December 2: Millard Fillmore’s Guano Day!

December 1, 2014

Why December 2?

(You couldn’t make this stuff up if you were Monty Python.)

English: Millard Fillmore White House portrait

Millard Fillmore’s White House portrait, via Wikipedia

President Millard Fillmore, in the State of the Union Address, December 2, 1850

Peruvian guano has become so desirable an article to the agricultural interest of the United States that it is the duty of the Government to employ all the means properly in its power for the purpose of causing that article to be imported into the country at a reasonable price. Nothing will be omitted on my part toward accomplishing this desirable end. I am persuaded that in removing any restraints on this traffic the Peruvian Government will promote its own best interests, while it will afford a proof of a friendly disposition toward this country, which will be duly appreciated.

Did any other U.S. President spend so much time thinking about guano?  Did any president ever mention it in a State of the Union Address?  The curious case of Millard Fillmore, Seer, just grows.

Guano, or bird poop (and its relative, bat poop), contains phosphorus, which is an essential element for life.  Consequently, it turns out to be a key ingredient in effective agricultural fertilizers.  In international competition for supremacy in farming and farm exports, guano became a key resource to fight over, in the 19th century.

It’s almost safe to say the fights were economic; but guano did play a key role in wars in South America (see Andrew Leonard’s article, noted below).

Fillmore figured out that the substance had great importance, coupled that with the rather esoteric knowledge that sea birds tended to deposit guano in great abundance on certain islands, often unoccupied, and ordered the U.S. Navy to claim islands found to contain guano deposits that were not claimed by other nations.

By the American Civil War, the importance of phosphorus to the production of gun powder became an issue for the armies of the North and South.  Millard Fillmore had set the stage for the North to win an important advantage in gun powder production, just one of many that led to the defeat of the South.

It’s one more thing we should thank Millard Fillmore for doing. Our study of history should inform us that it is, indeed, important for politicians to understand the importance of guano.

Fillmore knew his guano.

Take a moment on December 2 to toast Millard Fillmore’s prescience, on Guano Day!

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Rosa Parks, Pete Seeger and friends at the Highlander School

December 1, 2014

December 1, 1955, was not an accident of history.  Rosa Parks, often described as “a seamstress,” was college educated, trained as a teacher, and trained in civil rights actions at the Highlander School in New Market, Tennessee.

On this anniversary of Mrs. Parks’s Earth-moving action of civil disobedience, I think back to a photograph taken a couple of years later, at the Highlander School.

It’s a stunning photograph, not for its photographer’s skills, nor the artistic nature of the taking.  It’s a true snapshot.  Five people on a farm in Tennessee, in black and white.  Probably the photographer used a Kodak camera made just for snapshots.

Except, it was 1957.  The farm is the Highlander School.  The five people in the photo include folksinger Pete Seeger, and Rosa Parks, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Pete Seeger, MLK , and others at Highlander School, 1957

From left, Martin Luther King, Jr., Pete Seeger, Charis Horton, one of the founders of the Highlander School, Rosa Parks, and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy. At a workshop at the Highlander School in Tennessee, circa 1957.

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Who was the photographer?  Perhaps Myles Horton, the director of the school (and Charis’s husband).

In a sort piece filmed at his home in Beacon, New York, for the Highlander’s 75th Anniversary in 2007, Pete described the time and the occasion.

Don’t  you love the cricket singing along with Pete?

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Yes, this is mostly an encore post.  Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.


December 1, 1955: “Why do you push us around?” Rosa Parks asked the cop. (Anyone know the answer?)

December 1, 2014

Mrs. Rosa Parks asked a question of the policeman who arrested her for refusing to move to the back of the bus. In 2014, it’s a chilling question, to which we have no good answer.

Rosa Parks being fingerprinted, Library of Congress

Mrs. Parks being fingerprinted in Montgomery, Alabama; photo from New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, Library of Congress

Rosa Parks: “Why do you push us around?”

Officer: “I don’t know but the law is the law and you’re under arrest.”

From Rosa Parks with Gregory J. Reed, Quiet Strength
(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1994), page 23.

Photo: Mrs. Parks being fingerprinted in Montgomery, Alabama; photo from New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection, Library of Congress

Today in History at the Library of Congress provides the simple facts:

On the evening of December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, an African American, was arrested for disobeying an Alabama law requiring black passengers to relinquish seats to white passengers when the bus was full. Blacks were also required to sit at the back of the bus. Her arrest sparked a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system and led to a 1956 Supreme Court decision banning segregation on public transportation.

Rosa Parks made a nearly perfect subject for a protest on racism. College-educated, trained in peaceful protest at the famous Highlander Folk School, Parks was known as a peaceful and respected person. The sight of such a proper woman being arrested and jailed would provide a schocking image to most Americans. Americans jolted awake.

Often lost in the retelling of the story are the threads that tie together the events of the civil rights movement through the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. As noted, Parks was a trained civil rights activist. Such training in peaceful and nonviolent protest provided a moral power to the movement probably unattainable any other way. Parks’ arrest was not planned, however. Parks wrote that as she sat on the bus, she was thinking of the tragedy of Emmet Till, the young African American man from Chicago, brutally murdered in Mississippi early in 1955. She was thinking that someone had to take a stand for civil rights, at about the time the bus driver told her to move to allow a white man to take her seat. To take a stand, she kept her seat.

African Americans in Montgomery organized a boycott of the Montgomery bus system. This was also not unique, but earlier bus boycotts are unremembered. A bus boycott in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, earlier in 1955 did not produce nearly the same results.

The boycott organizers needed a place to meet, a large hall. The biggest building in town with such a room was the Dexter Street Baptist Church. At the first meeting on December 5, it made sense to make the pastor of that church the focal point of the boycott organizing, and so the fresh, young pastor, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was thrust into civil rights organizing as president, with Ralph Abernathy as program director. They called their group the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). When their organizing stretched beyond the city limits of Montgomery, the group became the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Litigation on the boycott went all the way to the Supreme Court (Browder v. Gale). The boycotters won. The 381-day boycott was ended on December 21, 1956, with the desegregation of the Montgomery bus system.

Sources for lesson plans and projects:

Yes, this is mostly an encore post.  Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

 

Tip of the old scrub brush to Slacktivist, who gave this post a nice plug.


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