Strike Wave at Washington, DC’s Capital Transit: 1945

10 May
Transit Union Members At Pythian Temple:

Union members outside Pythian Temple Nov. 6, 1945.

By Daniel Hardin

“Let the company come to us. I speak not of compromise. I say meet our demands.”

Walter H. Vanstavern

Nearly 4,500 workers on the Washington, D.C. Capital Transit streetcar and bus system went on a wildcat strike November 6, 1945 to demand higher wages, despite a no-strike provision in the contract between the Amalgamated Association of Street Electric Railway Employees (the Amalgamated) Division 689 and the company.

The strike ended briefly with a truce, but a second wildcat strike took place two weeks later that ended when the U.S. government seized the company and threatened to operate the system with U.S. troops.

Post-War Turmoil

The Capital Transit strike was part of perhaps the greatest strike wave in U.S. history–during 1945-46–that involved upwards of 4.5 million workers across the country.

DC telephone operators leave union meeting at Turner's Arena in 1946

DC telephone operators leave union meeting at Turner’s Arena before strike in 1946..

As GIs returned to the U.S. and sought employment, workers’ hours, and thereby their take-home pay, were cut in nearly all industries. Pay demands were also pent up due to relatively small raises granted during the war years of 1942-45 where many unions entered no-strike pledges. The companies also began pushing elimination or weakening of seniority and other work rules designed to protect employees.

The strike wave involved workers in the auto, meatpacking, steel, coal, railroad, mining and oil industries, among others. The government responded by seizing the railroads, threatening to seize other industries and to draft strikers into the army.

Division 689

Division 689 of the Amalgamated was established after a one-day strike in 1916 at the Capital Traction and the Washington Railway & Electric companies. A year after the settlement WRE president Clarence King sought to break the union when he fired key union supporters and refused to negotiate a new agreement, instead offering individual contracts to workers.

Crowd Blocks Scab Streetcar During Transit Strike: 1917

Workers & supporters halt a scab WRE streetcar at 9th & F St. during a 1917 strike.

Capital Traction settled the day before a scheduled strike. The union called a strike against the larger WRE, but the company operated with strikebreakers and broke the union. The unionization of city lines wasn’t completed again until Capital Traction merged with the WRE to become Capital Transit in 1933 and applied the union contract to all workers.

The defeat at WRE in 1917 loomed large over the union leaders for the next two decades and as a result they pursued a policy of accommodation with the company. The old guard was defeated in 1940 by upstarts calling for a more militant approach, but former president William F. Simms recaptured the position by defeating Jonathan G. Bigelow in 1944 by accusing him of being soft on resisting de-segregation of bus and trolley operators.

Segregation

The transit companies in Washington, D.C. had no practice or law requiring Jim Crow seating like those south of the Potomac River, but the D.C. companies had long refused to hire African American operators or conductors.

In 1940 a group of young activists began undertaking a campaign to integrate the Capital Transit operator ranks through education, pickets, lobbying and demonstrations. The federal government had the power to integrate the company during World War II through a Fair Employment Practices Commission; however, despite repeated promises they had failed to do so by 1945.

Jonathan G. Bigelow, Transit Union Division 689 President: 1940

Jonathan G. Bigelow, union president 1940-44.

While Bigelow was union president, he took the position of the Amalgamated’s International Union that the union accepted anyone who was hired. Indeed, he pointed out that hundreds of maintenance employees were African Americans. But he warned that bus and streetcar operators might not accept black drivers and would likely strike if they were employed. Simms was not so reticent He vowed to oppose any attempt to hire African Americans.

Against this background of pent-up wage demands, talk of strikes opposing integration, the end of World War II and the beginning of a new general labor militancy, the Capital Transit workers gathered at a union meeting to consider their situation.

 The Strike Begins

In October 1945, Capital Transit rejected the union’s wage demands. To put pressure on the company, Simms called for a “continuous union meeting” to begin at midnight at the Gayety theater near 9th & E Streets NW. It was attended by around 2,500 workers.

The strike effectively began at 2:30 am on November 6, 1945 when the first trains and buses were due to leave their barns and workers were still in their meeting.

Idol is Idled by Streetcar Strike: 1945

A man listens for a streetcar on the 2800 block of 14th St. in the early hours of the first 1945 strike.

The strike left heavily-streetcar-dependent Washington paralyzed. Over 500,000 passengers normally made between 1.2 and 1.5 million trips per day.

Without any preparations for the strike, the federal government opened on time, but closed two hours early. Downtown department stores closed at 4:30 p.m. All district government employees except firemen and police were let out at 3:30 pm.

The Washington Post wrote, “Scenes on the Capital’s streets included: a naval officer pedaling a bicycle with a government stenographer in a basket on the handlebars; a Negro riding to work on horseback, and a youth zigzagging down Sixteenth Street on roller skates he obviously hadn’t used for years.”

“Among the hundreds of thousands affected by the strike were delegates to President Truman’s labor-management conference called to write a national peace formula for industry and labor. They had to depend on scarce taxicabs or private automobiles,” the Washington Post reported.

The rolling union meeting shifted to the Pythian Temple on 9th Street between L Street and Massachusetts Avenue in the morning and still later to Turner’s Arena at 14th Street and W Street. NW, where 3,000 union members showed up.

Capital Transit Union Leaders in mid-20th Century

New negotiating committee (l-r) W. H. Van Stavern, Walter J. Bierwagen, R. E. Hanna with transit union president William F. Simms.

The raucous meeting was divided into two points of view—one urging a return to work and the other wanting to continue to exercise their newfound power. An early sign of how the meeting was to go came when a new negotiating committee was elected composed of a more militant trio, Walter Bierwagen, R. E. Hanna and Walter H. Vanstavern.

Simms, the Amalgamated’s International secretary-treasurer Sam Berrong, and federal mediator Richard W. Goodrick all urged a return to work.

“The company is more than willing to enter negotiations with the union. But the company insists that the terms of the contract, which requires that ‘service shall not be interfered with’ be honored. Go back to your jobs and I am sure that you and the company officials can get together,” Goodrick told the crowd

 Compromise or Unusual Manner?

Vanstavern, newly elected to the negotiating committee spoke next: “Let the company come to us. I speak not of compromise. I say meet our demands. We regard the sentiments of our International leaders and our own president with considerable deference. But this is an unusual controversy which must be handled in an unusual manner.”

Transit Union Strike Meeting: 1945

“Continuous meeting” of DC transit union at Turner’s Arena on 14th St. NW

Vanstavern’s words were met with 10 minutes of shouting, foot stamping and applause by supporters of the new negotiating committee. The workers voted to continue the strike.

E. D. Merrill, president of Capital Transit, responded that the company would lose $2.5 million annually if the workers were awarded their demand of a $0.30 per hour raise to all workers. Instead he offered to incorporate the $0.07 per hour bonus that was already being paid into the basic rate—the same offer he had made in October—well before the strike.

Government Intervention

The federal government immediately reacted to the strike. More than 500 military MPs at Ft. Myer were put on alert. Labor Department Secretary Lewis B. Schwellenbach and Sen. Jennings Randolph, chair of the House District Committee, met the union leaders and the company during the morning of Nov. 7th.

DC Transit Union President Confers with Mediator: 1945

Simms (right) confers with federal conciliator Richard Goodrick (center).

Randolph made the implicit threat of government seizure when he said that President Truman had told him to “step in and help end the dispute that had seriously impeded the government of vitally needed Government employees.”

The National Negro Congress issued a statement calling for granting the wage increase to the workers, but urged the company to desegregate its operators at the same time.

The company issued a statement refusing to bargain, citing a “no interruption of service” clause in the union’s contract.

 Union Demands

The union demands centered on increasing pay to $1.25 an hour as a basic wage for operators and to which other classifications were tied. The current wage was $1.02 per hour that consisted of $0.95 cents basic wage and $0.07 an hour wartime bonus. Mediation in October 1945 had recommended no increase beyond incorporating the $0.07 bonus into the basic wage, a proposal the union rejected.

Workers in most departments, including bus and streetcar operators, had been working an average of 48-hour work weeks that were threatened with cut back to 40 hours as members of the armed services were released from duty. In order to make up for the lost pay, the strikers were demanding the wartime bonus be incorporated and an additional $0.23 be added to make up for lost earnings plus a nominal increase in take-home pay.

Company President Refuses to Hire Black Operators 1941

E. D. Merrill, Capital Transit Co. president

“E.D. Merrill, president of the Capital Transit, said that if the workers were paid the 30 cent an hour increase they are demanding, the company would have to raise car and bus fares to meet the added operating costs,” the Washington Post reported.

“To raise the fares charged now the company would have to petition the District Public Utilities Commission and show cause why they should be raised,” said Merrill.

“To do that would result in a long dragged out rate case that would probably take months to settle. And there’s no way you can charge bus and streetcar passengers retroactively for underpaid fares. No one can say exactly how much it would cost the company,” Merrill stated, according to the Washington Post.

 Capital & Labor

The union adopted a position that was later cemented during the 1955 strike and continues to underpin the union’s position on wages and benefits today.

Streetcar Union Members at Pythian Temple: 1945

Transit workers outside the Pythian Temple during “continuous union meeting.”

It can be summed up as follows: that the workers have value and needs independent of the company’s profit (or later the government’s funding) and in a society of tremendous wealth—those needs must be met.

But even without the union adopting that position, Capital Transit owned outright nearly all its facilities and equipment, had little debt, good operating profits, and large cash reserves.

Truce

The union’s negotiating committee reconsidered their bargaining position and entered into a temporary truce calling for a 14-day cooling off period.

At the same time the truce was reached, taxicab drivers of Local 953 of the Taxicab Operators Union were meeting to consider joining the strike.

The 1:00 pm meeting of about 3,000 seesawed back and forth between speakers calling for a continuation of the strike and those who urged backing the negotiating committee. In the end, the union members voted nearly unanimously to ratify the agreement. It contained three points:

  1. That the prestrike status quo be restored
  2. That all employees be returned to work without discrimination or penalties against strikers or the union.
  3. That negotiations proceed for a 14-day period before a special three-man Conciliation Service panel.
Sam Berrong, Transit Union Official During DC Strike: 1945

Sam Berrong, the Amalgamated’s International representative during the strike.

After the ratification vote, Berrong told local union leaders that; “I want to congratulate you on your decision. I happen to know that if you hadn’t decided to go back to work, the Army was prepared to take over at 2 o’clock,” according to the Washington Post.

Transit service began to be restored at around 1:30 pm and was completely restored by 9 pm November 7th.

Negotiations over the next two weeks moved slowly but the agreed-upon deadline was moved up just prior to Thanksgiving. On Tuesday Nov. 20th a tentative agreement was reached and a union meeting was called for midnight at Turner’s Arena.

Wildcat Strike

Union president Simms presented the proposal that called for arbitration to resolve the pay dispute. In no uncertain terms, the 3,000 assembled rejected the proposal and voted to strike in the early morning hours of November 21st. Simms then recessed the meeting until 1:00 pm.

Service was crippled on the day before Thanksgiving and the federal government reacted quickly.

Office of Defense Transportation (ODT–a World War II agency) director of highway transport Guy A. Richardson appeared before the 1:00 pm union meeting and announced President Harry Truman’s decision to seize the company and operate it.

Berrong, the representative of the Amalgamated’s International union, and Simms both denounced the strike and pledged cooperation with the federal government to end it.

Operator Speaks Out at Union Meeting: 1945

Union member Thelma Hodges speaks out at Turner’s Arena during the strike.

Union members rushed to the microphones and shouted out a motion to continue the strike that Simms in turn ruled out of order. Union members called for Simms’ impeachment, but he ignored them.

Some of the assembled workers began to drift out of the meeting while others debated the next course of action. Someone ordered the lights cut at 5 pm and the debate continued out on the street.

Truman Denounces Strike

President Truman issued his formal seizure order at 3:00 pm, saying the work stoppage “strikes…at the very roots of orderly government” and vowing that, “The federal government will not permit this kind of action to interfere with its processes either in the capital or any part of the nation.”

Seized Trolleys, Buses Begin Operating: 1945

President Truman seizes Capital Transit and activates the U.S. Army.

As Truman spoke, thousands of troops in the Washington Military District were placed on alert. Brig. Gen. Robert N. Young, the commanding general of the district, announced, “We are prepared to do anything that ODT requires,” and said he had “more than 4,000 men who can serve as bus or streetcar operators—or as military police.”

While the union members continued to debate at Turner’s Arena, others headed back to work.

The first streetcar left the Southern Division barn at Maine Ave. SW at 3:07 pm and the first bus left the Trinidad Division at 15th & Benning Road NE at 6:10 pm Most service was restored Thanksgiving Day, and Friday, November 23 saw a complete restoration of service.

Aftermath

Following the strike, Capital Transit fired a number of men who were accused of urging a continuation of the strike at the Brookland Division near 10th St. and Michigan Ave. NE.

Idled Streetcars During 2nd Strike: 1945

Idled streetcars Nov. 22, 1945 while striking workers begin to return to work.

One of those discharged, Ernest M. Hatfield, said “I didn’t attend the continuous meeting of the union either November 7th or last week, In fact I didn’t know about the first strike and reported to work as usual. The company refused to give me my equipment that morning when I showed up for work,” according to the Washington Post.

“I have worked seven days a week for months. I have a wife and two small children. My hours at work were from 6 am to 10 pm. Every day but Sunday. Sundays I worked from noon to 9:30 pm. The only hours I got to see my kids when they weren’t asleep was before noon on Sunday. I tried to do my bit for the company during the war. I can’t understand their action yesterday. I have had only two days off since August 12—more than three months,” Hatfield declared.

A month later, the union settled the grievances of the nine terminated men to return them to work without back pay.

Congressional Reaction

While union power was being demonstrated across the country, many Congressional leaders were denouncing the workers’ actions, and particular ire was directed at the Capital Transit strikers.

The Washington Post reported that “Congress…reacted to the Washington transit, General Motors and Chicago telephone strikes with a whole series of moves aimed at organized labor.”

Representative Eugene E. Cox (D-Ga.) declared, “The goons have the country at bay,” and labeled it “an assault of organized outlaws.”

Senator Alexander Wiley (R-Wi) called the strike, “intolerable and outrageous.”

Representative Charles a Halleck (R-Ind.) offered, “The transit workers are out today in violation of their contract and the company is entirely without recourse.”

Caravan to Oppose Taft-Hartley Act: 1947

A union caravan in Washington, D.C. urges a veto of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947.

Representative Roger C. Slaughter (D-Mo.) suggested the transit workers could be sued for damages under the terms of a bill he supported.

Despite having the greatest number of workers involved in militant action in the history of the U.S labor movement during 1945-46, labor leaders were unable to consolidate their gains. Instead a coalition of Republican and Democratic legislators acted to pass the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947—severely restricting union and individual rights.

Segregation

Activists in the five-year fight to desegregate Capital Transit were buoyed by the opportunity presented by the federal seizure of the company. The wartime FEPC had repeatedly found against the company, but had not enforced their order to desegregate.

Transit Union Members at Pythian Temple (African Americans): 1945 # 1

Capital Transit barred African American transit union members (shown at Pythian Temple)  from operating buses and streetcars.

In August 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt had ordered the seizure of the Philadelphia Transit Company during a wildcat strike and enforced the integration of operator ranks. However, in the case of Capital Transit Truman refused to do so. Charles Hamilton Houston, a longtime civil rights leader serving on the FEPC, resigned denouncing the government’s lip service to desegregation.

The Capital Transit Company’s operators were not desegregated until 1955 while the union prepared for another showdown with Capital Transit.

Pay issue Arbitration

The three member arbitration panel (one company, one union and one neutral) voted 2-1 January 2, 1946, with the company dissenting, to increase the basic wage for operators to $1.14 per hour and to guarantee a 48-hour week until the expiration of the current contract in June 1946. The increase made the union members the highest paid on the East Coast.

However the company refused to comply until the Wage Stabilization Board acted, although wage board and company agreed that its action was not necessary. Ultimately the company relented and paid the increases.

The new insurgent forces within the union were satisfied. They felt the strikes had served their purpose and they would never have received the increases without demonstrating the seriousness of their demands though the strikes.


Union President With Members After Strike Ends: 1955

Walter Bierwagen (right) relaxes with members after the vote to end the 1955 strike.

Author’s Notes:

Walter Bierwagen, a member of the 1945 negotiating committee, cut his teeth in the 1945 wildcats and went on to defeat William Simms in the 1950 Division 689 elections. He applied the lessons learned during the 1945 wildcats—that increasing the amount of public support and a united membership would be essential to outright winning a strike. Further, that stage must be set so that government intervention was on the side of the strikers—not the company.

Dependent on African American support for his election, he led the union in a 1951 strike that established seniority rights for track and maintenance departments where many African Americans worked, and ultimately forced a resolution through the union’s executive board and membership endorsing desegregation in 1955.

Congrats to First DC Transit Union African American Officer: 1974

Walter Bierwagen (right) congratulates first ATU Local 689 African American officer Rodney Richmond at a 1974 installation of officers..

He made a very public case in 1955 that Capital Transit’s owners had looted the company at the public’s expense. He led a two-month strike in 1955 that won a small wage increase but firmly established a principle that workers had value independent of the way the company was run.

During Bierwagen’s tenure as head of the local transit union, pension and health and welfare benefits were established. He was elected a vice president of the international union, where he played a crucial role in protecting transit workers’ bargaining rights as public entities took over private transit companies.

The strike wave of 1945-46 was a missed opportunity for workers. Failure to consolidate gains directly led to the crippling Taft-Hartley Act. In turn that has in large part resulted in the past 60 years of defensive battles by workers while union density declines.

Sources include The Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Afro American, and surviving records of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 among others.


Postscript: Early D.C. Transit Union Organizing

Amalgamated Associated of Street & Electric Railway Employees Division 689 (currently named Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689) was established in the Washington, D.C. transit system after a one-day strike March 5-6, 1916. It was settled when District government officials stepped in and brokered an agreement to arbitrate disputes not settled. The ad-hoc agreement was for one year.

Knights Street Car Union President: 1895

Earlier efforts at organizing transit workers in Washington, D.C. met with brief successes, but ultimate defeat. The Knights of Labor established a Street Railway Protective Association in the 1880s that waged several strikes against street railway companies and achieved some success in improving wages and working conditions under the leadership of Thomas J. Lawrence before falling victim to the weaknesses in the Knights’ organization around the turn of the century.

There was a brief strike on the Metropolitan Railroad in 1900. Division 161 of the Amalgamated was established by 1901 and achieved early success on uniform issues. However, by October 1901 the Capital Traction Co. fired union president John McCrackin and the union lapsed shortly afterward.

Organizing efforts continued with attempts to establish the Amalgamated in 1907 and 1909, before Division 689 was established in January 1916.

The union currently represents 13,000 active and retired, bus and rail employees of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority as well as some paratransit workers at private companies.

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Want to see more images of the transit union or other unions 1945 strikes?

Want to read more about the battle to desegregate Washington, D.C.’s transit system?

Want to see more images of the transit union in 1916-17, 19551974, 1978, WWII, Desegregation of the transit system?

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A Million & Counting…

15 Feb

One million photo views and counting on our Flickr site. We’re frankly surprised at the interest in the history of the struggle for social and economic justice in the greater Washington, D.C. area.

Each photo has a short description. Groups of related photos are organized into albums. Each album–sometimes a specific event and sometimes a group of related images–have a longer description that puts the images in context. We also publish this blog for a deep dive look behind selected images.

You can see our photo stream organized by date the image was uploaded or check out individual albums. Check out our in-depth blog posts that are organized by the decade (on right of this page or simply scroll down).

Some of our most popular photo albums are:

Blacks, Whites Protest Job Losses: 1930 No. 2D.C. Protests Against Unemployment:

The first nationwide response to the Great Depression occurred March 6, 1930, including a picket line at the White House in Washington, D.C. Looking for more unemployment protests? 1935, 1937, 1940, 1973, 1977.

 

Harassment at Arlington, Virginia Sit-In: 1960

1960s Civil Rights Protests in the D.C. Area:

District of Columbia public accommodations were largely integrated in the mid 1950s but the surrounding suburbs remained bastions of segregation. Arlington, Rockville, Bowie, Glen Echo, Bethesda, College Park, Silver Spring were but a few of the towns that saw sit-ins, pickets and arrests demanding equality. Read a brief biography of one of these pioneers, Dion Diamond.

Klan Protests Black Minister In Camp Springs MD: 1966The Fight Against the Klan and Nazis in the D.C. area:

The Ku Klux Klan was active throughout the 1960s opposing civil rights and antiwar efforts (one person’s experience). So too was the American Nazi Party. See photos of confrontation in Arlington, Glen Echo, Mt. Ranier, Camp Springs, Frederick and Rising Sun.

 

 

March for Capital Transit Jobs: 1943 (Photo 16)The Washington, D.C. Area Transit Union:

Interest has been high in the struggle to desegregate Washington’s transit system (background story), women streetcar and bus operators during World War II (background story), and in strikes conducted by member of the Amalgamated Transit Union in 1974 and 1978. As the 100th anniversary of ATU Local 689 approaches, check back in the coming year as we post images from early efforts in 19th century to form a union and strikes in 1916, 1917, 1945, 1951 and 1955.

Increasingly Viewed

Negro Congress Pickets Bilbo: 1946

Civil Rights Struggles before 1960: 

Little known today, they helped lay the groundwork for the mass demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins, pickets and other forms of protest that broke down the worst aspects of segregation in our area: 1922 Anti-Lynching Protest (background story), 1933 March for Scottsboro (background story), 1936 Police Brutality Protests (background story), 1940 Gone with the Wind pickets, 1941 Police Brutality Protest (background story), Integration of D.C. Theaters (background story), The Fight for Fair Employment, The Fight Against the Poll Tax, 1946 Protests Against Sen.Bilbo, 1946 Anti-Lynching Protests, the effort to Free Willie McGee and the Martinsville 7, Mary Church Terrell, the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, among others.

U of MD Ignites: 1970 # 1

Anti-Vietnam War Demonstrations:

The movement against the Vietnam War involved hundreds of thousands of people across the country. Check out the first mass marches on D.C in 1965, The march on the Pentagon in 1967, The Counter-Inaugural in 1969 (background story), University of Md protests in 1970 (background story), 1971, 1972, Mayday protests to shut down the government in 1971 – May 1, May 2, May 3, May 4, May 5, a 1972 march on the Pentagon and 1972 rally downtown, the 1973 Counter-Inaugural and the last demonstration against the Vietnam War in D.C. in 1975. See earlier 1941 and 1958 antiwar protests.

Background

We felt there was historical gap between the internet era and the print era in the struggles for social justice.

We started by publishing photos and negatives that had been improperly stored from the 1972-1975 Montgomery Spark, Washington Area Spark and On The Move tabloid newspapers.  We followed up by researching images available from various sources including the Library of Congress, the D.C. Public Library, the National Archives and auctioned photographs. And occasionally we publish longer blog posts that give a more detailed look.

See all the images in albums or in the order they were posted.

Paddy Whalen & the Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade

4 Feb
Baltimore Union Leader Patrick B. “Paddy” Whalen: 1938 ca.

Patrick B. “Paddy” Whalen

By Daniel Hardin

On January 17, 1937, hundreds of striking seamen hiked down U.S. Route 1 from Baltimore, Maryland to Washington, D.C. on what became known as the Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade.

The insurgents within the International Seamen’s Union (ISU) were on the ropes and desperate action was needed to save their rank-and-file caucus.

The strike began in early November in sympathy with West Coast waterfront workers. It was led by a rank-and-file committee within the ISU that challenged the legitimacy of the ISU itself.

However, by Christmas 1936 ships were leaving Baltimore harbor with full crews, and on January 14 other waterfront unions called off their strikes and ordered their members to return to work.

Only one person could have rallied the Baltimore strikers after two months of privation and the desertion of other waterfront unions. That was Patrick B. “Paddy” Whalen.

Paddy Whalen

Whalen was born in 1884 and followed his father into the locomotive engineers’ union. Whalen apparently had conflicts with the railroad companies and began a wandering period that ended with him finding work in the engine rooms of merchant ships.

Patrick B. Whalen Mug Shot: 1937 ca.

Undated mug shot of Patrick B. “Paddy” Whalen.

Whalen sailed out of New York on one of the merchant ships in the early 1930s, and Charles Rubin, a communist seaman, shipped out with him. According to The Log of Rubin the Sailor, Rubin was fascinated by Whalen’s knowledge of radical labor groups like the Knights of Labor, the Molly McGuires and the Wobblies.

Rubin recruited Whalen into the militant, communist-aligned Marine Workers Industrial Union (MWIU) and later into the Communist Party (CP) itself. Whalen rose quickly as a leader among the seafarers. When the CP broke up the MWIU and sent its activists to work within the International Seamen’s Union, Whalen became a leader in the rank-and-file caucus.

The anti-communist Bella Dodd described Whalen in her book School of Darkness:

Paddy Whalen best represented the picturesque elements among the Communists of that era. He was a little Irishman, the mayor of Hooversville as they named this town of shanties over on the Jersey flats. He had piercing black eyes. He drank too much and ate too little. In his way, he was dedicated to the labor movement, having once been an IWW…

Paddy Whalen came from the Middle West. Once a Catholic, he argued doctrine with priests yet begged help for strikers from men of all faiths. As mayor of a pathetic heap of boxes and tins, he wore with great dignity a hand-me-down black derby and an overcoat which reached his heels.

In late 1934 or early 1935 he moved to Baltimore and quickly became the head of the rank and file caucus within the ISU. Duke Avnet, a left-wing Baltimore labor lawyer, remembered Whalen:

He ran sentences together. He mispronounced words; he committed malapropism. He cussed profusely. His grammar was a classic of mistakes. But his thinking was clear; and he knew the seamen and their problems.

The Strike

The strike on the East Coast began in early November and was briefly supported by nearly the entire waterfront.

Striking Seamen Register for March on DC: 1937

Baltimore ISU headquarters during 1936-7 strike.

When the impeccably dressed Joseph McCurdy, president of the Baltimore Federation of Labor, sided with the ship owners in seeking an injunction, Whalen spoke to a rally and “denounced labor leaders who had ‘ritzy’ lifestyles and insisted on wearing ‘clean shirts,’” according to Vernon Pederson’s The Communist Party in Maryland 1919-57,

Whalen told the crowd, “I have been involved in strikes for years and I have slept in flophouses, under viaducts and in jails—with my comrades. We have no money, and to win this strike every man must expect to suffer the hardships of his fellows.”

At a crucial point in the strike, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) local unions briefly joined in. Thousands of striking workers chased ILA President Joe Ryan back to his car when he tried to speak against the strike.

But, in the days that followed, ILA locals met separately and Ryan’s supporters were able to sway the workers to vote against officially joining the strike.

As the strike crumbled in early 1937, Whalen sought to save the insurgency from an outright defeat and preserve the Baltimore section of the organization that he led.

 Fink Books

The opportunity came as Congress was considering ship owners’ legislation that would establish a single discharge book to be filled out by each ship captain after each voyage.

Baltimore Soviet Marches on Washington: 1934

“Baltimore Soviet” marches on D.C. in 1934

Up to this point, individual discharge papers from each tour had been issued by the ship captains. Union seamen viewed the proposed single discharge book as an attempt by ship owners to blacklist them since one captain who didn’t like a maritime worker could smear them on a single discharge book. The legislation was called the Copeland Safety at Sea Act.

Also pending was a National Labor Relations Board decision on whether the rank and file caucus could challenge the ISU during federally supervised elections to represent the seamen.

It’s not clear who came up with the idea for a march on Washington but it may have been Al Lannon, a national leader of the rank-and-file committee. Lannon had previously led the Baltimore MWIU in the early 1930s and had organized a small march on Washington in 1934 demanding continued disbursement of federal relief funds through the union instead of outside organizations that were feathering their own nests.

As a result of agitation by the MWIU the disbursement of funds through the so-called “Baltimore Soviet,” continued for another year. The “Soviet” provided beds, food, barbers and other services for waterfront workers during the toughest early years of the Great Depression.

 The Midnight March

Whether it was Whalen’s or Lannon’s thoughts that led to the march, Whalen took it up with enthusiasm and the idea captured the imagination of seamen up and down the ports on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

Seamen March in Rain in D.C. Protest #2: 1937

The “Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade.”

Elizabeth Fee wrote in The Baltimore Book:

Calling it the Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade, Whalen led hundreds of seamen and supporters from other unions along U.S. Route 1 through a day and night of rain and slush to the nation’s capital.

There they were joined by several thousand more demonstrators, and pickets were thrown around the Department of Commerce as well as the Capitol. The seamen visited all the principal department heads in government. One delegation even went to President Franklin Roosevelt in the White House.

With the momentum of the march, Baltimore’s striking seamen voted to end the 87-day strike, obtaining wage increases for the sailors, according to Jo Ann Argersinger in the Maryland Historical Magazine.

Shortly afterward the NLRB ruled in favor of the caucus meeting the definition of a union under federal law. The rank-and-file committee in turn established itself as the National Maritime Union (NMU) and quickly challenged the ISU, winning representation in 56 of 67 companies where elections were held.

As a result of the new power on the waterfront, the Copeland Safety at Sea Act was amended to permit either single discharge papers or new books to be utilized—effectively preventing ship owners from blacklisting union supporters.

A sweeping victory had been snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Seamen’s Solidarity

Seamen Arrested in DC Protesting Nazi Regime: 1936

Striking seamen protesting the Nazi regime are arrested outside German embassy in 1936.

The camaraderie of the sailors at sea proved a great recipe for union members in port.

During the strike, the rank-and-file committee adopted a resolution to “treat all seamen as brothers and on an equality” basis regardless of race or color according to Argersinger. A cook of Chinese descent, who was barred by West Coast waterfront unions from membership, was taken in by Whalen and his union.

Argersinger wrote that Whalen set up a “court of justice” with fines and punishments for crimes ranging from drunkenness to scabbing—the most serious offense. The “Baltimore Soviet” services were replicated with rooms, food service and organized exercise. Differing ethnic groups were encouraged to play instruments and sing their songs for all.

Elisabeth Gilman, a social democrat from Baltimore, said the strike was “the most orderly and best conducted I have ever seen.”

 Fight for Integrated Crews

Striking Seamen Stage Guerilla Theater: 1937 (2)

The Baltimore NMU fought for integration.

When the NMU was officially formed in 1938, its constitution prohibited discrimination. Andor Skotnes in New Deal for All? quotes the lawyer Avnet relating an incident where Whalen put teeth into this provision:

The Captain of the vessel phoned and complained that some of the crew members were not satisfactory. There were three Negro members who had been assigned to the deck and engine departments. Previously Negroes had been segregated on the ships to the steward’s department only.

Pat [Whalen] held his ground and refused to withdraw these three crew members. Shortly afterward, the crew itself arrived at the union hall and [the white crew members] announced that they would not sail with Negroes.

Whalen called a general membership meeting for that night to try the white crewmembers for undemocratic conduct. During this meeting several seamen of color spoke against the white crew’s actions, and a number of whites spoke in favor of it. Whalen took the floor and harangued the membership on how racism created a reservoir of strikebreakers and how the enemy ISU had always stood for Jim Crow.

He spoke of trade union democracy where all were equal regardless of race, color or creed, and shook his head and vowed sadly that the new union would be better dead aborning than to follow in the old ways…The men understood him and the membership voted the crew either sail with Negro members or that they should turn in their union books.

Some books were thrown on the table. But the ship sailed with a mixed crew and this policy has since largely prevailed in the port of Baltimore.

 The Broader Fight

Striking Maritime Workers Protest Discharge Papers: 1937

Women were also members of the NMU: Elsa Landstrom, a striker at the Midnight March.

Elizabeth Fee cited a George Meyers account of how Whalen also fought for integration on the Baltimore waterfront:

The National Maritime Union always worked integrated crews, and we’d go into a waterfront bar and order up a bottle. The bartenders would serve the white seamen and refuse to serve the others because, they said, it was against the law.

So Paddy’s guys would pick the bottle up and throw it into the mirror…and that was the way the waterfront was integrated. After that, anyone could be served with no problem.

Whalen didn’t confine the fight against segregation to the waterfront. In one of the largest community based campaigns in the pre-World-War-II period, the CIO sent representatives into community meetings to raise its own demands such as housing for black workers at Bethlehem Steel and other mills, factories and shipyards.

Andor Skotnes in New Deal for All? writes:

On one occasion in 1939, Patrick Whalen, head of the Baltimore Industrial Union Council, silenced a hostile white crowd at a public meeting with a passionate defense of public housing for all. The nature of the coalition emerging in the new housing movement is evident in the committee formed in northwestern Baltimore, which included representatives from the NAACP, the NNC, BUL, the CIO and social liberal groupings. Both Lillie Jackson of the NAACP and Albert Blumberg of the Communist Party were among its leaders.

 Whalen as Port Agent

Whalen was the port agent (principal union representative) for NMU in Baltimore from 1937-42 and was known for his brash and confrontational style.

Seamen Return to DC Protesting Scab Certificates: 1939

Baltimore NMU banner at 1939 march on D.C.

In a 1987 interview for the Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project, African American seaman Neville Sutherland recalled Whalen having a telephone conversation with Governor Harry Nice:

He wanted the governor to give something, and the governor said it can’t be done…You get him on the goddamn phone, this is Patrick Beeway Dubiss [Whalen]. So, when he got out,he told him what he wanted, and the governor said to the guy it can’t be done. He [Whalen] says, Oh, it’s gonna be done, don’t tell me what can’t be done. He [Whalen] said you full of shit, he says…that’s the way he talked [and] he [Whalen] got it.

Whalen would lead his seamen to return to Washington, D.C. at least two more times in 1938 and 1939 to demand strict procedures for issuing sailors’ certificates. As the NMU conducted strikes against particular shipping lines, the ISU or ship owners would try to bring strikebreakers aboard. The protests at the Commerce Department demanded the department halt what the NMU said was a practice of issuing certificates to unqualified scabs while denying qualified union supporters the certificates.

Maritime Union Leader Held on Gun Charges: 1938

Whalen arrested in New Jersey on weapons charges.

During this period, Whalen had his share of enemies. While en route to a meeting of the national union in New York City, Hudson County police stopped the vehicle he was riding in and arrested him and four others for carrying “concealed and dangerous weapons.”

Questions immediately arose about how the police came to know that Whalen was riding in this particular vehicle that held weapons. Speculation turned to Joseph Curran, the NMU president, who was allegedly jealous of other leaders in the union. Neville Sutherland ventured:

Actually, Colonel [Curran] was afraid of Patrick Whalen, see. And Colonel [Curran] was a big rat too, [Inaudible word(s)] Patrick leave here. Patrick Whalen was a very small man, a very, very, very, small man, see; must’ve weighed about 105 pounds, 110 pounds.

And he’d leave from here, and he knew that Patrick Whalen had a gun in the car, see. That Patrick Whalen didn’t take shit from nobody and he called the Jersey police up, and notified them that he was coming and he had it and when he hit the Jersey line, they pulled him up and they got him in the car there.

Charges were later dropped and the incident, if anything, boosted Whalen’s standing among the workers.

Whalen as a Communist

Whalen made no secret of his communist beliefs. The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin wrote in What is to be Done? that the communist’s “…ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears…”

Alice Neel Portrait of Paddy Whalen: 1935

Alice Neel portrait of Paddy Whalen holding a copy of the Daily Worker.

Paddy Whalen seemed to somehow embody both. The artist Alice Neel, who painted Whalen in 1935 with a copy of the Communist Party’s Daily Worker and two clenched fists, said of Whalen, “Patty Whalen was the organizer on the waterfront…He was just an ordinary Irishman except for one thing: He was absolutely convinced of communism, and he could convince other longshoremen…”

Whalen hated fascism and during the 1936-7 strike, Whalen organized 50 seamen to travel to Washington, D.C. to picket the German embassy in support of seaman Lawrence Simpson who was charged by the Nazis with subversion.

While drumming up support for the 1936-37 strike, Whalen also went on a recruiting sortie for the Maryland Communist Party to Cumberland, Md. where he met and recruited labor leader George Meyers. Meyers led the unionization of the Celanese Mills, where 10,000 workers were employed. Meyers later became head of the Maryland Industrial Union Council, the state arm of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

Meyers also went on to head the Md.-D.C. Communist Party, was jailed for three years during the McCarthy era, and later headed the CP’s National Labor Commission, demonstrating Whalen’s effectiveness in winning others to his ideas.

 Killed by Nazi Submarine

SS Illinois  - Ship Where Whalen was Killed: 1942

S.S. Illinois

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the Nazi regime in Germany declared war on the U.S. a few days later, the Communist Party asked its members to enlist in the war effort. Despite his exemption from the draft as union port agent, Whalen went back to sea in the merchant marine, working in the engine room of the S.S. Illinois.

On June 2, 1942, as the Illinois sailed on a return voyage along the Southern Atlantic route and was about 450 miles southeast of Bermuda, Nazi submarine U-159 sent two torpedoes into its engine room. Whalen died instantly and 31 others also perished. The ship went down with 8,000 tons of manganese ore aboard. Whalen’s body, like those of most seamen on sunken ships, was never recovered. Six survivors were picked up out of the water six days later.

U-159 Shortly Before Sinking: 1943

U-159 shortly before sinking by a VP 32 Mariner.

The workers of Baltimore saw their revenge. On July 28, 1943 a PBM Mariner dropped bombs onto U-159 and sent the Nazi submarine to the bottom of the sea.

A liberty ship was launched from Brunswick, Ga. bearing the name Patrick B. Whalen in March 1945 in his memory and a small service held in Baltimore the same day. However during the Cold War the name of the S.S. Patrick B. Whalen was changed and it was eventually scrapped in Taiwan in 1967.


Writer’s Notes:

Joseph Curran took complete control of the union at a 1947 convention where the left wing of the union lost by a single vote—a casualty of the anti-communist fever orchestrated by Democratic President Harry S. Truman and a Republican Congress. Soon after, 10 years of union democracy was gone and Curran came to symbolize the worst aspects of trade unionism, building a palatial union headquarters in New York. The NMU merged with the rival ISU in 1988.

Striking Seamen Leaders to Meet Commerce Secretary: 1937

Paddy Whalen (1st row, left) and Joseph Curran (1st row holding paper) during 1936-37 strike.

The cities of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. are only 30 miles apart, but they might as well be 3,000. Only rarely is there cultural spillover between the two. However Whalen’s position in the Maryland Industrial Council of the CIO and his unflinching fight against discrimination inspired the same fight in Washington, D.C. as activists sought to integrate defense industries and the Capital Transit Company.

Whalen is long forgotten, except among a few scholars. Perhaps when someone views the bar scenes in Season 2 of The Wire, they’ll think of Paddy Whalen and the method he used to integrate the waterfront bars of Baltimore.

Sources for this post include the Washington Star, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Afro-American, The Baltimore Sun, The Communist Party in Maryland 1919-57, The Baltimore Book, The Maryland Historical Magazine, Pictures of People: Alice Neel’s Portrait Gallery, School of Darkness, A New Deal for All?, The Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project, among others.

Want to see more images?

1937 Phillips Packinghouse Strike – Promise & Defeat

18 Sep

By Daniel Hardin

Union Business Cambridge Strike 1937 – Hi-Res

Strikers in front of Phillips Packing Co. Factory F, June 1937

“Down here on the Shore, where in the past the only time whites ever visited a jail in connection with a colored prisoner was to lynch him, a group of white strikers went to a jail and made police turn a colored striker loose.”—William N. Jones, 1937, Baltimore Afro-American newspaper.

A strike by hundreds of workers at the Phillips Packing Company in Cambridge, Maryland in June 1937 brought hope to the struggle for racial and economic justice in an area where African Americans were subjected to worst aspects of Jim Crow and unions were to be crushed mercilessly.

Climate of Racial Intolerance

Jones wasn’t exaggerating. Maryland’s Eastern Shore had been a slave labor, plantation-based economy before the Civil War and Jim Crow afterwards.

At the time of the strike, the brutal lynching of Matthew Williams in Salisbury in 1931 and George Armwood in Princess Anne in 1933 had just occurred a few years earlier.

The two-year legal battle of Euel Lee, also known as “Orphan Jones,” involved an attempting lynching at Snow Hill and ended with the legal lynching (no African Americans served on his jury) of Lee in 1933.

Matt Williams Barbarically Lynched in Salisbury Md: 1931

Matt Williams Brutal Lynching on Md Eastern Shore in 1931

Lynchings Enforced Economic Oppression

Jim Crow kept workers divided and helped keep wages on the Shore low. When challenged, racist leaders used terror to keep workers divided.

In 1931, a September strike by 800 predominantly African American crab pickets in Crisfield was supported by predominantly white oyster shuckers–showing the potential for unity.

The racist leaders on the Shore got their opportunity to send a message about standing up for higher wages in December. In the official version of the story, Matthew Williams allegedly shot his white employer in Salisbury in a dispute over wages, wounding himself during the altercation. While there was a more plausible explanation that involved the employer’s son doing the shooting, this mattered little.

Williams was dragged from dragged from his hospital bed and brutally lynched in front of the courthouse in front of a crowd of 2,000. Body parts were cut from him as souvenirs. His dead body was later dragged through the street by a rope and his body set afire. What remained of his charred corpse was hung from a lamp pole in an African American section of town as a warning.

Once again, in the official story, Green Davis and his family were slain in Taylorville in 1931 in an alleged dispute over wages. Euel Lee, an African American who worked for Davis was arrested. White International Labor Defense attorney Bernard Ades and companions were beaten outside the courthouse in Snow Hill when a white mob couldn’t get their hands on Lee.

Despite Ades’ efforts in winning a precedent-setting Maryland retrial based on exclusion of African Americans from juries, Lee was hanged in Baltimore October 28, 1933.

CIO Organizer Leif Dahl 1936

Leif Dahl of the CIO Cannery Workers Union

New Unions of CIO United Workers

However, barbaric, racially motivated violence wasn’t the only force in play in the middle of the Great Depression.

New unions that ultimately became the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) were organizing workers into single industrial unions of all races and sexes–not along the craft lines of most unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), where African Americans and women were often excluded. The new unions were also winning wage gains from employers.

In 1937, a single employer, the Phillips Packing Company that employed over 2,000 workers canning vegetables grown on local farms, dominated Cambridge. The CIO, through the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing & Allied Workers, headed locally by Leif Dahl, had begun to organize the plant covertly and at least one organizer had obtained work at the plant.

The Cannery union was a recent arrival on the shore, but was already well known to workers for its attempts to organize migratory field workers and seafood workers.

Wildcat Strike Begins

On the evening of June 23, 1937, a relatively small number of workers at the can-making factory within the massive Phillips plant struck after the company announced plans to reduce the workforce. The strike quickly spread to the rest of the workforce that was engaged in packing.

Loading Stringbeans for Packinghouse Near Cambridge: 1937

Migratory field workers initially joined the strike

That night, a crowd of 1,000 marched through the streets rallying support and overturning trucks carrying vegetables. The workers were majority African American with a substantial minority of whites. For the first few days of the strike they convinced migratory bean pickers who were destitute and lived in farmer provided shanties to join the strike.

AFL Unions Try Quick Deal

Strikers Rally Cambridge Md: 1937 – Hi-Res

A woman, possibly Anna Neary, speaks to a crowd of strikers.

The next day on June 24, Anna Neary (the only high-ranking female AFL organizer) appeared and the company president Albanus Phillips opened negotiations with her and concluded a quick agreement that included a relatively small 10% wage increase and the recognition of the AFL union.

Many CIO supporters believed that the company had invited the AFL to undercut them and that the wage increase was too small. At a mass meeting, the proposal was voted down.

March on Jail Frees Black Striker

That night, 1,000 predominantly white strikers and their supporters gathered at the jail to demand the release of James “Midnight” McKnight who had been arrested earlier in the day during a confrontation with truck drivers. McKnight was charged with disorderly conduct after a trucker was hit with a rock.

Overturned Truck During 1937 Cambridge Strike – Hi-Res

Overturned vegetable truck at Phillips Plant B

The sheriff, confronted with the likelihood of more violence, released McKnight on the promise of the strikers to refrain from more violence that night. It was probably the only instance of a predominantly white crowd marching on a jail to free (and not lynch) an African American south of the Mason Dixon line since Reconstruction.

The victory, however, was short-lived. On the following day of June 25, John Cephas, an African-American, was killed by a truck loaded with vegetables that swerved and struck him beside a road near the plant. Cephas was an occasional worker at the plant who had come out to support the strikers.

Over the next few days, the strikers tried to rally support, enlisting favorable merchants and closing the stores of those opposed the strike.

Union Business Cambridge Strike 1937 – Hi-Res

Phillips workers apparently signing union cards

Strike Falters

By June 30, the strike was beginning to falter. When police arrested one of the strikers, a crowd of only 200 was mustered at the local police station and held back by a dozen local policemen. The strikers eventually raised enough bail money to get him out. Meetings were attended by less than 300.

The AFL tried to set up a number of different unions—for cannery workers, truck drivers and packing workers—further dividing workers. Neary claimed to the company that she could settle the strike without a vote by workers and would accept the previous offer of a 10% increase.

Phillips rejected Neary’s offer and violence increased. Strikers stoned trucks and guards fired on the strikers, wounding James Powell. Police then arrested Powell.

Strikers also clashed with police who broke up their picket line. One striker, James Roberts, suffered a three-inch gash from a police club. Several more strikers were arrested.

Truck Overturned During Cambridge Strike 1937 – Hi-Res

Strike sign on the pole reads, “We can’t live on $9.80 a week, 40¢ no less.”

Company Union Created

Phillips, through a Merchants Association, set up a company union called the Cambridge Workers Association. He quickly recognized the bogus union and “settled” the strike for the original offer of 10%. A quick trial of Powell, the striker who was shot, resulted in a 12-month jail sentence for Powell.

The strike began to crumble and Phillips re-opened some of the plant. Phillips filed suit against the town for damages as a result of the strike. By July 9, the strike was over. A number of strikers were sentenced to jail by the local courts.

The AFL and CIO settled their differences over the Phillips plant in the aftermath of the strike with the CIO taking jurisdiction over the packing house workers while the AFL accepted truck drivers.

The National Labor Relations Board twice ruled against Phillips’ company union and ordered several strikers reinstated, but the cause was lost. The CIO Cannery union lost a final close vote in 1947 to the company union at a time when the Cannery union was accused of communist leadership.

Gloria Richardson brushes off National Guard: 1963

Gloria Richardson brushes off the National Guard: Cambridge, Md., 1963

Victory in the 1960s

The company-inspired union continued to “represent” the workers and acted as a hiring hall and helped to screen out workers who may try to organize a union that would act more forcefully.

The Phillips Company continued to dominate Cambridge until the mid 1950s when the company began to layoff workers. The company was sold to Consolidate Foods in 1957. The United Packinghouse Workers finally broke into non-union Cambridge when it organized the Coastal Food Plant in the 1960s when local civil rights activists led by Gloria Richardson joined their efforts.

A Third View of Factory F: 2014

Phillips Packing Company Factory F in 2014

Editors Notes:

Looking back at this strike and its ultimate failure is an agonizing exercise in “what ifs?”

The CIO organizing drives of the 1930s provided hope to thousands of workers on the Shore, both black and white. The defeat at the Phillips Packing Co., however, insured that any organizing would not fundamentally challenge Jim Crow.

Today little remains of the packing industry in Cambridge, Maryland. Visiting the site of this great failed strike requires a bit of imagination.

Location of Phillips Packing Factory B: 2014

Phillips Packing Co. Factory B occupied the upper left corner of the intersection of Washington St & these tracks in Cambridge, Md.

In 1965, Factory B and a number of other buildings burned, leaving only a small administrative office that still stands today and is occupied by the Coastal Gunite Construction Company at 16 Washington Street (across the street from a Wawa).

The massive Phillips complex that was composed of several dozen buildings is now reduced to the administrative office and Building F on Dorchester Street (the building next to Packing House Antique Mall and a small vacant building where two smokestacks still stand. Also standing is some of the boiler building and a smokestack across the railroad tracks behind Building F.

________________________________________________

For additional images related to the strike, see https://www.flickr.com/photos/washington_area_spark/sets/72157631308678086/

For a related article, see “600 Black Women Stand Strong, the 1938 Crab Pickers Strike,” https://washingtonspark.wordpress.com/2012/12/05/600-black-women-stand-strong-the-1938-crab-pickers-strike/

 

Miami Means Fight Back: 1972

26 Apr

Miami Means Fight Back: 1972

by Bob Simpson
Originally published in the Montgomery Spark, Vol. 2, No. 1, September 6, 1972

One of the most striking aspects of the demonstrations around the Republican National Convention was their total isolation from the actual convention. Surrounded by a high chain-link fence and phalanxes of well-armed cops, the grim, white-washed convention hall might as well have been on the moon.

Unlike the Democratic convention, where at least some of the street people harbored thoughts about influencing the process, no one at the Republican protests talked of opening a dialogue with the delegates. It was our volunteer army of protesters vs. their uniformed security forces. Whether expressed violently or not, this feeling of uncompromising confrontation dominated the entire week.

Diverse Group

Gay Love for the Vietnamese: 1972

Demonstrators were a diverse lot. Photo: John Buckley, courtesy Florida State Archives.

We were a diverse lot, covering a wide spectrum. Gays, feminists, Zippies, SDS, Yippies, Attica Brigade, Viet Nam Veterans Against the War, Route One Brigade, pacifists, and hundreds of independents made an uneasy and sometimes very difficult alliance.

Rampant sexism within the Park angered gays, feminists and some straight men. Women were harassed by men looking for an easy lay. Two attempted rapes were broken up, one by a man assigned to camp security, the other by the women’s Anti-Rape Squad. Gays were seen by many straights as a carnival sideshow.

Viet Vets March in Miami Against War: 1972

Vietnam Veterans Against the War lead a march. Photo: Tony Schweikle, Florida State Archives.

There were conflicts between the pacifists and the violence advocates, between the rival Zippies and Yippies, and between the many passive dope smokers and those more active protesters. The VVAW suffered a series of ripoffs within their own encampment. Some of the people assigned to camp security became overzealous and tempers flared. We had many problems but we did our best to deal with them.

No Serious Problems Among Protesters

Compared to other similar gatherings, we were fairly successful. Hard drugs were at an absolute minimum. After the first two near-rapes in the beginning of the week, security was tightened and there were no more reports of that particular activity. While arguments between different groups and individuals were often loud, there was little actual physical fighting.

Women March Against Nixon: 1972

Women’s March in Miami, 1972. Liberation News Service.

The protest activities were generally spirited and unified. The Gay Rights march and the Women’s march both displayed the loving solidarity that has grown up with these movements. The Veterans displayed a serious discipline in all their activities. One of their marches was held in complete silence to emphasize their feeling that there is nothing else to say about the war.The Zippies injected their bizarre humor by bringing Coke bottles, Barbie dolls and other symbols of plastic America and pissing on them.

Viet Cong Flag Passes Miami Police: 1972

Protestors carried large colorful flags and banners like this NLF flag. Photo: Tony Schweikle, Florida State Archives.

The Attica Brigade from New York, SDS, and the Route One Brigade (consisting of people associated with the University of Maryland and Montgomery College in Rockville) provided militant anti-capitalist-anti-imperialist solidarity to the large all-camp protests. With large colorful banners and flags from many liberation movements, including Vietnam, Laos and Palestine, they helped to spark the forceful blocking of delegates and the eventual fighting back against the police offensive.

Support from Community

The surrounding community of Miami Beach gave us a surprising amount of support. Many of the older people in this retirement colony supported our struggle against Nixon and his policies. One older man came up during a rally and said the Arthur Bremer was not only a bad shot, but that he had hit the wrong person, clearly indicating Nixon. Another older woman said that she supported us and wished that we would kill Nixon.

Miami Residents Mix with Protesters: 1972

Protests received support from the community. Photo: John Buckley, Florida State Archives.

Other older people offered us food and water as we moved through the streets and alleys trying to evade police. A community meeting to explore Nixon’s policies toward the old drew surprising support. Speakers condemned the war, wage-price controls and the paltry social security and pension benefits available.

Many older people stayed with us in the park during the day, discussing the issues which interested them. When a group of Nazis were forcibly evicted from Flamingo Park, the older Jewish people from the surrounding community gave us encouragement. Even during the street battles of Tuesday and Wednesday nights, we were offered water by apartment residents, to wash away the teargas. The solidarity was impressive and difficult to convey to those who weren’t there.

Confrontations with Police Begin

Until Tuesday night, most of the rallies and marches led by various groups were peaceful. But events Tuesday night caused an increased militance on the part of many participants. A large “Street Without Joy” was organized. People lined the streets with death masks and symbols of Nixon’s murderous policies. Guerilla theaters in front of the convention hall showed large papier-mâché B-52s bombing Vietnamese peasants.

The Attica Brigade, SDS and the Route One Brigade were angered by the portrayal of the Vietnamese as passive victims. They chanted “Vietnamese Fight Back!” while shouldering their flag poles and “shooting” at the American bombers. Eventually these chants influenced the guerilla theatre and the planes were torn apart, set afire and hurled over the fence at the surprised police inside.

Anti-Vietnam War Protesters Block Street: 1972

Demonstrators attempted to block convention delegates. Here they are piling sandbags across a road to block cars. Photo: John Buckley, Florida State Archives.

Militants then marched around the block and attempted to block delegates’ entrance. Delegates were verbally harassed. Several fights broke out. As people’s anger arose, delegates sere spat upon and objects were hurled at advancing police. Chanting “Attica Means Fight Back”, protesters did what they could to make their slogan a reality. Many protesters who had watched from the sidelines joined in.

Battle Rages

Watching the well-heeled, well-dressed representatives of rich white America, which wages war on Southeast Asia and on the streets of America, brought out an almost uncontrollable rage. These moral degenerates were people bent on another four years of war, wage controls and repression and racism. Anger spilled over. Police responded with clubs, tear gas and mace. The battled raged on into the night until most of the protesters returned to the camp.

Wednesday protests were thrown into complete chaos. Demonstrators moving into the streets Wednesday afternoon found large numbers of very hostile police. Several Route One Brigade members had their flags seized and were threatened by Miami Beach police while on their way to the convention site. They were walking in a group of seven.

Miami Police Officer Fires Mace at a Protester: 1972

Demonstrators were maced on the way to convention site. Photo: Tony Schweikle, Florida State Archives.

Demonstrators who managed to evade police and reach the convention area divided into sit-in groups and mobile groups. Barricades were hastily thrown up to prevent traffic from coming into the convention area. These efforts were met with mace, tear gas and clubs. People who were sitting-in were often maced and sometimes beaten. Those arrested were thrown into the backs of dark, hot, unventilated trucks. Some people collapsed from heat exhaustion while on their way to the jails.

Exceptional Bravery

People remaining in the convention area showed exceptional bravery. About a thousand people were completely cut off next to the Doral Hotel, where Republican headquarters were. They defied police orders to move. Many were arrested in a militant sit-in while others later joined the street fighting. Even after most of the demonstrators had been driven back to Flamingo Park, people continued to organize new protests.

Police Tear Gas Protesters in Miami: 1972

While demonstrators fled the gas, others advanced. Photo: John Buckley, Florida State Archives.

At least three spontaneous night marches left the park to penetrate areas held by thousands of police. People left the park in silence armed against police interference with rocks and improvised wooden staves. Fading into alleys when the helicopters would flash their searchlights into the streets, one group managed to reach a bridge leading into the Doral Hotel. When police ordered them to disperse, they broke their silence by chanting “Tear Gas Up Your Ass!”

Soon gas covered the area as people trashed banks and other political targets while fighting back against a numerically superior police force. None of the three groups which left the park was larger than 400 people. All showed exceptional courage in the face of overwhelming police tactical superiority.

Defending the Park

Back at the park, people went about organizing a defense of the area in case the police tried to clear out the tent city. Caches of rocks were scattered about, runners and communications were set up, and people armed themselves with stout poles. Barricades were thrown up around some park entrances. Squad cars responded to these preparations by racing up and down a street adjacent to the park, occasionally tossing gas into the encampment.

Miami Police Ready Clubs: 1972

Police ready their clubs during convention protests. Photo: John Buckley, Florida State Archives.

A large group of state police penetrated park defenses at one point but retreated within a few minutes after a tense confrontation. It was decided by several people that the speeding police cars represented a threat so that for about two hours each squad car was bombarded with rocks to drive it away. Eventually Miami Beach police set up roadblocks to prevent police cars from harassing the park occupants.

The last night of protests showed that the people in the park were prepared to move aggressively against police as well as defend their encampment. Had the police invaded the camp in earnest, we would have been defeated and driven out, but the cops would have paid a heavy price. Similar solidarity was shown by those in jail. Most refused bond and stayed in jail until bonds for all were reduced. This tactic was very successful and almost all were released with 24 hours.

Antiwar Encampment at Flamingo Park: 1972

Tent encampment at Flamingo Park can be seen in the background. Photo:Tony Schweikle, Florida State Archives.

While the number of people who came to Miami Beach was less than 5,000 and many serious problems arose within the camp, the overall spirit and determination was very high. People left Miami Beach determined to carry on and expand the battle against the system which created the monstrosity of Richard Nixon. Every reader of this paper is strongly urged to participate in this struggle.

ALL POWER TO THE PEOPLE


Route 1 Brigade Banner: 1972

Route One Brigade banner carried during protests at the Republican National Convention in Miami, 1972. It was the only time this banner was carried at a protest. Photo: Bob Simpson.

This article was compiled by several members of the Route One Brigade who participated in the Convention protests. The Brigade consisted of about 35 Maryland residents and included several students from Montgomery College. The group took its name from the Route One occupations at the University of Maryland, as well as the periodic seizures of Route One in Vietnam by the NLF.


Editor’s Notes

The version above is the same as the original published in the Montgomery Spark, except that headers and additional images have been added. The confrontation at the Miami Beach Republican Convention August 21-23, 1972 was one of the last of the Vietnam War era. 

The Route One Brigade delegation to the Miami protests was infiltrated by a female provocateur and police informant named “Dee” that participants believe led to police knowing almost every move they made. After the demonstrations were over, disaster was narrowly averted when a van carrying eight of the Brigade participants was sabotaged when someone loosened the lug nuts on a rear wheel. Fortunately no one was injured.

 

30 Days in May: U of MD 1970

29 May
U of MD Students Denounce Killings at Kent State: May 1970

U. of Md. May 5, 1970 after four students were killed by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post

Introduction

The University of Maryland had a relatively small core of activists during the upheavals of the 1960s, protesting for civil rights and later against the Vietnam War. Demonstrations were held on campus against military and CIA recruiters, against the draft and against the Vietnam War, but they usually involved no more than 100-200 students.

U of MD Building Occupation: April 1970

Md. students seize campus building in April 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

In the March 1970, two popular professors were denied tenure by the school and students occupied a building to demand a greater say in university affairs. Eight-seven students were arrested and a student-faculty activist group was formed out of the demonstrations. When President Richard Nixon announced he was invading Cambodia on April 30, 1970, the first mass demonstrations against the war began on the campus. When four students were shot to death by Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State University on May 4, a nationwide student strike was called and a majority of students at Maryland boycotted classes.

The following account was written shortly after the month long strike and demonstrations that included two occupations of the campus by the Maryland National Guard.


30 Days Last May

by the Democratic Radical Union of Maryland
From the Radical Guide to the University of Maryland, Aug. 1970

April 30

Nixon announces the invasion of Cambodia by U.S. troops. The Concerned Students and Faculty, a group formed after the arrest of 87 people in the Skinner Building sit-in in March, called for a rally on the mall the next day in response.

Police Advance on Anti-Vietnam War Protesters in College Park MD: May 1970

Police advance on Md. students occupying U.S. Route 1 on May 1, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 1

The mall rally is held. After hearing several speakers, the crowd marches on the ROTC offices in the armory. After some trashing, Route 1 is taken over. Around 6 PM, Marshmallow Marvin Mandel sends the police to clear the road. The pigs inform the students that their demonstration is illegal. The crowd responds that Nixon is murdering Indochinese and Americans ~ which is also illegal. To nobody’s surprise, the pigs do not march on the White House, but instead charge the students using clubs and tear gas. Following the Nixon strategy of no sanctuary, the cops shoot tear gas into dormitories: Montgomery Hall, Annapolis Hall and other hill area residents are forced to evacuate. Often the cops would wait at the dorm doors and club students coming out to avoid the gas. About 10 are arrested during the afternoon, additional arrests are made throughout the night. The battle lasts until 3 AM.

U of MD Student Dragged from Dorm: May 1970

Police drag student from dormitory May 1, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 2

What begins as a more or less ordinary Saturday night soon becomes another night of confrontation and protest. Route 1 is again liberated. At about 3:30AM approximately 150 cops mass behind the Plain and Fancy donut shop in College Park and then charge in, arresting 28 startled customers. (Most were talking and eating, two were playing chess. One was asleep in his chair. A girl was arrested in “hot pursuit”- she was on crutches at the time because of a foot injury.) The authorities’ rationale seemed to be that if they stomped hard enough, people would stick their heads in the sand.

Students Move on Police Lines at U of MD: May 1970

Students confront police after being driven off U.S. Route 1 on May 4, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 4

A rally is held beginning at 11:30 on the mall. By 11:35 the Administration Building was occupied by students; by 12:30 people are again·demonstrating on Route 1. Marshmallow Marvin proclaims a state of emergency. The pigs move in around 6 PM– Marvin has mobilized 500 National Guard, 350 State Police, 70 PG County Police, 200 Baltimore City cops, Kersey’s Keystone Kops too! 4000 students are cleared by gas and clubs. A curfew is put on the campus area at 8:30 PM. Over 200 people are arrested, and Larry Babits, an anthropology graduate assistant, is shot in the rear with buckshot. At Kent State, Ohio, four students are killed by National Guard bullets.

Guard Commander Addresses U of MD Students: May 1970

Guard commander met with chant “Pigs off campus” during rally May 5, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 5

Classes are called for a “foreign policy discussion day.” 3000 hear Dr. Spock on the mall. Nationally, the student strike begins.

May 6

The student strike begins at the University of Maryland–pickets are set up and a large number of students boycott classes. At 8:30 PM 1500 students force the administration to open Cole Field House for a mass meeting. Discussion leads to the formation of a strike steering committee and various working committees. The three demands of the national student strike are adopted by the Maryland strikers.

MD Student Extinguished Tear Gas Canister: May 1970

Students use fire extinguishers to suppress tear gas May 1, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 7

Picketing continues, with a large boycott of classes resulting. At 4 PM an assembly of about 1000 faculty gathers in Cole Field House, with about 7000 students in the audience. The faculty assembly first passed a motion urging that police actions on campus involving more than five men be effected without the introduction of firearms. The second motion passed set up facilities on the campus for persons wishing to camp at Maryland while attending the demonstration behind the White House on May 9. During the assembly, word was received that the administration had sent word to the press and radio that the University would be closed from May 8 to May 11, so that its facilities would not be available to students or guests. This led· the faculty to pass a motion stating:

This body expresses its lack of confidence in the administration, and its specific censure of this action (the closing of the University) taken without consent of this body and released to the press without consultation. This University will remain open as of May 8th and the rest of the semester so that all students who wish to attend classes may do so, and so that students who prefer to strike may do so without penalty as long as they do the required amount of work for the courses in consultation with their professors. That a committee of three be appointed by the chair immediately to inform the administration that the faculty and students do not accept their decision to close the University and demand that they reconsider.

Police Move Onto U of MD Campus Using Tear Gas: May 1970

Police with pepper fogger pass Cecil Hall May 1, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

The assembly then passed resolutions calling for the immediate withdrawal of all American personnel from Indochina, and an end to repression of black people in the United States and in particular an end to the repression of the Black Panther Party. These motions were essentially endorsements of the first two demands of the national student strike. Finally, the body passed a motion creating a committee to work on obtaining an injunction against the closing of the University. This proved unnecessary however– in the face of the solidarity and determination of faculty and students, the administration was forced to give in and withdraw the closing order.

Students Occupy Route 1 Protesting War & Kent State: May 1970

Students occupy U.S. Route 1 May 4, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 8

As the strike continued, administration sources (Waetjen) estimated the class boycott to be 65-70% effective. Sargent Shriver addressed a memorial rally for the Kent 4 held at the Chapel. Preparations were made for out-of-towners coming for the May 9 White House demonstration.

May 9

100,000 demonstrated on the Ellipse behind the White House. The demonstration, which had been set up with very little preparation after the Cambodian invasion, proved two things: the tremendous antipathy Americans had come to have for the war, and the total lack of a program on the part of the New Mobilization, which had called the demonstrations. The University of Maryland fed and housed over 2000 visitors over the weekend.

PhD Urges Takeover of ROTC Building at U of MD: May 1970

Dr. Gregory Dunkel urges takeover of ROTC building May 11, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 11

Strikers held a mass meeting in Cole Field House to consider further action against ROTC. A motion to take over the Armory loses by about 1800 to 1200. However, because many felt that a militant action was required, a group of strikers briefly occupied the building anyway. Later a large group formed spontaneously on Route 1. The police stay away, leaving the faculty group of green armband marshals (which had patrolled the campus over the weekend) to maintain order. No disorder occurred, primarily because no pigs were present, and the “block party” ended around 2:30 AM. By way of contrast, 6 black people were murdered by cops in Augusta, Georgia this same evening. Later reports showed that all were shot in the back.

Professor Against U of MD Building Takeover: May 1970

Professor argues against building takeover May 11, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 12

Another faculty assembly is held, to consider grading procedures for striking students. Over 1000 faculty, and close to 10,000 students, were present. Two main plans are put forward: the Aylward proposal, developed by an ad-hoc committee chaired by Professor Aylward of the Speech Department, and the proposal that had been made several days earlier by the strike steering committee and was moved at the faculty assembly by Professor Chapeles of Government and Politics. While both plans adopted the principle that there should be no academic penalty for striking, the Aylward proposal lacked a number of safeguards that would have protected students from being screwed by reactionary teachers. The assembly decided to submit the two plans to a faculty referendum.

Students Again Seize U.S. Route 1 in War Protest: May 1970

Students again seize U.S. Route 1 in war protest May 11, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 13

A memorial service was held on the mall for the six killed in Augusta. Speakers included the Rev. Channing Phillips, John Clark from the Baltimore Black Panthers, and a member of the University Black Student Union, Woody Farrar. On this day a number of instances of repression came to light– Leonard Cohen, a physical plant worker, was fired for strike activity, and Charlie and Jim Schrader were kicked off the track team for being seen at strike rallies. The Student Government Association legislature, which had been more or less dormant since the beginning of the strike, stated that it would lead an occupation of Route 1 if the Chapeles (strike committee) grading plan were not accepted •

National Guard Outside Taliaferro Hall at U of MD: May 1970

National Guard outside Taliaferro Hall May 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 14

The administration served notice that it was trying to re-establish its power by refusing to permit SDS the use of University loudspeakers for a noon rally. A rally organized by the strike steering committee began (with loudspeakers) at 7 PM. Around 7:30 the rally received the results of the grading referendum– the Aylward proposal won, 1583 to 698. The overwhelming student sentiment, as evidenced by over 10,000 signatures supporting the strike committee proposals, was ignored. By 8 PM Route 1 was liberated by 5000 students. At 10 PM the National Guard moved in, firing 50 rounds of tear gas and pepper gas within ten minutes. The ensuing battle was the bitterest of the strike.

U of MD Student Tosses Tear Gas Canister Back to Police: May 1970

Student tosses tear gas back toward National Guard and police lines May 1970.

Students chanting “pigs off campus” and “l-2-3-4, we don’t want your fucking war!” picked up tear gas canisters and threw them back at the Guard. General Warfield, trying to advance onto the campus, found he was unable to do so until reinforcements arrived at midnight, bringing the Guard’s strength up to 1200 men. In the intervening period the administration building received a serious trashing. About 100 arrests were made.

May 15

Early in the morning Marshmallow Marvin proclaims a new state of emergency which essentially makes National Guard General Edwin Warfield the military dictator of the University of Maryland. Warfield begins by banning 25 students, whose names were supplied by the administration, from the campus. Meetings of over 100 people are prohibited. Scheduled meetings of the faculty assembly and the University Senate are cancelled.

Professor Leads Group to Extinguish Fire at U of MD: May 1970

Students extinguish fire at administration building May 14, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 16

Meeting off campus (at Catholic University Law School) the strike steering committee votes to defy the ban on rallies by holding a mass rally on the mall on Monday May 17. Ten students were issued felony warrants. (Note: On June 19th the Grand Jury ruled that there was insufficient evidence for the felony charges and changed the charges to misdemeanors.)

May 17

Frank Greer and Elizabeth Miller, members of the strike steering committee who were banned from campus, go to court with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union to obtain an injunction against Warfield’s eviction notices. The judge refuses to issue an injunction, but the orders banning Greer and Miller are voluntarily rescinded by the University, and the court does require that a degree of due process be introduced into the hearings of students appealing their banishment. (Originally the fair-minded General Warfield had set up an appeals board composed of Vice President Waetjen, Campus Security Director Witsil, and a National Guard officer. Since Waetjen and Witsil were the very ones who provided the list of students for Warfield to ban, this was not exactly an impartial board.)

Occupying Administration Building at U of MD: May 1970

Occupying administration building at U. of Md. May 4, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 18

More than 1000 people gather on the mall to violate the rally ban. A half hour before the rally Warfield backs down and-gives permission, thus making it legal. Word is received that students are being harassed by the FBI and the strike steering committee attempts to inform people of their right to refuse to talk to the pigs. Diamondback photographs are subpoenaed. Members of the anthropology, sociology and economics departments announce a faculty strike, refusing to teach until the military presence on the campus is ended.

May 19

Gregory Dunkel, a member of the strike steering committee and a University alumnus (Ph.D, mathematics) receives a special letter from President Elkins barring him from the campus.

State Police Arrest Student Occupying U.S. Route 1: May 1970

Police arrest student occupying U.S. Route 1 May 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 20

The rally ban is again challenged, when 1500 students stage a midnight march to President Elkins’ house, in memoriam to those killed at Kent, Augusta, and Jackson State. Earlier in the day the Diamondback had reported that the Board of Regents planned to vote the University’s GM stock in opposition to Ralph Nader’s “Campaign GM proposal, which would put consumer representatives on the GM Board of Directors. The newspapers also carried newly released testimony by J. Edgar Hoover in which he called student protesters communists (won’t the old [deleted for offensive language] ever die?)

Jane Fonda Speaks to Antiwar Rally at U of Md.: May 1970

Activist actress Jane Fonda speaks at Md. antiwar rally May 22, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

May 22

The last major rally was held– 3000 students heard Jane Fonda and Mark Lane talk about the GI movement. After the rally about 15 students go with Fonda and Lane to Fort Meade to try and leaflet the soldiers. They are arrested by military authorities and expelled from the base.

May 24

A small meeting of members of the steering committee plans activity for the summer and fall.

May 26

The strike steering committee officially disbands itself, and forms the Democratic Radical Union of Maryland (DRUM) to continue its work on a permanent basis.

POSTSCRIPT TO THE STRIKE

On Thursday evening May 14, while several thousand students liberated route 1, a smaller group occupied the administration building. Lt. Downs of the campus kops was present at the building with several other police, and told the students that they would be arrested if they did not leave.

However they occupied the building for over an hour, leaving of their own volition by about 9:30 PM. No arrests were made. By about 10:30 PM the building was empty except for police.

Damage from Attempted Arson at U of MD: May 1970

Damage during second occupation of administration building May 14, 1970. Courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Then a group of people passing by the administration building– probably fleeing from tear gas attacks– threw some rocks through the windows. Apparently the cops thought it prudent to leave. The building was then occupied for the second time, and thoroughly trashed.

It is important to realize that neither the police nor the administration has any idea who participated in the second occupation. In their anger and frustration the pigs arrested nine students, most of whom were known activists, under felony warrants in connection with the trashing.

The original warrants charged breaking and entering, destruction of state property, etc etc . The felony charges were dropped by the grand jury on June 16, and replaced by misdemeanors. Later in the summer the charges were again revised. The trials are scheduled to begin the first week of classes.

Despite all the talk about burning and destruction, the charges are essentially trivial. One student is accused of ·rearranging the letters on the directory to spell out the strike demands. Why then are the nine students being prosecuted? The answer lies in the administration’s continued insistence that a small group of radicals is responsible for the campus unrest. These students must not be made the victims of the administration’s inability to understand that a revolution has taken place in apathetic College Park. DEFEND THE MARYLAND NINE!


Cover of the Radical Guide to the University of Maryland: 1970

Cover of the DRUM Radical Guide, published Aug. 1970.

Postscript by the Editor

The radicalization that occurred during 1970 at the University of Maryland carried over into the next two years, resulting in National Guard occupation of the campus again in 1971 and 1972. The upheaval, however, failed to generate any ongoing organization among the students. The Democratic Radical Union of Maryland (DRUM) produced by the 1970 strike was a spirited, but short-lived organization.

A defense effort around the Maryland Nine resulted in five acquittals in jury trials. Three other students entered into plea bargain agreements. One of those charged, Larry Dean, was convicted and served three months in jail. Over 400 other students were arrested during the month long demonstrations, but charges were dropped against most for lack of evidence.


Back cover of the Radical Guide to the University of Maryland: 1970

Back cover of the Radical Guide with its hidden message.

Want to see and read more?

See the complete Radical Guide here. The Radical Guide contains “30 Days Last May” in its original context, an extensive explanation of DRUM’s five demands, an essay advocating non-violence and an essay advocating violence, a map of a battle plan and tactical advice for confrontations along with on and off-campus activist information. Take time to look at the back cover of the Radical Guide which has an expletive along with university president Elkins name hidden within it.

See photos related to the 1970 U. of Md. strike and demonstrations here
See photos related to the 1971 U. of Md. demonstrations here
See photos related to the 1972 U. of Md. demonstrations here

Shootings by DC Police Spark Fight Against Brutality 1936-41

20 Apr

A campaign from 1936-41 against police brutality in Washington, D.C. was led by the local National Negro Congress, which built a broad-based coalition. They won a sharp decline in the number of police shootings, a police review board, and new political power in an early civil rights struggle in the city.


Marchers Gather to Protest Police Brutality in DC: 1941

DC rally against police brutality Sept. 14, 1941. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Historical Image Collection. All rights reserved.

By Craig Simpson

Leonard Basey was out with co-workers on the evening of August 30, 1936 enjoying a respite from the work and barracks life in the Civilian Conservation Corps camp located at 26th and M Streets NE in Washington, D.C. The unit was doing the physical labor to build the infrastructure for the National Arboretum.

Basey was part of a group of young enlistees in Company 1360 in camp NA-1-DC, an African American post with white officers.

That night, Basey was walking with five other men from the camp, who were laughing and joking loudly as they walked along M Street toward Bladensburg Road through a predominantly white neighborhood.

Later testifying that he received a phone call from someone disturbed by the noise, police officer Vivian H. Landrum left his home in the neighborhood and approached the youths near 17th and M Streets NE. Landry placed the group under arrest and walked them to a police call box near Bladensburg Road and M Street NE.

When Basey questioned the arrest Landry reportedly responded, “Shut up, and don’t give me too much lip, or I’ll fill you full of lead,” according to a companion’s later testimony reported in the Afro American.

It was then that he “grabbed Basey, who was standing sideways toward him, spun him around and shot him in the abdomen,” said Basey’s companion, according to the same article.

He was just another black man who was the victim of a police murder in Washington, D.C…. or was he?

National Negro Congress

The first national convention of the National Negro Congress (NNC) took place in February of 1936 in Chicago. The NNC was formed to fill the void left by the NAACP’s reliance on a legal and lobbying strategy and would be more of an activist organization, engaging in pickets, protests and direct action to advance the cause of African American rights.

National Negro Congress Leaders at Banquet: 1940

NNC leaders John P. Davis (left) and A. Phillip Randolph (right) in March, 1940.

The NAACP had often placed a greater emphasis on issues of concern to the black elite, while the NNC was based in the black working class and was composed of many local African American union leaders along with a significant section of the black intelligentsia.

The founding Congress contained a relatively small group of activist ministers. Two national board members of the NAACP, Roy Wilkins and Charles Hamilton Houston, also attended. The NAACP as an organization, however, boycotted the group’s formation, although a number of leaders of local chapters attended.

The NNC attracted members with political views across the spectrum, including Democrats, Republicans, socialists and communists. The NNC selected A. Phillip Randolph, the leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, as its president and John P. Davis as executive secretary. Its headquarters was established in Washington, D.C.

Local Washington NNC

In contrast to the national convention, the Washington, D.C. chapter almost immediately gained wide representation among the black clergy.  Rev. William H. Jernagin, the former president of the National Race Congress, a previous broad-based African American organization, lived in the city and attended the first NNC convention.

Longtime Rights Leader Rev. William H. Jernagin: 1940 ca

Rev. William H. Jernagin circa 1940.

Jernagin was also a local rights activist and after the convention he persuaded the influential Interdenominational Ministers Alliance to affiliate with the local NNC.

These ministers were quickly able to prevail upon the local Elks, NAACP, the New Negro Alliance and other District of Columbia groups to join with the local NNC either directly or in coalition. A minister, Rev. Arthur D. Gray, was elected president of the local NNC.

The D. C. NNC began taking up issues of race discrimination in employment and the issue of police brutality.

In the Spring of 1936, during a meeting held at the Metropolitan Baptist Church to call for freedom for the “Scottsboro Boys,” Davis called for expanding the cause to fight police brutality in the city.

According to Erik Gellman in Death Blow to Jim Crow, William Hastie, a Howard University professor, told the crowd,

It doesn’t matter whether a person is hanged by an unauthorized mob or by an organized mob known as the law.

The city commissioners and the police department didn’t know it yet, but a new force had risen to challenge police violence.

Newspapers Report Self-Defense

The day after Basey was shot, the Washington Post reported

…Landrum fired at the man when Basey and several others rushed the policeman to prevent his arrest of another man who was with them.

DC National Negro Congress President Rev. Arthur D. Gray: 1940 ca

Washington branch NNC president Rev. Arthur D. Gray.

Basey died September 1 at the Casualty Hospital at 3rd and B Streets SE. The Afro American initially reported as part of a headline, “Policeman Fires as Gang Demands his Prisoner.”

But the official story began to unravel as witnesses came forward.

In testimony before a coroner’s jury inquest on September 3, white witnesses testified that Landrum was surrounded and did not draw his gun until after the group reached the call box.

One 11-year-old white youth said “Basey had his arm drawn back as if to strike Landrum when he was shot,” according to the Afro American. But the youth admitted that Landrum and another white man had talked to him the following day about being a witness for the defense.

When Landrum himself testified, he contradicted the white witnesses and admitted that the group did not surround him and he drew his service weapon as soon as the group was arrested.

‘Vision’ Flashed Through Policeman’s Mind

He also testified that the reason none of the youths struck him was because he fired his weapon when “a vision of officer Kennedy at Truxton Circle flashed through my mind.” He was referring to a police slaying by three youths at Logan Circle in 1932.

A later letter to the Washington Post characterized Landrum’s testimony thusly,

The officers’ tale resembled that of the sportsman who arrested for catching black bass out of season, maintained that he had taken the fish in self-defense, since they had jumped out of the water and bitten him.

African American CCC Camp Under Construction: 1934

CCC Camp NA-1-DC under construction in 1934.

Landrum’s testimony and that of other defense witnesses was disputed by the other CCC youths, but also by white CCC camp commander Richmond Bowen, who came on the scene shortly before the shooting. A white gas station attendant also testified he was about 40 feet from the group and heard Landrum tell them, “Shut up unless you want some of it too.”

The first inquest jury, composed of four whites and one black person, deadlocked 4-1 in Landrum’s favor and a mistrial was declared.

A second inquest held September 6 heard 29 witnesses give essentially the same testimony, but at 10 pm returned with an inexplicable verdict exonerating Landrum.

We believe the said V. Harry Landrum discharged his gun when he believed his life was in jeopardy, such a belief being initiated by a mental process and not by any overt act or acts on the part of those under arrest.

Press Ramps Up Outrage

NNC executive secretary John P. Davis and A. S. Pinkett, head of the local NAACP, immediately called for the district attorney to ask a grand jury to indict Landrum for the killing and for a police trial board to be convened to dismiss Landrum from the force.

DC Killer Cop is Free: 1936

‘Killer Cop Free.’ Afro American, Sept. 12, 1936.

But the case really began to take on a life of its own when the Afro American published its story September 12 under the headline “KILLER-COP FREE.”

The Afro printed a dramatic report that,

Lawrence Basey was the fortieth colored person shot to death by Metropolitan police since 1925. Every officer involved has been exonerated. Most of the victims were under 21 years of age.

Adam Lapin of the Washington bureau of the Daily Worker jumped on the story.  The Afro shared their research with Lapin so he could detail the victims’ names, dates of death, ages, and officers involved.

Afro Lists Victims of DC Police Killings: 1936

List of the slain. Afro, Oct. 17, 1936.

The national Communist Party paper published the statistics and an accompanying story where Lapin gave additional details on some of the deaths, writing that all forty cases “are similar, indeed, all the police murders of Negroes in Washington follow the same pattern.”

For one example, Lapin wrote,

On December 9, 1933, Policeman Wallace M. Suthard shot in the abdomen and killed Robert Lewis, a Negro worker who had been placed under arrest suspected of breaking into a home. Suthard claimed that he shot in self-defense because Lewis reached for a gun. No gun was found on the dead man.

A furor directed at Washington’s police erupted. Other newspapers around the country, particularly the African American press, began to run stories about the police shootings.

Officials Refuse to Act

Evidence came out during the inquest that Landrum had a past record of shooting at CCC workers and had beaten another African American some years before without justification.

The NNC held a protest meeting at the YMCA at 1816 12th Street NW attended by several hundred people. The NNC called for Landrum’s immediate suspension and for his indictment on murder charges. The group said that Landrum “requires the attention of a psychiatrist” because the officer believed that black people were inherently violent.

Despite the outcry, District Attorney Leslie C. Garnett refused to bring charges against Landrum before a grand jury, telling Lapin he was “not interested in the case,” according to the Chicago Defender.

A. S. Pinkett, the local NAACP secretary, said in a statement,

Thus we have the picture of a policeman arresting men for being disorderly, when there was no disorder; the shooting to death of one of them by the arresting officer; a meaningless verdict by a coroner’s jury and lastly the refusal by the District Attorney to lay the facts before a grand jury.

YE GODS! And colored persons are expected to have faith in their governmental machinery.

The Chicago Defender reported that a few minutes after interviewing Superintendent of Police Major Ernest W. Brown, Lapin announced that,

Major Brown made it perfectly clear despite his professions of sympathy for the colored people that he is opposed to a Congressional investigation or any kind of investigation of police brutality. He won’t even undertake one himself.

The Afro American published an editorial on October 31 saying,

Citizens ought to keep pounding away at Major Brown’s door in an effort to find out whether the police chief sees any connection between the Afro American’s list of fifty deaths, forty of them colored youths, at the hands of quick-trigger white policemen here in the past ten years, and the fact that nearly half of these killings have occurred during his term of office.

We believe they could make him understand that four years is long enough to ‘get away with murder.’

With the issue still boiling in November, the District of Columbia commissioners refused to release data on police killings to the American Civil Liberties Union, according to Gardner Jackson, a representative of the group.

Unable to contain the broadening protests, authorities finally responded by retiring Landrum on a pension. On November 14, 1936, the police department announced during a conference with brutality opponents that Landrum is “mentally and physically unfit for further duty as an officer,” according to the Afro.

Rev. Ernest. C. Smith: 1940 ca

Rev. E. C. Smith (shown circa 1940) lobbied for a Congressional investigation.

Fight Against Brutality Broadens

The city commissioners and the police superintendent may have thought the issue would go away with Landrum’s retirement, but the local Negro Congress continued to pound away.

The city of Washington, D.C.’s affairs were overseen directly by the U.S. Congress, to an even greater extent than today, and in 1937 the NNC began lobbying for a House subcommittee investigation…

…to determine whether and to what extent the use of unnecessary and unlawful use of force by police officers…have become a menace to life, liberty and the general security within the District of Columbia.

The group also organized an effort to lobby for an African American magistrate in the District. The NNC, NAACP, Elks, Afro American, YMCA, Interdenominational Ministers Alliance, Howard University and the Washington Bar Association, along with other groups, lobbied local D.C. officials and President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.

To ramp up the pressure for a congressional investigation, the alliance named itself the Joint Committee for Civil Rights in the District of Columbia and sponsored a series of weekly radio broadcasts on local station WOL. It was another new tactic in the fight for civil rights in the city.

In an account by the Afro of the second broadcast on March 23, 1937, John P. Davis reminded the listeners of the exoneration of police officer Landrum in Lawrence Basey’s death:

I want you to realize the meaning of such a verdict. A coroner’s jury has held that an officer who has a mental fear for his life has a right to kill another person who has done nothing to cause that fear, who is not armed, and who has submitted peacefully to arrest.

Sociologist E. Franklin Frazier: 1947

E. Franklin Frazier (shown in 1947) was among the leaders of the anti-brutality fight in 1937.

In April 1937, a meeting was held under the banner of the Joint Committee at the Metropolitan Baptist Church protesting three more police killings in recent months. At the meeting William C. Hueston, education director for the Elks, called for organized action to “stop this ruthless brutality on the part of the police,” reported the Atlanta Daily World.

Other prominent leaders included John P. Davis, Judge William Hastie, Rev. William Jernigan, Julia West Hamilton, Rev. E. C. Smith, Dr. E. Franklin Frazier and John C. Bruce. Similar meetings were soon organized around the city while radio broadcasts on the issue continued.

Howard U Dean of Women Lucy Slowe

Lucy Slowe was among those acting as a judge at the mock police brutality trial.

Put Police on Trial

In May the protest effort culminated with a “public trial” of Washington’s “killer cops” at the John Wesley A. M. E. Zion Church. The trial “provided a complete picture of the lawless police terror which has reigned in Washington for the past ten years,” according to the Chicago Defender.

John P. Davis of the National Negro Congress presided. Judges included Major Campbell Johnson, secretary of the YMCA; Lucy Slowe, dean of women at Howard University; Rev. Robert W. Brooks, pastor of the Lincoln Congregational Temple; the Rev. Stephen Gill Spottswood; William C. Hueston, commissioner of education of the Elks; and Dr. Victor Tulane, chemistry professor at Howard University.

Those prosecuting the case included George E. C. Hayes, of Cobb, Howard and Hayes; George A. Parker, dean of the Terrell Law School; and Edward P. Lovett, of Houston and Houston.

Major Campbell Johnson in His Office: 1942

Major Campbell Johnson was another judge in the mock police brutality trial.

“Eyewitnesses to numerous unpunished police murders, citizens who have been beaten by the police and leaders of civic associations and newspaper men who have investigated police brutality gave evidence,” according to the Chicago Defender.

Hundreds had attended each of the previous meetings and even more turned out for the trial, which included a number of whites in attendance and testifying as witnesses.

“This event demonstrated the new-style tactics of the NNC: with the theatrics in front of a large public audience, the mock trial showed how the District ought to protect citizenship rights through democratic governance,” Gellman wrote in “Death Blow to Jim Crow.”

No Victory Yet

But since many in Congress overseeing District affairs had few African American constituents, there was little interest on Capitol Hill in investigating police brutality in the city.

The White House put out trial balloons for the vacant judge position for two men: Hobart Newman, a young white attorney, and William L. Houston, founder of the firm Houston & Houston, whose son Charles was leading the NAACP legal defense effort.

However, local white officials nixed Houston’s nomination and the Roosevelt administration put forward Newman’s name for the position.

The brutality continued through the winter of 1937-38.  Incidents included the beating of a Howard University student by police and the assault by police on a black man and his wife when the man did not move his parked car fast enough. Police shot a twenty-year old African American man to death when he fled a traffic accident.

Police Shoot WWI Vet in Home: 1938

Afro American March 19, 1938 photo of Leroy Keys and the house where he was slain.

New Killing Sparks New Protests

On March 8, 1938 a distraught and delusional African American World War I veteran was making noise at his sister’s house at 2470 Ontario Road NW. When police arrived Leroy Keys began shouting at them, apparently believing they were German troops.

Keys threw small household objects through the window towards the police. Two police officers opened fire and shot him dead, despite the pleas of his sister that he needed help.

Rights groups demanded charges against the two police officers, calling the shootings “wanton and unwarranted,” and said police should have used tear gas or water to subdue the clearly disturbed man, according to the Afro American.

Two coroner’s juries deadlocked and a grand jury refused to indict.

The Afro wrote, “We think Hitler is a tyrant and a brute, a ruffian and a cur. We detest him for the way he is crushing the Jew [but] don’t forget that there is a man right here at home who has his heel on our neck.”

Thirty-six organizations joined the Keys campaign, including the United Federal Workers, which called it an “urbanized form of lynching.” Invited in to the coalition, the local Communist Party (CP) began holding open-air meetings around the city.

Martin Chancey, local CP secretary, told a gathering at 10th & U Streets NW that

We don’t hear of lynchings in Washington in the same manner as in Georgia or Alabama, but lynchings are perpetrated by those who are supposed to protect human life and property–the members of the District police force.

Chancey went on to demand suspension of the two officers involved in Keys’ death according to the Afro.

As the campaign picked up steam, another African American was shot by a police officer, this time over a bag of food.

Shot in the Back

In the early morning hours of Sunday, June 26, officer John Sobolewski saw Wallace McKnight walking north on 15th Street near Massachusetts Avenue NW carrying a package under his arm.

According to Sobolewski’s testimony, he stopped McKnight and questioned him. During the interrogation, McKnight ran away, according to Sobolewski, and he [Sobolewski] opened fire.

McKnight was shot in the back, the bullet passing through his liver, and he died the next day. The package contained a chicken, a pound of butter, a dozen oranges, two pounds of bacon, a dozen bananas, several dozens eggs and some other fruit.  McKnight worked at a restaurant on the 1700 block of K Street NW not far from where he was shot.

The Rev. Robert W. Brooks observed, “Because of the record of the police department for the last eleven years, McKnight not knowing what officer John Sobolewski might do, took [his] chances on running away,” according to the Afro.

Coroner’s Jury Orders Cop Held

Police Commissioner Melvin C. Hazen tried to head off the gathering storm on June 27 by suspending Sobolewski and ordering an investigation of the McKnight shooting and a re-opening of the Keys death matter.

He also ordered a daily roll call reading of police rules on the use of revolvers. It stated: “Members of the force shall not use their revolvers except in the most urgent cases and then only in such a manner as will not jeopardize the lives of innocent people.”

The shifting public opinion also had an effect this time at the coroner’s jury. Police Lieutenant Arthur C. Belt, commanding officer of the Third Precinct on the night of the shooting, tried to save Sobolewski by telling the jury, “I would have done the same thing under the circumstances.” But his statement only added fuel to the fire.

A packed hearing room erupted in outrage at Belt’s statement and the coroner’s jury deliberated only 10 minutes before ordering Sobolewski held for grand jury action.

Edward Felder Urges Police Chief’s Firing During Brutality Protests: 1938

Edward Felder speaking to crowd of 2,000 at 9th & Rhode Island Ave. NW on July 8, 1938. Courtesy of the Afro American, all rights reserved.

Communists Organize March

With only a little over a week’s planning, the local Communist Party organized a march on July 8th beginning at 10th & U Streets NW, led by a car carrying Mollie McKnight, the widow of the slain Wallace McKnight. The local NNC, the New Negro Alliance and other coalition partners endorsed the march, but it was the communists who led the event.

The crowd heard Communist Party speakers including Martin Chancey, Tansell Butler and Calvin Cousins. Police were present and seized signs calling for chief Brown’s ouster, but the crowd made up for this strong arm tactic with their later chants.

Kids Swarm Widow’s Car During Police Brutality Protest: 1938

Children gather on the auto that carried the widow Mollie McKnight during the police brutality demonstration July 8, 1938. Courtesy of the Afro American, all rights reserved.

Over 2,000 people, of whom about 20% were white, marched and chanted “Major Brown Must Go,” “Police Brutality Must Stop,” “Everybody Join the Parade,” and “Stop Legal Lynching.”

Estimates of those who lined the streets ranged from 10,000 to 15,000. They watched marchers carrying signs like, “You May Be Next,” “Stop Police Murders,” “Compensation for Police Victims” and “Washington is not Scottsboro.”

The march ended at Rhode Island Avenue and 9th Street NW. A second rally was held there and speakers including Edward Felder of the Young Communist League urged the firing of Major Brown.

Resolutions adopted at the rally included calls for the suspension and trials of six police officers, appointing representatives of African Americans, civil organizations and labor to the panel of D.C. Commissioners, an impartial investigation into police killings, and compensation to victims’ families.

National marches for civil rights had been held previously in the city in 1922 over lynching and 1933 over the “Scottsboro Boys.”  However, this marked the first mass action in the streets of a significant size over a local African American issue in Washington since the 1919 picketing over the Moen’s school child abuse case.

First White Officer Indicted

In mid-July, the grand jury indicted Sobolewski for manslaughter. The Afro American reported it was the first time in D.C. history that a white policeman was charged in the death of a black person.

The National Negro Congress followed up the Communist Party-led march and demands by organizing a conference of over 100 organizations at the Lincoln Temple Congregational Church on July 31.

Negro Congress Leader Doxey Wilkerson at Town Hall Radio: 1942

Doxey Wilkerson (2nd from left).

The meeting was presided over by Rev. Arthur Gray in preparation for a mass meeting to be held the next day. Among the principal NNC speakers were Doxey Wilkerson of Howard University, former judge James A. Cobb, and former judge William C. Hueston.

Alphaeus Hunton, a Howard University professor, outlined eight proposed demands to be adopted at the mass meeting. They included removal of Major Brown; denial of pension rights to former officer Vivian Landrum, who had killed Leonard Basey two years earlier; suspension and trial for officers involved in shootings and recent brutality; public hearings on police brutality; and compensation for victims.

Ministers Rally 1,200

The next day, 1,200 rallied at the Vermont Avenue Baptist Church under the auspices of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, where the pastor C. T. Murray presided.

John P. Davis, national secretary of the National Negro Congress, as quoted in the Washington Post, spoke of the “terror of urban lynching” which led to an “intolerable state of affairs” as “unwarranted beatings and needless killings were perpetrated by the police.”

NAACP Counsel Charles H. Houston Speaks: 1940 ca.

Charles Hamilton Houston.

Charles Hamilton Houston, counsel to the NAACP, blamed the lack of voting rights of citizens in the District and pledged legal services to help fight police brutality.

The National Negro Congress also announced a petition drive to seek 50,000 signatures to President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress.  A collection of $170 was taken up by Rev. William Jernagin from the ministerial alliance to be divided equally between Mollie McKnight and the NNC.

The petition campaign brought new allies into the fight.  The Washington Insurance Underwriters Association pledged 5,000 signatures to be collected through its 55 agents. The American Civil Liberties Union, the American League for Peace and Democracy, and the United Federal Employees also established committees to seek signatures.

The coalition organized “flying squadrons” that went house to house seeking signatures. Both black and white ministers conducted Sunday sermons across the city to popularize the cause.

Sobolewski was acquitted of manslaughter after two hours of deliberation by an all-white jury in September. In addition, Sobolewski was also brought before a re-constituted police trial board in September where he was again exonerated. The two officers who shot Leroy Keys were also cleared of charges by a police trial board.

However, despite the coroner’s jury verdicts, the grand jury failure to act, an acquittal at trial, and the police trial board whitewashes, change was in the air in Washington.

A Year Free of Police Killings

On June 26, 1939, one year after McKnight was killed, the NNC held a meeting at the Second Baptist Church at 3rd & I Streets NW attended by 1,500 people and hailed “a year free of police killings.”

National Negro Congress leader John P. Davis: 1940 ca.

John Preston Davis.

The meeting was presided over by local NNC president Rev. Arthur Gray.  Police superintendent Major Ernest W. Brown also spoke, trying to assure the group that he took the issue seriously. Other speakers included John P. Davis, Rev. J. L. S. Holloman of the Interdenominational Ministers Alliance, and Eugene Davidson of the New Negro Alliance.

The Washington Tribune saluted the work and said the “job could not have been done had it not been for the tireless energy and leadership the National Negro Congress gave to other organizations in this fight against police crimes on the Negro people of Washington.”

Rev. Gray, the D.C. NNC president, said after the campaign that the new trial board for police officers made a difference, according to Gellman’s book. The board obtained some suspensions and indictments against several police officers and Gray said, “The number of incidents has markedly decreased.”

A. Phillip Randolph Speaks at 1940 Negro Congress Convention

A. Phillip Randolph speaking at the 1940 National Negro Congress convention.

NNC Weakened

During 1939-40, the NNC was weakened by a campaign by U.S. Rep. Martin Dies (D-TX) to smear the group as a communist organization.  Then, in 1940, the president of the NNC, A. Phillip Randolph, refused to stand for re-election at the group’s Washington, D.C. national convention after delegates approved a resolution condemning the “imperialist war” in Europe and another calling for closer ties to the unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

The NNC’s broad political umbrella was broken. Randolph was president of the AFL Sleeping Car Porters and his departure left the NNC without its most prominent leader. The Dies attack and Randolph’s withdrawal caused a number of organizations, clergy and others to drift away.

Even with its weakened state at the national level, the organization continued to wage an effective campaign in the city to desegregate defense-related employment throughout most of World War II. Further, despite the friction at the national level, the Washington, D.C. NNC continued relatively strong relationships with both the NAACP and the clergy at the local level.

Renewed Brutality in Washington

However, as time passed the initial success achieved during the 1938 police brutality campaign began to fade.

Protests spread to the Capitol Police force after the shooting and wounding of 10-year-old Fred Walker Jr. in the Senate Office Building on June 24, 1940. Sergeant Vernon Deus was quickly suspended while rights leaders demanded his dismissal and prosecution.

A month later the NNC, along with the Elks, several churches, the NAACP and the Washington Committee for Democratic Action, held a series of protest meetings against police brutality in the 4th police precinct in the city.

Over 100 people attended a mass meeting at the Zion Baptist Church at 333 F Street SW on July 18. Leaders, including pastor A. Joseph Edwards, condemned police for intimidation of African Americans in the precinct against attending the rally.

At another rally at the Mount Lebanon Church at 814 25th Street NW on July 29, Dr. C. Herbert Marshall, local NAACP president, urged African Americans to “stick together” to achieve the rally’s purpose, to “stop the cops from beating Negroes,” according to the Washington Post.

The broad coalition against brutality, now re-named the Citizens Committee Against Police Brutality, took up the issue of a laundry workers’ strike at the Arcane-Sunshine Company, where police intervened on the side of strike breakers and beat pickets with their clubs.

On April 30, police officer Francis E. Davis arrested Robert Gray for disorderly conduct near 13th & Q Streets NW. According to Davis, Gray struck him and ran from the scene and when Davis caught up to him a scuffle ensued. Davis then shot Gray twice in the abdomen and Gray later died.

A coroner’s jury quickly cleared Davis, but the NNC demanded that the case be presented to a grand jury.

Three More Killed by Police

Three more African American men were shot to death by police officers in early August.  Police sergeant John Leach came upon an apparent robbery in an alley near the 1300 block of Ninth Street NW. Leach testified that Clarence Whitby struck him and fled, then Leach fired two shots, one striking Whitby and killing him.

Just days later, police officer Donald R. Webber came upon two men in an alley near 14th and Florida Avenue NW, standing beside an automobile.  Webber testified later that when he demanded a driver’s license from the two brothers they told him, “We don’t have to show you our driver’s permit,” according to the Washington Post.

During his testimony before a coroner’s jury, Webber testified he shot Jasper and Edward Cobb August 4 after he tried to place Jasper under arrest for being drunk and the two resisted. There were no other witnesses to the shooting, although Edward Cobb said before he died that he intervened in the arrest when Webber began beating his brother.

Longtime NNC nemesis police chief Maj. Ernest W. Brown was forced to retire just days after the three killings. Brown’s retirement was only tangentially related to the police brutality issue and was mainly due to Congressional concern over District crime rates and an internal police spying scandal.

But Brown’s departure also marked an opportunity for the anti-brutality coalition when Edward J. Kelly was named chief from among several internal candidates. Kelly had enemies within the department and needed broad political support to succeed as its head.

Stephen Gill Spottswood: 1940 ca

Rev. Stephen Gill Spottswood.

More than 1,500 jammed the John Wesley A.M.E.Z. Church August 17 for the funeral of the Cobb brothers. Rev. Stephen Gill Spottswood, pastor of the church declared, “this is not a funeral service, it is a mass meeting, protesting this occurrence,” according to the Afro American.

Spottswood continued, “They are but symbols, these two men, typical of what might happen to any of us, to you or to me. We must cooperate in decisive action to demonstrate our interest in the freedom of black men and women in the nation’s capital.”

Even as outrage against the killings was building during the month of August, coroners’ juries exonerated all the police officers in the three deaths.

Protests Escalate Again

In September, the Citizens Committee Against Police Brutality in Washington called for mass protest.

Crowd Listens to Speakers at Rally Against DC Police Brutality: 1941

Over 1,100 rally at the Metropolitan Baptist Church Sept. 7, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Image Collection. All rights reserved.

At the Metropolitan Baptist Church on the 1200 block of R Street NW, a crowd estimated by the Afro American at 2,000 (the FBI estimated 1,100) gathered on September 7th to hear a wide array of speakers denounce police violence.

Doxey Wilkerson, an NNC leader and Howard University professor, presided at the meeting and called the police the enforcers of a system where black people “were segregated in living conditions and public affairs and also discrimination in employment,” according to Gellman.

Wilkerson added, “Police brutality used to be considered a local problem, today it must be viewed in terms of world significance. Police brutality and racial discrimination are part and parcel of this evil we are fighting on an international front,” the Afro American reported.

Hugh Miller, white leader of the Washington Committee for Democratic Action, said “the problems of the Negro were also the problems of the white” and urged the group to fight “Hitler’s theory” of “racial superiority” demonstrated by the killings, according to Gellman’s account.

John P. Davis, the national NNC leader, demanded permanent reforms in the department, shouting, “Don’t take no for an answer,” according to Gellman.

DC Police Chief Kelly Speaks at Anti-Brutality Rally: 1941

DC police chief Kelly speaks at anti-brutality rally on Sept. 7, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Images Collection. All rights reserved.

Wilkerson then introduced the new police chief Major Kelly, who addressed the crowd. “As long as I am head of the police department, I will not tolerate violence against any citizen or against any police officer,” he declared, according to the Afro American.

Kelly evaded calls for grand jury action against the officers involved in the three killings by saying he was not in charge at the time and urging the crowd to lobby the district attorney, but agreed with adding civilians to the police review board

Kelly also supported hiring additional African American officers, promoting an African American to captain and ending the police practice of holding people without specific charges.

It was a remarkable achievement for the group to have the police chief at the meeting and respond favorably to specific demands.

Following Kelly, a quartet from the United Cafeteria Workers Local 471 sang spirituals.

J. Finley Wilson, leader of the Elks, led off the second half of the rally saying that government protection of African American soldiers and civilians was necessary before the Elks would “battle and defend America and make it safe for the black and white under the ‘Stars and Stripes,” according to Gellman’s account.

Other speakers included Rev. L. Collins, Curtis Mitchell, Rev. E. C. Smith, pastor of the Metropolitan Baptist Church, and Jack Zucker, representing the Washington Industrial Council.

The rally ended with a call for marches through the streets of Washington the following week that would converge for a single rally against police brutality.

Four Marches Through the City

Protesting DC Police Brutality in Washington: 1941

One of four simultaneous marches marking each victim, Sept. 14, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Images Collection. All rights reserved.

A week later on September 14, four marches from different points in the city got underway involving an estimated 2,000 total participants. Each march was dedicated to one of the four recent victims.

Signs carried by protestors included, “Old Jim Crow Has Got to Go,” “Protect Our Civil Rights” and “Police Brutality is a Disgrace to the Nation’s Capital.” A hearse and an undertaker’s automobile carried signs in memory of persons shot in recent months by the police.

The treks converged at 10th and U Streets NW for a rally where about 500 remained to hear a number of speakers including Alphaeus Hunton, professor at Howard University, who reiterated the six demands put forth at the rally that were developed at the previous week’s meeting.

Demands included holding police officer Webber for grand jury action in the Cobb brothers shooting, internal police action to curb brutality, a citizens trial board to replace the current police board, appointment of 50 African American police officers, charges to be placed immediately against anyone arrested, and compensation to be granted dependents of those killed by the police.

Rev. Frank Alstork of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance argued for a peaceful solution but warned, “he who lives by the sword will perish by the sword,” according to the Washington Post.

CIO Union Speaks Against DC Police Brutality: 1941

Craig Vincent of the CIO speaks at anti-police brutality rally, Sept. 14, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Images Collection. All rights reserved.

Dorothy Strange of the National Negro Congress and the police brutality committee urged the crowd to sign and circulate a petition to be sent to the District government and the police department with the six demands.

Other speakers were Henry Thomas of the CIO United Construction Workers, Craig Vincent of the local CIO Industrial Council and Frank Donner, chair of the case committee of the brutality group.

In closing the rally, Doxey Wilkerson led chants of “Police Brutality has got to go” with the loudest for “Old Jim Crow has got to go,” according to the Afro American.

Aftermath

The U.S. entered World War II in December 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and  the subsequent German declaration of war.

The local NNC was weakened shortly afterwards when the National Negro Congress moved its headquarters to New York. In addition, Alphaeus Hunton, a key organizer behind the scenes, also moved to New York City. In 1943 Doxey Wilkerson, another local NNC leader, quit his post at Howard University to take a position with the Maryland Communist Party.

Rally Against DC Police Brutality on U Street: 1941

Crowd begins gather at 10th & U St. NW for anti-brutality rally, Sept. 14, 1941. DC Public Library Historic Image Collection. All rights reserved.

Other NNC organizers entered the armed services. The local NNC continued the fight for integration of war-related industries.  Mass protest activities continued up to the march demanding hiring of African American operators at Capital Transit in May 1943.

While large-scale actions faltered after this point, the local NNC continued to press for rights throughout the war and resumed larger protest activities after GIs began returning after the war ended in 1945.

The police brutality campaign marked a new chapter in the African American struggle for rights in the city. Charles Hamilton Houston of the NAACP summed up the police brutality campaign by writing,

The persistent and forceful campaign, which the Washington Council [of the National Negro Congress] and allied organizations have waged against police brutality in Washington, has been one of the most significant battles for civil rights and personal freedom and security ever conducted in the District of Columbia.

While this campaign achieved some limited reforms and curbed some of the more egregious police brutality, the lasting contribution may have been to bring new forms of mass protest to the local Washington, D.C. civil rights struggle, much as the Scottsboro campaign had done on a national scale just a few years previously.

This post was updated April 21, 2013 to reflect that officer Sobolewski was acquitted of manslaughter in the death of Wallace McKnight.


Author’s notes:

The five-year campaign against police brutality united the disparate elements among African Americans into a single unified local coalition that lasted for a significant span of time.

The effort produced both institutional reforms and an overall reduction in brutality.  Just as importantly, the campaign moved the local civil rights struggle beyond mass meetings in churches and small picket lines into mass marches in the streets. The campaign also used creative tactics from investigative reporting to utilization of radio broadcasts.

The mock trial of police practices involved every strata of the local African American community and attracted significant support from whites as well. Building off the “Scottsboro Boys” campaign, the NNC used a petition campaign to involve those unable or reluctant to join the protest activities.

The Dies Committee designated the National Negro Congress, which led the campaign, as a communist dominated organization in 1941.  Again, in the late 1940s, it was called a communist front group by the Truman administration.

The truth was significantly different. The Washington, D.C. NNC was a truly broad based organization that worked well with other rights organizations in the city.  In addressing its broad character, Thelma Dale, a youth leader and NNC member in Washington, D.C. said in a 2003 interview with Erik Gellman,

Sunday Worker on Sale at Rally Against DC Police Brutality: 1941

A woman sells the Communist Party’s Sunday Worker at an anti-brutality rally  Sept. 14, 1941. D.C. Public Library Historic Image Collection. All rights reserved.

“In Washington in the fight against police brutality, were we going to put a circle around a Communist? Martin Chancey…the head of the Communist Party in Washington, D.C. functioned fully openly. So, who were we to turn them away? We didn’t.”

For activists today, the issue of how to work independently and in coalition with others who hold different viewpoints is just as complex as it was during this era. While conditions faced are vastly different, the same questions arise.

The 1938 police brutality campaign perhaps illustrates how divergent groups can work separately, but also function together around a common goal.

During the campaign organizations independently organized around the brutality issue in the communities, but also worked within the coalition together to strengthen the broad campaign and present a united front. Those on the left did so even when they thought the demands put forward by the coalition were limited and the tactics passive.  Likewise, participants who opposed left-wing political views and sometimes their militant tactics welcomed their help in building a campaign around the brutality issue.

In this instance, it produced an ongoing movement that began to break down the worst aspects of Jim Crow in the city.

Sources for this article include Erik Gellman’s book Death Blow to Jim CrowThe Chicago Defender, The Washington Post, The Afro American, The Atlanta Daily World, The Washington Herald, The Washington Star and The Crisis. 


Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


Related Posts:

“Scottsboro Boys” – New Tactics & Strategy for Civil Rights
The Fight Against Jim Crow at Capital Transit
A DC Labor & Civil Rights Leader Remembered: Marie Richardson


Spark 1st Quarter in Review

3 Apr

Missed Our Earlier Posts? Catch Up Here!

The historic events we’ve highlighted over the last three months have striking relevance to some questions of today:

  • Can there be ongoing social change without an organized movement?
  • How can a small group spark social change?
  • How much has male-dominated culture changed in 40 years?
  • Is abortion right or wrong?
  • Confront the right-wing or ignore them?
  • Civil disobedience or reliance on the courts?
  • What relationship should the U.S. have with Native Peoples?

Find some of the answers in the 1st quarter 2013 posts.


Standing Against the Maryland Klan in 1971

Klansman Slapped, Robe Torn: 1966By Bob Simpson
Posted January 2

Bob writes a personal memory about his fears on the day he joined others to picket the Ku Klux Klan in Rising Sun, Maryland in 1971.

While not as strong as in the Deep South, the Klan has had a long, violent presence in Maryland. Should organizations that are similar to the Klan be ignored today in the hope that they’ll go away or should they be confronted? Read it here.


The 1969 Counter-Inaugural

Antiwar Protestor With Nixon Mask: Counter-Inaugural 1969By Craig Simpson
Posted January 9

The anti-Vietnam-War movement was on its heels. Its leaders were trying to regroup while thousands of youth, ready to toss the American system out, were on their way to Washington, D.C. to confront the newly elected President.

It was three days of confusion, confrontation and exhilaration involving peace, a pig, horse manure and rocks thrown at the Presidential limousine during his Inaugural parade. Read it here.


A Personal Abortion Experience in 1972

Demonstration for Women’s Rights: 1970By Anonymous
Posted January 15

PreTerm, the District of Columbia’s first abortion clinic, opened for business in the city in 1971. Anonymous writes in detail about her own decision to have an abortion and her personal experience at the clinic, then reflects on her decisions 40 years later.

The article was originally printed in the February 1972 Montgomery Spark. Read it here.


Crazy Dion Diamond: A Rights Warrior in 1960

Bravery at Arlington Virginia Lunch Counter: 1960Posted January 20

A small group of Howard University students, joined by white students from other schools in the Washington, D.C. area, tired of picketing the Capitol for civil rights legislation and being ignored.

Instead, they began using direct action in the suburbs where Jim Crow was still widespread. They gained quick success in Arlington, Va. and Montgomery County, Md. desegregating restaurants, a movie theater and the Glen Echo Amusement Park. The group, including Dion Diamond, showed exemplary bravery in the face of arrests and physical confrontation with Nazis.

Many of the group drew on this experience when they went south to join the Freedom Rides in 1961. Read about it here.


The 1922 Silent March on Washington

Silent Anti-Lynching March on Washington: 1922By Craig Simpson
Posted February 6

As the privileged classes of the South sought to re-subjugate African Americans in the last part of the 19th Century and the first part of the 20th Century, lynching became the principal weapon of intimidation.

Long before the seminal 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, African Americans organized their first march on Washington on June 14, 1922 to demand basic civil rights. First and foremost they demanded the passage of a federal anti-lynching law.

The campaign ultimately failed when Southern Democrats staged a filibuster in the Senate. The failure caused an abandonment of the use of mass action for civil rights for ten years before the communists revived it in the case of the “Scottsboro Boys.”  This post is the first of a series on marches on Washington and rallies at the Lincoln Memorial that laid the basis for the landmark 1963 demonstration. Read it here.


Cock Rock: The Rape of Our Culture

Cock Rock Illustration edited reversedBy Bob Simpson
Posted February 12

An encounter with rocker Mike Quatro before a Montgomery College concert causes the writer to reflect on rock music and the subjugation of women. The article was first published in the October 1972 issue of the Montgomery Spark.

The post reflects a man’s early attempt at consciousness-raising about the role of culture in the oppression of women. One of the 1972 editors finds that the premise of the article is equally applicable today. Read it here.


Scottsboro: New Tactics & Strategy for Civil Rights

4,000 March in Washington to Free ‘Scottsboro Boys’ – 1933By Craig Simpson
Posted February 19

The labor and women’s suffrage movements had used direct action prior to its adoption by the Communist Party in the case of the nine youths condemned to death in Alabama dubbed “The Scottsboro Boys.”

But the 1932-34 campaign led by the communists marked the revival of the mass march and the first use of high-profile civil disobedience in the civil rights movement. It was not without controversy and the debate continued over strategy and tactics all the way up to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This is the second of a series on marches on Washington and rallies at the Lincoln memorial that laid the basis for the 1963 march. Read it here.


1930 Protest by Unemployed at the White House

Unemployment Rally in DC: 1930Posted February 26

The worldwide March 6, 1930 protests against unemployment marked the first organized response to the Great Depression. In Washington, D.C., police attacked and dispersed a relatively small picket line in front of the White House.

There are striking photos and film footage of the Washington demonstration starting with a rally at the Communist Party headquarters and ending with police clubs and tear gas at the picket line. Read and watch it here.


Police Raid Progressive Party Event in 1948

Demonstration Protests DC Police Raid on Veterans Dance: 1948By Craig Simpson
Posted March 6

As the post-World War II “red scare” began in earnest, Washington, D.C. police broke up interracial gatherings and began compiling lists of names of suspected progressives, socialists and communists.

In this event, over 30 police officers broke up a fundraising dance for third party presidential candidate Henry Wallace over a raffle for 2 fifths of liquor. They took hundreds of names and arrested more than a dozen people.  Leaders were prosecuted for minor alcohol violations.  It was indicative of what was to come as many left-leaning activists were fired from their jobs, blacklisted, and often jailed for their political beliefs.  Read it here.


1939 Concert is a Blow to Jim Crow

Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 3By Craig Simpson
Posted March 14

The 1939 Marian Anderson concert marked the first mass civil rights rally using the backdrop of the Lincoln Memorial to symbolize freedom.

The fight to get Anderson a venue in the city, after both the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Washington, D.C. school board rejected her, was part of a long struggle to desegregate performing arts theaters in the city.

Anderson’s concert marked a turning point in the battle against Jim Crow, both locally and nationally.  This is the third of a series on marches on Washington and rallies at the Lincoln Memorial that laid the basis for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Read it here.


The WWII Women Streetcar Operators

100 Women Operators Needed: 1943By Craig Simpson
Posted March 20

The labor shortage that developed during World War II opened up many previous white-male-only jobs to African Americans and women. But the Capital Transit Company bitterly resisted hiring black people as streetcar operators.

Instead they embarked on an ambitious effort to recruit white women to a “Women’s Auxiliary Transit Service” (WATS) that would fill in for white male streetcar and bus operators who had gone to war.

As the by-product of another struggle, the women’s groundbreaking role was quickly eroded after the war. By 1948 only ten remained and all were gone with the end of streetcar operations in the city in 1962. It wasn’t until five years later, during the social upheaval of the 1960s, that women broke through the barriers in large numbers as transit bus and rail operators. Read it here.


Native Americans Seize BIA in 1972

BIA Spokesperson at Trail of Broken Treaties Protest: 1972By Bob Simpson
Posted March 26

Native Americans fed up with corruption involving tribal leaders, Congress and large corporations launched a “Trail of Broken Treaties” caravan that crisscrossed the country before arriving in Washington, D.C. with a twenty-point program demanding a new relationship with the federal government.

Interior Department officials gave permission to the demonstrators to stay in the Bureau of Indian Affairs building past the normal closing time. But government security forces instead attacked the protestors in another betrayal of U.S. promises.

The result was a week-long armed occupation of the building by Native Americans They studied and removed and thousands of documents that proved the corruption they alleged, then publicized them. The article was originally published in the November 1972 Montgomery Spark. Read it here.


Looking for More? Check out 2012 Spark 4th Quarter in Review


Native Americans Take Over Bureau of Indian Affairs: 1972

26 Mar

By Bob Simpson
From The Montgomery Spark, November 29, 1972. page 13 & page 14

Trail of Broken Treaties Participant: 1972

Sign of distress by unidentified Trail of Broken Treaties protester. From the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

The takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs [BIA] by militant Native Americans in early November [1972] began almost by accident.

Leaders of the Trail of Broken Treaties were negotiating with the Interior Department over the question of housing. Suddenly fighting broke out between several GSA security guards and a group of young Indians.

Apparently the guards misunderstood that the BIA had given the Indians permission to stay in the building past closing time. The guards were quickly overpowered and escorted from the building. Indians ran through the BIA building at 19th & Constitution breaking up furniture to barricade entrances and manufacture makeshift weapons. The occupation was on.

Trail of Broken Treaties Press Conference: 1972

Before the takeover. From the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Trail Required Concerted Effort

The Trail of Broken Treaties had originally come to Washington as a concerted effort by militant Native Americans from across the continent. Numbering well over 1,000, they had to negotiate over a series of 20 demands.

These demands involved the abolition of the BIA, whose paternalism and corruption is infamous, plus a whole series of reforms leading to greater self-determination for Indian people. Both urban and reservation Indians had joined the protest. Discriminated against in jobs, their land ripped off by greedy whites, water rights threatened, possessing a terrible infant mortality and T.B. rate, the Indians of over 250 tribes were represented.

Rumors of Police Violence

When the Indians seized the building Nov. 2, the government began a series of complex legal maneuvers to force the Indians out. A deadline was set for the night of Nov. 3. Rumors of impending police violence led the Indian leadership to put out a call for support.

Prepared for the Worst at the Bureau of Indian Affairs: 1972

One Native American is prepared for the worst. From the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Groups began to appear outside the BIA with food, supplies and political support. On the night of Nov. 3, several hundred non-Indians formed a line of bodies to interfere with the expected police assault. Confronted with hundreds of armed Indians plus their supporters, the government backed down. The waiting game was on.

From the beginning the government game was clear, keep the occupiers in a constant state of doubt and suspense to wear down their morale.

Deadlines Repeatedly Postponed

With the election on Nov. 7, the Nixon administration could not afford a massacre until after this date. So they kept setting shifting, fluid deadlines. They sent dozens of undercover agents to spy on the occupation force.

Army buses would ride by and ominously park in front of the building. Pig cars would race around the block. From across the street, cops would stand and photograph demonstrators. This type of harassment failed to break the spirit of the fighters.

Housekeeping During the BIA Occupation: 1972

Protesters set up basic services during the occupation. From the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

A relatively efficient system of organization was set up. Armed Indian security ringed the building. Child-care was set up. A paramedical team from the University of Maryland contributed themselves and their resources. Food distribution was organized.

Tribal ceremonies were held and large council meetings of all the occupiers kept people informed and allowed for democratic decision-making. Communication was set up with support groups.

Native Americans Take Over BIA in DC: 1972

The occupation on Nov. 5, 1972. From the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Tensest Moments

The tensest moments of the occupation occurred on Monday, Nov. 6. The judge had given an order that the Native Americans must vacate the building by 6 p.m. or face forcible eviction. A large force of GSA [General Services Administration] and Civil Disturbance Unit riot police were quartered about a block away.

Tension mounted Monday afternoon as the Indians broke down into teams of four and established military perimeters. Armed with clubs, knives and spears they passed out rags to cover their mouths against the expected tear gas. Inside the building itself, firebombs and other more potent weapons were prepared. Some Indians barricaded inside reportedly had guns. People broke up pieces of iron grating for missiles and Indians on the roof prepared to rain down destruction upon the expected invaders.

Molotov Cocktail in BIA After Native Americans Leave: 1972

At the BIA. From the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

As the deadline approached, Indian leaders spoke on the steps of the BIA. Russell Means spoke of the telegrams of support they had received from the Irish Republican Army and the Black Panther Party.

He spoke of the occupation of the BIA office in Seattle, Washington. Indians had seized the Indian Affairs office in Ottawa, Canada and had all their demands met. The Canadian police had refused to march on the occupation force. Means reminded those present that the mostly black GSA riot squad was using one oppressed group to smash another.

Plead for No More Massacres

After the Civil War, Freedmen had been used in all black cavalry regiments in the Indian wars of the west. They had a reputation for brutality and harshness. Means pleaded for the black riot police not to follow in the infamous footsteps of their post-civil-war predecessors and aid in the smashing of Native American aspirations.

He asked all non-Indians to stand in solidarity, comparing the anticipated massacre at Washington, D.C. with American actions like the massacre of Vietnamese at My Lai, and the slaughtering of Indians by the 19th Century cavalry at Wounded Knee and Sand Creek.

Native Americans Vow to Fight

The Indians had come to Washington in peace, but had been given the prospect of war. They were ready. Many of the young warriors had daubed on war paint, signifying that they had taken vows to fight until death.

Had the government decided to attack, much death and injury would have resulted. The 6 p.m. deadline came and went. Soon the word was out that the judge had extended it until Wednesday, Nov. 8. There was much rejoicing as once again the government had backed down.

Documents Liberated from BIA Commissioner’s Safe: 1972

Documents were taken from BIA commissioner’s safe. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

On Election Day the leadership held several press conferences. It was announced at the first press conference that many records had been removed in order to expose the record of corruption and scandal within the BIA. It was revealed that massive corruption was involved in the building dams on Seneca land in upstate New York, and that Senator Mike Mansfield was involved in shady real estate dealings in his hometown in Oklahoma. It was stated that the files would be kept in secret hiding places until Native American lawyers could untangle them and expose their content.

Indian leader Russell Means explained that people would begin leaving but that an occupation force would remain the building until the Wednesday deadline. He announced that the BIA was effectively abolished. Prosecution for activities was expected, but [he said] that they would meet this bravely.

DC Police Spy Captured

Later on in the day, a metropolitan police detective was captured while spying in the building. After being chased, captured, and knocked around a little bit, he was taken back inside the building for questioning.

Bill Cross at Trail of Broken Treaties Demonstration: 1970

Bill Cross of the Dakotas, a participant during the protest. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post

Indians called on his police band walkie-talkie and the cops at headquarters freaked. He was brought outside in his own handcuffs and forced through a humiliating press conference. He said his name was Roger O’Day of Criminal Investigation but pleaded ignorance to other questions. He was eventually turned over to his superiors.

By late Tuesday afternoon, it was clear that a settlement was in the offing. The Indians were demanding a twelve person commission be set up with seven of their leaders and five top Nixon aides. This commission would work to implement the 20 demands.

Settlement Reached

On Wednesday, Nov. 8, a settlement was reached. As a task force was set up to deal with the demands, amnesty for the occupiers was agreed upon. As the Indians left, they took with them many paintings and artifacts. Police made no attempt to stop them.

Marilyn Nuttle at Trail of Broken Treaties in DC: 1972

Marilyn Nuttle of the Pawnee during protests. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Although they left the building interior totally destroyed, it was not set afire or blown up as had been threatened. Although over $2 million damage was done, these acts of destruction were nothing compared to the destruction that whites have wreaked upon the Indian people.

Before you join the ranks of those condemning this action, think who was it who stole the Indians’ land, ravaged it, despoiled it, polluted it, and put up fences and ugly stinking cities. The real criminals are where they have always been in the highest corporation and government offices in this land. If there is to be prosecution, let the real criminals go on trial.

US Betrayal on Amnesty
[Originally published as a sidebar]

Although representatives of Nixon signed an agreement with Native Americans occupying the bureau of Indian Affairs recommending against prosecution, the government has decided to go ahead and begin indictment proceedings.

This means the White House has broken yet another treaty with the Indians. A White House spokesperson claimed the amnesty agreement did not mean that the government couldn’t prosecute the Indians for stolen property and destruction of the building.

Total damage to the building was estimated by the government at over $2 million. The government said damage was the third heaviest ever to government buildings, surpassed only by the burning of Washington by the British in 1814 and the destruction of government buildings in the San Francisco earthquake in 1906.


Floyd Young Horse at Trail of Broken Treaties in DC: 1972

Floyd Young Horse, a participant at the Trail of Broken Treaties. From the DC Public LIbrary Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Postscript: March, 2013

The Trail of Broken Treaties was originally proposed by Robert Burnette during a Sun Dance ceremony in South Dakota. Burnette was a former tribal chair of the Rosebud Indian Reservation. Others at the ceremony agreed that a demonstration in Washington was needed because of numerous treaty violations and widespread poverty among Indian people.

A dozen Indian organizations eventually signed on to the caravan idea including the American Indian Movement (AIM). When the caravan reached Minneapolis, the coalition drew up a 20 point document, mostly written by Hank Adams, a longtime fishing rights activist in the Pacific Northwest.

Central to the 20 points was that Indian people were members of sovereign nations and should be negotiated with on that basis. When the caravan arrived in Washington DC, there was a major communications breakdown between the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the caravan members, resulting in the takeover of the BIA building. AIM then assumed a dominant role in the leadership of the Trail of Broken Treaties.

At the Trail of Broken Treaties in DC: 1972

Unidentified participant in the Trail of Broken Treaties. From the DC Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

AIM’s role in the BIA takeover as well the armed occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973, put it directly in the crosshairs of federal COINTELPRO-type repression.

AIM supporters on the Pine Ridge Reservation were assassinated by mysterious death squads widely believed to be linked to the FBI. AIM was infiltrated by informants who spread rumors that various leaders were actually working for the FBI, leading to divisions and violence within the group.

The mayhem on the Pine Ridge reservation led to the shooting of two FBI agents under murky circumstances. AIM member Leonard Peltier is serving 2 life sentences for the killings even though the evidence against him was contradictory. Two other AIM members indicted for the killings were found not guilty. There has been considerable international pressure to free Leonard Peltier.

AIM survived in a weakened state and eventually split into two different AIM organizations, one headquartered in Minneapolis and the other in Denver. Both continue to be active today.

As for the 20 points originally raised by the Trail of Broken Treaties, most still remain unaddressed.


Robert “Bob” Simpson is a former University of Maryland and Washington, DC area social justice activist who moved to Chicago, Illinois in the mid-1970s. He is one half of the Carol Simpson labor cartoon team. Bob remains active in greater Chicago and is a regular contributor to the Daily Kos, Counter Punch and has his own blog The Bobbosphere.


See the Trail of Broken Treaties photos in larger sizes and with more description at the Washington Area Spark Flickr set: BIA Takeover 1972


The DC Women Streetcar Operators of World War II

20 Mar
Women Operators in Superintendent's Office: 1943

Women operators at the superintendent’s office in 1943.

By Craig Simpson

In December, 1942, the Capital Transit Company began a series of advertisements in wartime Washington, D.C. newspapers seeking women to operate the city’s streetcars and buses.

African Americans and their allies were demanding that the company end its Jim Crow practices and hire black operators, but the owners instead opened the door a crack to white women.

Women Workers Converge on D.C.

During the first year of World War II, many thousands of men left their jobs and entered the armed forces while tens of thousands of women moved into Washington to work in the rapidly expanding federal city and fill many jobs traditionally held by men.

The District was not a blue-collar town, but women quickly began turning out ships’ guns at the Naval Gun Factory and driving trucks. They also filled the jobs of store and bank clerks that had been traditionally held by men. But most of all, they came to join the federal government’s rapidly burgeoning clerical corps.

A Woman Operating DC Streetcar: 1943

Collecting a fare on a DC Streetcar in 1943.

The Capital Transit Company was desperate. The company adamantly refused to consider hiring African Americans, even though streetcars and buses lay idle in the barns and yards for lack of operators. While women had driven buses for some smaller suburban companies and operated streetcars in a few other cities, none had ever been employed as operators in the biggest transit company in the Washington area.

The same week that the federal Fair Employment Practices Commission issued a preliminary order to Capital Transit to hire African American operators, the company began its advertising for women workers.

Recruiting women, however, was going to be no easy matter. The new workers were required to work split shifts covering both rush hours and there were plenty of other help-wanted ads filling the newspapers.  The company also imposed other restrictions. The openly biased Washington Post wrote,

The last bastion of male drivers in the District has fallen before the assault of the gentler sex, but the hands that guide the trolleys down the track must not be too gentle. It’s Amazons, not Veronica Lakes, who’ll qualify according to the specifications. Applicants must be between 25 and 35 years old, at least 5 feet, 5 inches tall without shoes, and–listen to this, you dieters—must weigh at least 130 pounds or more.

First Women Hired

Betty Whitehurst and Dorothy Berlett became the first women trainees on January 6, 1943. Capital Transit’s plan was to first train them as conductors, then streetcar operators, and later, perhaps, on the buses.

At the same time, pressure was building on the company to provide adequate transportation in the federal city. Milton Diehl of the Office of Defense Transportation, said, “We want to keep the transportation system going here in Washington and I think it is awfully serious when 200 buses are idle because there are not enough men to operate them.”

Capital Transit President E. D. Merrill: 1940

Capital Transit president E. D. Merrill (far right)  in 1940. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Capital Transit president E. D. Merrill sought other means besides integration, and he called for draft deferrals for the men operating streetcars. He said up to 600 new workers would be needed to maintain the level of service the company was attempting to provide.

Plans to use women, however, were dealt a blow when both of the initial trainees quit only two weeks into the training program. Whitehurst dropped out when she and her husband, who was also an operator, decided one member of the family working odd hours was enough. Berlett’s Navy husband was transferred to New Orleans and the couple decided to relocate.

Company Renews Commitment

Capital Transit, under intense fire from advocacy groups and from the federal Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) for its racial policies, was determined to make the women’s program work.

The Washington Post reported,

Undiscouraged by the recent defaulting of its two pioneer women bus drivers, the Capital Transit Co. is still training its Amazonian operators, a company official disclosed last night. As a matter of fact, two of the girl graduates are already getting experience as conductors on the Fourteenth Street streetcar lines during the afternoon rush hours while three others are immersed in the academic courses. Enrollment in the streetcar seminary is light, but the transit company still approves the idea and is welcoming possible freshmen to the ranks.

The company tried to entice women to apply for the jobs by offering Sundays off and prohibiting night work by women. This was in contrast to previous new hires who would be at the bottom of the seniority list and end up with the least desirable days off and hours.

First All-Female DC Streetcar Crew: 1943

Edna Cobb & Bessie Allison are the first all-female streetcar crew. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Women soon began going out unaccompanied by trainers on streetcar and bus lines. On April 8, 1943 two women left the Fourteenth Street barn and headed to the Bureau of Engraving as the first all-female trolley crew in the city. Bessie Allison piloted the vehicle while Edna Cobb served as conductor.

Allison came to Washington from Mullen, West Virginia, where she had been assistant manager of a dairy store. Cobb became a spokesperson for the women transit workers during the war years, attempting to recruit more women to the ranks.

Women’s Auxiliary Transit (WATS)

In May 1943, company president Merrill announced the formation of the Women’s Auxiliary Transit Service (WATS) and an ambitious plan to recruit 100 women a week to the group. The group was modeled after the initially civilian Army WAC and Navy WAVE programs and was designed to promote the idea of women temporarily serving in essential wartime transportation in the city.

Join Capital Transit WATS: 1943

WATS advertisement in June 1943.

When it was first formed, WATS was composed of seven streetcar operators, two bus operators, and five in training, plus 19 fare collectors at the Pentagon. Merrill began promoting his idea to recruit more women with regular advertisements in the city’s newspapers appealing to patriotism.

Before long, Merrill hired a women’s counselor to head the group and recruited a panel of Washington, D.C. business and professional women to form a “Women’s Committee to Sponsor the WATS.”

The Committee opened a lounge for the transit women at 4702 14th Street NW, across the street from the Northern streetcar and bus barn. It was dedicated with a housewarming party on July 13, 1943. By this time there were 16 women streetcar and bus operators and 19 conductors. All the women were assigned to the 14th Street streetcar line or the buses in that section of Northwest Washington that operated out of the Northern barn, although later they operated out of other locations as well.

Transit Women Between Shifts: 1943

Women operators between shifts in 1943.

The lounge was equipped with three rooms and a basement for the women’s exclusive use. The rooms contained easy chairs, a radio, a Ping-Pong table and reading material.

The women had the option to wear skirts or slacks at work. The slacks, skirts and blazers were navy blue, the shirts were grey and the ties were black. Operators’ caps had a visor whereas the fare collectors at the Pentagon wore foldable “overseas” caps.

The Women Operators and Conductors

Among these women was Ruth Rautio. She had been a homemaker until joining her husband who was already a streetcar operator. The two worked the same streetcar line, passing each other several times during the day.

Bus operator Elsie Stone reported few problems with customers who she said had grown used to seeing women on the trolleys and buses. “But once in Petworth a man ran real fast to catch the bus and backed right out when he saw me driving,” according to the Washington Post.

A Woman Conductor Washington DC: 1943

Hattie Sheehan in 1943.

Another was Hattie Sheehan, who had worked three months on the midnight shift at the Glen L. Martin Aircraft factory north of Baltimore. Sheehan decided day work was more appealing and moved to Washington to take a streetcar operator job. Sheehan’s sister, Eva Bennet, joined her on the job. The two were originally from Harrisonburg, Virginia.

The most senior operator was Bessie Allison, who had a strong West Virginia accent. “I’m a hillbilly and don’t mind who knows it. But I’m having a lot of fun running streetcars in Washington,” she said, according to the Washington Post.

A Woman Outside Her DC Streetcar: 1943

Frances Lewis in 1943.

Still another was Frances “Tennessee” Lewis, who came from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Valeria Schwalenberg hailed from Greensboro, N.C. She said operating a streetcar was “awfully exciting” compared with her life back home, according to the Post.

Sheehan, Allison, Lewis and Schwalenberg formed a quartet that sang songs learned from childhood. One song that everyone knew was “I’ve been working on the railroad,” according to Sheehan. She added, “It sure is a good theme song for us,” according to the Post.

African American Fired

Sarah Grayson was hired in September, 1943 and worked without incident as a streetcar operator on 14th Street NW until January 31, 1944, when she was summarily fired.

100 Women Operators Needed: 1943

Capital Transit refused to hire African American men or women and fired one woman after she had worked five months when they discovered she was black.

The company rejected the application of an African American neighbor of Grayson’s because of skin color. The applicant reportedly told the company representative, “I don’t see why you can’t hire me when you have a colored girl working for you,” according to the Afro American.

Grayson, who had light skin and blue eyes, told the Afro, “I made no effort to conceal my identity.  The question just never came up.” Grayson had previously been a clerk at a People’s Drug Store.

Grayson told the Afro that it was amusing when her male coworkers would try to chat her up while making derogatory remarks about African Americans [See an image of Grayson: click on “browse this newspaper” and navigate to the February 5, 1944 edition, page 11].

Shortages Continue to Occur

The operator shortages continued to occur throughout 1944 with the company delaying, making excuses, but not outright refusing to hire African Americans. Throughout this time, the FEPC never acted to enforce an order to desegregate transit in Washington.

Appeal for More Women Operators: 1943

Operator Edna Cobb (center) often acted as a recruiter of women. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Apparently believing they could recruit more (white) women by a makeover of the current operators, Capital Transit opened a “charm school” in May, 1944, for the 55 women streetcar and bus operators. Classes taught make-up, hair styling and skin care. Hannah Sherman, school director, said, “We don’t want any you-hooing on buses and streetcars, but we want to make the girls feel pretty and important,” according to the Post.

By February of 1945, the company had 150 buses idled for lack of drivers and was 450 operators short. Still refusing to hire African-Americans, the company began advertising for both men and women part-time operators. The number of women peaked at about 70 after the introduction of part-time employment.

Post World War II

The war in Europe ended in May and in Japan in September.  Post-war propaganda had already begun calling for women to “return to the home.” Merrill estimated that only 25 women remained as operators or conductors at the end of 1945.

Operator Speaks Out at Union Meeting: 1945

Streetcar operator Thelma Hodges speaks at a union meeting during a 1945 strike. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Wages had been held down during the war and the pent up demand resulted in two unauthorized strikes by Capital Transit workers in November 1945. Thelma Hodges, a streetcar operator, told co-workers at the Turner Arena during a strike meeting that “The men ought to make enough pay so their wives could stay home.”

No additional women were hired after World War II ended. By 1948 there were only ten remaining women operators. When streetcar operator Harriet Smith died in September, six of the remaining women acted as pallbearers wearing their Capital Transit uniforms. The six were Bernice Harding, Elizabeth Mann, Martha Blanton, Ethel Drake, Katherine Snyder and Mary Small.

Last of the DC Streetcar Women Operators: 1961

Last of the D.C. WW2 women streetcar operators (2nd row) in 1961. From ATU Local 689.

In 1955, Capital Transit finally desegregated its operator ranks. The company was sold after a two-month strike later in 1955 and it was renamed D.C. Transit.

Two women can be seen in a 1961 group photo of D.C. Transit operators in front of the U.S. Capitol, but by 1962 streetcar service had ended in the nation’s capital–and with it, women transit operators.  By one account, the few remaining women streetcar operators were offered the choice of clerical jobs or retirement.

First Female Bus Operator for DC Transit: 1967

Sarah Owens, first African American woman bus operator hired by D.C. Transit is shown in a screen capture of a 2007 ATU Local 689 video.

After a six-year interlude, the next woman employed as an operator by the D.C. Transit system was Sarah B. Owens, an African American. Owens was turned away at the company employment office in 1966, but filed a complaint with the District government. A year later Owens began her career as a bus operator in June 1967. Owens went on to operate the Metrorail trains as well after that service began in 1976.

This time, employment of women in the D.C. transit industry grew rapidly.  Today hundreds of women operate buses and trains for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the successor company to the D.C. Transit and Capital Transit companies.


Want to see and read more?

For more images related to the World War II era D.C. women transit operators.

For an article on the desegregation of the Capital Transit Company.

Do you know more about these women? Comment below or e-mail us at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com


Author’s Notes:

Sources include The Washington Daily News, The Washington Star, the Washington Post, The Afro American, and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689.


Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


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