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This Week in People’s History, July 4 – 10

Shining light on federal records in 1966. Segregating the U.S. civil service in 1913. Smallpox scam in 2002. March of the Mill Children in 1903. A big win for airline workers in 1966. 14th Amendment inked in 1868. Telstar fried by a nuke in 1962.

Cartoon showing the evils of official secrecy

July 4, 1966. President Lyndon Johnson signs the original version of the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. The law is unprecedented in that it establishes the legal principle that all records of the federal government are public records unless and until the federal government can explain to a court the reason they should not be public. For the first time, if any person requests a government record, it is up to the government to justify keeping it secret. The original law established the principle, but it was almost unenforceable. Fortunately, it was soon amended to give it some teeth.    

July 5, 1913 (110 years ago). On the day after the Fourth of July, anyone visiting a U.S. Post Office beholds a shocking sight unlike anything anyone had seen since the end of the Civil War. Suddenly, Post Office buildings all over the country are racially segregated, with white postal employees segregated from Black, white clerks serving only white customers, Black customers standing in lines served by Black clerks. For 48 years the federal civil service had been racially integrated, but no longer. Why? Because the recently-elected President Woodrow Wilson was an unapologetic racist, the first uncloseted bigot to occupy the White House in more than 40 years, Wilson encouraged the members of his cabinet to impose racist policies on federal workers. The Postmaster General was only too happy to oblige, but the new policy was put in place incrementally. At first, postal workers who did not work in public areas were segregated and ordered to use separate bathrooms. But on July 5 the Jim Crow Post Office was revealed to anyone who could see. The Post Office, which was the biggest single employer of African-Americans in the U.S., was only the tip of the iceberg. 

July 6, 2002. Eleven months after the attack on the World Trade Center and the declaration of the "Global War on Terror," the Bush administration announces plans to vaccinate at least a million healthcare workers, soldiers, and State Department employees against smallpox. The White House acknowledges that smallpox had been eradicated in 1980, but claims vaccinations are essential because some terrorist group, somewhere, might have a supply of smallpox virus that could be used for biological warfare. No one in Washington claims to have any information indicating the actual existence of hidden stores of virus, but Bush insists that such stores could exist, just like the weapons of mass destruction alleged (falsely) to be hidden in Iraq. As alarming as the possibility of a smallpox attack is, many medical institutions and the labor unions that represent their workers -- American Hospital Association, American Public Health Association, Institute of Medicine, American College of Emergency Physicians, Service Employees International Union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health -- push back on the plan because smallpox vaccine is well known to be risky. If a million people are vaccinated, it is almost certain that a thousand will have serious adverse reactions, 30 will have life-threatening adverse reactions, and two will die. Is the bare assertion that a terrorist might have a supply of the virus enough to put so many people at risk? Thanks to the public push-back, plus well-document reports of multiple vaccine-related deaths, the program was killed before anything close to a million people had been vaccinated.  

July, 7, 1903 (120 years ago). The March of the Mill Children begins when radical labor organizer Mother Jones sets off on foot from Philadelphia, leading more than five hundred striking textile workers, many of them children who work in the mills. The strikers, both children and adults, plan to march 120 miles to the Summer White House at President Roosevelt's grand estate on Long Island's luxurious North Shore. It is a bold effort to dramatize the need for a federal prohibition of child labor, as well as a shorter workweek and higher pay in Philadelphia's textile mills. The marchers pass through many mill towns, and everywhere they go -- Trenton, New Brunswick, Rahway, Elizabeth, Newark, Paterson, Passaic, Manhattan and Brooklyn -- they are welcomed at mass meetings of workers and union members. When the marchers reach Roosevelt's mansion, the President refuses to meet with them, but they have managed to generate enormous publicity for their cause. In Philadelphia, the strike is only partially successful, because some employers agree to recognize the union, but others refuse.

July 8, 1966. After 11 months of fruitless bargaining, more than 35 thousand members of the International Association of Machinists strike the five largest U.S. airlines. The strike means the flights of some 150,000 daily passengers, or 61 percent of U.S. passenger service, is grounded. The strikers stand firm, despite heavy pressure from President Johnson and from the president of their own union, who both ask the strikers to accept an offer only slightly better than the one they rejected when they walked out. The 6-week strike is a big deal, because the vast majority of affected travelers must use ground transportation or not travel at all. A gauge of the strike's impact can be seen in that the New York Times gave it page-1 coverage on 35 of the strike's 43 days. When the strike was finally settled, the machinists won a much better contract than the one they rejected six weeks earlier, including a 16-percent wage increase over 3 years with a cost-of-living clause and increased fringe benefits.

July 9, 1868 (155 years ago).  The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution is adopted, which guarantees, for the first time, citizenship to "all persons born or naturalized in the United States” and forbids the states to deny any person “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” or to deny any person “equal protection of the laws.”…

July 10, 1962. NASA was blindsided by Pentagon secrecy, with the result that NASA launched a delicate satellite on a path that passed through a cloud of highly radioactive particles, a cloud created by a U.S. hydrogen bomb test. As a result, the satellite's electronics were literally fried.

To make matters much worse, from the Pentagon's point of view, the launch was highly anticipated by millions of people, because the satellite was going to be the first-ever communications satellite capable of relaying a television signal between the U.S. and Europe. Speed-of-light trans-Atlantic radio communications had been in use for more than fifty years, but in 1962 the fastest way to send moving images across the Atlantic was by jet plane. Hence, people were legitimately excited about Telstar 1.  They even wrote a chart-busting song about it.

The radiation damaged Telstar immediately, but it did not destroy it.  After launch, some of the satellite's circuits were already degraded, but technicians struggled and succeeded in making it work. Thanks to their efforts, the first picture with sound was received in France within 18 hours, resulting in the day's biggest news story.

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But the news reports omitted anything about the unexpected difficulty the technicians had faced, or the reason for it. The radiation cloud kept damaging Telstar's circuit's until they stopped working completely seven months later.

The destruction of Telstar 1 would have been an enormous and very public embarrassment to the Defense Department, the Atomic Energy Commission, and NASA had it not been treated as a top-secret event at the time.

There was no military reason for the secrecy, because the secret was that the military establishment was so uninformed and reckless that it neglected to warn NASA that it was about to launch a delicate satellite into a region of the upper atmosphere that had just been heavily contaminated with long-lasting radiation from a hydrogen bomb. This http://Scientific American article had many more fascinating details