Monday, October 5, 2015

Our well regulated militia. Isn't.

"Conservatives often embrace “originalism,” the idea that the meaning of the Constitution was fixed when it was ratified, in 1787. They mock the so-called liberal idea of a “living” constitution, whose meaning changes with the values of the country at large. But there is no better example of the living Constitution than the conservative re-casting of the Second Amendment in the last few decades of the twentieth century."

Jeffrey Toobin, "So You Think You Know the Second Amendment," The New Yorker, December 17, 2012. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Malcolm X Day

"Malcolm X NYWTS 2a" by Ed Ford, World Telegram staff photographer - Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Malcolm X was born on May 19, 1925. His birthday is celebrated as a holiday in Berkeley, California.

I attended the debate between Malcolm X and James Farmer at the Cornell University Law School on March 7, 1962, and later had a chance to talk with both Malcolm and Farmer at a small post-debate reception at Telluride House.

In the debate, James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and leader of the Freedom Rides of the previous year, argued for integration as the only moral and practical way forward for the country. Progress was slow, he conceded, but progress was happening.

Malcolm, who was at the time still a minister in the Nation of Islam, and who was accompanied by two bodyguards (and, unknown to us, apparently by FBI observers) argued for separation of the races on the grounds that integration was not working and that in any case American blacks wanted not "an integrated cup of coffee" but "freedom, justice, and equality."

A transcript of the debate was later published in a local newsletter; it has been reprinted in Ronald Reid and James Klumpp, American Public Discourse.


Benson, Thomas W. "Rhetoric and Autobiography: The Case of Malcolm X." Quarterly Journal Of Speech 60, no. 1 (February 1974): 1-13.

Farmer, James. Lay Bare the Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1985.

Malcolm X. Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley. New York: Ballantine, reprint ed. 1992.

Reid, Ronald, and James Klumpp. American Rhetorical Discourse. Waveland, 1988, 1995, 2005.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Jackson State, May 14, 1970

photo: Laying of commemorative wreath at Jackson State University, May 2015. photo credit: Jackson State University.

On May 14, 1970, ten days after the shootings at Kent State University in Ohio, police responding to student demonstrations at Jackson State College in Mississippi fired over 400 shots into a women's dormitory. Every window in the building facing the attacking police was broken.

Two young black men were killed--Phillip L. Gibbs, a junior, and James Earl Green, a high school student.


NPR report Whitney Blair Wyckoff, "A Tragedy Widely Forgotten," NPR, May 3, 2010.

Jackson State University. "45 Years Later: Ghost of Police Brutality Lingers Nationwide as JSU Remembers Gibbs-Green Tragedy."

Brown v. Board of Education

The Warren Court. photo: Wikipedia

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Ruling unanimously, in an opinion written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the Court declared that racial segregation in public schools was a violation of the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

People's Park

photo: Mural at Haste Street and Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley, California. Detail showing the killing of James Rector by Alameda County Sheriff's Deputies on May 15, 1969. Photo by Tom Benson, February 2013 (copyright).

On May 15, 1969, students at the University of California, Berkeley, and local citizens, demonstrated against California Governor Ronald Reagan's arbitrary fencing off of an unused field near the university that had become known as People's Park.

Oakland police, state police, and, Alameda County sheriff's deputies, many of them Vietnam Veterans, were called on to quell the demonstrations and were issued live ammunition. The deputies were apparently armed with shotguns, loaded with buckshot.

James Rector, a graduate student, was with a group of friends watching the events from a rooftop when deputies opened fire. Rector was killed. Another bystander was blinded.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Freedom Rides

Beginning in May 1961 and continuing through the summer, the Freedom Rides, initiated by the Congress of Racial Equality and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee spread through the South.

The Freedom Rides were designed to test and encourage enforcement of a Supreme Court decision declaring segregation in interstate transportation illegal -- a direct challenge to the decades old Jim Crow laws and practices that segregated transportation throughout the South.

On May 14, 1961, a Greyhound bus was attacked outside Anniston, Alabama. With the collusion of local and state police and the local KKK, the bus was firebombed with the driver and passengers held inside, with the intention of killing them all. When that failed, the mob attempted to lynch the passengers, who had fled the bus, but they were prevented by warning shots by the police. The passengers were badly beaten, arrested, and jailed.


PBS documentary, Freedom Riders, in the American Experience series.

Wikipedia, Freedom Riders.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Frances Perkins Day

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signing the National Labor Relations Act, 1933. Frances Perkins is standing behind the president. June 6, 1933. photo: FDR Library.

Today -- May 13 -- is celebrated in the Episcopal Church calendar as a feast day for Frances Perkins (1880-1965), who was Secretary of Labor in the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. She served for the entire administration and was the longest serving Secretary of Labor, as well as the first woman in the Constitutional line of succession for the presidency.


Perkins, Frances. The Roosevelt I Knew. Reprint edition. New York: Penguin Classics, 2011.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Operation Abolition

On May 12-14, 1960, the House Committee on Un-American Activities held hearings at City Hall in San Francisco.

Hundreds of students from nearby universities, and other concerned citizens, both supporters of the Committee (many of whom had been sent tickets to the hearings) and opponents, who claimed that the Committee was a notorious abuser of civil liberties, converged on City Hall.

Students attempting to enter the hearing room were forcibly removed from the building by police. Film of the events made by local TV stations was commandeered by the Committee, which then commissioned the production of a film, OPERATION ABOLITION, to tell the story from the Committee's point of view.

There was a strong reaction against the Committee and the film on many campuses across the country. In fact, the copy of the film now available on YouTube is deposited there by the American Civil Liberties Union - ACLU.

These hearings, and the reaction that followed, when added to the new activism on Civil Rights generated by the sit-ins spreading through the South and the rest of the country, gave enormous energy to what was to become the student movement.

These events took place ten years before the events of May 1970, which saw  the invasion of Cambodia and the shootings at Kent State, Jackson State, and Augusta, Georgia.

Stills from Operation Abolition. These frames show students and others being dragged down the City Hall steps, which had been flooded by fire hoses. 

The film prompted a backlash among students who saw the film and were offended by its simple minded appeal and by the apparent brutality of the police.