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On Fear: The Islam Edition, Or, Do You Know My Friend Wa’el? September 22, 2010

We last got together about ten days ago, when I put up a story that hoped to explain to the Islamic world that, Qur’an burning aside, we don’t really hate either them, or our own Constitution.

I pointed out that, just like everywhere else, about 20% of our population are idiots, that this means about 60,000,000 of us might, at any time, be inclined to burst into fits of random stupidity, such as the desire to burn Qur’ans to make some sort of statement, and that the same First Amendment that protects the freedom of stupid speech also protects the rights of Islamic folks to freely build mosques…and finally, that this apparent “paradox of freedom” is exactly why the US is the kind of country that many Islamic folks the world over wish they lived in as well.

I then went off to enjoy my Godson’s wedding, and I ignored the posting until the next Monday.

On the two dozen sites where it could be found, this was apparently considered to be a fairly innocuous message…with one giant exception, which is what we’ll be talking about today.

Long story short, some portion of this country’s population has some bizarre ideas about Islamic folks…but maybe if they knew my friend Wa’el, they might see things a bit differently.

This world is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those that feel

Horace Walpole, Fourth Earl of Orford, in a letter, August, 1776

So all of this took place at Newsvine…and if you’re not familiar with how things work there, users may “seed” a story that they find of interest, so that it may attract the interest of others. What happens is that the user reposts a shortened version of the original story, along with a link back to the source.

My original posting on the site had fewer than ten comments, but by Monday Newsvine user btco’s seeded version of my story had about 300 comments; today there are more than 625.

Those who were not liking the story basically came down to one of a few categories of responders; here’s one example…

…I live a few minutes from Dearbornistan in Michigan and I can tell you that, as a place with a great deal of Muslims, they barely speak out against the Islamofacists that kill. There is outrage; however, but that outrage is aimed at America instead of the Islamofacists that should be the target of the aforementioned outrage. In fact, Dearborn has seen Muslims verbally attack Christians and forbid them for handing out Christian pamphlets, their 1st amendment right to do so, as this goes against the @!$%#ed up Sharia Law. Until Dearbornistan demands that they will abide willingly with the constitution and ignore the racist and misogynic crap that is Sharia law, then Dearbornistan Muslims side with the enemy and that enemy is Islam.

…and here’s another:

Christianity underwent reformation and was tamed by enlightenment period (during which, BTW, was harshly criticized).

Islam is in its original forms, claws and all.

And people like you, who for some dubious reason think it should be allowed to be what it is are doing great disservice for Muslims whose minds are set for the reforms and who want to live like normal, 21 century people, but are forced to “submit” to medieval dogma.

The idea that all Islamic folks worship a Moon God, that neither democracy nor any other religion can co-exist alongside Islam, that after beating them, all Islamic men send their four wives out to distribute “terror tomatoes” among the infidel population, and that, for adherents of Islam, both the Bible and the Constitution are immoral and corrupt all seems to be accepted wisdom for a bunch of the commenters (except for the “terror tomato” part, which I made up myself); it all seems to come from an apparently long-circulating email that was posted in the comments over and over that purports to prove that Muslims can’t be good Americans.

So is all this true?

Well…let’s start with the question of whether Islamic people can co-exist with democracy…and to help answer that question, let me introduce you to my friend Wa’el.

Wa’el Nawara has been trying to advance the interests of democracy in Egyptian politics for many years now, in the form of his work for the El-Ghad Party, in the face of an Egyptian Government that has been ruled, since the end of King Farouk’s reign, by just one political party, the (secular) NDP. The founder of El-Ghad, Ayman Nour, was imprisoned and tortured for basically getting 8% of the vote in a 2005 Presidential election against the current President, Hosni Mubarak.

To prevent this from happening again, it is also alleged that the Egyptian Government helped to orchestrate a temporarily successful “takeover” of the party from within. (This is not uncommon; the Egyptians security apparatus has acted against numerous parties, including the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood.)

Shortly after Wa’el and I became acquainted (I had been researching a series of stories about Egyptian politics when we were introduced) he was inside the offices of his own Party, which were burned by a mob that was allegedly associated with Egyptian State Security (an event that was recorded, live, by people across the street). Afterwards Wa’el, along with many of the 30 other people who were in the building, were arrested and detained for…you guessed it…suspicion of arson.

It’s not just Wa’el, or the other members of his Party…nor the other members of other Parties, either.

If were to take the time, you’d find out there’s a Center for Democracy in Lebanon, you’d discover that Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and even Saudi Arabia have all held recent local elections, and you’d find out there’s even a debate in the UAE as to whether adopting democratic reforms might be appropriate.

Outside the Gulf, India’s current President is their third Muslim President, Indonesia, which is 80% Muslim, elects their Presidents (even as they struggle with sectarian violence)…and all of that tells me that anyone who thinks Islam and democracy are incompatible should do some more reading.

Can Islam accept the presence of other religions?

One answer can be found in what is today’s Spain, but what used to be Andalucía (or Al-Andalus, if you prefer Arabic), where Moors ruled for centuries over Jews with far more compassion and respect than they ever received under Christian dominion; another, in today’s Egypt, where Christian Copts and Muslims have lived together for thousands of years, even as tensions have increased recently between the two groups.

Does Wa’el beat his four wives?

Not as far as I can tell—and if his one wife ever found out he had three other wives…I’m guessing that wouldn’t go so well for Wa’el.

Is the Bible corrupt to those who follow Islam?

Those who follow “mainstream” Islam believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but they don’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God, or that He was crucified. Is that corruption? I don’t know, and I guess you’ll have to decide that one for yourself.

Now we need to be fair here, and acknowledge that one branch of Islam does indeed represent much of what my most conservative friends are afraid of: Wahhabi Ikhban. Here’s what the Library of Congress has to say about the sect:

Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab was concerned with the way the people of Najd engaged in practices he considered polytheistic, such as praying to saints; making pilgrimages to tombs and special mosques; venerating trees, caves, and stones; and using votive and sacrificial offerings. He was also concerned by what he viewed as a laxity in adhering to Islamic law and in performing religious devotions, such as indifference to the plight of widows and orphans, adultery, lack of attention to obligatory prayers, and failure to allocate shares of inheritance fairly to women.

When Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab began to preach against these breaches of Islamic laws, he characterized customary practices as jahiliya, the same term used to describe the ignorance of Arabians before the Prophet. Initially, his preaching encountered opposition, but he eventually came under the protection of a local chieftain named Muhammad ibn Saud, with whom he formed an alliance. The endurance of the Wahhabi movement’s influence may be attributed to the close association between the founder of the movement and the politically powerful Al Saud in southern Najd (see The Saud Family and Wahhabi Islam, 1500-1818 , ch. 1).

This association between the Al Saud and the Al ash Shaykh, as Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab and his descendants came to be known, effectively converted political loyalty into a religious obligation. According to Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab’s teachings, a Muslim must present a bayah, or oath of allegiance, to a Muslim ruler during his lifetime to ensure his redemption after death. The ruler, conversely, is owed unquestioned allegiance from his people so long as he leads the community according to the laws of God. The whole purpose of the Muslim community is to become the living embodiment of God’s laws, and it is the responsibility of the legitimate ruler to ensure that people know God’s laws and live in conformity to them.

So what have we learned today?

Well, we learned that there is a community of Americans out there who are profoundly afraid of Islam, or anything connected with it, and the odds are that they know very little about the religion, other than what they’ve seen and copied and pasted, over and over, in a particularly ignorant email.

My friend Wa’el, on the other hand, lives a life that disproves those myths: in addition to being the target of a mob, he’s been jailed, along with many of his friends and associates, for trying to create a more democratic Egypt, he has just the one wife, who lives as an equal in their house, and his own country, Egypt, is one of numerous Islamic countries that have other religions well-established within their borders.

We also learned that numerous countries with Islamic populations are countries with varying degrees of representative democracy…and that the world’s largest democracy just inaugurated their third Muslim President.

Now the question that we’re addressing today is whether Muslims can be good Americans—and the fact is that Wa’el and his family would make great Americans…even though they’re not…and if I can point to Muslims who would make great Americans and live halfway around the world…how much you wanna bet we can find tens of thousands more in the heart of Dearbornistan?

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2nd Amendment Foundation And Black Community Agree To Joint Gun March, Rally April 7, 2010

New York (FNS)—In an effort to help dispel concerns of racism, Terri Stocke, President of the Second Amendment March, agreed to coordinate with members of the Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network and the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/Push Coalition in an effort to encourage more members of the Black community to bear arms and to carry them publicly.

In return, members of the Black community have agreed to flood the 2nd Amendment March, scheduled for April 19, 2010, in Washington, DC, with hundreds of thousands of heavily armed residents of Chicago’s South Side and New York City’s Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods.

“We hope that the Black community understands that 2nd Amendment rights apply to all Americans” Ms. Stocke told the crowd outside Mr. Sharpton’s offices.

She went on to tell the crowd: “We have all heard the saying, “Freedom isn’t free”. Of course, that phrase means that the freedoms that we enjoy today are the result of the blood, sweat and tears of our forefathers and mothers who pressed onward in the face of great hardship — continuing to stand and fight for what they knew to be right — to create these United States that we call home. Freedom ISN’T free. It requires the willingness to remain vigilant, to take action, and to make sacrifices when necessary to ensure freedom for our children and our childrens’ children.

Now is the time to press onward to ensure that the right to keep and bear arms is preserved as intended by our forefathers — not as interpreted by legislators and lawmakers who enact laws that infringe on your right to protect yourself and your loved ones.”

Ms. Stocke and the Revs. Sharpton and Jackson went on to announce their new combined program to ensure that every member of the community that could possibly qualify would be able to obtain and carry guns.

“We have said for some time that if everyone had guns, we’d all be safer” Ms. Stocke intoned to the exultant crowd, “and as of today, we at the 2nd Amendment Foundation will do everything in our power to create an environment where each and every citizen of the Harlem, Bed-Sty and South Side communities are free to carry their weapons at all times, in order to create a safer New York and a safer Chicago.”

Ms. Stocke’s website, AmmoLand.com, will also join the effort, by sponsoring the expansion of the National Shooting Sports Foundations “First Shots” program into urban environments.

“By expanding the number of armed citizens in these communities, we can stop the police from acting as tools of an oppressive Government, and provide an opportunity for these Citizens to regain control over the forces that have been Treading On Them.

Eventually we hope to spread this effort to more cities, including, Detroit, Houston, and Oakland.”

Father Dick Timoneous, interviewed in the crowd, suggested this would be just the thing the 2nd Amendment March needed: “I can just imagine the jubilation that will be on the faces of that all-White crowd on April 19th when tens of thousands of Black people, all heavily armed, descend on the march, proving that when everyone is armed, we’re all safer.”

The event will take place at the northeast corner of the Washington Monument grounds, April 19, 2010, from 10 AM to 4 PM, and everyone is encouraged to attend.

 

On A May-December Romance, Part Two, Or, Las Vegas, Integrated May 12, 2009

Moulin Rouge.

The mention of that name, in the right circles, brings back a flood of associations.

Among them: a famous cabaret in Gay Paree, a Nicole Kidman movie rich in costume and set design and…well, a movie, anyway; or, if you really know your films, perhaps the association is with the 1952 John Huston “biography” film of the same name.

The one association that might not quickly come to mind, even though it should: ground zero in a battle that led to the desegregation of Las Vegas.

Today’s story will fill in the blanks that you might have regarding that association—and by the time we’re done, we’ll have covered, just as we promised last time, the 55-year history of a place that began in 1955, lasted for not quite six months, and ended just last week…maybe.

It’s another one of those American history stories you never heard before, and it’s well worth the telling…so let’s get right to it.

“Last year people won more than one billion dollars playing poker. And casinos made twenty-seven billion just by being around those people.”

–Samantha Bee, The Daily Show, March 10, 2005

For those of you who missed Part One, we better take a moment to catch up:

Las Vegas, as World War II came to an end, was very much a segregated city, with blacks, who by that time were roughly 3000 of the city’s total population of 20,000, literally forced to live on the Wrong Side of The Tracks (a problem that continues to create headlines even as recently as 2008).

(Irony number one: “The Tracks”, or at least 60 acres of the land upon which they used to sit, are now the site of an upscale redevelopment effort (“Union Park”) that Westside residents note has the potential to leave them even more geographically isolated than they were when The Tracks occupied the site. To further the irony, far more redevelopment money is being spent on the Union Park project then is being spent in the severely economically disadvantaged Westside.)

As the casinos began to become the major driver of the local economy, blacks were allowed to work on the properties, but they could not patronize the segregated casinos in which they worked.

This extended to the highest levels of worker, as even the entertainers who were brought in to work the showrooms were forced to seek accommodations in the Westside neighborhood…which is why the neighborhood’s rented cottages and hotels, such as the famous Harrison Boarding House, could count among their many famous guests Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Jack Benny’s “valet” and sidekick Eddie “Rochester” Anderson.

By the middle of the 1950s there had been unsuccessful efforts in Nevada to pass laws mandating an end to segregation in the casinos and elsewhere (oddly enough, there had never been a law requiring segregation); and it has been suggested that casinos were resistant because their customer base at the time was mainly Californians who had settled there from the Southern states, and who presumably brought their racial animus with them.

And it wasn’t as if blacks were not allowed in bars or casinos: there were several on the Westside that catered to a black clientele.

(Irony number two: it’s reported that among those were Jewish-owned properties, including the Brown Derby, the Cotton Club, and the Ebony Club.)

Want to see a product of Strip segregation history with your very own eyes? The New Town Tavern, who once hosted Redd Foxx and B.B. King on its now-closed showroom stage, has remained open on the Westside from 1955 to the present day at the corner of F Street and Jackson Avenue.

Which brings us to Frank Sinatra.

By 1953 Sammy Davis, Jr., and the other members of the Will Maston Trio, of which he was the featured player, were splitting $5,000 a week for their services…but they could not stay at the place they played. By 1954, Sinatra convinced Sammy to open for him at The Sands; and in November of that year The Will Maston Trio was not only making $7500 a week at the Frontier, the hotel “comped” their room, board, and drinks, and allowed them the run of the casino, making them the first black act to receive that sort of treatment from a Strip casino (although others report that Nat King Cole was actually the first, in 1955).

Later that same month, Sammy lost an eye in an automobile accident, and was offered $25,000 a week to play The Sands, along with what are described as “Sinatra-like accommodations”.

In May of 1955, in an effort to “change the rules of the game”, Alexander Bisno and Lou Rubin opened the Moulin Rouge Hotel and Casino on a site in between the Strip and the Westside.

Bisno and Rubin opened the property as a completely integrated facility, bringing blacks and whites in as guests and staff…and even as management and owners. Boxing great Joe Louis was both the official greeter and a partner in the venture. The great Benny Carter was brought in as musical director.

(Fun Fact: the distinctive neon signage for the Moulin Rouge was designed by one of the few women in the business at the time, Betty Willis, who also designed one of the most recognizable signs in advertising history, the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign.)

The hotel was an immediate and massive hit with visitors, who were treated to the best entertainment available anywhere: Sammy, naturally, played the room, along with The Platters, Harry Belafonte, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, and Eartha Kitt, to name but a few.

But here’s the thing: a major reason the place was so popular was because Sinatra, Dean Martin, and the rest of the Rat Pack would head over to the Moulin Rouge, either to put on impromptu performances or to just hang out in this newly swinging atmosphere—and suddenly, the Moulin Rouge, after the other shows on the Strip had ended for the evening, became possibly the hottest joint in the world; with everybody, and I mean everybody, heading over to see and be seen with Sammy, Sinatra, Dino, and the rest of the Pack…and of course, the “Tropi-Can Can” girls.

Things got so crazy that the Moulin Rouge added a 2:30 AM “Third Show”—but within six months, the Moulin Rouge had closed its doors; possibly the victim of mismanagement, possibly the victim of an oversaturated market, possibly the victim of policies designed to make blue-collar black patrons feel less welcome…and possibly the victim of “The Mob”, who had a hand in several of the Strip hotels that were suddenly losing significant amounts of gambling business to the new hotel.

“We don’t think that we, or any other hotel, should give away a $30,000 show for a Coke and two straws.”

–Former Riviera Hotel Chairman Morrie Mason, in Time Magazine, September 19, 1955

And with that, you’d think the history of the Moulin Rouge had come to an end.

In fact, there was quite a bit more history yet to come.

Throughout the ‘50s, Sinatra had been busy working to eliminate what he called the “national disease” of bigotry. He wrote this in a July 1958 “Jet” Magazine article, The Way I Look At Race:

“A friend to me has no race, no class, and belongs to no minority. My friendships were formed out of affection, mutual respect, and a feeling of having something strong in common. These are eternal values that cannot be racially classified. This is the way I look at race.”

By 1959, the Rat Pack was in town filming Ocean’s Eleven and going after segregation in their own unique way. They would show up at a casino, and if the casino would not admit Sammy Davis, Jr. to the gaming floor, then they would move on to the next one. Since no one wanted the bad publicity…Sammy usually got in. (That same year, blacks and whites in Nevada were legally allowed to marry.)

Because so many people were pushing for integration, segregation was beginning to be bad for business, and something had to be done.

Even Nevada’s Governor, Grant Sawyer, was trying to change the culture of segregation…and as 1960 rolled around, the NAACP was applying its own pressure.

Dr. James McMillan, leader of the local NAACP chapter, announced that he would organize a series of “sit-down strikes” in the restaurants of the Strip casinos. The day before the strikes were to begin, Oscar Crozier, representing the hotel interests, met and negotiated with NAACP representatives, Hank Greenspun, the publisher of the “Las Vegas Sun”, and some assorted politicians at…wait for it…the abandoned Moulin Rouge, where the Moulin Rouge Agreement was struck, which immediately desegregated the patronage of casinos on the Strip.

“When these fellows realized that they weren’t going to lose any money, that they might even make more, they were suddenly colorblind.”

Dr. James McMillan

(The new colorblindness, oddly enough, did not extend to the Downtown casinos, and Binion’s Horseshoe was among of the last of those casinos to desegregate.)

Over the next few years, employment on the gaming floors was also desegregated, and in 1971 the State Legislature passed a law barring racial discrimination in the housing market.

Even after all that, the Moulin Rouge wasn’t through making history. The property and buildings and…casino license…passed from one owner to another, and eventually one of those owners, Sarann Knight-Preddy, became the first black woman to hold a Nevada gaming license.

The property did operate as a sort of “apartment-motel” for a number of years, and even reopened as a casino during the 1990s, but a 2003 arson fire destroyed the casino/showroom building and removed it from Preserve Nevada’s list of 11 most endangered historical sites in the State.

Even then the remaining “hotel” buildings became low-income housing…until they became too dilapidated for that purpose.

And even then plans continued to float around, including an effort that seemed to be gaining momentum in 2008 to build an entirely new project on the old site…until a bad economy and bankruptcy brought that momentum to a crashing halt.

In an ending reminiscent of something that might have happened in the movie “Casino”, on May 5th of this year, Olympic Coast Investments of Seattle took ownership of the Moulin Rouge through foreclosure…and on May 6th, another fire took out the remaining buildings on the site. Olympic Coast reports they intend to sell. (Luckily, the neon sign had been removed in the weeks before the fire to the Neon Boneyard.)

We have come a long way with this story, but here we are at last.

Las Vegas, we’ve learned, has had to deal with a history of racial segregation, was able to break the back of that segregation through the efforts of people as diverse as local neighborhood organizers, Jewish financiers…and the Rat Pack.

That history was forever changed because one casino, for not quite six months, showed what Las Vegas could be—but as we said at the beginning of Part One, even though the casino was only open for those few months, the history it represents continues to unfold, more than 50 years later.

What happens next, no one knows…but in Las Vegas, with a piece of land and an available gambling license to work with…I wouldn’t be too quick to bet that the history of the Moulin Rouge is over just yet.

Warning—commercial message ahead: I’m competing for a Netroots Nation scholarship, and I could use your support. Just head on over to the Democracy for America website, click on the “Add your support” link under “Grassroots Supporters”, and offer a word or two…and with that, thanks very much, and we return you to your regular programming.

 

On A May-December Romance, Part One, Or, Las Vegas, Segregated April 15, 2009

There may be no more recognizable icon of “Retro-Cool” than that photograph of the Rat Pack standing in front of the marquee at The Sands Hotel in Las Vegas.

They’re right there, lined up in front of their own giant names on the marquee: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop.

Night after night they would gather with friends such as Shirley MacLaine, Angie Dickinson, and Johnny Carson, to deliver some of the greatest nightclub performances in entertainment history.

Today’s story, however, focuses on what happened after the show: when four of those five could leave the showroom, drink at the bar, gamble at the casino, and go upstairs to their rooms.

In a town sometimes known as the “Mississippi of the West”, however, one of those five performers could not do any of those things.

Our Journey In Two Parts literally crosses over to the “wrong side of the tracks”, tells a story of segregation overcome, and recounts the six-month history of a Las Vegas hotel that has a 55-year history: the Moulin Rouge.

“…We boast of the freedom enjoyed by our people above all other peoples. But it is difficult to reconcile that boast with a state of the law which, practically, puts the brand of servitude and degradation upon a large class of our fellow-citizens, our equals before the law. The thin disguise of “equal” accommodations…will not mislead anyone, nor atone for the wrong this day done.”

–Justice John Marshall Harlan, from the dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896)

So let’s start with the “literally” part: Las Vegas’ “Westside”, which was the original Vegas townsite, was located across the “Cement Curtain” of railroad tracks from “new” Las Vegas, and it was the only place the black population was allowed to live.

This was not a new situation in Nevada, or unique to Las Vegas: when the Six Companies built what became Hoover Dam in the ‘30s, some say only 30 blacks are estimated to have been employed on the entire project. (Others put the number nearly 50% higher, suggesting 44 out of the workforce of 5000 were black.)

World War II had swollen Las Vegas’ population, and the “new” Vegas—the white Vegas—included the land that would eventually become The Strip. While blacks were allowed to work out of the Westside, beyond that area they could not own property…and they most assuredly could not be guests of the hotels and casinos in which they worked.

In fact, blacks who owned businesses beyond the borders of the Westside were “motivated” to move them there during the ‘40s.

By the early 1950s the Thunderbird, the El Rancho Vegas, and “Bugsy” Siegel’s Flamingo, among others, were drawing big crowds from Los Angeles and points beyond for the floor shows, lounge entertainment, and casino gambling.

With the exception of Josephine Baker’s performance at the El Rancho, blacks were generally not allowed among those crowds; and performers such as Louis Armstrong and Sammy Davis, Jr. were forced to stay in rooming houses or other accommodations on the Westside.

“In Vegas for 20 minutes, our skin had no color. Then the second we stepped off the stage, we were colored again…the other acts could gamble or sit in the lounge and have a drink, but we had to leave through the kitchen with the garbage.”

Sammy Davis, Jr.

At this point, a few words on Rat Pack history (and if you only click on one link in this story, this might be the one…).

Humphrey Bogart was the founder of the first Rat Pack; then called the “Holmby Hills Rat Pack”, after the Los Angeles neighborhood in which he and Lauren Bacall lived following their 1945 marriage. These Rat Packers included Judy Garland, “Swifty” Lazar (still considered one of the most notable agents in Hollywood history), and, eventually, Frank Sinatra.

This members of this group were not “Hollywood Society” types; as a result the Rat Pack spent a lot of its time up in the Holmby Hills…laughing at Hollywood Society over cocktails…making the odd trip to Vegas to spend a night out…and occasionally adjourning to fellow Rat Packers Mike and Gloria Romanoff’s restaurant…where the Hollywood Society types vied to be seen with them.

Upon Bogart’s death in 1957 Sinatra, partly because of his friendship with Bacall, was able to continue the Pack (at one point called “The Clan”; a name that was quickly dropped) with new members (and old friends) Dino, Sammy, Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford (Not-Yet-President John F. Kennedy’s brother-in-law), while still keeping continuity with Bogart’s Rat Pack. (Some might also describe Sinatra and Bacall’s romantic relationship following Bogart’s death as another part of that continuity.)

We’ve come a long way to get to this point, and we have a long way to go—which makes this a perfect “rest stop” between Parts One and Two.

A Barstow, if you will.

Way back at the beginning, we learned that blacks in Las Vegas really were living on the wrong side of the tracks, that separate was in no way equal; and that even if you were Louis Armstrong, or Lena Horne, or Sammy Davis, Jr., you might be allowed to work in white Las Vegas, but you weren’t going to be allowed to eat there, drink there, or sleep there…and you weren’t going to be allowed to gamble your paycheck away there, either.

In the meantime, Las Vegas was attracting entertainers—black and white—who would chafe at these rules. The group that would become the new Rat Pack was going to be at the heart of that change…and in our next installment, we’ll talk about six months of Las Vegas history that ultimately, despite great resistance, forced that change to happen.

 

On Reconsidering Racism, Or, This Ain’t Grandpa’s America April 6, 2009

We have a story today that is a big-time reminder of how things have changed in America…and it’s all inspired by a book of jokes.

I am often prowling thrift shops looking for interesting things, and I came across a 1946 copy of “10,000 Jokes, Toasts, And Stories” (edited by Lewis and Faye Copeland), which contains a section of jokes entitled “Races and Nations”…which contains a subsection entitled “Negro”.

We are going to examine some of those jokes…and the world in which those jokes resided.

I warn you now: it will be highly unpleasant; but as we come out the other side the goal will be to show that what was not only acceptable, but commonplace, not so very long ago, would be considered wildly unacceptable today—and that we are a better people for the change.

“Sambo, suppose you were to receive a letter from the Ku Klux Klan advising you to get out of town, what would you do?”

“I’d read it on the train.”

–Joke 6468

“Is your husband a good provider, Dinah?”

“Yessum, he’s a good providah, all right, but I’m allus skeered dat nigger’s gwine to get caught at it.”

–Joke 6458

So the deal is, if you’re under 50 years old, or a recent immigrant to these shores, you probably have little or no familiarity with the overt racism that was practiced against the Americans who descended from slavery.

Now I’m not talking about the kind of covert racism that means the security guard spends more time following the black customers than the white ones…I’m talking about the kind of overt racism that means the black customers aren’t even allowed to enter “white” stores.

Lunch counters were segregated, there were “white” and “colored” water fountains (before you go look at the picture, see if you can guess which one has the cooling unit installed). Fire hoses weren’t used just to put out fires…they were also used to put out school children who didn’t fit the racial profile.

Rastus shuffled into the employment office down in Savannah one morning and said hopefully:

“Don’ spose you don’ know nobody as don’ want nobody to do nothin’, does you?”

–Joke 6351

Rastus was in trouble again, and the sheriff asked him if he were guilty or not guilty.

“Guilty, suh, I think” replied Rastus, “but I better be tried to make sure of it.”

–Joke 6460

As these jokes demonstrate, black people were portrayed as ignorant, lazy, shiftless and quick to steal. To ensure these “undesirables” didn’t threaten white populations, some locales became “sundown” towns…so called because of the signs they posted at their city limits:

“Nigger, don’t let the sun set on you in Elwood”

Sign posted in Elwood, Indiana, 1966

(Fun Fact: did you know that Indiana was such a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity in the 1920s that KKK Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson once said about himself: “I am the law in Indiana”? Of course, that was before he went to prison for rape and murder later in the same decade.)

Racism, as defined in law, was extreme and trivial, both at the same time. It’s reported that Birmingham, Alabama passed a law requiring segregated checkers and dominoes in 1935 (presumably after the Great Checkers Incident of 1934, or some similar affront)…and Oklahoma passed a law making it a misdemeanor for teachers to teach in mixed-race schools.

A darkey was examined in a Harlem court, to prove the identity of a white man.
“Did you see the man?” asked the attorney.
“Yes, sah, I seed him.”
“Was he a white man?”
“Dunno, sah.”
“Do you say you saw the man and can’t say whether he was white or black?”
“Yea, sah, I seed him, but dere’s so many white fellers callin’ derselfs niggers round here I can’t tell one from toder!”

–Joke 6376

The Boys of Summer are hitting the fields of their respective stadia this month, and no conversation about race and baseball would be complete without a mention of Jackie Robinson, who everyone knows broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball…except that he didn’t.

Moses “Fleet” Walker, and his brother, Welday Walker , seem to actually bear that honor: in 1884 they played for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association. Black players continued to play until 1890, when owners seem to have decided amongst themselves that there were to be no more black Major League players; a decision that lasted until Robinson became the first player “in the modern era” (1947, to be exact) to join a Major League club, the Brooklyn Dodgers.

(Another Fun Fact: remember the movie “Bull Durham”? The stadium used by the Durham Bulls–Durham Athletic Park–was at the center of a segregation and boycott battle during the 1950s…a battle the boycotters won.)

Rastus-“Ef yo’ says anything ter me Ah’ll make yo’ eat yo’ words, man.”
Exodus-“Chicken dumplings, hot biscuits, and watermelon.”

–Joke 6511

So about now you may be asking “what is the point of today’s story?”…and it’s pretty simple:

Barack Obama is president.

Jim Clyburn, of South Carolina, where the first battle of the Civil War was fought, is the Democratic House Whip.

Rosa Parks is a national hero for an act of civil disobediance.

David Duke is the Governor of Nothing.

And out of all that change, we’ve become a better people.