to deal with Cognitive Dissonance. We can “discount” the new information and literally cast it aside, refusing to consider it any more. Or, if we are unable to do that because of some outside pressure forcing us to look at it, we can “make it over” …carving off pieces of it, reshaping it, until it will fit into our assumption system.

Very seldom are people willing to reconsider and make changes directly to one of their assumption systems…whether it is the one about their religious beliefs, about their political beliefs, or any other topic they hold near and dear.  This is either too painful…or too much work.

But there is another solution, and I think it is one that many American citizens who pride themselves on their level of patriotism use when confronted with very unpleasant information about a factor in American History. They quarantine it. We don’t see quarantine used much any longer in our everyday life. But back in the 1940s and before it was quite common to walk along a neighborhood street and see a sign like this on a window or door of a home.


The idea was that most of the neighborhood was disease-free. When one person cropped up with a disease, you could take that one person who had the problem and isolate them until they either recovered … or died… from the disease. And everyone else would be just fine.

I believe this may well be how there could have been so much hubbub in the public press around the year 2000 about the Tulsa Riot, and yet a decade later it has gone back into the shadows. I’m pretty sure that if even I had seen one of the History Channel or BBC specials about it, I would have looked at it in fascination—but would have considered it a “historical fluke.” A single, isolated incident of inexplicable violence—horrific, and fascinating in its details. But unrelated to my own “personal narrative” of the history of America.

Oh, I knew about slavery, but that was stopped at the end of the Civil War. I just “assumed” that from then on black people had lots of options in America. Well, yes, from a quite early age I had come to discover that lots of white people were “prejudiced” against black people, especially in the South. I knew they didn’t want to drink out of the same drinking fountain, and insisted that they be segregated into their own schools. But that was all. It seemed unfair to me, but it was just “the way things were.”  Since I grew up in a town in far north Michigan that didn’t even have a single black family, considering the state of racial relations in our country just wasn’t something that came up in daily life. Ever. Not only regarding race relations in the past, but in the present.

Until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s came to national attention in the news because of riots and marches and such, I was pretty much blissfully unaware of the reality of what it REALLY meant to be a “person of color” in America throughout our post-Civil-War history.

By then I had my “narrative” very strongly established. Whatever was going on in Selma or Birmingham seemed to me as a teenager to be just some “current event,” based on some current grievances in limited sections of the country.

And I am convinced that’s how most outsiders may look at the story of the Tulsa Riot/Holocaust of 1921 when they hear of it. They admit it was awful. They declare that the white people involved were cruel. But they blithely assume it was a single event, in a single city in the US, during a single 24 hour period. An anomaly, not a symptom. And one that happened long ago. So it doesn’t really affect the narratives inside most people’s heads about the Land of the Free, the land where everyone has had, ever since the Civil War at least, the right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. And if anyone tried to interfere with those rights, the Good People of America would Put a Stop to It posthaste.

So I’m suspicious that the average American watching a documentary on the History Channel of that infamous day would very quickly “quarantine” the event in their mind. It was a totally unexpected “outbreak” of craziness that was inexplicable. It didn’t connect in any significant way with the flow of America’s history—it was just an isolated incident. Those bad people of Tulsa didn’t reflect on “America” of the time…it was still the America of Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers.

dining carUh, yeah …Covers that never, ever portrayed a black person, except in a subservient position, clear up into the 1960s. By decree of the publisher.

This is the reason that I have placed the story of the Tulsa Holocaust, this series I’ve titled “Ground Zero,” AFTER several stories of the United States of Lyncherdom. I want to establish beyond a doubt that Tulsa wasn’t a single outbreak of a sickness, that you can safely quarantine in your mind’s history narrative as “not relevant,” that you can place in the dusty museum room of your mind that you label “freaks of history,” just like in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum of the mid-1800s had displays of people and things that were commonly referred to as “freaks of nature.”


It was a symptom of a plague that was already raging. It wasn’t unique at all. (It was just a bigger outbreak than usual.) And the plague didn’t stop with it at all. And the after effects of that plague still exist to this day. But few are paying any attention, because, as mentioned in the intro to the whole Oh Say Can You See? blog series,  they are looking at all the wrong symptoms.

The researchers and writers of the Tulsa Riot Commission had great hopes that their efforts would make a difference. Here’s how they expressed it in the end of their report:

To paraphrase Maya Angelou: Our history, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived; but, if faced with courage, it need not be lived again. No matter what else we may do, we will not be whole unless and until we own our past, process it, and integrate its lessons into our present and our vision for the future. Teaching and learning are essential to this process.  So, so true.  This quote needs to be on billboards all over the city of Tulsa.

They had a number of hopes for their efforts. They really did have hope that the government of the city of Tulsa and the State of Oklahoma would realize that MAYBE the few living survivors of the Tulsa Holocaust might merit at least a tiny bit of “reparations,” just a token of the regrets of the community—since, after all, there had been a huge outpouring of civic financial generosity—in the millions of dollars—related to the Oklahoma City bombing. It wouldn’t have cost much to extend such a token.

As the commission submits its report [2001], 118 persons have been identified, contacted, and registered as living survivors of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. (Another 176 persons also have been registered as descendants of riot victims.)

But no, too many in positions of authority decided ANY reparations of any kind might set an unwanted precedent among others with grievances from the past. The number of survivors has no doubt decreased drastically since that time. A baby born that year would now be 92. Any adults would be in their 100s. It would seem that to just extend a hand to the handful left would be a noble deed. But no, it appears that it is not to be, and that all the survivors will just quietly die off.

The authorities have offered a few crumbs of “good will.” Some metal plaques have been installed on sidewalks in the Greenwood area where riot events occurred. (In a black area, where few whites ever go to this day.) A “reconciliation park” has been created connected to a new semi-pro ball park in Tulsa. Although I’m not sure that most people who just go there for a nice picnic connect its existence to an effort at reconciliation between whites and blacks in Tulsa. Especially since most blacks in Tulsa STILL live “across the tracks” in the old Greenwood area, which has been rebuilt—but with none of the pride of its glory days.

One of the only homes remaining in the Greenwood community from the era of the 1920s is the John and Lucy Mackey home. Their wood frame home was burned to the ground during the riot, but they were able to rebound from the loss and build this fine brick home on the same lot in 1926. Amazingly, the Mackey’s were not “wealthy” people at all…they did domestic and yard work for white Tulsans. The home was for decades a source of pride for the local black community.  In 1995, it was incorporated into the plans for a new cultural center located in Greenwood.

john and lucy mackey home gcc

The Greenwood Cultural Center, dedicated on October 22, 1995, was created as a tribute to Greenwood’s history and as a symbol of hope for the community’s future. The center has a museum, an African American art gallery, a large banquet hall, and housed the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame until 2007. The total cost of the center was almost $3 million. [Paid for by a federal “Model Cities” program grant.] The cultural center is a very important part of the reconstruction and unity of the Greenwood Historical District.

The Greenwood Cultural Center sponsors and promotes education and cultural events preserving African American heritage. It also provides positive images of North Tulsa to the community, attracting a wide variety of visitors, not only to the center itself, but also to the city of Tulsa as a whole.

In 2011, the Greenwood Cultural Center lost 100% of its funding from the State of Oklahoma. As a result, the center may be forced to close its doors. A fundraising campaign is now underway to try to raise private funds to keep the educational and cultural facility open. [Source]

The center has provided programs in drama, dancing, music, and the arts for disadvantaged youth in the area for many years. It’s one of the main places preserving in a museum setting the story of the Tulsa Riot—and telling the inspiring story of how much the black community HAD accomplished against the odds back in the period before the Riot. It has served as a gathering place for current residents. But from what I’ve seen on the Internet, it looks like they may lose their battle to remain open.

The flurry of activity around the time of the Riot Commission’s report that led to so much publicity also led to a couple of the main textbook publishers in America adding at least a perfunctory mention of the Riot in their high school history texts. And a number of groups have produced educational resources and materials for teachers who would like to include a “unit” in their social studies or history classes on the topic.

Other than that, I’m convinced that the story of the Riot is mostly going to just slip into the mists of history in the coming years. It doesn’t fit with the standard patriotic narrative.

The patriotic narrative *I* would like to see is one where the noble citizens of our country own up to the darkness in parts of our corporate past, truly and publically repent of the factors that caused the darkness… and the factors that caused the “cover ups.” And then seek true reconciliation among all races as we move together to create the noble nation envisioned by our founders. Where all men truly ARE able to live in a way that reflects their “inalienable rights.” Where FDR’s “Four Freedoms” (from want and fear, for religion and speech) were actually a reality, and we didn’t have to make excuses why… they haven’t been.

I still have hopes that this country could come much closer to living up to the aspirations of its founders.

But if we keep ignoring our past, keep lying to ourselves and others about that past, keep mis-diagnosing our current maladies as having nothing to do with that past, I certainly can’t judge how much hope I ought to have in … those hopes.

For a deeper examination of all of these issues in the light of the Bible, check out the final entry in this Ground Zero series, coming soon.

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