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Accepting democracy in theory, while nullifying it in practice

3 Sep

 

“Democracy is predicated upon the principle of majority rule. In applying this principle to our political life, we find that our politico-economic masters have done an excellent job by accepting Democracy in theory, while they nullify it in practice. Through numerous subterfuges, such as race, poll tax, the domination of the two political parties by our economic rulers, literacy tests and other ways, democracy has been trampled under foot by a brazen but powerful minority. This minority has succeeded in dividing the majority on the bases of race, religion, sex, and what not, with the result that on election day they go to the polls, not as propertyless, exploited people seeking socioeconomic and political justice, but as white vs. blacks, good vs. bad, and so forth,” Frank Crosswaith, letter to the editor, the New York Age, Oct. 8, 1938.

One of the added delights of this research into my father’s writings is stumbling upon the voices of his colleagues and contemporaries.  For weeks, I have been looking for something that might have some historical resonance to the voter suppression activities that are taking place in 2012. I also was looking for something that might be appropriate for Labor Day.

I found a twofer, not among my father’s columns, but in a letter to the editor that ran in his paper written by Frank Crosswaith (1892-1965), a New York labor leader.  Born in what is now the U. S. Virgin Islands, Crosswaith came to New York at the age of 13 and devoted his life to improving labor conditions for workers, particularly those in Harlem.  A biography on the New York Public Library’s website describes him as “one of the most effective organizers of black workers in New York City,” during the 20s and 30s.

Though Crosswaith was based in Harlem and worked closely with unions that had significant numbers of blacks among their ranks, he also embraced and championed the cause of the white working class. He ran as the Socialist candidate for several statewide offices and although his election bids were unsuccessful, he drew strong multiracial support.

Periodically, Crosswaith and my father gave one another a nod in print. Crosswaith wrote a letter praising one of my father’s columns, which Ebenezer then printed in his Dottings space on Jan. 1, 1938. My father once singled out Crosswaith as one of the few orators who took spoke on the streets of Harlem who were worth listening to and would not massacre “the King’s English.”

In that Oct. 8 letter to the editor in the New York Age, Crosswaith singled out Sen. Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith (D-South Carolina). According to Wikipedia, Smith earned his nickname while serving in the House of Representatives when he said: “Cotton is king and white is supreme.”  Smith opposed women’s suffrage, arguing that it would apply the same rights as the 15th Amendment had granted to “the other half of the Negro race.”

During the 1938 Democratic Convention, Smith walked out when he saw that a black man was going to offer the invocation.

“Some day,” Crosswaith wrote,  “we are confident the people both black and white — the poor people who work in the mills and mine, in factory, on railroads in the school houses and on the farms will get wise to the Smiths and others who have kept them consigned to a life of long hard labor, who have robbed them of their labor power, who have prevented them from getting a full view of life, who have narrowed their vision to a glimpse of life only from behind the squalid walls of the slums. Some day these people will rise up; the scales of ignorance will fall from their eyes, they will learn at last to appreciate the power which is theirs through their numbers and their vital importance to industry and agriculture. And when that day comes, the bogey of race superiority, so attractive today, will be exposed for what it is: namely a device to weaken the ranks of the Negro and the white working class and thus continue the exploitation by a clever, scheming minority. “

To Cotton Ed Smith and “others of his ilk” Crosswaith had this message:

“Have your fun while you may . . .  Today is your day. In the very nature of things yours can be but a temporary victory which the united and enlightened action of all workers irrespective of race, creed, color, sex or nationality will inevitably destroy.“

A piano lesson?

29 Jul

Huntington, Pennsylvania, Daily News, July 14, 1938

Before there was Rupert Murdoch and Wendi, his pie-spiking wife; before the celebrity sphere was all a twitter about  51-year-old actor Doug Hutchison marrying a reportedly 16-year-old Courtney Stodden,  there was Herbert David Boutall, 63, and his 16-year-old bride, Ann

Dubbed a “hot weather item,” in my father’s column on July 16, 1938,  the item wasn’t about the temperatures  at all. It was about a May-December romance that made headlines across the nation.

“Both of the characters in this February-December drama are white, but what of it?” my father wrote.  “One newspaper carried a picture of the elderly Romeo lifting his youthful bride-to-be, just to show his retained strength.“

Boutall,  a widower from Athol, Mass. is quoted as saying: “The only ones in the neighborhood who object to the marriage are a couple of old maids who think I should marry someone nearer my own age. My answer to them is that when I buy a piano I don’t want an antique. I want one that plays.”

“Boutall should be careful about making assertions about purchasing antiques,” Ebenezer wrote. “His young bride might awaken some fine morning to realize that she has done just that.”

In hindsight, Ebenezer might have taken his own advice about making assertions. Ten years later, he would end up in his own May-December romance. My mother, certainly no child, was only 22 years my father’s  junior,  which doesn’t come close to the Boutalls’ 47-year age difference. Still, it’s a reminder that you never know when your own words will come back to bite you, especially when you are talking about “old” people. .

I followed the Boutall marriage in the archives of the Boston Globe. More than 5000 spectators lined the streets for the wedding on July 11, 1938.  The church only seated 120.  In August, a subsequent Globe article intimated that the couple was thinking of selling their New England farm and moving to England, where Herbert was from.  A year later, they were still in Athol, according to the Globe headline: “Farmer, 64, wife 17, will mark first year of marital bliss today.”

Then in May 1940, the Globe announced that the “May–December couple proud parents of a girl.”  They had a son the next June, but, alas, on April 10, 1943, the Globe announced, “Gap of 47 years too much for Athol pair, so they’ve separated.”

The paper quoted Herbert as saying, “If she wants a younger man she can have one.”  According to that Globe article, Herbert was headed to England to work in a war plant.  His wife and children moved back in with her parents.

Perhaps she got a new piano. Continue reading

‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’

23 Jul

On July 16, 1938, my father devoted most of his column to James Weldon Johnson, a true Renaissance man who died in a car accident in Maine on June 26 of that year.

“Mr. Johnson’s demise marks the end of a brilliant and varied career. During his lifetime he had wrought in the capacity of lawyer, author, educator and diplomat,” my father wrote. “As a diplomat he represented the United States in Venezuela and at Nicaragua. As author he gave us several interesting books on the life of the Negro. As educator he was instructor on creative literature at Fisk University and New York University. As a composer, he gave us amongst other numbers, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ otherwise known as the ‘Negro National Anthem.‘

After posting the lyrics, Ebenezer wrote: “The late Mr. Johnson’s contributions to the Negro in the form of an anthem clearly reveal the depth to which his thoughtful soul travelled. In it he bade us rejoice, he bade us hope, he bade us pray and, none the least, march on!”

Preach, Daddy!

“Set to music by his brother Rosamond Johnson, its melody lingers in your ears. The only ‘blue note’ is that it is not heard more often from the lips of persons for whom the author wrote it,” he added.

By the way, Cameron McWhirter, has an excellent column on James Weldon Johnson on The Root.

Continue reading

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