Humanity 101

March 5, 2014

Lee Lorch interviewed in 1949
An exemplary character, Lee Lorch, died this week:

In the spring of 1946, Mr. Lorch, a graduate of Townsend Harris High School in Manhattan, Cornell University and the University of Cincinnati, where he earned a doctorate in mathematics, returned from wartime service in the Pacific with the Army Air Corps to teach math at City College. Like millions of veterans, he could not find a place to live. After a two-year search, having lived much of the time in a Quonset hut overlooking Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn, he, along with his wife, Grace, and young daughter, moved into Stuyvesant Town. So did 25,000 other people.

As he later put it, he had all the credentials: “A steady job, college teacher and all that. And, not black.”

In 1943, Frederick H. Ecker, the president of Metropolitan Life at the time, told The New York Post: “Negroes and whites don’t mix.” If black residents were allowed in the development, he added, “it would be to the detriment of the city, too, because it would depress all surrounding property.”

A lawsuit against Metropolitan brought in 1947 by three black veterans, and co-sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Jewish Congress and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, had failed in the state courts, and no local laws prohibited such discrimination; the city had not only supplied the land, and tax breaks, to the insurance company, but had let it select tenants as it saw fit.

With 100,000 people vying for the 8,759 apartments on the 72-acre tract, no boycott could possibly work. Any successful protest had to come from inside: Polls showed that two-thirds of those admitted favored integration. Mr. Lorch’s wartime experiences, like seeing black soldiers forced to do the dirty work on his troop transport overseas, had intensified his resolve.

Mr. Lorch became vice chairman of a group of 12 tenants calling themselves the Town and Village Tenants Committee to End Discrimination in Stuyvesant Town.

“When you got into Stuyvesant Town, there was a serious moral dilemma,” he recalled in a 2010 interview with William Kelly of the Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village Video Project. “In the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, people had seen the end results of racism.”

Some 1,800 tenants eventually joined the group. “Stuyvesant Town is a grand old town; but you can’t get in if your skin is brown,” went one of its chants, wrote Charles V. Bagli of The New York Times in a book about Stuyvesant Town’s history. A group of 3,500 residents petitioned Mayor William O’Dwyer to help eliminate the “no Negroes allowed” policy, and supported anti-discrimination legislation before the City Council.

But Metropolitan Life held firm. And in early 1949, Mr. Lorch paid the price. Despite the backing of a majority of colleagues in his department, the appointments committee at City College blocked his promotion, effectively forcing him to leave.

Mr. Lorch was “unquestionably a fine scholar and a promising teacher,” an alumni committee later concluded, but some colleagues “regarded him, rightly or wrongly, as an irritant and a potential troublemaker.” Mr. Lorch himself charged that the college “protects bigots and fires those who fight bigotry.”

The New York branch of the N.A.A.C.P. and other groups protested the decision to the Board of Higher Education, to no avail. In September 1949, Mr. Lorch found a teaching job at Pennsylvania State University, but his reputation preceded him; upon arriving at the campus, he was taken directly to the university’s acting president.

“He wanted me to explain this stuff about Stuyvesant Town — that they’d been getting phone calls from wealthy alumni essentially wanting to know why I had been hired and how quickly I could be fired,” he recalled in the 2010 interview.

Mr. Lorch’s wife and daughter had remained in the Stuyvesant Town apartment, at 651 East 14th St., and he and his wife soon invited a black family, Hardine and Raphael Hendrix and their young son, to live there for the entire academic year.

Metropolitan Life refused to accept the Lorches’ $76 rent check, and began devising ways to get them out. At Penn State, Mr. Lorch was denied reappointment. Accommodating the Hendrixes, a college official told him, was “extreme, illegal and immoral, and damaging to the public relations of the college.”

The decision brought protests from Penn State students, Albert Einstein, the American Association of University Professors and the American Mathematical Society, as well as from The New York Times and The Daily Worker, the paper of the Communist Party U.S.A.

The Worker argued that Mr. Lorch, who was often linked to the Communist Party, was “an all-too-rare sort of bird among academic circles these days. He actually believes in the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the Negro people equality! And he not only believes in it, but stands up and fights for what he believes. Amazing!”

In June 1950, the United States Supreme Court declined to review the insurance company’s exclusionary policy. Succumbing to political and economic pressure, Metropolitan Life admitted three black families that year.

But it also moved to evict Mr. Lorch and 34 other protesting tenants. They dug in.

“We had decided — and this was the general feeling on the committee — we weren’t going to go quietly, that we would resist, they’d have to throw us out by force,” Mr. Lorch recalled.

In the meantime, in September 1950, he accepted a new academic post, becoming one of two white professors at Fisk University, the historically black institution in Nashville, Tenn. His wife, a longtime activist herself — she had led the Boston School Committee in its effort to stop women from being fired as teachers the moment they married, as she had been — returned to Stuyvesant Town, where the Teamsters union supplied protection for protesting tenants.

In January 1952, as tenants barricaded themselves in their apartments and picketed outside City Hall and Metropolitan Life’s headquarters, the company compromised: Mr. Lorch and two other organizers would move out, but the Hendrixes got to stay.

Seven years later, only 47 blacks lived in Stuyvesant Town. But the frustration the campaign helped unleash culminated in the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental, or financing of housing.

At Fisk, Mr. Lorch taught three of the first blacks ever to receive doctorates in mathematics. But there, too, his activism, like his attempt to enroll his daughter in an all-black school and refusal to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee about his Communist ties, got him in trouble. In 1955, he was again let go. Only tiny Philander Smith College, an all-black institution in Little Rock, Ark., would hire him, and then only when it could find no one else.

“Because he believed in the principles of decency and justice, and the equality of men under God, Lee Lorch and his family have been hounded through four states from the North to the South like refugees in displaced camps,” one of the nation’s most important black journalists, Ethel Payne of The Chicago Defender, wrote in May 1956. “And in the process of punishing Lee Lorch for his views, three proud institutions of learning have been made to grovel in the dust and bow the knee to bigotry.”

It was Grace Lorch who made the headlines the next year, for comforting Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine after Ms. Eckford’s walk through a group of angry hecklers outside Little Rock Central High School, a moment which was captured in a famous photograph. Mr. Lorch, who had become an official with the Arkansas chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., was working behind the scenes, accompanying the black students to school, then tutoring them as they awaited admission to the high school.

Once more, whites abused the Lorches for their activities, evicting them from their apartment, harassing their young daughter, burning a cross on their lawn and placing dynamite in their garage. And black leaders, mindful of Mr. Lorch’s Communist associations, kept their distance.

“Thurgood Marshall has been busy poisoning as many people as he can against us,” Mr. Lorch complained in October 1957, referring to the lawyer who was leading the N.A.A.C.P.’s desegregation campaign in the courts, and who would later become a justice of the United States Supreme Court. The group’s field secretary, Clarence Laws, wrote to Mr. Lorch: “The best contribution you could make to the cause of full citizenship for Negroes in Arkansas at this time would be to terminate, in writing, your affiliation with the Little Rock Branch, N.A.A.C.P.”

When, at the end of the school year, Philander Smith declined to renew Mr. Lorch’s appointment, it was official: No American college would have him. So in 1959, he moved his family to Canada — first to the University of Alberta and then, in 1968, to York University, until he retired in 1985.

Lee Lorch was born on Sept. 20, 1915, at a home on West 149th Street and Broadway in Manhattan, to Adolph Lorch and Florence Mayer Lorch. His wife, the former Grace Lonergan, died in 1974. Mr. Lorch is survived by his daughter, Ms. Bartels; two granddaughters; and a sister, Judith Brooks.

Mr. Lorch was often honored by his fellow mathematicians. In 1990, he received an honorary degree from the City University of New York.

In his 2010 interview with Mr. Kelly, Mr. Lorch insisted that it was his wife and daughter, not he, who had paid the greatest price for his principles. Asked if he would do anything differently, he paused. “More and better of the same,” he replied.

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New Orleans: Black, White, and in Color

November 29, 2013

I finally got down to New Orleans for a visit, city of levees, necropolises, music, food, and mixed races.  I understand now why people get so emotional about it – it’s quite a place, unlike any other I know in the USA, mostly in a good way. It’s also a city that is so deeply formed by the geography and hydrology of the region that for a civil engineer cum geographer, it’s a no-brainer for a great vacation.

   
Outside our B&B there was a WWI memorial arch (first in the USA they say) that lists the men killed in action. Separate plaques for White Men and Colored.  I think it was placed there because that neighborhood, Bywater, was the point of embarkation for the troop ships.

One thing that did surprise me about New Orleans was the racial segregation, or shall I say, lack of integration, visible everywhere.  Living around and working in NYC, which is one of the most residentially segregated urban areas in the USA, I still experience a dizzying mix of people while commuting, during my workday downtown, and in many entertainment venues I frequent, but in NOLA, not at all.  I wasn’t surprised that neighborhoods weren’t  integrated (this is the USA), but I didn’t expect that when I went to a jazz club, everyone in the audience would be white, but it was almost that way.  At times, I felt as if I were in a fancy college town.  I’m not sure why it is that way, but I didn’t expect it.

As everyone says, there is music everywhere, inside and out.  And these aren’t just any old street pick-up bands.  The level of the musicianship is amazing!  At the end of this post there is a brief video of this band doing their work for the crowd.

New Orleans has a unique American history of racial mixing:  the French, then the Spanish, then the Anglos ran the place.  The Creole culture of francophone colonials was not quite the same as the Anglo slave-owning society; there was a bit more nuance in the racial caste system as opposed to the “one drop” rule.  Sometimes I see statements from people from Brazil and other creole-influenced cultures about how they have no racism in their culture – they’re creole – but it’s usually just an excuse.  Nevertheless, there were historical differences, and the Anglo rule was more harsh.

Today, other cultures have been added to the mix, including a recent influx of Hispanic people, many from Mexico.  I like this food truck’s moniker, a mash-up of Mexican, Palestinian, politics, and commercialism.

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Levee is French for raised up.  That’s the bank of the Mississippi, here reinforced with concrete on the river-facing side.  The entire lower Mississippi is controlled and channeled, and this levee is upriver of the city, next to a plantation we visited, the Laura Plantation.  The place was kept in creole hands for its entire working history as a family business, and the mansion is a functional and spare work of architecture.  The excellent tour of the place emphasized its nature as a business, a family corporation to extract wealth from the land through the labor of slaves.  None of that Gone with the Wind tripe.

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New Orleans shows an admirable directness in labeling its manholes, and sometimes a fine aesthetic sense.  Sometimes, they let the drainage just all hang out.

The southern latitude sometimes gives the lower density neighborhoods a lush, jungle atmosphere.  We stayed in Bywater, downriver from the French Quarter, an area that was spared flooding because it is near the river.  (More on that later.)  The area boasts a type of architecture that is reminiscent of the Caribbean islands, and that also reminded me of Kerala, South India.

jungle

 

crea creole

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In the old city, the French Quarter, in Pirates Alley, there is this house where Faulkner wrote his first novel, and which is now a small and excellent literary bookstore. The picture on the right shows a house reputedly built to house an exiled Napoleon (he never arrived) and gives a view of a typical street in that area.

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In the Warehouse District, where we spent our last afternoon, largely at the excellent Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the sidewalks often look like brick, but to my surprise, turned out to be blocks of wood, probably swamp cedar.

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This book, by local scholar Richard Campanella, is an excellent treatment of the history of New Orleans that focuses on geography and demographics.  The entire text and all the illustrations are available as individual PDF files online.  He is at pains to emphasize that the city of New Orleans was founded, and remained for some time, completely above sea level.  These days, one often hears expressions of wonder that anyone would be so stupid as to build a city below sea level.  Well, it wasn’t, but large parts of it, most notoriously, the Lower 9th Ward, became lower than the sea after they were surrounded by levees and pumped out for development.  The removal of water from the soil causes saturated ground to settle and compress, sometimes by as much as nine or ten feet.

This effect is seen in many places around the world:  In Bangladesh, they refer to polder areas, after the Dutch name, where they have diked agricultural fields and de-watered them.  As a result, the fields subside, and they grow less productive because they no longer are periodically flooded with life-giving nutrients from flood waters.  When there is a very big flood, the dikes sometimes break, the fields become bathtubs, and there is no way to pump them out again because equipment is lacking.  In Holland, where the practice of polder reclamation originated, they plan for this, but it costs a lot of money and requires constant engineering work.  But in Holland, they have nowhere else to go!

Oh, and a word about those cemeteries.  Historians tell us that the custom of above-ground burial was adopted when the Spanish took control of the city, not in response to soggy, water logged ground unsuitable for burial.  Remember, the city was all several feet above sea level!  Another reason for above-ground tombs is that is is an admirably efficient use of space – each tomb can hold many generations of a single family.

The image on the left below shows a typical river landscape in most of the world:  the terrain drops as you approach the river, a standard river valley.  In New Orleans, we are in a delta landscape, the end of the line for a huge drainage system (Drainage is Destiny!) and the landscape is reversed, which initially puzzled the French settlers.  The river is constrained by natural levees that form when the channel periodically, and inevitably, overflows.  The heavier sediment is deposited close to the original channel, forming, over many years, an elevated bank on either side.  New Orleans was founded on one of these naturally elevated regions, and the riverside neighborhoods fared best during the disaster of Katrina.

And on a happier note:


Government Dysfunction?

October 10, 2013

Divided (we stand) Government

There is endless prating about our dysfunctional government, our divided, dysfunctional congress, and so on.  The idea seems to be that our federal government is somehow “broken,” not working as it is supposed to.  Well, I beg to differ.  Here is an alternative view:  blame the Negroes!

In this view, the government is working just as the Founders wanted it to work.  It is divided, and the majority is unable to force its will on the fanatical and united majority.  And who were those fanatical folks present at the creation?  The slaveholders, of course.

Yes, I know, the idea of multi-chamber government was presented by the likes of Montesquieu, and there were many reasons that the Founders feared a despotic executive, but the most consistent motivation was the desire of the South to protect itself, and its “States Rights” from the anti-slavery North.  That was the reason for the great compromise that elevated/degraded the slaves to 3/5 of personhood.  (The South wanted slaves to count one-for-one in the census, to bulk up the slave states’ representation in Congress.  The anti-slavery contingent didn’t understand why people who were slaves, and certainly could not vote, should be counted at all just to enhance the power of their owners.)

Well, here we are 150 years after the Civil War, and most of Tea Party zealots are from the South and border states.  And they are still screaming, and still using divided government to their advantage.  Just according to plan…


Thaddeus, Then and Now…

October 10, 2013

bon16Thad_

I was surprised to see that D. W. Griffith’s cinematic masterpiece, Birth of a Nation (1914) begins with a peek at Thaddeus Stevens, one of my American heroes.  He is called “Stoneman” in the film, and is something of a villain, until he is redeemed at the end by revealing his deep hypocrisy about race, to wit, when it comes down to it, he would never allow his daughter (played by Lillian Gish) marry a mulatto.

It’s interesting to note the difference that 100 years makes:  in Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), Stevens is a hero, a foresighted champion of racial equality and justice.  Was Speilberg purposely making his Stevens look similar to Griffith’s Stoneman?  And yes, it is true, Stevens wore an outrageous wig, having lost all of his hair during an illness when he was young.

I knew that Birth of a Nation was racist propaganda for the Southern view of Reconstruction, but still, I was not prepared for just how vicious it is.  As one reviewer said, watching the film is “a torment,” similar to watching Nazi propaganda films, including the justly famous Triumph of the Will.  The southerners are gallant Christians, defending their women like chivalric knights of old, and everyone, north and south, despises the negroes.  The film is, despite itself, amazingly realistic at times, using African-Americans for bit roles and background extras, while white actors in blackface take the major “negro roles”:  realistic in its depiction of the culture of slavery and Jim Crow, and I don’t mean in a favorable way.  As Roger Ebert points out in his excellent review, this is only so because Griffith was so totally convinced of the rightness of his views – the gentle South, happy slaves, etc. – that it would never have occurred to him that his imagery implied their contradiction.

The print that I watched on Netflix includes a brief interview between Walter Huston and Griffith, both decked out in formal evening wear, in which Huston lobs softball questions to Griffith:

Was the Klan necessary at that time?”

“Yes, Walter, it was necessary, at that time.”

There you have it.  The freeing of the slaves, untutored and unready for civilization, unleashed upon the traumatized South a tyranny, egged on by unscrupulous Northern carpetbaggers who manipulated the negroes to their ends.  The Klan had to step in to restore civilization.  Thus, Reconstruction ended, and Jim Crow began.  In Griffith’s mythology, even Stevens sees the wisdom of it, returning to a policy that Griffith is convinced Lincoln would have favored.

There is a lot of high-toned stuff in this film too:  several anti-war pleas, including an image of Christ at the end, and a denunciation of artistic censorship.  Yes, if only the war had been averted.  Perhaps the South would still be carrying on with its slaves!  And yes, censorship is bad, The film was instantly immensely controversial, and the NAACP in some cities did call for censorship of the most racially offensive scenes.  I say, let it all hang out.  The NAACP has had the last laugh on D.W.

Did I say that the film is fantastic?  It is.  It is gripping, a wonder of cinema so great, I found it hard to believe it was from 1914 it seems so contemporary in many respects.  The battle scenes are stunning; the acting, though melodramatic, is nevertheless powerful.  Gish gushes beautifully.  It is one of the most innovative and influential films ever made, and the reasons why are obvious if you watch any other film from 1914.  Some scenes:

The very first sequence.  With the introduction of black slavery, the seeds of disunion were sown.  Only the Civil War produced a truly united nation.  True enough, but somehow it seems here that it is the fault of the Africans!  As Melville put it in Benito Cereno:

“You are saved, Don Benito,” cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained;

“You are saved; what has cast such a shadow upon you?”

“The Negro.” There was silence, while the moody man sat, slowly and unconsciously gathering his mantle about him, as if it were a pall.

It’s all the curse of the negro…

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The first part of the film is about the run-up to the Civil War and the actual conflict.  The real story is Part II, Reconstruction.  Stoneman/Stevens has a mulatto mistress, his housekeeper, an historical fact.  She manipulates him (lust seems to be a big motivation) to take a hard and brutal policy position towards the defeated South, hoping to revenge her people.  Stoneman’s right-hand man, another mulatto, is going to be made puppet governor of South Carolina in order to better implement the destruction of the Old South.

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A black Union soldier chases a white woman who, fearing for her honor, leaps to her death from a precipice.  The Klan organizes to capture the man, otherwise protected by Stoneman’s puppet.  They give him a “trial.”

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The Birth of a Nation (1915)

The scene of the KKK dumping his body at the governor’s office is, I think, supposed to be taken as a brilliant example of justice delivered, but in one of those inadvertent truth-telling images, it is a brutal image of the Klan’s racial tyranny.

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To finish off the local white gentry, the savage negroes are let loose to pillage and rapine in the town.  The Klan rides in, just like the cavalry, to save the day.  Of course, the actual events were more like the reverse, i.e., sustained campaigns of racial cleansing by organized whites to rid entire regions of black farmers who owned land.

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The blacks are vicious and terrifying, without regard to sex, of the victim or the perpetrator.  Here is Lillian Gish being threatened by a former servant.

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One of the local gentry kills a black man in an altercation while he was being arrested for harboring Klan members.  He manages to escape with the assistance of his loyal former house-slaves, and flees with his daughter and some friends to a remote cabin where he wants to wait for things to call down.  The cabin is inhabited by two white former Union soldiers.  Racial solidarity prevails.  It would take a few more years for the word “Aryan” to fall into disrepute.

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In a climactic scene, the father grabs the hair of his daughter, preparing to shoot her, rather than have her be captured alive and be despoiled by the black troops attacking his cabin hideout.

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All’s well that ends well.  Hero and heroine reunited at last.

Gish KKK  images

Order is restored, and the next time there is an election, the Klan is on hand to make sure that the Negroes vote properly.  Yet another image that surely was not intended to seem as it now does to us.

Vote


Thomas Jefferson

December 1, 2012

jefferson

Always happy to see historical mythology debunked.  An Op-Ed piece in the NYTimes today describes Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, as a creepy, brutal hypocrite. A fine addition to the line of research brought to the general public in 1996 by Connor Cruise O’Brien in this article.  Racist under his elevated egalitarian rhetoric, futile tinkerer and failed farmer under the veneer of a scientific gentleman of leisure, and not even willing to free his slaves upon his death, as did many other conflicted critics of the institution among the Founding Fathers, such corrective pieces are still much in need.


George McGovern

October 17, 2012

I caught a few seconds of a favorable recap of George McGovern’s life on the TV in my office lobby (Whaaa Favorable?) and checked in, only to find out that he is near the end of his life.  McGovern is generally dismissed these days as an out of touch super-liberal who was buried in a Nixon landslide.

Well, let’s see:

  • He wanted to end poverty in America, and guarantee all working people an income sufficient to live with dignity.
  • He wanted to end the stupid and murderous war in Vietnam.
  • He wanted to enact a health care system that would ensure that everyone got high quality care.
  • He wanted to ensure that American citizens enjoyed their civil rights.
  • He actually spoke the truth in his work as a politician, as in this bit recounted at Wikipedia: 

“It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.”

The Senate reacted in startled, stunned silence, and some faces showed anger and fury; when one member told McGovern he had been personally offended by the speech, McGovern said, “That’s what I meant to do”. 

So, we got Richard Nixon instead:

  • He was actually a lot more ‘liberal’ on issues of poverty and government support than today’s Republicans!
  • He said he wanted to end the Vietnam War, but he had alread spent four years, conducted several massive expansions and bombing campaigns , ended thousands of lives (hundreds of thousands of Asian lives) on a purported ‘end the war’ policy.
  • He wasn’t interested in civil rights for Americans, especially those who didn’t like him.  So he went and burglarized McGovern’s offices, broke into medical files, bugged people’s lines, made enemies lists, etc…
  • He spoke the truth occasionally, but it may have been by accident.

Oh yes, have we forgotten?  He resigned rather than face certain conviction in an impeachment trial brought up on just some of his sordid mis-deeds.


Esa mitología cubana viejo…

October 16, 2012

[NOTE – 10/22:  On the news today, I heard a statement that Kennedy “quietly removed several obsolete missiles from Turkey” in exchange for the USSR turning backs its ships with nukes for Cuba.  More jingoistic spin.  If they were obsolete, why where they placed there (and in Italy) just the year before?

By calling them obsolete, the idea is conveyed that JFK gave up nothing significant, only making a gesture to help Kruschev save face. ]

An Op-Ed piece in the times today (The Price of a 50-Year Myth) examines those old myths of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and their destructive effect on subsequent American policy.  I’m not so sure about his teasing out of the policy implications, but the notes on the distortions of what actually happened during the crisis are illuminating.

JFK, for all his ideological bluster and image mongering, was a practical, some would say cynical, guy.  Maybe he was one of the ruling elite who did not believe his own propaganda.  He was willing to cut a deal to avoid a nuclear conflagration, and he did so.  After all, he provoked the crisis by placing nukes in Turkey, right up against the USSR border, something they regarded as threatening – wonder why? – so he took the option of removing the missiles in exchange for Krushchev turning back his ships headed with nukes to Cuba.  The article points out that the boats were thirty hours sailing time away from the US blockade when they turned back – not quite the eyeball to eyeball macho facedown of legend.  The writer thinks that the power-elite believed their own spin, and used it to justify future exercises in destructive brinksmanship. 

Well, brinksmanship was brought to the public eye by John Foster Dulles, and was a well established posture for dealing with the USSR, so the Cuban Missile Crisis was not its source.  And JFK, as William Manchester said, was almost as good at crisis management as crisis creation.  I give him credit for not caving to the militarist lunacy of advisors like General Curtis LeMay (a.ka. Colonel Jack Ripper.)  But the image of an American president who negotiates with a powerful adversary to avoid a crisis, and even backs down from a provocation, is not part of the American self-image of global swagger, so it has been covered over with political pabulum and secrecy.