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This Week in People’s History, June 25–July 2

A Successful Experiment (1959), Boycotts Can Work (1959), Hospital Workers Win Big (1969), Malcolm X’s Last Stand (1964), Brilliance Gets Shafted (1954), Throwing Shade on Racism (1989), Hit the Road, Dictator (1944), Nazis Deadly Discipline (1934)

The album cover of Time Out by the Dave Brubeck Quartet

A Very Successful Musical Experiment

65 YEARS AGO, on June 25, 1959, the Dave Brubeck Quartet (Brubek on piano, Paul Desmond on saxophone, Joe Morello on drums and Eugene Wright on bass) gathered in Manhattan to hold the first of three sessions to record Time Out for Columbia. The album was very unusual because almost all of its music was in time signatures such as 9/8 and 5/4 that were almost never used in jazz. When the album was released six months later, it proved to be both very influential and enormously popular.


Boycott Repression, Change the World 

65 YEARS AGO, on June 26, 1959, the political movement known as the British Boycott Movement, was first organized at a meeting in London to bring an end to the virulently racist apartheid government of South Africa. The citizens of the U.K.felt a special responsibility toward the population of South Africa because South Africa had been a British colony and was still a member of the British Commonwealth. More than 30 years after the British Boycott Movement was founded, it achieved its main objective which was to help bring an end to South Africa’s apartheid regime. The end of apartheid was primarily caused by the brave actions of the citizens of South Africa, but anti-apartheid South Africans acknowledge that the Boycott Movement played a significant supporting role in bringing apartheid to an end.…

A Historic Win for Hospital Workers

55 YEARS AGO, on June 27, 1969, a bitter and sometimes violent 14-week hospital-workers strike in Charleston, South Carolina, came to a victorious conclusion. 

The strike had been triggered when management fired 12 leaders of the newly organized hospital workers union because the union had demanded that management meet with them. In addition to their leaders' reinstatement, the 400 strikers demanded that management recognize the union and agree to establish a formal grievance procedure. 

The strikers were almost all African-American women employed as laundry workers, kitchen helpers, nurse's aides, licensed practical nurses, maids and orderlies. The strike pitted the workers -- who had the support of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the NAACP and CORE, as well as the AFL-CIO -- against Charleston's racist power structure. 

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In an effort to break the strike and prevent picketing, the governor of South Carolina declared a state of emergency, ordered more than a thousand state troopers and bayonet-wielding National Guardsmen to Charleston, and imposed a 9 pm to 5 am curfew. Hundreds of strikers and their supporters were arrested on the picket line. In reaction to the governor’s heavy-handed response, the strike attracted massive support within South Carolina and throughout the South, as was demonstrated by two mass marches, one of which, on May 11, had 10,000 participants.

The union declared victory when management agreed to a modest pay increase, to rehire the fired union leaders and to establish a grievance procedure that mandated the union's participation. The events leading up up to the strike’s success is are movingly reported in Madeline Anderson’s 30-minute documentary, “I Am Somebody,” which can been see here:

Malcolm X’s Last Campaign for Justice

60 YEARS AGO, on June 28, 1964, Malcolm X announced the formation of the Organization of Afro-American Unity during a speech in Manhattan. The purpose of the OAAU, Malcolm said, was to fight for the human rights of African Americans and promote cooperation among Africans and people of African descent in the Americas. The OAAU's program called for the adoption of educational methods to "liberate the minds of our children"; for Afro-Americans to exercise economic and political freedom and use that freedom to establish strong links to "the newly independent nations of Africa." The program also advocated Afro-American self-defense: "We encourage the Afro-Americans to defend themselves against the wanton attacks of the racist aggressors whose sole aim is to deny us the guarantee of the United Nations Charter of Human Rights and of the Constitution of the United States." 

At the time of its founding, OAAU had great promise; in addition to the charismatic Malcolm X, its organizers included the renowned Pan-Africanist scholar John Henrik Clarke, who was then the head of the Black and Puerto Rican studies program at Hunter College, the minister and Black Christian National Movement leader Albert Cleage, New York City community organizer and politician Jesse Gray and militant civil right movement leader Gloria Richardson. Less than a week after OAAU was established, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover made the secret determination that it was a threat to the national security of the U.S. Sadly and perhaps not coincidentally, Malcolm X was assassinated less than nine months later.

“Imprudent” Brilliance Gets Shafted 

70 YEARS AGO, on June 29, 1954, by a 4-1 vote, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission revoked the security clearance of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant atomic physicist who had been the scientific leader of the Manhattan Project, which invented and then built the first atomic bomb. Without a security clearance, Oppenheimer could play no future role in any weapons-related project. When the Commission revoked Oppenheimer’s clearance, it claimed it did so because Oppenheimer had “fundamental defects of character,” which resulted in his having associations with Communists that went “far beyond the tolerable limits of prudence and self-restraint which are to be expected of one holding the high positions" he had held since 1942. After Oppenheimer died in 1966, the only AEC member who had voted against revoking his clearance eulogized him with these words: "Such a wrong can never be righted; such a blot on our history never erased."…

Cast a Cold Eye on Racist Bigotry

35 YEARS AGO, on June 30, 1989, the enormously successful anti-racist comedy-drama, Do the Right Thing, written and directed by Spike Lee, featuring Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, was released in the U.S. The film was such an outstanding critical success that its not being nominated for the Best Picture Oscar resulted in an outpouring of criticism directed at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. According to the website “Rotten Tomatoes,” Do the Right Thing remains “one of the most important films of the 1980s.”…


Showing a Dictator the Door

80 YEARS AGO, on July 1, 1944, Jorge Ubico, who had been dictator of Guatemala since 1931, who admired Hitler and who was hated by the vast majority of Guatemala’s population, was forced to resign his office by a anti-fascist military junta. The generals who forced Ubico out of office then made it possible for Guatemala to hold the first truly free presidential election in its history. The election brought a social-democratic government to power – at the time the most progressive government in the western hemisphere – which remained in power for 10 years during which the standard of living of Guatemalans improved enormously, free education was made available for the first time, and the large indigenous population was treated with respect. Thanks to the junta that overthrew Ubico in 1944, Guatemala enjoyed a decade of peace, prosperity and democracy. Then, in June 1954, the CIA overthrew Guatemala’s elected government and replaced it with a dictatorial regime that returned the country to the conditions it had suffered under when Ubico was in power.…


Nazis Enforce Discipline with Death

90 YEARS AGO, on July 2, 1934, the three brutal days of Nazi bloodletting known to history as the Night of the Long Knives came to an end. 

In a burst of unprecedented violence, the Nazi party had just purged itself of some party members and other fascists who were considered by Hitler and his inner circle to be unreliable allies in Hitler’s plan to make the thousand-year Reich a reality. The number of people who were purged by murder was carefully concealed by the killers and will probably never be known.  It was at the very least one hundred, and is reliably estimated to have been as many as a thousand. Thousands more were arrested and terrorized until they were released, but afraid to criticize Hitler and his policies. 

The Nazis did not attempt to conceal the purge, but claimed falsely it was being conducted in response to a supposed coup attempt by dissident fascists. At the time the ruse was almost completely successful; for the mst part the media, including the foreign media followed the lead of the New York Times, which reported "Chancellor Hitler was calm as he went about the business of crushing what seemed here [in Munich] like an incipient rebellion" under the headline “HITLER CRUSHES REVOLT BY NAZI RADICALS.”