In May of 1865, a month after Abraham Lincoln had been shot and killed by an assassin, Walt Whitman wrote these lines as a tribute to the slain president:
When lilacs last in the dooryard blooms’,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
During the years since then, in late May when lilacs are blooming in much of the country, Americans have paused to honor the young people who have died in war. Memorial Day has been one of the most important holidays of the year especially for parents who lost children during those wars.
This year we have even more tragic deaths to mourn. Nineteen children were killed—not on a battlefield, but in their classrooms in Texas by a teenager with two assault weapons. A teenager killing children. It is hard to believe that such a thing could happen in a civilized country. But it did. And it has left grieving parents and grandparents who will never forget their loss. Every year when spring arrives across the country, people will grieve again for the senseless waste of innocent lives.
Christina Rosetti put that grieving into words for us:
Talk what you please of future spring And sun-warm’d sweet to-morrow:— Stripp’d bare of hope and everything, No more to laugh, no more to sing, I sit alone with sorrow.
The only way to end this endless cycle of loss and grieving is to take action. Those of us who have read and listened to the news of the mass shootings must remind our political leaders that we the people have the right to defend our children and our children’s children. We must protect them from the endless cycle of tragedies. Other countries have shown us the way. We can insist that Congress outlaw the sale of lethal weapons to young people. We can make spring a time to celebrate growth and rebirth instead of a time of mourning. We just need the courage and the wisdom to take action.
If you grew up during the last half of the 20th century, you probably remember Halloween as being about more than pumpkins and parties. Thousands of children celebrated the holiday by going out to “trick or treat for UNICEF”. These days we no longer see children clutching those small boxes to collect nickels and dimes to help children around the world. UNICEF however, continues to work for children.
United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. (UNICEF) is 75 years old this year. It was started under the auspices of the United Nations in 1946 at the end of World War II. One of its strongest proponents was Eleanor Roosevelt, who was then serving as the Chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. In 1948, together with Alan S. Watt, an Australian Representative, she submitted a report to the UN outlining the goals and activities of UNICEF up until that time and set out future plans for the organization.
UNICEF is the world’s largest organization dedicated to children’s welfare, but like most charitable efforts, it has not been without controversy. During its earliest years, when its efforts were aimed primarily at European children who had suffered during the European war, there was almost universal support for its efforts. Now that UNICEF has focused most of its efforts on developing countries, there have been more issues raised.
UNICEF has been criticized by some people for having a policy of helping to keep orphaned children in their birth countries to be raised by extended families or communities. Some groups that support international adoptions continue to oppose this policy. UNICEF has also lost some supporters because it encourages the use and distribution of contraceptives to control population growth and has supported safe abortions for women. These positions led the Vatican to stop its support of UNICEF.
Throughout its history, UNICEF has encouraged vaccinations for children. Now, during the Covid-19 pandemic it is working with the World Health Organization and with governments throughout the world to provide vaccinations in the developing world. It’s hard to think of a more worthy project.
2021 is the 75th anniversary of the founding of UNICEF and time to celebrate the immense amount of good the organization has done over these years. While the trick-or-treat for UNICEF boxes may have disappeared from our streets, this Halloween would be a good time to give a donation to the organization that has helped so many children throughout the world for almost a century.
Another Labor Day has rolled around. The online world is filled with enticing invitations to buy clothes, cars, electronics and whatever else might catch your eye. It’s hard to remember that Labor Day was originally meant to honor the workers who made all the stuff that’s now for sale. Instead the day has become just part of a long holiday weekend to mark the end of summer and the beginning of the school year.
But 56 years ago, on September 8, 1965, an important movement that would change agricultural workers’ lives forever, was started in California—the Delano Grape Strike. At that time, most agricultural workers in California were either Filipino or Hispanic immigrants. Their wages were below the federal minimum wage of $1.20 an hour and working conditions were abysmal. Hours were long and there were no required breaks. Often water was unavailable despite the heat; housing was inadequate with many workers forced to sleep in barren shacks without beds or toilet facilities.
A group of Filipino workers were the first to revolt and demand better conditions. Soon they joined with Hispanic leaders. The two groups worked together to begin one of the biggest and most effective labor movements in the United States. This led eventually to the founding of the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW) and grew into one of America’s most important labor unions.
Labor Day is a good time to remember some of the people who made that change possible. And to remember that change occurred only because of shoppers across the country who were willing to boycott California grapes.
The two co-founders of the National Farm Workers Association were Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Today I would like to pay tribute to Dolores Huerta, who is still alive at the age of 91 and still continues her work.
Huerta was born in New Mexico in 1930 and grew up mostly in Stockton, California. During her high school years, she felt discriminated against by teachers because of her Hispanic background. After she went to college and became a teacher, she noticed that many children in her class were suffering from hunger and poverty. She decided that activism was more important than teaching, so she co-founded Stockton’s Community Service Organization
It was through her work as an activist that Huerta met Cesar Chavez and began working with him. She worked with him to organize the 1965 Delano strike of 5,000 grape workers. When the strike finally ended after five long years, she was the lead negotiator as the workers’ contract was finally written and signed.
In 1973, Huerta led another consumer boycott of grapes that resulted in the ground-breaking California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, which allowed farm workers to form unions and bargain for better wages and conditions. This change revolutionized the lives of farm workers in California and other states.
Labor organizing is not easy work and in 1988, Huerta was badly beaten by police during a peaceful demonstration in San Francisco. Nonetheless, her activism continued. In 2002 she founded the Dolores Huerta Foundation which has continued the work to which she has devoted her life. The list of honors she has received is too long to include here, but you can find them in the Wikipedia article about her life.
Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez, and the other activists who fought to make life better for workers would not have succeeded without the support of everyday shoppers who refused to buy grapes during the strike. Enough people supported the effort to ensure that change happened. That’s something to remember as we move into another Labor Day. Perhaps as we browse through the enticing ads for ways to spend money, we should give some thought to the workers who produce those products. Ethical shopping—supporting the fair treatment of workers around the world is well worth considering. Boycotts work. They have made life better for many workers. Think before you click that “buy” button.
This week we celebrated Veterans Day in the United States. The date, November 11, commemorates the signing of the armistice ending World War 1 on November 11, 1919. It was during the 1920s that Veterans Day parades became common throughout the United States.
At first the veterans were almost always men. But now, according to the Veterans Administration, about one in ten veterans are women. And women veterans are very visible n public life. Several women veterans serve in Congress and even more have entered politics at the local and state level. But like so many other gains made by women, it was not easy for the first female veterans to be given recognition.
The first large group of veterans who joined together to help one another were the veterans of the Civil War. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) was founded to help Union soldiers readjust to civilian life and to support voting rights for the African American men who served with them. For fifty years or more it was an important political force, and it was also the first Veterans association to have female members—although very few of them.
The first woman admitted to the GAR was Kady Brownell of Rhode Island. Born in 1842 to a British soldier serving in South Africa, she moved as a child to the United States. When the Civil War started and her husband joined the Rhode Island regiment, Kady went with him. She served mainly as a nurse and flag bearer at several battles, including Bull Run. When her husband was severely wounded and had to leave the service, she left with him. Both she and her husband received honorable discharges.
Both the Brownells were interested in the rights of veterans and supported the GAR. In 1870, Kady Brownell became an official member of the association and eventually both she and her husband were granted Veterans’ pension. She was given $8 a month, while her husband received $24. That doesn’t seem quite fair, but it was better than nothing.
Sarah Emma Edmonds took a different path to becoming a veteran. She was born in 1841 in New Brunswick, Canada near the Maine border. When she was 15, she ran away from home to escape an arranged marriage and an abusive father. Traveling and getting a job as a woman was difficult, so Edmonds disguised herself as a man and adopted the name of Franklin Thompson. As a man she was able to get a job and support herself by selling Bibles, but when the Civil War broke out, she decided she wanted to serve the Union.
Edmonds enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Infantry on May 25, 1861, also known as the Flint Union Greys. At first, she worked as a nurse and also carried messages. She also claimed to have served as a spy, although her career is difficult to document. She wrote a best-selling memoir about her life as a spy describing her many disguises and adventures, but a few historians have questioned some of her facts. Being a spy means having to keep secrets, so perhaps we will never know all the details of her work.
In later life Edmonds married Linus. H. Seelye and raised two children. She also became a lecturer and an activist for Veterans’ rights. She was awarded a government pension of twelve dollars a month. In 1897, she was admitted to the Grand Army of the Republic, but her membership was short because she died in 1898.
This week as we thank all veterans for their service, is a good time to pay tribute to these pioneers who made the acceptance of women into the United States Armed Services possible.
Labor Day belongs to women. That may not be the way most people look at it, but history shows us that some of the earliest agitators for workers’ rights were women. Take the women of the Lowell Mills in Massachusetts, for example. They set the pattern for the cooperative struggle that finally brought us Labor Day.
In the early 1800s, New England was primarily agricultural. Small farmers tilled the fields and raised livestock in most states. If a man did not own enough land for all of his sons to carry on with farming, there was plenty of land in the West that could be settled and farmed.
But times were changing. Manufacturing became another source of wealth after Francis Cabot Lowell imported the secret of English looms to America. The Lowell mills in Massachusetts took advantage of the easy availability of waterpower and the low cost of cotton from Southern states, and a new industry was born.
The Lowell Mills soon found a good source of cheap labor among the daughters of New England farmers. Girls in their late teens could earn as much as $1.85 to $3.00 a week in the mills. There was no need for the mill owners to worry about their health or stamina. If anything went wrong, they could be sent back to their families. And when they got married, their husbands were expected to take care of their retirement.
All of the young women lived in boarding houses owned by the factory and paid room and board out of their salaries. Their activities were supervised by the boarding house matrons who saw that the girls went to church every Sunday and did not engage in unseemly activities during the week. They were encouraged to continue their education by attending lectures and writing articles for the mill’s newspaper, Lowell Offering. You can read some of their writing in Benita Eisler’s anthology The Lowell Offering: Writings by New England Mill Woman.
When the economy sagged during the 1830s, the mill girls’ work hours were increased to 75 hours a week. Many of them no longer had time for writing or even reading. In 1834 and again in 1836, they joined together to go on strike and demand shorter hours. Both strikes were defeated, but the mill girls did not give up. In the 1840s they formed the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association to press for reducing the workday to 10 hours. Although women could not vote at that time, the mill girls started a petition campaign to bring their demands before the legislature. Unfortunately, despite the publicity generated, their efforts failed. The ten-hour day was not won for most workers until many years later. Mill owners discovered they could hire immigrant woman to work in the mills for long hours at lower pay than the local farm girls.
Although their early efforts were not successful, the Lowell Mills girls had started something. Years after their time had passed, other women such as Mother Jones and Rose Pesotta led successful drives to encourage women to join unions and make working conditions more humane. And one of the most famous union songs of all times, memorably recorded by Pete Seeger, was written by a woman:
Which Side Are You On?
A Song by Florence Patton Reese
Come all of you good workers
Good news to you I’ll tell
Of how that good old union
Has come in here to dwell
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
My daddy was a miner
And I’m a miner’s son
And I’ll stick with the union
Till every battle’s won
They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J.H. Blair
Labor Day would be a good day to listen to that song one more time.
A month ago President Trump wished all Americans a Merry Christmas and announced once again that he had won the “war on Christmas”. I’m not sure he realizes quite how long the battles over the importance of Christmas have been going on in the U.S.
history is one of my favorite hobbies and the holidays are a fascinating
subject. Those of you who have read my first Margaret Fuller mystery story, A Death in Utopia, know it is set in
Brook Farm, a Utopian community that flourished in Massachusetts during the
1840s, so I’ve done a lot of reading about Brook Farm.
forgotten the memoir I read about an American boy who grew up in New York’s
Hudson Valley, not very far from Massachusetts, which had been settled by Dutch
generations earlier. His name was John Van der Zee Sears and he was sent to
Brook Farm for his education. The greatest shock of his new school was to
discover that the Christmas holiday “did not exist” for them. In the Hudson
Valley it was the greatest holiday of the year. Young John and his sister could
find no one at Brook Farm who realized what they were missing except for an
Irish resident, John Cheever, who was a Catholic and therefore understood the
importance of the holiday for people outside of New England.
of Christmas was a divisive issue for many people in early America. It was
celebrated in the South, but not often in New England. During the 1850s and
later, when more and more immigrants began arriving from Europe, they brought
customs from the old country, which upset many of the traditions of each of
these groups. Christmas trees began to appear in American homes and were soon
adopted by families from many different backgrounds.
“A Visit from
Saint Nicholas” by Clement Clark Moore (although his authorship has been
disputed) made an indelible impression with its picture of Santa Claus coming
down the chimney to leave presents under the tree for all good girls and boys.
Its popularity was one of the most unifying aspects of the Christmas holiday.
As years went by and Christmas became more important as a gift-giving holiday
than as a religious one, it was shared by people of all backgrounds and faiths.
Whether for Kwanza, Hanukah, or Christmas almost everyone now can unite in wanting to give and receive gifts during this holiday season. In fact, perhaps we ought to admit that what has saved Christmas for most Americans has been Santa Claus and the commercialism he represents.
reason for the celebration, I hope everyone is enjoying a happy holiday season
and looking forward to a good new year. Happy 2019!
Those of us who are old enough may remember a little verse by Sarah Cleghorn that we heard in school:
The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day
The laboring children can look out
And see the men at play.
That verse popped into my mind yesterday as I heard the news about Congressmen (and women) leaving Washington this weekend to go back to their districts for the Fourth of July celebrations. Some of them are no doubt headed for golf courses. And meanwhile we have thousands of immigrant children being held in detention centers, separated from their parents, wondering what will happen to them. While our representatives celebrate the past glories of our country, they have not taken the time or made the effort to fix the immigration system so horrors like this do not occur.
This has been a bad year for America. Congress neglects its duties and focuses instead on satisfying donors and carrying out the demands of an erratic president. This month has shown how far America has wandered from the virtues celebrated in its usual July 4th self-congratulations.
Land of the Free? Well, not entirely. The Supreme Court upheld the right of individuals to use their religious beliefs to deprive some people of their right to buy a cake in a public shop. But now that Justice Kennedy has announced his retirement, Trump and his supporters are determined to appoint a new justice who will take away the right of women to practice their own beliefs in choosing the medical treatment that is right for them and their families. A justice who will support laws imposing the religious beliefs of some Americans about when human life begins to prevent all women from following their own consciences. Depriving other people of their right to privacy and their right to access appropriate treatment is not freedom.
Home of the Brave? It is difficult to see much bravery in Congress these days as they meekly accept the orders of an ignorant and bullying president. Paul Ryan, who spoke out bravely during the 2016 election campaign and refused to support a man whose morals showed him to be blatantly unfit for office, has crumbled along with the rest of the Republican majority. Congress stood by and watched the farce of accepting an order that immigrants from a number of Muslim-majority countries should be barred from the U.S. No one will be more secure because of this limitation, but many families will suffer. They passed a tax bill that reduced taxes for their supporters and probably themselves, but will leave ordinary working people behind. They accepted the imposition of a record-breaking national debt that our children and grandchildren will have to pay. And they failed to ensure that all Americans get a decent level of healthcare
No, this is not a Fourth of July to celebrate. Instead of mouthing worn-out phrases about America’s past glories, this is a year to start reversing, as much as we can, the slide backward into the bad old days we worked so hard to overcome. Instead we can
Get in touch with our representatives and urge them to fix our immigration policies and live up to our ideals.
Choose candidates in the upcoming midterm election who will battle to ensure that the gains that have been made over the past century in Civil Rights and Women’s Rights are not thrown away.
Urge our leaders to work with our allies and democracies around the world to maintain peace and stability in the world. We do not need to cater to autocrats and sully our reputation as an example to the world.
And the only way to do all of this is to REGISTER AND VOTE!
This has been a grim year for many of us. For me and most of my friends, the year started with a presidential inauguration that we dreaded and feared. As the weeks and months passed, the politics didn’t get any better. Much of public life was tinged with disappointment and a level of discussion more suitable for a TV reality show than for normal social communication.
As if that weren’t enough, we were plagued by natural disasters—hurricanes hitting Florida, Texas, and Puerto Rico; wildfires in major portions of California—and unseasonable weather in much of the country. The bills for coping with these disasters are still coming in and the suffering of people who lost homes and property will continue well into 2018.
But no year is entirely bad. Each one gives us opportunities for new experiences, encounters with people and with arts that bring us new ideas and emotions. To celebrate 2017, I’ve chosen a few of these encounters that have pushed my ideas in new directions.
Early in the year, I saw the play Leni by Sarah Greenman at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. Based on the life of Leni Riefenstahl, the filmmaker who worked in Germany during the 1930s and produced pro-Hitler films such as Triumph of the Will, the play is an exploration of one person’s character. Obviously she is not a sympathetic character, but Greenman’s play shows her as a complicated woman who always insisted that her
interest was in producing art rather than supporting any political positions. The argument is not very convincing, but the play made me think about the tangled motives of real people caught up in world events they cannot comprehend. More than that, this production of Leni was an excellent example of how live theater can make characters come alive with a minimum of background, scenery or narrative. It was a great example of the power of live theater during this period when electronic presentations dominate most art forms.
I had another unexpected vision of an old art form when I went to the exhibit of Gods in Color at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. As I wrote here a few weeks ago when I blogged about the exhibit, it may seem trivial to see marble statues presented in a new way, but it made my imagination stretch. It is easy to think about familiar objects as set permanently in time, but it’s good to have our memories shaken occasionally.
One of the most recent books I read, and the one that left me with the most new ideas to ponder was Prairie Fires: A Biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser. Fraser not only writes a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but also gives a portrait of the lives of people who settled the plains states–Minnesota, North Dakota, Kansas, etc.–during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I, for one, had no idea how extremely difficult it was to settle those plains and how the Homestead Act, pushed as a noble deed by the U.S. government, actually encouraged people to settle in areas unsuitable for agriculture. For many people, the move west was a disaster because the plains states were subject to plagues of locusts as well as tornadoes, and extreme weather all of which made it impossible to raise crops profitably. And the farmers did not know that by plowing the plains they were removing the topsoil and thus causing the dust storms that ravaged much of the west during the depression years of the 1930s.
Laura Ingalls Wilder lived through a series of tragedies during her childhood and her early married life–loss of houses to fires and storms, loss of crops, loss of a stillborn baby. Only one child survived to grow up, Rose Wilder Lane, who became a journalist and writer. It wasn’t until Laura Wilder was in her fifties that she started to write. When she did, she found that her daughter was her greatest help in shaping her memoirs for publication, but the relationship between mother and daughter was always contentious. The Little House books grew out of this tangle and eventually became amazingly popular. Their false, cheerful picture of the life of pioneers influenced (and continue to influence) generations of children growing up in the 20th century and are still going strong. The TV shows that were presented in the 1970s falsified the stories even more than the books did and were even more popular.
When Franklin Roosevelt became President, both Laura and Rose became extremely conservative politically. They were rabid opponents of Roosevelt and the New Deal. Looking back it is almost impossible to believe that innovations, such as Social Security, which have become an integral part of American life were so controversial. Prairie Fires opened my eyes to a new view of American history. I strongly recommend it.
Looking back over these experiences that have enriched my life during 2017 gives me hope for the coming year. There will be more performances to hear during 2018, more art to see and, more great books to read. And above all, more new ideas to welcome and ponder.
Over the meadow and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh through the white and drifting snow…
That traditional Thanksgiving song might have been popular during the 19th century when Thanksgiving was first recognized as a holiday in America, but it didn’t reflect real life for many people. As cities grew in size, fewer and fewer people harvested their own food, sleighs became obsolete, and people didn’t find much to celebrate at harvest time.
By the late 1800s, many children didn’t have a big dinner to look forward to on Thanksgiving. In the cities, especially New York and Philadelphia, one of the most popular ways for children to have holiday treats was to dress up as ragamuffins and go from door to door begging for money. The ritual was mentioned in Betty Smith’s book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. This tradition flourished in New York City for 50 years or more into the 1940s. There are still ragamuffin parades on Thanksgiving in some parts of Brooklyn and the suburbs. It wasn’t until after World War II that Halloween took over in most of the country as the holiday for dressing up and begging for treats.
The reason for celebrating Thanksgiving on a Thursday rather than any other day of the week is not clear. Some people have suggested it is because ministers used to give lectures on Thursday afternoon in many churches, which made that day rather special. But whatever the reason, when more and more people began working in offices and switched to a five-day workweek, the Thursday date left an inconvenient Friday hanging. Many schools and offices began giving people the Friday off, and that was the beginning of Black Friday—the biggest shopping day of the year. Merchants began offering special sales and encouraged everyone to start their holiday shopping as soon as Thanksgiving was over. We all know what that led to—stores started opening earlier and earlier on Friday morning and some have now spilled over into Thanksgiving itself.
Aside from eating, shopping, and watching football, what else can people do on Thanksgiving? One suggestion is to give someone else a chance to have something to be thankful for. During a year like this when we are confronted every day by pictures of refugees, tired, hungry and desperate, it gets harder and harder to enjoy that turkey with all the trimmings.
It seems as if the least we can do is share our bounty with some of the other people around the world who are not as lucky as we are. The charities listed below have all been given high grades by Charity Navigator, so you can be sure that your gift will be used efficiently to benefit the needy.