Wednesday, January 15, 2014

How The Past Trembles in the Hands of Historians

Union Traction Company service map, Indianapolis to Muncie, c. 1910. (Clickage will make the image larger)

He was my mother's father, her natural father. She knew that he had died in Indianapolis when she was very young, died "in a streetcar accident," but didn't know the details until much later. She found out some of it from her mother, but she would find out most of the story from a half-brother she learned about when she was an adult -- but whom didn't meet until I was about 7 or 8 years old and she was well into middle age.

She found her half-brother when we were living in Los Angeles. He was living not very far away in San Dimas and came to visit. I remember one visit quite clearly and he may have come by several other times that I don't remember as well. His name was Frank King; his father's name -- my mother's father, too -- was Frank Olive. He said he'd taken a different name partly because of what had happened in Indianapolis. It wasn't his step-father's name, it was a name he had chosen himself. How my mother had found him, I don't recall in any detail, but it had something to do with military records and I remember she had been calling anyone with the same name she found in those records for years.

Frank Olive was a streetcar conductor for the Indianapolis interurban transit company, and he was also a union organizer who had had an increasingly important role in all the strikes that had hit the system since the early 19-teens. He was well-known to the company as an agitator and a troublemaker. He died on the job, yes, but it wasn't an accident (and he didn't die in one of the riots). After one of the strikes was settled, I believe it was around 1915 though the date was always a bit hazy in my mind, so it may have been earlier or a bit later, he was told that there was something hanging off the front of his car, and to go get it before he began his run. When he got to the front of the car, another conductor or motorman started the car moving forward and it struck the car ahead, crushing Frank between them, killing him. Everyone knew what had happened. He had been murdered in a way that made it look like a careless accident. As were a number of strikers and strike leaders who went back on the job that year.

His funeral was huge, apparently, and at that funeral, Frank's widow, my mother's mother, found out about his other widow, Frank King's mother. Oh. Yes, Frank had two wives who lived at opposite ends of the interurban line, in this case, one household in Indianapolis and one in Marion. Apparently the discovery was quite the scandal at the time. One of Frank's close friends at the transit company took it upon himself to marry my mother's mother quite soon after Frank's demise, and thus make her an honest woman again. He had been fired from the transit company due to the most recent strike, and figured it was the perfect time to move out to California and start over, which they did. He ran Flying A filling stations and sold Dodge cars on the Central Coast, then retired around 1940 and bought a motor court up in Willits where my mother's mother died not long after, and he passed within a few months of her death (or maybe the sequence was the other way around... I wasn't there, and my mother was always pretty anguished about it).

Frank King's mother also remarried fairly soon after her Frank Olive's death, but they stayed in Marion. Frank King moved out to California on his own after WWII. My mother didn't know about them at all until she was well into her twenties, and she said she was shocked when she found out her natural father was a bigamist who had another household and family. When she learned about her father's union activities and the strikes and the violence that went with them, and how her father had actually died, she was horrified. She had no idea it was like that, she said. But she developed a greater (albeit grudging) respect for him. She said she got a much greater understanding of why she herself felt the need to stand up for the downtrodden, to fight for her own rights, and to try to change bad situations she or others found themselves in -- though that didn't always include her own relations.

I didn't realize until much later myself how pivotal the Indianapolis transit strikes had been -- I hadn't even heard of them at all before my mother's half-brother told the stories to us at our house in Los Angeles in the 1950s. Much of labor history in this country has been suppressed or forgotten, just as civil rights history has been. We may have romantic notions of what happened and believe in stories and myths of "heroic struggles," but have no idea at all of what really happened. The Indianapolis and other transit strikes were essentially disappeared from history, just as so much of civil rights history was disappeared.

An example was just last night on PBS. We were watching the "1964" program -- it was a pretty big year for both of Ms Ché and me, after all. That was the year Ms saw the Beatles at the Cow Palace, and one doesn't forget things like that, and I was mesmerized by the Civil Rights marches and Free Speech Movement in Berkeley -- and for the most part, it seemed the program was pretty good. It tried to show how events were linked together and not just discreet incidents, the way so much "history" is presented. The premise was essentially: "Everything changed on November 22, 1963, and the '60s as we remember them really began in 1964." True enough. I've been saying pretty much that for years and scholars have been making the same point though somewhat less stridently than people like me. But it was odd how much was missing -- and who was missing -- from this program. One huge absence really stuck out to me (for reasons I may get into another time). Stokely Carmichael was never mentioned. Huh? Whut the...?  He appeared in a picture or two of civil rights events, and SNCC was mentioned briefly, but his name was never breathed.  I could not believe it. You cannot have a history of the Civil Rights Movement, even in 1964, without Stokely Carmichael -- but apparently he's been disappeared, as if he were a Soviet dissident.

Todd Gitlin was all over the place last night being interviewed about this and that, his title changing depending on the topic, but what he was doing in 1964 and where he was was never mentioned; it was implied he was at Berkeley in 1964 and had some role in the the Free Speech Movement, but so far as I know he wasn't there. He was at Harvard (or maybe Columbia, he moved around a lot back east) -- and he was running the SDS (which also was never mentioned.)  There was some well-coifed and manicured woman  (wish I could remember her name [looked it up, it was Stephanie Coontz, listed as a "Berkeley student," which I guess she was in 1964]) describing FSM events accurately enough but with little seeming interest, though she claimed she was part of the struggle, and "stood up and walked out of" [Sproul Hall] (though the iconic name of the administration building at UC Berkeley was never used) rather than being dragged down the stairs as so many were, and I thought it would have been more interesting if they'd had Alice Waters yakking "spiritually" about it instead. She may not have complete memories, but they're both more fun and more personal.

Anyway, what I'm trying to get at is that what we think we know about historical movements and events is definitely not the whole story, and in many cases, it's not even close to what was really going on. It's often a highly romanticized and cleansed version that leaves out many important aspects and people, and which declares "X" result, when the result was actually "Y". Or the result might have been something else altogether.

The Indianapolis and other transit strikes in the early 19-teens were pivotal in part because though they were declared to be settled in favor of the workers, they were failures, despite the huge number of people participating and supporting them. They literally brought the city and a good deal of transport in the region and the country to a halt, and though the official violence which was brought to bear against the strikers -- and the many murders that occurred as a result -- were widely condemned, the strikers did not win much of anything despite their enormous sacrifices. This was the pattern of the labor movement of the time. While discreet incidents may be recalled, and minor victories celebrated, the pattern of failures leading to tiny advances often isn't. I've read transcripts of the investigation into the conditions that led to the Indianapolis transit strikes, and it was horrible. It didn't get much better, despite the struggles, not until after World War I, and even then, victories were reversible. My grandfather lost his life in the struggle, but for what? A noble sacrifice? Maybe. But he was a flawed human being, and so, like the largely failed strikes themselves, largely forgotten.

1964 was a pivotal year for the American consciousness, but even as close as we are to it now, only fifty years on, it appears that key people and important events are being disappeared and whitewashed for some purpose, perhaps to enhance an official mythology, to simplify the record, to glorify certain aspects, diminish others -- on behalf of...? Well, that's the question, isn't it? Always the question. What are we being led to believe? On whose behalf? Or on behalf of what objective?

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