American History from the Bottom Up

by Brad Cotton

( published 20 June Circleville Herald)


American History as we were taught in high school is from the top down. Learning about politicians, Generals, business tycoons doesn’t tell us about the real Americans who lived, worked and aspired for better lives for their children during whatever era we study.  On the way back from seeing son Travis lead the Logan Elm High School Band at Walt Disney World last week we visited Charleston , South Carolina. Firstly, I’ll take the Pumpkin Show over Disney any day. Not only is Pumpkin Show where future wife Toye first held my hand, so that like Charlie Brown pining for the “little red-haired girl”, she made my stomach hurt (no it wasn’t the Pumpkin Chili), our local street festival doesn’t feature 1,000 degrees heat and sun that burns right through one like you wouldn’t even cast a shadow. I can see Travis lead the Logan Elm Band from the corner of Franklin and Pickaway.

 We visited several aristocratic homes and plantations in Charleston. The families that lived in these homes seem parasitic, vampirish, useless. They lived off the blood and tears and destruction of other human beings. There just ain’t no romanticized Scarlett O’Hara Gone with the Wind lying sentimental nonsense about it. The South was evil and deserved to go down. Evil does exist—any system of economics that damages human dignity is evil. The bottom line profits- before- safety attitude of CEO Don Blankenship of the Massey Energy mine that killed 29 miners April 2010 was evil. Blessedly we are now seeing criminal prosecution of some Massey operatives. Certainly the evil was far wider than just these few “fall-guy” executives. Evil coursed in the veins of politicians that accepted Massey Energy campaign donations ( aka “bribes”) and parroted Republican lines about “job-killing government regulation of mines”. Evil is inherent in any but the most carefully monitored and regulated capitalist economic system.

 If you ever visit Charleston go on Alphonso Brown’s “Gullah” Tour. Mr. Brown tells the story of the African-Americans who really built Charleston. Asked about the expensive homes built on “The Battery” Alphonso reminded us “You gotta’ remember- the labor was free.” Alphonso pointed out the prominent statues of Senator John C. Calhoun around the city. Senator Calhoun had said “[slavery] is, instead of an evil, a good, a positive good.”  Mr. Brown is also a retired Charleston music education teacher and band director and current music director of the Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church as well as an expert on Black spiritual music. Mr. Brown told us of the origin and history of the civil-rights era soul-strengthening song “We Shall Overcome.”

 After the Civil War our American History teachers told us epic tales of Andrew Carnegie’s steel industry, coal production, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, railroads, the Chicago meat packing industry. We learned the “anyone can become rich” mythology of Horatio Alger . The truth is that many, many persons suffered horribly and died early deaths , little better than slaves, in the mills, the factories, the slaughterhouses, the coal mines. Their children worked 12 hour days from age 5. It is painful to look at photos of such child laborers--their faces are vacant of any childhood joy or hope. Their parents were violently suppressed, shot, blacklisted for trying to make the American Dream work for them and their children by organizing labor unions. The “muckraker” reporters of the time, notably Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel “The Jungle”  ought to be read by anyone seeking the truth of American History: that the industrialization of America left many good citizens broken and cast aside as refuse as they had little to no “market value.” Unregulated capitalism always results with a few very, very rich ”job creators” at the top, while 99% of us can only hope that out of the goodness of their hearts they will pay a living wage.

 Hope for most of us began in 1902 when President Teddy Roosevelt intervened, the first time for our government, on behalf of labor in the Pennsylvania anthracite coal strike of 1902. Coal owner George Baer in refusing any concessions to the workers had said “ the rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for—not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given control of the property interests of the country.”

 If you believe George Baer, that we must meekly depend on the charity of the wealthiest among us, then vote for Mitt Romney and the Republicans. If you recognize that we the people have only had access to the American Dream when we demanded it through unions, through oversight and regulation of corporations, to make them “play fair”, then vote for every Democrat you can find—this year and every year.




American History from the Bottom Up ( published Circleville Herald 20 June 2012)