Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Bullets and Ballots

The song I’ve posted below isn’t as popular as Marvin Gaye’s hit “What’s Going On?”, but it is from the same album….the first of its kind for Motown…a concept album.

Gaye wrote the songs during a time of great depression when he isolated himself from the outside world.  This site explains....Through television news broadcasts, Gaye saw the racial, political, and social problems that were plaguing the world, manifestations from the explosion of political and social activism that took place during the late ‘60s. As he wallowed in his seclusion, Gaye read letters from his brother Frankie serving in the Vietnam War. They described the confusion and frustration he and other soldiers felt fighting in a war that had no just cause. Many black soldiers at the time felt doubly conflicted, drafted to fight and die for a country that refused to accept them because of the color of their skin. These observations, along with the loss of Tammi Terrell, motivated Gaye to question his role in the world and at Motown.

…The songs [from  the album] are told from the point of view of a black soldier returning home from fighting in a white man’s war. It is an unrecognizable America, filled with racial violence and uprisings, political strife and protests. The album is a question-inducing commentary about change, love, and hate.

The Vietnam War wasn’t the first war when soldiers came home to a changing landscape.  Many men and women returning from serving their country during World War II was met with changes as well….especially the solders from McMinn County, Tennessee
This site tells us….  In McMinn County, Tennessee, in the early 1940s, the question was not if you farmed, but where you farmed. Athens, the county seat, lay between Knoxville and Chattanooga along U.S. Highway 11, which wound its way through eastern Tennessee. This was the meeting place for farmers from all the surrounding communities. Traveling along narrow roads planted with signs urging them to “See Rock City” and “Get Right with God,” they would gather on Saturdays beneath the courthouse elms to discuss politics and crops. There were barely seven thousand people in Athens, and many of its streets were still unpaved. The two “big” cities some fifty miles away had not yet begun their inevitable expansion, and the farmers’ lives were simple and essentially unaffected by what they would have called the “modern world.” Many of them were without electricity. The land, their families, religion, politics, and the war dominated their talk and thoughts. They learned about God from the family Bible and in tiny chapels along yellow-dust roads. Their newspaper, the Daily Post-Athenian, told them something of politics and war, but since it chose to avoid intrigue or scandal, a story that smacked of both could be found only in the conversations of the folks who milled about the courthouse lawn on Saturdays.

During the Civil War, McMinn County favored the Union and it was strong Republican held community, but in the 1930s Tennessee began to fall under the control of Democratic bosses. To the west, in Shelby County, E.H. Crump, the Memphis mayor who had been ousted during his term for failing to enforce Prohibition, fathered what would become the state’s most powerful political machine. Crump eventually controlled most of Tennessee along with the governor’s office and a United States senator. In eastern Tennessee local and regional machines developed, which, lacking the sophistication and power of a Crump, relied on intimidation and violence to control their constituents.

In 1936 the system descended upon McMinn County in the person of one Paul Cantrell, the Democratic candidate for sheriff. Cantrell, who came from a family of money and influence in nearby Etowah, tied his campaign closely to the popularity of the Roosevelt administration and rode FDR’s coattails to victory over his Republican opponent.

As more and more of McMinn’s able-bodied men began to head off to war Cantrell was able to gain more power.  Cantrell was elected Sheriff in 1936, 1938, and 1940.  Then he decided to run for State Senate and was elected in 1942 and 1944.  His chief deputy, Pat Mansfield took Cantrell’s position as Sheriff.

Cantrell was able to get a bill passed through the state legislature redistricting the county from 23 voting precincts down to 12….basically eliminating any Republication opposition.  Voting machines were sold supposedly to save money, but basically it was done so that votes could be tampered with a little easier. 

There were continued charges of election fraud in the form of swapped ballot boxes and voter intimidation.  The Department of Justice investigated each election from 1940-44, but no action was taken. 
The sheriff’s department operated a fee system where they received a cut of the money for every person they booked, incarcerated and released.  Buses headed through the county would be pulled over….people were ticketed for drunkenness as a matter of habit….it didn’t matter if they were guilty or not.

The people felt they were powerless to fight Cantrell and his men. Cantrell had taken advantage of the fact that most of his opposition was away fighting the war.  McMinn citizens hoped once their soldiers returned home things would change.

Bill White, [a soldier] recalled coming home from overseas with mustering-out pay in his pocket: “There were several beer joints and honky-tonks around Athens; we were pretty wild; we started having trouble with the law enforcement at that time because they started making a habit of picking up GIs and fining them heavily for most anything—they were kind of making a racket out of it.

...At last the veterans chose to use the most basic right of the democracy for which they had gone to war: the right to vote. In the early months of 1946 they decided in secret meetings to field a slate of their own candidates for the August elections. In May they formed a nonpartisan political party.

Leading up to the election both sides made charges against the other and ultimately the powder keg erupted on Election Day.   Cantrell’s machine hired men from neighboring towns to “keep the peace”, but basically they were there to intimidate people as they walked around polling places with pistols and blackjacks.  As in past elections anyone who objected to anything were labeled as troublemakers.

Poll workers were attacked and one was thrown through a glass door. Before all was said and done 20 people would be hurt that day, 14 cars were overturned and burned, and the jail ended up being under siege for several hours by several townspeople/ex-soldiers. 

Just another Election Day, huh?
During the melee Cantrell and some of his men fled the town.   The next morning the twenty-five deputies attempting to hold the jail gave up and surrendered.   The story goes they were taken to the edge of town, stripped naked and told to keep walking.

Miraculously there had been no deaths. But on August 2 a page-one headline in The New York Times wrongly trumpeted the news: TENNESSEE SHERIFF is SLAIN IN PRIMARY DAY VIOLENCE. All day long reporters with cameras and notebooks poured into town to photograph, question, analyze, and write. And every newcomer passed the sign on Highway 11:  WELCOME TO ATHENS “The Friendly City”.

The “victory” of the veterans that night in August, 1946 appeared, at first, to have settled nothing. The national press was almost unanimous in condemning the action of the GIs. In an editorial perhaps best reflecting the ambivalence of a startled nation, The New York Times concluded: “Corruption, when and where it exists, demands reform, and even in the most corrupt and boss-ridden communities, there are peaceful means by which reform can be achieved. But there is no substitute, in a democracy, for orderly process.” The syndicated columnist Robert C. Ruark commented: “There is very little difference, essentially, between a vigilante and a member of a lynch mob, and if we are seeking an answer to crooked politics, the one that the Athens boys just propounded sure ain’t it.” Commonwealth cautiously compared the battle to the American Revolution, then went on to say that “nothing could be more dangerous both for our liberties and our welfare than the making of the McMinn County Revolution into a habit.”

On August 4 Pat Mansfield telegraphed his resignation as sheriff of McMinn County to Governor McCord and requested that Knox Henry fill his unexpired term, which would end on September 1. Henry was appointed immediately, and the next day State Rep. George Woods returned to the county under GI protection to convene the election commission and certify the election. A cheer rang out in the courthouse when Woods rose as the canvass ended and announced that Knox Henry was elected sheriff by a vote of 2,175 to 1,270. After their victory, GIs with machine guns waited for a Cantrell counterattack.

It never happened…….The Cantrell Machine in McMinn County had been quashed.

Henry Knox, the sheriff elected after the election 'war'

I guess my main point in bringing all this up is to say that it’s easy to think whatever issues our country is going through is something new….. wars, violence, racism, media spin, politics so polarized that nothing is done, conspiracy theories, conspiracy truths, talking heads spinning half-truths, being so busy thinking ahead to YOUR next point that you don’t HEAR the person across from you, and politicians so willing to hang on to the power of their office they are willing to make the so called solutions so convoluted that more chaos is created than solved.

Unfortunately, we haven’t learned from history, and our problems aren’t anything new…..we just have more outlets to throw the muck around instantly.

America is unrecognizable to me……

Just how polarized do things have to be before they get better?

What’s happening?

Monday, March 12, 2012

John Miller: Anonymous Activist

It seems these days everyone has a forum or two to make their opinions known on every subject possible.  We can post to Facebook or Twitter.  

We can have our own blog or self-publish our own books.   We can text, we can make regular comments online at various sites, and we can call in to various television and radio shows.

Over the last few years we’ve seen how social media can help to accelerate revolutions and impact protests in foreign countries, we can see how fast ideas travel and take on momentum via videos and Internet links that go viral.

I often wonder if we aren’t literally drowning in TOO much information….
I often wonder if the present quagmire of partisan politics isn’t caused by TOO much information….

Just imagine for a few minutes how events could have been shaped during the 1700s leading up to the American Revolution if people in England and the Colonies had access to some of the technology we do today along with the resulting partisanship, finger pointing and spin….not to mention the “gotchas”.

Thankfully….I think….the best bet someone had back then to get their point of view out for others to see involved paper and ink in the form of letters and newspapers.

As early as 1722 Ben Franklin was penning his Silence Dogood letters in the colonies, but from 1769 to 1772 folks in London England were reading the Letters of Junius…..letters that some historians claim sparked the concept of freedom of the press and influenced our own American Revolution.

If you haven’t heard of the Letters of Junius I’m not surprised.  I was never taught about them either….even though I’ve sat in numerous World history and British history courses where it would be appropriate to mention their impact.

The Letters of Junius were anonymous letters written in England attacking members of government including the King of England regarding all sorts of matters including immorality.  All total there were 69 letters….29 were sent directly to the publisher of the Public Advertiser, a London newspaper, while 40 letters were sent to individuals…mainly government officials, but they were later made public.

The government brought charges against several people for publishing the letters including Henry Sampson Woodall, owner and editor of the Public Advertiser.  Many historians credit Sir Philip Francis, an English politician with writing the letters.  However, there are others who name at least 40 other people who might be Junius including Benjamin Franklin since he was in London at the time the letters were published.  Franklin was known to send open letters to the paper using his own name including his letter addressed to Lord North in 1774.

Today, McGill University in Canada maintains a large collection of the Junius Letters.  Their website state, “The letters themselves after more than two hundred years are a most startling example of political polemic (when someone provides their views) and invective (expressing blame or censure).”

The objective of the letters was simple.   They were written to inform the public of their historical and constitutional rights and liberties as Englishmen, and to highlight where and how the government infringed upon these rights.

All total Junius used three other pseudonyms including the name Philo-Junius…a character who appeared to rescue Junius when it appeared he was being misunderstood by the public at some point.

Junius had a real impact on the British government.   Many people were influenced by the letters and real concepts of liberty were sparked.  The letters even provoked some rioting.
The letters are important because of their political significance, their style and the fact a mystery surrounds who wrote them.   Many critics state the author of the letters no matter who he was ahead of his time.

Some views of Janius include:

*We owe it our ancestors to preserve entire those rights, which they have delivered to our care; we owe it to our posterity, not to suffer their dearest inheritance to be destroyed…1769

*When the constitution is openly invaded, when the first original right of the people, from which all laws derive their authority, is directly attacked, inferior grievances naturally lose their force, and are suffered to pass by without punishment or observation….October 17, 1769

*They [the Americans] equally detest the pageantry of a king, and the supercilious hypocrisy of a bishop….December 19, 1769

*The injustice done to an individual is sometimes of service to the public.  Facts are apt to alarm us more than the most dangerous principles…..November 14, 1770

*The government of England is a government of law.   We betray ourselves, we contradict the spirit of our laws, and we shake the whole system of English jurisprudence, whenever we entrust a discretionary power of the life, liberty, or fortune of the subject to any man or set of men, whatsoever, upon a presumption that it will not be abused……May 25, 1771

You can view the entire contents of one of the letters here.

Of all of the possible authors regarding the Junius Letters the most interesting man to me is John Miller….mainly because he is the great-grandfather of a man who is prominent in the history of my hometown.

John Miller was an English printer who immigrated to South Carolina in 1783.  Prior to arriving in the colonies John Miller had created quite a reputation London as being a bit outspoken regarding many topics including the government, and of course, he supported a free press. He was brought to trial several times regarding items he printed and served time in prison. 
John Miller eventually settled in Pendleton County, South Carolina where he has his own historical marker.

Hurley E. Badders who wrote Remembering South Carolina’s Old Pendleton District said, “The stories he, as well as other newspapermen told, likely led to freedom of the press being written into our Bill of Rights.”

Badders also stated, “Miller had been classed as a radical in England, but in America he showed conservative tendencies often refusing to print political contributions.   For this and his foreign birth he was frequently denounced.”    Even so, Miller was a member of the Pendleton Franklin Society – an anti-federalist group concerned with the new nation’s policies.      Miller was very fond of saying, “Laziness in politics is like laziness in agriculture; it exposes the soil to noxious weeds.”

Following 1783 Miller devoted time to agriculture and politics helping to choose a site for the Pendleton County Courthouse, and he served as the first clerk of court.  I find it an interesting coincidence that his grandson, Richard M. Wilson would also serve as the first clerk of court in Douglas County, Georgia. 

Prior to his death Miller did return to journalism.

John Miller’s Weekly Messenger was established on January 16, 1807.   The name was later changed to the Pendleton Messenger following Miller’s death at the end of the year.   It was sold to an Anderson paper in 1858.

Other than the few historical markers in Pendleton John Miller slipped into obscurity upon his death…..just one more person who fought for what he believed in and made his mark by avoiding the sidelines.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere, and I’m not just referring to historical content either.

I’ve written about John Miller’s grandson and his role in our American story here.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Myths, Memories and Music

On October 2, 1925, the Church Hill section of Richmond, Virginia suffered a great tragedy when a train tunnel caved in at the exact moment a train happened to be in the tunnel.  Several people lost their lives.  

It wasn’t long after the cave-in that a story began circulating describing a blood covered creature with jagged teeth.  Huge patches of decomposing skin were hanging off the creature’s legs and arms.  The tale went on to explain how at the time of the tragic cave-in the creature made his way towards the James River and then to Hollywood Cemetery where he was last seen entering the crypt that belonged to William Worthan Pool.

It only added to the story that Mr. Pool’s burial site did not share a birth date…only the year he died….1913. 

He never died?  Seriously?

Somehow the story morphed into a vampire story and the tale of the Richmond Vampire was widely told through the years.   Mr. Pool had lived a very ordinary life before passing away at the age of 80. He moved to Virginia in the 1860s and had clerked for many years in one of the tobacco factories in the area and had last been employed as bookkeeper.

So…..fact, or myth?

Researchers have determined that there was a creature of sorts that day at the cave-in, but he didn’t run off and hide in Mr. Pool’s crypt.   The creature’s name was Benjamin F. Mosby.  He worked for the railroad.   The day of the crash he was working as the fireman which meant he was shoveling coal into the steam tank of the train.   At the time of the accident Mosby was scalded and burned terribly….some sources state “beyond recognition”.   Mosby was taken to Grace Hospital in Richmond.  His burns were too severe though and he passed away the following day. 

So much for the Richmond Vampire, but the tale isn’t the only reason why Hollywood Cemetery is one of Richmond’s most popular tourist attractions.   There are many other reasons, too.

I attended a house concert last Saturday night.   A house concert is a musical performance presented in someone’s home or other private space.  The benefits of a house concert are many….including the fact that a certain intimacy exists between the performers and the audience during the performance.   Think about one of your favorite performers coming to your home and providing a concert for you and a few of your friends, and you get the idea.

I was fortunate enough to bask in the music of Jeff Pike, a personal friend of mine, and Hugo Duarte  as they brought their Frozen Gringo tour through Atlanta along with approximately 30 other people. 

There was lots of great music mixed in with great stories.  

The Frozen Gringos....Jeff Pike and Hugo Duarte....Marietta, Georgia
In fact, one of Hugo Duarte’s stories reminded me about the fascinating cemetery in Richmond, Virginia that overlooks the James River.  The place is so much more than the myth of the Richmond Vampire. It seems that Hugo was in the cemetery late one afternoon after closing time......and he ended up on the wrong side of the locked front gate.

Hollywood Cemetery was established in 1849 from land that had long been known as “Harvie’s Woods.”   The cemetery website states, “The land that is now Hollywood was inherited by  William Byrd, III and was part of his graceful estate, Belvidere, on what is  now Oregon Hill.  After Byrd wasted his fortune on foolish schemes [sounds like a good story there] his land passed through Bushrod Washington and Lighthorse Harry Lee to Colonel John Harvie.”

Hollywood Cemetery with the James River in the background
The name….”Hollywood”…came from the number of holly trees scattered about the property. 

There are so many people buried at Hollywood…important people…historical figures. such as President James Monroe and President John Tyler as well as the only President of the Confederate States of America….Jefferson Davis.

….and then there ARE the 25 Confederate generals resting at Hollywood along with 18,000 Confederate soldiers (see this link).

There are many stories regarding all sorts of sightings of spirts at the cemetery along with the eerie feeling many advise they get while on the property.    

Hollywood Cemetery....it does seem a little spooky.
Hugo Duarte is no different.  His song….Hollywood…recounts his own visit to the property....after regular hours.    In 2007, he sang the song for General Pickett’s birthday along with Eddie Pickett.

I love the words…..

Hey, boys this is Hollywood.  It ain’t home, but It’s home for good.  We’d walk away from here if we could…never come back again.

And later in the song…..

Then General Pickett strode right up to me and in a troubled voice he said, “Ya’ll ain’t learned a damn thing from history….”

Take a listen for yourself…..

I’d have to agree with General Pickett.   We haven't learned anything...yet.

You can see future Frozen Gringo tour dates here.  If you are close by one of their shows I strong urge you to attend. :)