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

U.S. Torture Exposed, not Punished (in 2009), Dixie Demands “Bread or Blood!” (1864), Wasn’t That a Time? (1959), Justice Delayed Isn’t Justice (1989), An Unforgettable Song (1939), Why the U.S. Lost in Vietnam (1969), How the U.S. Was Built (1889)

A drawing of "Justice" being tortured
Courtesy of American Civil Liberties Union

U.S. Torture Plans Exposed, but not Punished

15 YEARS AGO, on April 16, 2009, the 3-month-old Obama administration made the first public release of redacted versions of the blood-curdling memos written in 2002 by the so-called Department of Justice in an effort to create the fiction that it was legal to use torture to interrogate suspected terrorists. 

The Torture Memos proved one thing: that a staff of clever and unprincipled attorneys is capable of using double-talk to produce a written justification for any action, no matter how illegal it might be in fact. And -- when the political wind is blowing in the right direction -- not only get away with it but be rewarded with a lifetime appointment as a federal judge.

The Obama Justice Department's refusal to consider prosecuting any of the authors of the Torture Memos, or to even to ask the state bar associations with jurisdiction over the authors (all or who were practicing lawyers) to investigate them for what even the Justice Department concluded had been gross professional misconduct (which would have put the authors in danger of disbarment), remains a blot on the Obama administration's human rights record to this day.

Savannah Citizens Demand “Bread or Blood!”

160 YEARS AGO, on April 17, 1864, in Savannah, Georgia, a large crowd, most of whom were women – many of them armed – marched through the city streets crying “bread or blood!” and forcefully expropriating food wherever it could be found.

During 1863-65, at least scores of similar “bread riots,” occurred in cities throughout the Confederate states. Records of such events are far from complete, but it is clear that there was widespread hunger in many Southern cities as a result of both inadequate food production and of the U.S. Navy’s blockade of the Confederacy’s ports.

To what extent such militant displays of dissent were purely the result of lack of food and not more broad-based opposition to secession will never be known, but it is safe to say that a very substantial number of citizens of the South’s larger cities were antagonistic to slavery and the war being fought to preserve it. Many landless Southern city-dwellers believed that secession could only benefit the owners of land and enslaved people. 

Similar episodes of anti-confederate civil unrest took place in Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus, Macon, and Milledgeville (all in Georgia), as well as Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia, Salisbury and High Point, North Carolina, and Mobile, Alabama.

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Wasn’t That a Time? 

65 YEARS AGO, on April 18, 1959, an 11-week strike by 14,000 United Auto Workers members in seven states came to an end when the union won most of what it was demanding from the employer, Allis-Chalmers, one of the country’s largest machinery manufacturers. The new contract included a substantial wage increase, additions to the company contributions to pension and supplemental unemployment benefits, and increased health and accident insurance benefits. 

The strike, and the way it ended in a clear union victory, was not headline news, because in 1959 there was nothing unusual about a victory by the striking workers at a major national employer. How times have changed.…

Justice Delayed is Justice Denied

45 YEARS AGO, on April 19, 1989, five New York City teenagers under the age of 17, who were guilty of nothing except being Black, were arrested and accused of having raped and nearly killed a Central Park jogger. The fact that the five were both in fact innocent and also as entitled as anyone to the presumption of innocence did not prevent the police from beating confessions out of them, and then using the “confessions” to convict them. 

In 2002, another person confessed to having raped and beaten the jogger single-handedly. His confession was backed up by DNA and other crime-scene evidence. By that time each of the innocent convicts had served their time, so their freedom was not at issue.  But they sought, and obtained, more than $40 million to compensate them for their victimization.

An Unforgettable Song about the Unspeakable

85 YEARS AGO, on April 20, 1939, blues singer Billie Holiday made the first recording of Strange Fruit, an unforgettably poignant protest against lynching, with words and music composed by Abel Meeropol in 1937. 

This is the haunting lyric:

“Southern trees bearing a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is a fruit for the crow to pluck
For the rain to wither, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop."

That recording sold more than one million copies, the best selling release in Holiday’s long career. You can hear a 1959 performance by Holiday here:

One of the Reasons the U.S. Lost in Vietnam

55 YEARS AGO, on April 21, 1969, one of the first well-documented cases a fragging took place in South Vietnam when a fragmentation grenade was thrown into a Marine Corps office at Quảng Trị Combat Base, killing a Marine First Lieutenant; after an investigation a Marine Private pleaded guilty to premeditated murder and was sentenced to 40 years' imprisonment. 

During the latter years of the U.S. military occupation of South Vietnam, breakdown of military discipline was widespread; from 1969 to 1972, there were at least 900 fragging assaults resulting in at least 99 fatalities. During 1971, the last full calendar year of the war, fraggings took place at the rate of one per day. The arrest and conviction of the perpetrators of fragging was quite rare, because it was so difficult for military authorities to identify them. Only 10 fraggers were convicted of murder.…

The Way America Was Built

135 YEARS AGO, on April 22, 1889, a new chapter in the genocidal behavior of North America’s white settler regime began to unfold when an estimated 50,000 people simultaneously invaded a 2 million-acre swath of what is now central Oklahoma and took over land that had been solemnly deeded by the U.S. government to Native Americans less than six decades earlier. Each homesteader had the right to stake a claim on a 160-acre plot; by the end of the day, nearly all of the available 2 million acres had been claimed. Most of the Native Americans whose territory was overrun received no compensation for their losses.