April 16, 1963 – Martin Luther King, Jr. Writes One of Our Great Pieces of Literature: “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”

In the spring of 1963, in Birmingham, Alabama, the notoriously violent segregationist police commissioner “Bull” Connor and Police Chief Jamie Moore got an injunction against all demonstrations from a state court. As Time Magazine reported, “King announced that he would ignore it, led some 1,000 Negroes toward the business district. Both King and one of his top aides, the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy, were promptly thrown into jail.”

Rev. Ralph Abernathy, left, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., right are taken by a policeman as they led a line of demonstrators into the business section of Birmingham, Ala., on April 12, 1963.  (AP Photo)

Rev. Ralph Abernathy, left, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., right are taken by a policeman as they led a line of demonstrators into the business section of Birmingham, Ala., on April 12, 1963. (AP Photo)

On this day in history, MLK, Jr. responded to his fellow clergymen who had made a statement calling his activism “unwise and untimely.” His explanation to them is one of the greatest documents of modern times.

In his passionate response that highlighted the difficulty of explaining racist attitudes and policies to young children, he pointed out to them:

“We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”

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He added:

“One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

You can read the entire letter here.

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Kid Lit Review of “The Blue Hour” by Isabelle Simler

This is a beautiful book with oversized spreads centered around everything in nature that is blue, especially during “the blue hour” – when the sun has set but the night hasn’t quite arrived.

What happens during the blue hour? The author/illustrator shows us how blue things in nature – such as blue jays, blue foxes, blue-feathered song birds, and all the blue flowers, like forget-me-nots, bluebells, and cornflowers – respond to the blue hour. Gorgeous pictures of glass snails, indigo buntings, and a blue-crowned pigeon are set off by the striking non-blue of creatures of mixed colors, like the blue-ringed octopus.

On the front endpapers, there is a guide to 32 different colors of blue, and the back endpapers show silhouettes of the birds, animals, and fish featured in the book.

Evaluation: When I saw this book, I immediately wished I were (way) younger, so I could have beheld this book with the same wonder I know I would have when I was little. There isn’t a lot of information to accompany the pictures, but all the same they are entrancing, and might inspire little ones to seek out more background.

Published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2017

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Review of “The Bear and the Nightingale” by Katherine Arden

This genre-bender combines elements of a fairytale retelling, historical fiction, and fantasy. It even features a rather unique fairytale retelling within the retelling; that is, the characters are conscious they are “living out” a fairytale.

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The story is set in the mid-1300’s in Russia, or Rus’, as it was called then. The country had been Christian for five hundred years, but the populace, hedging their bets, still honored the gods of Russian folklore, paying tribute to the spirits of the household and the land by leaving regular offerings to them.

Pyotr Vladimirovich, living in the woods of Northern Rus’, was a kind and generally content man, until his beloved wife Marina died having her fifth child. Marina was the daughter of the woman who was the third wife of Ivan I, and this same woman was rumored to be the swan-maiden of fairy tales. Marina had been determined to risk childbirth again in order to have a daughter who had the gifts her mother had, and indeed, Vasilisa Petrovna, called Vasya, can see beings and hear voices no one else can.

Ivan I - Grand Duke of Moscow from 1325 to 1340 or 1341

Ivan I – Grand Duke of Moscow from 1325 to 1340 or 1341

Vasya is free-spirited and fearless. She not only inherited her grandmother’s sight but her father’s kindness. She talks to the horses, takes care of the household spirits, and becomes beloved by all of them.

Vasya was a bit wild though, and her nurse Dunya as well as Vasya’s siblings thought she could stand to have the guidance of a mother figure. Pyotr agreed, and he and his two sons traveled to Moscow to see if he could impose on Marina’s half-brother, the grand Prince, to help him find a wife for him and for his sons, and perhaps even a husband for his older daughter Olga. The Metropolitan, or high prelate of Rus’, advised the Prince that Pyotr could inadvertently help solve a number of the Prince’s problems. Ivan could unload his seemingly-mad daughter Anna on Pyotr, marry off a rival of Ivan’s heir to Olga, and banish a troublesome priest, Father Konstantin Nikonovich, to tend to the souls in the far-off land where Pyotr lived.

Alas, the happy existence of Pyotr and his people fade away with the arrival of the fanatical Father Nikonovich, who fills them with fear of hell and damnation, and excoriates them about respecting local gods. By neglecting these gods, though, the crops dry up, the livestock dies, and fear and hatred overtake the people. And a very real threat in the form of a being of great evil that feeds on such negative emotions is waking in the woods.

Representation of a domovoi, or Russian household spirit

Representation of a domovoi, or Russian household spirit

Discussion: There is a great deal in this book about life in feudal Russia, especially with respect to the friction between religion and pagan traditions. There is also a lot about gender roles, and the resentment of females (at least those not co-opted by socialization) to getting assigned to roles of less moment and interest than those of males.

The author was particularly creative in her evocation of Morozko, the Russian winter demon who was seen as sometimes a force of good and sometimes of evil. She resolves this contradiction by tweaking the story of Morozko and Medved, the great Russian bear. In some folktales about Morozko, he kills a mother bear and her cubs, and an enraged forest spirit turns Morozko’s head into a bear’s head. In this story, the author makes Morozko and Medved separate individuals who are brothers. Morozko is Winter and Death, but is relatively benevolent. Medved is death also, but has the form of a bear, and thrives on disorder, fear, war, plague and fire. Morozko has tried to keep Medved bound, but if Medved is able to gorge himself on fear, Morozko explains, Medved will become strong enough to break free. Indeed, the priest with his fire and brimstone has increased the level of fear so much, that Medved’s growing strength becomes the largest threat they face.

Like all folktales, this one is metaphorical, but the author does not bash the meaning over the head of readers.

The image of Medved is still used today to represent Russia

The image of Medved is still used today to represent Russia

Evaluation: The prose definitely evokes the tone of fairy tales, and the historical aspects dovetail nicely with the plot and add a nice flavor to the story. There is a helpful glossary in the back of the book for Russian terms. Some of the plot threads didn’t entirely add up, but this is only book one of a trilogy. The book can, however, be read as a standalone.

Recommended for fans of fairy tales and historical fantasies.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, 2017

Today Morozko is a benevolent Santa Claus analog called Father Frost who brings gifts to children

Today Morozko is a benevolent Santa Claus analog called Father Frost who brings gifts to children

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Review of “Outrun the Moon” by Stacey Lee

In this heartwarming historical fiction novel for young adults set in 1906 San Francisco, we meet Mercy Wong, a young woman of 15 who dreams of making something of her life in spite of the many prejudices against, and obstacles to, Chinese at that time. Like her previous book, Under a Painted Sky, this story also expresses the Chinese principle of yuanfen, which refers to the fate that brings people together to become a family.

Mercy is determined to get a good education and make some money. She wants to help her father, who works a grueling sixteen hours a day in the laundry, and to ensure that her sickly little brother Jack doesn’t have to work there also. In addition, Mercy wants to live up to her mother’s high expectations for her.

She manages to talk her way into a white high school (schools were segregated then) because there were no high schools in Chinatown, the twelve block area where the Chinese were restricted. She was doing well until her conflict with her roommate, Elodie Du Lac, came to a head. It seemed she would be expelled, but the date was April 18, when the great earthquake of San Francisco struck. It had an estimated magnitude of 7.8. (It was reported that this violent quake was felt from southern Oregon to south of Los Angeles and inland as far as central Nevada.) Devastating fires soon broke out in the city and lasted for several days.

This photograph by Arnold Genthe shows Sacramento Street and approaching fire. (from Steinbrugge Collection of the UC Berkeley Earthquake Engineering Research Center)

This photograph by Arnold Genthe shows Sacramento Street and approaching fire. (from Steinbrugge Collection of the UC Berkeley Earthquake Engineering Research Center)

Chinatown was destroyed, with Mercy’s mother and brother caught in the conflagration. She didn’t know the fate of her father, who might have been out on business, or might not have. Nor does she know if the boy she likes, Tom Gunn, is safe. Supposedly, he left on a trip.

The girls gather in Golden Gate Park along with other survivors, and they are not only traumatized, but hungry and without homes. The soldiers don’t help much at first – they are more focused on policing people. Mercy observed, “It’s just like Chinatown and all the laws passed to contain us. We were never the enemy. The enemy was our country’s own fear.”

Mercy decides to lead the girls on a mission to help others in need. But first she has to overcome the prejudice against her race, as well as the pain of her own losses.

Discussion: The story illustrates the animosity towards the Chinese at the time; just 24 years earlier, President Arthur had signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring any more Chinese from immigrating. But as Mercy observed, “[t]he trembler moved us in mysterious ways, shifting underlying assumptions about social rank and order.” The quake made all of them rethink what was important, at least for a while.

Evaluation: There are so many good aspects to this coming-of-age story, foremost among them the friendships that develop between Mercy and the Caucasian girls at the all-white-but-Mercy boarding school. Mercy is a wonderful character: strong, resourceful, brave, and spunky, but also charming rather than abrasive, as many young adult female heroines are. Mercy also has a great sense of humor, as expressed through a combination of drollery and aphorisms from Chinese culture. Mercy has been brought up to understand the world through Chinese philosophical and astrological precepts, and while a part of her dismisses them as superstitions, a part of her pays attention. Her mother told her “you can’t outrun the moon,” but as Mercy allows, “she never said anything about outflying it.”

Rating: 4/5

Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons,, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2016

This photograph, taken by George Lawrence from a series of kites five weeks after the great earthquake of April 18, 1906, shows the devastation brought on the city of San Francisco by the quake and subsequent fire. (photo courtesy of Harry Myers).

This photograph, taken by George Lawrence from a series of kites five weeks after the great earthquake of April 18, 1906, shows the devastation brought on the city of San Francisco by the quake and subsequent fire. (photo courtesy of Harry Myers).

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Review of “The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War “ by H. W. Brands

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

By the end of 1948, the Cold War between the communist East and the capitalist West was in full force. The communists under Mao Zedong had defeated the Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-shek and had become rulers of China. Chiang and his followers had been chased off the mainland and held a precarious grip on the island of Formosa. In the United States, the Republican Party cast blame on the Democrats, particularly President Harry S. Truman, for “losing China.” Then, on June 24, 1950, the communist North Korean army swept into capitalist (sort of) South Korea and within days captured the capital, Seoul. (Previously, at the end of World War II, Korea had been split into two countries at the 38th Parallel; North Korea was communist with leader Kim Il-sung and South Korea was set up to be a democratic republic.)

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South Korea and NATO were caught completely off guard. For several weeks, it looked as if the North Koreans would swiftly conquer the entire peninsula. However, by a stroke of luck, the Soviet Union was boycotting the United Nations Security Council, and their absence allowed the United States to lead the passage of a resolution that authorized the use of force by the UN to oust the North Koreans. American General Douglas MacArthur was put in charge of the UN forces. He quickly assembled a somewhat ragtag army consisting primarily of American troops based in Japan and moved to the southeast corner of Korea. There they established a defensive perimeter around the port of Pusan and arrested the impetus of the invasion.

The United States was reluctant to send a large force to defend Korea because it believed many more troops were needed in Europe to deter a Soviet invasion there. In addition, Truman did not want to risk a more general conflict, and never sought a formal declaration of war. Thus, what was to evolve into a four-year, intense armed conflict became labeled legally as a “police action.”

MacArthur had a well deserved reputation as a capable (some said brilliant) military strategist. He formulated a plan for a counter-offensive that involved landing a large force at Inchon, well behind enemy lines. The Inchon landing allowed UN forces to cut the supply lines of the North Koreans, who were soon driven into a wild retreat. By October, the North Korean army had been driven from the south and was fleeing north of the 38th parallel (the border between North and South Korea).

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MacArthur wanted to destroy the North Korean army even if it required chasing them all the way to the border of China. Truman feared that chasing them too close to the Chinese border might provoke the Chinese into greatly expanding the scope of the conflict. Truman flew all the way to Wake Island (a trip that took several days) to confer with MacArthur, who assured him that he (MacArthur) knew the mind of the “Asiatics,” and that the Chinese would not intervene. But the Chinese did intervene with overwhelming numbers and nearly destroyed the American Eighth Army. So much for being able to divine the ratiocinations of the “inscrutable Orientals.”

What to do next became the subject of a vitriolic debate within and between various factions of the American civilian and military establishments, and the subject of dozens if not hundreds of history books.

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H. W. Brands is a professor of History at the University of Texas. In The General vs. the President, he fashions a history of the beginning of the Korean War painting it as much as a confrontation between the two chief American protagonists (MacArthur and Truman) as a battle between the United Nations and the invaders of South Korea. MacArthur wanted to hit the Chinese with every available weapon, even atomic bombs. At the very least, he wanted to bomb supply bases in Chinese territory. In addition, he wanted to “unleash Chiang,” that is, use the Nationalist Chinese army on Formosa either to invade China proper or reinforce UN troops in Korea. In his view, he was being forced by Washington to fight a “limited war” with one hand tied behind his back.

MacArthur observes the naval shelling of Inchon from USS Mount McKinley, 15 September 1950 with Brigadier General Courtney Whitney (left) and Major General Edward M. Almond (right).

MacArthur observes the naval shelling of Inchon from USS Mount McKinley, 15 September 1950 with Brigadier General Courtney Whitney (left) and Major General Edward M. Almond (right).

Truman, mindful of the Soviet threat in Europe, wanted to limit the conflict as much as possible in order to husband American military power for other potential hot spots. MacArthur attempted to take his case directly to the American people. He circumvented civilian authority by publishing a letter to the American Legion outlining his position. Truman fired him for his insubordination, even though MacArthur did not directly disobey a presidential order.

Their conflict over strategy was not the only source of rancor between them. As Brands writes:

“In his five years as president, Truman had tolerated repeated slights and affronts from MacArthur: the general’s habit of making pronouncements on matters beyond his military responsibilities, his failure to return to America to brief the government on the U.S. occupation of Japan, his campaigning for president in 1948 without bothering to resign his command.”

Brands reports that “Truman had suppressed his anger, lest a public row between the president and the general threaten the precarious stability of the Far East.”

MacArthur briefly became a hero of the American political right, receiving many honors and starring in several ticker-tape parades. His actions did not withstand scrutiny of a Congressional investigation, however. Within a few months of his return to America, he had more or less faded into oblivion.

New York Times, April 21, 1951 showing the ticker tape parade for Douglas MacArthur

New York Times, April 21, 1951 showing the ticker tape parade for Douglas MacArthur

Brands points out three major considerations of which I (and, according to Brands, MacArthur) had not been aware. First, South Korea was not connected by land to any friendly territory. Thus, all resupply of the UN forces had to come by water or air, and South Korea had very limited seaport and airport facilities. American airpower was stretched very thin. Moreover, the Soviet Union had a large submarine fleet based in nearby Vladivostok. If the military situation became unfavorable, a retreat or withdrawal from the peninsula would be perilous in the extreme. Second, the Chinese and Soviets also seemed to be fighting in a limited way because they had not struck very vulnerable UN air bases in Korea. They too were fighting the war with one hand tied behind their backs, in part because of the same obstacles to fighting in Korea as beset UN forces. (Brands avers “China’s restraint . . . had been crucial to the survival of American and UN forces in Korea.”)

As for the Soviet Union, it chose to stay on the sidelines (aside from providing MIG fighter jets and possibly some experienced pilots to the Chinese), letting the Americans and Chinese bleed each other.  However, the Soviets remained a menace and a potential threat that could have greatly upset the balance of military forces if they had intervened. Third, the American military had been so reduced after World War II that it was in no position to fight in Korea while simultaneously maintaining a strong defensive position in Europe.

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Much of the unfavorable information described above was outlined in secret testimony to Congress, but was not made public or disclosed to MacArthur until much later. Brands opines that MacArthur may not even have been aware of the real reasons behind his dismissal. Congress had also been unaware of much of the American vulnerability in Korea. Brands notes that “[t]he Committee members were sobered, if not stunned, by the chiefs’ and [George] Marshall’s descriptions of the actual condition of the American military vis-a-vis America’s enemies. Americans tended to believe that having won World War II, the American military could dispatch China with one hand and whack Russia with the other. The secret testimony of Marshall and the chiefs made patent that America’s military had its hands full already.”

Discussion: This history exhibits yet another period in American history when an American leader was frustrated and even infuriated by the recalcitrant behavior of generals, but for a variety of reasons was loathe to jeopardize the popularity of a conflict by dismissing them. In particular, the case of Lincoln and McClellan comes to mind. In this case just like other such conflicts, and like most reputable historians, Brands sides with Truman in the clash between the local military commander and the civilian authority.

Events may unfold differently in the future. Our current president frequently demonstrates his ignorance of historical nuance by unequivocal praise of MacArthur. I guess narcissists admire other narcissists as well as themselves.

Evaluation: The General vs. the President is a well argued addition to Korean War literature.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Published by Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House, 2016

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