(Picture: Wikimedia Commons)
One of the very best almost-presidents was Henry Wallace (1888-1965) – and he came much, much closer than most.
‘Born into a wealthy Iowa farming family, Wallace hadn’t had the working-class background of a Bernie Sanders or Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. But he certainly had the political instinct for compassion and social justice.
During the 1920s, he rose to prominence lobbying for federal relief to poor farmers which was consistently denied by the traditionally progressive Republican Party.
This led him, in 1932, to switch over to the Democratic Party of Franklin Roosevelt, which was promising America a New Deal in the wake of the Wall Street Crash.
Thankfully, Roosevelt won and he made Wallace his Secretary of Agriculture.
In 1940, after years of steadfast support for FDR’s New Deal, Roosevelt chose Wallace to be his new running mate. Wallace then served four years as Vice-President of the United States from 1941-5.
Henry Wallace was one of the most progressive members of Roosevelt’s administration.’
‘Championing economic democracy and internationalism, he said,
“Some have spoken of the ‘American Century’. I say that the century on which we are entering – the century which will come into being after this war – can be and must be the century of the common man… No nation will have the God-given right to exploit other nations. Older nations will have the privilege to help younger nations get started on the path to industrialisation, but there must be neither military nor economic imperialism.”
As Secretary of Agriculture, he spearheaded the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 which used federal intervention to boost the price of farm goods to support the embattled rural economy.
Wallace also backed FDR’s effort to take on the fascist powers from the late-thirties onward, denouncing Nazi racial theory as a “mumbo-jumbo of dangerous nonsense”.
Wallace made the role of VP more dynamic than it had ever been.
He led the Democratic presidential campaign of 1940 from the front before playing a crucial role in the wartime government as chair of Roosevelt’s Board of Economic Warfare.
On 8th May 1942, Wallace gave the most remarkable speech ever given by a US President or Vice-President.
Scared of Wallace’s progressive beliefs – his anti-imperialism, his commitment to economic justice, and, especially, his open opposition to Jim Crow – the Democratic establishment pushed him off the ballot in 1944, replacing him with the hapless conservative, Harry Truman, all against the wishes of the Democrats’ base.
The post-war period might have gone much better – for America and the world – had Wallace succeeded Roosevelt in 1945 rather than the trigger-happy and hawkish Truman.
While our immediate priority is to kick its current resident out at the ballot box, the story of Henry Wallace shows that the White House needn’t be a home to scandal, incompetence, and prejudice.
One day, perhaps, we could install someone like Wallace and make the Presidency an institution of virtue and vision like it has so rarely been before.’
~Pete, Radical Tea Towel
Viola Desmond took a stand against racism in Nova Scotia in 1946 when she refused to move from a theatre seat that was reserved for white patrons.
Radical Tea Towel
Today, back in 1914, Viola Desmond was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Rarely as explicit as Jim Crow in the US, racism against black citizens in Canada was no less pernicious.
In Nova Scotia, segregation was widespread.
The Roseland Film Theatre in New Glasgow was a case in point.
The better, main floor seats were reserved for white patrons while black customers were confined to the balcony.
In 1943, Carrie Best, a black Nova Scotian, had tried to challenge this set-up without success.
On 8th November 1946, Desmond’s car broke down in New Glasgow and so she went to the Roseland Theater to watch a movie while it was repaired.
Unaware of the segregation – it was unofficial because there were no segregation laws in New Glasgow – Desmond moved down to the main floor where she could see better.
It wasn’t long before she was asked to move by a member of staff.
Viola immediately knew what was going on – she’d faced anti-black racism in Canada ever since being barred from beautician training as a young woman in Halifax.
But on that night in Nova Scotia, she took a stand.
Viola refused to leave her seat until she was forcibly thrown out of the theater, injuring her hip in the process.
She was then arrested and spent the night in jail on the absurd claim of a tax violation.
Back home in Halifax, Desmond was convinced by her Baptist pastor, William Pearly Oliver, to challenge her arrest in court (as in the US, the Baptist Church was at the cent re of black civil rights activism in Canada).
Supported by the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (modelled on the American NAACP) and Carrie Best, who had by now set up a newspaper, The Clarion, to advocate for black Canadians, Viola Desmond took the Roseland Theater to court.
She didn’t win, but that’s not the point.
In the atmosphere of 1946, when many Canadians believed they’d just fought a bitter war to overcome racist Nazism in Europe, Viola Desmond’s act of defiance sparked new life into the Canadian civil rights movement at home.
To some in countries like Canada and England, it’s a tempting delusion to see anti-black racism as a ‘US problem’.
This thinking tries to brush histories of white supremacy under the rug, but it also buries the inspiring stories of anti-racist resistance.
From Viola Desmond in Nova Scotia to the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963, the epic of black power and black liberation extends well beyond the United States.
Black lives matter – all over the world.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
-W.B. Yeats, 1919.
The poem, The Second Coming, was written in 1919 post WWI and the beginning of the Irish War of Independence following the Easter Rising.
Eugene Debs started as a railroad worker and quickly became President of the American Railway Union, the first industrial union in the US, which he helped found. He led a boycott against handling trains with Pullman cars in what became the nationwide Pullman Strike; this granted him a six month sentence in prison for defying a court injunction against the strike.
Debs ran as a Socialist candidate for President of the United States five times, between 1900 and 1920, the last time from a prison cell.