Saturday, June 27, 2020

State Capitals and Railroads: A Historical Symbiosis

Where’s your state capital? If on the East Coast, look for the train station. Railroads and majestic state capitals were built in tandem. As reliable streetcars were not available until the 1890’s, state capitals had to be located near downtown hotel and restaurant districts, and to mainline railroads reaching across their respective states.   

Washington, DC’s Union Station was built in 1906 six blocks north from the US Capitol. Most of DC’s municipal offices are located six blocks west in Judiciary Square. Simultaneous projects included a tunnel for trains to pass underneath- instead of across- Capitol Hill, a streetcar terminal for service to the old downtown, and construction of the restricted-access US Senate subway.
Legislators and staff in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and Richmond, Virginia also walk six blocks to their respective state capitals. 

Even though all parts of the state can be reached in a day’s ride on horseback, Providence, Rhode Island’s train station is located at the back door of the state capital.
The capital in Trenton, New Jersey is a half-mile from the train station, which serves high-speed electric trains between Washington, DC and New York City via Philadelphia.

Although the station is located on the “wrong” side of the navigable Hudson River, train service operates frequently on the Empire Corridor between Buffalo; Albany, New York; and New York City.

The very historic state house in Annapolis, Maryland, dating to 1772, used to be located at the terminal of a rapid commuter rail line to much-larger Baltimore; but was stranded after the railroad was abandoned in the 1950s. Light rail service was restored over a portion of the corridor in 1992, but ends some 15 miles from Annapolis.

Then-Senator Joe Biden commuted from Wilmington, Delaware to the US Capitol by Amtrak; but passenger trains have not served his peninsular state capital of Dover, Delaware in decades.
Augusta, Maine sadly lost their train service, which used to run in front of the state house promenade. A similar fate befell Concord, New Hampshire, where buses have replaced trains since 1967. Nevertheless, there’s always talk of restoring commuter rail service to Boston.

Montpellier, Vermont still has Amtrak service; although the hilly topography put the station a mile from town.

Springfield, Massachusetts and Hartford, Connecticut are served by Amtrak Northeast Corridor’s “Inland Route”, as well as respective state commuter rails.
Although few trains operate here today, Raleigh, North Carolina’s capital is also within walking distance of the rail line.

West Virginia is a young state, born during the Civil War. Three passenger trains a week serve Charleston, West Virginia on Amtrak’s sleepy and mountainous Cardinal Line between Chicago and Washington, DC.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Medgar Evers' 30-Year Trial

If a defendant is wrongfully acquitted, he is still a free man. This is a pillar of the American judicial system, even when it opposes other ideals like equality and justice. Such values were tested during the trial of Byron De La Beckwith, who murdered civil rights activist Medgar Evers on June 12th, 1963.

Beckwith was brought to justice shortly after the killing. Due to the continued presence of Jim Crow racism, this case was designed to fail. In 1964, during the first trial against Beckwith, the local prosecutor pursued the death penalty, instead of a more probable term sentence. In the Deep South, it was not until the 1990s that white men were executed for killing black men. Predictably, the first trial deadlocked into a mistrial, and so did the second. 26 years elapsed between a second mistrial in 1964, and a third trial in 1990, in which Beckwith, then 73, was sentenced to life in prison. Was this a victor’s justice?

Contemporary writing suggested that Beckwith would walk as a free man on appeal. Beckwith believed that his right to a speedy trial had been violated, twice; and that he was facing double jeopardy.

Beckwith held that the 26 years between the second mistrial and arrest for a third trial was excessive; and that the 1,100 days between the 1990 arrest and his final trial was likewise excessive.
The State had to find that a Nolo Prosequi (Decline to Prosecute) issued in 1969 was not an acquittal; nor was it permanently binding, provided that in the State of Mississippi there is no statute of limitations for murder.

To the credit of the Mississippi Supreme Court in the appeal process, they were able to disregard the fact that Beckwith still held white supremacist views, and ignore the weight of social and political implications during the third trial and appeal in the early 1990’s.

By this time, the South had entered the “tough on crime” era. Racial favoritism gave way to a firm but outwardly fair hand. Any leeway given to Beckwith could be used by a future defendant brought to justice in a “cold case”. Beckwith, in poor health, spent the last seven years of his life in prison. His futile appeal, Beckwith vs. State of Mississippi, is often cited today in Fifth and Sixth amendment cases.

In 2009, a naval supply ship, USNS Medgar Evers (T-AKE 13), was named by then-Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus. A social progressive, he was sitting governor of Mississippi at the beginning of Beckwith’s third trial.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Good Intentions versus Bad Actors

My eyes were fixated on the Crew Dragon spacecraft this weekend. This launch was the epitome of the prowess of scientists and industry. A successful space program is the sign of a healthy nation. The war in Iraq had derailed George W. Bush's early presidential ambitions for spaceflight, but not before NASA funded summer camps for youths like myself. So nothing said it better that we were a nation at peace again.

This weekend certainly had the flavor of turbulent 1968-1969. Had I posted this sooner, I would've spoken too soon. Many of the recent protests over Floyd George's death have been orderly, especially during the sunlight hours. Others have been disorderly, characterized by arrests and the use of tear gas, but nothing beyond the pale. However, during the cover of night, there has been arson and looting of boutique shops and liquor stores. Peaceful protest is a keystone of democracy. Rioting has an ugly history of suppressing the rights and security of marginalized groups, the destruction of Tulsa's Black Wall Street at the hands of white supremacists being one of many examples.

This last point is salient, because this week has seen many privileged individuals joining in the destruction of other peoples' property. These rioters truly believe they are advancing the goals of social justice, as they destroy minority-operated businesses. If history is any lesson, neighborhoods damaged in three hours by the bricks and gasoline of "social justice warriors" will stagnate for three decades. It is the underprivileged residents who will live among the burned-out buildings and lack of amenities. This was the case of Washington, DC in the aftermath of the 1968 riots.

Elected officials and community leaders, in both parties, are abdicating the responsibility to mediate in civil unrest, which requires both understanding the concern at hand, while demanding the rule of law and order. This was shown by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan's successful handling of Baltimore's Freddie Gray riots in 2015. Minnesota, the generally harmonious Scandinavia of America, was ill-prepared to deal with urban riots, and the genie left the bottle.

Among intellectuals, moral relativism has taken precedence over absolute rights. "Arson does not cancel out a murder", or "this is justified", they say. When this thinking enters political philosophy, inaction prevails. Learned politicians vacillate over 'systemic injustice' and 'inclusiveness', instead of  building practical affirmative action plans that would get immediate results.  This weekend, looting was not confined to inner-city areas, but spread to affluent, educated suburbs like Bethesda, MD.