This Week in People’s History, July 10–16
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Cartoon about management's bad attitude toward job safety

‘No Job Is Worth Dying For’

50 YEARS AGO, on July 10, 1974, a foreman told two maintenance workers at a Whirlpool appliance plant in Marion, Ohio, to stand on a wire mesh screen while they worked twenty feet above the factory floor. The men knew from experience that the screen might support a person’s weight, but it was not designed to do so.  In fact, they knew (as did the foreman) that just two weeks earlier another maintenance worker had stood on the same kind of screen, fell through it, and was killed by the fall. 

The workers told the foreman why they were reluctant to stand on the screen.  One of them said, “No job is worth dying for.” The foreman said, if you don’t do what I say, you must clock out and leave the premises (which would cost each of them six hours pay). They clocked out.

Then the foreman added an official reprimand to each worker’s personnel file. Fortunately, the workers were both union members with a contract, which prevented Whirlpool from firing them for “insubordination.”

The workers contacted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which sent a compliance officer. After inspecting the screen, OSHA determined the workers had been within their rights to refuse to follow the foreman’s order. The Labor Department (which has oversight of OSHA) asked a federal judge to enjoin Whirlpool from disciplining workers for refusing to follow potentially deadly orders and to order Whirlpool to withdraw the reprimands, which were illegal according to the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

Whirlpool refused to follow the judge’s order. Six years later, the case reached the Supreme Court, which agreed with OSHA. As a result, every worker in the U.S. has the legal right to refuse to follow a supervisor’s direction to do something that could result in foreseeable injury or death.

Two Big Nights for Folk Music

65 YEARS AGO, on July 11, 1959, it was doors-open at the very first Newport Folk Festival. Headliners included Oscar Brand, Barbara Dane, Bob Gibson, The Kingston Trio, the New Lost City Ramblers, John Jacob Niles, Odetta, Earl Scruggs, Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee plus the surprise debut of 18-year-old Joan Baez. All of them, plus many more, over just two nights plus one afternoon! You can listen to 40 minutes of it here:

How Long Can a Stone Roll?

62 YEARS AGO, on July 12, 1962, The Rolling Stones played their first show at the Marquee Club in London. More than 61 years later, the group released their 24th studio album. Two of the founding members, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, will be celebrating their 81st birthdays later this year.

'The Hate That Hate Produced'

65 YEARS AGO, on July 13, 1959, the three national television networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) lost many of their regular viewers who were watching a syndicated program produced by a little-known outfit called National Telefilm Associates. The half-hour documentary, anchored by Mike Wallace with the invaluable assistance of Louis Lomax, which was titled “The Hate That Hate Produced,” was the first of five daily episodes all about The Nation of Islam that devoted a lot of time to interviews with Malcolm X.

The program began Wallace’s narration: “While city officials, state agencies, white liberals, and sober-minded Negroes stand idly by, a group of Negro dissenters is taking to street-corner step ladders, church pulpits, sports arenas, and ballroom platforms across the United States, to preach a gospel of hate that would set off a federal investigation if it were preached by Southern whites.”

The cameras cut to a scene of Louis X (later known as Louis Farrakhan) indicting "the white man" for his crimes:

“I charge the white man with being the greatest liar on Earth! I charge the white man with being the greatest drunkard on Earth.... I charge the white man with being the greatest gambler on Earth. I charge the white man, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, with being the greatest murderer on Earth. I charge the white man with being the greatest peace-breaker on Earth.... I charge the white man with being the greatest robber on Earth. I charge the white man with being the greatest deceiver on Earth. I charge the white man with being the greatest trouble-maker on Earth. So therefore, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I ask you, bring back a verdict of guilty as charged!”

Wallace returned to tell the audience: “The indictment you've just heard is being delivered over and over again in most of the major cities across the country. This charge comes at the climax of a morality play called The Trial. The plot, indeed the message of the play, is that the white man has been put on trial for his sins against the Black man. He has been found guilty. The sentence is death. The play is sponsored, produced, by a Negro religious group who call themselves The Muslims."

“The Hate That Hate Produced” was an overnight sensation, largely because the Nation of Islam was almost totally unknown outside the Black community and was far from being familiar to many African-Americans. It was immediately the focus of widespread reporting both print and electronic. With each daily episode, the program’s Nielson ratings climbed higher.  When it was over, all the attention led the producers to repeat all five episodes on the night of July 22. 

The Nation of Islam’s leadership wasn’t happy (for good reason) about the way Wallace presented their message, but like it or not, the show provided them with a national reputation (and a membership boost) unlike anything they had experienced until then. You could watch it yourself here:

Long Live the 14th of July!

235 YEARS AGO, on July 14, 1789, the French people’s progress in overthrowing Louis XVI and everything he represented passed an unforgettable milestone when insurgents seized control of the Bastille, a medieval armory in the center of Paris that was being used as a prison.

Storming the Bastille, killing its commander and releasing his seven prisoners was a largely symbolic act, but it made clear to all that the king’s power was rapidly diminishing. The king had already given in to the demand that he allow the first meeting of an elected constituent assembly, which immediately started to take over part of the king’s authority, but another two years would pass before the king would be forced to accept a revolutionary constitution.…

No Nukes in Africa!

15 YEARS AGO, on July 15, 2009, the Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone of Africa came into existence. It was established by the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty when the treaty was ratified by 28 states, as treaty requires. The treaty has since been ratified by another 16 countries. The Treaty prohibits the research, development, manufacture, stockpiling, acquisition, testing, possession, control or stationing of nuclear explosive devices in the territory of the treaty parties. The African nuke-free treaty is one of nine similar treaties that apply to a total of 116 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific,  Southeast Asia, Central Asia and Mongolia, as well as to the ocean seabed and to outer space.

A Freedom-Rider Long Before Her Time

170 YEARS AGO, on July 16, 1854, Elizabeth Jennings, the organist at the First Colored Congregational Church in New York City struck a heavy blow against racism. 

At the time, New York City public transportation was segregated not by law, but by the whim of the streetcar companies. Some companies ran cars for African-Americans only, some ran cars with segregated seating, some required African-Americans to ride on the outside of the cars. Some companies allowed African-Americans to ride if no other passengers objected. 

On this day, Elizabeth Jennings was in a hurry because she was afraid she was going to miss the beginning of a church service that needed her work as a musician. 

She took a chance and boarded a streetcar, but a passenger objected. When the conductor told her to get off, she demanded to know why. The conductor told her the car was full, which was obviously not true.  When she stayed on board, the conductor tried unsuccessfully to eject her by force. Eventually a policeman intervened and removed Jennings from the car.  

The ugly incident inspired an organized movement to end streetcar segregation which received the immediate support of Frederick Douglass, who was then the owner and editor of Frederick Douglass’ Paper. The Jennings family sued the streetcar company for damages and won. The judge ruled that streetcars were common carriers, and as such bound to carry all comers. The ruling was not binding on other streetcar companies, so disputes over streetcar segregation continued until the state legislature passed the Civil Rights Act of 1873 which finally abolished transit segregation throughout the state.

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