December 21, 1879 – Birthdate of Joseph Stalin

On this day in history, Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, who later took the nom de guerre of Joseph Stalin, was born as in Gori, Georgia. Stalin was appointed general secretary of the Soviet Union’s Central Committee in 1922. Following Lenin’s death in 1924 Stalin consolidated his power and became the unchallenged leader of the USSR from the late 1920‘s until his death in 1953 at age 73.

Stalin Loves the Little Children

Stalin Loves the Little Children

Although it is often said that Stalin was responsible for more deaths than any man in history, Timothy Snyder, Housum Professor of History at Yale, argues convincingly that the Germans killed more people than the Soviets did. This does not mean, however, that Stalin was a nice guy. Millions lost their lives because of Stalin. Millions more died because of Hitler. But the Grand Winner of Most Victims was neither one of them. Rather it was Mao Zedong in China.

Mao Loves the Little Children

Mao Loves the Little Children

December 19, 1956 – Martin Luther King, Jr. & William J. Powell Issue Integrated Bus Suggestions

On this day in history, Martin Luther King, Jr. and William J. Powell (Pastor of Old Ship A.M.E. Zion Church in Montgomery, Alabama from 1953 to 1964) issued guidelines on behalf of “The Montgomery Improvement Association” to mitigate potential conflicts in the coming transition to integrated busing.


In June of 1956, a federal district court had ruled, in Browder v. Gayle (352 U.S. 903, 1956), that segregation on Alabama’s intrastate buses was unconstitutional, citing Brown v. Board of Education as precedent for the verdict. On November 13, 1956, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a one line per curiam affirmance of Browder.

On 17 December 1956, the Supreme Court rejected city and state appeals to reconsider their decision, and three days later the order for integrated buses arrived in Montgomery. Dr. King signaled the official end of the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott by issuing a statement on December 20 to that effect, and boarding an integrated bus himself on Dec. 21, 1956.  Also boarding a bus on December 21 as Rosa Parks, who got on a bus driven by James F. Blake, the bus driver who had had her arrested. She reported that he didn’t react at all, and neither did she.

The Montgomery Bus Segregation System

The Montgomery Bus Segregation System

Yet of course, the troubles did not end. Shots were fired at the buses and bombing attacks were carried out on prominent black leaders. But the success of the boycott also led to the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as its president.

December 18, 1787 – New Jersey Joins the Union as the 3rd State

In 1787, New Jersey became the third state to ratify the U.S. Constitution and the first state to sign the Bill of Rights.


New Jersey is known for a number of important distinctions, such as hosting the world’s largest gathering of zombies, held each year in Asbury Park.


Atlantic City, New Jersey is where the Mafia established itself as a national organization. In 1929, fearing the end of prohibition and the loss of profitable bootlegging operations, Mafia leaders from the Midwest and East Coast, including Al Capone, Frank Costello, Meyer Lansky, and Lucky Luciano, held their first national conference at the President Hotel.


The mobsters originally planned to stay at The Breakers, an opulent hotel equipped with a rooftop garden. But when they arrived, the hotel wouldn’t let the mostly Jewish and Italian gangsters into their rooms.

They contacted Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, for years the Atlantic City region’s undisputed kingpin. Nucky, the Republican political boss and racketeer who served as host, made new arrangements at the President Hotel at Albany Avenue and kept law enforcement away from the festivities and meetings on the beach and in the hotel.

Enoch “Nucky” Johnson

Enoch “Nucky” Johnson

Although New Jersey is the fourth-smallest state in area, it is the 11th-most populous and the most densely populated of the 50 United States. New Jersey lies entirely within the combined statistical areas of New York City and Philadelphia. It is also the second-wealthiest U.S. state by median household income, according to the 2008–2012 American Community Survey.


December 16, 1653 – Oliver Cromwell Becomes Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland

On this day in history, Oliver Cromwell was named Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland. Unfortunately for the Irish, he only considered himself Lord Protector of the Protestants.

Portrait of Cromwell by Samuel Cooper, 1656

Portrait of Cromwell by Samuel Cooper, 1656

Cromwell had been one of the signatories of King Charles I’s death warrant in 1649, and, as a member of the Rump Parliament (1649–53), dominated the short-lived Commonwealth of England. The “Rump Parliament” was the name for what was left of the English Parliament after it was purged of members hostile to the actions taken against the King.)

He commanded the English campaign in Ireland in 1649–50, and oversaw a series of “Penal Laws” passed against Roman Catholics (a significant minority in England and Scotland but the vast majority in Ireland). These harsh laws stipulated that Catholics could neither teach their children nor send them abroad; persons of property could not enter into mixed marriages; Catholic property was inherited equally among the sons unless one was a Protestant, in which case he received all; a Catholic could not possess arms or a horse worth more than £5; Catholics could not hold leases for more than 31 years, and they could not make a profit greater than a third of their rent. The hierarchy of the Catholic Church was banished or suppressed, and Catholics could not hold seats in the Irish Parliament (1692), hold public office, vote (1727), or practice law. Cases against Catholics were tried without juries, and bounties were given to informers against them.


In addition, while in Ireland, Cromwell not only confiscated a significant amount of land owned by Catholics, but also he also made a point of destroying only half of towers, castles and churches, so that inhabitants could see, and be reminded of, what happens if Cromwell doesn’t like you.


After Cromwell’s death in 1658 he was buried in Westminster Abbey, but after the Royalists returned to power in 1660 they had his corpse dug up, hung in chains, and beheaded. Considering the miseries he inflicted on the Catholics in Ireland, it was probably too good a fate. Needless to say, Cromwell remains an unpopular figure in Ireland to this day.

Thomas Cromwell painted by Hans Holbein the Younger

Thomas Cromwell painted by Hans Holbein the Younger

December 15, 1939 – Atlanta Premiere of “Gone With the Wind”

Today marks the 75th Anniversary of the Atlanta, Georgia premiere of the movie “Gone With The Wind.”

Why is this a topic worthy of Legal Legacy? The reason is that the book from which this movie was derived was, and remains, one of the most widely read and influential books of modern times, and the movie is considered to be one of the greatest ever made. It therefore contributes to many people’s impressions of what slavery was “really” like, and adds a soft, romanticized mint-julep-y glow to notions about life on a southern plantation before the Civil War. It is also profoundly racist. Not only is this movie and the book that inspired it a total misrepresentation of the facts, but examining how the Antebellum South, the Civil War, and Reconstruction are remembered is critical to understanding the social and political situation in today’s United States.

The Antebellum South:  Just one big party, if you were white….

The Antebellum South: Just one big party, if you were white….

The book’s author Margaret Mitchell was no abolitionist. She called black men “apes,” and indeed, in a famous scene that takes place during Reconstruction late in the movie, she portrays Scarlett as being attacked by “…a squat black negro with shoulders and chest like a gorilla. … so close that she could smell the rank odor of him” as he tried to rape her.

Still, you object, weren’t there quite lovable slaves on Scarlett’s plantation? You may be thinking of Mammy, who Mitchell describes as looking “sad with the uncomprehending sadness of a monkey’s face.”

Scarlett with "Mammy"

Scarlett with “Mammy”

Then there was Scarlett’s loyal farmhand, the slave Big Sam, who, Mitchell writes, when he saw Scarlett after the Civil War was over:

…his watermelon-pink tongue lapped out, his whole body wiggled, and his joyful contortions were as ludicrous as the gambolings of a mastiff.”

The book and movie would have you believe that slaves – docile and loyal, sided with their Southern masters and hated and feared the Yankees. In fact, however, thousands of slaves – those who could, at any rate, abandoned their masters at the first opportunity and fled to the north. They also volunteered to serve in the Union Army, and by war’s end according to historian Eric Foner, some 180,000 had done so, over one-fifth of the adult male black population of the U.S. below the age of forty-five. There was an excellent reason why Southerners were afraid to educate and/or arm their slaves. Surely if owners treated them so benevolently, this would not have been an issue, and the owners knew that.

Following the Civil War, Southerners were still not reconciled to freedom for blacks, and fought back in every violent and nefarious way they could. Blacks in the South experienced a progressive narrowing of options. The Ku Klux Klan, along with supposed law enforcement officials and judges, all conspired to keep blacks in de facto servitude to whites. (See, for example, the book Slavery By Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon, which shows you how, long past the time of the Civil War, slavery was actually still alive and well in the South in all but name, with active support of the state and federal governments. Laws defining very petty crimes, such as against “loitering,” were used liberally to convict black men, who thereby became a source of involuntary labor, much of it quite punitive. Among those making use of the resultant convict lease system were railroads, mining and lumber companies, and planters, with the arresting and convicting authorities kept happy with kickbacks.)

Black convict labor, 1930's

Black convict labor, 1930’s

The rewriting of history helped perpetuate this web of oppression, and the popular acceptance of the slavery system as halcyon helped alleviate any guilt or doubts anyone might have had, had they even known what was happening with blacks. Gone With the Wind was seminal to this revisionism.

The climate on the film set wasn’t as bad as the book’s dialogue, but it wasn’t great either. MGM had ‘whites only’ and ‘blacks only’ signs on the bathrooms during the shooting, until a group of black performers threatened a work slowdown. Individual cars were sent each day to pick up the white performers, but all of the black actors had to carpool to the studio. The film’s producer, David O. Selznick, did not honor a promise to NAACP leader Walter White to hire a black consultant for the film, because he suspected (undoubtedly correctly) that such a person might want to make changes to the content of the film.

Not just Hollywood:  Lancaster, Ohio, 1938; photo by Ben Shahn

Not just Hollywood: Lancaster, Ohio, 1938; photo by Ben Shahn

And then there was the Premiere. One million people came to Atlanta for it, held at the Loew’s Grand Theatre, on December 15, 1939, this day in history. It marked the climax of three days of festivities hosted by Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield, which included a parade, receptions, thousands of Confederate flags and a costume ball. Eurith D. Rivers, the governor of Georgia, declared December 15 a state holiday. Alas, the black actors could not attend the premiere, because Georgia’s Jim Crow laws prevented them from sitting with the white members of the cast. (To his credit, Clark Gable threatened to boycott the event, but Hattie McDaniel, who eventually won an Oscar for her portrayal of Mammy, convinced him to attend.)

At the premiere, from left:  Vivian Leigh, Clark Gable, Margaret Mitchell, David O. Selznick and Olivia de Havilland

At the premiere, from left: Vivian Leigh, Clark Gable, Margaret Mitchell, David O. Selznick and Olivia de Havilland

Nor could black moviegoers attend, at least not in the South. As the Pittsburgh Courier’s Atlanta correspondent opined in its December 23, 1939 edition, “Negro reaction to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind will have to wait until the film comes North.”

But blacks were reacting, nevertheless. As The Root reports:

Black folks picketed from coast to coast. Some unions urged boycotts. In Chicago, the Defender called for “a mass protest” and in an editorial observed: ‘Gone With the Wind is propaganda, pure propaganda, crude propaganda. It is anti-Negro propaganda of the most vicious character. It is un-American propaganda. It is subversive.’ In Philadelphia the president of the National Baptist Convention Inc. condemned the film as a ‘disgrace.’”

African-American attorney civil rights crusader William L. Patterson excoriated the film in “The Chicago Defender” on January 6, 1940:

It has lied about the Civil War period shamelessly. It has distorted and twisted the history of an era… “Gone With the Wind” has glorified slavery. …[It] has martyred the southern plantation owner. In martyring this relic of barbarism [it] not only ‘morally justifies’ the slave breeding pen and the degradation of Negro womanhood and manhood, it has scorned upon and desecrated the love that democratic white America has for freedom and truth.”

To portray the relationship between masters and slaves as benign was as patently absurd as the recent claim by a member of a Colorado school board that slavery was given up by the South “voluntarily.” Are we to believe that the rape of young black girls by their white masters and the regular beatings of slaves were voluntary or benign acts as well?

Moreover, at the time the movie premiered in 1939, the Ku Klux Klan was still quite active; just one month before the release of the movie, 8000 Klansman marched in Atlanta! Jim Crow laws in the South prevented blacks from enjoying the same rights as whites, and Southern senators in Congress continued to block the passage of a federal anti-lynching law, saying it “encroached on state sovereignty.”

 Ku Klux Klan rally in Tampa, Fla., Jan. 30, 1939. (AP Photo)

Ku Klux Klan rally in Tampa, Fla., Jan. 30, 1939. (AP Photo)

Perhaps the best way to memorialize the premiere of this movie is to devote some time to thinking about why the book and movie remain so popular, and what might be done to mitigate the effects of their mis-history.

December 13, 1918 – President Wilson Arrives in France to Negotiate For The Treaty of Versailles

On this day in history, Woodrow Wilson became the first U.S. President to visit Europe while in office. He came to France to participate in treaty negotiations to end World War I. In preparation, he compiled “Fourteen Points” which he advocated to be included in the treaty. Most of Wilson’s Fourteen Points were abandoned, but the resulting Treaty of Versailles did include his proposal for the establishment of a world organization to provide a system of collective security for all nations; this organization came to be known as the League of Nations. You can read the full text of the Fourteen Points here.

President Wilson in Paris with French President Raymond Poincaré, December 14, 1918

President Wilson in Paris with French President Raymond Poincaré, December 14, 1918

The Treaty of Versailles was only one of the peace treaties that concluded World War I. It ended the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers and was signed on 28 June 1919, exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The other Central Powers on the German side of World War I were dealt with in separate treaties.


The treaty was so-named because it was signed at the Versailles Palace near Paris. The Palace was considered the most appropriate venue because of its size – hundreds of people were involved in the process, and the Hall of Mirrors could accommodate all the relevant dignitaries for the final signing ceremony. You can read the text of the Treaty of Versailles here.

Versailles Hall of Mirrors

Versailles Hall of Mirrors

The U.S. Senate refused to adopt the treaty or join the League of Nations. Instead, the U.S. negotiated its own settlement with Germany in 1921. You can read the text of that treaty, signed between Germany and the U.S., here.

December 10, 1817 – Mississippi Joins the Union as the 20th State

Mississippi’s name derives from the Mississippi River, which flows along its western boundary. The name of the river is from the Ojibwe word misi-ziibi (“Great River” or “Gathering of Waters”).

Mississippi in the United States

Mississippi in the United States

On this date in history, Mississippi was admitted to the Union as a slave state, and on January 9, 1861, Mississippi became the second state to declare its secession from the Union.


At the time of the Civil War, the Mississippi River was the single most important economic feature of the continent. When the southern states seceded, Confederate forces closed the river to navigation, which threatened to strangle northern commercial interests. President Lincoln was well aware of the strategic importance of regaining control of the river, and thus considered Grant’s 1863 siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi to be key to winning the war. As he said:

We can take all the northern ports of the Confederacy, and they can still defy us from Vicksburg.”

The Mississippi River continues to be important to the state, particularly because of its tendency to flood on an average of once every three years. In 1927, the state experienced severe damage, with a flood Herbert Hoover called “the greatest disaster of peace times in our history.” The flooding, which inundated parts of Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tennessee, left approximately 27,000 square miles underwater, ruining crops, damaging or destroying 137,000 buildings, causing 700,000 people to be displaced from their homes, and killing 250 individuals across the seven impacted states. You can read more about the great flood in this article for National Geographic by Stephen Ambrose.

A refugee camp at Vicksburg, Mississippi following The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.

A refugee camp at Vicksburg, Mississippi following The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.

A surprising fact about Mississippi is that it has an Official State Water Mammal, which is the bottlenosed dolphin. Dolphins visit the inland areas of Mississippi along the state’s Gulf of Mexico coastline. Once plentiful, the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin population decreased significantly after the destruction of their habitat by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but in recent years they have started to come back.

Atlantic bottlenose dolphins

Atlantic bottlenose dolphins

The state also has an Institute for Marine Mammal Studies located in Gulfport. Its mission includes dolphin conservation, research and public education. In 2008, the Mississippi State Tax Commission approved a new “Protect Dolphins” license plate to benefit the Institute.



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