April 1, 1853 – Cincinnati Becomes the First U.S. City to Put Firefighters on Salary

On this day in history, Cincinnati established the first professional and fully paid fire department in the United States.

The department’s first chief, Miles Greenwood, pushed for a fire department after an 1852 fire destroyed much of his ironworks business. Rather than bemoaning his fate, he set about constructing, along with two other Cincinnati residents, the world’s first practical steam-powered fire engine. There had been earlier versions invented by others, but the Cincinnati engine could begin pumping water out of a water source much faster than the others, in only ten minutes.

The fire engine was presented to the Cincinnati Fire Department on Jan. 1, 1853, making Cincinnati the first city in the world to use steam fire engines. This first engine was named “Uncle Joe Ross” after a City Council member.

Fire engines then....

Fire engines then….

Firefighting was not new in the United States; even George Washington served at one time as a volunteer firefighter in Alexandria, Virginia.

However the United States did not have government-run fire departments until Cincinnati instituted the practice with 100% full-time, paid employees. Prior to this time, private fire brigades were used. Even as recently as 2010, some 70 percent of firefighters in the U.S. were volunteers.

and now....

and now….

March 31, 1941 – A Bus Boycott Before Its Time Begins in New York City

On this day in history, the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who presided over Harlem’s most important church, Abyssinian Baptist, led a boycott against two private Manhattan bus lines that refused to hire blacks for any job besides porter, and there were only fourteen of those, out of over 3200 workers.


Powell’s Greater New York Coordinating Committee for Employment joined with other Harlem groups calling for a boycott of the two bus lines. The boycott didn’t get much support from the black community, nor did it get much media coverage, but it was successful: after one month, the two bus lines signed an agreement with Powell’s group to hire one hundred black drivers and seventy maintenance workers. The agreement also called for a continued affirmative action hiring policy until seventeen percent of the companies’ workforce was black.


Powell also led a fight to have drugstores operating in Harlem to hire black pharmacists, and encouraged residents to shop where blacks were hired to work.

In the fall of 1941, Powell became the first African American elected to the New York City Council. Four years later, he was elected as a Democrat to represent the Congressional District that included Harlem in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was the first black Congressman from New York State and the first in the Post-Reconstruction Era from any Northern state other than Illinois.

Powell continued to be a rabble-rouser in Congress. As one of only two black Congressmen (the other being William Levi Dawson) until 1955, he challenged the informal ban on black representatives using Capitol facilities reserved for white members and took black constituents to dine with him in the “Whites Only” House restaurant.

In 1961 Powell reached the pinnacle of his political influence, becoming chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. In this position, he pushed federal social programs for an increased minimum wage and for Medicaid, equal pay for women, and education and training programs for the deaf, inter alia. Powell’s committee helped enact major parts of President Kennedy’s “New Frontier” and President Johnson’s “Great Society” social programs and the War on Poverty.

Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. of New York meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 in the Oval Office

Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. of New York meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 in the Oval Office

However, By the mid-1960s, Powell was increasingly being criticized for mismanaging his committee’s budget, taking trips abroad at public expense, and missing committee meetings. He was also involved in scandals in his personal life.

Although Powell was re-elected in the 1966 election, in January 1967 Speaker of the House John William McCormack asked him to abstain from taking the oath of office. The House adopted H.Res. 1, which stripped Powell of his House Committee chairmanship, excluded him from taking his seat, and created a select committee to investigate Powell’s misdeeds. After the select committee conducted its investigation and hearings, in March 1967, the House adopted H.Res. 278 by a vote of 307 to 116, which excluded Powell from Congress and also censured him, fined him $25,000, took away his seniority, and declared his seat vacant. (You can read the House resolution here, which begins by citing Senator Joeseph McCarthy on standards for Congressional censure.)

Powell mounted a legal challenge to the censure, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The question they addressed was whether the House of Representatives may exclude a duly elected member if the member has satisfied the standing requirements of age, citizenship and residence as articulated in Article I Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution. As noted on the page devoted to this case on Chicago-Kent’s Oyez Project site:

The Court noted that the proceedings against Powell were intended to exclude and not expel him from the chamber. That is an important distinction to recognize since the House does have the power under Article I, Section 5 to expel members. However, expulsion was not the purpose of the proceedings in this case. After analyzing the Framers’ debates on this issue, Chief Justice Warren concluded that since Powell had been lawfully elected by his constituents and since he met the constitutional requirements for membership in the House, that the chamber was powerless to exclude him.”

You can read the decision in Powell v. McCormack (395 U.S. 486, 1969) here.

Although Powell won the Court decision, the voters concluded he could no longer be effective in Congress, and replaced him with Harlem Assemblyman Charles Rangel in 1971. Powell died in 1972 at the age of 63.

Adam Clayton Powell

Adam Clayton Powell

March 29, 1915 – British Chancellor Reveals Identity of Britain’s Three Main Enemies

On this day in history, the British Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George, declared to a deputation of the Shipbuilding Employer’s Federation:

We are fighting Germany, Austria, and Drink, and so far as I can see, the greatest of these deadly foes is Drink.”

David Lloyd George

David Lloyd George

Thereafter he went on a campaign to enact prohibition of alcohol, convincing the King to set an example for the country by abstaining from all alcohol until the end of the war.


The Legal Legacy of Slavery

On March 15, 2015, Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family had an excellent opinion piece in the “New York Times” in which he discusses the enduring legacy of slavery. He wrote:

In popular memory – in white memory – the plantations of the antebellum South were like a necklace of country clubs strewn across the land.”

Certainly this is the popular conception promulgated by the widely-read book and widely-seen movie “Gone With the Wind.” But as Ball clarifies:

In reality, they were a chain of work camps in which four million were imprisoned. Their inhabitants, slaves, were very much survivors, in the Holocaust sense of that word.”

But, he notes, people claim that was in the distant past, and everything has changed. He proposes a thought experiment:

If by some method of time travel the former slaves and slaveholders of [any] plantation could be brought face to face with us, they would not find our world entirely alien. In place of the rural incarceration of four million black people, we have the mass incarceration of one million black men. In place of laws that prohibited black literacy throughout the South, we have campaigns by Tea Party and anti-tax fanatics to defund public schools within certain ZIP codes. And we have stop-and-search policing, and frequently much worse, in place of the slave patrols.”

Importantly, he brings up the findings of the U.S. Department of Justice in its investigation of Ferguson, Missouri.

As the “New York Times” reported:

Ferguson, Mo., is a third white, but the crime statistics compiled in the city over the past two years seemed to suggest that only black people were breaking the law. They accounted for 85 percent of traffic stops, 90 percent of tickets and 93 percent of arrests. In cases like jaywalking, which often hinge on police discretion, blacks accounted for 95 percent of all arrests.

The racial disparity in those statistics was so stark that the Justice Department has concluded in a report scheduled for release on Wednesday that there was only one explanation: The Ferguson Police Department was routinely violating the constitutional rights of its black residents.”

As Slate captioned this picture:  "The Ferguson Police Department seems unaware of the First Amendment. Also the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth."  Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As Slate captioned this picture: “The Ferguson Police Department seems unaware of the First Amendment. Also the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Eighth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth.” Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

And although blacks were twice as likely to be searched as white citizens, blacks were 26 percent less likely to have actual contraband.

Ball adds:

…according to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., the courts of the largely black and yet white-run town use arrests and fines against African-Americans to raise revenue and keep the city budget from falling into deficit.”

He emphasizes that it is hard to imagine Ferguson is alone in its discriminatory practices.

Even if such behavior is more widespread, is this the same as antebellum treatment of blacks? No, Ball answers, that would be an overstatement. Nevertheless:

…lying behind such recent events is a mentality that originates during the slave period, and provides police action with an unconscious foundation. A mentality that might be called part of the legacy of slavery.”

March 26, 2004 – John Roberts Makes the Case For Judicial Minimalism

On this day in history, the United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit, decided the case of PDK Laboratories v. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (362 F.3d 786, 2004).

John Roberts, now Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court but then serving on the Court of Appeals, concurred in part with the judgment filed by Circuit Judge Randolph in a case involving the DEA’s interpretation of the regulation of ephedrine.

Chief Justice John Roberts

Chief Justice John Roberts

Judge Roberts wrote in his concurrence:

I agree with the majority that PDK has standing to seek review of DEA’s suspension order, and that the order must be vacated because it relies, in significant part, upon a conclusion that PDK violated certain export notification regulations — a conclusion that contradicted relevant agency precedent without explanation. This much is not terribly controversial; DEA conceded its error and all but conceded that this court should remand the decision on that basis. See DEA Br. 59 (“we acknowledge that, in such circumstances, the ordinary practice would be a remand to the agency”). This is a sufficient ground for deciding this case, and the cardinal principle of judicial restraint — if it is not necessary to decide more, it is necessary not to decide more — counsels us to go no further. [emphasis added]

My brethren, however, are not content with this narrow and effectively conceded basis for disposition, and instead adopt an alternative ground of far broader significance, one that precipitates disagreement among us but at the end of the day leads to the same result — vacatur and remand to the agency. I cannot go along for that gratuitous ride.”

As Chief Justice, Roberts has continued to follow the advice with which he began and ended his partial concurrence in PDK Laboratories:

I end where I began — with regret that the majority feels compelled to address far-reaching questions on which we disagree, when they are wholly unnecessary to the disposition of the case. As Justice Frankfurter once put it: ‘These are perplexing questions. Their difficulty admonishes us to observe the wise limitations on our function and to confine ourselves to deciding only what is necessary to the disposition of the immediate case.’ Whitehouse v. Illinois Central R. Co., 349 U.S. 366, 372-73, 75 S.Ct. 845, 850, 99 L.Ed. 1155 (1955).”

March 24, 1953 – Langston Hughes Testifies Before Senator Joseph McCarthy

Joseph Raymond McCarthy (November 14, 1908 – May 2, 1957) was an American politician who served as a Republican U.S. Senator from Wisconsin from 1947 until his death in 1957. He was most notable for making claims that there were large numbers of Communists and Soviet spies and sympathizers inside the federal government and elsewhere. With Republicans taking control of the Senate in 1953, McCarthy became Chairman of the Committee on Government Operations and the Subcommittee on Investigations. In this capacity, he held hearings (later known as the Army-McCarthy Hearings because of McCarthy’s investigation of the Army Signal Corps), during which he called 395 witnesses to testify against themselves and others.

Senator Joseph McCarthy

Senator Joseph McCarthy

African-Americans who vocalized objections to the treatment of blacks in America were considered suspect by McCarthy (and by the FBI). Two of the witnesses called to appear before McCarthy were black: the political activist Eslanda Robeson, wife of Paul Robeson, and the poet Langston Hughes. (At the time of the hearings, there were few blacks in influential positions.)

On March 24, 1953, Langston Hughes testified before the Subcommittee. He was permitted to read a statement to defend himself from charges of Soviet sympathies. He began by stating “I was born a Negro.” He went on to delineate just what that meant in American society at that time. He could not attend the nearby school, the movie theater wouldn’t admit him, white boys stoned him, and his father left the country because this country would not admit him to the bar. At his high school, primarily attended by very poor immigrants, follow students began to tell him about Eugene Debs, a well-known socialist in the early 1900’s. Hughes stated:

“I became interested in whatever I could read that Debs had written or spoken about. I never read the theoretical books of socialism or communism or the Democratic or Republican party for that matter, and so my interest in whatever may be considered political has been non-theoretical, non-sectarian, and largely really emotional and born out of my own need to find some kind of way of thinking about this whole problem of myself, segregated, poor, colored, and how I can adjust to this whole problem of helping to build America when sometimes I can not even get into a school or a lecture or a concert or in the South go the library and get a book out.”

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

He went on in this vein for a little longer, but by then, the Senators realized they were better off without tackling Hughes. The Subcommittee dismissed him.

Throughout the early 1950s, McCarthy continued to make accusations of communist infiltration of the U. S. government. In August, 1954, a Senate committee was formed to investigate censuring McCarthy. In December, the Senate voted 67-22 to condemn McCarthy, calling his behavior as a committee chairman “inexcusable,” “reprehensible,” and “vulgar and insulting.” Though he remained in the Senate, McCarthy thereafter was largely ignored by the Congress, the White House, and most of the media.

The term “McCarthyism,” coined in 1950 in reference to McCarthy’s practices, was soon applied to similar anti-communist pursuits. Today the term is used more generally to refer to public attacks on the character or patriotism of political opponents.

The McCarthy Committee might have saved themselves some embarrassment by reading the poetry of Langston Hughes before calling upon him to testify.

Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Nor ever
Through compromise and fear.

I have as much right
As the other fellow has
To stand
On my two feet
And own the land.

I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.

Is a strong seed
In a great need.

I live here, too.
I want freedom
Just as you.

Langston Hughes, Democracy, 1949


Review of “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel” by Ari Shavit

Ari Shavit is a well known, left-leaning Israeli journalist and a columnist for Haaretz (Israel’s oldest daily newspaper). This book is an apologia for his home land, but also an unsparing cri de coeur addressed to his fellow Israelis to make it better. Shavit relates the history of Israel from early Zionist days in the late 19th century to the present through examples of archetypical individuals. Although he personalizes the narrative, he also discusses the gnarly political and philosophical issues raised by the actions of, and even the very existence of, the Jewish state.


Shavit is torn between his love of his native land and the immense difficulty (as he sees it) of solving the problem of what to do about the millions of Muslim Arabs who live within or near its boundaries and who will not recognize its legitimacy. The problem is truly intractable: the Jews need a safe refuge from the persecution they have suffered since the Roman conquest in the first century C.E.; and the Arabs have a pretty legitimate claim to the land they inhabited almost exclusively for about 1300 years.

The early Zionists are typified by the author’s great-grandfather, the Right Honorable Herbert Bentwich, a prosperous English Jew. In 1897, Bentwich perceived that Judaism in Europe was in trouble in two ways. First, in Eastern Europe, Jews were the object of vicious pogroms that threatened their physical safety. Second, in Western Europe, Jews were assimilating with the rest of society and were attenuating, if not actually losing, their Jewish faith. In any event, Bentwich was wealthy enough to pull up stakes and establish his family in Palestine.

Shavit describes Bentwich as arriving in Palestine and seeing an empty country. In Shavit’s words, the Arabs living there “are hardly noticeable to a Victorian gentleman,” who as a “white man of the Victorian era, cannot see nonwhites as equals.” Shavit’s great-grandfather “does not see because he is motivated by the need not to see.” And in this respect, he was typical of the early Zionists. [Cf. also Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, by John B. Judis.] Shavit says that among the early Zionists only Israel Zangwill had a clear view of the Arab population of Palestine, and Zangwill asserted that the Zionists must “drive out by sword the tribes in possession, as our forefathers did.”

Zionist Pioneers in 1912

Zionist Pioneers in 1912

Prior to 1948, few Zionists would have admitted to agreeing with Zangwill. At the same time, few of them would have looked on their Arab neighbors as equals. Shavit describes the early Zionists as living in a state of denial about the Arabs. He states:

An obstinate disregard [of the Arabs] was crucial for the success of Zionism in the first decades of the twentieth century, and a lack of awareness was crucial for the success of Israel in its first decade of existence. If Israel had acknowledged what had happened [to the Arabs] it would not have survived. If Israel had been kindly and compassionate, it would have collapsed. Denial was a life-or-death imperative for the… nation into which I was born.”

Many of Israel’s current problems can be traced to the after-effects of its overwhelming victory in the 1967 War. Shavit says, “The Israeli nation was drunk with victory, filled with euphoria, hubris, and messianic delusions of grandeur.” Accordingly, it undertook a “futile, anachronistic colonialist project,” i.e., the settlement of the Arab-occupied West Bank [Judea and Samaria, to many Israelis]. The settlements have entangled Israel in a predicament that cannot be untangled:

The settlements have placed Israel’s neck in a noose. They created an untenable demographic, political, moral, and judicial reality.”

Shavit himself is very troubled by some of the tactics employed by his countrymen in controlling the Arabs, or as he says, “imprisoning an entire population.” Nevertheless, he cannot bring himself to protest too vigorously because of his belief in the necessity of a Jewish homeland. He observes:

This is a phenomenon without parallel in the West. This is systematic brutality no democracy can endure. And I am a part of it all. I comply.”

Shavit is deeply pessimistic. He fervently desires peace and justice, but his Arab neighbors are some of the most xenophobic and religiously intolerant people on the planet. To Shavit, the fundamental flaw of the Israeli Left was that:

…it had never distinguished between the issue of occupation and the issue of peace. Regarding the occupation, the Left was absolutely right. It realized that occupation was a moral, demographic, and political disaster. But regarding peace, the Left was somewhat naïve. It counted on a peace partner that was not really there. It assumed that because peace was needed, peace was feasible. But the history of the conflict and the geostrategy of the region implied that peace was not feasible. The correct moral position of the Left was compromised by an incorrect empirical assumption.”

Moreover, he sees the problem for Israel is even deeper and thornier than a resolution of the settlements in the West Bank. The problem goes back to the founding of the country in 1948:

What is needed to make peace between the two peoples of this land is probably more than humans can summon. They [the Arabs] will not give up their demand for what they see as justice. We shall not give up our life. [Arabs and Jews] cannot really see each other and recognize each other and make peace.”

Uncomfortable as he is with the justice of the situation, Shavit quotes Moshe Dayan’s assessment in 1956 as “the most sincere words ever spoken about the conflict”:

…without the steel helmet and the gun’s muzzle we will not be able to plant a tree and build a house. Let us not fear to look squarely at the hatred that consumes and fills the lives of hundreds of Arabs who live around us. Let us not drop our gaze, lest our arms weaken. That is the fate of our generation. This is our choice—to be ready and armed, tough and hard—or else the sword shall fall from our hands and our lives will be cut short.”

Moshe Dayan in the 1950's

Moshe Dayan in the 1950’s

Shavit rightfully lauds the energy and achievements of his countrymen. He contrasts the thriving Israeli society and economy with its torpid and resentful Arab neighbors. He notes that for the past 40 years Israel’s possession of atomic weapons has helped make it safe from invasion by hostile Arab regimes, but he fears that nuclear monopoly may not be permanent.

Shavit is not always consistent in his assessment of the possibility of peace with the Arabs. Although early in the book he sees no real possibility of a solution, he is highly critical of the current Israeli government for not attempting more creative approaches out of its predicament. He fears that Israel’s secular Jewish majority will become a minority vis-à-vis Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews, who do not serve in the military and who tend not to be economically productive. He says:

Secular Israelis are the ones working, producing, and paying taxes. Once they are outnumbered, Israel will be a backward nation that will not be able to meet the challenges of the third millennium….Fewer and fewer Israelis run faster and faster to carry along the Israelis who don’t run at all. A flawed political system guarantees the special interests of the ultra-Orthodox, the settlers, and the mega-rich. But the productive middle class has been abandoned by the state. That’s why this exhausted middle class is growing bitter. It feels the nation has betrayed it. It sees the Israel it loves disintegrating.”

Shavit is consistent, however, in describing his country’s treatment of the Arabs:

The State of Israel . . . has not yet found a way to integrate properly one-fifth of its population. The Arabs who were not driven away in 1948 have been oppressed by Zionism for decades. The Jewish state confiscated much of their land, trampled many of their rights, and did not accord them real equality….To this day there is no definition of the commitments of the Jewish democratic state to its Arab minority.”

Shavit’s concluding paragraphs are wonderfully written. They summarize the tensions inherent in Israel’s precarious position in the world. They express his affection for his country, which he embraces enthusiastically, warts and all. A few of his pithier observations follow:

We probably had to come. And when we came here, we performed wonders. For better or worse, we did the unimaginable….There will be no utopia here. Israel will never be the ideal nation it set out to be, nor will it be Europe-away-from-Europe….This free society is creative and passionate and frenzied….We respect no past and no future and no authority. We are irreverent. We are deeply anarchic.”

There was hope for peace, but there will be no peace here. Not soon. There was hope for quiet, but there will be no quiet here. Not in this generation….So what we really have in this land is an ongoing adventure. An odyssey. The Jewish state does not resemble any other nation. What this nation has to offer is not security or well-being or peace of mind. What it has to offer is the intensity of life on the edge.”

Evaluation: I have quoted the author more extensively than is usual in book reviews. This is because he writes so passionately and so well. I greatly appreciated his analysis and his candor. This book has a message that is important for Americans, particularly American policymakers. By better understanding its history and current situation, we can be a loyal friend to Israel even though we recognize its shortcomings. And as a true friend, we should not simply rubber stamp the policies of a government that has [in Shavit’s words] “turned Israel into a semi-pariah state.” But we must also recognize the temperament of the Israeli people, who will not tolerate being dictated to by a country with its own interests, not Israel’s, at heart. Accordingly, we would do well to find common ground with the westernized secular middle class to which Shavit belongs, and gently prod their government in directions that serve our mutual interests.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random ouse, a Penguin Random House Company, 2013


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