Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Meeting the Rosa parks we never knew -- Feb. 20, 2020 column



Contrary to popular myth, Rosa Parks was not physically tired the afternoon she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man.

“The only tired I was, was tired of giving in,” she wrote years later. Nor was she old, though “some people have an image of me being old then.”

It was Dec. 1, 1955, and Parks was 42. There were no TV cameras, reporters or cell phones on the Cleveland Avenue bus in Montgomery, Alabama, so over time she wrote letters and notes in her neat cursive, correcting misconceptions about what happened and recording the thoughts and events of her long and consequential life.

She was not, as is often told, sitting in the bus section reserved for white passengers that day. She was in the first row of the “colored” section, but in the segregated South blacks were required to move to the back of the bus if whites needed a seat. When passengers crowded on and a white man was left standing, the bus driver ordered Parks and three others to move. The others reluctantly did so.  

Parks is often portrayed as a meek seamstress, and she did work as a seamstress in a department store. But she was hardly meek. Quietly militant, she had been fighting racial injustice for decades. Finally, fed up with the second-class treatment of blacks in the Jim Crow South, she stood up for freedom by staying seated.

“I had been pushed around all my life and felt at this moment that I couldn’t take it anymore,” she wrote soon afterward. “When I asked the policeman why we had to be pushed around? He said he didn’t know. `The law is the law. You are under arrest.’ I didn’t resist.”

That note on yellow paper is among Parks’s personal papers that were unavailable to the public and scholars for years. The Library of Congress received the collection in 2014 and created “Rosa Parks -- In Her Own Words,” an exhibition that tells the personal story of one of the most famous figures of the 20th Century.

The exhibition at the library in Washington through September and online at is a reminder during Black History Month, or anytime, that one courageous individual can change the course of history. On Presidents’ Day, when I stopped by, people of all ages and races were paying close and respectful attention to the displays. I recommend the excellent companion book to the exhibit, “Rosa Parks: In Her Own Words,” by Susan Reyburn, on which I rely here.

Parks’s life seems to move inexorably from refusing in childhood to let a white boy bully her (and being scolded by her grandma for talking “biggety to white folks”) to her act of civil disobedience in middle age that led to the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott and launched the civil rights movement. Even then, more than half her life was still before her, and she never stopped working for equality.

She died in her sleep at 92 in 2005 and lay in state in the U.S. Capitol, the first woman so honored. She and her late husband had no children, and relatives and friends battled in court over her belongings, which eventually were boxed up and shipped for storage in a warehouse in New York, awaiting an auction.

Howard G. Buffett, son of billionaire Warren Buffett and head of his own private foundation, bought the entire Parks collection in 2014 for an undisclosed sum. The auction house, however, reportedly placed its value at $10 million. He loaned the collection to the Library of Congress and generously made the gift permanent in 2016.

“I’m only trying to do one thing: preserve what’s there for the public’s benefit,” Howard Buffett told the Associated Press. “I thought about doing what Rosa Parks would want. I doubt that she would want to have her stuff sitting in a box with people fighting over them.”

The trove includes 7,500 manuscripts, 2,500 photographs, clothing she sewed, her many awards and even handmade cards to Parks from children.

“I want to be remembered as a person who stood up to injustice,” Parks said. “And most of all I want to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free and wanted others to be free.”

That memory of Rosa Parks is safe at the Library of Congress, part of one of America’s great treasures.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

What's your presidential savvy? Take our quiz -- Feb. 13, 2020 column


Ah, Presidents’ Day, when mattresses go on sale. But wait. Let’s remember the official and legal name of the federal holiday on the third Monday in February is still George Washington’s Birthday. Washington was our first, but how much do you know about him and the presidents who followed? Quiz yourself on your presidential trivia savvy. Answers below.

1)    Washington had to create the presidency of the fledgling United States, including what to call the chief of government. Which of these titles did Vice President John Adams suggest to Washington?
 A “His Mightiness”
            B “His Elective Majesty”
            C “His Highness, the President of the United States and the Protector of Their Liberty”
            D All of the above
2)    Whose foes dubbed him “His Accidency”?
A  President Andrew Johnson
B  President Harry Truman
C  President John Tyler
D  President Gerald Ford
3)    Which president gave the shortest inaugural address in history?
A George Washington
B  Calvin Coolidge
C  Abraham Lincoln
D  Chester Arthur
4)    Of the first 18 presidents, 12 were slave owners at some point in their lives. Which of these presidents never owned slaves?  
  Ulysses S. Grant
B   John Adams
 Martin Van Buren
D  Andrew Johnson

5)    Which president said of himself: “fluency in English is something I’m not often accused of”?
A  Donald Trump
B  Calvin Coolidge
C  George H. W. Bush
D  George W. Bush  

6)     True or False: Washington’s birthday is Feb. 22, 1732, but it used to be Feb. 11, 1731.

7)    Speaking of birthdays, which president was born on the Fourth of July?
A  Thomas Jefferson
B  James Monroe
C  Calvin Coolidge
D  John Adams
8)     Which president(s) won the Pulitzer Prize?
A  Bill Clinton
B  Barack Obama
C  John F. Kennedy
D  All of the above

9)    Who was the last president who was neither Republican nor Democrat?
A  George Washington
B  Millard Fillmore
C  Abraham Lincoln
D  Franklin Pierce

10)  President Zachary Taylor died after 16 months in office in 1850. How did he die?
A  He got sick after eating a bowl of cherries and drinking milk.
B  He got sick after drinking too much alcohol at a holiday party.
C  He contracted tuberculosis following a trip.
D  He suffered a heart attack.  

BONUS:  Which presidential candidate ran the first TV campaign ad?
             A Franklin Roosevelt
             B Dwight Eisenhower
             C Harry Truman
             D Richard Nixon

1)    D  – But Washington went with the simple title the House suggested: The President of the United States.

2)    C – Tyler was the first vice president to assume the top job after President William Henry Harrison caught cold and died of pneumonia barely a month after giving the longest inauguration speech in history.

3)    A – Washington’s second inaugural address on March 4, 1793, was just 135 words long and lasted less than 2 minutes.

4)    B – John Adams, as well as his son John Quincy Adams, never owned slaves.  

5)    C – Historian Jon Meacham quoted Bush’s self-deprecating comment in his eulogy of the former president in 2018.

6)    True – Under the Julian Calendar, Washington’s birthday was Feb. 11, 1731, but when Britain changed to the Gregorian Calendar we use today, his birthday moved to Feb. 22, 1732.

7)    C – Coolidge in 1872. Jefferson, Monroe and Adams all died on the Fourth of July.

8)    C – JFK won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957 for “Profiles in Courage,” a volume of short biographies. It’s now known that presidential speechwriter Ted Sorensen wrote much of the work.

9)    B – Fillmore was a Whig.

10) A – Taylor is thought to have contracted a form of cholera from the cherries.

BONUS:  B -- “Eisenhower Answers America” in 1952 featured ordinary Americans asking the candidate questions in TV ad spots.

  Sources: Library of Congress, Mount Vernon, National Archives, White House Historical Association,,, “To the Best of My Ability,” James M. McPherson general editor.  

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, February 6, 2020

Competence: Heat's on New Hampshire -- Feb. 6, 2020 column


The Democratic caucuses in Iowa Monday night were supposed to give Iowans the first say on winners and losers for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Instead, the Democrats coughed up a political mess.

The culprit was a brand-new app that reportedly was developed in just two months and hadn’t been tested on a statewide level. What could go wrong? Just about everything. Precincts were unable to send in results to party headquarters, and the back-up emergency phone system was overwhelmed.

Caucus results were delayed for days, then disputed. Chaos ensued. Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders were nearly tied, and both had claims to winning. Naturally, President Donald Trump gloated.

“Unmitigated disaster,” Trump tweeted Tuesday. “When will the Democrats start blaming RUSSIA, RUSSIA, RUSSIA, instead of their own incompetence for the voting disaster that just happened in the Great State of Iowa?” Trump has steadfastly refused to accept the U.S. intelligence community’s findings that Russia interfered on his behalf in the 2016 election and that it is doing so again this year.

If Democrats can’t run a caucus, Republicans scoff, how can they run the country?

In raising competence, Trump again showed his knack of finding opponents’ soft spot. For Democrats, the Iowa debacle underlined their anxiety in 2020. Who in their large field of presidential contenders can beat Trump – and is up to the job in the White House?

As candidates turned to New Hampshire, whose primary is Tuesday, polls show New Hampshire voters, like Democrats in Iowa, are late in making up their minds. No clear frontrunner has emerged. Joe Biden, once thought the strongest candidate against Trump, came in fourth in Iowa and called the caucuses a “gut punch.”

Turnout in Iowa was also worrisome for Democrats. Predicted to be high, turnout was more on a par with 2016 than the record crowds in 2008. Nor does it help Democrats that Trump’s nationwide job approval has been rising. It stands at 49%, the highest since he took office, the latest Gallup poll reported.

Trump’s team claims -- based on conspiracy theories, not fact -- Democrats “rigged” the Iowa caucus vote. If you recall, Trump also claimed repeatedly during the 2016 campaign that the election would be rigged -- until he won.

In 2016, the Democratic establishment did put its thumb on the scale for Hillary Clinton. But the Democratic National Committee rewrote the rules for 2020, giving party officials known as superdelegates less power in the nominating process.

Democrats wisely have been moving away from caucuses. Only a handful of states will use the antiquated system to choose delegates to this summer’s presidential nominating conventions. Nevada Democrats, who caucus Feb. 22, quickly announced they scrapped the software that failed in Iowa.

Caucuses tend to be run by the political parties, while the New Hampshire primary, along with the primary in South Carolina Feb. 29, and primaries in Virginia and other Super Tuesday states March 3 are run by state and local governments.

“Caucuses are run by rank amateurs. Even though we have concerns about the capacity of election officials, at least this is what they do a lot of,” Charles Stewart, who runs MIT’s election data and science lab, told ProPublica. “Even in the smallest of jurisdictions you run a lot of elections – you have contingency plans. The parties, bless their hearts, they don’t do this very much and that’s the bottom line.”

Competence may not be sexy, but it’s reassuring when it comes to elections and government. It’s not too much to ask for timely, accurate election results.

That’s why New Hampshire, which has been holding the first primary since 1920, is even more important this year. Democrats need to put the chaos in Iowa behind them. New Hampshire will give a snapshot of where independents are leaning. In the Granite State’s semi-open primary, “undeclared” or independent voters -- about 42% of those registered in the state – can vote. Sanders won easily last time.  

After the 2020 election, Democrats will probably go back to the drawing board, again, to find a better process of picking their nominee. Iowa likely will lose its caucus in favor of primaries. Restoring faith in the election process is crucial.

 For now, it’s time to focus on the present. Hello, New Hampshire. Don’t mess it up.

(C)2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.