Friday, May 15, 2015
On Black Socialism and A. Philip Randolph: Unlike European socialism, which is very "statist" and "top-down" (coming from the government), American socialism is more "organic" and "bottom-up" (emerging from the people). Perhaps the most famous African-American socialist was A. Philip Randolph, a railroad worker who admired Eugene V. Debs' efforts at organizing the American Railway Union (ARU). Even though Randolph was about a generation behind Debs in terms of age, he followed Debs' lead by founding the nation's first black labor union in 1925. Known as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP), the union sought to bargain collectively with the Pullman Company, which produced a variety of train cars for use in passenger rail travel. In the 1920s, the job of a "porter" was largely limited to baggage handling, ticket punching, and custodial duties. Over time, it became an occupation traditionally associated with African Americans. Thus, being a porter generally meant there was no chance of getting promoted to "conductor," which was a position often reserved for whites. As the BSCP progressed, Randolph pushed for changes in federal labor law during the 1930s. And in 1941, he succeeded in getting President Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 8802, which attempted to ban racial discrimination in the national defense industry. Although it was not a law, EO8802 marked the first federal effort to curb segregated labor practices.
Friday, May 1, 2015
On the Civil War Draft Riots: Ten days after the Battle of Gettysburg ended, which was perhaps the Civil War's biggest turning point, the streets of Manhattan erupted. The Union Army, under direct orders from President Lincoln, began to conscript able-bodied men into fighting the Confederacy. Indeed, since New York City had seen an astronomical influx of European immigrants, especially Irish, during the preceding two decades, it made sense to target these "new" immigrants as recruits. Promises of steady employment, food, clothes, camaraderie, shelter, and even "full" citizenship were all presented as benefits to being conscripted into the Union Army. But many of these young (Irish) men would rather take their chances in gangs or working as clerks to jump potentially from the underclass to the middle class. Fighting in the Union Army meant leaving NYC to head South and liberate African-American slaves. And in many respects, these immigrants saw themselves as sharing the same socioeconomic status as Southern slaves. Thus, the conscription process was ultimately doomed from the start. The above clip is from Gangs of New York (2002), which did a terrific job portraying the city's draft riots.
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
On the Constitutional Implications of Privacy: Aside from a few state constitutions, namely California, Florida, and Montana, there is no explicit "right to privacy" in American constitutional law. Over time, however, there have been various judicial interpretations which have sought to mesh the concepts of privacy and constitutionality. One of the first examples of this involved an 1890 Harvard Law Review article titled "The Right to Privacy" by-then law firm partners Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis. Later in his career, Brandeis would become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and explicate what was perhaps the greatest defense of privacy rights in Olmstead v. United States (1928). Yet apart from Brandeis, one might look to the Bill of Rights as an early source of privacy rights. There are two amendments in particular that speak implicitly to privacy rights, and they include Amendments IV and V. These amendments were at the heart of the Olmstead case, which involved a police wiretap of a suspected bootlegger's telephone line. Amendment IV protects American citizens from "unreasonable searches and seizures," while Amendment V claims "private property" cannot be taken for "public use" without "just compensation." Also, Amendment V protects "mental privacy" in that no American citizen can be forced to serve as a "witness against him/herself."
Wednesday, April 1, 2015
On T. Thomas Fortune and Black Newspapers: As co-founder and editor of one of the first African-American newspapers since the Antebellum Era, Timothy Thomas Fortune became an influential figure in New York City's post-Civil War black community. The name of Fortune's newspaper was the New York Age, and it published (both daily and weekly) at various times throughout its existence from 1887 to 1953. The primary purpose of black newspapers like the New York Age was to inform African Americans about where to live, shop, and attend church/school in cities. This idea was especially true for former slaves from the rural South, who may have migrated to the urban North in search of better jobs, better schools, and better housing. Indeed, many of these former slaves from the rural South, of which Fortune was one (born a slave in Florida in 1856), were illiterate. Thus, maps and pictures became important sources of information within early black newspapers. But like other African-American newspapers, Fortune produced his with a white audience in mind. Causes such as anti-lynching and anti-segregation were frequently touted in editorials. And attempting to generate cross-racial support for such causes was actually what helped give birth to civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the early twentieth century.
Sunday, March 15, 2015
On the Peculiarities of General Dan Sickles: If there was ever an American Civil War General who led an extraordinary life not named Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant, it was Daniel E. Sickles. For starters, he lived to the age of 94, having been born in 1819 in New York City, and later dying there in 1914. Prior to the Civil War, Sickles worked as a lawyer and served as a legislator in the New York State Assembly. He married a woman who was half his age in the early 1850s, and by 1857, he was elected to serve in the U.S. Congress as a Representative from New York. While in Washington D.C., his young wife (who was only about 20 at the time) had taken up an affair with the local district attorney (who also happened to be Francis Scott Key's son). Upon learning of his wife's infidelity, Sickles proceeded to shoot and kill Philip Barton Key II. At the trial, Sickles pleaded "temporary insanity" and was actually acquitted of murder. His plea is often considered the first use of an "insanity" defense in the history of American jurisprudence. But aside from Sickles' legal issues, he is perhaps best known as the General who lost his leg during the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Although the cannonball that tore through his leg effectively ended his military career, Sickles was happy to donate both the cannonball and his amputated leg to the newly formed Army Medical Museum. And on every anniversary of the amputation, Sickles visited the display that contained his shattered leg.