Friday, March 25, 2011

Another Allied Intervention: The Case of Bosnia

A few weeks ago, I was a bit premature in my posting likening the present situation faced by Moammar Gadhafi in Libya to that of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania at the end of 1989-- and I was premature, too, in relegating Gadhafi, like Ceausescu and other tyrants before him, to the historical, if not actual, graveyard. But history is often about discerning parallels, as imperfect as they may be, and the recent intervention by the United States and several of its European allies in Libya brings to mind a different foray by the Western alliance approximately fifteen years ago.

In spite of the long and tortuous chain of events that had led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the international community was unprepared for the vehemence of the ethnic hatred that tore Bosnia-Herzegovina apart. While the European Community had imposed economic sanctions on the new rump Yugoslavia [Serbia and Montenegro], and while the United Nations had sent 1100 troops to reopen Sarajevo airport so emergency supplies could reach the besieged city, there was a wide difference of opinion within the Western alliance as to the proper policy to pursue.
France and Germany favored the use of military force, if necessary, to break the siege of Sarajevo and enforce a cease fire. The British, on the other hand, pushed for continued negotiations among all sides, and adamantly refused to send troops to what they still viewed as a civil war. Within the government of the United States, too, there was a difference of opinion, with the State Department seemingly much more willing than the Pentagon to consider the use of American troops to defend Bosnia.

But in the summer of 1992, revelations of Serbian "ethnic cleansing" and concentration camps began to reach the West. Demands for a more aggressive approach to end the suffering in Bosnia grew louder. "To truly end the nightmare, we must stop ethnic cleansing," President George H.W. Bush declared. But when General Colin Powell, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, pointed out the difficulties of waging war in the Balkans, Bush moved away from an aggressive stance and advocated further negotiations.

While the diplomats talked, the horror within Bosnia continued. By the middle of August 1992, as many as 1 million men, women, and children were refugees. Some survived by living off the land, moving from place to place, desperately trying to avoid the fighting. Many others were held in Serb-run concentration camps, such as Omarska and Trnopolje, or in squalid refugee camps near the Croatian border. Many made their way to areas still under the control of the Bosnian government: the central part of the country around Sarajevo and five pockets of resistance-- Bihac in the west and Srebrenica, Zepa, Gorazde, and Cerska in the east.

Increasingly, foreign powers felt the pressure to "do something" about the situation in Bosnia. In the fall of 1992, the United Nations declared a "no-fly zone" and banned all military flights over the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina. (However, the U.N. would not start to enforce the "no-fly zone" until more than a year later, following hundreds of violations by Serb aircraft.)

Throughout 1993, the international community continued to search for a solution. But the war continued, as one failed cease fire followed another, and the death toll continued to rise. As 1994 arrived, Bosnia faced its third year at war. Then, on Saturday, February 5, hundreds of the residents of Sarajevo took advantage of unseasonably warm weather and a brief lull in the fighting to visit the large Markelo marketplace, the city's largest outdoor shopping area. Suddenly, the market exploded in a burst of fire and shattering metal: Serb gunners in the hills overlooking the capital had hit the Markelo. The air was filled with confusion, terror, and grief. Sixty-eight people were killed and more than 200 were wounded. Pictures of the carnage were televised around the world.

U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali asked Manfred Woerner, secretary general of NATO, to authorize air strikes to clear Serb artillery from the hills around Sarajevo. "It's time for action," Woerner agreed. "We've had enough words." The Serbs were given until February 21 to withdraw all heavy weapons 12 miles from the city. By February 20, most of the guns had been withdrawn; UN troops assumed control of the remainder. Sarajevo was more secure, but the Serb forces who now controlled more than two-thirds of Bosnia's territory fought on.

By early April, the Serbs had crossed into the "safe area" established by the United Nations in eastern Bosnia, and had advanced to within two miles of Gorazde. Finally, the NATO allies agreed to act. U.S. bombers took to the air over eastern Bosnia, and bombed the advancing Serb forces. It was the first military attack launched by NATO since its founding in 1950. The air attacks had two purposes: to relieve the pressure on Gorazde and to force the Serbs to the negotiating table. But the attacks accomplished neither.

The assault on Gorazde continued and on April 17 Serb tanks rolled into the city center. Then, the invaders suddenly withdrew, burning Muslim villages as they moved back into the hills. They also blew up Gorazde's water purification plant as well, before launching ferocious new mortar attacks aimed at the city center. The central hospital suffered dozens of direct hits, and scores were killed. The building was turned to "heaps of flesh and metal," in the words of one doctor on the scene. Finally, faced with the threat of massive NATO bombing, on April 25 the Serb gunners stopped firing-- for the time being.

On December 31, 1994-- Day 1000 of the war-- following intense negotiations by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter-- a truce was signed. It went into effect the next day, New Year's Day 1995, and was slated to last until May Day. Hopes for peace ran high; there seemed  new willingness on the part of all parties, even the Bosnian Serbs, to talk peace. Almost from the start, however, the truce was plagued with violations. On January 2, a missile hit the Sarajevo Holiday Inn, the same hotel from which the opening shots of the Bosnian war had been fired three years before. Reports of heavy fighting in different parts of Bosnia grew more numerous with each passing week. By April, both sides had rejected the idea of extending the rapidly crumbling cease fire, and at midnight on May 1, it expired. As spring wore into summer, the downward spiral from bad to worse continued.

On May 26, faced with the threat of further NATO air strikes, the Bosnian Serb army seized 370 UN soldiers. The peacekeepers would be held as hostages, the Serbs announced. Should NATO attack, they would be killed. But by early June, following a visit by two Greek diplomats to the Bosnian Serb headquarters at Pale, the Serbs released all of the UN troops. Even while UN spokesmen were vehemently denying that there had been any kind of deal, the Bosnian Serb vice president was boasting that his side had secured a commitment of "no more air strikes, no more hostile acts against Serbs." On June 9, a UN envoy announced that, henceforth, UN forces in Bosnia would no longer engage in offensive operations, and would now only operate "strictly by peacekeeping principles." Some began to question whether the United Nations would even defend the "safe areas" in the east any longer.

In May 1993, Srebrenica had become the first "safe area" established by the UN. On July 11, 1995, in spite of NATO air strikes and the condemnation of the international community, it became the first to fall to the Serbs.

As clouds of dark smoke rose from neighboring villages, thousands of Srebrenica's men, women, and children streamed in confusion and fear toward a UN outpost at Potocari, three miles to the north. Not long afterward, Bosnian Serb troops entered Potocari and ordered the Muslims out. As UN peacekeepers stood by helplessly, all men over the age of 16 were taken away to, in the words of Serbian General Ratko Mladic, investigations for "war crimes". There were 8000 of them in all; most of them were never seen alive again. Later, after the war, mass graves were uncovered, showing the extent of the slaughter at Srebrenica.  

The Muslim women and children of Srebrenica were loaded onto buses and driven west to the government stronghold at Tuzla. Tuzla's population had already swollen to more than 200,000-- ten times what it had been before the war. Now, once again, hundreds of buses, compliments of the Bosnian Serb army, carried thousands more refugees toward Tuzla down what aid workers called the "ethnic cleansing corridor".

To the south of Srebrenica was Zepa, long acknowledged as the most vulnerable of the "safe areas". Within a week, Zepa, too, had fallen to the Serbs. The Bosnian army now seemed intent. In spite of blockades, threats, and world condemnation, it would not stop until all of eastern Bosnia was under its rule, or until the dream of a Greater Serbia had been made real through struggle.

But then, overnight it seemed, the face of the Yugoslav conflict changed radically.

After the fall of Srebrenica and Zepa, the government of the Republic of Croatia had threatened rebel Serbs, both in Bosnia and in the breakaway Krajina region within Croatia, that it would take military action if the western "safe area" of Bihac were to fall. As pressure on Bihac mounted, Croatian president Franjo Tudjman decided not to wait any longer. By July 28, a massive force of the Croatian army had swept across the Bosnian border and had cut off the "Serb Republic of the Krajina" from its supply lines in Serb-held Bosnia.

The Bosnian Serbs struggled to regain momentum. But the territory they held began to shrink rapidly under the Croatian onslaught, and the Serb army was forced back toward its stronghold at Banja Luka in central Bosnia. Soon, nearly 200,000 Serb civilians were forced onto the road toward Banja Luka.

Many surmised that, behind the scenes, the United States and its European allies had subtly supported the Croatian drive to break the back of the Serb military machine. Secretary of State Warren Christopher denied that the American government had advance knowledge of Croatia's actions. "We didn't urge it," Christopher said. But, he added, the "new strategic situation" might serve as a basis for a negotiated settlement of the conflict.

Soon, the State Department was working feverishly to bring together the warring parties in the Yugoslav conflict. In August, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke flew to the Balkans to try to persuade Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic and President Tudjman of Croatia, as well as Alija Izetbegovic, president of Bosnia-Herzegovina, to enter into negotiations.

But when another mortar attack demolished the Markelo marketplace in Sarajevo on August 28, it seemed as though Holbrooke's efforts would go for nought and another round of escalated violence would ensue. But the international response to the second Markelo attack was quick-- and massive. By the middle of the next day, there would be more than 200 raids against Serb positions all across Bosnia. The Western alliance, at last, seemed determined to use force, not just to protect Sarajevo, but to force the Serbs to the negotiating table. On August 30, Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic agreed that "It is time to talk about peace."

On September 7, the foreign ministers of Bosnia, Croatia, and Yugoslavia [Serbia and Montenegro] met in Geneva-- the first time in 18 months that representatives of the three governments had sat together at a negotiating table. A tentative agreement was announced. There would be a complete cease fire, followed by further negotiations in the United States to work out the details.

On October 31, Izetbegovic, Tudjman, and Milosevic arrived at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, where the negotiations would be held, moderated by American diplomats Christopher and Holbrooke. "The world can and will help you make peace," Christopher implored them.

For more than three weeks, the three presidents or their representatives sat around a small table at an isolated American air base, searching for ways to end the conflict. The task they faced was immense, and the details that needed to be worked out often seemed overwhelming. But when they concluded their sessions on November 21, an agreement somehow had been reached. The world held its breath, and the people of Bosnia dared to hope for peace.

Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz is the author of six books, including Civil War in Yugoslavia. Copies are available from, or directly from the author at

Friday, March 18, 2011

For the Love of the World: Rev. James Reeb

The announcement by the FBI's Cold Case Initiative that it is reopening its investigation into an all but forgotten case from 46 years ago brought back memories of a monumental time in not too far distant American history: a time of great change, tinged with tragedy certainly-- but with great heroism as well.

On January 18, 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. arrived in Selma for the opening of Project Alabama, a massive civil rights effort aimed at securing the unobstructed right to vote for the black people of that state.

Week after week, black men and women demonstrated in the streets of Selma, demanding their rights. They were met with stiff resistance from local police and the Alabama State Highway Patrol. Finally on March 7, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the Jefferson Davis Highway, just outside the city, "Wallace's Storm Troopers"-- as the Highway Patrol had become known-- with billy clubs flailing, charged a group of demonstrators. Scores of demonstrators were beaten to the ground, and then the police regrouped again. This time, they fired canisters of tear gas into the crowd. The marchers fell back in clouds of dense smoke, choking and crying in pain.

But "Wallace's Storm Troopers" weren't done yet. As white onlookers cheered, the mounted police again charged into the crowd of demonstrators, lashing them with bull whips and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. Reeling under the blows, the blacks retreated back to Brown Chapel in the city, the road behind littered with broken bodies.

The air still reeked with tear gas as Martin Luther King sent out a flurry of telegrams to religious leaders across the country. "Come to Selma," he implored them. It was time for well-meaning white people across the land to get off the sidelines: Come to Selma; get directly involved in the struggle of black Americans for freedom and justice. A massive interfaith "Ministers' March for Montgomery" was scheduled for Tuesday, March 9.

In Boston, a Unitarian Universalist minister named James Reeb decided to respond to Dr. King's call. He made his way to Selma, as did scores of other UU ministers from across the country. They were joined by colleagues from countless other faith traditions as well, and overnight, it seemed, perhaps 500 ministers, rabbis, priests, and nuns had descended on Selma to stand together for freedom. Governor Wallace branded them  "agitators-- one and all". "Why not?" shot back one black clergyman. "The agitator is the part of the washing machine that gets the dirt out."

On Tuesday morning, the "Ministers' March" began as planned, and proceeded again to the Pettus Bridge. There, they were turned away: a court injunction had been filed, forbidding them from marching onward to Montgomery. But by their presence alone, an important point had been made, and the conscience of a nation seemed to be aroused at last. The "Ministers' March" made its way back toward Selma.

That night, James Reeb and several colleagues had dinner at a black cafe in Selma. Then, they parted company, one group going in one direction, while another group-- Reeb, Orloff Miller, and Clark Olsen-- headed back toward their hotel. As they walked past the Silver Moon Cafe in a white part of town, a voice rang out and four white toughs emerged from the shadows. They fell upon the ministers, swinging clubs wildly in the air. One kept hitting Reeb's head, as though swinging a baseball bat. Reeb lapsed into a coma. He died two days later. He was 38 years old. 

He had been born in Wichita, Kansas, on New Year's Day in 1927. Even though the Second World War was drawing to a close, and the call up of new troops had already been suspended, Reeb enlisted in the U.S. Army days after his eighteenth birthday in 1945. He wanted to play at least a small role, he said, in the battle against tyranny and fascism. He graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary, and was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1953. Soon, he found his way into the more liberal Unitarian faith. He was called as assistant minister at All Souls Church in Washington, DC, in 1959, but left there in September 1964 to become Community Relations Director of the Boston Community Housing Program of the American Friends Service Committee.

Reeb had moved from a comfortable parsonage in suburban Chevy Chase to a simple house in Dorchester, one of the most run-down areas of Boston's inner city. He had given up serving a prosperous and prestigious congregation in order to support a risky attempt at community organization in Roxbury. He made the move because he thought it was the right thing to do, because he felt by doing so he was an answering some deep inner calling to the authentic work that was his to do in life. He had wanted originally to serve an inner city congregation within his own denomination, but was unable to find one that offered the challenge he was seeking. In frustration, he had written to a friend in the spring of 1964, "[The Department of Ministry] assures me they will get my name on lists of 'desirable churches'. If there's anything I'm not interested in, it is joining the lists of those looking for 'desirable churches'..."

His inner light led him then to Boston. When he arrived in Dorchester, he wrote to a friend: "I have seized the bull by the horns-- I am doing what seems important and let the damn torpedoes come!"

James Reeb was never one to accept a challenge half-way. He was a man who could not rest until his ideals became enshrined in the day to day living of his life. He didn't just want to work in the inner city; he wanted it to become his home-- his family's home-- as well. It would have been hypocrisy, he felt, to descend on the inner city by day as a sort of "white savior", only to slink off to the comfort of the suburbs when night fell. From the very start, Reeb and his wife, Marie, and their four children plunged into the community life of Dorchester and Roxbury. They were often the only white faces in the crowd; their children were the only white children in their school. When Reeb arrived in Selma in March of 1965, an old friend greeted him with the words, "I knew you would be here!" He would never make it back home to Boston.

 After Reeb's death on March 11, groups nationwide staged demonstrations in his memory and in support of the cause of civil rights for which he had died. Over 30,000 men and women gathered in Boston for a service in his memory. At Rev. Reeb's memorial service at Brown Chapel in Selma, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a moving eulogy.  He began by praising the heroic example presented by people like James Reeb:

"The world is aroused over the murder of James Reeb. For he symbolizes the forces of good will in our nation. He demonstrated the conscience of the nation. He was an attorney for the defense of the innocent in the court of world opinion. He was a witness to the truth that men of different races and classes might live, eat, and work together as brothers."

But then, Dr. King raised the question, "Who killed James Reeb?" His answer:

"James Reeb was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained glass windows. He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a taillight rather than a headlight, an echo rather than a voice. He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician who has moved down the path of demagoguery, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism..."

President Lyndon Johnson was deeply moved by the death of James Reeb. Upon hearing of the attack on the ministers on March 9, he immediately telephoned Marie Reeb, and arranged for an airplane to fly her to Alabama. Along with the events of Bloody Sunday, Reeb's death galvanized the President's support for the Civil Rights Movement. On March 15, Johnson addressed a Joint Session of Congress and urged immediate passage of a comprehensive Voting Rights Act:

"At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted. One good man, a man of God, was killed...

"But even if we pass this bill, the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome."

By August, the Voting Rights Act had been passed by Congress and signed into law.

Following the attack on James Reeb, several men were arrested and charged with murder. They were immediately released on bond, and just a few months after Reeb's death, an all-white, all-male jury acquitted Elmer Cook, Stanley Hoggle, and O'Neal Hoggle of all charges. For 46 years, Reeb's case was relegated to the FBI's Cold Case Unit, where it remained until the forty-sixth anniversary of the minister's death on March 11, 2011.

The prophetic call of modern times, James Reeb believed, was the call toward human freedom and social justice. "Whom shall I send to comfort my people?" the voice of God asks in the book of the prophet Isaiah. Like the ancient prophets, James Reeb's answer, too, was "Here I am. Send me."

Friday, March 11, 2011

Sojourner's Truth

There is something of the mythical in all great historical figures, perhaps. As time passes, for instance, Dr. King's persona assumes a more and more legendary aspect as his death recedes further and further into the recesses of the past. To be sure, there are still too many of us alive today for Martin Luther King to be a totally mythologized figure. We remember the night he died. We remember his work. He is still too much with us for us to forget that he was, foremost, a real living breathing man.

Not so Sojourner Truth. Of the actual facts of her life, little was known in her own day. As time has passed, she has emerged almost entirely as myth, pure symbol. But the historian's calling, often, is to deconstruct myths like these: to take them apart; to examine them; to find out where they came from, and whose cause they served.

For instance, we almost universally associate the institution of slavery with the antebellum South. By extension, then, we often assume that Sojourner Truth, an ex-slave, must have been a Southern figure, as well. The truth is that Truth's entire life and career (both before her emancipation from slavery and after) was spent in the northern United States-- in eastern New York state and western Massachusetts to be precise, She is no model of the Southern black slave Mammy. Rather, she is the prototype of the northern, industrial strong black woman. She is less Aunt Jemima and more Maya Angelou perhaps.

This strong woman was born under the name of Isabella, the youngest of ten (or perhaps twelve) children to two slaves named James and Elizabeth (or Betsey), on the estate of a family named Hardenbergh, in Ulster County in Upper State New York, sometime around the year 1797. Her owners were Dutch settlers; her first language, then, was Dutch, interestingly, not English. She learned English only later, and was always careful about the English she spoke.

Of her numerous siblings, only one-- a brother named Peter-- remained at home with her. The others were all sold off, and one of Isabella's indelible childhood memories-- she mentions it five times in the early chapters of her autobiography-- was of her parents grieving over the loss of their children who had been sold. Isabella, then, grew up in an atmosphere of love and nurture, but also one tainted by the certainty of loss and a constant foreboding. Her parents realized that it was only a matter of time before their remaining children would be taken from them as well. The scars left by slavery were not all physical ones, certainly.

Eventually, the tragic premonitions of James and Betsey did come true, and with the death of Colonel Hardenbergh in 1807, young Isabella (only nine years old at the time) was sold off, just another part of the Colonel's estate.

She was sold to a family named Neely, and as the only slave in their household, Isabella was worked hard and treated worse. Her owner beat her constantly, sometimes so cruelly that blood would flow down her back. Thankfully, she was sold again within a year; then in 1810, yet again, this time to a family named Dumont in Kingston, north of Poughkeepsie-- for the majestic sum of 70 pounds, or the equivalent of about $ 175.

Isabella would live with the Dumonts for sixteen years, longer than she spent with any other owner. Isabella's feelings toward the Dumonts would always be ambiguous. Even after she had been freed, she expressed loyalty and affection toward them. During her years in their household, Isabella passed into womanhood, was married, and bore five children. But there is also evidence that she was both physically and sexually abused during this time as well.

There were other psychological wounds, too. While the conditions of slavery in the South were, generally, much worse than those faced by northern slaves, slaves in the South, at least, had the consolation of community-- a wide scale culture and support system of their own. Slaves in the North, on the other hand, were extremely isolated: one or two slaves on this farm; a couple more perhaps on the next; then none for miles around. It was an extremely lonely life, often one of sheer isolation and hopelessness.

Then, finally, in 1825, after years of debating the issue, the legislature of the state of New York declared within two years-- on July 4, 1827-- all slaves within the state would be free men and women.

When Dumont reneged on a promise to free her and her husband prior to the 1827 deadline, Isabella decided not to wait any longer, and to emancipate herself. Late in 1826, the Voice of God spoke to her, Isabella said, and instructed her to leave Dumont and set out on her own. Early one fall morning, just before dawn, carrying only her daughter Sophia and a small supply of food and clothing crowded into a large cotton handkerchief, she trudged nearly ten miles to the nearby village of Wagondale. There, she moved in with an anti-slavery couple named Isaac and Maria Von Wagenen, whom she had known for several years. In gratitude for their hospitality, she took their name, and became known as Isabella Von Wagenen.

But then on the first day of June in 1829-- Pentecost Sunday-- Isabella had the great vision that would change her life, and change history. That morning, as she described it, deep in the throes of depression and emotional turmoil, she fell on her knees in prayer, then felt suddenly a deep sense of spiritual relief. A radiant being appeared before her-- Jesus, she said-- beckoning her to come and "dwell with him, as with a dear friend." She felt as though Jesus had come to "shield her" from the burning sun of "God's wrath".
At the vision's command, she took a new name for herself-- Sojourner-- a mere traveller through this human-made world, seeking always the real kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven. And Truth-- God's truth, the whole truth, the truth which this world could neither give nor take away, the truth that would abide in spite of what all principalities and powers might say or do to her. The truth, she knew, that would set her free.

The road would still not be an easy one for her. In New York City, she became entangled with a false prophet named Matthias, who claimed to be Jesus Christ. She would stand by Matthias far longer than she needed to, far longer than reason or common sense might have dictated. When she finally extricated herself, she took to the road on her own. "The Spirit calls me, and I must go," she told her friends, and she became a travelling abolitionist. She headed to Northampton in western Massachusetts and joined the utopian Association of Education and Industry, a group that not only opposed slavery, but also advocated women's rights and non-violence, and lived together on a 500 acre farm. While there, she met  a number of the leading activists of the day, including William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. After the Northampton commune broke up, Truth began the process of assembling her memoirs, and in 1850, Garrison published her book, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave. With the proceeds, she purchased a home in Northampton for $300, and spoke at the first National Women's Rights Convention in Worcester, developing the synthesis of black rights and women's rights for which she would become famous.

In 1851, she left Northampton and travelled west with George Thompson, the British anti-slavery crusader, who was then touring the United States. In Akron, she attended the Ohio Women's Rights Convention. There, she delivered the "Ain't I A Woman?" speech for which she became best known. But there is some controversy as to exactly what Truth said before the convention. The earliest version, reported by Marius Robinson in the June 21, 1851 issue of the Anti-Slavery Bugle, did not even include the question "Ain't I A Woman?" that has come down to posterity as Truth's hallmark. Rather, it had her asking:

"I want to say a few words about this matter... I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?"

However, about twelve years later, Frances Dana Barker Gage, who had presided at the Ohio meeting, presented a strikingly different version in the first volume of History of Woman Suffrage. Gage's version was problematic for several reasons: In it, Truth speaks with the dialect and vernacular of a Southern slave; as we have already noted, her accent was distinctly northern throughout her life. In Gage's version, too, Truth tells of the heartache of having all eleven of her children sold away from under her. Most sources seem to confirm that Truth mothered no more than five children, and never boasted of a higher number of offspring. Gage's account only added to the notoriety of Truth and her message, and transformed her into something of a symbol of her times. It may also have contributed significantly to the process of obscuring the actual facts of her life.

At any rate, in the years leading up to the Civil War, Sojourner Truth continued on her dual crusade against slavery and for the rights of women. When the war came, she helped recruit black troops for the Union army; as it was drawing to a close, she went to work for the National Freedman's Relief Association, in order to improve conditions faced by emancipated slaves. In October of 1864, She finally met Abraham Lincoln in Washington, less than half a year before his death. After the war, she (unsuccessfully) lobbied the Grant Administration for land grants for ex-slaves. She was also unsuccessful when she tried to cast her vote in the 1872 presidential election.

In her later years, she bought a house in Battle Creek, Michigan, where she lived with one of her daughter and several grandchildren. She also remained an honored friend of the great reformers of her day, including Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony. She travelled less as she got older, but continued to speak out for all the issues that concerned her-- women's rights, of course; but also an end to the Jim Crow Laws; the rights of labor; penal reform; the abolition of capital punishment. Whatever the cause, she was always confident that she had something worthwhile to add to the discussion. As she told one of her audiences while on a speaking tour: "Children, I have come here like the rest of you, to hear what I have to say."

Death finally came at Battle Creek on November 26, 1883, in Sojourner's 86th year. She was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in that city, beside other members of her family.

There was always something of the mystic about Sojourner Truth. But her mysticism never isolated her from the world, but rather propelled her headlong into the fray. She was a strong black woman who was her own person, who heard the voice of her God in her soul, and remained true to that calling. Through the alchemy of history, she emerged as more symbol than living being, perhaps. But that symbol needs to shine more brightly in our own day than ever before.

Like John Brown, her truth goes marching on.

Like Martin Luther King, her dream survives.

Like Susan B. Anthony, she would declare that, for men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit, "Failure is impossible!"

Friday, March 4, 2011

In Praise of Three Women in a Bathtub

One of my favorite poems is by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

Upon this marble bust that is not I

Lay the round, formal wreath that is not fame;

But in the forum of my silenced cry

Root ye the living tree whose sap is flame.

I, that was proud and valiant, am no more; —

Save as a dream that wanders wide and late,

Save as a wind that rattles the stout door,

Troubling the ashes in the sheltered grate.

The stone shall perish; I shall be twice dust.

Only my standard on a taken hill

Can cheat the mildew and the red-brown rust

And make immortal my adventurous will.

Even now the silk is tugging at the staff:

Take up the song; forget the epitaph.

The poem ("The Pioneers", later retitled "To Inez Milholland", in honor of one of the martyrs of the women's rights struggle) was written in 1921 to commemorate the dedication of a monument in Washington, DC in honor of three great leaders of the women's suffrage movement-- Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony. The poet herself was present on the occasion to read her sonnet as the statue, officially known as the "Portrait Monument", was unveiled.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

"The stone will perish," the poem states, "I will be twice dust."

Well, that stone-- that statue-- hasn't perished yet. To the contrary, its visibility has only increased as the years have worn on.

A monument to Mott, Stanton, and Anthony was funded by the National Women's Party in 1920, to celebrate the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which finally gave women the right to vote. The Women's Party commissioned sculptor Adelaide Johnson to create the monument, and Johnson had completed her work by early 1921.

Adelaide Johnson

The statue was of Italian marble, and was designed in the Classical Roman style. Anthony, Stanton, and Mott appeared stately, stiff, rigid-- somewhat goddess-like, perhaps-- all clothed in Roman-style togas, their eyes blank and mythical. The heads and torsos of the three great leaders of the fight for suffrage are surrounded by rough-hewn marble and rest on two large rectangular stone slabs. The statue has a kind of "unfinished" look about it-- intentionally: the artist wanted to symbolize that the struggle for the rights of women would continue on into future generations.

The statue was unveiled on the Capitol steps on February 15, 1921-- the 101st anniversary of the birth of Susan B. Anthony. A host of dignitaries was present in addition to Miss Millay. There was great fanfare and applause as the National Women's Party presented its gift to the nation.

But within a very short time, critics (nearly all male critics, of course) started deriding the sculpture as "too radical", "inappropriate", and even "downright ugly". One wag declared that it looked like "three women still in their bathrobes". Another likened it to "three women in a bathtub", and the characterization stuck. Within a very short time, the "Portrait Monument" (all eight tons of it) was removed from the Capitol steps and banished to a (large) basement broom closet, where it remained for nearly forty years.

Finally in 1963, the statue saw the light of day again. It was granted a place in the Capitol crypt, the area just below the Rotunda. Here it stood for another thirty-three years, ingloriously flanked on one side by the men's lavatory and on the other by the ladies'.

But soon, the winds of change were rattling the stout door, troubling the ashes in the sheltered grate down in the crypt. It just would not do, many declared, for this important statue of these three great women to be relegated to the basement, just a half-floor above the broom closet. Women's rights advocates began to agitate for the statue to be moved back upstairs-- into Statuary Hall in the Rotunda, the most hallowed memorial area in the entire Capitol, perhaps in the entire nation. 

A coalition of eighty-one women's groups pushed and prodded and lobbied for thirty years until finally in 1993 Congress agreed that the time had come for the "Three Women in Bathtub" to come upstairs into Statuary Hall. It seemed as though victory was at hand at last.

But then came 1994, and the Republican take-over of the U.S. House of Representatives. Newt Gingrich was elected Speaker of the House, and one of the first official actions of the new Speaker was to block funding for moving the eight-ten statue from the crypt to the Rotunda. (If you need another reason to dislike Newt Gingrinch, there it is.)  

Once again, the battle was joined. Women's groups kept up the pressure until finally, in 1996, Congress again authorized the funding to move Adelaide Johnson's "Portrait Monument" up the stairs. A great victory, it seemed, had finally been won-- again.

However, soon after the decision to move the statue had been made, the National Political Congress of Black Women announced its opposition to the plan. "Why were only white women being so honored?" the group asked. Sojourner Truth, the great black nineteenth century crusader for both the abolition of slavery and votes for women was missing. Honoring only white suffragettes, the black women's group stated, did not accurately reflect the full scope of women's history. "It's wrong, and we're going to do everything we can to stop it," declared C. Delores Tucker, co-chair of the Black Women's Congress. "We have been left out of history too much and we're not going to be left out anymore."

Sojourner Truth

(Her words were an uncanny echo of earlier arguments between Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. After the Civil War, Anthony and her cohorts wanted women added to the Fourteenth Amendment that gave freed black men the right to vote. "Not now," Douglass had said. "That will only confuse things. That will muddy the waters. Votes for women can wait." Many in the suffrage movement went along with Douglass. But Stanton and Anthony and the more radical elements refused to step aside and watch freed male slaves enfranchised before they were. The women's rights movement was bitterly divided for almost a generation.)

But this time, it seemed, Anthony, Stanton, and Mott had carried the day. Finally, on May 12, 1997-- Mother's Day as it happened--  the eight-ton "Portrait Monument" was carefully moved up the stairs and assumed its new place of honor under the Capitol dome. In June of 1997, the statue was re-dedicated once again, with yet more fanfare and applause.  

In the early 1880s, while she was laboriously involved with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage in the arduous work of assembling their monumental History of Woman Suffrage, Susan B. Anthony grew impatient with all the cataloging and fact checking and copy editing and exclaimed, "I don't want to write history! I want to make it!"

She would have approved of the last line of Millay's sonnet to her:

Take up the song; forget the epitaph.

It is one thing to have a statue of three great women in the Rotunda of the Capitol. It is another thing truly to have a fair representation of women at the center of our government.

It is one thing to dedicate monuments. It is another thing to build a just society.

It is one thing to write (or read, or study) history. It is another thing to bring to birth a new history based in deeds of justice and peace.

But one need not preclude the other.

Happy Women's History Month to you all!