Monday, May 20, 2019

A Man Called to Testify as Reproductive Rights are Under Siege

Not only are abortion rights under attack but women's control over their own bodies is being criminalized.

Note—A version this first appeared on my blog back in its relative infancy in 2007. And I have re-run it when the simple right of meaningful reproductive choice has seemed particularly threatened.  The post was drafted in response to an appeal from NARAL Pro-Choice America for stories about life before Roe V. Wade for use in a new campaign in defense of women’s right to choose, which back then unexpectedly seemed under attack again. 
Back in 2007 we were in shock that rights considered firmly and irrevocably won were once again under attack.  Twelve years later that attack has become a tsunami.  Numerous attempts to sharply curtail abortion in several states were routinely over-turned in Federal Courts.  But after Republicans blocked almost all Obama nominees to Circuit courts leaving yawning vacancies the Trump mal-administration, with the full collusion of the Senate, filled those seats with reliable conservatives, many of them openly fanatic.  Despite a drawn-out and contentious confirmation hearing, Brett Kavanaugh made it to the Supreme Court after promising Senator Susan Collins that he considered Roe v. Wadesettled law.”  Now with a 5-4 conservative majority, no one expects him to respect that precedent.  
The Roe v Wade decision did not come out of thin air--it was the result of prolonged and militant action by feminists--a victory hard won and not just benevolently granted.

Now a well-oiled machine has produced votes in several states with gerrymandered Republican super majorities and compliant governors are in competition with each other to pass the most draconian virtual abortion bans—so called heartbeat bills.  Old promises of so-called mainstream right-to-lifers that they would never criminally charge women have been cast aside.  In Georgia every common miscarriage could result in a criminal investigation and even traveling out of state to obtain a legal abortion would be a crime.  Doctors would face 99 year sentences in Alabama and in several states family members, friends, and pro-choice advocate could be criminally charged with abetting an abortion for acts as simple as making a phone call, providing funds, or driving to an appointment. In some states even the narrowest exceptions for rape, incest, fetal viability or the health of the mother have been eliminated.  Legal experts say that the language in some bills could result in a 12-year-old rape victim could be charged with murder and face the death penalty.
The point of all of these bills is simply to get a case—any case—before the Supreme Court so that the new majority there could completely over-turn Roe v. Wade.  In anticipation of that states like Illinois are moving to protect abortion rights by enshrining them in state constitutions.  If Roe v. Wade was overturned simply to allow states to exercise the power to enact their own restrictions, under the Federalism long touted by conservative pro-abortion states could set their own laws protecting women’s rights.  And that was the best the anti-abortion movement could have hoped for even two years ago.
Now, however, they have a reasonable hope that a Supreme Court decision will not just return jurisdiction over abortions to the states but will rule for personhood from conception or at least so early in fetal development that women would have no functional rights.  That was the unattainable Holy Grail of the most extreme wing of the anti-abortion movement—until now.  If the Court makes that ruling it would open the door to Federal legislation outlawing abortion under the same 14th Amendment “equal protection under the law” provisions used in Civil Rights and voting rights cases.
Handmaidens and others protest at the Alabama state Capitol in Montgomery.
That is the desperate situation women—and men who truly love and respect women--find themselves in today in the United States.  But they are not taking the attacks lying down.  From mass Handmaidens demonstrations to marches, rallies, and organizing at the polls new resistance is rising.
We will not return to the conditions described in this old blog post.
The Girl with Italian Renaissance hair.

It was 1971 in Chicago.  We’ll call her Ellen.  She was a friend from college, tall and willowy with Italian Renaissance brown hair.  She had a chorus part in an experimental rock cantata by night and waited tables by day.  She was not my girlfriend.  I wished she was. I was a forlorn looking hippy in a cowboy hat and bright orange goatee, the dopey/quirky best pal in a romantic comedy—the guy who moons around and ends up helping the bad boy with the megawatt smile get the girl.  We met for dinner about once a week and sometimes went out for a drink after her show on a Saturday night.
I came over to her place for dinner one night, Liebfraumilch in a stone bottle in hand.  She was crying.  “I’m pregnant.  I don’t know what to do.”  I held her and comforted her.  I didn’t ask who the father was.  She didn’t volunteer.  It was, after all, the lingering twilight of the ‘60’s.
But I was on the staff of the old Seed, the Chicago underground newspaper.  I had connections.  I knew people who knew people.
Those people were the Jane Collective, semi-secret action group of the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union who defied Illinois law and arranged safe abortions.  In later years I got to know names and faces of some of them.  They were true heroes in a desperate time.
I knew people who knew people.  Those people were Jane.
I helped Ellen get in contact with Jane.  They arranged for her to see a cooperating doctor.  She had to go alone to the appointment, where she was given a chemical abortifacient.  I waited for her in her apartment.
The procedure was as safe as possible, but the cramping and pain from the induced miscarriage was serious in Ellen’s case.  It lasted three days.  I stayed with her the whole time.  We were afraid to seek further medical help.  Other women had been arrested in hospital emergency rooms. 
In the end, the procedure was effective.  Ellen recovered.  She got on with her life.  She went off the next summer on some high adventure and I never saw her again.  I got on with my life.
Within a few years, Illinois revised its laws in response to Roe v. Wade and safe abortions in clinical settings became available.  Jane dissolved.  But I will always remember Ellen’s needless ordeal and will never knowingly allow another woman to suffer so.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

A Unitarian Rite of Spring—Flower Communion with Murfin Verse

Flowers surround the Chalice ready for distribution.  In 2016.  Between ministers Tree of Life Religious Education Director Sam Jones led the service.

Today we will hold our annual Flower Communion at the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation in McHenry.  It is a Unitarian Universalist tradition, one of the few original ones that we didn’t inherit from our more conventional Christian roots or simply appropriate from somebody else’s.  
The Rev. Norbert Capek of the Prague Unitarian Church invented the Flower Service for his diverse congregation of former Catholics and Protestants, Jews, and humanist agnostics.  After his  death at the hands of the Nazis his widow Maja introduced it to American Unitarians.  It is now, other than the lighting of the Chalice, the most widely observed Unitarian Universalist ritual.
The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) explains it thusly:
The Flower Ceremony, sometimes referred to as Flower Communion or Flower Festival, is an annual ritual that celebrates beauty, human uniqueness, diversity, and community.
Originally created in 1923 by Unitarian minister Norbert Capek of Prague, Czechoslovakia, the Flower Ceremony was introduced to the United States by Rev. Maya Capek, Norbert’s widow.  [Capek died in a Nazi concentration camp.]
In this ceremony, everyone in the congregation brings a flower. Each person places a flower on the altar or in a shared vase. The congregation and minister bless the flowers, and they’re redistributed. Each person brings home a different flower than the one they brought.
I have described it in the past more simply as the symbolic giving and receiving of spiritual gifts in community, each flower representing the uniqueness of each individual.
I have been participating in this tradition now for about 30 years with this congregation through four name changes, five ministers called, interim, or on contract three intern ministers, in two buildings.  Between ministers we just did it all by ourselves relying on muscle memory and hymn book readings to get it right.  No matter, it is always a highlight of the church year.
Tree of Life youth gathering flowers from the baskets for distribution.
Three years ago as I watched it unfold again, I began to scratch a note in my Order of Service.
Flower Communion
Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation
April 17, 2016 
Those Unitarians have a thing,
            a ritual if you will—
                        yeah, I know, hard to imagine.

They call it Flower Communion
            or if that gives the congregation hives
            for sounding too damned
            you know, churchy and Christian,
            the Flower Service—
like FTD delivery

But don’t worry,
The details are fuzzy
and it will be different everywhere
you know—
            no Pope or Book of Common Prayer
            to set the rules just so.

They can’t even agree on a date
            though most of ‘em do it in the Spring
            sometime around when,
            if you’re lucky,
            it has been warm long enough
            to pluck some blossom
            from your yard—
                        If you have one.

Where I have parked my ass
            on Sunday mornings
            these last several years,
            Spring cheated us
            unless you planted daffodils
            or are unashamed
            by a handful of dandelions.

The supermarket flower wagons
            got a work out this year
            I’m guessing
            by the bright look
            of the vases and baskets
            on the table by the Chalice.
In some churches they try
            For proper liturgy—
            prayers or meditations
if they are queasy,
songs and blessings.

Folks file orderly 
            to lay their blooms in baskets
            or fill lovely vases
            and then some tidy system
            is employed to deal they out again.

But at our place we defy order
            and occasional attempts
            to impose it—
                        the posies are supposed
                        to go in the baskets
                        before the bell is rung.

But a lot of us are late
            or left the bouquets in the car,
            wander in
and add their nosegays
to haphazard piles
after things a have started.

The timid and confused
            have to be called up
            for last moment deposits.

Then the Children and the Youth
            are beckoned from their seats
toddlers and teens
grab fistfuls and plunge randomly
among the seats offering flowers
and bouncing off each other
like bumper cars
until everyone has a flower—
or three or four
and the kids can’t find
anymore takers.

Ah, the happy chaos.

—Patrick Murfin
The happy chaos.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Something Mechanical to Eat the God Damn Lawn

Edward Beard Budding's 1830 lawnmowing machine.

Note—Although extreme weather has plagued much of the U.S. this spring, an exceptionally wet,  cool spring has created the first world problem of extremely lush grass growth requiring almost constant attention in order to retain any shred of suburban respectability.  On a Saturday like today the neighborhood will be noisy with machines and sweaty operators hurrying to finish the job before the next round of rain moves in.  On our blocks of modest Mid-Century ranch and split level homes on small lots are trimmed mostly by walk-behind mowers.  A couple of folks who have riding tractor mowers look vaguely ridiculous but may be secretly envied.
On May 18, 1830 an English textile worker and tinkerer Edwin Beard Budding patented the first mechanical lawnmower.  He based his design on a velvet sheering device at his mill.  Blades mounted on a cylinder rotated as the machine was pushed sheering grass against a stationary blade.  It could be pushed by a strong man and also had an auxiliary handle so it could be pulled by a second.
While functional, his device was cumbersome and heavy, too expensive for the middling classes and not worth the investment by the grand owners of those country estates who could rely on legions of gardeners with scythes and sheep to keep their sweeping lawns under control.  
A small army of groundskeepers and their push reel lawnmowers kept things tidy at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
Forty years later American Elwood McGuire patented a simpler, lighter weight reel machine that could be mass produced and sold at reasonable prices.  By 1885 50,000 push mowers were being sold annually in the United States.  This caused a revolution in home landscaping
Previously front yards had often been small, weedy and often simply trampled ground apt to turn seasonally to mud or dust while back yards were reserved for home gardens and livestock.  Both were typically surrounded by high wooden fences so the neighbors couldn’t complain.  First front yards, then rear ones were transformed into lawns in imitation of the estates of the wealthy but on a much more modest scale.  
A suburban man, evidently without strong sons, tackles a post-World War II front yard.
Stockade fences came down to be replaced with picturesque pickets or decorative iron.  As long as husbands, sons, or help could be relied on for a couple of hours a week, middle class women could enjoy a new feeling of enhanced status.  But lawns in cities, small towns and the emerging suburbs alike continued to be modest in size because pushing the mower was still a lot of work.  
Enter the back yard tinkerers who spent decades trying to effectively mount an engine on the mower.  Most tried mounting heavy steam or gasoline powered motors to existing reel machines.  
The breakthrough came in 1919 when Colonel Edwin George mounted a new light 2-cycle engine perfected during the First World War on a platform directly driving a rotating blade spinning parallel to the ground.  
The new power machines did not really catch on in large numbers until the explosion of suburbia after World War II.  In fact a good argument can be made that the leap to large lots that characterized the post-war suburban boon would have been impossible without them.  
Vintage rotary deck power mowers are a collector's item.
Now power mowers are a major source of air pollution in many areas and modernized push mowers have made a modest comeback among the ecologically minded and mindless fitness enthusiasts.  
But this writer, whose muscles still ache from the memory of doing the quarter acre lot on Cheshire Drive in Cheyenne with a cranky push mower, still uses Col. George’s improvement—and relies on a trusty son-in-law, Kevin Rotter to do the job.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Brown v. Board of Education—The Big Court Win that Took Years to Enforce

Barbara Brown and her mother in front of the Supreme Court building.
On May 17, 1954 a unanimous decision by the United States Supreme Court over turned legal precedent and established custom to rule in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”  The ruling sent shock waves across the nation and it took more than a decade of turmoil and violence before this precedent was enforced across the land.  
Previous to this ruling school segregation flourished not only in the Deep South but across much of the rest of the nation under the protection of the 1896 court decision in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson which ruled that “separate but equal” public accommodations were legal.  
The Justices based the Brown decision on the post-Civil War Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution which called for “equal protection under the law.”  
Filed in 1951 by 13 parents, the suit was a result of segregation in the Topeka, Kansas school system under a 1873 state law that allowed—but did not compel—separation by race.  At the instigation of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) the parents attempted to register their children a neighborhood schools reserved for whites.  The registrations were, of course, rejected.  
The lead plaintiff was Oliver O. Brown, a welder with the Santa Fe Railroad and the associate pastor of a local church.  The Federal District Court upheld the law citing the Plessy case.  A three judge Appeals Court acknowledged that segregated facilities could be harmful to the interests of Black students, but said it was powerless to act because the Topeka schools were equal in terms of quality of facilities, transportation, curriculum, and quality of the staff.  
At the Supreme Court level, the case was combined with four other NAACP test cases from Delaware, North Carolina, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.  In the Delaware case a lower court had supported the plaintiffs on the grounds that the segregated schools were manifestly unequal with Black schools housed in substandard building with restricted budgets that impacted education quality.  
Although lead plaintiffs the Browns are best remembered, the case was consolidated with others from three states and the District of Columbia.  In Virginia 15-year old Barbara Rose Johns was deeply involved in all of the planning for her challenge to school segregation.  She is memorialized, center, in the Capitol Square Civil Rights Memorial in Richmond.  
Arguing for the NAACP was Thurgood Marshal.  Defending the Board of Education, somewhat reluctantly—and some claim less than diligently—was Kansas Assistant Attorney General Paul Wilson.  
According to notes, the Justices were split as the case moved forward.  Four members, William O. Douglas, Hugo Black, Harold Burton, and Sherman Minton were described as “predisposed” to overturn segregation.  Fred Vinton was leery to act in the absence of action by Congress to outlaw segregation.  Stanley Reed cited States’ Rights in opposition to Federal action and seemed to regard segregation as a positive benefit to Blacks.  Tom Clark wrote that, “we had led the states on to think segregation is OK and we should let them work it out.” Two of the most respected legal scholars on the Court, Felix Frankfurter and Robert H. Jackson were personally opposed to segregation but were skittish about “judicial activism.”  
The makeup and temper of the Court changed dramatically as the case moved forward when Vinton died and Earl Warren of California was appointed by President Dwight Eisenhower as the new Chief Justice.  Warren made a majority in favor of overturning the Kansas law. 
Attorneys George E.C. Hayes, Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and James Nabrit congratulate each other, following Brown v Board of Education decision
Realizing the impact of the decision, the majority members spent a great deal of time bringing around their dubious colleagues.  They felt that anything less than a unanimous decision would result in years of doubt and instability.  One by one, they won over the doubters based largely on Marshall’s arguments.  In the end, they achieved a unanimous decision that left no doubt where the Court stood. 
Topeka schools, which had only been segregated on the elementary level anyway, easily adapted without much in the way of opposition.  But across the South, the alarm was high and the angry voices of defiance heard loudly.  
The decision made bold front page headlines not only in Topeka but in newspapers North and South.
Virginia Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr. organized the Massive Resistance Movement across his state in which public schools shut down entirely rather than face integration.  In other states white fled the schools and established private academies.  With only Black and Whites too poor to afford the private schools left in the public system, they were starved of state and local tax funds.  
In 1957 President Eisenhower had to mobilize the 101st Airborne Division to enforce the desegregation of Little Rock, Arkansas’s Central High School when Gov. Oval Faubus tried to use the state National Guard to block Black students.  As late as 1963 Alabama Governor George Wallace “stood in the door” of the University of Alabama to defend segregation.  He was moved aside by his own National Guard, which had been federalized by Lyndon Johnson.  
Not only was school integration bitterly opposed across the South for more than a decade, it was also fiercely protested in the North when it was applied to the de facto segregation created by discriminatory housing patterns.
Northerners who smugly assumed that all the brouhaha was isolated in the South were shocked when their own school systems were sued and desegregation orders, including “forced busing” was applied to them.  Boston saw ugly resistance through the ‘60’s into the early ‘70’s.  
Today schools are generally desegregated, although decisions to limit bussing have allowed more schools in racially isolated areas to become de facto single race.  Whites still shun public schools across much of the South and flee majority Black urban school districts in the North for White exurbs. 
And a new generation of conservative judicial activists openly talks about reverting to the Plessy v. Ferguson standard.  Yet even the most hide bound conservative on the Supreme Court today would be hard pressed to overturn that unanimous 1954 decision.  
Three cheers for judicial activism when it counted!

Thursday, May 16, 2019

A Doughboy Hero Snubbed and Neglected

The Our Colored Heroes lithograph, published by E.G. Renesch in 1918, depicts the German raid foiled by then-Pvt. Henry Johnson and Pvt. Needham Roberts during World War I.
He was the only American enlisted man to have a battle named for him during World War I.  All right, maybe it was more of a nasty skirmish, but you can look up the Battle of Henry Johnson and lo and behold there it is.  Sgt. Johnson and his comrade Pvt. Needham Roberts were the first members of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) awarded the Croix de Guerre (Palm and Star) by French.  Subsequently his whole unit was cited by them.
Johnson’s own U. S. Army, however, refused to give the soldier any award for combat bravery.  I wonder if it could have had anything to do with the fact that Johnson was Black and a member of an all-Black regiment.
Henry Lincoln Johnson was born sometime, exact date unknown, in 1897 in Alexandria, Virginia.  As a teenager his family moved to Albany, New York where he eventually found work as a Red Cap at the city’s Union Station.  Older readers will recall that Red Caps were baggage handlers at railway station who were paid in tips by travelers.  Depending on how busy the station was and how deferential and friendly the service, Black men could make a fairly decent living, even after the usual kick-backs to station masters for the privilege of working.
But patriotism seized the diminutive young man—he stood only 5’6” and weighed 130 pounds-- when the United States seemed near to entering the war raging in Europe.  Despite having a wife and small children he enlisted in the all-Black National Guard 15th New York Infantry.  When war broke out the regiment was mustered into service as the 369th Infantry Regiment who earned the name Harlem Hellfighters.  It was among the first units to arrive in France, landing there on New Year’s Day 1918,
Black troops of the 369th Regiment served along side French troops and under French command because American units had refused to share trenches with them.  Seen here with French helmets like.
General John J. Pershing, commander of the AEF, fiercely resisted calls to rotate American units into the line under French and British command.  He insisted that Americans fight under American command and in charge of their own sector of the Front.  But for some reason, Pershing, who earned his nick name Black Jack when he commanded Black Buffalo Soldier Cavalry in Texas and during the futile chase of Pancho Villa in Mexico, allowed the 369th to go into the French line under French command.
The unit was relieved of their American Springfield rifles, and issued longer French rifles designed mainly for bayonet charges as well as French helmets and in most cases French uniforms
On night of May 15, 1918 Johnson and Roberts were posted to sentry duty in advance of the main French trenches when they detected a force of 20 German raiders advancing, hoping to find a weak spot in the French line.  They engaged the Germans in a brief fire fight during which both men were wounded.  Johnson’s fire killed one and injured two others, but the enemy quickly advanced and one tried to seize the wounded Roberts. 
Throwing down his rifle, Johnson drew a French bolo knife—a weapon similar to a short, narrow bladed machete—that he carried and slashed and stabbed the soldier attempting to grab his friend.  He then turned on the others in fierce hand-to-hand combat.  Three more Germans fell dead and more were wounded.  Meanwhile Roberts recovered enough to begin lobbing hand grenades.  The raiders were forced to retreat with heavy casualties.  They certainly had not found a week spot in the line.
Sgt. Henry Johnson with his Croix de Guerre medal.
In the brief action, Johnson was wounded by grenade fragments, and blasts from a trench shot gun.  The French were impressed.  They knew √©lan when they saw it.  When the two soldiers were sufficiently recovered from their wounds, a French general pinned the Croix de Guerre on each man’s chest.  They were the first American soldiers so decorated.
The white officers of their own regiment, however, saw no reason for awards to either man.  Johnson returned to front line duty and was wounded again in action.  In all he was treated for 21 combat wounds in 1918—yet was not even awarded the Purple Heart which had already begun to be routinely awarded to all soldiers injured in combat.
Johnson’s achievements, however, were noted at home, where the Albany newspapers heralded him as hero and by the rapidly expanding black press across the nation.  That press reported that he had earned the nickname Black Death, but frankly it strikes me more as press hype than anything anyone would ever call him to his face.
Sgt. Johnson riding in a New York City parade.
At war’s end Johnson did have a moment or two in the sun, despite the Army’s continued refusal to honor him.  He marched with his regiment in the grand welcome home review parade down in New York City, although some high ranking officers and city officials had opposed the inclusion of Black units.  He was also among war heroes to ride in open cars for an early ticker-tape parade.   His story and image were used in the last War Bond campaign to raise money in the Black community.
Back home in Albany he was one of the featured speakers at a local Hear Our War Heroes program.  Perhaps it was the success of that 1919 talk that led to a lecture tour contract.  After several appearances in which he told his story, recited patriotic boiler plate, and painted a picture of racial harmony in the trenches, Johnson mounted a stage in St. Louis and threw away the script.  
A World War II era cartoon used to encourage Black enlistment depicted Johnson as a hero even though he had not been officially honored by the Army.
Instead he detailed the routine humiliations of black troops, including the refusal of white units to even share trenches with them.  The local press was outraged.  Johnson lost his speaking contract.  He was even arrested and brought up on charges of illegally wearing his uniform past his enlistment—a common practice among veterans, including members of the newly organized American Legion.
Humiliated, Johnson returned to Albany.  He seemed to suffer all the symptoms we now identify as post-traumatic stress syndrome.  Previously industrious and hardworking, he could not hold a job.  He began drinking heavily.  By the early 20’s he was completely estranged from his wife and children.
On July 5, 1929 Johnson died of complications of alcoholism at a Veteran’s Hospital in New Lenox, Illinois.  He died a penniless.  His family was told that he was interred in an unmarked pauper’s grave.
Johnson’s son Herman A. Johnson went on to his own distinguished military service as a pilot in the legendary Tuskegee Airmen.
After World War II Herman Johnson and other supporters began a decade’s long campaign to have Henry awarded the Medal of Honor.  After almost profligate awards of the Medal during the Civil War, Indian campaigns, and Spanish American War requirements for the Medal had been severely tightened during World War I.  But comparisons to others who received the award made a good case for a posthumous award to Johnson.  The Army refused to review his case.
Interest in his case was revived by Black Vietnam veterans and the family in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s.  In 1991 the City of Albany erected a monument to Johnson in Washington Park.  President Bill Clinton finally ordered a Purple Hart be awarded the oft wounded Johnson in 1996.
In 2001 researchers into his case “discovered” his grave at Arlington National Cemetery.   The burial there was evidently arranged by someone at the VA Hospital who knew his story, but his family was never informed.  Publicity around that also caused the Army to finally review his case.
Although they continued to refuse a recommendation for the Medal of Honor, in February 2003 86 year old Herman Johnson received the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest Army medal for bravery in combat, on behalf of his father at a special ceremony in Albany.  The action came after a mandated review of the cases of African-American troops, who the Army finally acknowledged had been systematically slighted.
President Barack Obama bestows the Medal of Honor to Sgt. Henry Johnson, accepting on his behalf is Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson, of the New York National Guard, in the East Room of the White House, June 2, 2015.
Finally on June 2, 2015 President Barack Obama presented Johnson’s posthumous Medal of Honor to a senior Non-Commissioned Officer of the New York National Guard.
All of that is wonderful for the family and a just correction of a grievous injustice.  But it all comes way too late for Sgt. Johnson.