February 6, 1788 – Massachusetts Joins the Union as the 6th State

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Because of the location of Massachusetts vis-a-vis Europe, the state has played a significant role in American history. Plymouth, Massachusetts was the location of the colony founded in 1620 by the Pilgrims, and thus the site of the first “Thanksgiving” holiday. The political protest that came to be known as “The Boston Tea Party” of course took place in Boston, in 1773. In 1775, it was in Massachusetts where the first shots were fired “heard round the world” at the onset of the American Revolution. Shays’ Rebellion, an armed uprising that started in Massachusetts in 1786 is thought by some historians to have been the deciding factor for the United States Constitutional Convention. Four U.S. Presidents were born in Massachusetts – John Adams, John Quincy Adams, John Kennedy, and George H.W. Bush.

Boston Tea Party

Boston Tea Party

Massachusetts has been at the forefront of intellectual as well as political movements, including the Protestant First Great Awakening, the temperance, transcendentalist, and abolitionist movements and the recognition of same-sex marriage. In 1636, Harvard University was founded (for men), and in 1837, Mount Holyoke College, the United States’ first college for women, was opened.

Massachusetts is also a place for sports innovations. In 1891, the director of the Springfield YMCA invented basketball. (The Basketball Hall Of Fame is now located in Springfield.) Four years later, William Morgan, the director of the Holyoke, Massachusetts YMCA came up with volleyball as a slower alternative for middle-aged men. (Morgan named the new sport “mintonette” because he based the game on badminton, which everyone thinks is actually “badmitten” but of course it is not.) In any event, a year later, Morgan accepted a suggestion to change the name of the game to “volley ball” (two words until 1952, when it was officially changed to one word).

Basketball Hall of Fame

Basketball Hall of Fame

The official name of Massachusetts is the “Commonwealth of Massachusetts” although this designation has no practical implications. Massachusetts has the same position and powers within the United States as other states. The state takes its name from the Massachusett tribe of the Algonquin family of Native Americans. Massachusett translates roughly as “The people who live near the great hill.”

Although Massachusetts is the 7th smallest state in area, it is the 14th most populous and the 3rd most densely populated of the 50 United States. Approximately two-thirds of Massachusetts’ population lives in the Greater Boston Metropolitan Area.

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There is much more that could be said about this noteworthy state, such as the fact that the State Cat is the Tabby (as of July 11, 1988), or that the Official Dessert is the Boston Cream Pie, designated as such on December 12, 1996. The only thing is, a Boston cream pie is actually a cake, filled with a custard or cream filling and frosted with chocolate. It was created by a chef at Boston’s Parker House Hotel in 1856. Presumably to avoid confusion, there is not as of yet an official state pie, although there is a state muffin (corn), a state donut (Boston creme) and of course a state cookie (the chocolate chip cookie, invented in 1930 at the Toll House Restaurant in Whitman, Massachusetts).

Boston Creme Pie

Boston Creme Pie

February 4, 1913 – Birthdate of Rosa Parks: Who Was the “Real” Rosa Parks?

Most Americans think of Rosa Parks as just a poor seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama who one day made a valiant stand and decided not to move to the back of the bus (as was required for African-Americans), single-handedly taking on and helping to change the racist policies of the Jim Crow Era. (Technically, Parks did not sit in the white section at all; she sat in the front row of the “colored” section and refused to give up her seat to a white when the bus got crowded.)

Booking photo of Parks

Booking photo of Parks

This story of individual initiative is one of the ways in which a more threatening narrative of a minority-led social movement is watered down to conform to the myth of the American Dream, in which any hard-working, courageous person has an equal chance to make a difference and/or to succeed in the American society and economy.

Rosa Parks was certainly a heroic figure, but her story is quite different than the myth that surrounds her legacy.

In actuality, while Parks was indeed a seamstress, she was also one of the first women in Montgomery to join the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and served as its secretary. She also worked with the the NAACP youth division and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, she had been working for the desegregation of Montgomery schools. In an oral history of the American Civil Rights Movement (My Soul Is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered by journalist Howell Raines), she explained: “I had almost a life history of being rebellious about being mistreated because of my color.”

Rosa Parks in 1955, with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the background

Rosa Parks in 1955, with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the background

Prior to Parks’ action on December 1, 1955, three other Montgomery blacks had been arrested for not giving up their bus seats, but Parks was deemed by the black leadership to have sufficient inner strength and respect of the community to serve as a rallying point for a boycott. In addition, the leadership thought she – humble yet dignified, would make a good impression on white judges. Planning for a boycott had been taking place since 1949. It required a significant investment of time and resources by the Civil Rights Movement. Word had to get out to the black community, leaflets printed and distributed, ministers asked to spread the word, negotiating demands drawn up,and most importantly, alternative transportation had to be put into place for all the blacks who relied on the bus to get to their jobs, doctor’s appointments, shopping, etc. Volunteer cars were needed, and volunteer drivers, for those who could not walk.

Black Residents Walking, Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955

Black Residents Walking, Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955

Martin Luther King, Jr., just 26 years old and relatively recently appointed as resident pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, was drafted as president of the protest committee, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). Several thousand attended the first mass meeting of the MIA on December 5th, 1955 and King delivered an appeal for support of the boycott that demonstrated his ability to move and inspire:

And we are not wrong; we are not wrong in what we are doing. (Well) If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. (Yes sir) [applause] If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. (Yes) [applause] If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. (That’s right) [applause] If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to Earth. (Yes) [applause] If we are wrong, justice is a lie (Yes), love has no meaning. [applause] And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water (Yes), [applause] and righteousness like a mighty stream. (Keep talking) [Applause]”

Martin Luther King at First Montgomery Improvement Association Meeting to Organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott Holt Street Baptist Church, Montgomery Alabama 12/5/1955.

Martin Luther King at First Montgomery Improvement Association
Meeting to Organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott Holt Street Baptist Church, Montgomery Alabama 12/5/1955.

Between 30,000 and 40,000 fares were denied to the bus company every day. But even economic incentives were not enough to deter those blinded by racism; it took prolonged media exposure, political pressure, and most importantly, unwavering commitment on the part of the participants. The boycott lasted 381 days.

The role Rosa Parks played was significant, but it should not be examined out of context. The fact that it generally is provides a useful lesson in the political construction of social memories. The many protests that were the result of mass movements, involving a great deal of work, not to mention a large number of beatings and even fatalities, should not be reduced to a story about one brave self-effacing woman who knocked down almost a century of Jim Crow. We rightfully applaud and admire Rosa Parks, but her story is also a lesson in the political ends to which history is put.

Even carefully shaped narratives are often couched as “histories,” thus conferring a certain authority or legitimacy upon what is actually a specific set of values, norms, and perspectives that in turn changes popular reactions to events.

As historian James Young famously observed, “Memory is never shaped in a vacuum; the motives of history are never pure.” We would do well to remember this even as we honor a great woman in history, Rosa Parks.

Rosa Parks in 1956

Rosa Parks in 1956

Review of “Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America” by Wil Haygood

Thurgood Marshall may not have worn a cape and tights, but he was, nevertheless, every inch a superhero.

Wil Haygood takes us back to Marshall’s childhood to tell us what it was like for a young, smart, ambitious kid growing up in a world in which he couldn’t even use most public bathrooms or be admitted to many restaurants and hotels. But this never diminished his spirit and determination. On the contrary, it inspired him further not only to achieve, but to work for change for everyone else.

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This book uses the Senate confirmation hearings for Marshall’s Supreme Court nomination as scaffolding to structure his story; the author goes back and forth in time, basically telling in large part the history of black America from post-Reconstruction times onward. It is a nasty and brutal history which will often have you cringing (there are, for example, two blow-by-blow accounts of lynchings, though the accounts are quite germane), but will greatly enhance your understanding of the country as it is today.

Thurgood Marshall with the president who nominated him to the Supreme Court, Lyndon Johnson

Thurgood Marshall with the president who nominated him to the Supreme Court, Lyndon Johnson

Evaluation: If you only read about the life of one trailblazing hero, I recommend reading about Thurgood Marshall. His unparalleled bravery in spite of constant threats against his life, his unflagging dedication to others, and his unfailing good humor and optimism in the face of unrelenting efforts by whites to keep him down, is utterly amazing and inspirational.

I’ve seen some reviews opine that Devil in the Grove, also about Marshall, is superior to this book. I found it excellent as well, but the fact is, when you’re writing about a true giant of a man like Marshall, it’s hard to go wrong.

Rating: 4.5/5

Hardcover published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2015. Audiobook published unabridged on 12 CDs (14 1/2 listening hours) by Random House Audio, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2014

A Few Notes on the Audio Production: The narrator, Dominic Hoffman, is nothing short of sensational. He has a couple of mispronunciations (e.g., Estes Kefauver), but I can’t really complain because his overall performance is so outstanding.

January 30, 1948 – Gandhi Assassinated in New Delhi, India

On this day in history, Mohandas K. Gandhi was killed at the age of 78 by a Hindu nationalist who opposed some of Gandhi’s policies, including his doctrine of nonviolence (his opposition to which the shooter demonstrated rather graphically).

Gandhi, thought to be taken in the late 1930's

Gandhi, thought to be taken in the late 1930’s

Gandhi was a leader of Indian nationalism in British-ruled India. Advocating nonviolent civil disobedience, Gandhi inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world. He is now commonly known by the honorific Mahatma (Sanskrit: “high-souled”, “venerable”), which was first applied to him in 1914 in South Africa.

Gandhi had a wide influence and many followers, including Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1959, MLK wrote an account of a trip he took to India (“My Trip to the Land of Gandhi”) in which he discusses the intersection of Gandhi’s beliefs and his own. You can read the text here.

January 27, 1872 – Birthdate of Billings Learned Hand

Learned Hand was a United States judge sometimes called “the greatest judge never to sit on the Supreme Court.”

He served on the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York and later the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Learned Hand, Judge of United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

Learned Hand, Judge of United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

Hand majored in philosophy at Harvard College and graduated with honors from Harvard Law School. After a short career as a lawyer in New York, he was appointed at the age of 37 as a Federal District Judge in Manhattan in 1909. His decisions soon won him a reputation for craftsmanship and authority. In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge promoted Hand to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which he went on to lead as the Senior Circuit Judge (later retitled Chief Judge) from 1939 until his semi-retirement in 1951. Scholars have recognized the Second Circuit under Hand as one of the finest appeals courts in the country’s history. Friends and admirers often lobbied for Hand’s promotion to the Supreme Court, but, much to Hand’s own disappointment, his political past made a confirmation unlikely. Nevertheless, according to a 2004 book by legal scholar Geoffrey Stone, Hand has been quoted more often by legal scholars and by the Supreme Court of the United States than any other lower-court judge.

One of Hand’s law clerks, Thomas Ehrlich, wrote in a 1994 remembrance about what it was like to work with Judge Hand. He said that law clerks never did any writing for him, except to suggest changes in drafts. Instead, the clerks served another purpose:

…our routine went something like this. After we each read the briefs in a case, he would ask me to argue one side. He would urge opposing view. Sometimes, we would then switch sides. In all events, the Judge would move back and forth, making arguments and countering them in the process of refining and sharpening his views.” (“Judge Learned Hand” by Thomas Ehrlich, 20 Litigation 4, 1994, 35)

Hand believed in the protection of free speech and in bold legislation to address social and economic problems. But he felt strongly that judges should not deny the constitutionality of acts of Congress. Congress was comprised of the people’s elected representatives, and therefore it is right that they choose how we are to be governed. One wonders if he would have felt differently in recent times, when election has become so much more a function of access to assets. One also wonders what the law would have looked like now, had he been on the Supreme Court; he believed passionately, according to Ehrlich, “that disinterestedness was the essential quality of a good judge.”

Hand had a “fun” side, being fond of toys, jokes, and of singing. This rare video provides a sample of his voice.

January 25, 1863 – Lincoln Names Joseph Hooker to Command the Army of the Potomac

On this day in history, Lincoln issued General Orders No. 20, which directed that Major-General A.E. Burnside be relieved from the command of the Army of the Potomac to be replaced by Major-General Joseph Hooker.

Joseph Hooker

Joseph Hooker

Hooker was a veteran of the Mexican-American War. He was appointed in 1861 as a brigadier general of the Union Army. He began the war commanding a division of the Army of the Potomac around Washington DC under Major General George McClellan.

When McClellan failed to pursue Lee’s army after Antietam, Lincoln replaced him with Major General Ambrose Burnside.  Burnside led the army into battle at Fredericksburg, where Hooker commanded a “Grand Division” of two corps. He and others were ordered to conduct multiple futile frontal assaults against Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s position on the high ground of Marye’s Heights, all of which were repulsed with heavy losses. On December 15, Burnside withdrew his army in defeat, ending another failed Union campaign in the Eastern Theater. Then, on this day in history, Burnside too was removed from command and replaced by Hooker.

Joseph Hooker

Joseph Hooker

Hooker was defeated by the Confederate Army at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30 to May 6, 1863). Lincoln relieved him from command just prior to the Battle of Gettysburg in July. Hooker returned to combat in November, helping the Union achieve victories in the Battle of Lookout Mountain and the Battle of Chattanooga. He also helped take the city of Atlanta, but left before the end of the Atlanta Campaign when he was bypassed for a promotion to command the Army of the Tennessee.

From October 1864 until the war’s conclusion Hooker commanded the Northern Department from headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio.

January 23, 1961 – A Near Miss With an H-Bomb Detonation

On this day in history, the U.S. the US Air Force narrowly averted detonating an atom bomb over North Carolina that would have been 250 times more powerful than the one that devastated Hiroshima. A B-52 Stratofortress plane carrying two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs broke up in mid-air, dropping its nuclear payload in the process. The captain ordered the crew to eject, which they did at 9,000 feet. Five men successfully ejected or bailed out of the aircraft and landed safely. Another ejected but did not survive the landing, and two died in the crash.

A U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress heavy bomber drops bombs in this undated file photo.

A U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress heavy bomber drops bombs in this undated file photo.

The hydrogen bomb that dropped from the plane had six safety mechanisms to prevent its accidental detonation, and five of the six failed. Only one low-voltage switch prevented the activation of the bomb, which carried a payload of 4 megatons – the equivalent of 4 million tons of TNT explosive. When the bomb hit the ground, a firing signal was sent to the nuclear core of the device, and it was only the failure of that final, highly vulnerable switch that averted calamity.

Had the bomb detonated, it would have pulverized a portion of North Carolina and, given strong northerly winds, could have blanketed East Coast cities (including New York, Baltimore, and Washington, DC) in lethal fallout.

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This was just one of at least 700 “significant” accidents and incidents involving 1,250 nuclear weapons were recorded between 1950 and 1968 alone.

You can read about these and other near misses in Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser.

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