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This Week in People’s History, Jan 2 – 8

Deadly Fire's Legacy (in 1904), Forgotten Respect for Radicals (1939), Big Money in Lies (1954), So Long, Subway Tokens (1994), Racism wins, then loses (1959), Innocent man freed after 22 years (1939), FBI Finds "Right Kind" of Black Leader (1964)

Theater balcony heavily damaged by fire

A Deadly Fire's Mixed Legacy

120 YEARS AGO, on January 2, 1904, the mayor of Chicago ordered the immediate closure of all theaters in the city and decreed they could only reopen after proving they were in compliance with all applicable safety-related regulations. He took that dramatic action three days after at least 602 people died in a fire in the Iroquois Theater, which remained the deadliest U.S. single-building fire until 9/11.
The investigation of the circumstances that resulted in so many fatalities revealed numerous acts of incompetence, negligence and outright corruption as having been causal factors. More than a dozen prominent men, including the mayor, were arrested.  All were released on bail and none was convicted.  

The enduring legacy of the Iroquois theater fire was the almost-universal requirement that exit doors in places of public assembly open outward and be equipped with panic bars so they can be opened even when locked. Many cities, including New York and Chicago, adopted major revisions of their fire-safety codes in the months following the catastrophe.…    

Lost  Respect for Radicalism

85 YEARS AGO, on January 3, 1939, the New York State Committee of the Communist Party published a 19-point program to "urge upon the Legislature at the current session." How do I know? Anyone could have read it in a 5-paragraph item on page 11 in the next day's New York Times.

The story's headline was "COMMUNISTS OFFER LEGISLATIVE PROGRAM: State Wages and Hours Act Among the Measures Sought". The article briefly described all the planks in the CP's program, including money for the enforcement of the state's housing law "financed by taxes on those best able to pay." It seems there was once a time when the Times could write honestly about what the CP advocated.

It is interesting to reflect on when and why the major media's reporting concerning the Communist Party ceased to make a pretense of objectivity.…

There's Big Money in Disinformation

70 YEARS AGO, on January 4, 1954, the U.S. tobacco industry unveiled a well-funded disinformation campaign about the health effects of smoking. Full-page ads in newspapers from coast to coast announced the creation of the "Tobacco Industry Research Committee" under the headline "A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers".

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The so-called research committee "manufactured uncertainty by questioning every study, dissecting every method, and disputing every conclusion" as David Michaels reported in his excellent "Doubt Is Our Product," exposing the details of a campaign that "successfully delayed regulation and victim compensation for decades.

Good-bye to Subway Tokens

30 YEARS AGO, on January 5, 1994, New York City transit riders were introduced to the Metrocard, a new-fangled device designed to replace subway tokens. Slightly more than nine years later, the MTA gave up the use of tokens altogether.

A Short-term Win for Racism Loses in the End 

65 YEARS AGO, on January 6, 1959, Richard and Mildred Loving, a married couple living in Central Point, Virginia, pled guilty to violating the Virginia Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which made interracial marriage illegal. In order to avoid serving a year in prison, the Lovings agreed to 25 years exile from Virginia. Five years later they filed suit in order to return to Virginia. In 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court found that the Racial Integrity Act was unconstitutional, making it possible for the couple to return to their Virginia home.

Innocent man freed after 22 years

85 YEARS AGO, on January 7, 1939, the newly elected Governor of California pardoned charismatic Socialist organizer and frame-up victim Tom Mooney, who had spent 22 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.  

Mooney had been sentenced to die after a brazenly unfair trial in San Francisco. Of all the leftists who had ever been railroaded to jail or the executioner, Mooney stood out, because almost as soon as his trial ended, the "evidence" used to convict him was revealed unequivocally to have been such a tissue of lies that no unbiased person could have considered him to be anything but the victim of a kangaroo court.

The outrageousness of Mooney's conviction and sentence provoked an outcry for justice that even had the support of President Woodrow Wilson and his Attorney General and many others like them who  were certainly no leftists. Mooney's death sentence was commuted, but he remained a prisoner despite having been convicted by infamously perjured testimony and doctored evidence.  After he was released after 22 years in prison, he was a free man for only three years before dying…

FBI Honcho Finds the "Right Kind" of Black Leader

60 YEARS AGO, on January 8, 1964, William Sullivan, the FBI's assistant director, wrote a long memo for FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover about the FBI's need to undermine the increasing influence of Martin Luther King, Jr., "to take him off his pedestal and to reduce him completely in influence." "When this is done," Sullivan wrote, "the Negroes will be left without a national leader of sufficiently compelling personality to stee r them in the proper direction," but "the right kind on national Negro leader could at this time be gradually developed . . . to assume the role of the leadership of the Negro people when King has been completely discredited." Sullivan went on to report he had identified "a Negro of outstanding intelligence and ability" with "all the qualifications of the kind of Negro I have in mind." The name of the person Sullivan had chosen has been redacted from the memo that has been publicly released. Sullivan continues, "if this thing can be set up properly without the [Federal] Bureau [of Investigation] in any way becoming directly involved, I think it would be not only a great help to the FBI, but would be a fine thing for the country at large." Sullivan's memo was endorsed by the FBI Director with his handwritten "o.k."…