Detroit Race Riots

This is in the appendix of Damn Yankee Buttons  a book of short stories I am working on. 

The Detroit Riot of 1943 lasted only about 24 hours from 10:30 on June 20 to 11:00 p.m. on June 21; nonetheless it was considered one of the worst riots during the World War II era.  Several contributing factors revolved around police brutality, and the sudden influx of black migrants from the south into the city, lured by the promise of jobs in defense plants.  The migrants faced an acute housing shortage which many thought would be reduced by the construction of public housing.  However the construction of public housing for blacks in predominately white neighborhoods often created racial tension.

The Sojourner Truth Homes Riot in 1942, for example, began when whites were enraged by the opening of that project in their neighborhood.  Mobs attempted to keep the black residents from moving into their new homes.  That confrontation laid the foundation for the much larger riot one year later.

On June 20, a warm Saturday evening, a fist fight broke out between a black man and a white man at the sprawling Belle Isle Amusement Park in the Detroit River.  The brawl eventually grew into a confrontation between groups of blacks and whites, and then spilled into the city.  Stores were looted, and buildings were burned in the riot, most of which were located in a black neighborhood.  The riot took place in an area of roughly two miles in and around Paradise Valley, one of the oldest and poorest neighborhoods in Detroit.

As the violence escalated, both blacks and whites engaged in violence.  Blacks dragged whites out of cars and looted white-owned stores in Paradise Valley while whites overturned and burned black-owned vehicles and attacked African Americans on streetcars along Woodward Avenue and other major streets.  The Detroit police did little in the rioting, often siding with the white rioters in the violence.

The violence ended only after President Franklin Roosevelt, at the request of Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries, Jr., ordered 6,000 federal troops into the city.  Twenty-five blacks and nine whites were killed in the violence.  Of the 25 African Americans who died, 17 were killed by the police.  The police claimed that these shootings were justified since the victims were engaged in looting stores on Hastings Street.  Of the nine whites who died, none were killed by the police.  The city suffered an estimated $2 million in property damages.

Allen D. Grimshaw, ed., Racial Violence in the United States (Chicago: Aldine Publishing, 1969); Stephen Thernstrom and Abigail Thernstrom, America in Black and White (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997).

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The Mother of All War Crimes

The Mother of All War Crimes, an excerpt from Damn Yankee Buttons—-a book of short stories I am working on.


There was a belief that the situation in the Middle East got better after “we” bombed Iraq’s infrastructure back to a primitive condition, via “shock and awe.”

Iraq had occupied Kuwait and were doing some horrible things to people. China was doing horrible things to people in Tibet and to the Tienanmen square prisoners, but China doesn’t have oil compared to Iraq and does have a huge military with nuclear weapons.

The “mother” of all war crimes happened on the highway between Kuwait City and Basra. The retreating convoy was bombed at the front of the column. Thousands of people in the stalled, trapped convoy were incinerated by “our” planes. Fuel bombs sucked the air out of the lungs of people as they burned alive. The retreat became a ghostly line of burnt-out vehicles, with charred people inside.

An initial show of force could have caused the convoy to surrender. It was premeditated murder.

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Four-Letter Words

An excerpt from my next book Damn Yankee Buttons

“We will cease to be so angry once we cease to be so hopeful. – Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy


Alain de Botton’s take on Montaigne is worth the price. He quotes Montaigne: “Upon the highest throne in the world, we are seated, still, upon our asses. Kings and philosophers shit: and so do ladies.”

In the sixteenth century, Montaigne said that! But it’s no more surprising than the fact that back then they knew all there was to know about sex. “The genital activities of mankind are so natural . . . what have they done to make us never dare to mention them without embarrassment and to exclude them from serious orderly conversation? We are not afraid to utter the words kill, thieve, or betray; but those others we only dare to mutter through our teeth.”

In the spirit of Montaigne, “Fuck” is considered an obscene four-letter word but “kill,” another four-letter word, is not. The word that describes the creation of life is obscene and the word that causes death is not.

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Robert Byrd and Me

This is a chapter in Damn Yankee Buttons, a book of short stories and essays that I am working on.



Robert Byrd and Me


The late United States Senator from West Virginia, Robert Byrd, didn’t seem to seek personal wealth, but if he directed tax-payer money toward a particular project, they just might immortalize him by putting his name on it or his wife’s name.

If only he had had the grace of former Kansas Senator, Nancy Katzenbaum. When it was proposed that a stretch of highway in Kansas be named after her, she declined, saying that she didn’t want anything named after her, especially a stretch of pavement.

In Cuba, it is against the law to name anything after a living person. When I was there in 1969, there was nothing in Cuba named after Castro or any other living politician or person. West Virginia is perhaps not as enlightened as Cuba. Our brown-nosing grovelers fall all over themselves in eagerness to build graven images of Byrd.

The genuine good works that have been done in West Virginia, to preserve the environment and try to moderate the evils of the coal industry and over-development, have been accomplished in spite of Byrd.

Apologists for Byrd have portrayed him as having reformed since the days when he was the organizer for the Klan in southern West Virginia.

In 1944, Byrd wrote to segregationist, Mississippi Senator, Theodore Bilbo, “I shall never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side…Rather I should die a thousand times, and see “Old Glory” trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.”

Byrd later wrote a letter to the Grand Wizard of the KKK saying, “The Klan is needed today as never before and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia and in every state in the nation.”

During Byrd’s 1952 campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives, the Charleston Gazette exposed his Klan membership. Byrd said that he was no longer a member of the Klan and was not interested in it.

Many say he became a better man than when, as a Congressman, he made gratuitous racist entries into the Congressional Record. Byrd moved up to the U. S. Senate, where eventually the blatant racist power of the leadership gave way to more moderate influences.

When it was no longer expedient for Byrd to be a racist, he shifted gears, slid right into the twentieth century and hired an African-American staff member.

As a student at West Virginia University in 1956, I heard Byrd give a speech in Morgantown, at the First Baptist Church on High Street. Byrd, reminded his audience that he was a holy man—he pounded the Bible to illustrate that like an anvil, it had withstood the hammers of time.

After the speech, a man in the back of the chapel made a statement about the KKK. Byrd admitted he had been a member of the Klan and that the Charleston Gazette had exposed this and tried to ruin him with it. He went on to say that he was proud to have been a member of the Klan.

Byrd’s most memorable political action was to filibuster the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. Riots followed. Senator Robert Byrd had this to say in the Washington Post:

 “Adult looters should be shot on the spot….It is later than we think. Hoodlums, losers, snipers should no longer be handled with kid gloves….Insurrection should be put down with brutal force….there is only one way to deal with rioters—swiftly and  mercilessly.”


I heard Byrd speaking on public radio—it was the twentieth century Byrd, not quite his twenty-first century stand against the Iraq War. It wasn’t the Byrd that the Charleston Gazette made fun of for wearing baggy suits in his early days at the state legislature.

Byrd was telling Congress of the need for straight roads in West Virginia. Byrd lamented the crooked roads that follow creek and river bottoms—he evidently didn’t see the value in them being picturesque or in going past locally owned businesses.

Byrd wanted our poor citizens to be able to travel on those four lanes that go straight through everything. Of course, he didn’t mention that the coal and timber trucks would have an easier time carrying the state away to our lords in other states. Neither did he mention that the sons and daughters of those lords in other states could more readily get to our few remaining natural wonders.

In his story The Bear, William Faulkner observed that the two-lane hardtop roads, being built into the Mississippi wilderness, would destroy what was worth seeing or feeling in the first place. It’s a distant cousin to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle—looking at something changes it.

During a speech, opening a portion of a boondoggle highway called Corridor H, Byrd swept his arm toward the mountains behind him and spoke of them in his grandiose style. He didn’t notice that he was drawing attention to a mountain that had been strip-mined.

Byrd was concerned about the average citizen and his struggle in getting to the mall. But, more than that, he was probably looking over his shoulder at campaign support from the highway construction companies and votes he would get for creating construction jobs. Senator Byrd, like William Faulkner’s Snopes family, moved right along into the twenty-first century.

In 1979, some of us Lincoln County residents organized Pennzoil Natural Gas customers against the rate increases that the Public Service Commission kept handing out. We went to the state capitol to lobby and raise hell. I was having lunch, in the Capitol basement cafeteria, with people from the upper Kanawha Valley.

Senator Byrd walked in with his obsequious and sycophantic entourage. He seemed to suddenly remember that it was an election year and started, in his awkward manner, going from table to table, shaking hands.

Byrd walked toward our table. I had never admired him. I wondered what I was going to do when he reached out to shake my hand. When he came to me, as we shook hands, I said quietly, “I have never had much respect for you.”

Byrd looked as if he had been shot. He backed away from our table without shaking anyone else’s hand. He pointed at me and started stammering, “I know your type. I’ve met your type before.”

It was scary to think that a man, who at that time was the U. S. Senate majority leader, couldn’t handle that situation better. He had enough power to help start a nuclear war but he couldn’t deal with a long-haired, bearded man, in his own home state Capitol.

Harry Heflin became the acting president of West Virginia University after the very capable Paul Miller resigned. Heflin and his Chamber of Commerce kin of Morgantown were taking Byrd around to view all the things he had made possible with his skill at the pork barrel. At every stop, the Students for a Demoratic Society (SDS) and I greeted the group with signs objecting to giving a Klan organizer the University’s highest honor.

When acting president Heflin saw me, he looked like he might get sick. I was obviously out of control. He would cure that.

Former West Virginia University (WVU) President Paul Miller, who by then was an assistant Secretary of Education in Washington, D.C., was sent to represent the federal government at the graduation ceremony where Byrd was given the honorary doctorate.

Miller had signed off on hiring me at WVU and more than once encouraged me to be bold. In a chance meeting in downtown Morgantown he shook my hand and said, “I like young Turks.”

Miller’s new wife and her children walked with him toward the graduation ceremony. He saw me in the picket line against Byrd and stopped. He shook my hand, and introduced his new family.

The Associated Press photographer took a picture of him shaking my hand, with that picket sign in my other hand. Several years later, Kitty Melville, who had been a reporter for the Daily Athenaeum student newspaper, told me that the AP people were told that if they used that picture, they would never get another story from the University.

Inside the graduation ceremony, the graduating social work students stood and turned their backs on Byrd as he was being honored by Heflin.

One week later, I was invited to a meeting with the university financial people. They wanted to know, since it wasn’t supporting itself, why they shouldn’t close International House. I pointed out that hardly anything at WVU was self-supporting—that didn’t cause them to look up from their figures. Going by their standards, only the football and basketball teams would be left. They had orders and just needed to go through the motions.

David Hess, director of Student Educational Services and my boss, refused Heflin’s request that he fire me. Heflin closed International House and banished me, with no annual pay raise and a feeling I would never get one, to a windowless balcony in the old Mountainlair. That decaying building was a large Navy-surplus dining hall in the hollow behind the wonderful old Mountaineer Field.

“They” didn’t learn with Governors and convicted felons Arch Moore[1] and Wally Barron[2] that it is better to wait and see which prison the guy goes to before building statues and naming streets, courthouses and schools after him.

You have got to love that bust of Moore in the Cultural Center. He sure thought the place was his. The first event that took place in “Archie’s Bunker”, was closed to the peasants. He shut it down like an Argentine dictator and held his daughter’s wedding. It was by invitation only. The public was shut out.


In the spring of 1954 the front page of the Charleston Gazette announced the Supreme Court decision that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional and would be integrated. My reaction was “It will never work here.”

As a senior at St. Albans High School I had attended segregated schools all my life. The kids who lived two blocks away were bused 12 miles to Garnet High School in Charleston and I knew it was because they were “Colored.”

I don’t know what made me think integration wouldn’t work here. For me St. Albans was a safe and happy place. We lived at the end of C Street, I knew some of the “Colored” boys who lived two blocks away on A Street. In the Summer we played baseball and sometimes in the evenings we sat together on the outfield fence of what I remember as a wonderful old ballpark, with a roofed grandstand behind the catcher, to watch white men play in their softball league. We even discussed racism but not school integration.

A few times, I crawled through the fence that was up against the back of the grandstand and into the grandstand to watch the games. Of course my “Colored” friends couldn’t do that because they weren’t allowed inside the ballpark.

In 1954, at the Christmas break of my freshman year at WVU, I attended a YMCA-YWCA national convention at the University of Kansas.

I was getting settled in my assigned living quarters in the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house, when a student from Kansas State University extended his hand and said “I’m Arch Rich.” I don’t know if my hesitation was noticeable but for the first time in my life, I shook hands with an African-American. Arch Rich and I became buddies and hung out together for the rest of the conference.

Since then I have worked on ridding myself of racial prejudice. It is not easy, and maybe not possible, to recover from the subtle and not so subtle racist messages our society sends.

Lawrence, Kansas, home of Kansas University (KU), was a segregated town at the time. The big news in that segregated town was that KU’s basketball team had landed the over seven-foot-tall, and Black, Wilt Chamberlain. The Supreme Court’s school integration ruling had just been handed down in the spring of 1954—things were changing.

I tell this story as a reminder that people can change. Robert Byrd went from a rabid racist to an advocate of civil rights. He had deeper feelings to overcome than I did. I don’t know if Byrd would have changed if the political realities had not changed, had there been no Supreme Court ruling on school segregation, and had southern Democratic senators continued to control the U.S. Senate. And I don’t know how long it would have taken me to change, had it not been for Arch Rich.

In August, 1964, news came that American ships had been attacked by North Vietnam torpedo boats. Vengefully, I was in favor of bombing North Vietnam. After I learned the attack was a hoax to justify bombing North Vietnam, I became active in anti-war activities.

Robert Byrd voted for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave Lyndon Johnson the permission he needed to escalate the war. Recently, Byrd said that vote was one of his biggest mistakes. He opposed the invasion of Iraq for the same reasons he wished he had not voted for the Vietnam War. Byrd has also apologized for his racism.

Near the end of his life, after a political career of supporting the coal industry, Byrd expressed misgivings about mountain top removal strip mining.

Byrd had denounced Judge Charles Haden, for his 1999 ruling against mountain top removal valley fills. But in May of 2009 Byrd said that “…. The industry of coal must also respect the land that yields the coal, as well as the people who live on the land. If the process of mining destroys nearby wells and foundations, if blasting and digging and relocating streams unearths harmful elements and releases them into the environment causing illness and death, that process should be halted and the resulting hazards to the community abated.”

In November, 2009, Byrd said that “The practice of mountaintop removal mining has a diminishing constituency in Washington. It is not a widespread method of mining, with its use confined to only three states. Most members of Congress, like most Americans, oppose the practice, and we may not yet fully understand the effects of mountaintop removal mining on the health of our citizens.

“In recent years, West Virginia has seen record high coal production and record low coal employment …The increased use of mountaintop removal mining means that fewer miners are needed to meet company production goals.

“West Virginians may demonstrate anger toward the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over mountaintop removal mining, but we risk the very probable consequence of shouting ourselves out of any productive dialogue with EPA and our adversaries in the Congress.

“Some have even suggested that coal state representatives in Washington should block any advancement of national health care reform legislation until the coal industry’s demands are met by the EPA. I believe that the notion of holding the health care of over 300 million Americans hostage in exchange for a handful of coal permits is beyond foolish; it is morally indefensible.  It is a non-starter, and puts the entire state of West Virginia and the coal industry in a terrible light.

“To be part of any solution, one must first acknowledge a problem. To deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand and say “deal me out.” West Virginia would be much smarter to stay at the table.”

[1]Three term Governor Arch Moore was convicted of lying and stealing and sentenced to prison.

[2] Governor Wally Barron was convicted of bribery when he bribed the head juror in Barron’s bribery trial.

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A Workers Concentration Camp

A chapter from Damn Yankee Buttons a book of short stories I am working on.

A Workers Concentration Camp[1]

West Virginia has always been a sort of worker’s concentration camp. Big-city folks from Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Philadelphia, etc. owned and still own most of the minerals under the land.

Desperately poor people were brought in to work the mines. Immigrants off the ships in New York were loaded on trains with covered windows. They took them to company-owned houses. The company deducted from the workers’ paychecks, the price of the train trip, rent on the houses, mining tools and blasting powder.

Former slaves and the children of slaves were brought from the south to revive the Roman Empire’s practice of working slaves in mines. Sometimes, the European immigrants and African-Americans were brought in as strike breakers, that is what the covered windows would hide from view.

The new miners were paid in “scrip,” coal-company money honored only at the overpriced company store. It was a prison, lacking only walls and barbed wire. Coal company guards, called “rousters”, patrolled in the mornings looking for dark-windowed houses. They knocked on the doors of the sleeping homes and roused the miners for work. If the miner claimed sickness, the rouster sent him to the company doctor who was often more sympathetic to who paid his wages than to the miners. Widows of miners killed in the mines were sometimes evicted from the company-owned houses shortly after the accident.

Cut it up, dig it up, and move on to the next job. Railroads were built up hollers to get all the coal, wood, limestone, oil, and gas out as quickly as possible. Surely most of the owners must have known that, in the long run, no one they cared about would ever live here.

In the earliest days of English settlement, George Washington’s Ohio Company claimed the fertile bottomland along the Ohio and Kanawha rivers. The founding father was a land speculator.

Unlike Washington, poor people cobbled a living off the land. They hunted, trapped, fished, and raised a few head of cattle and hogs and some chickens. They raised gardens on steep hillsides in three inches of top soil.

Ron Lewis[2] wrote that between 1880 and 1920, the land was timbered right down to the nubs. Trees, some thirteen feet in diameter that grew for six hundred to a thousand years fell to greed. The whole state of West Virginia was clear-cut.

Sunlight was no longer blocked from the forest floor. Sparks from log hauling trains set fire to the sun-dried duff, made of a collection of centuries old leaves and trees. In some areas, like Dolly Sods, the fires lowered the forest floor by three and four feet—the much photographed Bear Rocks were once out of sight under the duff.

A family couldn’t make a living off the land anymore. The great depression of 1929 hit soon after the state was devastated by the clear-cutting and the horrendous forest fires. West Virginia never recovered.

Farmers’ sons became industrial workers in the mines. These were called public jobs. It was near shame for a mountaineer to take a public job. It was humiliating to work for another man and be told when to take a break from work, when to drink water, when to eat, when to start the day’s work, and when it would end. It was degrading to lose control of one’s comings and goings.

From the beginning of statehood in 1863, the end could be foreseen. Investors from the rich Northeast bought up the timber and mineral rights for a song, from unsuspecting farmers. The investors lived in places like the swell Mainline of Philadelphia and Cleveland’s Shaker Heights.

Henry Gassaway Davis and Stephen Benton Elkins presided over the beginning of the clear-cutting in 1880 and controlled both sides of the political spectrum. Davis was chairman of the state Democratic Party and Elkins was chairman of the Republicans.

Davis was from Maryland and Elkins, his son-in-law, slithered in from New Mexico. Davis represented West Virginia in the United States Senate, even while a resident of Maryland.

Laws were changed to benefit the investors. A farmer went to court if a train hit his cow. The local jury of his peers found the railroad company liable for the damage. The company then appealed to a higher court, to which the judges had been appointed by the governor. If the Democrats were in power, Davis was consulted on court appointments. If the Republicans were in control, son-in-law Elkins was the man—no matter which party was in charge, the higher court would inevitably rule in favor of the company.

West Virginia had retained the Virginia law that if a railroad wanted to avoid paying fines and reimbursement for dead cows, it had to build a fence to keep cattle off the tracks. Davis and Elkins’ judges ruled that the farmer had to build the fence. The direct parallels are uncanny between the plight of the farmers under the Davis and Elkins judges and the current plight of West Virginians whose land and lives are being devastated by mountaintop removal coal mining—the judges rule for the corporations.

[1] Much of this is based on information from Transforming the Appalachian Countryside: Railroads, Deforestation, and Social Change in West Virginia. By Ronald Lewis.


[2] Transforming the Appalachian Countryside: Railroads, Deforestation, and Social Change in West Virginia.

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Damn Yankee Buttons

An excerpt from a book of essays and short stories I am working on:

When Grandma died, I sobbed as I testified at graveside that she was special, that without reservation she loved us all. She was our saint, our rock. Grandma Ethyl Atkins Barker and Uncle Kin Barker were saints who smiled into our lives. They both unconditionally loved us all, for Grandma that included one of our cousins who stole her pain pills.


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Excerpt from Damned Yankee Buttons

A story from another book of short stories I am working on. The book title is Damned Yankee Buttons

Tastes Like Chicken

Just about every time I turn on water or stop to enjoy a gurgling stream, a message races to my brain, bypasses all the red tape, and says, “You have to pee.” There must be a name for that kind of auto-response. I discovered another one yesterday.

Henry, my eight-year-old grandson, likes the Triscuits and peanut butter “sandwiches” I fix to snack on when we go hiking in Kanawha State Forest.

The other day I fixed him another sandwich snack he likes—Charleston Bread Store multi-grain bread and peanut butter. In his snack-bag I included some loose Triscuits. He was disappointed that there was no peanut butter on the Triscuits. Genius that he is (I kid you not), he invented a new sandwich. He put Triscuits between the bread slices with the peanut butter. Henry smiled with inventor’s pride and declared it “awesome.”

Yesterday our trip to Kanawha State Forest was cancelled. For breakfast this morning, I ate the two small peanut butter sandwiches I had prepared for yesterday’s snack. But first, I remembered Henry’s delight in his invention (and that is what he called it). I got the box down and added Triscuits to the peanut butter sandwich. After a couple of chews of the crunchy Triscuit immersed in fat peanut butter and softened some by the bread, my brain said, “This is fried chicken.” It was crunchy like fried chicken and it was fat like fried chicken.

Yes! Now I can eat Henry’s invention and get the same pleasure as eating crunchy, fat, fried chicken. No more hiring an anonymous, apron bloodied butcher behind Kroger’s smiling avuncular front, to kill, scald, pluck and gut a fellow piece of meat.

Just once, I butchered another oxygen breathing, but not too smart, fellow earth-walker. I caught a noisy old guinea hen, cut its head off and watched it lurch headless around the yard. After scalding it with boiling water, I plucked it bald, sliced it open and pulled its guts out. I couldn’t eat it. Since then I have hired an executioner for my meals of flesh.

If I don’t have to rip the guts out, I can eat cooked flesh. But it must be well done. I want no blood dripping or pink reminding me of that tough old guinea hen.

Many years ago, on the farm at fall butchering time, before I became sensitive to the death of other animals and to seeing their guts pouring out of hung carcasses, grandpa threw the bladder of the dead hog to us kids. Through a hollow stickweed, we blew air into it and tied it off like a balloon, and kicked our “pigskin” up and down the hilly pasture.

Could all this be self-incriminating in future trials in which vegetarians bring charges of murder and mutilation of our fellow earth-walkers? Perhaps I can ask for mercy based on my preference for Triscuits, peanut butter, and multi-grain bread. I won’t tell them it tastes just like chicken.


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