Pushing the Klan Aside in Mississippi: My Memory of Alfred Skip Robinson

—Akinyele Umoja

SKIP ROBINSON; PHOTO BY JIM ALEXANDER

Alfred “Skip” Robinson is one of the most dynamic and charismatic individuals I have ever met. I first heard of Skip after a national demonstration in Tupelo, Mississippi in November of 1978. Several of my comrades in the Black Liberation Movement attended a demonstration and rally organized by Skip and the United League of Mississippi (UL) to support their boycott of the commercial district in Tupelo to challenge police misconduct and economic inequality in Tupelo. At that time the UL under Skip’s leadership had organized a series of boycotts in Mississippi to challenge white supremacy and institutionalized racism.

UNITED LEAGUE T-SHIRT; PHOTO BY JIM ALEXANDER

The UL was probably the most dynamic movement in the Black freedom struggle during the late 1970s. The Black Panthers, SNCC, Republic of New Africa, Us Organization, and other Black Power organizations had been severely crippled by the U.S. government’s COINTEPRO program and other repressive campaigns, as well as by the movement’s own internal conflicts and challenges. Several key activists of the movement had been incarcerated, exiled, even assassinated due to government repression. The oldest Black Civil Rights group, the NAACP, also suffered a decline after being defeated in a U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit. The Reagan Administration began to dismantle some of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. The late 1970s also witnessed a resurgence of the KKK.

Skip, the UL, and their efforts in Mississippi represented a beacon of hope to the Black freedom struggle of the 1970s. Their boycotts in northern Mississippi towns of Byhalia, Holly Springs, Tupelo, and Okolona stood as effective resistance in a time when social justice fights were in survival mode. The UL’s armed presence and the bold oratory of Skip Robinson, and its other spokespersons Dr. Howard Gunn and Attorney Lewis Myers, was a statement that Mississippi Blacks were not defeated and intimidated by the Klan and other white terrorists. The fact that Robinson and Gunn were still standing unscathed after gun battles with Klansmen was not lost on observers of the UL movement.The UL was probably the most dynamic movement in the Black freedom struggle during the late 1970s. The Black Panthers, SNCC, Republic of New Africa, Us Organization, and other Black Power organizations had been severely crippled by the U.S. government’s COINTEPRO program and other repressive campaigns, as well as by the movement’s own internal conflicts and challenges. Several key activists of the movement had been incarcerated, exiled, even assassinated due to government repression. The oldest Black Civil Rights group, the NAACP, also suffered a decline after being defeated in a U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit. The Reagan Administration began to dismantle some of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement. The late 1970s also witnessed a resurgence of the KKK.

LEW MEYERS (CENTER); PHOTO BY JIM ALEXANDER

I decided to visit Northern Mississippi to witness the UL for myself in August of 1979. Skip had been appointed the Chairman of the Democratic Party in Marshall County, Mississippi. Marshall County was a Black majority county, Skip’s birthplace and home, and the headquarters of the UL. There was a primary election going on the day I arrived in Holly Springs, the seat of Marshall County. I was told this would be the first election in the county’s history that Black people participated as officials at the polls. Prior to the late 1970s, the white minority stole elections by white folks voting multiple times and the ballots of dead people being counted. Intimidation was also used to keep the Black majority from the polls. This would be the county’s first, free and fair election. My host was UL organizer Jim Agnew. Brother Agnew and I arrived in Holly Springs early that morning before the polls opened. We approached Skip on the street arguing with a police officer. The officer arrested Skip for disorderly conduct. Everyone figured Skip was arrested to disrupt Black voter mobilization and scare Black people from coming to the polls. I also witnessed groups of white men standing in a belligerent and menacing manner near the polling place to intimidate Blacks.

KKK AT TUPELO POLICE STATION, 1978; PHOTO BY JIM ALEXANDER

Skip was released from jail right before the polls closed. I escorted Skip to the UL office, which was near the Northern Mississippi Legal Services located right in the main county square. While I stood next to Skip, his primary security guard, a young man probably in his late 20s, came down the stairs of the Legal Services office. The bodyguard said he needed to go home and check on his family. He wanted Skip to come upstairs, outside of public view, so he could give him back the .357 magnum handgun the bodyguard carried concealed for the UL leader’s protection. It was probably the same gun Skip wore stuck in his pants during California speaking engagements. Standing on the street of the north side of the main square of Holly Springs, Skip boldly said “Give it to me right here (on the street). I want them (the White supremacists) to know I have a gun!” The young man hesitantly passed Skip the handgun right there on the street. I was humbled when Skip later asked me to draft his press statement detailing his arrest. I was honored to be of the assistance of this impressive leader.

robinson

I had the pleasure and opportunity to write about Skip and the UL in the book We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (NYU Press, 2013). In fact, had I not met Skip Robinson, the book may have not been written. I grew up during the Civil Rights and Black Power movement in Los Angeles, California. Most of my generation in northern urban centers had no idea that armed Black men, women, and youth defended the community and themselves in human rights battles in the South. Our only image of Black resistance in the South was the nonviolent movement, which many of us could not relate to. Other than the nonviolent movement, the major response we saw of southern Black folks was being in fear and intimidation to white terror. Skip Robinson and the UL provided me a living example and played a major role in destroying the stereotype of an exclusively “nonviolent” southern Black freedom movement in my mind. Skip Robinson and the UL provided an inspiration to write and tell our story. More must be done to reconstruct and illuminate the story of Skip Robinson and the United League. More must be done to recognize and remember his contribution to challenge injustice and improve the lives of his people. It is an inspiring, uplifting saga and a story of courage and commitment to social justice that changed Mississippi and inspired others like me to keep on pushing.

Akinyele Omowale Umoja is Professor and Chair of the Department of African-American studies at Georgia State University, where he teaches courses on the history of the civil rights and Black Power movements and other social movements. He has been a community activist for over 40 years. He is the author of We Will Shoot Back: Armed Resistance in the Mississippi Freedom Movement (NYU Press, 2013).

[This piece originally appeared on wpconvo.com, the website of the play Byhalia, Mississippi.]

 

Dissent and the 2016 Election

—Ralph Young

There have been many times of crisis throughout American history when some citizens completely lose faith in the political process. Invariably such times lead to a rise of uncompromising radicals on the fringes of the body politic who eschew compromise in favor of a fundamental overhaul of what they see as a defunct system. One thinks of the Know-Nothings in the 1850s desperately fighting to stem the tide of Irish immigration which they feared would destroy the Protestant fabric of this nation, or the Populist Party of the 1890s who believed neither of the major parties were willing to address their grievances, or the rise of radical demagogues on both right and left during the Great Depression when it seemed to many that capitalism itself had failed, or was at best on the ropes, who denounced everything from the New Deal to Wall Street, from big business to communism. Some hated Franklin Delano Roosevelt; some hated the “economic royalists.”

What we are experiencing in the second decade of the twenty-first century is a replay of this historical phenomenon. As we approach the 2016 election there are those on the right who deplore what they see as creeping European style socialism on the part of a government that has abandoned laissez faire capitalism in favor of regulatory control over business and finance, a government that has abandoned the rugged individualism that they believe (falsely) made this country great. And on the left we see progressives who are highly distraught that the Democratic Party has turned its back on democracy and dances to the tune of business interests just as much as the Republicans. Thus we have outsiders challenging the establishment, on both right and left, who, believing that bipartisanship and compromise is weakness, are tapping into a vein of deep-seated discontent. Many Americans are obsessed by a nagging fear that the United States is in decline and will soon lose its special place in the world. And this helps explain the unexpected popularity in the primary season of Donald Trump and Ben Carson on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left.

Registered Republicans want anyone, even candidates as unqualified as Trump and Carson, who will oppose the Washington establishment, they want an outsider, a novitiate in politics, precisely because they are not politicians, in fact are completely ignorant of how politics works. And large numbers of Democrats, fed up with the coziness of Democratic politicians with Wall Street and believing that the United States is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy, are turning to socialist Bernie Sanders as the only hope to return the United States to its democratic roots. “Isn’t it strange,” Sanders’ forerunner and hero Eugene V. Debs said during his trial for sedition in 1918, “that we Socialists stand almost alone today in upholding and defending the Constitution of the United States?” Sanders is taking up Debs’s message and it resonates deeply with his supporters. Whether they are outsiders, or demagogues, or opponents of business as usual, hardnosed individuals from Huey Long to George Wallace, Father Coughlin to Donald Trump, all appeal to the populist impulse. And all are as American as Apple Pie.

Ralph Young is Professor of History at Temple University. He is the author of Dissent in America: The Voices That Shaped a Nation, a compilation of primary documents of 400 years of American dissenters, and Dissent: The History of an American Idea (NYU Press, 2015).

Decades of Xenophobia Shape US Response to Syrian Refugees

[This piece originally appeared in Truthout.]

—Richard Baldoz & Shelley Sang-Hee Lee

Current debates surrounding President Obama’s plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016 have revealed deep political fissures in the United States. Until recently, criticism focused on the Obama administration’s doing too little to aid people fleeing the bloody civil war in Syria, but Republican leaders have now seized on the terror attacks in France, while stoking anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, to oppose refugee resettlement on national security grounds.

While the White House and its allies dismiss their opponents’ position as xenophobic and un-American, this line of argument is also simplistic, as our history with refugees is an ambivalent one. Over the past century, the prospect of settling refugees has tested Americans’ self-avowed benevolence, underscoring our conflicted attitudes about newcomers and raising inconvenient questions about the extension of US power abroad.

As migrants, refugees are distinct. They are a displaced people escaping danger who, unlike conventional immigrants, have not voluntarily left their homes for reasons like family reunification or economic opportunity. While in the abstract, humanitarian concern for refugees is a broadly agreed upon principle, we have been tentative when it comes to admitting living, breathing people. During the late 1930s, for instance, as European Jews were fleeing Nazi aggression, two-thirds of Americans opposed increasing immigration ceilings to admit them, citing fears that Bolsheviks or German agents might slip into the country. This was also a time of international isolation, marked by economic depression and low immigration. It was not until 1944, as Americans learned more about the horrors of the Holocaust, that special provisions were made to admit Jews.

With the onset of the Cold War, anti-communism and diplomacy guided US actions on refugees and revealed the selective application of humanitarian compassion. For much of the second half of the 20th century, policies allowing refugees’ entry were implemented in an ad hoc fashion and usually only applied to people fleeing communist regimes. For example, the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 prompted the admission of tens of thousands of Hungarians, and Cuba’s socialist revolution of 1959 led to the United States accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees from that country. In these cases federal officials opened the doors by invoking emergency powers, despite most Americans’ opposition due to concerns about potential communist infiltrators and other “undesirables.” By contrast, during the 1980s, Haitians fleeing the dictatorial but US-backed Duvalier regime were repeatedly denied asylum or refugee status on the grounds that they were economic migrants whose human rights had not been violated.

After the Vietnam War, Americans hesitated to admit Southeast Asian refugees, due in part to a legacy of anti-Asian immigration exclusion and a desire for closure from a divisive war. Because people were fleeing Communist governments, politicians acceded that the United States had a duty to admit them, and Americans’ urgency to do so deepened after learning about tragedies like the plight of “boat people” and the “killing fields” of Cambodia.

Ideological commitments and moral compassion aside, the United States’ obligations also stemmed from a history of interventions in Indochina going back to the 1950s. Determined to contain communism, it committed troops to fighting in Vietnam from 1965 to 1973 and conducted secret bombings and military operations in Cambodia and Laos. After the communist victories in these countries in 1975, persecution and violent purges of dissidents and minorities prompted massive exoduses, a segment of which the United States admitted.

Four years later, facing pressure to accept more refugees, two-thirds of Americans opposed increases due to worries about their assimilability and the prospect that they would drain public resources. Eventually, about 1 million Southeast Asian refugees were resettled in the United States, and they have inarguably been woven into the fabric of our nation over the past 40 years despite the enormous hardships they have faced.

While the troubles in Syria seem removed by comparison, recent US actions there, as well as a long history of meddling in Middle East affairs, underscore the US role and obligations in the current crisis. Viewed one way, modeling moral leadership on the refugee issue can be an effective anti-terror strategy against ISIS propaganda that portrays the United States as an anti-Muslim nation.

The debate about admitting refugees, moreover, begs a moral and philosophical question about the consequences of US foreign intervention: If we are committed to toppling the Assad regime in Syria and defeating ISIS through proxy fighting and aerial bombings, why would we withhold refuge to those fleeing the turmoil?

We might also keep a longer history in view, because despite decades of diplomatic and military entanglements in the region – in the name of anti-communism, Israel, oil and more recently anti-terrorism – our perspective on the Syrian refugee crisis is strikingly myopic. And yet, as we witness another humanitarian catastrophe, some of our leaders raise the specter of terrorists entering the United States, glossing over the fact that refugee screening entails multiple and lengthy rounds of examination by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the United States, making entry for anyone enormously difficult. It defies reason to think individuals with terrorist aspirations would submit themselves to a multiyear vetting process that probes into every aspect of their past and present associations.

The interrelated propositions framing the debate about Syrian refugees – that we have a moral obligation to provide shelter to those facing imminent danger, and that the US bears a responsibility because of its interventions in the country and region – point to a dilemma we have confronted before. Additionally, how we treat refugees mirrors not just our mixed feelings about newcomers and the world outside, but also ignorance about the world within our borders (thus highlighting an irony of the promise of US safe harbor). In the war on terrorism, our imprecise understandings of its origins and trajectories have given rise to enemies that are creations of our own bigotries, which pervade discussions about Syrian refugees and have made scapegoats of Americans of Arab and South Asian descent.

After President Jimmy Carter signed the Refugee Act of 1980, which created a comprehensive system for processing refugee and asylum cases, he proclaimed, “[It] is the historical policy of the United States to respond to the urgent needs of persons subject to persecution in their homelands.” Although not entirely accurate, this statement echoes a challenge to which we ought to rise.

Richard Baldoz is a professor of sociology at Oberlin College. He specializes in the areas of immigration and citizenship policy and is the author of the award-winning The Third Asiatic Invasion: Empire and Migration in Filipino America (NYU Press, 2011).

Shelley Sang-Hee Lee is a professor of history and comparative American studies at Oberlin College. Dr. Lee specializes in Asian American history and urban studies. She is the author of A New History of Asian America (Routledge).

Hollywood Gossip Columnist Hedda Hopper Returns to the Screen in Trumbo

Famed Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, played by actress Helen Mirren, is starring in the new movie Trumbo. Directed by Jay Roach and starring Bryan Cranston, the film is about screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and the blacklist in Hollywood during the Cold War. Hopper is featured in the film as Trumbo’s political nemesis, as indeed she was. Rather than dismissing the conservative, anticommunist Hopper as “a crank” who engaged in “pinko purges”—as did earlier portrayals—the film takes her formidable role in mid-20th century American popular and political culture seriously.

Whether known as the “duchess of dish” or a “gargoyle of gossip,” Hedda Hopper was a powerhouse of Hollywood’s golden age. For 27 years, beginning in 1938, she wrote her movie gossip column. Her mass media gossip—or as she put it “snooping and scooping”—drew over 30 million readers to her column at its height in the 1950s. As a gossip, she publicized information about private lives. She focused mostly on the big stars, their movies and marriages, their secrets and scandals. But what made Hopper most stand out from the crowd of celebrity journalists—apart from her famous, flamboyant hats—was her political coverage and political conservatism.

Hopper excelled at a style and practice of journalism that blurred public and private, politics and entertainment and set the context for our current era. By combining and wielding gossip about the worlds of both entertainment and politics, Hopper inserted celebrity into her coverage of politics and politics into her coverage of celebrities. Her insertions took the form of today’s sound bites—simple morsels for immediate consumption. But making information entertaining simplifies the political debate and obscures the political issues. Hopper would have been very comfortable with our historical moment where politicians and celebrities are interchangeable, and personal attacks and character assassinations are a regular part of political discourse.

Hopper used her journalistic platform to promote her conservative politics and traditional values. She attacked members of the film industry who departed from her political views and moral standards, and mobilized her readers into letter-writing campaigns and movie boycotts. Always a proud member of the Republican Party, she sought to build opposition to the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, and modern manners and morals. Her highest priority, however, was fighting against Communism at home and abroad. For decades, Hopper busied herself with “exposing Reds in the name of patriotism.” By publicizing the Communist beliefs of members of the film industry, she violated their civil liberties and the right to keep their political affiliations private. But private information was her currency in the gossip trade.

One of her most prominent targets was Dalton Trumbo. She could not understand why a successful screenwriter like Trumbo, one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood, “could be a Commie.” Once the blacklist was established in late 1947, with Trumbo on it, Hopper felt it was not enough and demanded further blacklisting. In 1950, Hopper accused MGM of continuing to employ Trumbo under a pseudonym, a warning to other studios to maintain the blacklist. Hopper continued to monitor Trumbo’s career and put pressure on those protecting him. When Trumbo received screen credit for Spartacus (1960), effectively breaking the blacklist, Hopper strongly objected. “The script was written by a Commie,” she wrote, “so don’t go to see it.”

The establishment of the Hollywood blacklist in late 1947 signaled the stifling of social criticism and political dissent in Cold War America. As the new movie Trumbo makes clear, Hedda Hopper helped make this so.

Jennifer Frost is Associate Professor of History at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. She is the author of Hedda Hopper’s Holywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservatism (NYU Press, 2011) and An Interracial Movement of the Poor Community Organizing and the New Left in the 1960s (NYU Press, 2005).

Charles Lee and Hamilton: He’s a General, Wheee!

—Phillip Papas

Prior to 2013, there had not been much mention of General Charles Lee in the narrative of the American Revolution. Lee is everywhere now. He appears in the AMC series TURN, in the Outlander novel My Own Heart’s Blood, in the video game Assassins Creed III, and in two biographies, including Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Lee (NYU Press, 2014). Lee also emerges in Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical that tells the story of Alexander Hamilton and the other revolutionaries who forged the American nation.

While Lee has become more visible in popular culture and in scholarship, his image as a debauched, cowardly malcontent has remained. Miranda’s Lee continues this trend.

In Act I of Hamilton, Washington’s bedraggled Continentals retreat across New Jersey in 1776. The commander-in-chief hopes to defeat the British through small-scale, risk-averse, skirmishes. “There’s only one way for us to win this, Provoke outrage, outright,” Washington tells his protégé Hamilton. “Don’t engage, strike by night. Remain relentless ’til their troops take flight,” he continues. “Hit ’em quick, get out fast.” (“Stay Alive”) Yet among the Continental officers, Charles Lee was the most consistent and articulate proponent of this kind of strategy, urging Washington to avoid conventional battles in favor of irregular warfare (or petite guerre). However, Lee advised organizing the army along the lines of a national militia, dividing it into small detachments that would coordinate with local partisans to harass the British flanks, cut their supply lines, disrupt communications, and ambush isolated patrols and outposts.

The realization of Lee’s strategy meant fighting a wholly different war than that envisioned by Washington and other Continental officers, including Hamilton. Their view supported a Continental Army comprised of long-term volunteers that avoided large-scale battles in favor of smaller conventional operations before withdrawing from the field, a strategy Washington effectively applied at Trenton and Princeton in the winter of 1776-1777. Washington, Hamilton, and others understood that for the Revolution to succeed the army had to remain intact. Nevertheless, Lee’s advocacy of petite guerre reminds us that Washington’s was not the only view on how to fight and win the war held by the revolutionaries.

Lee was the most experienced soldier appointed by the Continental Congress in June 1775. Yet he accepted the position as the third general in rank behind Washington and Artemas Ward, becoming second-in-command upon the latter’s resignation in April 1776. He also impressed his American contemporaries with his intellect and cosmopolitanism, attributes that are overlooked in Miranda’s musical and by historians. On December 13, Lee was captured by British cavalry at a tavern in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. Exchanged in 1778, he rejoined the Continental Army at the Valley Forge encampment. But Lee soon learned that the army had changed considerably during his captivity as had the politics of Congress and of Washington’s headquarters.

Thanks to the training program of the Prussian officer the Baron von Steuben, Washington’s troops emerged from Valley Forge confident they could succeed in a large-scale conventional battle. That opportunity arrived in June 1778 near Monmouth Courthouse, New Jersey. Lee, in command of the advance corps, faced stiff resistance from the British rearguard. His lines disintegrated. Facing potential annihilation, Lee ordered a general retreat. “Ev’ryone attack!” Washington bellows. (“Stay Alive”) Lee replies “Retreat!” Irate to find Lee’s troops retreating, Washington publicly rebuked him. “What are you doing, Lee? Get back on your feet!” To which a cowardly Lee responds: “But there’s so many of them!”

The battle of Monmouth ended in a draw and Lee’s performance would have been considered unworthy of further admonishment had he not criticized the commander-in-chief in the press. “Washington cannot be left alone to his devices. Indecisive, from crisis to crisis,” Lee declares bitterly. He demanded a court-martial. Washington obliged.

The court-martial found Lee guilty of misconduct and disrespect and suspended him for a year. Lee again turned to the press to defend his actions at Monmouth, to criticize Washington, and to denounce a narrative of the battle crafted by Hamilton, John Laurens, and the Marquis de Lafayette. “Many men died because Lee was inexperienced and ruinous,” Hamilton asserts. He “shits the bed at the Battle of Monmouth” the three men exclaim while “a thousand soldiers die in a hundred degree heat” (Laurens). Washington snatches “a stalemate from the jaws of defeat.” (Lafayette)

Lee’s rage against Washington led to a duel with Laurens in December 1779. “Laurens, do not throw away your shot,” Hamilton advises his friend (“Stay Alive”). Lee, Laurens, Hamilton, and Aaron Burr, who supported Lee during the court-martial, use verse to recite the code duello (“Ten Duel Commandments”). Here Miranda foreshadows the 1804 Burr-Hamilton duel that ended Hamilton’s life. “Can we agree that duels are dumb and immature?” Burr asks Hamilton. “Sure,” he responds, “But your man [Lee] has to answer for his words.” Laurens ultimately wounded Lee.

While it was easy to criticize Lee, the fact is he continued to have the respect of several revolutionaries including Aaron Burr, General Nathanael Greene, and the future U. S. president James Monroe, among others. Had Lee not ordered a retreat at the battle of Monmouth, the British would have decimated the Continentals before Washington’s arrival. Moreover, Lee has rarely been credited with delaying the British long enough for Washington to establish his main line of defense. By ordering a retreat, Lee drew the enemy into an unfavorable position by the time the commander-in-chief appeared and helped to save the Continental Army from a potentially devastating defeat. It was only Lee’s disrespect for Washington that ultimately ended his military career, not his performance on the battlefield.

Phillip Papas is Senior Professor of History at Union County College in Cranford, New Jersey. He is the author of That Ever Loyal Island: Staten Island and the American Revolution (NYU Press, 2007) and Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Lee (NYU Press, 2014), which earned Honorable Mention for the 2015 Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award.

The Founders Chic of Hamilton

Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 2.25.41 PM—Andrew M. Schocket

Hamilton is the hottest ticket on Broadway.  Anyone who’s been lucky enough to see it or hear it (here’s the soundtrack, for now) knows it’s thrilling.  But Founders Chic, the recent worshiping of our illustrious nation-building heroes, has little to do with its success.

Hamilton portrays the founders as strivers, especially immigrant Alexander Hamilton, who arrived from the Caribbean with almost nothing, and rose to marry one of the brightest (and wealthiest) women in New York, become George Washington’s right-hand man, one of the co-authors of The Federalist, the inventive first Secretary of the Treasury, and the central figure of the nation’s first major sex scandal, all before his death at age 49 in a duel by the hand of a longtime rival, the country’s sitting vice president. All promising dramatic material.

Nonetheless, Hamilton’s inventive lyrics, catchy melodies, non-stop references to contemporary culture, brilliant rhyme, fine dancing, top-notch singing, and dramatic talent are what make this show such a joy.  Those elements, far more than it’s being about a founding figure per se, is why Hamilton is a smash.

If there’s anything I’ve learned as an historian following Founders Chic, it’s that commercial productions that celebrate our founding generation work like any other content: they only succeed if they’re good and fit into the their medium snugly.  Sure, David McCullough’s John Adams book sold over a million copies—but McCullough is one of our grandest storytellers, author of a half-dozen other prize-winning best-sellers.  Mel Gibson’s entertaining The Patriot made money at the box office, while Al Pacino’s gritty but confusing Revolution was a dud.

The reason why Hamilton is so remarkable is not that the world has been craving a hip-hop rendition of the man on the $10 dollar bill.  The 1997 Broadway revival of the early 1970s musical 1776, which campily tells the story of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, limped through a year of lackluster attendance.  Other American political figures have fared worse: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a favorably-reviewed musical on the life of our seventh president, was a commercial failure five years ago.

Rather, Hamilton accomplishes what its best musical predecessors do, only a little differently: spin a strong story, with a marvelous book and hummable music, in the great Broadway tradition.  It re-energizes the form of the musical by injecting it with hip-hop.  Hamilton references previous such reinvigorations, including what the Berlin brothers and Cole Porter did with jazz, Leonard Bernstein did with classical music, and Bob Fosse did with the incorporation of new dances styles.  And if you listen to Hamilton’s soundtrack, you’ll hear a book that, hip hop references aside, would make any Stephen Sondheim aficionado smile knowingly.

Still, a musical bio about a nobody who marries well and entrances a nation, that’s new, right?  Not if you’ve seen Evita, about Eva Peron.  Hamilton’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, credits the mind behind that musical, Andrew Lloyd Weber, as one of his major influences.  And Hamilton goes further back than that: it includes nods to the 20th-century American team of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and even to Gilbert and Sullivan, the late-19th-century British opera-writing duo who helped to meld opera and the popular stage.  It’s not American Revolutionary history that makes Hamilton rollicking fun: it’s Manuel’s melding of musical history.

And that’s one of the lessons to be learned from Hamilton’s triumph.  Not all musicals are created equal: to make a great one, you’ve got to meld words, music, and talent into a more perfect union of words, music, and talent.

Andrew M. Schocket is Director of American Culture Studies and Associate Professor of History and American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University (OH). He is the author of Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution (NYU Press, 2015) and Founding Corporate Power in Early National Philadelphia.

New York has a long history of welcoming popes

—Paul Moses

As Pope Francis arrives this week for the fifth-ever papal visit to the Big Apple, he’ll be buoyed by a modern-day tradition — New Yorkers love their visiting popes.

Somber like Paul VI, ebullient like John Paul II, gentle like Benedict XVI: All of the popes who traveled to New York over the past five decades have thrived on enormous, enthused crowds in a city where Catholics have long been the largest religious denomination.

Pope Francis’ salt-of-the-earth style seems an especially good match for New York, and his distinction as the first pontiff from the Americas has added to the expectations for his trip.

“There are a lot of Catholics in the city,” said Peter Quinn, author of Looking for Jimmy: A Search for Irish America. “He’s head of an organization with a billion people . . . practicing Catholics, cultural Catholics, even people out of the church, they want the leader treated with a certain kind of respect.”

Some 36 percent of the New York metropolitan region’s residents are Catholic, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute. That is tied with Boston and Pittsburgh for the biggest percent of Catholics in the top 30 metro areas — but given New York’s larger size, it makes the city essentially the capital of Catholic America.

A breakout of the institute’s data shows especially large proportions of Catholics on Long Island: 45 percent in Nassau and 48 percent in Suffolk. (For the city’s five boroughs, it is 30 percent.)

Beyond the large number of New Yorkers who identify themselves as Catholic, there are many others who have left the church but feel its tug when a pope visits.

Nationally, the Pew Research Center found that while 21 percent of Americans say they are Catholic, nearly 1 in 10 Americans who practice another faith, or none at all, consider themselves “partially Catholic.” Adding in those who consider themselves former Catholics, and those who have some other Catholic connection — perhaps those with a Catholic parent but not brought up in the faith — means that 45 percent of Americans are Catholic or have some connection to Catholicism, Pew reported this month.

That’s one reason for the attention that visiting popes receive.

“The people I know, there’s still an emotional attachment, even if it’s not religious anymore,” Quinn said. “You have a certain attachment to these symbols, I think. It touches something in people.”

Appealing to other masses

Another reason is that the popes have had crossover appeal. Beginning with Pope John XXIII, they’ve been working to undo many centuries of ill will toward Jews and are always sure to make a gesture of solidarity to New York’s large Jewish community.

“Ask Jewish New Yorkers of a certain age, and they’ll tell you that John was the first pope they really embraced,” said Terry Golway, author of Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics. When Pope Paul VI arrived, cheers were especially strong for him in the heavily Jewish enclave of Forest Hills, Queens, news accounts noted.

That 1965 trip came at what seems to have been the peak of Catholic influence in the city.

In Rome, the three-year Second Vatican Council was near its end. Paul VI’s decision to retain the church’s opposition to artificial birth control, which led to widespread dissent, was still three years away. The nation had mourned the death of its first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, whose widow greeted the pope. Millions of people had flocked to the Vatican Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park to see Michelangelo’s Pieta.

On Long Island, the Diocese of Rockville Centre, created eight years earlier, was rapidly building churches and schools. And New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman, organizing the first papal trip to the Western Hemisphere, presided regally from a chancery dubbed the Powerhouse.

Police estimated that some 630,000 people watched the pope’s motorcade travel slowly from Kennedy Airport to Manhattan via the Queensboro Bridge on Oct. 4, 1965. Many spectators were Catholic school students given the day off.

The key moment of the trip was the pope’s call at the United Nations for an end to war: “Jamais plus la guerre, jamais plus la guerre!”

It became a template for the future addresses that popes would give at the UN.

When Pope John Paul II prepared for the next papal visit in 1979 — a six-city journey in the 12th month of his papacy — he said his own speech at the UN would be “an extension” of Paul’s. The same will likely apply to Francis’ address before the General Assembly on Friday, just nine days short of the 50th anniversary of Paul’s call for peace.

The charismatic John Paul used a method that would turn up in many more of his journeys: Celebrate a nation’s highest cultural ideas — and then hold the people to them. At Battery Park, with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop, he spoke of the freedom this symbol meant for immigrants, and of Americans’ “willingness to share this freedom with others.”

Later, in a Mass at Yankee Stadium, he spoke of the responsibility that freedom requires: “We cannot stand idly by enjoying our own riches and freedom, if, in any place, the Lazarus of the 20th century stands at our door.” He also attacked “the lifestyle of many of the members of our rich and permissive societies.”

Francis is likely to hit similar themes.

John Paul returned to New York in 1995, wizened and bent after breaking his leg the previous year, but still dynamic as he celebrated Mass in Central Park. Msgr. Frank Maniscalco, then director of communications for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, recalled how the pope shocked the security contingent at the end of a service in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The plan had been for him to leave by a side door. Instead, he went back down the main aisle and out the front to greet more people, recalled Maniscalco, now pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in West Hempstead.

All of the visiting popes have struck a chord in New York because of the people they are and the position they hold, according to Maniscalco. “Catholics really do sense the pope as head of the church,” he said, adding that like the heads of other religions, a pope can give his people the sense of being in contact with God’s will.

Much as John Paul thrived on his connection to Polish New Yorkers, other papal visitors have had ties to ethnic communities as well. In 2008, Pope Benedict connected to German Catholics through a service at a traditionally German church on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

For Francis, watch for the impact that the visit of a South American pope whose native language is Spanish will have on Latinos, who, according to Public Religion Research Institute data, make up the majority of Catholics within New York City.

Times, and attitudes, have changed

Popes weren’t always welcome in New York.

Throughout the 19th century, “the idea of a pope visiting New York would be unthinkable,” said historian Patrick McNamara, author of “New York Catholics: Faith, Attitude & the Works!”

In 1853, the journey of Archbishop Gaetano Bedini, a papal nuncio, sparked riots in various cities. To help the cleric safely board his ship home, New York’s mayor arranged for Bedini to be taken in secret to Staten Island and put on a tug that met the vessel.

New York’s tough, Irish-born Archbishop John Hughes, who was in Cuba trying to recover his fading health, later wrote Bedini that if he’d been home, “We should have taken a carriage at my door, even an open one if the day had been fine enough, and gone by the ordinary streets to the steamboat.”

An 1898 film short of Pope Leo XIII giving his blessings alarmed Protestants who thought it might have been shot in the United States, McNamara said. “This was shown in nickelodeons around the country, and there was a big uproar because people were scared that the pope was actually making his way to the United States.”

The visit of Ireland’s Cardinal Michael Logue to celebrate the centennial of the Archdiocese of New York in 1908 was more promising. He brought greetings from Pope Pius X and received a welcoming letter from President Theodore Roosevelt. Catholics responded with a huge outpouring; newspapers provided expanded and respectful coverage.

In 1936, Spellman, then an auxiliary bishop in Boston, engineered a trip by the Vatican’s No. 2 official, Secretary of State Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII. He stayed in the Manhasset mansion owned by Catholic philanthropist and businessman Nicholas Brady and his wife, Genevieve. Called “Inisfada,” Gaelic for “Long Island,” it later became a Jesuit retreat house that closed and was demolished in 2013.

Having brought the second-ranking figure in the Vatican to New York, Spellman then got to host Pope Paul VI’s visit as archbishop of New York. “By ’65, this was old hat for Spellman,” McNamara said.

Now, as with the earlier papal trips, there is great anticipation among Catholic New Yorkers.

“Just on a personal level, I have appreciated each visit,” said Sister Camille D’Arienzo, a longtime commentator on WINS/1010 radio who has observed the trips. “But I haven’t felt the depth of warmth and almost comfort that he’s coming. I’m so proud of him.”

Paul Moses is Professor of Journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY and former city editor of Newsday, where he was the lead writer for a team that won the Pulitzer Prize. He is the author of An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). His book The Saint and the Sultan won the 2010 Catholic Press Association award for best history book.

[This piece originally appeared in Newsday.]

Katrina’s Lessons: Learned and Unlearned

—Robert Verchick

In the last few years, I’ve commemorated the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in a new way: by pedaling along the self-guided “Levee Disaster Bike Tour.” I begin beneath muscular oaks along New Orleans’ Bayou St. John, and I weave my way around potholes and waterfowl to pay silent respects near three prominent levee-breach sites, each marked with a commemorative plaque. Ten years ago, those breaches, combined with more than 50 others to bring a great American city to its knees.

I lived in New Orleans then, and evacuated to Houston for six months. Like so many others I resolved to return to my flooded home and rebuild. I did just that, and for a decade since I’ve taught graduate students about disaster policy and the central role Katrina plays in shaping our understanding of catastrophic hazards. I’ve learned a lot along the way, as have my students, I hope. But I can’t say the same for policy makers. A decade after the levees burst, some of the most important lessons are still just soaking in. Here is what I hope we will remember.

New Orleans was swamped by an engineering failure, not just a storm, and other cities are waiting in line. Katrina was a monster, but much of its rage had dissipated by the time it reached land. When the levees broke, the storm was within that system’s design specifications. To its credit, the Army Corps of Engineers acknowledged the failings in its design and construction and has toiled since to build a supersized complex of ramparts, gates, and pumps as sophisticated as any flood-control project in the world.

But other time bombs tick across the country. An estimated 100,000 miles of levees protect tens of millions of households, from Sacramento to Miami to New York City, with nearly 1 million of those households in Houston. Yet we know surprisingly little about their fitness. In response to Katrina, the federal government is developing an inventory of all federal and many non-federal levees. Of those rated so far, only 9 percent have been found to be in “acceptable” condition. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s levees a D- and estimated that repairs would cost more than $100 billion.

But even that isn’t enough. U.S. flood-control projects are normally designed to withstand only a so-called “100-year” event, or more accurately, an event with a 1-percent chance of occurring in any given year. If you own a home for the span of a 30-year mortgage, you have a 26-percent chance of being under water in the literal sense before you pay it off. By comparison, dikes in the Netherlands, where they know from floodwaters, are designed to withstand events that are up to 100 times less probable.

Social burdens linked to income and race make everything worse. As Americans learned watching television broadcasts of their fellow citizens, many of them poor and African-American, helicoptered off battered rooftops or trapped in the Superdome, disasters do not ignore social inequalities; they amplify them. Low-income and minority populations, for instance, are less likely to have first-aid kits, emergency food supplies, fire extinguishers, and evacuation funds, but more likely to suffer property damage, injury, and death. In the aftermath of Katrina, the damaged areas of New Orleans were 75 percent African-American, while undamaged areas were 46 percent African-American. Government assistance programs—crucial in the wake of large catastrophes—tend to favor middle-class homeowners over less affluent renters or the homeless.

Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy inspired a variety of indices and mapping platforms to identify “social vulnerability.” As with the federal inventory of levees, this information is critical. But, still, I wonder whether it will be used to its best effect. Will such mapping lead to safer homeless shelters, multi-lingual responders in immigrant areas, better public transportation for the elderly, better evacuation plans? If not, what’s the point?

Disaster is backlit by climate change. Experts agree that human-caused global warming is increasing average temperatures, disrupting rain patterns, and raising the seas. While scientists can’t link any individual storm to climate change, Katrina was perhaps the first to open the public’s imagination to what life on a warming planet could really mean. Thus the Federal Emergency Management Agency now incorporates climate impacts into its disaster recovery framework (now being followed in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy) and has plans to fold climate projections into the flood maps that determine insurance needs across the country.

What Katrina really teaches is that we are all in this world together, surrounded by vulnerabilities. On the frame of my ten-speed is a bumper sticker with the motto, “Be a New Orleanian—Wherever You Are.” What you didn’t know, is that you may have little choice.

Robert Verchick teaches at Loyola University New Orleans and Tulane University, is the president of the Center for Progressive Reform, and is the author of Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post-Katrina World (Harvard University Press, 2010) and Feminist Legal Theory: A Primer (NYU Press, 2006).

[This piece originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.]