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This Week in People’s History, Jan 16–22

Prohibition Gets Started (in 1919), Slave Owners Get Nervous (1834), Swing Comes to the Opera House (1944), Repression Takes Practice (1934), Nazis Make a Reality of Wage Slavery (1934), Wilmington Occupation Ends (1969), Voting Rights Victory (1964)

Storefronts covered with signs promoting prohibition

Prohibition Gets an E for Effort

105 YEARS AGO, on January 16, 1919, the 18th Amendment, which established the prohibition of alcohol in the U.S., was ratified by the requisite number of states. Shortly thereafter, Congress passed the Volstead Act, which prohibited the production, transport and sale of alcohol and which went into effect on January 17, 1920. The 18th Amendment has the distinction of being the only Constitutional amendment to have been repealed, which took place on December 5, 1933.…


Pity the Poor Nervous Slave Owner
on January 17, 1834, the Alabama state legislature passed a law that made it illegal for owners of enslaved persons to free any slaves. Under the law, Alabama slave owners could only free enslaved people by taking them out of the state before doing so. Any person freed in that way would automatically be re-enslaved if they returned to Alabama. During the previous year, Alabama had enacted a law requiring all free Blacks to leave the state within 30 days, if they failed to do so they would be punished with 39 lashes.  If, after being whipped, they had not left the state in 20 days, they would be sold into slavery with the proceeds going to the state. 

The Alabama legislature was concerned that free Blacks, of whom there were very few, posed a special threat because, unlike the enslaved, they were not under constant surveillance. Free Blacks had played significant roles in the 1831 Virginia slave rebellion led by Nat Turner and the same was true of the unsuccessful 1831 uprising in Jamaica of 60 thousand of the enslaved. Despite the Jamaica uprising's lack of immediate success, it was the prime mover in the UK parliament's 1833 decision to eliminate nearly all slavery in the British Empire, which was going into effect in late 1834.

Swing Comes to the Opera House

80 YEARS AGO, on January 18, 1944, the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City became the venue for its first-ever jazz concert. Performers included Louis Armstrong, Mildred Bailey, Roy Eldridge, Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Coleman Hawkins, Billie Holiday, Red Norvo, Artie Shaw, Art Tatum and Jack Teagarden. The event, which was a benefit concert for the sale of war bonds, drew a standing-room-only audience of 3600 and raised $650,000 (the equivalent of $11 million of today's dollars).…;


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Nazis Get Off to a Bad Start

90 YEARS AGO, on January 19, 1934, the Third Reich was forced to permanently shut down one of their first concentration camps only six months after it opened, because it  had become an embarrassing political fiasco. Concentration camp Kemna was a failed experiment because the Nazis, in their eagerness to terrorize the political opposition, had not yet realized that such facilities should be built in isolated places where their nature could be hidden from the general public. Camp Kemna was created in an abandoned textile factory located on the main street of Wuppertal, a small industrial city. Passers-by could hear the screams of torture victims, and the staff of the local hospital was frequently called upon to give emergency care to prisoners. The camp's infamy quickly reached nearby Dusseldorf. To prevent the further spread of stories about torture, the Nazis shut Camp Kemna down. In 1948, Camp Kemna's commandant, Alfred Hilgers, was arrested and convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death, but the sentence was reduced to life imprisonment; in 1956 he was released from custody. There is now a small memorial monument across the road from the camp's main building, which is now occupied by a mechanical engineering company.

Nazis Make a Reality of Wage Slavery 

90 YEARS AGO, on January 20, 1934, the Third Reich enacted a Draconian labor law outlawing strikes and making it illegal for workers to negotiate with employers. When the Nazis outlawed trade unions in May 1933, they did not outlaw all efforts by workers to stand up for themselves. The new law made it illegal for individual workers to ask for higher pay or better working conditions, or even to protest a pay cut or increase in hours. The new law, which gave employers absolute authority over their workers, remained in effect until the end of World War 2.

Racist National Guard Deployment Ends

55 YEARS AGO, on January 21, 1969, Delaware National Guard troops were ordered to end their unprecedented 9-month occupation of Wilmington, Delaware's, Black neighborhoods. The troops' withdrawal marked the conclusion of the longest-lasting enforcement of modified martial law in a U.S. urban center in more than a century. The occupation had continued for many months after Wilmington mayor John Barbiarz asked Delaware's governor to call it off. The governor repeatedly explained that his refusal was based on "intelligence reports of planned violence" none of which were ever authenticated. The troops' principal responsibility had been to patrol Black neighborhoods in jeeps at night and break up any gatherings of people that they deemed to pose a potential threat. The occupation only came to an end when the new governor of Delaware (who had defeated the incumbent in an election that had focussed on the unnecessarily prolonged deployment of the National Guard) was inaugurated, and ordered its immediate end.

A Hard-Won Victory for Voting Rights 

60 YEARS AGO, on January 22, 1964 the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's voting rights campaign celebrated Freedom Day in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Here is a sample of a vivid description, taken verbatim from the Civil Rights Movement Archive. "A cold rain is falling. Fifty Blacks, mostly students plus a few adults, plus thirty of the northern clergy, picket the Forrest County courthouse. Some carry signs with SNCC's new slogan, 'One Man One Vote.' Close to 100 Black adults are lined up at the building to register, their numbers dwarfing all previous attempts. A phalanx of cops and volunteer "auxiliary police" (possemen) in helmets and rain slickers, guns on their hips, clubs in their hands, march down the middle of Main Street towards the protesters. Using a bullhorn, they issue their order: 'This is the Hattiesburg Police Department. We're ordering you to disperse. Clear the sidewalk!' The pickets hold the line. No one leaves. The cops threaten again. The pickets hold. SNCC leader Bob Moses is arrested for "Disturbing the Peace" when he tries to escort an elderly Black women into the courthouse to register. But none of the pickets are arrested. For the first time in living memory, an inter-racial civil rights demonstration in Mississippi is not suppressed. As it becomes clear there won't be a mass jailing, more people join the picket line, swelling it to over 200 who by the end of the day are massed on the courthouse steps singing freedom songs." The complete story, with photos, is here: