One thinks of Jacob Riis, Danish immigrant turned photographer, who trained his camera lens on squalid tenement house life New York City, and moved the conscience of a generation. One thinks of Jane Addams, who was born to privilege in Chicago, but used her family wealth to establish settlement houses to assist impoverished immigrant communities. Or Ida Tarbell, who fearlessly exposed the corrupt business practices of Standard Oil and broke the back of monopoly. Or Upton Sinclair who shone a light on nauseating meatpacking processes and worked for pure food supply. Or Ida B. Wells, who drew national attention to the evil of lynching and changed minds and hearts. These “muckrakers” as they were known at the time, were all real people, warriors for justice, whose life and work ensured movement toward a more just society.
Does the arc bend on its own? No. Justice doesn’t just happen. History provides ample evidence of that. Would Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany ultimately have bent the arc toward justice? Would Stalin and his secret police? Would Pol Pot? No. Their ideas, their regimes, their actions, and the sheer might of their enforcement apparatus would not have allowed it. We can always count on human nature, with its unquenchable striving for freedom to rise up occasionally in defense of human dignity and lend force to the ongoing quest for justice. But only the presence of good law and real warriors for justice can ensure that the arc will bend. America has had both. And continues to be blessed.
Mary Beth Klee
Our Harry Truman-inspired courage blog this month (below) was written before an angry mob stormed the Capitol on January 6. We stand by the column's sentiments, but the moment requires something more. The founder of the Republican party, Abraham Lincoln, launched his political career with a speech denouncing “the mobocratic spirit” too evident in parts of the country. He contended that should it happen, American demise would not come from across the Atlantic (recall the War of 1812 when the British stormed the Capitol), but from free Americans themselves, who chose to take the law into their own hands. He called on Americans to have the courage to stand by our laws and institutions, and change bad laws rather than take the law into their own hands. Lincoln’s 1838 Lyceum address (somewhat shortened here) bears re-reading.
Harry Truman, president of the United States at the close of World War II, said “America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination and an unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.” We associate Truman with ending WWII, employing the atomic bomb against Japan. But his inspirational quotation applies to the bravery and sacrifice of conscientious objector Desmond Doss, to whom Truman awarded the Medal of Honor.
During World War II, Doss (despite being granted a deferment) enlisted in the Army and served as a combat medic in the Pacific. A Seventh Day Adventist, he refused to carry a gun or kill the enemy, and endured the scorn of fellow soldiers, who saw him as a coward. But he earned two Bronze medals for heroism in Guam and the Philippines (caring for the wounded in combat). And Harry Truman awarded him the Medal of Honor for his remarkable bravery in Okinawa.
There, Doss’s unit, stationed on a cliff, came under attack by the Japanese, who cut down nearly every man. Under constant fire, Doss rigged a stretcher with ropes and a pulley to lower each wounded man to safety—one at a time, over and over. Lord, help me save one more. Truman estimated the number of fellow soldiers Desmond saved at seventy-five men, though Doss said probably fifty. The Medal of Honor is the military’s highest award, and Doss is the only conscientious objector (he described himself as “conscientious cooperator”) to have won it. Memorialized by Mel Gibson in the 2016 film Hacksaw Ridge, the courageous actions of Desmond Doss make our daily battle against an invisible foe seem just a bit more manageable. As Rosie the Riveter would remind us, “We can do it!”
Mary Beth Klee
One of history’s greatest teachers, whose birth we celebrate this month, would agree. Jesus of Nazareth’s teaching attracted thousands of followers, and he was so “moved with pity for the crowd” that he refused to disburse them on empty stomachs. “Give them something to eat” was his command to his disciples, and, according to the gospels, five loaves and two fishes became sustenance for the five thousand (with baskets leftover). That example inspired Salvation Army founders, William and Catherine Booth, and American settlement house founder, Jane Addams, and “Houses of Hospitality” founder Dorothy Day to each launch initiatives to feed the hungry. Thousands of non-profits continue that work worldwide.
If you are in a position to assist, we urge your generosity to today’s champions against hunger. The following two organizations are four-star charities, working tirelessly to feed the hungry in our nation and abroad. But don’t forget your local food banks and shelters.
Feeding America at https://www.feedingamerica.org/
Action Against Hunger https://www.actionagainsthunger.org
Be a light in the darkness: “Give them something to eat.”
Mary Beth Klee
Albert Bierstadt’s family had emigrated to the United States from war-torn Prussia in
the 1830s, settling in the seaside village of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Young Albert’s
imagination and heart, however, were always drawn to the hills. Venturing first into New
Hampshire’s “prodigious hilltops,” he hiked the White Mountains, scaling Mount Washington in 1852 (at age 21), and returning various times to Franconia before the Civil War. Albert’s love of light and mountains led him to the Hudson River, and “the mighty mountains of New York,” where he painted alongside a second generation of Hudson River School artists. He took time to return to Europe and study in the Swiss Alps, but as early as 1859 he joined an expedition to “the snow-capped Rockies” with government surveyor Frederick Lander, and thus began a life-long love affair with the American west. He described the Rockies as “the best material for the artist in the world.”
Bierstadt painted big: epic landscapes that inspired awe. His Rocky Mountain Landscape, Lander’s Peak wowed Americans and Europeans alike. In 1863, the thirty-year-old Bierstadt sold the six foot by ten foot canvas for $25,000, the equivalent of $400,000 today, a staggering sum for a young artist. And he was just beginning. The same year that he finished “Lander’s Peak,” he went west with a friend to visit California’s Yosemite in “the curvaceous slopes of California, ” the Sierra Nevada range. He forever memorialized its grandeur in luminous renderings of the Valley of Yosemite; these stunned and enraptured viewers.
It is possible to criticize Bierstadt for idealization of the Sierras. But some of the region’s
earliest explorers, such as John Muir, shared his sense of these mountains as a nearly religious experience, a “Range of Light,” in which “the whole body seems to feel beauty when exposed to it as it feels the campfire or sunshine, entering not by the eyes alone, but equally through all one’s flesh like radiant heat, making a passionate ecstatic pleasure-glow not explainable.” “These blessed mountains,” Muir wrote, “are so compactly filled with God’s beauty, no petty personal hope or experience has room to be.” The mountains were an experience of promise and awe after a time of horror.
For the next forty years, Bierstadt, the gifted immigrant from Germany and child of New
England shores, found his subject in the grandeur of the American west. He painted the Grand
Canyon and the Wyoming range. His first journey west of the Mississippi had taken place in
1859, when buffalo herds were in the millions. By the 1880s, the animals were nearly extinct.
His “Last of the Buffalo” (1888) called attention to the loss. At the time the painting was
criticized for “marring” a perfectly good landscape with close-ups of “savages,” that is Native
Americans hunting. But Bierstadt was committed to capturing the whole of the American
experience – landscape, bison, and native peoples -- with dignity, precision, and concern for the future.
A New Yorker (by this time) and an advocate for wildlife preservation, Albert Bierstadt became a close friend of not-yet-president Theodore Roosevelt, who in the 1880s embarked on his own love affair with the west in the Black Hills. Back in New York, Bierstadt and Roosevelt worked for legislation to prevent poaching of the bison in Yellowstone (established as a national park in 1872). TR’s imagination was fired by Bierstadt’s paintings of Yosemite, and as President, he embarked on a camping expedition with naturalist John Muir that resulted in preserving Yosemite as a national park as well. National park legislation has been one of the great acts of stewardship undertaken by the American people, and the paintings of Albert Bierstadt heightened awareness of these unique wonders.
This month, as we vote (and work to overcome rancor), we should remember that we've been through worse times. Let's call student attention to the virtues of gratitude, wonder, and stewardship. Bierstadt's work sprang from gratitude and wonder, and inspired better stewardship. Here's to mountain majesties, and let freedom ring!
“When angry, count to ten before you speak. If very angry, count to one hundred.”
Wilson’s inauguration would not take place until March. The hundreds of women who
appeared at the White House that January were serving notice that they expected better of him in a second term. Theirs were the first organized protests to take place in front of the White House gates. From Monday to Saturday, the women stood silently from 10 AM to 6 PM to the increasing annoyance of the president and ire of the opposition. The Silent Sentinel vigil would last two years and involve more than 2000 suffragists.
One might think that citizen passersby would be struck by the quiet resolve of the
protesters, who walked to and stood outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue regardless of the
weather. Many men and women praised them. And some even delivered hot drinks to sustain
them and warm bricks to stand on. But others jeered, spat, and tried to provoke them.
How dare suffragists use these “circus stunts” to embarrass President Wilson! Such
demonstrations invited danger. They were a “menace to the life of the president and silent
invitation to the assassin,” raged one opponent. “Silent, silly and offensive,” pronounced the New York Times. When foreign leaders arrived at the White House, the first thing they saw were hundreds of silent women, asserting with their placards that “AMERICA IS NOT A
DEMOCRACY. TWENTY MILLION WOMEN ARE DENIED THE RIGHT TO VOTE.” Did
these women not realize how blessed they were to live in this land?
In April of 1917 the United States entered World War I on the side of the Allies to defeat
German Kaiser Wilhelm’s forces and in Wilson’s words “make the world for democracy.”
Surely now that the nation was at war, the women would cease their protests and unite behind the Commander in Chief. But they remained. In silent vigil. With signs now proclaiming
“KAISER WILSON…20,000,000 AMERICAN WOMEN ARE NOT SELF-GOVERNED.”
Public tempers flared and enraged bystanders now descended on the women. Throwing rotten
fruit, shoving them, tearing the signs away from them, ripping banners to shreds and shouting. How dare they publicly embarrass the President? And why weren’t they doing their part for the war effort?
Police descended to break up the scuffle and no arrests were made in these early Spring
protests, but the public sided with the male antagonists. If those had been male protestors, many in the press argued, they would have been carted off to jail for provoking a riot. After that police resolved to arrest. But still the women continued their silent daily walk down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House gates, each day with new signs to replace those torn by the mob.
Between late June and December the Silent Sentinels were frequently arrested, often on
trumped up charges. For example, blocking traffic because of the inflammatory (traffic-stopping) sign quoting Wilson’s second inaugural: WE SHALL FIGHT FOR THE THINGS WHICH WE HAVE ALWAYS CARRIED NEAREST TO OUR HEARTS – FOR DEMOCRACY, FOR THE RIGHT OF THOSE WHO SUBMIT TO AUTHORITY TO HAVE A VOICE IN THE GOVERNMENT or Alice Paul, also quoting Wilson: THE TIME HAS COME TO CONQUER OR SUBMIT, FOR US THERE CAN BE BUT ONE CHOICE. WE HAVE MADE IT.”
Carted off to jail in silence and good order, the women often met with sympathetic judges who offered them a modest fine instead of jail time. They chose jail. And for this they were at times brutalized. Alice Paul was sentenced to solitary confinement and bread and water. When she and other female prisoners went on a hunger strike, they were force-fed as doctors shoved tubes down their throats and pumped in raw eggs diluted with milk. On the “Night of Terror” (November 14, 1917) at one facility authorities gave guards permission to break the prisoners. Lucy Burns was beaten and chained to her cell bars with her hands above her head overnight. Dorothy Day was slammed repeatedly against an iron bench. Dora Lewis had her head smashed against an iron bed. (All survived.) When their mistreatment was discovered and authorities prosecuted (for cruel and unusual punishment) the women were all released and public outcry was strong. In December President Wilson decided to support the nineteenth amendment.
And throughout the ordeal, at the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, hundreds of women stood in silent protest. What does it take to remain silent and not return jeers in the face of scorn, abuse, and injustice? What does it take to not return anger with anger? Jesus knew. Ghandi knew. Martin Luther King Jr. knew. But before Ghandi and before Martin Luther King Jr. and very much inspired by Jesus, the Silent Sentinels knew. The answer is self-control.
In the United States, we should have a leg-up on the issue of respect and human dignity because our founding documents proclaim equality for all. All – not some. The American journey has been one long pilgrimage toward the realization of that ideal: for African Americans, for women, for the marginalized. We strive not just for equality, but for “a little respect,” as Aretha would say. Respect is the antidote for many troublesome “–isms” that plague us: the evils of racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, age-ism. Americans have often celebrated their nation’s “tolerance.” But respect takes us one step further on the moral and
civic journey. Not simply “putting up with,” but honoring the other’s dignity -- in our words, in our actions, and in our hearts.
Every day teachers face the challenge of how to cultivate respect in their
classrooms. They do it by modeling, of course. And in the Core Virtues program, by regular reading of the inspiring and often funny stories we recommend. Literature sets a positive tone, and does some heavy lifting, helping children fall in love with the good, but quality follow-through is necessary too. Some teachers have a jar on their desk, and give students a chance each day to jot down one observation of a fellow student being, for example, respectful of another. These are read-out at week’s end in mutual recognition of student efforts. On the playground and in the classroom teachers themselves “can catch students being good.” Respect is real when Antonio helps Margaret in a wheelchair get through the door, or Sofia listens patiently to a long story by a child with a stutter. Teachers can celebrate these moments and build up our students.
But quality teaching involves correction as well as pats on the back. Bullying or hurtful and divisive name-calling are the most common transgressions against respect in schools, and the Core Virtues approach is an inspiration to do better and a powerful language of rebuttal. (“Do you think you were acting respectfully when you called Zack a doofus?”) On the playground, teachers may also encounter instances of “dehumanizing play” -- play that mimics ugly aspects of human behavior and models contempt. Children, especially in substantive academic programs like the Core Knowledge Sequence, will be introduced to many dimensions of human history. They will learn about great accomplishments, but they will also learn about forced labor to build the Great Wall, Roman gladiator contests, Viking pillaging, Aztec human sacrifice, and race-based slavery in the United States. These are all fodder for young imaginations.
Over the course of two decades, here are some things I’ve witnessed: children on the playground mimicking Aztec human sacrifice by gathering insects, pinning them to a stone, and pulling the bugs apart. Kids re-enacting Roman gladiator contests by giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the “life” of one scared kid in the ring. Third graders who pillaged and looted, pulling posters off the walls in the halls to mimic the Vikings. And a recess instance of “masters and slaves," in which second graders divided themselves into those groups, and started to order each other around with pretend whips.
Teachers should close with a mini "history of human rights," which is this: we human beings haven’t been and still aren’t perfect, but we learn from our past and we must keep growing. Review with your class the history of human rights. Here it is in a nutshell:
You are studying the past, and learning about ways human beings in other times and places behaved. Sometimes well, but sometimes in ways that were cruel and disrespectful. Think about the evil of slavery, which used to be common, but is now illegal. It was horrible. There are many other examples. We are not proud of everything we humans did. We’ve been figuring out over time how to build a better world and become better people, and respect each other more. We don’t always succeed. But what does the American Declaration of Independence say? That ALL are created equal. Every single one of us deserves respect. Respect means treating each other with high regard, and our world with care. When you play, it’s OK to run, to compete, and to pretend all sorts of things, but play should be fun for everyone involved. If it's not, ask yourself if you’re showing respect.
Mary Beth Klee (who invites you to click above and watch the Queen of Soul in action.)
Have you been to Nebraska in the late nineteenth century and met its German, Czech and Yankee settlers? Willa Cather’s My Antonia, paints the exquisite beauty and loneliness of the landscape, the power of its changing seasons, and the captivating resilience of Great Plains settlers who forged a life there. Have you wondered if you’d be tough enough to leave your warring homeland and begin somewhere else? Read Isabel Allende’s new triumph A Long Petal of the Sea, which chronicles a family fleeing Spain’s Civil War (1939) and making new lives in Chile. Are you curious about the Belgian Congo in the 1950s? (Aren’t we all?) Read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, and when you finish, you may weep that this fine book had to end. Are you seeking a first-hand account of justice gone wrong and forgiveness extended? Read Anthony Hinton’s spellbinding The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row -- an eye-popping account of an innocent black man sentenced to death in Alabama, who endured thirty years in prison before lady-justice removed her blindfold.
If you just want some place new to go, and a fresh, funny take on it, try any of Bill Bryson’s travel books: I’m a Stranger Here Myself (Hanover NH), In a Sunburned Country (Australia) or A Walk in the Woods (Appalachian Trail). And, last of all, if you long for Christmas in July, don’t miss Gretchen Anthony’s hysterically funny and touching Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners, in which Violet Baumgartner, type-A matriarch from a distinguished family, channels her family’s (mis)adventures through the annual holiday letter. You’ll end up loving her.
This summer, when so much of the news is dark and heavy and worrisome, take time to recharge and restore. Get above it. Read novels. Read poetry and more. And let Langston Hughes be your guide:
So since I’m still here livin’
I guess I will live on.
I could’ve died for love --
But for livin’ I was born.
Though you may hear me holler,
And you may see me cry –
I’ll be dogged, sweet baby,
If you gonna see me die.
Life is fine! Fine as wine! Life is fine!
P.S. Telling Our Stories is written for our adult readers, but if you’re looking for great reading for your kids, just peruse any of our month-related tabs and/or our chapter book section. See you in September….
Mary Beth Klee
But what an unlikely star. First, there was his name – nearly unpronounceable to his American pals. So, he Americanized it to “Danny Thomas” by adopting one name from each of his brothers. Then there was his nose, the caricature feature that cartoonists loved to mock.
Though urged by studio execs to “get rid of the schnoz,” he declined and decided to take his chances. He went on to become a renowned nightclub entertainer and a TV star. The series Make Room for Daddy and then The Danny Thomas Show brightened two decades, as he made us laugh at ourselves. And yet relatively early in his career, Danny provided his most lasting legacy, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. That was hugely heroic.
In the 1950s, Thomas, though famous, was not rolling in dough. He was raising a young family of his own, but his philanthropy sprang from two sources: his humility and his heart. He never considered his success in show biz as truly his own. He knew his desired path was a long shot, and when it looked like he might have to leave show business to get a steady job, Thomas, a devout Catholic, prayed to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. “If you allow me success in this life path, I will build you a shrine,” he promised. And then “what about a hospital to save kids, whose future is threatened in the very dawn of life?”
St. Jude came through for Danny and Danny came through for St. Jude. The research hospital in Memphis, TN broke ground in 1962, when Thomas himself could not afford to endow it. Instead, in 1957 he mobilized the Lebanese and Syrian immigrant community that he grew up with to work on its behalf. ALSAC, the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities, came into being as a way of expressing gratitude to a land that had given them such opportunity. But Thomas didn’t stop there. He enlisted every funny man he knew (and he knew them all: Milton Berle, George Burns, Red Skelton, Bob Hope, and Sammy Davis Jr.) to host benefits for the new project. Soon a sprawling campus of medical energy sprang from the ground. Scared young children and their parents would arrive to receive new treatment and new hope.
Today St. Jude’s thrives and its mission is simple: to find cures for childhood diseases (mostly cancer) and save children. They’ve been spectacularly successful, recognized internationally as a major center of research and treatment. The overall childhood cancer survival rate in 1962 was 20%. Thanks to research at St. Jude's and elsewhere, today’s survival rate is over 80%. St. Jude’s itself has a 94% survival rate, which is up from 4% in 1962. Not only do physicians and staff attend to the young patients, but family travel, stay, and meals are all paid for at St. Jude’s. No family receives a bill. “Because all a family should worry about,” at this time they tell us “is helping their child live.”
Thomas wanted to make people laugh, lighten the heavy burden of life with a funny bit that left people howling and clamoring for more. “Did you kill ‘em?” is the classic question to a comedian. “I murdered 'em!” comes the reply from a successful comic. But deathly imagery is only a way of signaling momentary relief from the burden of life. Make Room for Danny! Ultimately, this Hollywood star used his gifts and fame not for himself, but to give children hope. His work ensured that the young would enjoy the burden and adventure of life, and that their laughter would live on. Seems to me that’s heroic, wise, and exemplary.
Mary Beth Klee
The Core Virtues Foundation is unaffiliated with St. Jude’s Research Hospital, but congratulates Marlo Thomas on continuing her father’s work and urges generous readers to read about their efforts at https://www.stjude.org/.
Hope plans. Though she clung to the dream that American troops would soon liberate them,
Hope did not put her trust in imminent release from danger. By late 1944, STIC prisoners were dying each day of starvation: she herself (5’3”) weighed less than 90 pounds. On September 22, 1944, the day after the first American planes overflew the camp and bombed Manila harbor (signaling to internees that help was on the way), Hope was on her knees outside her shanty, planting a little garden. When confronted by incredulous friends, who demanded to know what she was doing when liberation was only “days away,” she reminded them of the story of the Little Red Hen, and begrudgingly some decided to help her. Indeed, for the next four months that garden bore fruit (actually, spinach-like talinum, garlic, and mint) to tide them over.
Hope draws on memory. Hope Miller’s memories were partly those of her Granite State
girlhood at the foot of Mount Sunapee and of her husband, George. But hers was also the shared American memory: a sense of her nation’s story and her connection to it, a deep conviction that she was part of her country’s historic quest for freedom, liberty, and the wide open spaces that epitomized those qualities.
For a Thanksgiving Day performance, after ten months of captivity, Hope had her fifth
graders memorize and perform Stephen St. Vincent Benet’s, “The Ballad of William Sycamore.” In that poem, a Great Plains pioneer laments losing his two sons in battle -- one, at the Alamo and another at Little Big Horn, but “still could say, ‘So be it.’ But I could not live when they fenced the land, for it broke my heart to see it.’” On folding chairs, behind the iron bars of Santo Tomas, there was not a dry eye in the house. On Washington’s Birthday in 1944, Hope participated in a reading of Maxwell Anderson’s play, Valley Forge. Freedom, the play reminded these Americans in captivity, was often forged in time of trial. Endurance was part of the national drama.
In mid-February, days after they were liberated, a young soldier sat next to Hope in the halls of Santo Tomas, staring at the emaciated men and women newly rescued and quietly taking in the cracked walls and squalid living conditions. While other GIs joked and chatted with internees, this “Still-Waters-Run-Deep” fellow put his hand on Hope’s forearm and said quietly, “Tell me. Did you ever despair?” In her written memoir, Hope writes, “My answer seemed very important to him.” And truth be told, if anyone had reason to despair it might have been Hope, who would return to the United States at age forty-one, widowed, childless, and penniless … to start all over. But instead, she couldn’t suppress a smile, took a drag from her cigarette and exhaled with satisfaction. “No. You see,” she turned toward the young man as if it were very important that he understand each gravelly word, “We knew you’d come back. We just knew it.” She held his eyes for a long moment and relished the childlike smile that suffused his face.
Faith, hope, and love. Maybe in May of 2020, our time of national confinement, the
greatest of these is hope. Hope is not a cheerful Candide, but a gritty Can-Do. True hope
teaches us to endure, leads us to work, prompts us to lose ourselves in the needs of others, and draws strength from memory: our own treasured stories and those of others in our land who persevered in times of adversity.
Mary Beth Klee is the author of Leonore’s Suite, a recently published novel about the experience of American civilians interned by the Japanese in Santo Tomas. Hope Miller's story is told therein and draws on Hope Miller Leone’s unpublished manuscript, Nor All Your Tears.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.