This Day in History
1930 — Lynching in Marion, Indiana. A mob of ten to fifteen thousand whites broke into the Marion jail and lynched two black men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, who were suspected of murder and rape. A third suspect, sixteen year old James Cameron, was beaten but escaped being hung. A local photographer took the iconic photo of the two men hanging from a tree surrounded by a gleeful crowd. Despite this photographic evidence no one was ever indicted for the lynching. A Jewish man, Abel Meeropol, was inspired to write the song, “Strange Fruit” when he saw the photo. The song was later famously recorded by Billie Holliday.
I recently saw someone, a white man, wearing this red hat that said “Make America Great Again.” Tell me again, when was it that we were so great. 1930?
1956 — Dynamite explosion in Cali, Colombia. Seven army trucks loaded with dynamite, and parked overnight in an old train station, exploded. The early morning explosion of 1,053 boxes of dynamite killed 1,300 people and injured thousands more. The crater left by the blast was fifty meters wide and twenty-five meters deep. No cause for the disaster has ever been determined although the president of the country blamed opposition terrorists.
Knowing nothing of this incident, I’ll go with the theory of someone trying to grab a quick smoke.
1970 — Marin County courthouse shootout. In January of 1970, during a racial confrontation in the exercise yard of Soledad prison, three black prisoners were shot and killed by a white guard. He was exonerated of any misdoings. A short time later a different white guard was killed in retaliation. The three black prisoners accused of this crime, including George Jackson, became known as the “Soledad Brothers”. In an effort to seek his own justice, the seventeen-year-old brother of George, Jonathan Jackson, entered the Marin County courthouse with three weapons under his raincoat, including a saw-offed shotgun. He threw a weapon to the defendant on trial, a Black Panther member accused of stabbing a prison guard. They released two other prisoners and took everyone in the courtroom hostage.
Theei demand was that the Soledad Brothers be freed. In trying to make their escape they took Judge Haley, the prosecuting attorney and three jurors as hostages. They taped the muzzle of the shotgun under the judge’s chin. Trying to escape with a rented van, they encountered a roadblock where the police opened fire. Jonathan Jackson, Judge Haley, and two other kidnapers were killed. The prosecutor was paralyzed for life and one juror was slightly wounded.
I remember it as an ugly, violent scene. The law and order folks, with racial overtones, went berserk with righteous indignation. Revolutionary violence was in vogue during that era with bombings and shootings the order of the day. Much like now with school shootings being the order of the day. But strangely now, the current wave of violence only results in muted handwringing from the law and order crowd. Go figure.
1742 — Nathanael Greene. Revolutionary War general. A Quaker and a blacksmith from Rhode Island, Greene was expelled from the church for showing an interest in military science. Inspired by Lexington and Concord, Greene was at the siege of Boston and so impressed George Washington there that he was made a major general. He fought at the battles of Trenton, Brandywine and Germantown, and was quartermaster at Valley Forge. Washington then assigned him to the southern colonies to fight the British there. Leading a weak army against a formidable British force led by General Cornwallis, Greene devised a brilliant campaign. Utilizing hit and run tactics, he led the British on a chase through swamps and wilderness until they were far from their supply lines and weakened. Eventually the Continentals pushed the English out of Georgia. After the war he was rewarded with a small planation outside of Savannah but he was never very successful as a landowner. Greene died at the early age of forty-six from sunstroke.
Some rise to the occasion during times of stress but never find their footing afterwards.
1836 — Evander McIvor Law. Confederate Army general. He became a general at the tender age of twenty-six and fought in many major battles of the Civil War and was wounded twice. The brigade he commanded at Gettysburg fought in the bloody encounters at Little Round Top and Devil’s Den. After the war Law settled in Florida and established a military college that, along with some other schools, were combined to form the University of Florida. When Law died in 1920 he was the last surviving general of the Confederate Army.
In 1890 Law gave a speech in which he said the “Vast accumulation of wealth to so few people might cause the United States problems in its future.” He went on to state that giving so much power to so few was the biggest reason for corruption and decay within our nation. Hear hear! But he did not hesitate to declare himself in favor of lynching for certain crimes.
And there for a moment I almost liked the guy.
1927 — Carl Switzer. Switzer played the role of “Alfalfa” in the “Our Gang” comedy shorts of the 1930s. Typecast, he struggled to find movie roles after that series ended. He had a brief part as Donna Reed’s date in the beginning of “It’s A Wonderful Life” and his last role was in “The Defiant Ones.” Later he became a dog breeder and hunting guide. In 1959 he was killed by a gunshot wound in a dispute over fifty dollars.
Through third grade I lived in a town that had a movie theater. Every Saturday afternoon I’d troop off to see a matinee. Admission for a kid was twelve cents; obviously this was a long time ago. Most of the time the feature was a western, but not always. Some of those films remain stuck in my memory. “Down to the Sea in Ships”, “Mighty Joe Young”, “The Boy with Green Hair” and “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.” There was a whole presentation back then, not just a movie. Starting off with a cartoon, then Previews of Coming Attractions, followed by a newsreel, or, joy joy joy to me and my little buddies, an “Our Gang” short. This was almost two decades after the shorts had been shot, a different era, but to us it didn’t matter. We were mesmerized watching the comedic antics of kids our own age. For the joy Alfalfa, Spanky and the rest bought for a while, it’s sad that life didn’t turn out better for many of them.