Thursday, August 15, 2019

Americana -- How we won the right we take for granted -- Aug. 15, 2019 column

"Shall Not Be Denied" exhibit at Library of Congress

By MARSHA MERCER

Old photos show suffragists in prim white dresses and hats, but they were taunted as unladylike, unpatriotic and worse.

Men spat on them, tore at their clothes and threw lighted cigarettes their way when women marched on Washington in 1913.

In 1917, suffragists picketed the White House – the first group to do so – and, for months, in good weather and bad, silently held banners.

“FAILURE IS IMPOSSIBLE,” one banner read – but the picketers were fined for “obstructing traffic” and, when they refused to pay, incarcerated.

The women protested prison conditions with hunger strikes, and authorities forcibly fed them a mixture of eggs and milk by tube through a nostril or down the throat -- three times a day.

These courageous and inspiring women kept fighting for the most American of rights for half the population: the vote.

Two compelling exhibits in Washington commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which says the right of citizens to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

The Library of Congress exhibit "Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote" and the National Archives' "Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote" both use original documents, photos, videos, artifacts and interactive media to tell the stories of suffragists and the suffrage movement and women's participation in government to the present.

After spending an afternoon at the two exhibits, I left convinced we owe the suffragists more than a debt of gratitude. We need to vote.

We tend to take the right to vote for granted, but American women fought seven decades for the vote.

The first women’s rights convention drew 300 women to Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848. Many signed Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “Declaration of Sentiments,” that pointedly began: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.”

The battle for the vote was on. Blacks were also disenfranchised, and suffragists first allied themselves with abolitionists. Later, the groups went their separate ways. Suffragists split among themselves over how militant their tactics should be.

While many chose confrontation and went to jail, there were light moments. The suffrage movement even had its own music. One popular song in 1916 was arrestingly titled “She’s Good Enough to be Your Baby’s Mother and She’s Good Enough to Vote with You.” 

An anti-suffrage movement contended political activity would ruin women’s morals as well as destroy the social order. Some arguments were racially charged.

The Georgia Association OPPOSED to Woman’s Suffrage, based in Macon, Ga., sent postcards to Congress in 1915 urging a no vote on suffrage.

The cards listed seven reasons, starting with “BECAUSE the women of Georgia don’t want the vote” and included “universal suffrage wipes out the disenfranchisement of the negro by State law” and “the danger to farmers’ families if negro men vote in addition to 2,000,000 negro women.” Finally, “White Supremacy must be maintained.”

The House finally passed the amendment May 21 and the Senate June 4, 1919. It went to the states where three-fourths or 36 states needed to ratify. The 36th state – Tennessee -- ratified it Aug. 18, 1920, and it went into effect Aug. 26, 1920.

The struggle wasn’t over. White women had the vote, Southern states used intimidation and unfair laws to create obstacles. 

Virginia didn’t get around to ratifying it until 1952. It wasn’t alone. Several Deep South states also took their time.

“Shall Not Be Denied” at the Library of Congress runs through September 2020, and “Rightfully Hers” at the National Archives through Jan. 3, 2021. Both are free.

At the Archives, you can use a touch screen ballot box to choose your top three contemporary issues. And if you’re not registered to vote, you can find out how to be #electionready just down the hall.

A nearby screen shows that while voter turnout in the 2018 midterm elections soared compared with that of other midterms, only 49.6 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Turnout in the 2016 presidential election was 60.1 percent.

We can do better. No excuses.


©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Grandmas say something, save lives -- Aug. 8, 2019 column


By MARSHA MERCER

A grandmother in Lubbock, Texas, prevented a mass shooting last month by persuading her grandson to let her drive him to a hospital.

William Patrick Williams, 19, called his grandma July 13 to say he was about to “shoot up” people at a local hotel and then commit suicide by cop.

The grandmother, who wasn’t identified, could hear him handling his AK-47 rifle as he spoke. Sensing he was both suicidal and homicidal, she talked him into going with her for medical help.

He gave authorities consent to enter the hotel room he’d rented, and they found on the bed the AK-47, 17 magazines loaded with ammunition, multiple knives, a black trench coat and other black items of clothing, according to a news release from the U.S. District Attorney’s Office Northern District of Texas.

He was arrested Aug. 1 and charged in a federal complaint with giving false information to a licensed firearm dealer when he purchased his rifle July 11. If convicted, Williams could receive a five-year prison term.

“This was a tragedy averted,” U.S. Attorney Erin Nealy Cox said Aug. 2 in a statement.

Last year, another grandmother averted a tragedy.

In Everett Wash., Cathi O’Connor called 911 in February 2018 after she read detailed plans in her grandson’s journal to commit mass murder at his high school. He was modeling his attack on the 1999 Columbine massacre.

“I’m preparing myself for the school shooting. I can’t wait. My aim has gotten much more accurate . . . I can’t wait to walk into that class and blow all those [expletive]s away,” Joshua Alexander O’Connor, 18, wrote.

His grandma also discovered a semiautomatic rifle hidden in his guitar case.

He subsequently pleaded guilty to criminal charges and was sentenced to 22 years in prison.

Those grandmothers’ heart-wrenching -- and heroic -- decision to stop their grandsons’ horrific plans undoubtedly saved lives, authorities said.

“If you suspect a friend or loved one is planning violence against themselves or others, do not hesitate to seek help immediately by calling law enforcement,” Cox added.

“If you see something, say something” has been our first line of defense against international terrorism since 9/11. It needs to be our mantra in the fight against homegrown terrorism as well.

After the most recent mass murders in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, left 31 dead and dozens injured, friends and former classmates said they had seen signs the gunmen were headed for violence. We hear similar reports whenever a mass shooter strikes.  

But few step forward to raise a concern.

Americans prize personal freedom and hate to be snitches. Plus no one can know whether someone will act on their fantasies.

O’Connor’s public defender argued in court: “In this country we do not criminalize people for thoughts. We do not punish a teenage boy for venting in his diary.”  

And yet we are grateful Cathi O’Connor found and read her grandson’s diary. Had he posted his hateful thoughts and plans anonymously on a dark website, no one might have known where he was headed.

We’re also grateful she trusted the police enough to come forward with information about her grandson’s plans. Police-community relations in many parts of the country are rocky, and lack of trust jeopardizes public safety.

Democrats and some Republicans are calling for universal background checks for gun purchasers, to reinstate the federal ban on assault weapons and to pass “red flag” state laws, which allow police to confiscate firearms temporarily from someone deemed a danger to themselves or others. Such laws are in effect in 17 states, although not in Virginia.

President Donald Trump said he supports tighter background checks and red flag laws, although we've seen him turn on a dime when the gun lobby objected. 

Republican members of Congress could not muster the political will when President Barack Obama pushed for gun control measures after the massacre of innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. I doubt they’ll suddenly grow a spine.

So, as we face the growing threat from white nationalists and other virulent strains of domestic terrorism, we will rely more than ever on grandmas, grandads, other family members, teachers, classmates and friends to say something when they see something.

Our lives depend on it.


©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.
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