December 5, 1960 – The U.S. Supreme Court Decides Boynton v. Virginia

On December 20, 1958, Bruce Boynton, a black senior at Howard Law School, left D.C. for Montgomery, Alabama (in order eventually to reach Selma) to spend the Christmas holidays. He took a Trailways bus, which was operated by Virginia Stage Lines. During a stop at a Trailways bus station in Richmond, Virginia, Boynton went to a restaurant next to the terminal for a meal. The restaurant was segregated and had a separate section for blacks. But that section was crowded, so Boynton sat in the white section. The waitress would not serve him, and called the assistant manager, who “instructed” Boynton to move. When he refused, a police officer arrived to arrest him. Handcuffed and hauled off on a misdemeanor trespass charge, he spent the night in jail.

Boynton was charged with trespass based on § 18-225 of the Code of Virginia of 1950, as amended (1958), making it a misdemeanor, punishable by up to thirty days in jail and a $100 fine, “without authority of law… [to] remain upon the lands or premises of another after having been forbidden to do so by the … lessee, custodian, or person lawfully in charge of such land….. “

The case came up for trial on January 6, 1959, before a judge of the Richmond Police Court, who found Boynton guilty.

Boynton was not only a law student but came from a family of civil rights activists: his parents, Sam and Amelia Boynton, devoted themselves to obtaining voting rights for all Americans.

Boynton appealed on the grounds that his conviction infringed his rights under the Interstate Commerce Act, the Commerce Clause of the Constitution, and the Fourteenth Amendment. The appeals court, however, upheld the lower court’s verdict and sentence. The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals refused a writ of error to review the action of the appeals Court, “being of opinion that the said judgment is plainly right…. “

Thurgood Marshall in 1957

Thurgood Marshall in 1957

On September 15, 1959, Boynton filed a petition for certiorari in the United States Supreme Court. His lead lawyer was Thurgood Marshall, who one day would become the first black associate justice on the nation’s highest court. The Court, in the opinion Boynton v. Virginia, 364 U.S. 454 (1960) written by Justice Hugo Black, stated that:

The basic question presented in this case is whether an interstate bus passenger is denied a federal statutory or constitutional right when a restaurant in a bus terminal used by the carrier along its route discriminates in serving food to the passenger solely because of his color.”

The Court maintained that “[n]otwithstanding the fact that the petition for certiorari presented only the constitutional questions this Court will consider the statutory issue, which involves essentially the same problem — racial discrimination in interstate commerce.”

This was an interesting approach since there was a legitimate question about the relationship between the restaurant and the bus terminal, and “the evidence on this record does not show that the bus company owns or actively operates or directly controls the bus terminal or the restaurant in it.”

Justice Hugo Black

Justice Hugo Black

In the majority’s view, the lack of evidence of control was immaterial:

“. . . the fact that § 203(a)(19) says that the protections of the motor carrier provisions of the Act extend to “include” facilities so operated or controlled by no means should be interpreted to exempt motor carriers from their statutory duty under § 216(d) not to discriminate should they choose to provide their interstate passengers with services that are an integral part of transportation through the use of facilities they neither own, control nor operate. The protections afforded by the Act against discriminatory transportation services are not so narrowly limited. . . . And so here, without regard to contracts, if the bus carrier has volunteered to make terminal and restaurant facilities and services available to its interstate passengers as a regular part of their transportation, and the terminal and restaurant have acquiesced and cooperated in this undertaking, the terminal and restaurant must perform these services without discriminations prohibited by the Act. In the performance of these services under such conditions, the terminal and restaurant stand in the place of the bus company in the performance of its transportation obligations. . . . Although the courts below made no findings of fact, we think the evidence in this case shows such a relationship and situation here.”

Rather, the Court argued, Virginia’s law contravened federal law, holding:

Under § 216(d) of the Interstate Commerce Act, which forbids any interstate common carrier by motor vehicle to subject any person to unjust discrimination, petitioner had a federal right to remain in the white portion of the restaurant, he was therefore ‘under authority of law,’ and it was error to affirm his conviction.”

Thus the Supreme Court reversed the decision of lower courts by a vote of 7-2. Justices Charles Evans Whittaker and Tom Campbell Clark joined in a dissent.

Boynton’s father Sam died in 1963, having lived long enough to see his son’s Richmond court challenge succeed. Amelia continued to work for civil rights, becoming a national celebrity. She was a key figure in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches and was awarded the Martin Luther King, Jr., Freedom Medal in 1990.

Aug. 18, 2011 photo of Bruce Boynton and his mother, civil rights icon Amelia Boynton on her 100th birthday

Aug. 18, 2011 photo of Bruce Boynton and his mother, civil rights icon Amelia Boynton on her 100th birthday

When Amelia Boynton died at the age of 110, First lady Michelle Obama sent her family a letter of condolence shortly after her passing, describing the legendary civil rights leader as “one of the quiet heroes who made America what it is today.” So was her son.

Review of “Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior” by Bart D. Ehrman

Bart D. Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is an excellent writer who has popularized some of the historical research about early Christianity. His books, while tending to make similar points as more academic treatises, are a joy to read.

His latest book, Jesus before the Gospels,, is an investigation of yet another way of questioning the historical accuracy of the gospels.

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Ehrman points out that the earliest of the canonical gospels, the one known as Mark, was written at least 40 years after the crucifixion. Other scholars date Mark as having been written between 60 and 70 C.E. Moreover, it, like the other three canonical gospels, was written in Greek. But Jesus and all the other major characters in the gospels spoke Aramaic. So it is very likely that the authors of the gospels [all of whom are actually anonymous] were writing based on hearsay from people who were not eyewitnesses to the events described. Nevertheless they purported to be “according to” eyewitnesses, a naming convention intended to add to the trustworthiness of the accounts.

[It must be added, in spite of the fact that Ehrman does not address this issue in this book, that the gospels were never intended to be “empirical” histories – in fact, the idea of a “neutral” history only developed in relatively recent times; most previous “histories” were homiletical – i.e., serving the functions of sermons or catechetical instruction. According to scholar Robert Bonfil, there was no substantial difference in how Jews and Christians construed the purpose of “history” until the sixteenth century. (Robert Bonfil, “Jewish Attitudes toward History and Historical Writing in Pre-Modern Times,” Jewish History, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 7-40.)]

Clockwise from top left: Matthew, Mark, John, and Luke, as depicted in The Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin created by Celtic monks ca. 800.

In Jesus before the Gospels, Ehrman tackles the question of the veracity of the gospels from the point of view of psychology. In the past 30 years a great of research has been done on the [in]accuracy of individual memory, but until this book, virtually none of its findings have been applied to writings in the Bible. [The subject of collective memory is another matter. This is the practice of constructing histories so that they contribute to the present and future social and political consciousness and cultural identity of a people. The determination of what is declared significant is made to sustain a set of myths and ideologies. In that respect, much analysis has been applied to biblical stories in both the Old and New Testaments.]

Ehrman’s concern is with so-called biological memory – a study of the way in which the individual mind sorts, stores, and retrieves information. Though not a psychologist, Ehrman has read extensively in the field. He distinguishes between episodic memory, relating to things we actually experience, and semantic memory, relating to things we learn through hearing, reading, or some other indirect method. The authors of the New Testament were recording the semantic memories of people who were retelling oral histories of Jesus in circulation at the time. Although all memory gets distorted with the passage of time and because of the different perceptual lenses of observers, even semantic memory can seem credible where the events related are inherently plausible, they can be confirmed by other sources, and perhaps most importantly in this case, when there simply are no other sources of information.

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Ehrman states that modern psychology debunks the notion that ancient illiterate people had better memories than modern man, and so were able to keep the stories of Jesus accurate in many retellings over at least 40 years. But as Ehrman observes, that may be a moot issue:

“…the historical Jesus did not make history. The remembered Jesus did . . . . Does it matter if Jesus considered himself to be God on earth? As a historian, it matters to me a great deal. But if he did not — and I think he did not — the fact that he was remembered that way by later followers is terrifically important. Without that memory of Jesus, the faith founded on him would never have taken off, the Roman Empire would not have abandoned paganism, and the history of our world would have transpire in ways that are unimaginably different. History was changed, not because of brute facts, but because of memory.”

When two or more of the gospels tell pretty much the same story, Ehrman credits at least the gist of the story with plausibility (in spite of the fact that the authors of Mark, Matthew and Luke used each other for sources and so of course there would be overlap). Matthew borrows from as much as 80% of his gospel from Mark, and Luke borrows from as much as 65%. While that may seem to modern readers too much like a game of telephone (in which one person whispers a message to another, which is passed through a line of people until the last player announces the message to the entire group), for centuries this overlap was enough to add credence to the stories.

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Thus Ehrman contends that if we look at the parts of the stories that are basically the same (ignoring that they used one another as sources), we could possibly agree that a Jewish man named Jesus lived in Galilee in the first century C.E., that he was baptized, that he attracted a band of enthusiastic followers, that he proclaimed an apocalyptic message of the coming Kingdom of God, and that he was crucified by the Roman overlords of Judea. He also asserts that we can be certain that his followers taught that he rose from the dead and appeared to them. Beyond that, things get pretty dicey.

Although the Gospels overlap quite a bit, they are also filled with discrepancies. These discrepancies encompass some very important aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching. Ehrman argues that it is not even clear what Jesus actually taught. For example, In the gospel of Mark, Jesus is careful not to make any claims of divinity, and his apostles never quite “get” who he is despite his astounding words and deeds. Ehrman writes:

“Jesus himself seems to want to keep [his true identity] a secret. Not only does he command demons not to reveal who he is (3:11; see also 1:34), when he heals someone he orders him not tell anyone (1:44); when he performs miracles he sometimes does not let the crowds observe (5:40); when his disciples see his revealed glory he orders them not to divulge it (9:9); [and] when any one starts to have a sense of his identity he commands their silence (8:30).”

Contrast the Jesus of the gospel of John, the last of the gospels to be composed (written around 90 A.D.):

“Jesus spends almost his entire preaching ministry in John talking about who he is, where he has come from, and what he can provide. There is nothing like this in the Synoptic Gospels. The very gist of Jesus’s teaching has come to be transformed.”

Fragment of the New Testament from The Gospel of John, dated to around 125 A.D.

Fragment of the New Testament from The Gospel of John, dated to around 125 A.D.

The gospels are also totally inconsistent on a number of doctrines supposedly promulgated by Jesus, such as what Jesus taught about divorce. Ehrman points out five different versions of what Jesus said about breaking up a marriage, with striking differences among them.

Ehrman also notes that some of the gospel stories are simply inherently implausible, and that is not limited to the “miracle” anecdotes. [For a detailed elucidation of what portions are implausible, an excellent source is the also-very-readable book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan]

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Finally, additional problems arise from the vagaries of translation. As one particularly interesting example, the Gospel of John has Jesus say we must be “born again” to enter the kingdom of heaven. What the text says in the original Greek is that a person must be born anothen. The Greek word has two different meanings, depending on context: it can mean “a second time” or it can mean “from above.” The reason this is important is that Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus, who thinks Jesus told him he must be born a second time, which seems a bit tough to accomplish. But Jesus tells him that he does not mean a second, physical birth — he is talking about a birth from heaven made possible by the spirit of God, who comes from above. Modern readers don’t “get” the story because they don’t read it in the original Greek. Moreover, it would have been impossible for Jesus to have said this in Aramaic, where the word for “from above” does not mean “a second time.” The story just makes no sense in Aramaic, and not much sense in English. Ehrman concludes that a Greek speaker, probably the author of John, just made up the story to make a point.

"St. John the Evangelist" by Giotto di Bondone, 1320-25

“St. John the Evangelist” by Giotto di Bondone, 1320-25

Evaluation: Ehrman as always makes a number of interesting and thought-provoking points about a subject that continues to fascinate both believers and doubters. However, religions clearly benefit from the fact that many believers do not undertake critical analyses of religious texts.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Published by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2016

December 3, 1861 – Frederick Douglass Delivers His “Lecture on Pictures” in Boston

On this day in history, Frederick Douglas, who loved photography and was the most photographed American of his century, delivered a lecture connecting picture-making to a faith in progress.

Always conscious of the pernicious effects of stereotypes and caricatures about African-Americans, he praised the ability of photographs to show the truth: “Men of all conditions may see themselves as others see them.” He avers:

It is evident that the great cheapness and universality of pictures must exert a powerful, though silent, influence upon the ideas and sentiment of present and future generations.”

He also lauded the ability of man to create, to having developed this ability for making pictures. Like other inventions, though, he warned, it can be used for good or evil. And then he began to discuss the Civil War.

For Douglass, these ideas were all connected. Photography could show the inherent humanity of those considered to be nothing but property. And it could demonstrate the importance of progress and invention that are hampered by “anchoring the ship of state to the dull dead mass of slavery…”

He lamented that “We seem a little more concerned for the safety of slavery than for the safety of the Republic.” He noted that [at that time] black men were denied “the honor of bearing arms against the slaveholding rebels for the preservation of the Government.” But, he asked, if black men go to the battlefield even as body servants [as was then allowed], shall they be going for a government that recognizes their manhood, or not?

He implored man to “enlarge the boundaries of his own existence” by cultivating his intellect, by “creating, unfolding, expanding, renewing, changing perpetually…”:

It is natural, when the demand for bread and clothing and shelter has been complied with, man should begin to think and reason. When this is done, let all the subtle enemies of the welfare of man, in the protean shapes of oppression, superstition, priestcraft, and slavery – plainly read their doom.”

Slavery, superstition, and oppression, he observed, give way to barbarism, and impede progress, as well as justice, liberty, and brotherly kindness.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

You can read the entirety of his speech in the excellent book Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American by John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier, published by Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.

Review of “Smoke Over Birkenau” by Liana Millu

Liana Millu was an Jewish Italian Partisan who was arrested in 1944 and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Of the 672 people in her transport, 57 lived to return home. Smoke Over Birkenau is one of the few testimonies to record the experience of women in the Nazi concentration camps. The six vignettes in this slim volume tell the stories of some of the women who were the most memorable to Liana. The continuation of quotidian “human” concerns in the midst of such inhumanity is awe-inspiring: birthdays, jealousy, generosity, greed, recipes, clothes, birth, and of course, death. The details of life in the women’s barracks are amazing, frightening, humbling, and engrossing.

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The inmates often struggled with the big question: where was God? At one point, Liana recalls herself asking:

Whatever will become of me? I wondered, the mud splattering at my feet. Whatever will become of me? And of Lili, and all the rest? It wasn’t so much the fear of death that pained me, but rather the galling futility of this existence suspended between two voids. Here today, gone tomorrow. What could be the point of all this suffering, bounded by parentheses, in the midst of nothing? Was it possible some God was looking down on me from above? Why did he put me here in the first place if I was simply to suffer and vanish without a trace? Had he no mercy, this God?”

Lotti, another inmate who chose to become a member of the Auschwitz Puffkommando (brothel), was bemoaning the rejection by her sister and fellow-inmate Gustine over her choice:

She was always dragging God’s name into it, Gustine was. It became an obsession with her. ‘God won’t forsake his creatures. God knows what he’s doing. God can’t allow injustice to triumph.’ And meanwhile the crematorium just keeps puffing away and ashes are dropping on my head.”

Most of the vignettes end with ashes. Yet Millu gives life again to the many women who joined the columns of smoke rising from the crematoria of Birkenau.

Published in English by Northwestern University Press, 1998

Note: Translation by Sharon Schwartz was the winner of the PEN Renato Poggioli Translation Award

November 28, 1990 – Margaret Thatcher Formally Resigns as British Prime Minister

On this day in history, Margaret Thatcher, the so-called “Iron Lady” of Great Britain, tendered her resignation to the Queen after John Major had been elected her successor the day before. She told reporters:

We’re leaving Downing Street for the last time after eleven-and-a-half wonderful years and we’re happy to leave the UK in a very much better state than when we came here.”

She was appointed to lead The Conservative Party in February, 1975. She was the first woman to head a British political party, and went on to become the country’s first female Prime Minister in 1979. Having remained in power for eleven years, she was also the United Kingdom’s longest-serving leader of the 20th century.

Margaret Thatcher in 1975

Margaret Thatcher in 1975

Thatcher was a highly controversial figure, whose policies of tax reform, cuts to public spending, and anti-unionism made her quite unpopular among the underclasses.

In the United States, she was perhaps best known for her close alignment with the Cold War policies of United States President Ronald Reagan, based on their shared distrust of Communism. In London in April 1975, as leader of Britain’s opposition, Thatcher had her first one-on-one meeting with Reagan, who was seeking the 1976 Republican presidential nomination. The pair agreed that the West was giving away too much to the Soviets, while Moscow was winning the arms race.

As The Wall Street Journal explained:

Thatcher gained power in 1979, Reagan in January, 1981. Together, against big protest movements, they installed a new class of nuclear weapons in Europe to counter the burgeoning Soviet arsenal. Having achieved this position of strength, Thatcher thought it should be bargained from. In September 1983, she said publicly in Washington, ‘We stand ready…if and when the circumstances are right—to talk to the Soviet leadership.’ Reagan told her, privately, that he agreed.”

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher at the White House,  November 1988

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher at the White House, November 1988

It was Thatcher who influenced Reagan to see Mikhail Gorbachev as representing a new direction for the Soviet Union. She had gone on a state visit to the Soviet Union in 1984 and met with Gorbachev, and declared in November 1988 that “We’re not in a Cold War now”, but rather in a “new relationship much wider than the Cold War ever was.”

According to The Wall Street Journal:

The administration, whose lines of information from the Kremlin were not strong, could not help being interested. Colin Powell was then military assistant to Caspar Weinberger, secretary of defense and arch-hawk. “Along comes Gorby,” Gen. Powell recalled. “He’s like none we’ve ever seen before—with his beautiful suits and his French ties and a stunning wife…And the first statement he got of acceptability was from Margaret…The feeling was, ‘Jesus, if dear old Margaret thinks there’s something here, we’d better take a look.’

That is what Reagan did, after his discussions at Camp David with Thatcher. Already interested in talking to the Soviets and further encouraged by Secretary of State George Shultz, he did not swing from a “no” to a “yes” because of Thatcher. But she gave the right nudge at the right time.”

Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the Kremlin. PHOTO: BORIS YURCHENKO/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the Kremlin. PHOTO: BORIS YURCHENKO/ASSOCIATED PRESS

November 26, 1883: Sojourner Truth Died

Women’s rights advocate Sojourner Truth died on November 26, 1883. The date of her birth is uncertain, but around 1797 she was born a slave called “Isabella” in Ulster, New York. Her master spoke only Dutch, so that’s what she spoke also. When she was sold at age nine to English speakers, she often did not understand their orders, and was whipped severely, retaining the scars the rest of her life. She was bought and sold two more times, but finally escaped slavery in 1826 when her owner failed to fulfill his promise to free her before the date mandated by New York law. (Her master maintained that because she had lost one of her fingers in an accident, her ability to do labor was compromised so she owed him more time.)

Once free, Isabella became a Christian and eventually a traveling evangelist. She changed her name to Sojourner Truth and began speaking publicly – against slavery and for women’s rights. After the Civil War, she helped former slaves by counseling, teaching, and offering advice. She spent the remainder of her life speaking and campaigning on behalf of women, freed slaves, and Christian virtures. Her most famous speech, “Ain’t I A Woman,” is reprinted in full, below:

Delivered 1851 at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio

“Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.”

November 24, 1801 – Jefferson Writes to Monroe of America’s Manifest Destiny

On this day in history, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to James Monroe contemplating the future of the United States, declaring in part:

However our present interests may restrain us within our own limits, it is impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits, & cover the whole northern, if not the southern continent, with a people speaking the same language, governed in similar forms, & by similar laws; nor can we contemplate with satisfaction either blot or mixture on that surface.”

He then discusses possible destinations for the blot and mixtures, i.e., Native Americans, who will need a place to go after their title to the land would be “extinguished.”

You can read the full letter here.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson