Category Archives: History

25 Things You Didn’t Know About Billy Graham

The evangelist Billy Graham died today at the age of 99.

My first job out of college was working for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA). Once upon a time I had a blog about Billy Graham and tried to write a biography. I still have a box of Billy Graham memorabilia (“Billyobilia”?) from the waning days of the BGEA before it moved to North Carolina.

I’m captivated by Graham’s transition from fiery preacher to loving grandfather. I find his comfort and then estrangement with political power to be both inspiring and troubling.

I am sometimes bothered by the seeming simplicity of Billy Graham’s message or the emotional manipulation of plinky music and a stadium full of peer pressure. But that’s also the inherent contradiction of the gospel. It’s a simple message, but a lifetime journey. It’s the already but not yet.

In short, Billy Graham led a fascinating life.

As part of my research in working on a biography, I put together a list of 25 curious facts about Billy Graham. Since little ever came of that research, it seems worthwhile to share it today. Continue reading 25 Things You Didn’t Know About Billy Graham

Church Communication Heroes

Church Communication Heroes Volume 1Last month I put together another yet another ebook, this one exploring heroes. Church Communication Heroes Volume 1 launched on All Saints’ Day last week. It’s another ebook from Church Marketing Sucks, our second one this year.

I’m especially excited about this one because it finds inspiration in the historical figures who have gone before us. They may not have used Facebook hundreds of years ago, but they still had to communicate. I think churches can learn a lot from history and too often we’re disconnected from it.

Church communicators may not think we have any history, but we do.

The book explores the stories of 15 saints of communication, including familiar names such as  Martin Luther King Jr. and Vincent van Gogh and less obvious names such as Pauli Murray and Pandita Ramabai. We also had a ton of great writers and an incredible cover design.

It’s also fun because it’s volume one. The plan is to roll out more hero stories in the future.

Learn more about the ebook and pick up your own copy >>

Double V For Victory: Racism in World War II

Lately I’ve been reading about the civil rights movement and World War II is yet another area that has captured my interest. Racial segregation was the norm across the South, in the nation’s capital and also in the armed forces. Even blood collected for wounded soldiers had to be segregated by order of the War Department.

In that atmosphere of inequality and second class citizenship, it’s not hard to see parallels between the fascist and racial supremacy ideals of Hitler and the segregation of Jim Crow.

As civil rights activist (and my new hero) Pauli Murray put it in a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, “We are as much political refugees of the South as any of the Jews of Germany.” As the Holocaust showed Hitler’s tyranny was far more gruesome and deadly, but blacks in the South faced lynchings, intimidation and degradation as a way of life. White racists of the South weren’t that far removed from Nazi Germany.

Murray argued for equality as part of the war effort, saying: “We cannot come into the world struggle for democracy with dirty hands.”

As the draft began blacks posed a fair question: “Should I sacrifice my life to live half American?” That’s how James G. Thompson of Wichita, Kan., put it, as he proposed the Double V campaign:

“The first V for victory over our enemies from without, the second V for victory for our enemies from within. For surely those who perpetuate these ugly prejudices here are seeking to destroy our democratic form of government just as surely as the Axis forces.”

Published and promoted by the Pittsburgh Courier it became a rallying cry that gave blacks an opportunity to support the war effort and maintain their dignity.

The Double V campaign didn’t succeed initially on the home front, but in 1948 Harry Truman ended segregation of the armed forces by executive order. In the 1950s other challenges to segregation would mount and it would eventually crumble beneath the march of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, 20 years after World War II and the Double V campaign.

The Royal Ethiopian Regiment

I just finished reading The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson. If the length of the title is any indication as to the length of the prose, be warned. At 550+ pages of 18th century writing by a classically trained slave, this book is a chore to read. It doesn’t help that very little happens. Which is all too bad. It’s a fascinating story of an escaped slave joining up with the British to become part of the Royal Ethiopian Regiment to fight the revolting Colonials.

I was curious about this Royal Ethiopian Regiment, though it probably had few if any actual Ethiopians in it. While the story is fiction, it’s based on fact. Lord Dunmore, governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation that any slaves escaped from rebels would be granted freedom for serving in the British Army. Some 800 were organized into the Royal Ethiopian Regiment, though they were never given much of a chance to fight. They were led into a trap at the Battle of Great Bridge and were later decimated by smallpox. Only 300 of the original 800 survived the eventual retreat to New York.

The story of black Loyalists in the American Revolution is interesting. The title of the book paints Octavian as a traitor, but what choice did he have? Traitor, slave, dead. Black Colonials had no hope of freedom, while the British often offered freedom as a way to encourage recruits and disrupt the colonists. Those promises were eventually honored and some of these black Loyalists were moved to Nova Scotia and later Sierra Leone.

There’s an interesting author’s note at the end of The Kingdom on the Waves that reads in part:

In the course of my research for this book, I have come to believe that the American Republic would not have survived its early years—would not have made it through the War of 1812—if it had not been fueled and funded by two profound acts of ethnic violence: the establishment of slavery and the annexation of Native American lands, both of which practices played a major part in the inception and conduct of the Revolution. The freedom—economic, social and intellectual—enjoyed by the vocal and literate elite of the early Republic would have been impossible if it had not been for the enslavement, displacement and destruction of others.

With so much whitewashed talk of our founding fathers, that’s perhaps a more realistic look. But they’re not alone in their guilt:

But it is easy to condemn the dead for their mistakes. Hindsight is cheap, and the dead can’t argue. It is harder to examine our own actions and to ask what abuses we commit, what conspicuous cruelties we allow to afford our luxuries, which of our deeds will be condemned by our children’s children when they look back upon us. We, too, are making decisions. We, too, have our hypocrisies, our systems of shame.

Confederates in the Attic

I’ve never truly understood the Confederate perspective in the Civil War. I’ve blogged about this before, including the Confederate flag, civil rights as an end to the Civil War, some interesting historical perspective and the question of whether or not a state can secede (which still draws comments six years later).

This summer I made my first in-depth trip to the deep South (short stays in Charlotte and Nashville don’t seem to count), spending a week in Oxford, Miss. It was hard to avoid the rebel spirit and I found myself again wondering about this war that divided a nation. I’ve always understood slavery to be the cause and considered this a racist war and continued support for the Confederate cause 150 years later is surely proof of continued racism. But that’s also my Northern perspective, gained from growing up in a state that seemed far removed from Civil War battles (Michigan); living in a state that was barely on its feet when the war started (Minnesota—though for what it’s worth we did volunteer the first regiment, by luck of timing); having roots in a state that served as a flashpoint over slavery and ultimately sided with the North (Kansas); and having never really traveled in the original Confederate states.

In short, it’s a perspective I’ve had very little exposure to over the years.

While browsing in a bookstore in Mississippi I came across Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. It’s a fascinating read that essentially tries to do what I’ve never been able to—understand the fascination and respect that goes along with the defeated Confederate States of America.

A lot of it has to do with the underdog cause, with states rights versus an over-reaching federal government. Some of it is land and loyalty, going along with your people because they’re, well, your people (I’m not sure that’s something we can understand today as few people are as locally fixed as people were back then). And many Southern soldiers weren’t slaveholders—apparently you could be excused from fighting if you owned more than 20 slaves.

“They were poor men fighting a rich man’s war,” says high school teacher Billie Faulk. That seems equally true today.

Historian Shelby Foote offers an interesting defense of the Confederate Flag. It was a battle flag, not the political flag, and veterans revered it as soldiers do. It became associated with hatred during the civil rights era when educated Southerns allowed white supremacists to misuse the flag. “That’s when right-thinking people should have stepped in and said, ‘Don’t use that banner, that’s not what it stands for.’ But they didn’t. So now it’s a symbol of evil to a great many people.”

That’s where the shift gets interesting. There’s this on-going animosity in the South, which I suppose is to be expected of a conquered people. After the Civil War they didn’t celebrate the Fourth of July in Mississippi again until 1945. In Richmond, the Confederate capitol, there’s Monument Avenue, which is effectively a shrine to the defeated leaders of the Confederacy (except for black tennis star Arthur Ashe, added in the late 1990s with its share of controversy). How odd is it to have monuments to what amounts to insurrectionists and traitors? And Richmond certainly isn’t alone. Confederate monuments are sprinkled across the South (Vicksburg, Miss., is apparently home to more than 1,300 plaques and monuments).

That’s what is perhaps most surprising about the Civil War. For four years brother fought against brother, but when it was over we became one nation again. Reconstruction wasn’t exactly pretty (which is why I’m even writing this today), but that it happened at all was amazing. Most Confederate leaders were never tried (only two Confederates were brought up on war crimes, commander of the Andersonville prisoner camp Henry Wirz and guerrilla fighter Champ Ferguson). Even Confederate President Jefferson Davis was released after two years in prison and no charges were brought against him. The Confederacy was not labeled as an insurrection and all supporters branded traitors.

In the end I’m not sure if I’ve made any ground. At the very least, I’ve come to understand the whole situation as being incredibly complicated. I do think its disingenuous when Confederate supporters and rebel flag flyers dismiss slavery as part of the issue. It’s part of what makes America uniquely, well, American (and how American is it to talk about how unique we are?). We were founded in the contradiction that all men are created equal, except for the slaves and Indians, maybe those Jews and immigrants we don’t like, and oh yeah, the Irish. We eventually went to war with ourselves over it and came out united. Of course freeing the slaves didn’t exactly fulfill the promise that all men were created equal and it was another hundred years before that was carried out.

Even today we continue to live with the contradiction. Though we’re past slavery and segregation, we still have racism and self-imposed segregation. Though equality isn’t exactly there, the fact that we finally have a black man as president shows how far we’ve come. That he opted to hang a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation in the halls of the White House is powerful (the fact that no president did that before shows how blind we can be to the power of our own history).

I don’t know where I’m going with any of this, but it’s an interesting history to wade through.

National Parks: America’s Best Idea

Hendricks Boys 1986 (Rocky Mountain National Park Style)Last week I picked up the National Parks documentary by Ken Burns from the library. I heard about it when it was first on PBS, but who has time to sit down and watch 12 hours worth of documentary on PBS? I’ve been watching it for the past week and falling in love (again) with America’s best idea, the National Park Service.

It’s amazing what it took to create the National Parks. It started in the 1860s with the preservation of Yosemite and officially began in 1872 with the world’s first national park, Yellowstone. The idea of preserving something for the people was a uniquely American idea. But that doesn’t mean it came easily. People fought against the National Parks, not just in the 1800s, but even recently.

And once we had the parks, we had to fight even harder to save them. The idea that the animals should run free and wild wasn’t a natural conclusion. It was something people had to fight for.

After watching the entire documentary and learning about the history of the parks, I learned a few things.

First, practically every park was saved because somebody stood up and demanded action. They rallied the troops and wrote letters and raised money and did the hard work that had to be done to save a section of land from developers. It’s hard to find a park that was saved without a fight, without somebody wanting to develop the land and somebody else wanting to save it for our children and our children’s children. We owe much of our national heritage to these kinds of heroes. And not just national parks. If there’s a state park or beautiful city park in your area, somebody had to fight for that. Be thankful.

Kevin & Abby with the RMNP SignSecond, we stand on the shoulders of giants in terms of accumulated knowledge. I kept finding myself dumbstruck by the people fighting against the parks and the silly things people would do in the parks, from exterminating predators in Yellowstone to grazing sheep in Yosemite. There was no understanding of the value of nature or the way an ecosystem works or that feeding a bear isn’t good for the bear. These are simple ideas that seem like common sense to me. But I realized that’s because I was raised and taught those ideas. Nobody had those ideas 50 years ago and it seemed like a good idea to throw out food so the tourists could watch the bears. Rather than be frustrated with our ancestors who didn’t know anything, I’m grateful for my inheritance of accumulated knowledge and wisdom.

Third, I want to go back to the National Parks. Growing up we spent nearly a decade doing the traditional summer vacation and hitting up the National Parks of the American West. We hit Rocky Mountain National Park nearly every year, but each year we’d go somewhere else different and I’ve racked up quite a hit list: Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Mesa Verde, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Bryce, Zion, Monument Valley (which isn’t actually a National Park, but a Navajo Tribal Park), Yosemite, Sequoia, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Canyon De Chelley, Painted Desert, Petrified Forest, Carlsbad Caverns, Whitesands and probably more (and OK, some of those are National Monuments or whatever other designation they have, but they’re still in the National Park system).

In 2003 Abby and I went back to Rocky Mountain National Park and it was the greatest camping experience of my life (and campfires weren’t allowed thanks to a wild fire raging nearby). I want to take my kids to the National Parks, just like my parents took me, and my grandparents took my parents.

Don’t Know Much About History

For our various driving trips over the past few months I’ve been listening to the audio book version of Don’t Know Much About History by Kenneth C. Davis. It’s a vast overview of American history from pre-Colonial days until 2001. I found it to be oddly captivating, especially as it helped to fill in gaps in my knowledge of history, including the War of 1812, Reconstruction, the Korean War and more.

Any overview of history is sure to have its biases and make choices of content and coverage that someone is sure to disagree with. But some of those choices were especially interesting. For example, the Battle of the Bulge in World War II received more coverage than the Apollo moon landing. Alan Greenspan and his control over the boom economy of the 1990s received about as much coverage as the Kennedy assassination. Uncovered spies in the last decades of the 20th century were given thorough treatment in a chapter on the failures of the FBI, while the World Trade Center bombing was only mentioned in passing during the account of the Oklahoma City bombing.

I imagine it’s hard to put history in perspective, especially recent history. But how we make those choices is certainly fascinating.

Looking back on the entire book, it’s bizarre how much space is given to war. Each and every war was given a thorough overview, including the reasons for the war and the important milestones of each war, such as major battles. It seems odd to give so much space to each individual battle. Surely wars themselves and the reasons for each war were important to cover, but I don’t get the emphasis on each minute rise and fall. Wars shape our society, without a doubt, but I would think other social factors would have more importance than the Battle of Midway.

The other feeling I was left with was the incredible failure of mankind. Again and again we’re confronted with disgusting realities, whether it’s the Constitution declaring black men to be three-fifths of a person, the savage treatment of Native Americans justified by their supposed savageness or the national superiority that sees immigrants as lesser persons, despite the fact that we’re a nation of immigrants.

The Tulsa race riot of 1921 was one such incident, a racially motivated powder keg that saw an entire black neighborhood burned to the ground and several hundred people killed. It was such an ugly affair that it was expunged from local records and never acknowledged until recently.

History is full of this kind of sadness.

But as I was driving across the prairies of Kansas hearing about the civil rights movement, I found moments of hope. In the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case the Supreme Court finally overturned more than 50 years worth of racism that had been enshrined in U.S. court decisions. What’s perhaps most amazing about this is how Chief Justice Earl Warren convinced the other justices to issues a unanimous ruling, leaving no question as to the utter defeat of segregation. The back story is even more intriguing, that the court was actually re-hearing the case and that Warren was appointed chief justice before this final re-hearing. Ironically, President Dwight Eisenhower called his appointment of Warren the “the biggest damned-fool mistake I ever made.”

I was hearing this history while driving past exits for both the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. You don’t always think about it, but Kansas has been a flashpoint for racial progress going back to the Bleeding Kansas days when the territory was at the middle of a slave vs. free state debate.

In spite of all our failures, weakness and stupidity—both then and today, for surely we have our own failures we’ll one day be explaining to our children—there is always room for hope.

Rock Island Swing Bridge

Rock Island Swing BridgeYesterday I went for a 20-mile bike ride. I think that’s a little too much distraction. My goal was to make it down to the new Rock Island Swing Bridge in Inver Grove Heights that’s been converted to a pier. The ride down was great. The ride back? Not so much.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the trail I cataloged for a National Park Service trail guide back in 2000 has been extended almost all the way to the Rock Island Swing Bridge. There are plans for more amenities at the bridge, including a 55-acre park that should make it even more of an attraction.

So what is it? It’s a 670-foot pier that extends halfway out into the Mississippi River. Originally built in 1894, the double-decker bridge carried trains and vehicles across the river. Trains went on top and vehicles on the bottom. Supposedly John Dillinger used the bridge as an escape route when evading the FBI. It was closed to trains in 1980 and traffic in 1999.

Rock Island Swing BridgeIn 2001 the Coast Guard ordered its removal as a potential disruption to river traffic. A section of the eastern half of the bridge collapsed in 2008 and demolition was imminent. In 2009, a month before the scheduled removal of the western half of the bridge, the governor and legislature offered a reprieve, likely thanks to a bridge tour the National Park Service hosted in 2008 to gauge public interest. Nearly 700 people showed up and waited in long lines all day to get a chance to walk on the old bridge.

The bridge (at least the western half) was finally saved thanks to a federal grant, state aid disaster funds, county and city funds, the Minnesota Historical Society and a local fund drive, totaling $2.3 million. Construction was delayed by flooding and then a fire, but last week the pier opened to the public.

Rock Island Swing BridgeSo is it worth it? That’s the question another Rock Island Swing Bridge visitor posed when I was there. I looked around for my answer. This is it. Where else can you find these views of the Mississippi River? I’m not aware of any other pier like it in the Twin Cities area, and maybe not on the rest of the Mississippi. It gives Inver Grove Heights public access to the river (most river front property is either private clubs or industrial land) and a major destination.


Mulling Over the Civil War, 150 Years Later

150 years ago the United States of America went to war with itself. An interesting article over at CNN explored four reasons why we’re still fighting that war.

It’s full of interesting ideas and rationales. I found two of them worth talking about here:

1) Power of the Federal Government

H.W. Crocker III, author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War, says Southern secessionists were patriots reaffirming the Founding Fathers’ belief that the Colonies were free and independent states.

They were also reaffirming the Founding Fathers’ belief that black men only counted as two-thirds of a person and could be sold like cattle. But you know, details.

But I’ll give Crocker some credit, he does pose a fair question:

“If the Southern states pulled out of the union today after, say, the election of Barack Obama, or some other big political issue like abortion, how many of us would think the appropriate reaction from the federal government would be to blockade Southern ports and send armies into Virginia?”

Ouch. There’s a question for the pro-life crowd. If Roe vs. Wade is overturned and California says “We’re out,” is the appropriate response to go to war?

An over-simplified question for a way more complex issue. Of course Abraham Lincoln said yes and did go to war over a moral issue. Which brings me to the second interesting idea.

2) Christianity Poisons Politics

At the time of the Civil War the political center disappeared in the wake of the Second Great Awakening, according to David Goldfield, author of America Aflame, a new book that examines evangelical Christianity’s impact on the war.

Goldfield says evangelical Christianity “poisoned the political process” because the American system of government depends on compromise and moderation, and evangelical religion abhors both because “how do you compromise with sin.”

“By transforming political issues into moral causes, you raise the stakes of the conflict and you tend to demonize your opponents,” Goldfield says.

So Christianity is to blame for the Civil War? Ouch. I’m over-simplifying (again), but it’s an interesting idea.

Some might say that’s good. Eradicating slavery is a battle worth fighting and in the case of the Civil War that’s meant literally. It’s interesting to make comparisons and talk about whether that’s worth doing today, but that’s probably one of the few times in history when you can invade to enforce a moral issue. Who would the pro-life crowd propose we invade in order to stop abortion? Or perhaps less inflammatory, who could we invade today to stop human trafficking? There’s no country that legalizes and supports slavery today like the South did 150 years ago.

I don’t have any answers here, I’m just mulling ideas.

Columbus Day

You could easily miss that today is Columbus Day. Weirdest national holiday ever.

This summer I spent some time trying to teach Yeshumnesh a little American history. I think the greatest thing we learned is that I’m not a very good teacher. But we started off by going back to Columbus and I quickly realized how Euro-centric history is. I kept finding myself using words like “discovered” and “new world” and the rest, which is just bizarre considering all the indigenous people who had been living in this “new world” for centuries.

At the same time you can’t just discount the “discovery,” because it had tremendous implications for everyone. It meant tremendous opportunity and change for the European powers as they squabbled over a new-to-them corner of the world. And it meant genocide, slavery and destruction for the indigenous people who were quickly overwhelmed.

Much of that history is whitewashed when we talk about it and Columbus still gets the credit for “discovering the new world.” My favorite example is a timeline of the history of agriculture in the Americas that begins with Columbus.

I had a little trouble balancing all these issues as I tried to explain the backstory of American history. And in the end we have a holiday for a man who enslaved and brutalized native peoples. I get marking such a dramatic phase shift in history, but I wonder if focusing on the lone man is the best approach.