April 18, 2018 – Swaziland King Renames Country “The Kingdom of eSwatini”

eSwatini, formerly known as Swaziland, is a landlocked country in Southern Africa, bordered by Mozambique to its northeast and South Africa to its north, west, and south. At only 120 miles north to south and 81 miles east to west, eswatini is one of the smallest countries in Africa.

The Swazis established their kingdom in the mid-18th century. The present boundaries were drawn up in 1881 in the midst of the “Scramble for Africa.”

(As Wikipedia explains, the Scramble for Africa, also called the Partition of Africa or the Conquest of Africa, was the invasion, occupation, division, and colonisation of African territory by European powers during the short period between 1881 and 1914. In 1870, only 10 percent of Africa was under formal European control; by 1914 this had increased to almost 90 percent of the continent, with only Ethiopia (Abyssinia) and Liberia remaining independent, and the latter was a former United States colony. You can read more about the harmful effects of this partitioning in our post about the 1885 “General Act of the Conference at Berlin on the Disposition of African States,” here.)

Swaziland became a British protectorate after the Second Boer War (October 1899 – May 1902), fought between the British Empire and two independent Boer states, the South African Republic (Republic of Transvaal) and the Orange Free State, after the discovery of diamonds and gold in the Boer states. (The official excuse for going to war was British opposition to slavery in Boer lands, but the British hadn’t cared much until all that wealth was discovered.)

Eswatini is part of the Southern African Customs Union (green)

After the Second Boer War, the kingdom, under the name of Swaziland, was a British protectorate from 1903 until it regained its independence on September 6, 1968, In April 2018, the official name was changed from Kingdom of Swaziland to Kingdom of eSwatini, mirroring the name commonly used in Swazi.

As the BBC reported:

The monarch announced the official change in a stadium during celebrations for the 50th anniversary of Swazi independence.

The celebrations also marked the king’s 50th birthday.

The new name, eSwatini, means “land of the Swazis”. The change was unexpected, but King Mswati has been referring to Swaziland for years as eSwatini.

It was the name the king used when he addressed the UN general assembly in 2017 and at the state opening of the country’s parliament in 2014.”

The government is an absolute monarchy, ruled by King Mswati III since 1986. King Mswati III currently has 15 wives; his predecessor had 125. Perhaps relatedly, eSwatini has the world’s highest prevalence rate for HIV/Aids.

April 14, 1816 – Slavery Rebellion in Barbados

According to “The Sugar Trade in the West Indies and Brazil Between 1492 and 1700” by Mark Johnston, the first commercial production of sugar in the new world began in Brazil in 1550. The sugar industry advanced rapidly with the importation of slaves from equatorial Africa, financed by the Dutch East India Company. But in 1660 sugar production began to shift to Barbados and other West Indies islands. An English settler in Barbados, John Drax, acquired a great deal of land, equipment from the Dutch, and slave laborers from Africa. In the space of twenty years, Barbados became a major supplier for Europe, and by the mid-1650s, sugar production had largely supplanted tobacco and all other crops as the dominant economic activity of the island. By 1660, Barbados generated more trade than all the other English colonies combined.

[For an exploration of the complex reasons why the sugar trade switched from Brazil to the West Indies, you can read a detailed and interesting analysis by Matthew Edel, “The Brazilian Sugar Cycle of the Seventeenth Century and the Rise of West Indian Competition” in Caribbean Studies 9, no. 1 (1969): 24-44 online here. He notes that the war between Spain and the Netherlands, common trends in economic cycles, and cultural developments all played a role.]

As sugar developed into the main commercial enterprise, Barbados was divided into large plantation estates.

A BBC history of slavery in Barbados reports that as the sugar industry grew, slaves were imported in large numbers from Africa, especially from what is today the country of Ghana. They estimate that from 1627 to 1807, when Britain abolished the slave trade (but not slavery itself), some 387,000 Africans were shipped to the island against their will, in overcrowded, unsanitary ships, which made the Middle Passage a synonym for barbaric horror. Moreover, as they point out, the high mortality rate among slaves working on the sugar plantations necessitated a constant input of fresh slaves in order to maintain a work force.

By 1700, there were 15,000 free whites and 50,000 enslaved blacks. To ensure the imbalance didn’t threaten the plantocracy, black or slave codes were implemented in 1661, 1676, 1682, and 1688. In response to these codes, several slave rebellions were attempted or planned during this time, but none succeeded.

On Easter Sunday, April 14, 1816, some 20,000 slaves from over 70 plantations rose up in the largest major slave rebellion in the island’s history. Three days later it was put down by the local militia and British imperial troops stationed on the island. The uprising was later called “Bussa’s Rebellion” after the slave leader Bussa. One hundred and twenty slaves died in combat or were immediately executed, and another 144 were brought to trial and executed. The remaining rebels were shipped off the island.

Statue of Bussa in Bridgetown, Barbados

The New York Times noted that The “Bussa Rebellion” prompted the British authorities to build six signal stations on the island’s high points where officers could detect slave revolts and warn other lookouts. One of the stations, Gun Hill in the Parish of St. George, has been restored by the Barbados National Trust, and offers visitors panoramic views to the south and east, plus an exhibition on the semaphore system used for signaling any threat from land or sea.

In 1826, the Barbados legislature passed the Consolidated Slave Law, which simultaneously granted concessions to the slaves while providing reassurances to the slave owners.

Slavery was finally abolished in the British Empire 18 years later, in 1834. In Barbados and the rest of the British West Indian colonies, full emancipation from slavery was preceded by an apprenticeship period that lasted four years.

April 12, 1777 – American Statesman Henry Clay is born

Henry Clay, born on this day in history, was an American attorney and statesman who represented Kentucky in both the Senate and House. He was the seventh House Speaker and the ninth Secretary of State. He ran for president in the 1824, 1832, and 1844 elections. For his role in defusing sectional crises, he earned the appellation of the “Great Compromiser” and was part of the “Great Triumvirate.” (The Great Triumvirate refers to three statesmen who dominated American politics for much of the first half of the 19th century: Henry Clay of Kentucky, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina.) All three were extremely active in politics, served at various times as Secretary of State and served together in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.)

Portrait by Matthew Harris Jouett, 1818

Portrait by Matthew Harris Jouett, 1818

Henry Clay is still known by many Americans today because of his influence on Abraham Lincoln, who said of Clay: “I worshiped him as a teacher and leader.” Indeed, Lincoln not only emulated Clay’s devotion to the idea of Union in theory, but also in its specifics: he tried to push through many of the programs advocated by Clay, including the “American System” – internal improvements consisting of a network of roads, bridges, and canals linking every state and territory. Clay thought such an investment not only made good economic sense; it would also help bind the nation together. Trade between different regions of the country, as well as the movement of populations among them would create interdependency, and help cement the disparate sectors into a true Union.

Unfortunately, the South was opposed to the American System proposal. As the author writes:

“By restricting the extent and ease of transportation, planters could keep blacks and poor whites in their thrall indefinitely. The American System threatened the future of slavery and the wealth of the southern oligarchy by opening the South to transportation, commerce, education, ideas, competition, and emancipation.”

It also would open the way to better escape routes for slaves.

It should be noted that Clay himself owned slaves, although he helped establish and became president in 1816 of the American Colonization Society, a group that wanted to establish a colony for free American blacks in Africa. The group founded Monrovia, a city in present-day Liberia, for that purpose. [Lincoln was similarly in favor throughout most of his life of colonization for slaves.] Clay decried slavery as “a great evil,” but thought that universal emancipation would produce “civil war, carnage, conflagration, devastation . . .” [Clay thought the war would be between the two races, rather than between the whites of the North and the South.]

Henry Clay Later in Life

Clay was elected to the post of Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives on November 4, 1811. The seventh Speaker in the nation’s history, he was the youngest man, and the only freshman ever to hold the office. The author calls him “the greatest Speaker of the House of Representatives in American history.”

Clay had the misfortune to have an implacable enemy in the form of the very powerful Andrew Jackson, who came to revile Clay for, inter alia, denying him (as Jackson saw it) his rightful prize as U.S. President in the election of 1824. With the vote split, Clay directed his supporters to vote for John Quincy Adams. When Adams won the election, Adams offered Clay the position of Secretary of State. Both men denied any quid pro quo, and indeed, Adams had plenty of reason to want Clay in this position in any event. But the Jackson forces took vicious aim at both men, calling the appointment a “corrupt bargain” that denied the office to the man who truly deserved it, i.e., Jackson. Jackson’s adherents never let the nation forget it, and Clay was thus repeatedly stymied in his own attempts to become U.S. President.

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

Nevertheless, Clay’s contributions to the nation were not minimal. Time after time he exercised his influence over Congress to forge compromises between the Northern and Southern factions, always in the name of Union. When he died, on July 29, 1852, the editor of the Washington D.C. newspaper “National Intelligencer” wrote: “He knew no North; he knew no South. He knew nothing but his country.”

Lincoln exclaimed upon learning of Clay’s death: “Alas! Who can realize that Henry Clay is dead! Who can realize, that the workings of that mighty mind have ceased . . . that freedom’s champion – the champion of a civilized world . . . has indeed fallen.”

April 10, 1919 – Assassination of Emiliano Zapata, Leader of Peasant Rebels in Mexico

On this day in history, Emiliano Zapata, an iconic figure in Mexico, was killed in an ambush.

Zapata was born on August 8, 1879 in the rural Mexican village of Anenecuilco, Morelos. Zapata’s family were mestizos, Mexicans of Nahua and Spanish ancestry.

General Emiliano Zapata, posing in Cuernavaca in 1911, with a rifle and sword, and a ceremonial sash across his chest. (Archivo General de la Nación, Mexico City. Archivo Fotográfico Díaz, Delgado y García)

After Porfirio Díaz came to the presidency of Mexico by a coup in 1876, the Mexican social and economic system was dominated by large estate holders who controlled much of the land and squeezed the holdings of independent communities. The concentration of hacienda lands was facilitated by three nineteenth-century land reforms: the Lerdo Law of 1856, the 1883 Mexican Executive Decree on Colonization, and the 1894 Law for the Occupation and Alienation of Vacant Lands.

The Lerdo Law, or Ley Lerdo in Spanish, is the common name for the Confiscation of Law and Urban Ruins of the Civil and Religious Corporations of Mexico. The Lerdo Law provided for the confiscation of the lands held by the Catholic Church and civil corporations and their sale to private individuals. It was expected to stimulate the market and generate government revenue through sales tax. However, the lack of capital among the lower classes meant that the main purchasers were large landowners or foreign investors, further concentrating land ownership.

The 1883 decree transferred responsibility for dividing vacant and national lands to be put up for sale. Land survey companies were granted up to one-third of the lands they surveyed. The rest was sold to foreign and Mexican settlers.

The 1894 law removed the limit of how many acres could be sold in each parcel.

The only individuals who could afford the state’s prices were the wealthy hacendados. As a result, a privileged minority controlled most of Mexico’s land. Thus:

Together these laws resulted in extensive disenfranchisement of numerous indigenous communities, who were stripped of their territories when their lands were identified as vacant and eligible for colonization.” (Carlos G. Vélez-Ibañez and Josiah Heyman, The U.S. – Mexico Transborder Region: Cultural Dynamics and Historical Interactions, 2017, p. 291.

Many peasants were subsequently forced into debt peonage on the haciendas. Díaz’s cronies were given offices around the country that allowed them to enforce changes in land tenure favoring the progressive concentration of land into the hands of fewer and wealthier landowners.

Community members in Anenecuilco, including Zapata, sought redress against land seizures. In 1892, a delegation had an audience with Díaz; Díaz had them arrested and Zapata was conscripted into the Federal Army.

Porfirio Díaz

The flawed 1910 elections were a major reason for the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Porfirio Díaz was being threatened by the candidacy of Francisco I. Madero. Zapata, seeing an opportunity to promote land reform in Mexico, raised an army of peasants in the southern state of Morelos under the slogan “Land and Liberty.”

Madero overthrew Díaz in May 1911 at the Battle of Ciudad Juárez. Under Madero, some new land reforms were carried out and elections were to be ensured. However, Zapata was dissatisfied with Madero’s stance on land reform, a measure which Madero did not really believe in. Zapata was unable, despite repeated efforts, to make him understand the importance of the issue or to get him to act on it.

As the history of Zapata on The Thought Company recounts:

When Madero’s promises failed to come to fruition, Zapata took to the field against his onetime ally. In November 1911 he wrote his famous Plan of Ayala, which declared Madero a traitor, named Pascual Orozco head of the Revolution, and outlined a plan for true land reform. Zapata fought federal forces in the south and near Mexico City. Before he could overthrow Madero, General Victoriano Huerta beat him to it in February 1913, ordering Madero arrested and executed.”

Before Huerta could act against him, Zapata joined with three other revolutionaries to oppose Huerta. Together with these men – Pancho Villa, Venustiano Carranza, and Alvaro Obregón – the “Big Four” succeeded in driving out Huerta.

Venustiano Carranza

Then, the four turned on each other. In early 1916, Carranza sent his most ruthless general, Pablo González, to track Zapata down and get rid of him. On April 10, 1919, Zapata was double-crossed, ambushed and killed by Colonel Jesús Guajardo, one of González’ officers who had pretended to want to switch sides.

The History Channel online observes that Zapata’s influence has endured long after his death, and his agrarian reform movement, known as zapatismo, remains important to many Mexicans today.

In addition, since 1994, a movement calling itself the Zapatista Army of National Liberation or EZLN has been active in the Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico. These “Zapatistas” have declared war against the Mexican state, mainly using the strategy of civil resistance. The group sees itself as heirs to Emiliano Zapata; nearly all EZLN villages contain murals with images of Zapata, as well as other revolutionaries.

April 7, 1915 – Birth Date of Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, opens with the line:

“Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married; he was 18, she was 16 and I was three.”

Billie was born in Philadelphia on April 7, 1915 as Eleanora Fagan, the daughter of Clarence Holiday, a musician, and Sadie Fagan. Her father left soon after her birth and Sadie and Eleanora moved to Baltimore. Sadie worked long hours, and wasn’t home much. Billie was raped by the time she was ten (for which she was sent to a house of truancy). At age 12, she was working alongside her mother in prostitution. By age 14, she determined she could have a better life, and began to sing. She changed her name to Billie after the movie star Billie Dove, and used her father’s last name.

In 1933 the young producer and aspiring impresario John Hammond heard her sing in Harlem and convinced Benny Goodman to make a record with her. She was eighteen years old.


In the mid-1930s Louis Armstrong’s manager took on Holiday as a client, and she started to get more work and greater exposure. Before long, she joined the Count Basie Orchestra. Life on the road was not easy for Holiday however, as she was unused to the racism of the Jim Crow South. At one point she was encouraged by club owners to wear dark makeup so that Southern white audiences would not think she was a white woman singing with black musicians. By 1938 Holiday was no longer singing with the Basie Orchestra; she said she left because she was not paid enough.


When the white bandleader Artie Shaw heard that Holiday had left Basie, he offered her a job. She became one of the first black artists to join an all-white band. She traveled with Shaw throughout the country, but again, the constant racial insults on the road were too hard for her to endure.

Although Holiday was a star by 1939, her personal life was not as successful. She had brief affairs with Goodman and Shaw, with Basie’s guitarist Freddie Green, and with the tenor saxophonist Ben Webster.

Billie Holiday and Lester Young

Billie Holiday and Lester Young

Perhaps the most important male relationship she enjoyed during these years, though, was her platonic friendship with the tenor saxophonist Lester Young. The two became close both during and after their days together in Basie’s band. Young was Holiday’s musical soul mate. He was renowned for his lyrical improvisations, and together the two achieved a rare musical intimacy. Young gave Billie Holiday her nickname, Lady Day, and she dubbed him Prez, the president of the tenor saxophone, a nickname that also stuck.

The second stage of Holiday’s career began in 1939 with her appearances at a Greenwich Village hangout frequented by an interracial audience of intellectuals, bohemians, and jazz fans. It was here that she first sang “Strange Fruit.” Written and set to music by Lewis Allen, the song was a stark, metaphorical portrayal of southern lynchings of blacks, sung by Holiday at a dramatic, funereal tempo. Many critics consider her rendition of “Strange Fruit” (1939) to be one of the most powerful, understated commentaries on prejudice committed to music.

Billie Holiday in 1943

Billie Holiday in 1943

Holiday had smoked marijuana regularly since her teenage years, and she now began to use harder drugs. In the spring of 1947 she entered a clinic to kick her heroin habit, but federal agents arrested her on narcotics charges soon thereafter. She spent almost a year in a federal reformatory, and she was back on heroin shortly after her release.


When not taking heroin, her drinking became heavier, and her voice steadily deteriorated. She gave her last performance on 25 May 1959 at the Phoenix Theater in New York City.

Holiday collapsed on Memorial Day 1959 and fell into a coma, ravaged by liver problems and cardiac failure. She died from cirrhosis of the liver on July 17, 1959. In the final years of her life, she had been progressively swindled out of her earnings, and she died with $0.70 in the bank and $750 (a tabloid fee) on her person.

Billie Holiday, recording studio, N.Y.C. 1959. (c) The Milton J. Hinton Photgraphic Collection

Billie Holiday, recording studio, N.Y.C. 1959. (c) The Milton J. Hinton Photgraphic Collection

Holiday had a small voice with a range of only about an octave, but she could transform a song, inflecting words and pitches to give them her own meaning and emotional content. She was a minimalist, singing only the notes that counted and infusing songs with new and deeper meanings. She had a relaxed sense of swing; she stretched rhythms and sang around, behind, and ahead of the beat. She considered herself a musician collaborating with other musicians, and she phrased and improvised like a horn player.

You can see her sing “Strange Fruit” in this video:

April 4, 1968 – Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Fight to Bring His Killer to Justice

In Hellhound on His Trail, Hampton Sides has written a history book that reads like a suspense/thriller novel. His story follows the assassination of Martin Luther King by James Earl Ray. More than four decades after the event, Sides brings to life the characters involved and the era in which it occurred. He meticulously researched many of the minutia known about both the assassin and his victim during the period immediately preceding the killing and the three months thereafter, the time it took the FBI and numerous other law enforcement agencies to locate and arrest the killer.

James Earl Ray was a loner, a loser, and an extreme racist who had spent much of his adult life in prison. He was also remarkably resourceful, streetwise, and canny. Moreover, he seemed preternaturally inconspicuous and unobtrusive. The narrative begins in spring of 1967 with Prisoner #00416-J (as he was then characterized) serving a term for armed robbery in the Missouri State Penitentiary at Jefferson City, a maximum-security facility. He accumulated some cash through trading in drugs and amphetamines, which were plentiful in the prison. He escaped by hiding scrunched up under and among some freshly baked loaves of bread that the prison bakery had sent out for delivery to the ostensibly trustworthy prisoners working outside the prison walls. He was resourceful enough to escape to Mexico without leaving a trace. He returned to the United States in November 1967, taking a large cache of marijuana, assumed the alias of Eric S. Galt, and blended into an underworld of cheap hotel and rooming houses. He was someone no one ever noticed.

Martin Luther King was internationally famous for his work in breaking down the legal barriers of Jim Crow legislation in the South through non-violent protest. King had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and had led a protest march to Washington where he delivered his “I have a dream” speech, a paean to racial justice. But by late autumn 1967, his career was decidedly on a downward trend. Black leaders impatient with the slow pace of reform, like Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and H. Rap Brown, had captured the imagination of many disaffected black citizens, and had incited numerous urban riots. Moreover King’s well-defined goal of abolishing discriminatory legislation and government regulation had been achieved, at least theoretically. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been enacted, negating most of Jim Crow legislation through federal preemption.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X

With the passage of these laws, King then turned his energy to ameliorating the lot of the poor of all races, and not just that of poor blacks. That decision did not sit well with all his entourage. Nevertheless, King turned toward organizing another march on Washington to be called the Poor People’s Campaign, this one with the laudable goal of eradicating poverty, but with little idea of how that could be accomplished and with no specific proposals toward achieving the goal.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking at Riverside Church, NYC, April 4, 1967

By this time, King was considered to be a thorn in the side of President Lyndon Johnson, but was hated by the Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover thought King was a communist, and was particularly concerned about King’s proposed mass gathering of poor people in a tent city in the Capitol. The FBI conducted a campaign of spying on King. Although it uncovered some of King’s sexual escapades and leaked them to the press (not to mention, to his wife Coretta), nothing seemed to come of the disclosures, which the press self-censored. It was clearly a different era in journalism.

On February 1, 1968, a horrible accident causing the grizzly death of two black men working as garbage collectors in Memphis, Tennessee set in motion a chain of events that would culminate in King’s assassination. The two men were seeking shelter from some rain when the garbage truck on which they were working malfunctioned, caught both of them in its maw, pulled them into its grinding mechanism, and literally crushed them both. Their deaths triggered the formation of a labor union by the all-black garbage-collecting work force and an illegal strike (municipal workers were not permitted to unionize or to strike) to protest low wages and dangerous working conditions.

Memphis Garbage Strike, 1968

The city government resisted the strike vigorously, if legalistically. Substitute workers were hired, but not enough to prevent the garbage from accumulating throughout the city. The strike attracted the attention of national labor and civil rights leaders, including James Lawson, a friend of MLK. Lawson persuaded King to lead a march in Memphis. The march was organized independently of King’s organization. Without King’s leadership and discipline over young hot heads, however, the march turned into a riot of looting and vandalism. King was discredited and very embarrassed. King’s second trip to Memphis was much more successful than the first, since he and his organization were able to arrange a dignified non-violent protest march.

Sides’ narrative intersperses Galt/Ray’s peregrinations with King’s preparation for the Poor People’s Campaign. Galt became obsessed with the possibility of killing King, following his travels closely through the press. Galt learned King would return to Memphis and that he would be staying at the Lorraine Motel, a black-owned enterprise. Galt rented a room in a cheap boarding house that provided him a second story view of the Lorraine’s balcony and courtyard. He purchased a high power hunting rifle, a powerful optical scope, and soft-tipped ammunition. He knew little about guns, but said he needed a deadly weapon because he would be hunting large game.

King was basking in the aura of a successful march and standing on his balcony waiting for others in his entourage to join him for dinner. Galt fire one shot, hitting King in the jaw. The soft-tipped bullet then careened through his throat and into his shoulder. King died shortly thereafter in a hospital operating room.

Hotel Lorraine, immediately after the shooting

Several anecdotes add poignancy to the aftermath of the assassination. King had spent his last night with Georgia Davis, one of his mistresses. She attempted to get into the ambulance to accompany King to the hospital, but Andrew Young avoided some bad press by touching her shoulder and saying, “Georgia, I don’t think you want to do that.” Jesse Jackson smeared his shirt with King’s blood and tried to claim he was the last person to speak to King. Others in King’s immediate circle strongly admonished him for grandstanding.

April 3, 1968: Balcony of Hotel Lorraine, left to right: Hosea Williams, Jesse Jackson, MLK, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy

King’s closest friends and successor, Ralph Abernathy, tried to carry on his legacy by completing the Poor People’s Campaign, which proved to be a disaster without King. Tens of thousands of people erected a tent city on the National Mall, but milled aimlessly for weeks, accomplishing little but incurring the ire of the national government and alienating many white former sympathizers.

The final one-fifth of the book covers Galt’s escape, his travel to Canada, England, Portugal, and back to England, where he was finally captured after the most exhaustive manhunt in history. He had sought to get to South Africa, where he thought the apartheid government might welcome him as a hero, or at least not extradite him.

The author shows how the FBI changed over night from trying to discredit King to trying to catch his killer. Much of the credit must go to Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who may have hated Hoover as much as Hoover hated King. It was only through extremely arduous and thorough police work that Galt was identified as James Earl Ray and located at London’s Heathrow Airport.

Atty. Gen. Ramsay Clark with President Lyndon Johnson

Evaluation: The book is fast paced, well-written, very detailed, and thoroughly researched. It manages to describe events without much speculation, basing its assertions on the testimony of the participants, particularly of the killer. The description of the police-FBI investigation reads like a crime thriller. Other reviewers have observed that it contains little that had not been written before, but it provides a sometimes heart-pounding refresher for people like me who have forgotten many of the details of forty years ago.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Doubleday, 2010

Note: Sides is also the author of, inter alia, Blood and Thunder, an exciting history of the exploration of the American West and the story of Kit Carson.

April 3, 1968 – The Last Speech of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”


With these words, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. built a crescendo to his final speech on April 3, 1968. The next day, the civil rights leader was shot and killed on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.

Read the entire certified text of his last speech here.

Review of “American Kompromat: How the KGB Cultivated Donald Trump, and Related Tales of Sex, Greed, Power, and Treachery” by Craig Unger

Craig Unger is an investigative journalist, writer, and analyst on national security. American Kompromat is a follow-up to his 2018 book, House of Trump, House of Putin, in which he made the case for Russian collusion. Kompromat, he explains, is the Russian term for compromising information which can be used in blackmailing, discrediting, or manipulating someone, typically for political purposes. It forms the basis for Russian intelligence control of human assets.

This book begins in October, 2020 with an examination of the leadership of Donald Trump before looking backward in time. Unger writes:

To most of the country, he was vulgar and vile, a misogynistic, racist firebrand, a buffoon who knew only his own pecuniary interests and prejudices and would stop at nothing to satiate them. He was clownish and repellent. But as the election approached, it became increasingly clear that he was far more dangerous than that suggested, that his buffoonery masked real demagoguery, that he was a tyrant who had mesmerized tens of millions of people, and that it didn’t matter to them what he said or did.”

And he wrote this even before the insurrection of January 6, 2021.

The author then goes on to present a wealth of material to establish that Donald Trump was cultivated and used by Russian intelligence to further their aims. Trump’s awareness of their efforts to control him was not necessary to the process. Unger writes:

From the KGB’s point of view, the most appealing quality about Trump was probably that he had a personality that was ideal for a recruit – vain, narcissistic, highly susceptible to flattery, and greedy.”

. . .

“Trump was a dream for KGB officers looking to recruit an asset…. Everybody has weaknesses. But with Trump it wasn’t just weakness. Everything was excessive. His vanity, excessive. Narcissism, excessive. Greed, excessive. Ignorance, excessive.”

Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was an influx of Russian Mafia and oligarchs into the U.S. who needed to launder billions of dollars, “a need that could best be filled by a wealthy real estate developer who had loads of luxury condos to sell and was willing to look the other way when it came to the source of the money.” This was a perfect set-up for the “perpetually bankrupt Donald Trump.”

Trump, Unger suggests, was compromised through “lucrative money-laundering schemes, sycophantic flattery, pie-in-the-sky Trump Tower Moscow projects, extravagantly well-paid franchising projects, and more.”

More critically, he details, “Russian intelligence had essentially hijacked Trump’s foreign policy in plain sight and nobody noticed,” especially because there was nothing explicitly unlawful about what they did. (The author quotes journalist Michael Kinsley’s observation: “The real scandal isn’t what’s illegal; it’s what is legal.”)

The author also discusses the ways in which it appears as if Donald Trump, Jr., Rudi Giuliani, and Trump’s Attorney General William Barr had also been compromised. With regard to Barr, the author goes into details of some of the shadier activity of Opus Dei,, the secretive, extremist right-wing Catholic organization. Barr’s affiliation with Opus Dei, the author avers, has influenced him to endorse an ideologically-driven understanding of religious liberty that reviles secularism, and a belief in extensive executive power, both of which helped further Trump’s autocratic and anti-liberal agenda.

As for deceased sex-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, he is included because he supposedly was in possession of the most kompromat of anyone, even more than the Russians. So far, however, what Epstein had or didn’t have has not been revealed, but even the threat of its existence is powerful. Epstein’s contact list was extensive, and included of course, Donald Trump.

At the very least, what this book shows us is that electing a president with Trump’s weaknesses was a foolhardy proposition – he would never even have received low-level security clearance for government work in normal circumstances.

Evaluation: This book is disturbing and scary, even without written confirmation of its conclusions. They are based on an overwhelming compilation of circumstantial evidence and bizarre behaviors, particularly with respect to Russia, that are not otherwise explainable.

That mystery aside, Unger’s book is effectively argued and riveting in its detailed description of the unseemly side of spy craft.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2021

March 28, 1979 – Partial Nuclear Meltdown at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant in Pennsylvania

On this day in history the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant near Middletown, Pennsylvania experienced a partial meltdown in one of the two reactors on site, releasing of a small amount of radioactive gases and iodine into the environment. It was the most serious accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission stated in its “Backgrounder on the Three Mile Island Accident”:

A combination of personnel error, design deficiencies, and component failures caused the TMI accident, which permanently changed both the nuclear industry and the NRC. Public fear and distrust increased, NRC’s regulations and oversight became broader and more robust, and management of the plants was scrutinized more carefully.”

After stabilization and clean-up, the TMI-2 reactor was permanently shut down.

Three Mile Island nuclear power plant via Wikimedia Commons

March 26, 1981 – Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne Moves into Public Housing & Review of “High-Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing” by Ben Austen

On March 26, 1981, Mayor Jane Byrne decided to move into the crime-ridden Cabrini-Green Homes housing project on the near-north side of Chicago after 37 shootings resulting in 11 murders occurred during a three-month period from January to March 1981. She wanted to draw attention to the violence and poverty there, writing in her 2004 memoir:

How could I put Cabrini on a bigger map? … Suddenly I knew — I could move in there.”

Byrne stayed at the housing project for three weeks to bring attention to the housing project’s crime and infrastructure problems. Byrne’s stay at Cabrini ended on April 18, 1981, following an Easter celebration at the project which drew protests and demonstrators claiming Byrne’s move to the project was just a publicity stunt.

Byrne touches hands with youngsters outside her building, three days into her stay. Photo: Jerry Tomaselli/Chicago Tribune

What was Cabrini-Green and why was it such a disaster?

Ben Austen’s book, High-Risers, tells the story of public housing in America in general and in Chicago in particular through the history of one infamous project (Cabrini-Green) and four individuals who lived there. The book resonated with me because of my personal history. I lived in a Chicago housing project (not Cabrini-Green) for five years; I drove a bus as a summer job, and my principal route took me through the largest of Chicago’s projects; and after graduating from the University of Chicago Law School, I was second chair as a lawyer defending the Chicago Housing Authority (the “CHA”) in the notorious Gautreaux case, which ruled on February 10, 1969 that the CHA had systematically discriminated against blacks in its choice of sites for constructing projects.

The Chicago Housing Authority was formed in 1937 to alleviate a perceived housing crisis. Chicago was in the throes of coping with the “Great Migration” of rural black families from the south to northern cities in search of work. The goal of the CHA was to eradicate the deplorable slum buildings and replace them with decent, affordable, rent-subsidized housing for the needy. Modest progress in that direction was made with the construction a few small projects before the outbreak of World War II. But the crowded neighborhoods into which these families were forced to live (because of segregated housing practices) deteriorated rapidly and became slums. Money was not spent on upkeep, with leaks, cracked walls, and broken doors going unfixed.

The end of World War II created another dimension to the problems with housing. An acute shortage developed as 11 million men were mustered out of the military and started having families. The Baby Boom of the late 40’s and early 50’s resulted in a population expansion that simply overwhelmed the existing housing stock. Few, if any, cities experienced the obstacles and difficulties produced by the combination of the Great Migration and the Baby Boom in as great a degree as Chicago. Whites and blacks were competing for housing which exacerbated racial tensions. “White neighborhoods established racial covenants,” Austen writes, “bylaws that barred homeowners from selling to African Americans. At one point, 85 percent of Chicago was covered under these restrictions.”

A tenement on South Indiana Avenue, the type of housing for half of the city’s black children. From Chicago’s South Side. 1946-1948.© Wayne Miller/Magnum Photos.

The story of public housing in Chicago, and to a lesser extent in the country as a whole, is in fact a story of race relations. In High-Risers, author Ben Austen states that from 1945 to 1950, there were 500 recorded outbreaks of racial violence in Chicago, and 350 of them involved housing. The CHA attempted to alleviate the situation by providing decent housing, but was greatly constrained by the attitudes of the people and the government of Chicago.

The concept that some people (in particular, black people) would receive subsidized rent and desirable housing simply because they were poor was not popular with middle class white America, and it was almost universally despised by lower-middle class whites on the south side of Chicago. Whites had little appreciation of the effects of generations of white privilege (indeed, this is still largely the case), and saw this as nothing but “mooching” at their expense. Knowing the bad feelings that attractive public housing might engender, Senator Robert Taft of Ohio made certain that federal money would not be spent to beautify public housing projects. Chicago’s largest project, the Robert Taylor homes, was positively ugly. No money was spent on landscaping; instead, the perimeters were just paved over. There were “no flowers, no trees, no nothing. Everything became blacktop.” Cabrini-Green was not as bad, at least not initially, but after years of neglect and mismanagement it became an eyesore. As a result, few, if any, white families desired to move into Chicago’s projects.

Senator Robert Taft of Ohio

Selecting sites for projects proved to be one of the most difficult aspects of operating the CHA. Chicago was – and still is – one of the most racially segregated cities in the country. Austen writes that the authorizing legislation required the approval of a site by the City Council before construction could begin. Depositions taken in the Gautreaux case revealed that the Council had established an informal working procedure whereby the Council as a whole would defer to the wishes of the alderman in whose ward a potential site was located. In effect, this procedure gave white aldermen effective veto power over the location of projects in predominantly white wards. This in turn meant that projects could be constructed only in predominantly black wards or unpopulated neighborhoods. One sub rosa argument used by the CHA to justify its site locations to the white population was that the projects’ black residents would move “there” instead of “near you.”

Returning from WWII meant the realization of the American Dream for some, but for most African American G.I.s it meant the continuation of segregation.

An invidious consequence of greatly restricting the number and area of potential sites was that the CHA had to build high rise structures if it was to meet the enormous demand for subsidized housing. In the words of a CHA executive:

We no longer had power to select where the projects were going to go, and we had very little space to work with, so we had to go to the high-rises.”

Thus, most of the housing units constructed by the CHA were contained in towers of 14 or more stories, located close to one another. In all, the CHA constructed 33 projects containing 168 high rise buildings. All the projects but one were located in predominantly black neighborhoods.

There were also projects for poor whites, and one had an interesting history, particularly to me, since I lived there from ages 3 to 8. It was a CHA project of temporary housing for [white] WWII veterans called Airport Homes near Midway Airport. Before the CHA could assign tenants to the building, the office where the keys to the buildings were kept was broken into by some veterans looking for housing. The burglars distributed the keys to their friends, who were able to move in as “squatters.” My father was one of those friends.

My earliest memory was being awakened in the middle of the night at my grandmother’s house where we were living at the time with her and several of my father’s siblings. My father said that we had a place to live! We moved with some furniture that night. The CHA initiated eviction procedures against the squatters. Some recent law school graduates volunteered to represent us squatters for a small fee, and we and the other squatters lived there for five years before being evicted. That project was razed, and is now a park.

In the early days after the war, the CHA made an effort to “qualify” good families for the projects. Two- parent families with at least one employed parent were given priority. The CHA even attempted to move a highly qualified black family into the project in which I lived. Austen describes the black family as “Jackie Robinson-like” in their presumably acceptable (to whites) traits. But that wasn’t good enough for the white residents of the project itself or for its neighbors. Not very peaceful demonstrations materialized almost immediately after that family moved in. I remember having to walk through a cordon of (white) police officers to go to and from kindergarten.

Trumbull Park Homes, located in a white neighborhood, was also supposed to be “whites only.” However, as the Encyclopedia of Chicago reports, the project was “accidentally” integrated on July 30, 1953, because the CHA assumed that Betty Howard, an exceptionally fair-skinned African American, was white. Beginning on August 5 and continuing nightly for weeks thereafter, crowds of whites directed fireworks, rocks, and racial epithets toward Betty and Donald Howard’s apartment. Police responded with a show of force but few arrests.

During the height of the 1953 Trumbull Park riots, roughly 1,000 uniformed officers in four shifts patrolled the area.

The CHA abandoned the attempt to integrate the projects after a short time.

Austen focuses his story on the notorious Cabrini-Green project. One aspect of Cabrini-Green that made it stand out from other projects was its proximity to the Loop, Chicago’s shopping and business center, and the “Gold Coast,” Chicago’s most expensive residential neighborhood. As you can imagine, the whites didn’t put up with that “waste” of lucrative real estate for long.

Austen is quite sympathetic to the people who lived in the projects. His sketches of four long-term project residents shows that they tried hard to maintain their neighborhood in the face of white animosity, CHA incompetence, and black gang activity. Nevertheless, reading between the lines, the reader can infer that even if they had been white, his subjects’ socioeconomic status made them less than desirable neighbors, particularly to Gold Coast residents.

Two miles of 16-story towers, including the Robert Taylor homes in the foreground, stretch toward the Chicago skyline in 1996. They have since been torn down. (NPR). My bus route ran up and down the left side (from the perspective of this picture) of the projects

Despite the efforts of tenants like those featured in the book, the physical condition of the projects (particularly the high-rises) deteriorated rather rapidly. As mentioned above, money for maintenance was a low priority. By 1965 when I drove a city bus on routes through the projects, broken windows, poor lighting, and abundant graffiti were evident to anyone driving by. In addition, Austen notes that the CHA was particularly inefficient when it came to repairing elevators, in spite of the buildings being high-rises. The stairwells were murky, with lightbulbs not replaced once they burned out. Austen quotes architect and city planner Oscar Newman who said at the time: “No one seems to be minding the store; what’s more, no one seems genuinely to care.”

Moreover, Chicago’s black gangs eventually took over most if not all of the buildings. My law school classmates who took Chicago police “ride-alongs” said the police officers told them that “the law stopped at the sixth floor,” which was as high up in a building they could get in response to a complaint before the perpetrators would be warned of their presence in time to escape. In addition, the apartments were so cheaply constructed that criminals could just push through a bathroom vanity in adjacent apartments to get into the one next to it.

Cabrini-Green at night

In the aftermath of the April 4, 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the black neighborhoods of Chicago erupted in violence. An enormous number of (non-project) houses and apartments in predominantly black areas were destroyed in the rioting. The people left homeless by the rioting had no option but public housing, which put a tremendous stress on the already limited resources of the CHA. Many of those people, who would not otherwise have qualified for public housing because of prior criminal convictions or lack of employment, were assigned to the projects. The deterioration of the projects accelerated thereafter.

Burning Buildings on Chicago’s West Side, April 5, 1968

There were other difficulties as well. Over 60 percent of the families in public housing had only one parent at home. Th author writes: “Women on welfare were in many ways discouraged from marrying or officially sharing a residence with the father of their children, since the presence of a man could leave them ineligible for benefits.” Thus the median income of CHA residents was low and many kids spent days and nights unsupervised while their mothers worked, often at more than one job. Kids had no places to play besides the blacktop, unless they could get to churches or youth centers. Area schools were grossly deficient. Other amenities were scarce as well: for instance, grocery stores were literally miles away, and no one could afford cars.

Children in the Ida B Wells Projects play in the rubble, 1973

The Cabrini project became nationally notorious when two white officers were shot by snipers ensconced well above the sixth floor in one of the towers. The police response was swift and brutal, but it alienated most of the black residents of the project. The project received even more notoriety when then Mayor Jayne Byrne moved into one of the units, on this day in history, to publicize the conditions faced by the residents.

Aerial View of Cabrini Green 1981

Despite efforts of the residents and the CHA to renovate Cabrini, there was really no hope of maintaining a public housing project on the Cabrini site. Chicago was in the process of urban gentrification that expanded inexorably from the Loop. Older housing near Cabrini was either being renovated or razed and replaced with new, high standard housing. The second Mayor Daley wanted to convert the Cabrini site to an up-scale neighborhood. Would-be gentrifiers did not see displaced families; they only saw dollar signs. [A four bedroom apartment with a lake view in that neighborhood (now that the projects are gone) would cost at least $1.5 million today.] The response of the CHA was to let the Cabrini project slowly disappear through attrition: as any family moved out, it was not replaced. Gradually, every tower became vacant or nearly so. Once a building was reduced to just a few residents, the CHA moved them and razed the building. The residents of the projects had no choice as to when and where they would be relocated. By the end of 2002, forty-two out of fifty-one high-rise public housing towers were demolished, and some 25,000 households were evicted in the process.

Robert Taylor Projects Demolition

The end of the Cabrini-Green project marked the end of an era. The utilization of high-rise buildings to house under-employed black residents was deemed by most observers to be a failure, one which was blamed on the residents themselves.

The most invidious consequence of building subsidized high-rises was to institutionalize segregated neighborhoods. In the Gautreaux case, even though the court found that the CHA had unlawfully discriminated against blacks in the choice of sites for projects, the court was severely challenged to find an appropriate remedy. Its initial order prohibited the CHA from constructing future projects in predominantly black census tracts. (The use of census tracts as a measure or definition of neighborhood was my idea.) But an unintended consequence of that order was that the CHA simply stopped building any new housing. Instead, the CHA merely subsidized qualified families to move into existing housing. This procedure at least opened the possibility of fostering racially integrated housing. Future public housing in the rest of the country took the form of low density, low-rise buildings and supplemental rental payments to allow poor families to move into units they could not otherwise afford. But of course, wherever the poor moved into, the better off moved out of, and segregation once again prevailed.

While Austen’s High-risers personalizes the story outlined above by giving details of four real people who lived in Cabrini-Green, I found I was less interested in their personal stories than I was in the history of public housing in Chicago. I have deliberately short-changed the stories of the individuals in order to give my personal view of that history. In that regard, I apologize to the author, who has written a moving and compelling book.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2018