A Liberal Nod to Richard M. Nixon

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Here’s to the government of Richard Nixon
In the swamp of their bureaucracy they’re always boggin’ down
And criminals are posing as advisors to the crown
And they hope that no one sees the sights and no one hears the sound
And the speeches of the president are the ravings of a clown
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of

Richard Nixon, find yourself another country to be part of

Phil Ochs, from his song “Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon”

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In my 5th grade class I volunteered for a mock presidential debate. It was 1968, and the U.S. presidential election was nearing. The candidates were Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat Hubert Humphrey.

I didn’t know anything about politics. I supported Nixon’s candidacy only because Joe Devereaux and some girl had already picked Humphrey. It was me and Kurt Carson in Nixon’s corner. I don’t remember much about Kurt, except that he was nearsighted and sported a crew cut. I do remember our parents were happy that we were stumping for Nixon.

Long story short, Kurt and I lost the debate. But only because most of the kids had parents who were Democrats.

It was the first and last time I stumped for Nixon.

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I don’t like to disparage the dead. Most of us already know Nixon’s legacy. He abused his power multiple times in attempting to cover up clandestine and illegal activities by members of his administration. Staring impeachment in the face, he resigned in disgrace, the only American president to do so. Had he not resigned, his forced removal from office would have been deserved.

Nixon’s resignation was 40 years ago this weekend. nixon resignsIt seems our media loves to drag out the details of Watergate every time its anniversary rolls around. Certainly, it was one of the severest crucibles in American history. But it was also a high point, and turning point, of American journalism. It ushered in an age of so-called “gotcha journalism.” And every time the word “Watergate” is mentioned, the precocious microphone-fondling progeny of Woodward and Bernstein begin to salivate.

Had Watergate never happened, Nixon’s presidency would’ve received mixed reviews. He ended the Vietnam War, but only after escalating it. He expanded Johnson’s progressive Great Society domestic reforms, but his war policy stimulated inflation and caused large budget deficits. Nixon had a golden opportunity to unite a country plagued with a generational and ideological gap. But his paranoia prohibited him from reaching out to his opponents. Instead, he did just the opposite: he compiled an “Enemies List” to target his critics.

But here are four areas in which Nixon deserves high marks:

Conservation: Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and signed into law the Endangered Species Act of 1973. He was the first president to make environmental protection a priority.

Foreign Affairs: Nixon normalized relations with China. His tentative friendship with the Communist nation forced the Soviet Union to the bargaining table, resulting in the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Civil Rights: Nixon endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 to prevent gender discrimination, and ushered in large-scale, racial integration of public schools in the South.

Health Care: Long before Obamacare, Nixon proposed health insurance reform, including mandated health insurance by employers and federal funds to create Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs).

Nixon also deserves praise for resurrecting himself after he left office. He was a tireless American statesman, meeting with numerous foreign leaders, including those in the Third World. Along with Jimmy Carter and John Quincy Adams, he was one of our greatest “ex-presidents.”

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Just a guess, but if Nixon were around today, I’m not sure he’d gain traction with the Republican Party. Not because of his “dirty tricks,” but because he’s closer to the center than the fringe. He’d probably end up like Jon Huntsman during the 2012 Republican primaries: the first to end his candidacy, after being accused of moderation, and for being bold enough to utter the word “compromise.”

Nixon may have been morally vacant, but he wasn’t dumb. I can’t see him surviving in the current political climate, where nearly half the voting public views climate change as a vast liberal hoax, and universal health care as an idea hatched in the bowels of Hades.

Gerald Ford’s controversial pardon of Nixon included the famous phrase “Our long national nightmare is over.”

But looking around today, isn’t there a different sort of national nightmare?

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Mississippi Freedom Summer: The Chaney-Goodman-Schwerner Murders, Part 2

50 years

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(This is the second part of my two-part profile of the Freedom Summer of 1964 and the brutal murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi)

The lynching of black Americans had a long history, going as far back as Reconstruction. In the early 20th century, particularly in the Mississippi Delta, lynchings rose dramatically, in direct proportion to African Americans finding a foothold as sharecroppers and small landowners. It’s a fact that most lynchings occurred late in the year, when cotton accounts needed to be settled.

By June 1964, the state of Mississippi had the highest rate of lynchings in the country.

On August 4, 1964, after 44 days of searching by the FBI, civil rights organizations, and the U.S. military, the bodies of missing civil rights volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner were located. They’d been buried in an earthen dam on a farm near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Both Schwerner and Goodman had been shot in the chest at close range. Chaney had been severely beaten with a metal chain, then shot in the abdomen and head.

Later testimony showed that they had been followed in the night by the KKK and local officials, then stopped and terrorized before being killed. One of the killers had asked Schwerner if he was “that nigger lover.” Schwerner, drawing on skills he’d learned as a leader in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), tried to defuse the situation by responding “Sir, I know just how you feel.” But he was shot nonetheless.

Ten complicit in the murders

Ten complicit in the murders

The murderers moved the bodies to Old Jolly Farm, owned by one of the killers, ex-Marine Olen L. Burrage. They then set the victims’ station wagon ablaze near a river along Highway 21.

***

The Chaney-Goodman-Schwerner case was the most sensational incident of what’s known as the Mississippi Freedom Summer. The three CORE volunteers were part of hundreds of college students, mainly white and from the North, who fifty years ago traveled to rural homes in Mississippi to register blacks to vote. Voter registration was focused on because Mississippi was largely rural, so busing and lunch counter desegregation weren’t big issues. Also, due to intimidation and chicanery by white officials, Mississippi had the lowest percentage of black voter registry than any state in the country; only 6.7 percent of eligible black voters in Mississippi were registered.

Along with registration, the Freedom Summer volunteers established Freedom Schools to educate black children and adults (white Mississippians had a vested interest in keeping black Mississippians ignorant). They also established a Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the all-white, segregationist delegation scheduled to appear at the 1964 Democratic Convention.

They did all of this within a dark vortex of violence. Beatings, burnings, and bombings were a reality in 1960s Mississippi.

While the disappearance and murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner made national headlines, Mickey Schwerner’s widow Rita was quoted as saying that, had not two of the victims been white, the killings would never have created such commotion. In fact, during the search, Navy sailors who dragged local rivers uncovered at least eight bodies of young black men who had also been lynched. But their disappearances had not been deemed that important (see “Mississippi Cold Case,” a documentary about two of these murders).

The deaths of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were not in vain. Only a year later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which enforced the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution and ended racial discrimination at the voting booth, including eliminating literacy tests and poll taxes. Today, Mississippi has the highest percentage of African American elected officials of any state in the union.

President Johnson, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks at signing of Voting Rights Act

President Johnson, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks at signing of Voting Rights Act

(Note: only a year ago, a conservative majority in the U.S. Supreme Court, in Shelby County v. Holder, weakened the Voting Rights Act by effectively nullifying Section 5 of the Act.  This section had required certain states with a history of race bias in voting to submit any election changes to the federal government for approval before they went into effect)

***

Freedom isn’t free. It has to be fought for, and not necessarily on the battlefield. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner were foot soldiers in a non-violent crusade to secure basic human rights for blacks in the most vicious corner of the Deep South. They tragically lost their lives, but their efforts, and those of the other young volunteers in the Mississippi Freedom Summer, put a massive stake in the heart of the idea of white supremacy.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, it’s obvious the fight isn’t over.

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A Chill in Mississippi, 1964: The Chaney-Goodman-Schwerner Murders

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Summer nights in rural Mississippi can be oppressively hot. The heat makes your skin stick to your clothes. Unfolding your arms and legs is like pulling Scotch tape from your skin. You always seem to be thirsty.

The Mississippi woods are filled with noise at night. As soon as the sun sets, the crickets and bullfrogs begin a loud, rhythmic chant. The sounds continue unabated for hours, long into the dark, until just before sunrise.

On the night of June 21, 1964, three young men drove a Ford station wagon through rural Mississippi. By sunrise they lay dead, buried like field compost by their killers. One can only wonder at the agonizing fright they experienced in the minutes before they were murdered. Did they smell the alcohol on their killers’ breath? Did they have an inkling of their fate?

Perhaps, by the time the shots finally rang out, they actually welcomed death.

What happened to James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner on the night of June 21-22, 1964, at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), was horrific, and their brutal deaths shocked the nation. The racially motivated crimes were just several of thousands of beatings, lynchings, and shootings which had been occurring in the Deep South since slavery ended. But it was their deaths 50 years ago that sparked a firestorm of outrage which finally helped eradicate the state-sponsored, legalized racism known as Jim Crow.

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Other than being white males, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner had little in common with their killers. They were educated, Jewish, and from New York. Goodman had been a classmate of singer Paul Simon at Queens College. “Mickey” Schwerner was an experienced social worker and had attended Michigan State, Cornell, and Columbia University graduate school. As a boy he’d befriended Robert Reich, later U.S. Secretary of Labor, and protected him from bullies. Members of the civil rights organization Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Schwerner and Goodman had volunteered during the Freedom Summer project to encourage Southern blacks to register to vote.

The third, James Chaney, was also a member of CORE. He started volunteering in 1962 when he signed up as a Freedom Rider, traveling on interstate buses in the South to fight segregation. He also organized voter education classes, and had recently introduced Schwerner to black congregants of a Baptist church in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where Schwerner hoped to set up a voter education drive.

Chaney did have something in common with his murderers: he hailed from a small town in Mississippi (Meridian). But, unlike them, his skin was black.

On Memorial Day 1964, Schwerner and Chaney met at Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Longdale, Mississippi. They talked to the audience about setting up a Freedom School for blacks. A very different audience, an aggressive wing of the KKK known as the White Knights, later heard about the talk. Doing what they did so well – spreading hatred and terrorism – the White Knights decided to set fire to the church. After the burning, Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman traveled from Meridian to Longdale to view the church’s charred remains, and also to reassure local blacks.

On June 21 they began the return journey to Meridian.

But early in the evening of June 21, a tire on their station wagon went flat in the town of Philadelphia. This stroke of bad luck enabled the Neshoba County cops to jail them on a trumped up charge of speeding. The threesome were eventually released, but they were refused permission to make their legally permissible one phone call. Worse, by the time they started on the road again, a mob of about 18 members of the White Knights had formed. The mob included the so-called protectors of law and order – the police – as well as a so-called minister. They’d heard about these three CORE workers stirring up trouble around Neshoba County. One of the Knights referred to them as representatives of a “nigger-communist invasion of Mississippi.” [Don Whitehead (September 1970). “Murder in Mississippi.” Reader’s Digest: 194.]

Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner left the Neshoba County Jail at about 10 pm. It was dark. The crickets and bullfrogs had begun their nighttime chorus.

Later testimony revealed they initially traveled south along highway 19. They were hoping to reach Meridian without further incident. For some reason, however, they turned westward onto highway 492. Maybe they’d made a wrong turn.

Or maybe they were trying to elude the headlights behind them.

(continued)

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“Puff, the Magic Dragon”

50 years

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Next month will be 50 years since the Peter, Paul and Mary song “Puff, the Magic Dragon” reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.  What a  neat little song!  It was maybe the first “pop” record I ever owned.  I have a fuzzy memory of it being a 45 rpm yellow vinyl copy.  It wouldn’t be long before music would be all-things Beatles.  But in the spring of 1963, folk music was still very popular, and along with the Kingston Trio, New Christy Minstrels and others, PPM was one of the most popular folk acts.

The song has an interesting history.  According to Wikipedia, it had its start with an Ogden Nash poem, “Custard the Dragon,” about a “realio, trulio little pet dragon.”  A Cornell University student named Leonard Lipton borrowed Nash’s idea.  He penned his own poem in 1959 about a boy named Jackie Paper and his dragon friend Puff, who lived by the sea near a land called Honalee.  Jackie grows up and leaves behind the phantasmagoric world of childhood, leaving Puff alone and sad.

Lipton had a friend who happened to be Peter Yarrow’s housemate at Cornell.  He supposedly used Yarrow’s typewriter to write the poem, then forgot about retrieving the paper when he left the room!  Yarrow found the paper, provided music for the poem, recorded it with Paul and Mary in 1962, and a year later the song became a hit.  It’s just a simple homage to childhood, but it struck a chord in a lot of people (including yours truly, who hadn’t yet left Honalee!).  In a gesture you don’t often see anymore, Yarrow gave Lipton half the songwriting credit, and Lipton gets royalty payments even today.

Discussion of “Puff the Magic Dragon” isn’t complete without bringing the infamous marijuana controversy into the mix, however.  Marijuana??  Talk about leaving the land of Honalee!  Yes, even as early as a 1964 Newsweek article, this simple, uplifting tune was accused of having veiled drug references.  The name “Puff” was said to imply a puff on a marijuana cigarette.  “Dragon” was a reference to taking a “drag” on a joint.  Jackie Paper’s surname was supposed to imply rolling papers.  And so on.  I’m not sure if anyone ever suggested playing the song backwards.  Maybe that came later with the “Paul is dead” rumor.

Yarrow, Paul Stookey, and the late Mary Travers strongly denied the allegations.  And I believe them.  (Not sure I believe John Lennon’s defense of his “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”  If that song isn’t about dropping LSD, then I need to catch a slow boat to Honalee).  As PPM’s concert audience got older, the threesome made sure to do “Puff” at the beginning of their shows.  This way, the kids and grandkids could hear it before falling asleep!

Only a few months after “Puff,” Peter, Paul and Mary scored a number two hit with Bob Dylan’s protest anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind.”   They also performed the Pete Seeger-Lee Hays song “If I Had a Hammer” alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington for civil rights.  So 1963 was a very significant year for the group.

I’d love to verify if that little piece of vinyl I once owned was actually yellow.  My mom saved a lot of things, but unfortunately she didn’t hang on to“Puff.”  Maybe she threw him out when she got rid of my Beatles lunchbox.