Favorite Forgetting King, Kennedy and Indianapolis

Forgetting King, Kennedy, and Indianapolis

It was Friday and the students were in a noticeably high mood even for a Friday. I was teaching in an English, (as in grammar), classroom at an urban Indianapolis area school with a diverse, largely African-American profile. In addition to being the end of a school week, the date was April 4.

Even I had overlooked the date’s historic significance for hours after rising. A lone Facebook entry by a fellow history buff alerted me to the fact that it was 46 years earlier, when I was still six years old, that an assassin murdered America’s civil rights icon, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I took a moment to share with each class the significance of the day’s date. Only two students knew the history of April 4, 1968.

Scheduled to campaign in Indy for the Democratic primary that night was Robert “Bobby” Kennedy. His visit is now immortalized, but the memory of what both he and King were fighting for at the times of their respective deaths has faded.

According to an article in the Indianapolis Star, Kennedy was in Muncie, Indiana at the time of Dr. King’s murder. The Mayor of Indianapolis then, future senator Richard Lugar, urged Kennedy to call off his visit, but the senator from New York rejected the advice.

Upon arrival, Kennedy spoke to a gathered audience at the near-north side of the city. Work of King’s death had not yet reached most of those in attendance who’d been waiting in rain to greet the candidate. Kennedy broke the news, stunning the listeners.

History records the violent reactions that swept through many major cities across the country, most east of the Mississippi. In the western half of the United States, news of Martin Luther King’s death came while most people were still at work, perhaps creating a period of grace in which emotions were processed differently than in the East. Certainly at play due to the time difference was the opportunity for affirmative responses such as those of Los Angeles in which city officials and local activists organized vigils.

Lost memories

Downplayed, if not outright ignored in accounts of that day are the many acts of leadership by Indianapolis community and church activists. Here in Indy, the key role played by Bobby Kennedy should never be downplayed, but neither should the positive influence of local civic leaders, particularly within the African-American community.

Also largely ignored, both then and today, is the role played by Indianapolis’ Chief of Police, Winston Churchill, (I’m not kidding), and civil rights leader, current Congressman John Lewis. Churchill informed Kennedy’s staff that his department couldn’t protect the senator in the event of rioting. Kennedy soon discovered why the police could not, in fact, provide protection. Though the city provided the Kennedy party a police escort from the airport, the escort unexpectedly broke off upon reaching the outskirts of the black neighborhood where Kennedy was to speak. The Indianapolis Police Department would not enter the so-called Black ghetto.

John Lewis, who’d learned of King’s death before most others in the crowd, was adamant that Kennedy speak to the rain-soaked crowd gathered at Broadway Park, (17th and Broadway). Lewis had been meeting with those described by William Barry, a close friend of Kennedy who provided security for the senator, as hostile black militants. Barry had joined those who urged Kennedy to cancel the speech, but Lewis’ insistence otherwise to the candidate only confirmed Kennedy’s resolve.

According to Barry, the hostile black militants “pledged their support for Kennedy following the now famous speech in Indianapolis. No recent accounts I’ve read make any mention of John Lewis’ presence , nor of local community leaders. Overlooked is the critical role these parties played in carrying out the pleas for non-violent reaction to Dr. King’s assassination. Also absent from contemporary recollection is the lack of positive contribution on the part of the Lugar Administration and that of his Chief of Police, (who would be forced to resign a half-dozen years later after wide-spread corruption in his department was made public).

History as Prologue: Are the dreams dead?

It was Robert Kennedy himself who urged Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to organize what was to become the Poor People’s March. Largely forgotten today, King had expanded his focus on ending segregation and voter rights suppression of Blacks to addressing poverty, a common cause shared with Bobby Kennedy. In fact, King was in Memphis at the time of his death in support of striking sanitation workers seeking union recognition and equitable pay following the deaths of two garbage collectors earlier that year. The civil rights leader’s death contributed to the City of Memphis’s recognition of a union for the sanitation workers later in 1968.

Kennedy’s assassination in June of ’68 put the Democrat Party in chaos and Richard Nixon in the White House. It can also be argued the resolve for peace shown in Indianapolis that year was forgotten with a vengeance.

Since the day MLK was murdered and Robert Kennedy spoke so eloquently in Indianapolis, the shared cause of poverty and worker rights in whose name both men died have taken a clubbing in Indiana and the rest of the nation.

Since 1974, teachers in Indiana have not had the right to strike. More than three decades later, most collective bargaining rights were also stripped from Indiana teachers.

Recently, financed largely by out-of-state business lobbies, the Hoosier State passed a so-called Right-to-Work law, (the second such legislation in the state’s labor history).

As of 2012, Indiana children living in poverty had dropped from the national average of 23 percent the year before to 22 percent. Most forget that it was Robert Kennedy’s experiences visiting the Deep South during which he witnessed appalling poverty that helped convince him to campaign against incumbent President Johnson. 46 years later with Mississippi boasting a childhood poverty rate of 35 percent, more than twice the lowest figure of 14 percent shared by only two states, it’s worth asking if anyone even cares to remember King, Kennedy and the promise of justice seen in Broadway Park that sad April night so many years ago?

Perhaps it’s just too shameful to recall.

Teaching research skills before students go solo

Teach research skills before your students go solo

flt. instr. bill fisher 5-18-77
My flight instructor climbed out from the Cessna’s right seat and casually told me to “taker her up, fly the pattern, land and taxi back here.” Both of us knew I was prepared. It was my sixteenth birthday, the youngest age one can solo a powered aircraft. Thinking back on that still vivid memory, I can’t but help compare my first solo flight with the process of teaching research skills to students. In contrast, however, I know no flight instructor would ever leave an airplane in the hands of a student if he or she was as unprepared as most students now assigned a typical research paper.

Don’t skip the walk-around

My first time flying was with my Dad. He’d been a fighter pilot during the Korean War. I’d grown up listening to stories about flying the F-86 Sabre Jet and so wanting to fly at an early age was quite natural for me. Two decades after my father left the Air Force, he took up civilian flying, earning his Private Pilot’s license, which granted him the ability to take up passengers.

Like all young teens, I wanted to jump right into the Cessna 172 and take to the skies with Dad at the controls and me as co-pilot. However, as every pilot knows, you always start with what’s known as the pre-flight, short for pre-flight inspection, also commonly called the walk-around. No matter if you’re only planning a local flight that never leaves the general area of your airport or a long cross country, you always perform a very thorough 360 degree walk-around. If you find a problem, you don’t fly until the problem is completely corrected. No exceptions.

As a substitute teacher and having spent many days in multiple classrooms while running a gifted education program, I’ve witnessed scores of times the launching of research projects at every grade level. For most of those, my heart would sink as students wasted no time in their headlong attacks on Google. Predictably it would all go downhill from there. I say predictably because too many teachers assume their students understand why research tasks must be approached with the same care as a pre-flight.

Just as pilots inspects their aircraft for signs of defects that might compromise safety, teachers need to observe students through each step of the research process for signs of learning gaps. If a student jumps right into a search engine without having made a thorough study of the research task, that student should not be cleared to take off alone.

Pay attention to your instruments

Cessna 150 cockpitSeveral times a year my father would receive in the mail a bulletin from the Airplane Owner and Pilots Association, (AOPA), describing in clinical terms the basic facts concerning fatal crashes from around the country. Wings separated from fuselage often followed reports of pilots flying small aircraft into violent thunderstorms. Other grim phrases described pilots impacting the planet having ignored or not trusted their instruments, confident of their gut instincts right until the propeller struck. While botching a research project is unlikely to produce lethal outcomes, an observant teacher should constantly check for student feedback, including non-verbal input, indicating the student is drifting off course. Each step of the research process a student takes is like the information provided a pilot by the cockpit gages.

Safe flying is the repeated practice of good habits

I’d already spent an hour flying with my Dad, (who drove me to the airport as I’d not yet received my driver’s license), practicing takeoffs and the much more demanding landings before Bill Fisher arrived. He was my flight instructor and had also instructed my father while obtaining his Private License. While I have no doubt Bill trusted my father’s instructions to his son, he had me begin with a pre-flight on the little red Cessna-150 in which I was about to solo. Bill Fisher understood what all teachers should when assigning a research project; don’t assume it’s not your job to teach the necessary skills.

After a quick check ride to ensure I was familiar with emergency procedures, he had me taxi back to the tarmac near the end of runway two-seven, the runway’s abbreviated compass heading and direction of the prevailing winds. With the tips of my feet holding down the brakes, my instructor departed the craft after issuing his directions. When I returned from making single circuit around the patch, landing without bending the leased trainer Bill would sign my logbook and FAA medical certificate serving as my solo permit. He and my father knew I was ready to solo, though as a parent, I can now empathize with the natural anxiety Dad felt until I safely landed that first time by myself.

Aside from the rare appearance of a twin turboprop announcing his intention of entering the normally sleepy airport’s pattern, an unexpected occurrence requiring a young student pilot to extend his own pattern to accommodate the much faster airplane’s speed, my solo flight ended with a safe landing and proud taxi run back to the spot where my instructor had minutes earlier handed over the plane to a high-school sophomore.


Like safe flying, the application of research skills is nothing less than the repeated practice of good habits. Speaking as a history teacher, student achievement in my discipline is largely dependent upon my students possessing the confidence that comes with strong research skills. No teacher can assume the student knows how to properly research a subject or that teaching those skills is someone else’s job.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I’ll define and defend my strongly held beliefs on what constitutes the research process in a subsequent article.

Bringing rigor to the Underground Railroad story

The noble failure

fugitiveLike most Americans my age, at least those who liked American History from early in their childhood, certain understanding were simply presumed straightforward. Among these acceptances was the purpose of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. I didn’t like what I knew of the law, but I understood that the slave states insisted on having a rigorous law aimed at stemming the flow of fugitive slaves.

I also accepted those accounts readily available to me about the role of Underground Railroad “conductors.” With the lone account of Harriet Tubman, the conductors were, white, male and predominantly Quaker. Among these no doubt courageous figures who left for posterity their recollections of the efforts to help the pitiful runaway slave find his or her way to Canada and freedom is Levi Coffin, an abolitionist who, by his own account, helped over 3,300 slaves make their way north, 2,000 of these during his tenure in my hometown of Fountain City.

However, as I was exposed to more rigorous research, some conducted by myself, it soon became clear that the math didn’t add up in nearly every account, north and south, about the nature and certainly the efficacy of the Underground Railroad. Exaggeration, which I now see was rampant in these accounts, has driven a very unrealistic picture of this romantically described network to freedom. The fact of the matter is that the story of the Underground Railroad is one of one of the most tragic failures in American History.

The math

I’m indebted to Philadelphia attorney David Romine, owner of the LinkedIn professional group, American History. Earlier this year, in one of the many fine, even fun discussion threads, David introduced me to a book that has greatly expanded my understanding of issues and causes leading to the Civil War.

As the discussion on non-fiction books touched upon the 1850s, David shared, “The authoritative book on the 1850s is David Potter’s, The Impending Crisis. I almost immediately ordered the book from my local library. At 583 pages of text before the extensive bibliography, it’s a serious read. The book’s prose is disciplined and lesser writers than the late professor Potter have written covered much less in multiple volumes. The brief treatment of the Underground Railroad’s actual effect on slavery is a prime example.

In one paragraph on page 136, Potter cites census figures from both the United States and Canada that provide, as the author states, “some puzzling anomalies.” Census data from slave states whose congressional representation was calculated, albeit at three-fifths per soul, enumerates “…the number of slaves who an away annually…at 1,011 for 1850 and 803 for 1860.” For states whose, (much higher), claims of economic damage done by fleeing slaves was one of the causes of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, their own records fail to back up the assertions.

Canadian census figures are even more damning to figures used by both abolitionists and slave states. Citing again the same paragraph of The Impending Crisis, figures from Upper Canada, meaning Ontario where most formerly in bondage settled, count 5,469 Negroes in 1848, “…increasing to 8,000 in 1852 and to 11,223 in 1860.”

The paragraph concludes that even had there been no natural increase in population, either fugitive slave returned from Canada, not to Free States, but to the South, “…or that the migration was less than 6,000.”

The need for more rigorous interpretation

seiburt mapIn addition to the scholarship of the 1976 Pulitzer Prize award winning The Impending Crisis, (both the book’s publishing and the author’s award were posthumous), the Underground Railroad has been reinterpreted on many levels.

Though unquestionably helpful furthering the study of the Underground Railroad, the late Ohio State History Professor Wilbur Siebert’s painstaking collection of accounts and data is almost entirely that of white abolitionist’s accounts that seldom mention or downplay the role of Free Blacks who actively secreted fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad. These accounts are now seen as almost certainly exaggerated in detail when held up to much academic scrutiny.

In Levi Coffin’s 1876 autobiography, Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the reputed president of the underground railroad, the author applies without confirmation or denial a third hand accounting of the number of fugitives he personally assisted.

LEVIand CATHRecalling a visit to England made following the Civil War, Coffin quotes in his book one Edward Gem retelling an account by mutual friend Joseph Sturge as to Coffin’s work on the Underground Railroad.

…during the twenty years he remained at Newport, (present day Fountain City, Indiana), he had the privilege of sheltering under his roof an annual average of one hundred and six….In all he had the privilege of relieving 3,300.

Coffin uses the claims of others in a similar fashion when suggests he and his wife Catherine are the basis of characters Rachel and Simeon Halliday in Cincinnati contemporary Harriet Beecher Stowe’s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This assertion was debunked in Stowe’s 1854 A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written in response by pro-slavery sources that the novel was almost entirely fiction.keycvr

The suggestion Levi and Catherine Coffin personally “relieved” more than half the probable number of slaves who escaped from the South is almost certainly a wild exaggeration. Coffin, who died within a year of the book offering by subscription, was composed to help support his wife and I can’t blame the abolitionist for taking a common license to boost sales.

The context

While scholarship not clouded by nostalgia, wishful thinking or even careless research reveals the Underground Railroad to have been an unqualified failure as a means to free human beings from bondage, it would be unfairly cynical to write off the effort.

As Potter points out in his work, the Underground Railroad was primarily a propaganda tool used with effect by abolitionists, a tiny minority among Northerners at their height of influence, which was never much. Conversely, the term Underground Railroad, likely first coined by Southerners to also inflate their claims, was a factor in enacting the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Despite the near universal contempt felt in the North towards that onerous law, it was, with but few exceptions, enforced.

History as Prologue

The contemporary study of the Underground Railroad needs to evolve from one of romanticism to one of context. The complex causes of the Civil War – all inextricably tied to slavery – have been presented too often as independent factors, not the interrelated, fluid movements finally colliding at Fort Sumter.

For those of us who study and interpret the Underground Railroad, our understandable fondness for and defensiveness of abolitionists must be seen as an impediment to fully appreciating the true nature of this topic and of all its actors. To do this, we’ve got to begin presenting the story of the Underground Railroad for what it was – a noble failure.