Monday, April 30, 2007

May 1

Four years ago today, in separate incidents, United States President George W. Bush and then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced that "major combat" operations had concluded in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively.

Speaking in Kabul with Afghan president Hamid Karzai, Rumsfeld cheerfully declared that
we're at a point where we clearly have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilization and reconstruction activities. The bulk of this country today is permissive, it's secure. . .

I should underline, however, that there are still dangers, there are still pockets of resistance in certain parts of the country. And General McNeill and General Franks and the cooperation they have with President Karzai's government and leadership and Marshal Fahim's assistance we will be continuing as a country to work with the Afghan government and the new Afghan national army to see that any areas where there is resistance to this government and to the coalition forces will be dealt with promptly and efficiently.
Over the summer of 2003, as Rumsfeld's words drifted into the background, Taliban forces regathered themselves, replenishing their forces from the madrassas in Pakistan from which their movement originally sprung. By 2006, the promised "stability" in Afghanistan had unraveled. In that year, more that 5000 attacks -- especially suicide bombings, IED's and direct-fire incidents -- were launched against Afghan and coalition forces. Meantime, reconstruction efforts lagged badly, with much needed resources and attention diverted to the abattoir in Iraq. By 2007, Afghanistan had reclaimed its position as the world's largest opium producer, with 6100 tons of "God's own medicine" having entered the global market over the previous year.

Less than an hour before Rumsfeld's historic overstatement, George W. Bush took a 30 mile ride on a Navy jet -- a distance easily spanned by the president's less cinematic helicopter -- and enjoyed a tailhook landing aboard the USS Lincoln, which floated off the coast of Southern California. There, after strutting across the deck of the aricraft carrier in his flight suit, got a head start on the 2004 re-election campaign by delivering a speech beneath an enormous banner that declared "Mission Accomplished." As Bush explained,
major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.

And now our coalition is engaged in securing and reconstructing that country.

In this battle, we have fought for the cause of liberty and for the peace of the world . . . .

This nation thanks all of the members of our coalition who joined in a noble cause. We thank the armed forces of the United Kingdom, Australia and Poland who shared in the hardships of war. We thank all of the citizens of Iraq who welcomed our troops and joined in the liberation of their own country.

And tonight, I have a special word for Secretary Rumsfeld, for General Franks and for all the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States: America is grateful for a job well done.

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April 30

The Anglo conquest of the American Southwest took a bloody leap forward on this date in 1871, as a band of Mexican and Tohono O'odham vigilantes -- laboring in the service of a handful of whites -- obliterated an Apache encampment at Camp Grant, located fifty miles to the northeast of Tuscon. There, scores of Aravaipa and Pinal Apache were slaughtered in about half an hour; as was often the case with Indian massacres, most of the victims were women and children. The precise numbers have never been determined, though contemporary historians usually estimate the number of dead anywhere from 85 to 144 Apache, as well as several dozen infants who were taken and sold into servitude.

The Apache had relocated to Camp Grant in February and March 1871, when the pressures of white settlement and the complexities of regional land conflicts drove more than five hundred to seek federal security and rations in exchange for a promise of peace. The officer in charge of the facility, Lt. Royal Whitman, described the Indians as quite agreeable and later emerged as their strongest -- if most futile -- defender. Meantime, livestock raids and reprisal killings continued apace in the region, and community leaders elected to blame the Aravaipa, whom they alleged were continuing to harass white settlers in Tucson, San Xavier, Tubac, Sonoita, and San Pedro. In late March, prominent white Tusconans formed the Committee on Public Safety, a citizens' group that unsuccessfully petitioned the federal government for protection and redress. Finding no satisfaction, William S. Oury -- a veteran of the Mexican War and a former delegate to the Confederate Congress -- organized a hunting party and set them loose upon the Indians camped at Fort Grant.

Just after dawn on Sunday, 30 April 1871, the armed posse began firing upon the Aravaipa, who were still sleeping. C. B. Briesly, a surgeon in the US Army, described the aftermath later that year in a sworn affidavit presented to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The camp had been fired and the dead bodies of some twenty-two women and children were lying scattered over the ground; those who had been wounded in the first instance, had their brains beaten out with stones. Two of the best-looking of the squaws were lying in such a position, and from the appearance of the genital organs and of their wounds, there can be no doubt that they were first ravished and then shot dead. Nearly all the dead were mutilated. One infant of some ten months was shot twice and one leg nearly hacked off.
As with the Chivington Massacre in Colorado less than a decade before, the Eastern public was astonished to hear word of the slaughter. President Ulysses S. Grant denounced the conduct of the vigilantes, while other federal officials called for justice to be served.

In the trans-Mississippi West, the appraisal was considerably more generous to the perpetrators of the massacre. In December 1871, more than 100 defendants were found "Not Guilty" of the crime of murder of 108 people at Camp Grant. After a trial that sensationalized and distorted the record of Apache depredations against whites, the jury took a mere 19 minutes to reach its verdict. Relations between the various Apache bands and the United States degenerated quickly into an open war that would carry into 1873.

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

April 28

Today is the anniversary of the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre, when 28-year-old Martin Bryant killed 35 people at a popular Tasmanian tourist site.

Socially inept and detached since childhood. Martin Bryant was regarded with caution by nearly everyone who knew him. After shacking up in his early 20s with an eccentric middle-aged heiress to the Tatersall’s Lottery fortune, Bryant inherited her estate when she died in a car accident. Suddenly rich, Bryant used his dead friend’s cash to travel the world over the next few years. Hoping a long last to make friends, he found that most people were reluctant to chat with him because of his creepy demeanor; according to some of his acquaintances and family members, his adventures abroad disappointed him greatly and increased his sense of isolation. Returning to Australia, Bryant’s developed an intense fascination with guns and eventually bought several semiautomatic weapons from an unlicensed dealer in Hobart, the Tasmanian capital.

On 28 April 1996, Bryant snapped at long last. After eating lunch at the Broad Arrow Café, Bryant retrieved his weapons from a large duffel bag and shot 20 people in a matter of minutes. Proceeding to the parking lot, he wounded and killed several other tourists before escaping in his Yellow Volvo. As he drove from the site of Australia’s most brutal 19th century prison colony, Bryant stopped along the road to shoot nearly a dozen more people before taking a hostage -- whom he later killed -- and sequestering himself inside a guesthouse called the Seascape Cottage, whose owners he had already shot prior to the mass assault at the cafe. As the hours passed, police from Victoria and New South Wales descended on Port Arthur. The siege became the largest single police action in the nation’s history.

Early the next morning, after police failed to persuade Bryant to surrender, Australia’s greatest mass murderer set fire to the cottage. Pulled from the blaze and arrested, a severely burned Martin Bryant eventually received 35 consecutive life sentences.

Bryant has never precisely explained his motives for embarking on the spree. Asked once by police interviewers to explain himself, Bryant responded that "I'd really love to help you out, but I can't." Whatever his rationale, he was most certainly not celebrating the birthday of Saddam Hussein, who turned 59 that day.



Thursday, April 26, 2007

April 26


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

April 25

Eighteen years ago today, a migrant fruit picker from Arcadia, Florida named James Joseph Richardson was released from prison in Florida, where he had languished 21 years for seven murders he did not in fact commit. The seven victims were his children and step-children, who succumbed to pesticide poisoning in late October 1967.

Tried and found guilty the following year, Richardson received a sentence of death that was vacated in 1972, when the Supreme Court temporarily invalidated the nation’s capital punishment laws. After the Furman ruling, Richardson’s sentence was altered to 25 years without the possibility for parole. He continued to insist on his innocence, though no one of any importance believed him until 1989, when an investigation by Miami-Dade state attorney Janet Reno concluded that James Joseph Richardson was in all likelihood innocent of all charges.

As it turned out, the lethal doses of parathion were administered by Richardson’s next-door neighbor Betsy Reese, who was babysitting them at the time and had fed them a lunch of rice and beans shortly before they died. Reese was upset that her third husband had forsaken her for one of Richardson’s relatives. At the time, Reese was on parole for shooting and killing her second husband; her first husband had also died under mysterious circumstances after eating a meal she had prepared for him. All of this was apparently known to prosecutors at the time, but charged Richardson instead. To make their case, they accused Richardson of having taken out life insurance policies on his children the day before the deaths. They also insisted that a sack of parathion had been discovered in his shed. Neither allegation was true, though the state also relied on perjured testimony from three men -- jailhouse acquaintances of the accused -- who claimed that Richardson had confessed the crime to them. Each of the three men received an early release.

After Richardson’s conviction was overturned by a circuit court judge in April 1989, the State of Florida did not offer him financial restitution, arguing that he had not filed the proper court documents. According to Richardson’s former attorney, Richardson -- now 70 years old -- is penniless and living in the Midwest.



Tuesday, April 24, 2007

April 24

The Cold War rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union claimed another victim forty years ago today, when cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov plummeted 150 miles to Earth aboard the Soyuz I spacecraft. The accident took place three months after the United States lost three astronauts in the Apollo 1 fire; it set the Soviet space program back by nearly two years, helping to assure that the United States would be the first superpower to reach the Moon.

Described posthumously by the Communist Party as “a loyal son of our motherland and a courageous explorer of space,” Komarov was incinerated when the ship struck the ground near Orenburg, Siberia after both its main and reserve parachutes failed, with the latter becoming hopelessly tangled in the drag chute. The tangled chute was the last of a seemingly endless sequence of failures after the previous day’s launch. Upon arrival into orbit, one of the craft’s solar panels failed to deploy, leaving the orbiter without sufficient power to maneuver. After a fate-tempting thirteen cycles around the planet, and with Komarov quickly losing his ability to stabilize the Soyuz, the decision was made to attempt re-entry, with results that were -- to understate the matter -- less than optimal.

The entire Soyuz project had been a chaotic mess to this point -- a situation that Komarov’s death only underscored. Previous unmanned Soyuz test flights had all ended badly, and it was widely known among the Soviet engineers and cosmonauts that the program was riddled with flaws. Despite the knowledge that literally hundreds of design problems jeopardized the launch, Party officials were determined to move ahead so that the first Soyuz missions would coincide with state celebrations of Lenin’s birthday. Before the launch, Komarov himself joked that if he were bumped from the mission, Yuri Gagarin -- a national hero -- would die instead.

Americans listening to Soviet radio transmissions claimed later that they could hear Komarov -- who had been able to say goodbye to his wife and children before re-entry -- cursing and berating the engineers and flight planners as his ship scorched the atmosphere at 400 miles and hour.

(Last year's post)

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Monday, April 23, 2007

April 23

James Buchanan, arguably the worst chief executive in American history, was born on this date in 1791. The only president to hail from Pennsylvania, Buchanan stood for nearly everything the state’s Quaker founders detested, including the institution of slavery, which he sought to extend before watching inertly as it cleaved the nation in two.

A lawyer by training, Buchanan ascended into political life as a young man and migrated from the Pennsylvania House of Representatives to the US Congress, in both of whose chambers “Old Buck” resided during the 1820s and 1830s. When not enrolled as a legislator, Buchanan was employed as a diplomat, serving the Tennessee imperialist James K. Polk as Secretary of State during the most priapic era of Manifest Destiny, 1845-1849.. Two years before his election to high office, Buchanan gave even more ballast to his imperialist credentials by helping draft the disastrous Ostend Manifesto (1854), which essentially demanded that Spain agree to the sale of Cuba to the United States. The manifesto, composed in Belgium, advised President Franklin Pierce that if Spain proved “dead to the voice of her own interest, and actuated by stubborn pride and a false sense of honor, should refuse to sell Cuba to the United States,” the United States would be obliged to act strongly in the name of “self-preservation.” Insisting that Cuba’s domestic troubles might spill into the southern United States, Buchanan and his fellows advised that the US could rightfully dislodge the island from Spanish rule. They likened it to a desperate individual “tearing down the burning house of his neighbor if there were no other means of preventing the flames from destroying his own home.”

The Manifesto was a disaster for slavery’s advocates, who were ever more desperately arguing that the extension of the Peculiar Institution was the only means of preserving it where it already existed. The document fueled Northern suspicions that elements of the “Slave Power” were mobilizing to thwart the ambitions of free white landowners. Such concerns were further fueled by the insistence of Southern Democrats -- and even many Whigs -- that the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850 had unlawfully restrained slavery’s growth into the Western territories. On the great moral and political questions of the day, Buchanan was unmistakably supportive of the Southern cause.

When Buchanan was elected to the White House in 1856, only five of the sixteen so-called “Free States” endorsed his ticket, while the slaveholding regions of the country voiced nearly unanimous approval (losing Maryland to Millard Fillmore). As President, Buchanan returned the love. He heartily congratulated the Supreme Court on its notorious Dred Scott decision, which was issued mere days after his inauguration; he supported the admission of Kansas (where the Civil War had already commenced) as a slave state; and when the first, petulant wave of Southern secession occurred in late 1860, Buchanan blamed the “intemperate interference of the Northern people” for the troubles. While Buchanan had six years earlier recommended an imperial war against Cuba in the name of “self-preservation,” he could not bring himself to lift a finger in the cause of preserving the Union. Instead, he insisted that the President could do nothing to scold a recalcitrant state like South Carolina. Moreover, he urged Congress -- whose lower house was run by a free-soil Republican majority -- to succumb to the demands of man-stealers and lawbreakers. By forever securing white rights to human property, Buchanan believed that a Constitutional amendment would “restore peace and harmony to this distracted country.”

Buchanan then did practically nothing until he left office in March 1861.

(Last year's post)

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

April 22

A calamity shrouded by state secrecy occurred three years ago today in Ryongchon, North Korea, where a train explosion killed several hundred people while leveling nearly 2000 houses within a 500 meter radius. According to Red Cross observers, at least 76 children died in the blast when their school was obliterated. Although the precise cause of the disaster has never quite been ascertained, the best guess appears to be that a wagon loaded with ammonium nitrate fertilizer was accidentally detonated by an electrical charge when it was shunted to a car brimming with fuel oil.

The Ryongchon explosion took place twelve years after a horrific volley of explosions blew apart huge sections of the working class Alamo district in Guadalajara, Mexico’s second largest city. Here, 206 people died and more than 500 were injured when corroding PeMex gasoline pipes leaked fluid into the city’s sewer system. For days prior, residents of the city had complained of gas fumes in their homes; some even witnessed gasoline flowing from their sink faucets. City officials were investigating the problem when the city lit up like a Roman candle at 10:06 a.m. on Wednesday, 22 April 1992. Over the course of four hours, a series of blasts tore apart six miles of sewer lines, destroying hundreds of buildings and vehicles and rendering 15,000 people homeless. Nearly two dozen city blocks collapsed into massive, 60-foot ravines, where more than 230,000 tons of rubble crushed everything. The explosions registered around 7.0 on the Richter scale. Buses were tossed onto rooftops.

As in South Korea a dozen years later, the source of the ignition could never be clearly reconstructed. It is quite possible, however, that the spark from a dropped manhole precipitated the disaster.

(Last year's post)



Friday, April 20, 2007

April 20

On this date in 1968 -- the anniversary of Hitler’s birth -- the reactionary British MP Enoch Powell delivered the most notorious speech of his career. Speaking at the West the West Midlands Conservative Political Centre in Birmingham, Powell discharged a lengthy tirade against an anti-discrimination bill being debated in Parliament.

Warning that immigrants from the British Commonwealth were overwhelming the resources of the UK while diluting its cultural integrity, Powell insisted that the nation was “insane” for permitting undesirable souls from pouring into the country. He likened it to watching a nation “heaping up its own funeral pyre.” Quoting Virgil’s Aeneid, Powell urged his countrymen not to allow the United Kingdom to go the way of the United States:
As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see 'the River Tiber foaming with much blood'. That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect. Indeed, it has all but come. In numerical terms, it will be of American proportions long before the end of the century. Only resolute and urgent action will avert it even now. Whether there will be the public will to demand and obtain that action, I do not know. All I know is that to see, and not to speak, would be the great betrayal.
While the “Rivers of Blood” speech provoked much outrage -- and did nothing to halt the passage of the antidiscrimination law -- Enoch Powell became the George Wallace of his land, a hero to racists and xenophobes and a symbol of unrepentant, white supremacist defiance. Although he received tens of thousands of supportive telegams after the speech, Powell lost his position in the opposition Shadow Cabinet; his sacking led to protests on April 23 among dockworkers and other laborers in London and elsewhere. In due time, Powell’s fellow travelers began offering their support by wearing buttons and pins declaring that “Enoch Was Right.”

(Last year's post.)



Wednesday, April 18, 2007

April 18

Not long after 5:00 a.m. one hundred and one years ago, the city of San Francisco convulsed when the plates along the San Andreas Fault unexpectedly slipped several meters to the right. The resulting earthquake -- now believed to have reached a magnitude of 7.7 to 7.9 on the Richter Scale -- could be felt across an area of 375,000 square miles from Oregon to Los Angeles and eastward into Nevada. The destruction was massive throughout the region, though nowhere was the quake felt more than in the city. Buildings dropped to the ground, especially in the South-of-Market area of the city, where tenement buildings thundered down, trapping and killing thousands of working class and poor San Franciscans.

One eyewitness somehow avoided the fate that quite literally struck so many that day. He lived to describe it:
Outside I witnessed a sight I never want to see again. It was dawn and light. I looked up. The air was filled with falling stones. People around me were crushed to death on all sides. All around the huge buildings were shaking and waving. Every moment there were reports like 100 cannons going off at one time. Then streams of fire would shoot out, and other reports followed.

I asked a man standing next to me what happened. Before he could answer a thousand bricks fell on him and he was killed. A woman threw her arms around my neck. I pushed her away and fled. All around me buildings were rocking and flames shooting. As I ran people on all sides were crying, praying and calling for help. I thought the end of the world had come.
By mid-day, the fires had begun; by the end of the day, much of the city was alight. Troops from Ft. Miley began dynamiting buildings to create fire breaks. Not infrequently, the explosions created more fires. Most civilians were able to make their way to some kind of safety, although thousands of people were unable to leave their neighborhoods due to the reefs of debris. In addition to the 500 alleged looters whose bodies were left in the streets as a warning to imitators, military and police officers shot at least four people who could not be rescued from the flames -- one man who was pinned under burning rubble, and three who were trapped on the roof of the Windsor Hotel at Fifth and Market, not long before the roof collapsed. Five thousand people witnessed the mercy killings at the Windsor.

By the time the fires exhausted themselves four days later, 25,000 buildings no longer existed, and nearly 500 city blocks were reduced to ruin. Half to three-quarters of the city’s 400,000 people were rendered homeless. An accurate count of the dead was never accomplished; the best contemporary estimates suggest that 3000 people or more may have perished in the earthquake and fire.



Sunday, April 15, 2007

April 16

On 16 April 1947, the French ship Grandcamp -- a salvaged American vessel formerly known as the Benjamin R. Curtis -- was to be loaded with twine, peanuts, drilling equipment, tobacco, cotton, and about 17 million pounds of ammonium nitrate, shipped to the port at Texas City from Nebraska and Iowa. When a fire erupted in Hold 4 of the ship around 8:00 a.m., crew members and local firefights spent an hour trying to extinguish the blaze before the fertilizer ignited, causing a massive explosion that destroyed everything in a several-hundred yard radius. A 15-foot tidal wave surged over the port facilities, tossing boats indiscriminately; one 150-foot oil barge was tossed 200 feet. Bodies cut in half by flying steel clotted the harbor, and smoldering cotton and twine showered the city, igniting fires that ultimately burned for days. The ship’s anchor -- weighing 3000 pounds -- was discovered two miles away. Ruptured oil tanks and pipes dumped crude slicks into the harbor. Flaming debris set them alight. At 1:00 a.m., the USS High Flyer -- which had been docked next to the Grandcamp and was also bulging with explosive chemicals -- erupted into flames and was itself torn asunder by an explosion that showered the city with more steel debris.

The explosion of the Grandcamp could be heard 150 miles in the distance, and it has sometimes been claimed that the blast was interpreted by Colorado seismologists as a nuclear bomb -- the possibility of which sent the United States’ Strategic Air Command into a temporarily heightened nuclear alert. Over $32 million worth of property was destroyed.

Carrie Born Baker, a young mother at the time of the disaster, recalled the event a half century later:
I was waiting for a Houston salesman to come show me drapery material. As we looked at his fabric, the blast blew the door open in his face, and he took off for Houston. I grabbed Sheary and ran outside. Deafening sirens were blaring. Police cars and ambulances were everywhere. My nieghbor's husband and son-in-law worked at the docks, and she kept fainting.

A nieghbor came by in his flatbed truck and made us get in. I didn't want to leave but another explosion was expected, and I had to get my brothers, sisters, and baby to safety. My older brother drove to Houston to tell my husband Tommy and Dad where we were going . . .

My brother-in-law, Truman Baker, was a Monsanto foreman, last seen going to the fire. Tommy and his brother-in-law, Walter Stidham, were part of group searching for bodies. They kept looking for Truman and Walter's father. It took a long time to find them. Fingerprints and dental work indentified Truman. Tommy never liked to think of the explosion because all he could see was the bodies and pieces of bodies, and smell that awful smell. When he thought of his brother, he remembered his face caved-in.

I knew a lot of people that died that day. Many I worked with at Monsanto or lived near. I lost friends, family and many acquaintances. I will never forget that day even though many names have faded from memory.
The exact death toll of the Texas City explosion could never be accurately determined, since so many of the missing were never recovered, and because there were untold numbers of workers and seamen who may have been visiting or working at the facility without documentation. The best estimates, however, are that nearly 600 people died and several thousand more suffered injuries. The entire Texas City volunteer fire department -- twenty-eight members in all -- perished.



April 15

Many amazing people were born on this date: sociologist Emile Durkheim, journalist and labor leader Asa Philip Randolph, the incomparable blues mistress Bessie Smith, and Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci, interestingly enough, once wrote that "the act of procreation and anything that has any relation to it is so disgusting that human beings would soon die out if there were no pretty faces and sensuous dispositions." Perhaps if the sensuous Omer Lay and the pretty Ruth Reese Lay had taken heed of da Vinci's nauseated warning in the late summer of 1941, the world might have been spared the birth of Kenneth Lee "Kenny Boy" Lay -- a human monster -- nine months later.

Ken Lay's official website remembers him not as a horrid corporate criminal but as a paternalistic, plantation master:
Ken loved Enron, and saw the company as one of limitless possibilities. He often talked of the incredible talent at Enron and believed that the Enron employees were unsurpassed in any industry. Ken believed the real value of Enron was in its people. From the most junior employee to his top executives, Ken treated all with the same dignity and respect they deserved as children of God. Employees often remarked on how he recalled their names, family, and other personal details they shared with him.
Those employees -- 20,000 of whom lost their jobs in the greatest corporate collapse in American history -- now remember Ken Lay as the man who urged them to sink their pensions into Enron's company stock. Their retirement nest eggs liquidated by the staggering venality of Lay and Jeff Skilling, many of these people will now have to work until they quite literally drop dead.

If Lay had not devoted his life to plugging his arteries with rich, fatty spunk, he would have turned 65 years old today. Of course he would quite probably have spent his special day in prison, eating pan brownies instead of defrauding the public; instead, like an unwanted gas station hot dog, Ken Lay now rotates slowly and eternally on a greasy, barbed grate in the nether reaches of Hell. Sadly, Kenny Boy's passing was not the joyous occasion it should by all rights have been. By virtue of an agonizing quirk of law, Lay's death -- because it happened before his federal convictions could be affirmed -- vacated all charges against him.



Friday, April 13, 2007

April 13

Today is the 134th anniversary of the massacre in Colfax, Louisiana, where white and black militias clashed in an Easter Sunday battle that left scores of blacks dead. According to a racist historical marker located at the site of the killings, the white victory “marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.”

The roots of the massacre originated with the disputed elections of 1872, which produced rival claimants to the governorship as well as local offices throughout the state; as conservative whites labored to bring an end to Reconstruction and restore white rule, their candidates struggled for power against black and white Republicans backed by the US Congress and President Ulysses S. Grant. Parallel inaugural ceremonies were conducted on 14 January 1873, as two different governors asserted their authority. Political order throughout the state collapsed, and open, organized violence took its place. In Grant Parish, a newly-created majority black district located in central Louisiana, the contest for local offices of judge and sheriff led initially to the installation of white candidates. These “victors” were soon nudged aside, however, by a federal judge who ruled in favor of their black rivals (who probably won the election in the first place). When the officials took control of the courthouse, hundreds of black residents of the parish, fearing reprisals, took shelter at the courthouse as irregular white forces assembled across the countryside and converged on the town of Colfax.

As the Colfax Chronicle deceptively recounted the events in 1914,
The Negroes took over and rioted, rifled homes, and said they were going to kill all the white men and take their white women and start a new race. The Negroes then carried out rape, robbery and murder. They took white judge Rutland's deceased son's casket out of the judge's home and threw it on the ground.

Alarm over the Negro's action spread into the surrounding Parishes and 200 white men responded to the call for help. They demanded the Negroes give up the offices and records. The Negroes said no. The Negroes also threw up breastworks from trenches they dug around the courthouse. The whites told the Negroes to remove their women and children, which they did. Some Negroes went home due to the delay in fighting, just a standoff. Several days passed.
After a nearly two-week seige, on Easter 1873 the assembled white mob -- led by former Confederate army officers -- set fire to the courthouse. When armed blacks fired on the white paramilitary force, a four-hour battle commenced. By the end, three members of the White League had been killed while more than one hundred blacks died. Most of the deaths took place after the fighting had ceased as the White League forces shot, mutilated and dumped the bodies of their victims into the Red River.

Although federal charges were brought against nine Colfax conspirators under the 1870 Enforcement Act, the Supreme Court ruled in Cruikshank (1876) that the 14th Amendment -- which the 1870 law was intended to uphold -- applied only to state actions and did not apply to individuals.

With the Supreme Court’s stamp of approval, the rout was on. In the wake of the violence at Colfax, white paramilitary forces assembled throughout the state and across the South with the aim of ending “Negro domination” once and for all. In 1874, Louisiana gubernatorial candidate John McEnery insisted that “we shall carry the next election, if we have to ride saddle-deep in blood to do it.” Although his boast was not fulfilled, the violence in Louisiana continued. Republicans held control for three more years until the collapse of Reconstruction in 1877.

(cross-posted at Axis of Evel Knievel)

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

April 12

It’s been 450 years since Thomas Loseby, Henry Ramsey, Thomas Thirtel, Margaret Hide and Agnes Stanley were roasted at the stake in Smithfield, England, having been convicted of the awful crime of heresy. The executions occurred (as so many did) during the bloody reign of Queen Mary I, whose religious commitments were more of the Catholic sort than her recent predecessors -- including her father, Henry VIII, who broke with the Church in order to divorce her mother, Catherine of Aragon, in 1533. The five were originally “apprehended for not commyng to their Parishe Churches,” but their offenses were soon discovered to extend to even greater depths; among other shocking theological breaches, they rejected infant baptism, prayers to the saints, and five of the seven sacraments -- including confession.

Summoned before the notorious Bishop Edmund Bonner in London, the five stalwarts refused to back down from their opposition to Catholic doctrine. Henry Ramsey, when pressed on the issue, humbly declared that
my opinions be the very truth, whiche I will stand unto, and not go from them: and I say unto you farther, that there are two Churches upon the earth, and we (meanyng him selfe and other true Martyrs and professours of Christ) be of the true Church, and ye be not.
Agnes Stanley was even more succinct, vowing that “I had rather that every heare of my head were burned, if it were never so much worth, [than] I will forsake my fayth and opinion which is the true fayth.”

Stanley soon received her wish. On 12 April 1557, as Foxe’s Book of Martrys explains, the five accused were destroyed “altogether in one fire, most joyfully & constantly they ended their temporall lives, receivyng therfore the lyfe eternall.”

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

April 11

11 April 2002:



April 10

Perhaps the most sophisticated submarine of its day was crushed 44 years ago today off the coast of Cape Cod. The USS Thresher, a 3700-ton Permit class nuclear submarine, was desiged to navigate deeper and move faster than any previous submarine, for the purpose of hunting down and destryong missile-firing subs developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. After an overhaul during the winter, the Thresher sailed to New England to conduct deep-water tests. On the morning of 10 April 1963. a design flaw -- most likely located along the steel bonded fittings in the sub’s piping system -- caused 100,000 pounds of water to spray into the sub, tilting its nose upward and shutting down the vessel’s reactor. Without power, the Thresher sank toward the ocean bottom. When it reached its “crush depth,” the submarine imploded, taking the lives of 129 sailors and civilians, whose last moments must have been unendurably frantic as they struggled to regain control of the doomed vessel. Radio operators on the USS Skylark -- a naval rescue ship assigned to shadow the Thresher on its maneuvers that day -- actually heard the submarine’s last moments, which somewhat mercifully consisted merely of the sounds of metal being crushed.

The loss of the Thresher proved to be the worst peacetime naval disaster in US history. The vessel still rests in six parts along the ocean floor.



Monday, April 09, 2007

April 9

The notorious massacre of Palestinian villagers at Deir Yassin began on this date in 1948, marking a turning point in the first Arab-Israeli War. During the attack, more than 130 armed combatants from the Irgun and Lehi militias killed scores of unarmed men, women and children, likely 110-120 in all. At the time of the attack, Jerusalem was besieged by neighboring Arab armies -- the major road into the city had been cut off, and on April 6 the main Israeli army (Haganah) launched a counteroffensive known as Operation Nachshon, aimed at lifting the siege. Although the residents of Deir Yassin had successfully resisted efforts by Syrian and Iraqi forces to occupy the village in the weeks prior to the massacre, and while the town itself was not strategically important, Lehi and Irgun assaulted Deir Yassin on their own initiative on the morning of April 9. The attack was led by 132 mostly young and inexperienced fighters, armed with automatic weapons and grenades.

When the irregular forces fought their way into the village -- after receiving assistance from Haganah mortar shells -- they moved from house to house, shooting everyone who remained. Prisoners and wounded villagers were liquidated as well. One group of 20-25 men was taken to a quarry and shot. Many participants and defenders of the massacre would later insist that the killings were justified by the resistance offered up by the residents of Deir Yassin. According to several accounts, some of the village men dressed as women during the battle for the village; Jewish fighters then began shooting women indiscriminately, unsure of whom they were actually shooting.

By 11:00 a.m., the village was quiet. Meir Pa’il, an intelligence agent who was on hand for the massacre, provided one of the few eyewitness accounts of the events:
The fighting was over, yet there was the sound of firing of all kinds from different houses. Sporadic firing, not like you would hear when they clear a house. I took my chap with me and went to see what was happening. We went into houses. They were typical Arab houses. Most of the houses there are one-story, though there are a few two story houses like the Mukhtar’s house and a few others. In the corners we saw dead bodies. Almost all the dead were old people, children or women, with a few men here and there. They stood them up in the corners and shot them. In another corner there were some more bodies, in the next house more bodies and so on. They also shot people running from houses, and prisoners. Mostly women and children. Most of the Arab males had run away. It is an odd thing, but when there is danger such as this, the agile ones run away first.
In 1997, one of the former residents of Deir Yassin, Um Mahmoud, recollected the events of April 9:
We were inside the house. We heard shooting outside. My mother woke us up. We knew the Jews had attacked us. My cousin and his sister came running and said the Jews were already in our garden. In the meantime, fighting became heavier and we heard lots of gunshots outside. A bomb was thrown at us and it exploded close to where we were in the yard. (...) My sister- in-law did not want to leave. She was frightened. The girl was two months old and the boy about three. I took the two and my mother said we should go to my uncle’s house. I saw how Hilweh Zeidan was killed, along with her husband, her son, her brother and Khumayyes. Hilweh Zeidan went out to collect the body of her husband. They shot her and she fell over his body (...). I also saw Hayat Bilbeissi, a nurse from Jerusalem serving in the village, as she was shot before the house door of Musa Hassan. The daughter of Abu El Abed was shot dead as she held her niece, a baby. The baby was shot too (...). Whoever tried to run away was shot dead.
After the capture of Deir Yassin, Palestinians throughout the region fled their homes by the hundreds of thousands, fearing similar atrocities.



Friday, April 06, 2007

April 6

Wendy Orlean Williams, without question the most irrepressible female performer in the history of rock, blew her head off in Storrs, Connecticut nine years ago today. Williams fronted the thrash-punk band the Plasmatics from the late 1970s through the end of the Reagan era, during which time she destroyed televisions and automobiles on stage while facing arrest for "lewd conduct" nearly everywhere she played -- mostly for performing topless, with electical tape or shaving cream covering her nipples, and for simulating sex acts with sledgehammers and chainsaws. After the Plasmatics were banned from performing in London in 1980 -- she wanted to blow up a car on stage -- Willams explained to Creem magazine that "England is run by monkey-brained Fascist farts. We don't wanta play there."

After her musical career ended, Williams devoted much of her energy toward promoting vegetarianism and animal rights; she worked as a wildlife rehabilitator and promoted natural foods. She also made a brief appearance in an episode of MacGyver. By the late 1990s, though, Williams was mired in depression and decided she no longer wanted to live. In her suicide letter, written to longtime partner Rod Swanson, Williams wrote:
I don't believe that people should take their own lives without deep and thoughtful reflection over a considerable period of time. I do believe strongly, however, that the right to do so is one of the most fundamental rights that anyone in a free society should have. For me much of the world makes no sense, but my feelings about what I am doing ring loud and clear to an inner ear and a place where there is no self, only calm.


Four years before Wendy O. Williams took her own life with a pistol, two African presidents -- Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda and Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi -- died when Habyarimana’s Falcon 50 jet crashed near the airport in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. The plane was believed at the time to have been shot from the sky by Tutsi paramilitary forces, who had been waging a campaign for years against Rwanda’s Hutu-dominated government. The Rwandan civil war had nearly ended in August 1993, but the Arusha Accords proved unsatisfactory to Habyarimana’s party, which objected to any power-sharing arrangement with the various oppositional Tutsi factions. After Habyarimana’s deadth, Hutu militias -- most notably the the Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi -- began slaughtering Tutsis with extraordinary rapidity and in tremendous numbers. By July, perhaps a million Rwandans had been killed, most of them hacked to death with machetes.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

April 4

On 4 April 1973, Minoru Yamasaki, the chief architect of New York's World Trade Center, dedicated the site with the following words:
I feel this way about it. World trade means world peace and consequently the World Trade Center buildings in New York ... have a bigger purpose than just to provide room for tenants. The World Trade Center is a living symbol of man's dedication to world peace. ... [B]eyond the compelling need to make this a monument to world peace, the World Trade Center should, because of its importance, become a representation of man's belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his beliefs in the cooperation of men, and through cooperation, his ability to find greatness.
Several years earlier, as the towers were on their way toward their final height at over 100 stories and 1300 feet, sportswriter Roger Kahn described the project in words that now seem agonizingly prophetic. "Wind was slamming across the Hudson," he wrote, "blowing bits of debris from unfinished floors. Four thousand men had been working for two years, and the sprawling site had acquired the scarred desolation that comes with construction or with aerial bombardment."

Ten years after the dedication of the World Trade Center, the space shuttle Challenger lifted off on its first voyage. The highlight of the trip -- which had been delayed for two months by mechanical failures and weather -- was a four-hour spacewalk by Story Musgrave and Donald Peterson, whose suits cost more than $2 million apiece. Time magazine described the astronauts as being "a thin wire from eternity."



Tuesday, April 03, 2007

April 3

Thirty-nine years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr., arrived in Memphis, Tennessee to offer his support to the 1300 sanitation workers -- most of whom were African American -- who had struck nearly two months before to protest their low pay, awful working conditions and their union's non-recognition by the city. The civil rights leader had been to Memphis twice during the previous month and joined the men of AFSCME Local 1733 in marches to City Hall, sit-down protests, mass meetings and night-long vigils. During his final trip, King was ill. After joining in an afternoon march in downtown Memphis, King initially decided to rest and not speak that evening at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple Church of God, where workers and their supporters were planning to convene. After a 30-minute address by Ralph Abernathy, however, King rose and spoke extemporaneously for nearly 45 minutes.

Toward the end of his address, King observed that
[m]en, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it's nonviolence or nonexistence.

That is where we are today. And also in the human rights revolution, if something isn't done, and in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. Now, I'm just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period, to see what is unfolding. And I'm happy that He's allowed me to be in Memphis . . . .

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
James Earl Ray shot King in the throat less than 24 hours later as King stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, wondering if he needed to wear a coat that evening.



Monday, April 02, 2007

April 2

Two years into the Civil War, the Southern economy was in disarray. Cotton producers -- unwilling to bid farewell to the cash crop that sustained the slave society for which the Confederacy fought -- refused to convert their fields to food production. As the war in Virginia trampled the farms and pushed tens of thousands of refugees into the city of Richmond, food shortages combined with price inflation and overcrowding stretched the population to the limits of its patience. The melt from a March snowstorm destroyed the roads into the capital, adding to the misery of a city whose population had swelled from 40,000 to nearly 180,000 since the outbreak of hostilities. Diaries from the period record conditions approaching starvation. For some, rat meat was the only available source of protein.

On 2 April 1863, a crowd of women armed with clubs, rocks and guns took to the streets of the Confederate capital and demanded “bread or blood.” The disturbance in Rochmond would prove to be the largest of the 1863 Southern food riots, which occurred as well in Mobile, Atlanta, and Petersburg among other cities and towns. The Richmond uprising was unique in a number of respects, not the least of which was that it was carried out almost entirely by women. They were led by a mother of four named Mary Jackson and a butcher’s apprentice with the improbable name of Minerva Meredith, both of whom organized a meeting on April 1 to plan a march the following day on a local bakery. After Virginia’s governor John Lechter refused to consider their pleas for relief on April 2, the women -- who eventually numbered between one and three thousand -- stormed through the Old Market, looting anything that wasn’t nailed down -- bacon, flour, sugar, candles hats, and brooms were among the goods pilfered by the enraged and war-weary crowd. Newspaper editorials and angry Confederate leaders denounced the women as prostitutes, communists, and paid agents of the Union government, although they were in fact nothing of the sort.

In 1878, the New York Sun published an account of the bread riot as told by an eye-witness named John W. Daniel, who portrayed the disgruntled participants as machine-like in their efficiency:
The women took the stores in line, one after the other. They proceeded systematically. The goods were piled upon wagons drawn by horses driven by female sympathizers. Not a word was spoken. The work was done with terrible earnestness. When the mob entered a grocery a certain percentage of them piled the goods upon the outstretched arms of the others, and they were borne to the streets and dumped into the wagons. The women had it all their own way. Neither soldiers nor police were in sight. Meanwhile the crowd increased. Other women heard what was going on, and flocked to Main Street for a share of the plunder. Not a man joined them, and for a long time no one made an effort to stop them. At last Colonel Baldwin, of Virginia , jumped upon a dry-goods box, and made an impassioned appeal for law and order. He might as well have talked to the wind. No one paid the least attention to him. The women went on with their sacking, and the bystanders drowned Baldwin 's voice with their whoops and cheers.
When Jefferson Davis and a detachment of the Virginia Public Guard arrived on the scene, the president of the Confederacy offered a few words to the rioters. John Daniel described it as “the most eloquent speech [he] had ever heard.” Another bystander -- less impressed with Davis’ attempts to soothe the crowd -- tossed a loaf of bread at the president but failed to strike him. Davis then ordered the militia captain to fire on the crowd if it did not disperse within five minutes. Several witnesses later recalled that a cannon was rolled up next to the St. Charles Hotel, where it was aimed down Main Street at the assembled women.

And so the bread riot concluded.

However unsuccessful it may have beenin the short term, the women’s uprising in 1863 helped alter the course of the war. Confederate armies badly needed reinforcements, but the threat of further disturbances kept thousands of troops tied down in the streets of Richmond, where they served a much less dangerous role guarding a dying society.

Two years to the day after turning the state’s guns against his own citizens, Jefferson Davis fled the city of Richmond on a late-night train as the Civil War neared its conclusion.