History at Its Source


Among the more than 1000 people arrested at police headquarters protesting the killing of Amadou Diallo was 83-year-old Carolyn Goodman. As reported in the New York Post, she was there “partly in memory of her son, Andrew, whose 1964 killing in Mississippi was one of the most notorious crimes of the civil rights era.”

The story of that murder of Andrew Goodman—along with fellow Congress of Racial Equality civil rights workers James Chaney and Michael Schwerner—is included on page 146 of an extraordinary book, Big Town/Big Time, subtitled A New York Epic: 1898–1998.

Conceived as a contribution to this city’s 100th anniversary celebration, the book was edited by Daily News staff writer Jay Maeder, who also wrote many of the entries.

It’s a big, 8×11 hardcover, handsomely designed, and on each of its 192 pages there is proof of what newspapers do best: provide future historians with vivid accounts of pivotal events as they happened.

The story and context of the Mississippi assassinations—by a posse aided by a deputy sheriff—are reported from the Daily News archives. The photograph shows an FBI “missing” poster asking for information on the whereabouts of three men who had disappeared near Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Consider how impoverished formal history would be without newspapers and magazines. During the Clinton impeachment proceedings, a lot of attention was paid to the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. But until recently, when I read the March 1861 Harper’s Weekly, I had no idea that Johnson, when a congressman from Tennessee, had recalled his own years of poverty and proposed, as a basic American right, that “every poor man” be guaranteed “a home, one spot of earth, he should be able to call his own.”

Years ago, when I was on the board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, we researched the basis for a constitutional right to decent housing for everyone—along with such other fundamental guarantees as universal health care. The ACLU should revive that imperative for a truly just society.

For anyone planning an eventual Christmas gift that will be long remembered, I strongly suggest Big Town/Big Time. No one should forget the neatly laid out corpses of women incinerated in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, an event that ultimately helped transform the International Ladies Garment Workers Union into a powerful labor union. And, through Franklin D. Roosevelt’s labor secretary, Frances Perkins, that catastrophe was instrumental in the enactment of federal statutes protecting workers.

Remembering how my mother, in the depth of the Great Depression, would walk many blocks to save a few pennies on bread, I was drawn to the book’s report of the 1902 kosher beef riots. After the price of kosher beef jumped from 12 cents to 18 cents a pound, “tens of thousands of otherwise perfectly nice Jewish ladies rampaged through the city, smashing windows, wrecking stores, overturning pushcarts, belting cops and smacking anyone who got in their way with shoes, , broomsticks, bricks, and slabs of raw liver.” In a month, the prices were rolled back.

I’ll always remember the night, as a kid, I sat listening on the radio to the Joe Louis–Max Schmeling rematch. Hitler’s favorite boxer had previously demolished Louis in eight rounds. At the time of the rematch, the Buchenwald concentration camp was filled with Jews, but Schmeling’s Jewish manager, Joe (Yussel) Jacobs, insisted that Jews in Germany were happy and content.

In Big Town/Big Time, you can see Joe Louis standing over Schmeling, who, screaming at the relentless blows, had collapsed and gone into convulsions. Having spent 10 years doing blow-by-blow and color for boxing bouts on a Boston radio station, I believe that “sport” should be outlawed. But seeing the photo again, I cheered.

Also vividly back in focus is opening night at Birdland, “the jazz corner of the world,” in 1949. Until I came to New York in 1953, I greatly envied friends of mine who practically lived at Birdland, as I later did for years.

Here is Bird (Charlie Parker) with Prez (Lester Young), the still underrated Oran “Hot Lips” Page, Lennie Tristano (as cool as Bird was hot), and traditionalist Max Kaminsky, who showed that Jews too can swing.

A page I especially dwell on is titled “On Strike With the Newsboys Legion, 1889.” I organized my first union when I was 15, working in a candy store. Some of those strikers were 11 years old. The wholesale price of the papers they got to sell had increased, and, on Columbus Circle, “the newspaper drivers met the mob of nearly 500 howling lads who pelted them with fruit and seized their papers… The mighty Hearst and Pulitzer were under siege by an army of urchins with names like Boots McAleenan, Young Mush, and Bob the Indian.” Their union didn’t last long, but it lives again in Big Town/Big Time.

The book sells for $29.95 plus $5 in shipping charges. To order it, call 1-800-327-5557. The publisher is Sports Publishing Inc., 804 N. Neil Street, Champaign, Illinois 61820.

This year, every day in the News, Jay Maeder is editing and sometimes writing a new series, Big Town Biography, which will eventually become a book. These pages are just as riveting as the epiphanies of the living past in Big Town/Big Time.

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