A Bitter Birthday, Fondly Remembered

 American history  Comments Off on A Bitter Birthday, Fondly Remembered
Nov 212011
Forty-eight years ago, at the hopeful and ignorant age of twenty, JoAnn Roxbury was a young wife recently transplanted to Houston, Texas from her native Michigan.  She worked for a company that made oil field equipment in their Accounts Payable Department, coding invoices for data entry by a co-worker.  The office was in downtown Houston, although in one of the smaller high-rises there in the heart of the city.  On her birthday, November 21, 1963, she was greatly excited because the President was coming to town and she would see him in person — something at the time that was rare for average citizens in the heartland and a special treat for a girl from a small town still getting used to urban life.  The staff members in her office were notified by the management that they were closing the office early that day, due to the President’s visit.  They were told that there had been a threat against the President’s life and extra security measures were being taken as a result.  Previously, when parades had passed through downtown, the employees opened windows and threw confetti down on the participants below (like the Colt 45’s/Astros and other local teams/dignitaries); however, this time, they were informed that windows were to remain closed and everyone was prohibited from throwing anything out the windows.  In the end, they closed the building altogether and the employees were forced to leave.
The motorcade itself passed in mid-afternoon (around 3:00pm), and it consisted of four or five cars.  The Kennedys were in one car — a convertible (which Roxbury recalls as a Cadillac), and the Governor, Mayor, and other persons of note were in accompanying vehicles.  There was a motorcycle escort from the Houston police and other officers and Secret Service members walked along with the cars.  One of these was black and had darkened windows, which indicated it was a Secret Service vehicle.  A large crowd packed both sides of the street, and this included people of all ages.  In the heart of downtown, the faces were mostly white, but as the motorcade moved farther to the edges of downtown, it passed into a largely African-American part of the city.  This is actually where young Roxbury (who is white) watched the President and First Lady pass.  Although some of her co-workers stayed by their office and watched together, Roxbury’s husband fetched her in their Corvair and drove further out to try and avoid the worst of the crowd.  Eventually, they were unable to continue on due to street closures, so they parked and got out to watch.
Roxbury was too young to vote in the 1960 election (when one had to be 21 to vote), but she liked the Kennedys very much.  They were young and stylish, with a family.  She saw them as a breath of fresh air in politics and admired them greatly.  In particular, Jacqueline Kennedy seemed an elegant change from the dowdiness of Mamie Eisenhower, whom Roxbury did not particularly like.  Houston was a Democratic bastion then and a port city, so there was quite a demographic mix there.  It had a significant black population — as well as Hispanics and immigrants.  The main of the town, then, was eager to see the President and his wife as they drove from the airport to wherever they were staying (which was never announced to the public).  The Kennedys were to attend a fundraising dinner that night, Roxbury thought.  She was very eager to catch a glimpse and was thrilled to find herself about fifteen yards from the Kennedys’ car as it passed.  Being the only white people in the crowd at that part, Roxbury and her husband stood out — and she thought it was because of this that she caught the Kennedys’ attention.  Looking over, Jackie Kennedy eyed her directly and waved, smiling brightly.  Roxbury thought Mrs. Kennedy looked very elegant in her suit and hat.  People around them were calling out to the President and First Lady, cheering, and talking excitedly.  It was quite a treat for the young wife’s birthday, and she looked forward to telling her family back home about it later.
After this momentous and special birthday event, Roxbury reported to her office as usual the next day.  She stayed in for lunch.  Returning co-workers brought devastating news:  going on to Dallas for a visit that morning, President Kennedy had been shot as his motorcade went through town there.  Roxbury was stunned.  But, she had just seen him the day before.  He was so young and healthy-looking.  She and her co-workers pressed their boss’ secretary to turn the radio on in his office (they didn’t have any TV’s there), and the woman finally relented.  Initial news reports said that the Governor had been shot and killed, while Kennedy was rushed to the hospital with a bullet wound.  About 1:30pm, they got the news that, instead, the President was dead.
The office fell strangely silent.  The employees were shocked and stunned;  some were crying.  It seemed so unreal that they had just seen the President the day before, and the next, he had been brutally and shockingly assassinated.  Again the office closed early for the day — and it remained closed for the next few days.  In downtown Houston, people poured out of office buildings into the streets.  Many stood around in a daze.  This was America — not some unstable third world country.  Roxbury thought:  Aren’t we supposed to be better/more tolerant than this?  Are we resorting to violence to settle our political disputes now?  It was too much — and it would get worse as she watched the President’s assassin killed himself on live TV the following day.  “What have we become?” she asked, just a day after the joy of seeing the head of the great Republic and marking her entry into her second decade.  It was all hope and tragedy, and she was starting out.
—  Oral history with JoAnn Roxbury, 11/21/2011, Tulsa, OK
(Happy Birthday, Mom.)
 Posted by at 5:11 pm

Don’t Shoot Veterans

 current events  Comments Off on Don’t Shoot Veterans
Nov 112011
“If any of you ever becomes President of the United States,” I told my class a couple of weeks ago, “your takeaway lesson from this course is simply this:  Don’t shoot veterans.  It doesn’t go over well with the public.”  I was lecturing on the Bonus Army and the government’s response to veteran protesters setting up camp in Washington, D.C. to demand relief during the Great Depression.  Within two days of my lecture, the police in Oakland, California allegedly cracked the skull of a protesting veteran at Occupy Oakland and put him in the hospital in serious condition.  Before another week and a half passed, they wounded another veteran (who was actually not participating in the protest at that time).  I didn’t think this historical lesson was what you would consider brain surgery, really.  If you are the party in power and there are veterans protesting, don’t injure, maim, kill, wound, abuse, or otherwise harm them.  It never goes good  for your side to harm military heroes — or even Regular Joe servicemen.  Duh.
Let’s see how it played out the first time:  After World War I ended, as was customary, Congress passed legislation giving a “bonus” to veterans for their service as a way to give them some compensation for lost career opportunities during the war.  The bonus was a whopping $1.25 for each day served overseas and $1.00 for domestic service.  Only, the country was broke at the time, so payment (if greater than $50.00) was delayed until 1945.  After the Depression hit in the ’30’s, desperate veterans began chomping at the bit for payments.  A group of them from Oregon (about 300) who had been living in Hoovervilles (shantytowns named after President Hoover) and unemployed decided to march to Washington, D.C. and camp out (Occupy Washington) until legislation introduced by Rep. Wright Patman (D – Texas) that would give them their payments early was approved.  Along the way, they picked up more of a crowd — additional servicemen and their families, hungry and homeless and discontented.  In the end, somewhere between 10-15,000 made camp at various places around D.C. — condemned buildings, “Camp Marks” by the Anacostia River, and new Hoovervilles around the capital.  They bathed in the river and lobbied their Congressmen, getting a crash course in the democracy they had previously fought to preserve.
From March to May of 1932 they accumulated at the capital, only to be disappointed when in July, the Senate killed the bill.  It was then that the Attorney General ordered them to leave and return home.  They were now trespassers on federal property with no purpose for continued occupation.  Some veterans left voluntarily, while others evacuated federal buildings to join the local camps that were already full.  On July 28th, the forced eviction of the shantytowns began.  At some point during the day, shots were fired, and two protesters were killed.  Rather than ease off then, President Hoover sent in the army, with General Douglas MacArthur and Majors George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower in the lead.  The troops used bayonets and sabers to clear the shanties and then knocked them down.  The army followed the fleeing veterans and their families to the Anacostia River where it burned out the Hooverville there.  Both MacArthur and Hoover blamed agitators among the marchers for causing insurrection and threatening the overthrow of the government (presumably as they fled).  State troopers barred the way into Maryland, but the refugees escaped to an abandoned amusement park in Pennsylvania.  Newsreels of the burning shelters and fleeing families played in movie houses around the country thereafter.  In the end, one baby died, a pregnant woman miscarried, hundreds had to be treated at hospitals, and 135 marchers were arrested in the conflagration.  It wasn’t until 1936, over President Roosevelt’s veto, that Congress finally passed legislation authorizing early disbursement of the bonuses to aid veterans and their families.
Today is Veteran’s Day.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the U.S. Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for veterans is currently 12%.  For non-veterans, it’s 9%.  According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, a third of homeless adults in America are former service personnel — many of whom have service-connected disabilities.  In fact, according to the Veteran’s Administration, approximately 20% of the persons who committed suicide in the last year were vets (obviously suffering from depression, PTSD, or other conditions).  Each day, about eighteen of them kill themselves.  As the war on terror drags out, we see them — as after World War I — struggling due to high unemployment (and it’s effects:  hunger, poverty, homelessness) and difficulties with the return to civilian life.  Today, they are joined by non-civilians who are also suffering, and like the Bonus marchers, they are setting up camps to pressure politicians to address their situation and end favoritism toward the wealthy.  Walter White, leader of the Bonus Army, said:  “When big business wanted action on vital legislation, it did not content itself with merely sending letters;  it sent people.”*  This is the same urge today.
Some complain that the Occupiers are committing (minor) violations of curfews and health regulations.  Well, the Bonus marchers panhandled and trespassed and scuffled with the law themselves.  That’s pretty much the nature of poverty and protest.  Let’s hope that this time, our leaders have better patience, wiser policy, and slower anger.  Whatever they do, they must not shoot the veterans.
* Donald J. Lisio, The President and Protest:  Hoover, MacArthur, and the Bonus Riot (New York:  Fordham University Press, 1994), p. 65.
 Posted by at 5:29 pm