Deep debate cast aside for quick decisions based on ‘perception’

FILE -- The Confederate battle flag flies near the South Carolina State Capitol building in Columbia in this file framegrab.

Over the past few days it has been stated repeatedly that the Confederate flag should be removed from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds because it’s a racist symbol – no matter what its advocates claim – because “perception is reality.”

Certainly the Confederate battle flag was misappropriated in the 1950s and ‘60s by groups opposed to the Civil Rights movement. That these groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council, also made ample use of the Stars and Stripes, seems to be of small concern to those who would like to see the Confederate flag placed in a museum.

While there’s plenty of room for debate about the role of the Confederate flag in public life, if the basis for one’s arguments includes “perception is reality,” then one is starting from a position of weakness.

History has shown that the idea that perception can be both erroneous and damaging.

Black Codes and Jim Crow laws were enforced in part because blacks were perceived by many as being inferior to whites. Most ex-slaves, thanks to law and/or custom, had never been taught to read or write. They were therefore perceived as being less intelligent than whites, even though the playing field was never close to being level.

This perception continues to hold currency even today among some, who mistakenly believe that blacks as a group don’t have the capacity to keep pace with whites and some other ethnic groups, while overlooking the fact that in many areas where African-Americans make up a significant percentage of the population substandard schooling and a history of state indifference to education are the real culprits.

Along those same lines, blacks were perceived well into the 20th century as lacking the educational skills necessary for college. At the time of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, only about 10,000 American blacks – one in 1,000 – were college educated, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. Today, more than 4.5 million blacks hold a four-year college degree.

Consider also that blacks who volunteered or were drafted into the US military were discriminated against for many decades because of the perception that they were suited only for “heavy lifting” rather than positions that relied on brainpower.

At the outset of the Civil War, neither free blacks nor escaped slaves were allowed to enlist in the Union Army. The prevailing view among Union officers was that the black man lacked mental ability, discipline and courage, and could never be trained to fight like the white soldier. It would take the better part of two years before white military leaders, desperate for troops, consented to the use of black soldiers, enabling this error to be disproved.

Up into World War I, black troops were often given thankless tasks that white soldiers sought to avoid and racial segregation in the US military remained in place until after World War II.

During the latter conflict, the Navy assigned most who did enlist to mess duty and the Marines barred blacks entirely until 1942. The military as a whole held to the “perception” that blacks weren’t as good at “soldiering” as whites.

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Hard times hit South Carolina long before the Great Depression

black sharecroppers sc

The Great Depression is rightly regarded as the most tumultuous time, economically speaking, in US history.

But for South Carolinians, the downturn brought on by the 1929 stock market crash was simply a continuation of hard times that began shortly after the end of World War I nearly a decade earlier.

The state, hardly more economically diversified in 1920 than it had been in 1860, was still largely dependent on agriculture, and cotton was still the predominant crop.

Beginning in 1920, the state’s cotton industry was hit first by the loss of overseas markets and overproduction, then by the boll weevil and drought. Between 1920 and 1922, cotton production in the state dropped by more than two-thirds, according to Walter Edgar in South Carolina: A History.

Cotton prices plummeted from 38 cents a pound in 1919 to 17 cents a pound a year later and to less than 5 cents a pound by 1932, and by the early 1930s many South Carolinians found themselves destitute, both hungry and out of work.

No one was worse off during this period then the rural poor. Sharecroppers, forced to focus on the crop in the field, which held their only hope for any return on investment, had little time or money to raise food for themselves such as vegetables, cows, hogs or chickens.

“With such a meager diet, poor in nutrients and vitamins, malnutrition and disease ran rampant among the rural poor,” according to the book South Carolina and the New Deal.

“’New’ clothes were most often fashioned out of old clothes or flour or feed sacks,” wrote author Jack Irby Hayes Jr. “Children dropped out of school to look for work, because they did not have clothes to wear or were so malnourished or sick they were unable to attend.

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Happy New Year; the blessings of being alive in today’s world

German_soldiers_in_a_railroad_car_on_the_way_to_the_front_during_early_World_War_I,_taken_in_1914__Taken_from_greatwar_nl_site

To those crusaders of the keyboard who take the time to visit this site – whether by chance or on purpose (Hi, Mom!) – we here at the Cotton Boll Conspiracy would like to wish you a Happy New Year.

Regular readers – all six of you – may have noted this blog’s fascination with history. As much as today’s media would like us to stay glued to our television sets, Twitter feeds, and anything else through which they can pour out bad news or, more often, dress up mediocre news so that it looks really, really scary and thereby keeps us in a fear-induced trance, the world today is perhaps safer than it’s ever been.

No, it’s not perfectly safe and never will be. Anyone who expects that is a fool.

However, consider what was going on 100 years ago today, on Jan. 1, 1915:

Most of the world’s great powers were a few months into what would become one of the worst wars in history.

At this point a century ago, more than a million men had already died in what would eventually be known as World War I, and another 10 million or so would lose their lives before the fighting ended in November 1918.

However, even with the end of the Great War, other conflicts spurred by WWI would continue across Eastern Europe into the 1920s, costing millions more lives.

World War I also magnified one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history, the 1918 flu pandemic that claimed between 50 million and 100 million lives worldwide.

It sparked the Bolshevik Revolution, which led to the rise of Lenin and Stalin, and claimed tens of millions of more lives, not to mention decades of misery for hundreds of millions.

It led to the rise of Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, the subsequent collapse of the League of Nations and the rise of the Axis Powers. That brought World War II, the Holocaust, atomic warfare, the deaths of somewhere between 60 million and 70 million individuals, and the onset of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain.

And those are just the high points.

We’d all do well to head to the local library once in a while, check out a roll of microfilm from a 70 or 100 years ago, and see what real crises looked like.

Are there problems today? Yes. Are they anywhere near what the world face 100 years ago? No, thank goodness.

So get out there and enjoy a wonderful 2015. And thanks for stopping by.

(Top: German soldiers on the way to the front in the late summer of 1914. Many of these men would be dead by Jan. 1, 1915, and few survived World War I.)

Insanity of World War I summed up in conflict’s final hours

Saint Symphorien Cemetery

Today is recognized as Veterans Day in the United States. Decades ago, it was known as Armistice Day, in remembrance of the end of World War I on Nov. 11, 1918.

Given the inane nature of the First World War, it’s not surprising that fully 11,000 men were killed or wounded during the final few hours of fighting on the last day, even though it was known by nearly all in positions of command that the war would, at a minimum, be suspended at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11.

Germany, after four-plus years of fighting and being subjected to a naval blockade that left it on the brink of starvation, was in chaos and nearing internal collapse. Following days of intense negotiations with the Allies just outside of Compiegne, France, the German government had ordered its representatives to sign any terms put on the table by the Allies.

The armistice was signed shortly after 5 a.m. on Nov. 11, but the actual ceasefire would not start until 11 a.m., to allow word of the agreement to travel throughout the Western Front.

“Technology allowed the news to go to capital cities by 5:40 a.m. and celebrations began before very many soldiers knew about the Armistice,” according to the History Learning Site webpage. “In London, Big Ben was rung for the first time since the start of the war in August 1914. In Paris, gas lamps were lit for the first time in four years. But on the Western Front, many tens of thousands of soldiers assumed that it was just another day in the war and officers ordered their men into combat.”

But it wasn’t mere accident that the lives of thousands of men were forfeit on the morning of Nov. 11. Many generals actually ordered their troops to fight on, even knowing the war was likely over.

Some hoped to secure additional ground in case the ceasefire didn’t hold, while others, such as American Gen. John Pershing, wanted to further punish the enemy.

Callously, a number of artillery units ordered barrages that morning for no other reason than to avoid having to haul crates of unused ordnance back to the rear once the guns were silent

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Australian searchers may have located long-lost submarine

ae1-submarine

The latest effort to locate the Australian submarine HMAS AE1, lost 100 years ago this month, have proved tantalizing but inconclusive so far.

Earlier this month an Australian navy vessel searching for the submarine, which went missing Sept. 14, 1914, with 35 men on board, reported “a contact of interest” in the Papua New Guinea search area.

The loss of the AE1 in the opening weeks of World War I took place after the Australian fleet sailed to New Guinea to capture the Germany colony on Britain’s behalf. The objective was to take out telegraph stations providing key communications for the German Pacific Fleet, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

“We need to get more detailed analysis. That is what we are doing at the moment,” according to a source with the Australian defense department. “Different sources, not only military, need to see if it fits the submarine’s profile. We have found items here before.

“If you look on the chart it is one of the most wreck-strewn areas in the region.”

The AE1 was the first submarine to serve in the Royal Australian Navy and was lost after less than seven months in service.

The disappearance was Australia’s first major loss of World War I.

Military historian and author Dr. Kathryn Spurling told Fairfax Media she believed the submarine stumbled across a hidden German boat.

“It didn’t even have to be an armed German boat,” she said. “The submarine was so small it would only have to be rammed by the German boat to go over topsy-turvy and it would go straight down.

“The only way the submarine could protect itself or attack the German boat was to submerge and as a submarine just goes beneath the water it is incredibly vulnerable and unstable, especially if you have a bad engine, which they did,” Spurling added. “I think that is the most logical way it was lost.”

(Top: Image showing HMAS AE1 in 1914, shortly before it set out on its final voyage.)

Spanish-American War veterans remembered in SC

US history, sadly, is replete with “forgotten wars.” American veterans of the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, World War I, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the earlier and current Middle Eastern conflicts were and have been largely ignored to one degree or another after their service.

In fact, unless one was a participant in the American Revolution, Civil War or World War II, there’s a pretty good chance one’s service went unappreciated.

Among the “less-remembered” wars in US history is the Spanish-American War, which launched the nation on its path to being an imperial power.

The 1898 conflict, in which the US soundly whipped an outmoded Spanish foe in 10 weeks, left the Americans with control of Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam, and precipitated the even lesser-known Philippine-American War, in which the US battled Filipino insurgents until 1902.

Over this past weekend, veterans of the Spanish-American War were honored in Columbia, SC, during the 78th National Convention of the Sons of Spanish-American War Veterans.

The three-day event attracted descendants of Spanish-American War veterans and other supporters of military veterans.

“The Spanish-American War is a time of reunification,” said Joe Long, curator of education at Columbia’s Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum. “And it is also a time that is horribly neglected today. If these traditions and values (of service) are going to be passed down, they are going to have to be done by us.”

Sunday’s guests included J. Wesley McBryant of Indiana, whose father served in the Spanish-American War, according to The State newspaper.

McBryant, who traveled to South Carolina with his two sons for the weekend convention, said it’s important that today’s generation not forget the services of those who fought for their freedoms, the publication added.

The Spanish-American War grew out a conflict in 1898 between Spain and the United States following the Cuban War of Independence (1895-98).

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The three Canadian heroes who hailed from a single street

During the past century and a half, fewer than 100 Canadian soldiers have earned the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration awarded to members of that country’s military. Of those, the vast majority, 71, earned the award for action during World War I.

Amazingly, three recipients lived on the same street in the city of Winnipeg.

Cpl. Leo Beaumaurice Clarke, Sgt.-Major Frederick William Hall and Lt. Robert Shankland were separately awarded the Victoria Cross for acts of valor, or “valour.” as our Canadian friends spell it, during World War I, which Canada entered 100 years ago this month.

The three men all lived on Pine Street in Winnipeg, which was renamed Valour Road in the 1920s to honor the trio. The name reflects the inscription on the Victoria Cross: “For Valour.”

The medals, now the property of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, have been loaned to the Manitoba Museum, which is commemorating the beginning of the Great War with a display of the three medals. This marks the first time all three Victoria Crosses have appeared together in Winnipeg, according to Global News.

The Victoria Cross is the highest military decoration awarded to members of the armed forces of various Commonwealth countries and previous British Empire territories.

Clarke and Hall died during the war, while Shankland survived. In all, 30 of Canada’s 71 World War I Victoria Cross recipients died during the 1914-18 conflict, which claimed the lives of approximately 67,000 Canadian soldiers, or nearly 1 percent of the nation’s population.

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