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.


The United States of Fear

June 20, 2013

Tom Friedman has outlined his latest installment in the ideology of fear, backed by his fellow mainstream writer, Bill Keller.  Friedman tells how us how he stops his worrying (or at least, worrying about the wrong things) and has learned to love Big Brother, and Keller says he is making an “important point”:

Yes, I worry about potential government abuse of privacy from a program designed to prevent another 9/11 — abuse that, so far, does not appear to have happened. But I worry even more about another 9/11. That is, I worry about something that’s already happened once — that was staggeringly costly — and that terrorists aspire to repeat.

I worry about that even more, not because I don’t care about civil liberties, but because what I cherish most about America is our open society, and I believe that if there is one more 9/11 — or worse, an attack involving nuclear material — it could lead to the end of the open society as we know it. If there were another 9/11, I fear that 99 percent of Americans would tell their members of Congress: “Do whatever you need to do to, privacy be damned, just make sure this does not happen again.” That is what I fear most.

So, here in the Republic of Fear, we appeal to the best in our citizens,their abject terror of something bad happening.  The print by James Gillray at the top recalls an earlier historical episode of the Security State, the British effort to root out atheists, freethinkers, and revolutionists in its midst.  Gillray was paid by the Tories, but he couldn’t help seeing how ridiculous they were, despite his politics. 

Bad things do happen all the time, it’s true, although usually to other people, but surely those terrorists are targeting me!  It follows, that we must cast principles by the wayside and go all out to provide security.

This security apparatus doesn’t do a very good job, although it never ever makes mistakes.  A recent FBI review of 150 shootings by agents concluded that every last one of them was perfectly justified.  That beats the NYPD hands down!  The NSA, CIA, etc. did a great job of preventing the Boston bombing, and we all know how well the CIA did before 9/11 (See Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower).  Was a lack of data the problem?

The head of the NSA has testified that the snooping has foiled 50, yes 50 terrorist plots. I’m sure he has a list, and it seems to have grown since the uproar started.  Not many details offered, however.  All top-secret.  I wonder…  Another acolyte of the Security State has argued for the necessity of gathering all of our phone records by saying, “If you are searching for a needle in a haystack, first you need a haystack.”  Is this really the best way to protect our country?  It’s remarks like this that made the phrase “Military Intelligence” an oxymoron.

Once they have this data, mistakes will be made.  They have been made already.  Sometimes with dire consequences, such as rendering suspects to countries that are willing to torture them without limit (Syria’s no longer good for that, however.) or just upending their lives because a name appeared on a list somehow, like the lawyer in Washington state who converted to Islam after he married a woman from the middle east.  Ah…the price we pay for liberty!


NYPD, Eight Years After…

October 2, 2012

I discussed the appalling actions of the New York Police Department at the Republican National Convention in 2004 in an earlier post, much earlier…  Today, the Times reports that a judge ruled the behavior of the police illegal.  Oh…not all of it.  They were within their rights to fingerprint the people they arrested, a fact that their spokesman trumpeted loudly.  Only problem is that the arrests themselves were illegal.


Stop and Frisk: A Modest Proposal

May 19, 2012

In NYC, there is a lot of discussion of the NYPD policy of “stop and frisk.”  They tend to stop young men of color, and have done so at an annual rate that equals the entire young African-American and Latino population of the city.  For this, they have  netted a few arrests, and the smoldering animosity of an entire generation of young men.  Seems rather inefficient, don’t it?

I would like to advance a modest proposal, in the spirit of Mr. Swift, that will be familiar to all aficionados of sci-fi stories and films, and that would make this approach to crime fighting very productive:

Simply provide every citizen with an identify card that contains a computer chip with a GPS and encoded ID info.  Police can scan people without stopping them, and interrogate them if they are without their papers.  Other countries do this (minus the technology.)  Also, the  movements of every citizen could be tracked and interrogated by the police, and compared with real-time data on crimes.  “Sir, you were at that drug store at 11:32 p.m. when a robbery occurred.  Please come with us...”  (Oh, yeah, you’re not white either…)

Just to keep it all on the up-and-up, there’s no reason for this data to be secret.  The social network Big Brothers of the world might be persuaded to cooperate in this brave new adventure in positive social engineering by posting all the movement data on every citizen.  We would have the same data as the cops, and could keep tabs on everyone!  Think of the adulterous affairs that would be nipped in the bud – a boon for family life!  Drug use among teenagers would probably take a hit from vigilant parents.  Facebook and Google would find ways to make billions of dollars off ad revenue for lawyers, counselors, drug programs, and the like that would be tightly focused.  Imagine!  You are arrested, and lawyers are waiting for you at the station, eager to represent you!  Surely, a positive development for civil rights.

Maybe some day we can go the next step of implanting the chips in newborns.  All under the beneficent gaze of the supervising corporate entities, keeping us entertained with spectacles, as in Rollerball.   Sometimes, these days, I feel we’re almost there.


State of the Police

March 15, 2012

News on the incredible case of Adrian Schoolcraft, who was thrown into a mental hospital for six days to try to cover up his documenting of NYPD abuses.  What with periodic shootings of young black men, subsequently found to be unarmed, and things like this, it’s hard to feel trusting towards New York’s Finest.

He’s not so crazy after all.

An NYPD report supports the claims made by Officer Adrian Schoolcraft, the Brooklyn cop who accused the NYPD of throwing him into a mental hospital because he complained supervisors were cooking the books to make the crime rate seem lower.

The 95-page report was completed in June 2010 but never released. Jon Norinsberg, Schoolcraft’s lawyer, called it “a very strong vindication” of Schoolcraft’s claims.

“It’s unfortunate that this has not been disclosed to the public,” Norinsberg said. “But it will all come out when this goes to trial.”


Trophy Mosque

August 31, 2010

At lunch, yesterday, I wandered by this building in downtown Manhattan.  There was a cluster of people in front, including a couple holding signs defending the rights of American citizens to build a mosque and community center if they want to.  I asked why they were protesting there and was told that this was the building where the mosque was to be built.  Clueless to time and space as usual, I had not even noticed what street I was on.

A stocky white woman was ranting to a lithe black man with a video camera about how this project is an offensive “trophy mosque.”   She compared it to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the oldest Islamic building in the world, which she said was built as a commemoration of Moslem conquests in that region.  Wikipedia makes no mention of this, saying it was built as a shrine for pilgrims to the site that is holy to Christians, Moslems, and Jews, and was not even planned as a place of regular worship.

It’s hard to imagine the local community boards and zoning reviews allowing a structure as eye-catching as the golden dome to be built on Park Place in Manhattan, but I guess that’s what people in the No-Mosque crowd fear.  The ranting lady conveyed with winks, nods, sarcasm and other broad rhetorical devices her absolute dismissal of the notion that the backers of the project are anything but evil agents of a foreign power – nation? religion? terrorist group?  Obviously they are not what they pretend to be – Americans who want to build a cultural center near where many of them work and live. 

It wasn’t too long ago that Jews were subject to this same sort of vile bigotry in America.  Being Jews, they must be loyal to a foreign entity.  Before the state of Israel existed, it was supposed to be some sort of international cabal of cannibals and bankers.  And Catholics too were treated the same way.  After all, they are not true Americans since their allegiance is actually to the pope.  JFK was rumored to be under the pontiff’s thumb.  A fifth-column of popery in DC!


A chill comin’ on

August 25, 2009

iciclesI heard a snippet of an interview today about the new investigations of the CIA by the Department of Justice.   The reporter asked some guy what he thought the effect might be on counter-terrorism operations abroad.

There will be a chilling effect, definitely.  These people [being investigated for abuse of prisoners, torture, etc.] thought they were following the policy, orders…

Not his exact words, but close.  Let’s hope there’s a chilling effect!  We need it!  Yes, do your job without torturing people, imprisoning them on flimsy suspicions, and stop “rendering” them to foreign countries willing to beat them to death to do us a favor of keeping our hands clean.

Let’s demand that our gallant defenders of our liberty stop and think a bit about what they are doing in secret rooms, and not feel free to run amok because they can use the old excuse, “I was just following orders…”