Thursday, December 27, 2012

Homelessness in America Revisited

A recent report (2009) indicated that there are currently 40,000 homeless in New York City.  This is a staggering statistic – this number is equivalent to the entire population of a small town.  Given the harsh winters in New York, this is a very disturbing reality.  New York is by no means unique in this regard.  The following table shows homelessness statistics for the entire nation as of 2009.

In addition, there are many millions of individuals at a greater risk for homelessness as the following table indicates

Note – These data are taken from the National Report on Homelessness from the National Alliance to End Homelessness

These data clearly demonstrate that the major causes for homelessness are the prohibitive cost of housing, unemployment and poverty - conditions that are further aggravated by housing foreclosures.

Despite the economic downturn, a decrease by 1% in homelessness across America between 2009 and 2011 was found in a report issued by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  The following were some of the findings issued in this report –
  •  ·          "The nation's homeless population decreased 1 percent, or by about 7,000 people; it went from 643,067 in 2009 to 636,017 in 2011. There were a decreased number of people experiencing homelessness in most of the sub-populations examined in this report: families, individuals in families, chronic, and individuals. The only increase was among those unsheltered.
  •  ·         The largest decrease was among homeless veterans, whose population declined 11 percent. The number of homeless veterans went from 75,609 in 2009 to 67,495 in 2011, a reduction of about 8,000.
  •  ·         The national rate of homelessness was 21 homeless people per 10,000 people in the general population. The rate for veterans was 31 homeless veterans per 10,000 veterans in the general population.
  •  ·         Chronic homelessness decreased by 3 percent from 110,911 in 2009 to 107,148 in 2011. The chronically homeless population has decreased by 13 percent since 2007. The decrease is associated with an increase in the number of permanent supportive housing beds from 188,636 in 2007 to 266,968 in 2011. Permanent supportive housing ends chronic homelessness.
  •  ·         A majority of homeless people counted were in emergency shelters or transitional housing programs, but nearly 4 in 10 were unsheltered, living on the streets, or in cars, abandoned buildings, or other places not intended for human habitation. The unsheltered population increased by 2 percent from 239,759 in 2009 to 243,701 in 2011, the only subpopulation to increase.
  •  ·         The number of individuals in homeless families decreased by 1 percent nationally, but increased by 20 percent or more in 11 states.
  •  ·         While the homeless population decreased nationally, it increased in 24 states and the District of Columbia."

Note – I have purposefully underlined those aspects of the report that I believe warrant special attention.

The horrific state of homelessness impacts men, women, children, the old and the young, the mentally ill and even the handicapped.  There are, in fact, whole families that are homeless.  It is not uncommon for families to be homeless in which the head of the household is employed.  In my mind, there is no justifiable reason for anyone to be homeless in America; the suffering that is endured by so many is wholly unnecessary.  Consider the extent of the waste evident in the federal budget especially in regards to military expenditures and the ludicrous concessions made to corporations with the help of the legions of lobbyists paid exorbitant sums to extricate concessions from an essentially apathetic and pliant Congress.  Consider the vast transfer of public wealth to private hands that has transpired within the last thirty years.  Consider the corruption that is so evident within local governments.  These are governments that often pander to wealth and find all manner of rationales to ignore the plight of so many of their citizens.

National priorities should gravitate around meaningful solutions to societal problems and conditions that lead to unwarranted and unnecessary suffering on the part of those who are effectively economically and politically powerless to change their state of being - with special regard to children.  Homelessness and hunger are issues that need to be placed at the top of the list.  Not to do so, is, in my judgment, morally indefensible. 
The state of homelessness in America is evidence of the seemingly pervasive cultural indifference to the living conditions of those less fortunate.  This is a troubling aspect of American life.  It need not be the case, however.  This nation is woefully out of balance.  What is required is a sense of urgency in meeting the needs of those who are in crisis.  What is required is a serious reevaluation of what we, as a people, collectively regards as important and worthy of immediate attention.  In my mind, to ignore those who suffer unnecessarily is to effectively undermine the future. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Mythology of Gun Ownership

It is the morning after the gruesome killing of twenty school children and six adults at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut (December 14, 2012) by a deranged individual carrying an array of very deadly weapons.  There are not enough tears to assuage the terrifying grief of those directly impacted by this senseless tragedy.
The identity of the individual responsible for this slaughter may serve some cathartic purpose, and may help those directly impacted by the tragedy and the nation try to understand the particulars of this horrific event, but it does nothing to embrace the underlying pathology of our culture.  There will always be individuals cursed with a fire in the brains that fashions a personal reality that drives them to such extremes – this, in my mind, is a matter of brain chemistry.  We no longer live within the Dark Ages – the scientific discipline embraced by Neurobiology and Neuroscience has made and continues to make great strides in understanding brain structure and function.  Yet, as a society we allow many individuals plagued with madness to go about their lives untreated and unattended to.  We do so for many reasons, but essentially because we place profit before service to community.
Events like the one that occurred yesterday are not uncommon and are quickly becoming the norm in this country.  In no other country, with the exception of so-called "Failed States," are murderous weapons so readily available to the entire population and especially to those who suffer from severe mental imbalance.  The question we need to ask ourselves is, why?
There resides within the popular imagination a mythology surrounding gun ownership.  This mythology embraces the troubling notion that owning guns is a fundamental right.  The second amendment to the constitution has been used to substantiate this right – this interpretation, however, is highly controversial.   This does not answer the fundamental question of why we choose to validate the reality of universal gun ownership in this way. 
There are many who claim that denying everyone rights to ownership of certain kinds of extremely dangerous weapons or concealed weapons is a denial of personal freedom.  This argument assumes that in a so-called "free society," everyone has the right to do grievous harm to others under the appropriate circumstances.  Within such a worldview, gun ownership has become tantamount to the right to vote or assembly, or free speech.   Guns, however, are weapons of death; guns allow an individual or groups of individuals to inflict deadly harm upon many people as we have seen only too often.  Guns, in fact, represent not a symbol for personal freedom, but rather a deadly means towards violence and aggression.
As a people, we can either continue to embrace this dangerous mythology, or deal rationally with a problem that is quickly running out of control.  The purpose of a vibrant and sustainable culture is to curtail the more destructive emotions, focus the profound capabilities embodied in intellect for the common good and work towards a viable future.  We are failing in all of these.  As in all other problematic issues, it is within our hands to do what is necessary to promote and sustain our collective sanity. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Sojourner Truth - A Woman Far Ahead of Her Time

Sojourner Truth was an African-American woman who had a remarkable impact on the abolitionist movement in the United States and on the lives of the African-Americans of her time.  Her activism and the courage of her convictions had an effect not only on her contemporaries but on future generations as well.

She was born into slavery as Isabella Van Wagenen, and later changed her name to Sojourner Truth.  She is now considered to be one of the two most famous African-American women in the nineteenth century.  The other is Harriet Tubman, the "Moses" of her people.  Truth had a remarkable intelligence despite her illiteracy.  She was a tall woman, 5' 11", and had a characteristically low pitched voice.  In her lifetime, she had to endure the travails and suffering that were common to all who were forced to endure the humiliation and ignominy of slavery in America.  She was involuntarily separated from members of her family who were sold to other owners; she was humiliated, beaten and abused.  She was, in fact, one of the tens of thousands of African-Americans who were enslaved in New York State.  According to the popular imagination, slavery is seen as being particularly endemic to the American South, as represented by Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic work, Uncle Tom's Cabin.  However, it was also prevalent in the North.  Isabella was born in Hurley, New York in Ulster County ninety miles north of New York City.

Isabella's parents were James and Elizabeth, who were the slaves of Colonel Johannes Hardenberg, a Revolutionary War Colonel.  James had lost two of his wives to slavery sales before his marriage to Betsey.  Isabella was the youngest of ten or twelve children: the exact number is unknown.  Before she was fully grown, Isabella had lost both parents and ten siblings, who were sold or in case of two of her siblings, actually kidnapped.  Ultimately, Isabella's parents became infirm and were sent to live in a separate domicile that was, in fact, a hut.  Twenty years later they were freed, but were doomed to a miserable existence.  Later in her life, Truth would describe her parents' plight in the following way, "They ended their days ignorant, helpless, crushed in spirit and weighed down with hardships and cruel bereavement."

This region of New York in which Truth lived was originally inhabited by the Mohawk Indians.  They were overwhelmed by Dutch settlers who never completely displaced them.  In Isabella's time, the reality of slavery was so extensive that between thirty and sixty percent of white households owned slaves, and of the overall population of thirty thousand about ten percent were of African descent.  The typical slave-owning household had one to two slaves and sometimes six or seven.  In terms of actual numbers of slaves, the records show that New York City had 5,865, Connecticut 6,281 and New Jersey 16,824 slaves.  Unlike their southern counterparts who lived on large plantations housing many slaves, New York slaves were isolated and, therefore, did not develop a vibrant Anglo-African culture.  Surprisingly, approximately sixteen percent of blacks, like Isabella, spoke Dutch as their first language.

Another important distinction between slavery in the North and South is that the invention of the Cotton Gin (1793) made slave-grown and harvested cotton the economic underpinning of the American South.  On account of the elevated importance of the cotton industry and the degree to which the institution of slavery had become endemic to  southern life and culture, southern slaves were treated particularly harshly i.e. they could not legally marry or own property.  In addition, they were deprived of formal education and, as a consequence, unable to read or write.  Most importantly, they were destined to be slaves their entire lives with no possibility of liberation (manumission).  The southern slave owner's power over his slaves was absolute, and violence and the sexual violation of women slaves suffused the entire institution.  Some famous African-Americans escaped from southern bondage, including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.

Although the plight of the Northern slave was not as horrific, Truth's life in the household of the Nealies was deplorable.  She was savagely beaten and abused.  She was subsequently sold on two additional occasions and finally ended up in the household of the Dumonts, where she remained for sixteen years.  There is some evidence that she was sexually abused by the mistress of the house, Sally Dumont.  In spite of this, she remained loyal to the Dumont family even after she was freed.  In fact, according to Nell Irvin Painter in her book entitled, Sojourner, A Life, A Symbol, "Recalling herself as a slave, Sojourner Truth realized that she had been incapable of separating John Dumont's interests from her own, even when serving him meant depriving her own children and setting herself against her fellow slaves."  This seemingly inexplicable behavior is referred to as a "slave mentality."  It can be explained by the fact that individuals deprived of personal autonomy for too long, learn to value themselves less than those whom they serve.  This inordinate desire to please the powerful ultimately can produce a potent anger that can either be turned inwards or result in tempestuous and dangerous outbursts.

Between 1815 and 1826, Isabella bore five children.  Her husband, Thomas, himself a slave, had been married twice before and lost both of his wives to the slave trade.  He attempted to escape to New York City, but had been recaptured and returned to Ulster County where he met Isabella.  Of the five children, her daughter most resembled her mother.  In 1827, Isabella gained her freedom - New York freed its remaining slaves on July 4, 1827 - and left Thomas and four of her children to the Dumonts.  She held onto her baby, Sophia.

In 1843, Isabella changed her name to Sojourner Truth, reflecting her pre-occupation with truth.  This was the same year that she decided to leave New York.  During the time that she lived in New York, it was a deeply troubling time for African Americans.  Their transition from slavery to supposed freedom was accompanied by violence and legally-imposed obstacles.  The Jacksonian era of the common man did not give comfort to those newly freed from the bonds of slavery.  Even after the Civil War when all legal restrictions for blacks in regard to access to public accommodations had ended, entrenched prejudices remained. 

Given the political, economic and social conditions of the time, Sojourner felt compelled to speak out against the stark injustices of her age.  She went on to make important inroads into the pernicious impact of prejudice that so dominated cultural life during her time.  She was a fierce abolitionist and feminist and spoke out for some thirty years.  Between the 1840's and 1870's, she traveled extensively denouncing slavery and was a staunch advocate for women's rights, women's suffrage and temperance.  She found her inspiration from religious faith; she might best be described as a Pentecostal, deriving her strength from the Holy Spirit as she envisioned it.

Sojourner Truth's life can be viewed as going through three stages: slavery, a spiritual era culminating in her involvement with the utopian Northampton Association for Education and Industry, and finally her activism as a staunch feminist and opponent of the institution of slavery.

The utopian community referred to as the Northampton Association of Education and Industry consisted of thirty men, twenty-six women and forty-six children.  Individuals from the community were hired to work in the so-called  "silk room." In addition, the community had a library and reading room for formal lectures. 

The Northampton Community listed as its first principle of incorporation that it was the duty of all people to work productively and to have the right to enjoy the benefits of their labor.  Competition was viewed as reprehensible.  The community saw itself as a cooperative working for the interest of women's rights, freedom of expression, a broad-based education and the abolition of slavery.  Its appeal was its commitment to the abolition of slavery.     A byproduct of this association was a non-denominational free meeting referred to as the Florence Free Congregational Society where Truth was often invited to speak.  Among other things, the group supported temperance, vegetarianism and peace.  Its two main goals were to create an intellectually satisfying atmosphere in which to live and to realize a profit from the manufacture of silk.

The Association attracted visitors such as Frederick Douglass.  He was impressed by the complete absence of class or racial boundaries.  It also afforded an opportunity for Truth to meet reformers deeply involved in the issues of antislavery and feminism, including Giles Stebbins and James Boyle.  Another individual of note was David Ruggles, one of New York's leading abolitionists and head of the Virginia Society.  It was Ruggles who arranged for Frederick Douglass' flight from slavery.  In addition, local townswomen were employed in their silk room where they made silk.  In addition to housing for those who resided in the community and the silk factory, there was also a library and reading room where formal lectures were held.  Visitors to the community included William Lloyd Garrison an integral member of the American Anti-Slavery Society and editor of the Boston Liberator and Wendell Phillip a pillar of anti-slavery and labor reform movements before and after the Civil War.  The main appeal of this association was its emphasis on intellectual enrichment and simple living conditions.  Of the 270 utopian communities that existed in the United States between 1787 and 1919, 115 were formed between 1842 and 1848; it was a period of considerable social unrest and social experimentation. 

The Northampton community was ultimately dissolved in 1846.  Truth stayed on for awhile trying to make it on her own.  Inspired by the success of Frederick Douglass' Narrative published in 1845, Truth dictated her narrative – autobiography - to one of the community's residents, Olive Gilbert.  The narrative was completed three years later.  The Narrative of Sojourner Truth – Northern Slave was first printed in Boston in 1850.  Unlike other slave narratives, Truth ends with not a note of bitterness regarding the slave experience, but one of forgiveness for the slave holder. 

Throughout her life, Truth successfully formed networks with like-minded individuals.  This ability to communicate and learn from her surroundings, even slavery, in many ways accounted for her astonishing accomplishments.  When she left the Northampton community, her energy focused on antislavery feminism.  This phase of her life led her to apply her oratory skills and evangelical tendencies to what came to be the antislavery and feminism circuit.  In the fall of 1844, Truth gave her first antislavery speech in Northampton.  In May 1845, she spoke to the annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York.  Truth believed in the, "finite nature of evil and the everlasting quality of good."

At the Ohio Woman's Rights Convention in Akron Ohio on May 29, 1851, Truth delivered her famous Ain't I a Woman speech.  This speech was essentially an unapologetic insistence that women were the equals of men.  It must be remembered that Truth was illiterate and never wrote down her words.  The account of this speech was reported by Frances D. Cage and was published in 1863.  In it, Truth called for equal rights and cited her life experiences as a woman and as a slave.

During all her speaking engagements, Truth did not take a political stand; until, the outbreak of the Civil War.  Once the Civil War was underway, she avidly took the side of the Union.  She eventually achieved enough notoriety to have been invited to visit Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant.

Following the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), the subject of the "Negro" became a common theme in the press.  In the April 1863 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote an article entitled, Sojourner Truth, the Libyan Sibyl.  In many ways, Stowe's description of Truth was condescending.  For example, she described Truth as, "…a full blooded African…," and, "…a fine specimen of the torrid zone…"  Yet, in spite of this tone, she shows her admiration for Truth, especially in regards to her ability to impact an audience with her eloquence.  Truth continued to make the rounds of women's rights and anti-slavery meetings.

Following the successful conclusion of the war, Truth turned her attention to Washington, the nation's capitol.  She arrived there in the fall of 1864.  Tens of thousands of former slaves from Maryland and Virginia inundated the area and took refuge there.  The famous anti-slavery editor, Horace Greeley had commented that in Washington, "The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable."  Washington was a slaveholding city; until, an act of Congress in 1862 had changed that.  From the end of 1864 through 1868, Truth helped out in refugee camps for the National Freedmen's Relief Association that helped ex-slaves with their transition to freedom.  She also spent much of her time teaching.  As the anti-slavery movement began to wither, Truth turned her attention to women's suffrage.  She joined the ranks along with other notable black women, including Ellen Watkins Harper and Harriet Tubman.

After Truth had witnessed the deplorable conditions of ex-slaves in Washington, she reasoned that blacks needed to migrate west.  She devoted her efforts during the 1870s towards this goal.  She addressed Congress through the submission of a petition bearing many signatures.  It read, "We, the undersigned, therefore earnestly request your Honorable Body to set apart for them a portion of public land in the West, and erect buildings thereon for the aged and infirm, and otherwise so to legislate as to secure the desired results."  There is no evidence that this petition was ever actually delivered to the Congress.

Truth was nearing the end of her life, and in 1883, she passed away.  Her life's work is certainly a testament to her remarkable courage, steadfast adherence to principles and a stubborn dedication to achieving equal justice in her time.  Her life history certainly speaks of her remarkable endurance in spite of enormous obstacles and an admirable moral and personal courage.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Climate Change – A Fundamental Threat to World Peace and Stability

In my mind, the greatest future threat to world peace comes not from regional conflicts, ethnic or sectarian differences existing within and between national borders or international terrorism, but from the economic-social instability and displacement of millions of individuals that will be the inevitable consequences of unfettered climate change.


There is a growing concern among climatologists that the earth may be entering an era of accelerated climate change.  This reevaluation has at its core evidence of so-called feedback loops.  Some examples of the feedback process are the following:

·        As sea ice melts it reduces the albedo effect (reflection of the sun's heat from the surface) and, therefore, leads to an increase in ocean temperature that results in a further melting of the sea ice

·        As areas of permafrost – found in Siberia - melt due to increased average temperature in the atmosphere, this releases carbon dioxide (CO2) and the more potent greenhouse gas, methane from vast stores of biomass that exist below the permafrost.  It is estimated that the total store of this organic material represent twice the amount of carbon (CO2) already in the atmosphere.  The release of these greenhouse gases further increases the average global temperature resulting in further melting of the permafrost.  This kind of feedback involving the permafrost has also been implicated in the warming crisis that has been reported to occur at the end of the Permian Period (~ 250 million years ago) by A. Hallam and P.B. Wignall in their book entitled, Extinctions and Their Aftermath

·        The disruption of the thermohaline circulation (THC).  It is important to understand that the THC influences global climate by transporting heat and freshwater between the oceans globally.


The prospect of these feedback mechanisms accelerating climate change has so concerned James E Hansen, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies that he has warned that, "Unless the world slashes CO2 levels back to 350 ppm (the current level is 391), we will have started a process that is out of humanity's control."  He cited the possibility of a sea level rise of five meters during this century - if this should become reality it would be catastrophic.  Other scientists in his field believe the rise will not be that extreme but do envision a sea level rise as high as two meters.  This projection is also very troubling.


These data indicate that not only are we currently feeling the impact of climate change but also that these changes may very well be accelerating.  This is a global crisis that necessitates a global solution. 

Tawakul Karman - The Iron Woman from Yemen

Tawakul Karman was born in Yemen on February 7, 1979.  She has two sisters, Tariq, a poet and Safa who is employed at the news organization, Al-Jazeera.  Karman's profession is that of a journalist – a graduate from the University of Science and Technology at the University of Sana's - and as a member in good standing of the Al-Islah political party.  She is married to Mohammed Al-Nahmil and has three children. 

On account of her relentless activism and remarkable courage in the face of extreme opposition, her name has become synonymous with the Arab Spring as it unfolded in her native country.  She has been referred to as the, "Iron Woman" and the "Mother of the Revolution."  In recognition of her efforts on behalf of the issues of peace and social justice, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 along with Leymah Roberta Gbowee and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, both from the country of Liberia.


Before we begin to examine Karman's life, it is important to gain some perspective regarding the history of Yemen in order to more fully understand the complexity of the current situation in that country.  It is a region of the world rich in the early history of human civilization.  Nomadic Semites that populated the Yemini desert regions migrated into ancient Mesopotamia and eventually conquered Sumer at around 2300 BCE – Sumer represents the first known civilization to arise from the Fertile Crescent.  It represents one of the oldest civilizations in the region of the Near East considered to be birthplace of human civilization. 


The scope of the history of Yemen is far too broad to be adequately approached here.  We will focus our attention instead upon recent historic events, since this would be relevant to our current discussion.   During the 19th century – the 1830s – the Ottomans moved southward into northern Yemen.  In 1832, British forces under the direction of the British East India Company captured the port of Aden and surrounding territory in the area that would eventually become South Yemen.  As a result of these two competing interests, the Ottomans and the British signed a treaty in 1904 establishing a formal border between north and south Yemen.

Aden was controlled and dominated by the British as part of their overall strategy for the economic exploitation of India until 1937 when it became a so-called, "crown colony."  Yemen joined the Arab League in 1945 and was admitted to the United Nations in 1947.  On account of the rising tide of Arab Nationalism advanced by President Nasser of Egypt, in 1966, the UK announced that it would withdraw its forces from Yemen at independence, and in 1967 British forces began their withdrawal.  It should be remembered that the UK was seriously decimated by the end of World War II and on account of its diminished capacity to function as a world power, it had no choice but to allow its empire to shrink.

This tumultuous history left Yemen divided between North and South; Southern Yemen was recognized as the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in 1970 and was dominated by the communist party and strongly aligned with the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China and Cuba.

This political, economic and social division between north and south Yemen led to periodic military confrontations.  However, on May 22 1990, the country was finally unified as the Republic of Yemen.  This unification was probably facilitated by the collapse of the Soviet Union – an empire that began to unravel following the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  This period of relative peace and calm was short-lived, for in 1994 full-scale civil war broke out.  On May 21, 1994, leaders from the south seceded and proclaimed the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Yemen (DRY) – a state entity that was not recognized by the international community.  Ultimately, opposition from the south collapsed.  In an attempt to heal the source of the civil divide, amendments were made in the national constitution including the provision that the President be elected through a popular election.

The country remained besieged by violence especially from the south.  In addition, there was a general feeling of malaise in the minds of the majority of the population due to severe unemployment and persistent corruption from within the government.  In 2011, Yemini protests grew in parallel with the popular revolution going on within Egypt now referred to as the, "Arab Spring."  The people of Yemen demanded the resignation of then President Ali Abdullah Saleh.


Karman's father is Abdel Salam Karman who once served in the capacity of Legal Affairs Minister in the government of Abdullah Saleh's government; he ultimately resigned from this position.  Ali Adbdullah Saleh ruled Yemen for over thirty years using a strategy employing harsh oppressive and authoritarian measures to retain control of his country.  After months of determined, relentless and often violent street protests directed against him, Saleh finally relented and on Nov 23, 2011 he signed the Gulf Cooperation Council's Plan 23 in which he agreed to transfer power to his Vice President, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.  There were still concerns regarding the government's militias.  New elections were scheduled for February of 2012.  On Feb. 21, the elections were held and Hadi – the only candidate on the ballot - became the new President.

Karman became a major figure in the movement that uprooted the authoritarian regime of Abdullah Saleh.  Her concerted efforts on behalf of women's rights date back to 2005 when she co-founded the group, Women Journalists Without Chains (WJWC).  In her words, the main focus of this group was to promote human rights, "particularly freedom of the opinion and expression, and democratic rights."  As a result of her activism, she was subject to harassment on the part of Yemeni authorities who found her activism a threat to the status quo.

As a consequence of this prejudicial treatment, Karman led demonstrations and inspired sit-in demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Sana's between the years of 2007 and 2010.  In spite of the threats made against her, she persisted in her activities.   In fact, in the midst of the 2011 Yemeni protests against Saleh's government in which she organized student rallies, she was arrested on January 22 of that year and taken to prison.  She was released on parole on January 24.  Her involvement gained worldwide attention; she was invited to write an editorial in the prestigious British publication, The Guardian.  In her commentary she described the protests in the following way, "…demonstrations erupted in most provinces of the country; they were organized by students, civil society activists and politicians…"  She was arrested once again on March 17 for her leadership role in further protests.  These demonstrations caught the imagination of the general population that found a deep resonance in regards to the issues of widespread poverty, corruption, the excesses of the dictatorship and unemployment.


Furthermore, as a demonstration of her disapproval of the treatment of women in her country, Karman purposefully stopped wearing the niqab – the veil that covers the face in the traditional nijab – and chose to wear a scarf instead.  In her mind, the full covering of a woman's body is cultural in origin and not a requisite of belief in Islam.  In her words, "Women should stop being or feeling that they are part of the problem and become part of the solution.  We have been marginalized for a long time, and now is the time for women to stand up and become active without needing to ask for permission or acceptance. This is the only way we will give back to our society and allow for Yemen to reach the great potential it has."


She spoke out loudly and often against the corruption and abuse of power that had run rampant in the Saleh dictatorship and she played a significant role in the eventual ouster of his government.  Because of her efforts in the arena of peace and social justice, Karman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 along with two other women, as mentioned earlier. 

She has also become an eloquent spokesperson for the rights of women.  Her world view can be summed up succinctly using her own words, "I am a citizen of the world.  The Earth is my country, and humanity is my nation."  

Friday, November 23, 2012

Adin Ballou - A Pioneer in Pacifism

There is an individual who preceded Gandhi who believed strongly in progressive causes that were far ahead of his time.  His name was Adin Ballou, born on April 23, 1803 on a farm in Cumberland Rhode Island.  Ballou became a proponent of pacifism, believed in socialist ideals and vociferously opposed slavery.  All of these conceptions were exceedingly radical for his time.  His views were to profoundly influence Leo Tolstoy who translated his writings into Russian.

He was raised as a Baptist, but converted to Universalism in 1822 – a religious orientation that accepts its precepts as applicable to all of humanity and that embraces all religious beliefs; that same year he married Abigail Sayles.  Unfortunately, Abigail died in 1829 shortly after she gave birth to their first child.  Ballou later married Lucy Hunt.  Of his four children, only one actually reached adulthood, Abbie Ballou. 

Ballou was a passionate believer in what he referred to as, "Practical Christianity."  According to this point of view, Christians were duty-bound to translate their religious convictions into reality.  He traveled all through New England arguing for this approach towards living.  Among the types of social action he supported were Christian nonresistance, abolition, and temperance.  In this capacity, he aligned himself with the Unitarian church from 1831 through 1842, but considered himself to be a Restorationist - Restorationists were at odds with members of the Unitarian church over a number of theological issues.


When Ballou was almost forty years old he founded the Hopedale Community – Fraternal Community No. 1 in Worcester County, Massachusetts in 1842.  Ballou and his like-minded followers purchased a 600 acre plot of land on which they built houses for its members along with textile factories and religious houses.   The stated purpose of this enterprise was to create what he envisioned to be a utopian society and was a synthesis of an industrial-based community with spiritual values. 

The underlying purpose of this community was to put into practice, his ideal of Practical Christianity, for he felt that the primary responsibility of its occupants was to engage in social reform.  Ballou essentially modeled the socially active intent of the community upon the life and works of Jesus Christ.  Its emphasis was on equality, love and sharing.  He had hoped that unlike other such communities, it would endure because rather than being isolated, it would be intimately involved in the life of the people around them.  The overall goal of the community was to serve as a model for social reform during the Civil War period.  The values of the community included: temperance, the abolition of slavery, women's rights, spiritually-based living and education.  On many occasions, Ballou was called upon to settle disputes that occurred periodically between members of the community; this gave him an opportunity to apply his principles to real life situations.

One of the most important contractual arrangements between members of Hopedale and the organization was that each member would invest his property in the community in order to sustain it.  Despite the best efforts of its members, Hopedale became bankrupt after fourteen years of existence (1856).  The land was subsequently purchased by George and Ebenezer Draper and transformed into a textile factory town with the Hopedale manufacturing company at its center.  The Draper brothers were actually members of the community who withdrew their seventy-five percent share.  This was a serious blow to Ballou for the community was exceedingly important to him.  Yet in spite of his feelings, he remained friends with the Drapers.   The community remained as a religious group, however, and eventually became the Hopedale parish with Ballou as its minister.  There is a thoroughfare called Adin Street in the town of Hopedale named after its illustrious resident. 


A core value in Ballou's belief system was pacifism.  In 1938, he converted to Christian Pacifism and was one of the authors of the Standard of Practical Christianity that was completed in 1839.  The following is an excerpt from this document.

"We cannot employ carnal weapons nor any physical violence whatsoever to compel moral agents to do right, or to prevent their doing wrong — not even for the preservation of our lives. We cannot render evil for evil, railing for railing, wrath for wrath, nor revenge insults and injuries, nor layup grudges, nor be overcome of evil, nor do otherwise than "love our enemies, bless them that curse us, do good to them that hate us, and pray for them that despitefully use us and persecute us.

"We cannot indulge the lust of dominion, nor exercise arbitrary authority, nor cherish bigotry, nor be egotistical, nor receive honorary titles, nor accept flattery, nor seek human applause, nor assume the place of dignity. We cannot be pharisaical, self-righteous, nor dogmatic. We cannot do evil that good may come. We cannot resent reproof, nor justify our faults, nor persist in wrong-doing.

"We cannot excommunicate, anathematize, or execrate an apostate, heretic, or reprobate person otherwise than withdrawing our fellowship, refusing our confidence, and declining familiar intercourse.

"We cannot be cruel, even to the beasts of the earth. We cannot be inhuman, unmerciful, unjust, unkind, abusive, or injurious to any being of our race. We cannot be indifferent to the sufferings of distressed humanity, nor treat the unfortunate with contempt. But we hold ourselves bound to do good, as we have opportunity, unto all mankind; to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, minister to the sick, visit the imprisoned, entertain the stranger, protect the helpless, comfort the afflicted, plead for the oppressed, seek the lost, lift up the fallen, rescue the ensnared, reclaim the wandering, reform the vicious, enlighten the benighted, instruct the young, admonish the wayward, rebuke the scornful, encourage the penitent, confirm the upright, and diffuse a universal charity."

Ballou remained a staunch and undaunted advocate of pacifism even within the midst of the Civil War (1861-1865) when passions were exceedingly high on both sides of the conflict.  Many other pacifist leaders abandoned this belief during the war on account of their strong anti-slavery sentiments.   This war ultimately resulted in the deaths of over 600.00 individuals from both North and South.

In 1866, during the post-Civil War era, Ballou along with his colleagues including Joshua P. Blanshard, Henry C. Wright, Alfred H. Love and Lucretia Mott created the Universal Peace Union (UPU).  The UPU took an uncompromising pacifist position; its goal was to work towards the amelioration of the causes of war and tolerate, "…no compromise with the principles of love and nonviolence…"

The members of the UPU upheld the basic principles of love and nonviolence. Specifically they preached immediate disarmament and worked for a general treaty among nations, arbitration, and unconditional submission to an international tribunal. 

The UPU denounced imperialism, compulsory military training, memorials and war demonstrations, war taxes, capital punishment, lynching of African Americans, the spread of white imperialism in Africa, the exclusion of Asian immigration and the continued denial of rights to native Americans.  Because of their work, Pennsylvania laws were relaxed towards conscientious objectors.  The UPU was active in promoting the rights of women. Many women served equally with men on all executive committees and working committees. Women made up at least 50 per cent of the membership of UPU and they were active in the organization's agenda. Early in its career the UPU believed that peace might be obtained in industry through arbitration. In 1880 members helped settle a dispute between the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the Reading Railroad management. Alfred Love, the president of the UPU, was the arbitrator in this action.


In his book entitled, Christian Non-Resistance, Ballou described an essential aspect of his core belief in the following way, "Faith, then, in the inherent superiority of good over evil, truth over error, right over wrong, love over hatred, is the immediate moral basis of our doctrine." 


The issue of slavery during this period of the nation's history was exceedingly divisive as the ultimate brutality of the Civil War would attest.  Since the capacity to enslave another human being against their will necessarily requires the continuous application of violence or the threat of violence, it is no surprise that Ballou would be an adamant foe of slavery.  He proclaimed his abolitionist stance in 1837 and traveled through the states of New York and Pennsylvania to make his position known.  His sentiments were captured in an address he made on the Fourth of July 1843 in which he proclaimed, "We honor liberty only when we make her impartial – the same for and to all men."   Where Ballou differed from some of his colleagues in regards to the methods used to achieve the goal of the abolition of slavery was in his insistence that it be a non-violent struggle.


Ballou died on August 5, 1890.  Although he never has been fully recognized for his decades of tireless work for the causes of peace and social justice, his thoughts, ideas and actions have had a major impact on those who would follow.  In fact, what Ballou referred to as moral power or non-injurious force is, in many ways, analogous to Gandhi's Satyagraha – truth-force that he – Gandhi – applied many years later in his non-violent struggle to free the Indian people from British domination.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Dorothy Day - Founder of the Catholic Worker Movement

Dorothy Day was born on November 29, 1897.  Day and her colleague Peter Maurin are credited with establishing the Catholic Worker Movement – a pacifist movement that actively works towards social justice for the poor and homeless using the methodology of nonviolent direct action.  There are currently over 130 Catholic Workers houses throughout the United States.  
Her life spanned nearly a hundred years and she lived through the Great Depression, both World Wars, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement.  She was a social activist for most of her adult life and was a passionate advocate for women's rights.  Day was never timid in confronting authority when social justice and equality were at stake.

Day was born in Brooklyn, New York.  Her father, John Day, was a sports journalist, but unlike his daughter harbored racial prejudice.  The Days periodically moved and they resided in San Francisco in 1906; the famous earthquake of that year entirely destroyed the newspaper headquarters where her father worked.  As a consequence, he lost his job.  Witnessing firsthand the human suffering that followed this catastrophe had a profound impact on the young Dorothy.  Moving around as the family did left Day feeling terribly isolated and alone.  As a matter of fact she felt so isolated that later in life she wrote an autobiographical novel that she entitled, "The Long Loneliness."   In their travels as a family Day witnessed conditions of severe and pervasive poverty that markedly impacted her sensibilities.  As a consequence, she sought spiritual meaning in her life.  Even as a young child, she found some degree of solace in the reading the Bible.
In 1914, she went to the University of Illinois where she was exposed to many ideas that reflected the social and political character of the times.  She avidly read the works of such notable thinkers as Upton Sinclair and Leo Tolstoy.  Day could not endure university life and ultimately left the university and moved to New York.  There she befriended those who shared her views that at the time were considered radical.
During this time, the Women's Suffrage Movement was gaining momentum.  Day joined demonstrations to accomplish this goal and was arrested for obstructing traffic at the White House.  Following her arrest, Day went on a hunger strike to protest the denial of the right to vote to women and for the way protestors were treated in prison.  In response to the publicity that this action caused, President Woodrow Wilson ordered Day and other hunger strikers released.  In addition to this activism, Day worked on a publication called, The Masses – a newspaper considered radical at the time.  With America's entry into the disastrous conflict known as World War I seeming imminent, the paper decried the possibility that the US might enter the war.  Once the US became involved, the government actively attempted to suppress the publication.  Day was so disheartened by these events that she left journalism and entered the nursing profession.  She did not return to an activist role until the 1930s after residing in Mexico City for a while.

Following the beginning of the Great Depression (1929) Day started a newspaper with her lover, Peter Maurin.  They entitled the publication, The Catholic Worker designed to reach those who has suffered badly from the economic crash that devastated so many lives.  In addition, the couple opened the first Catholic Worker House – as mentioned earlier – in order to address directly the needs of those who had become desperately poor.  This represented the beginnings of the Catholic Worker Movement.  Surprisingly, this effort met with considerable criticism from the catholic establishment for the reason that it made no attempt to convert the poor to Catholicism but offered tangible assistance to anyone who needed it.
As a publication, the Catholic Worker was avidly pacifist.  This view was controversial – as it is to this day – and came under severe disfavor in 1935 when the publication's editors refused to support Franco during the civil war that raged in Spain even though the Catholic Church hierarchy supported Franco's efforts.  In order to better understand Day's reaction to the catastrophic events in Spain, we will examine in some detail the nature and origins of the Spanish Civil War.

The Spanish Civil War that raged from July, 1936 to April 1, 1939 was of importance; because, its causes reflected the kind of social and economic malaise that would play such a critical role in World War II that ultimately brought about the death of some 50 million individuals worldwide. 
At the end of the nineteenth century the preponderance of power and influence in Spain was in the hands of a small minority of the owners of large estates called latifundia.  This produced a great abyss between the haves and the rest of the population.  As a result, popular uprisings resulted in the overthrow of Queen Isabella II and shortly after that the abdication of her successor, King Amadeo I.  This led to the formation of the First Spanish Republic to be replaced by the restoration of the monarchy in 1874.  The monarchy persisted with some interruptions; until, King Alfonso XIII, having little support from the general population, left Spain once The Second Spanish Republic was formed on April 14, 1931 under the leadership of President Manuel Azana until the end of the Civil War.   King Alfonso XIII formally abdicated the throne in 1941.
The Spanish Civil War began with an attempted coup spearheaded by a number of rightist groups especially the Spanish Confederation of Anonymous Right.  The opposition consisted mainly of monarchists, fascists and religious conservatives.  General Francisco Franco played a key role in the rebellion.  This conflict received international attention with Nazi Germany, Italy and Portugal providing support to the rebels while the Soviet Union and Mexico sided with the loyalists – republicans.  The Catholic Church opposed the republicans for at one point attempts were made to make substantial changes in the national constitution to reflect a desire to secularize the country.
The conflict finally ended with the defeat of the loyalists resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of Spaniards from both sides.  At the aftermath of the civil war, General Francisco Franco was installed as the nation's dictator.  His regime was guilty of many atrocities in an attempt to brutally consolidate his power.  He remained in absolute control of the country until his death in 1975.  Ironically, the Spain of today has indeed become secularized much like the country that the republicans envisioned.

As a result of this controversy, the publication lost many Catholic subscribers.  Even during World War II – considered by many to be a so-called "just" war – the publication took a pacifist stance.  One of Day's impassioned goals was to convey the idea that Catholicism was a religion of peace – that peace was the essential message promulgated by Jesus Christ.  It should be remembered that violence played an important role throughout the history of the church.  There are those who continue to criticize the church to this day for its apparent silence during the exceedingly dark days of the Third Reich when the Nazi's attempt to exterminate the Jews had become well known.
Following the war, Day remained adamant in her pursuit of peace.  During the beginnings of the era that came to be known as the Cold War, residents of New York City were required by law to participate in the city's public air raid drills – this reality demonstrates how powerful the fear was of a nuclear attack.  Day was one of the first individuals that refused to participate, believing that involvement in these exercises validated the possibility of nuclear war in people's minds.  Eventually, this opposition grew to the point that the mandatory air raid drills ended in 1961.
Even well into her seventies, Day joined Cesar Chavez in his campaign to further the rights of migrant workers and was an adamant opponent of the Vietnam War.   Day passed away on November 20, 1980.  Maurin suffered from dementia and died earlier.  Her daughter Tamar was with her at the end of her life.

Dorothy Day led an interesting life and remained a controversial figure.  Yet, she was consistent in her beliefs and aspirations.  She remained dedicated to the causes of peace and social justice throughout her adult life and left a legacy that lives on through the Catholic Worker Movement that remains extant and vibrant.
I would like to conclude by offering this quotation from Day's writings, "What we would like to do is change the world, make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe and shelter themselves as God intended them to do.  And by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world."

Friday, November 16, 2012

Ken Saro-Wiwa - The Long Term Consequences of Colonialism

On November 10, 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged in prison in Port Harcourt in Eastern Nigeria as ordered by Sani Abacha the fifty-four year old military leader.  His violent death sparked outrage in Nigeria as well as throughout the world.  He still is considered to be a heroic martyr by a majority of his countrymen.
Saro-Wiwa had a diverse life in which he was a public servant, a celebrated author and a businessman.  He was born on October 10, 1941, while Nigeria was under British colonial rule – the country gained independence in 1960.  He was born in Ogoniland in Bori on the Niger Delta and was a member of Ogoni people, a minority population.  His father, Jim Wiwa, was an Ogoni chieftain.  The Niger Delta was found to be an oil-rich region and was targeted from the 1950s for oil development.

As a nation, Nigeria was an artificial construct as a result of colonization by the British.  It was created from the remains of the Niger River Trading Company.  The Europeans helped themselves to vast territorial holdings in Africa as a result of the Treaty of Berlin signed in 1884.
Northern Nigeria was populated by Muslims – the Hausa Fulani ethnic group ruled by emirs.  The people of northern Nigeria were relatively easy to control on account of the hierarchical nature of their social structure. The peoples of southern Nigeria, on the other hand, were more difficult to control – they were fiercely democratic.  In order to subdue them, the British used religion, bribery, the influence of missionaries, and the power of the military.  It was British administration driven by economic considerations that carved out the Nigerian borders.  It was through the clever application of divide and conquer that the colonialists used the differences between the Hausa-Fulani in the north, the Yoruba peoples in the west and the Ibo in the east to control the country and extract the economic resources of the region.
Oil was discovered in Nigeria in 1958.  For over 30 years oil has provided over 30 billion dollars to the Nigerian economy.  However, this revenue fed corruption and enriched a small and well-connected minority of the nation's population.  The Ogoni people received no real benefit from their oil-rich land.  Quite to the contrary, they had no reliable electricity, no pipe-born water and they were not the beneficiaries of any significant social or economic projects.  In addition, their language was disappearing and they were effectively pushed into slavery as their environment became increasingly assaulted by irresponsible practices on the part of the oil industry. 

As a young man, Saro-Wiwa witnessed the break out of civil war.  On July 6, 1967 the so-called Biafran War began.  The Ibo people of eastern Nigeria formed a loose ethnic grouping that was called Biafra.  The Ibo leader, Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, seceded from the Nigerian Federation taking most of the country's oil reserves.  Civil war broke out as a direct result of this action.  Over the duration of hostilities, a million people died mainly as a result of starvation.  The Ogoni people did not directly participate in this conflict.  The conflict finally ended in 1970 with the collapse of the Biafran forces. During this conflict, Saro-Wiwa was appointed as a civilian administrator of a crucial oil port on the Niger River Delta.  The brutality of this conflict had such a marked impact on him that he crafted an anti-war novel around this historic event that he entitled, Sozaboy.   His harsh criticism of the military in later years was essentially formulated as a direct result of his experience in regards to the civil war, the plight of minority peoples and the corrupting influence of the wealth and power associated with oil.  He felt a compelling need to be true to his own conscience.

On account of these influences, Saro-Wiwa strived to exert some influence on the course of Nigerian affairs – he attempted to run for office.  When he failed to get into the constituent assembly in 1977, however, he decided to embark into the world of business.  Seeking financial security, he opened a grocery store, invested in property and began a career in writing and publishing.  He did well in all these endeavors.  In spite of these successes, he was determined to exert some positive political influence. 
He reentered public life when was appointed to the position of Executive Director of the federal government's Directorate of Mass Mobilization for Self-Reliance, Social Justice and Economic Recovery (MAMSER).  One of his chief responsibilities was to awaken Nigerians to their rights and obligations as citizens.  This role caused Saro-Wiwa to become intimately involved in social mobilization in order to seek social justice for his people and his country.
Saro-Wiwa gained renown as a satirical political Columnist.  He wrote for Lagos daily newspapers, including the Vanguard and the Daily Times.    He attempted to address the ills of his society and government which he defined as tribalism, ignorance of the rights of minorities, materialism and corruption.  In the late 1980s he focused his attention on the plight of his people, the Ogoni.  They inhabited a small but fertile area on the Niger River Delta.  The region happened to possess a significant portion of Nigeria's oil reserves.  Since the 1950s, Ogoniland was devastated by the pollution caused by the extraction of oil as mentioned previously. 
He witnessed the wholesale environmental degradation of his homeland that was a byproduct of oil development under the aegis of the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company – a multinational concern.  The environmental damage was multi-faceted and resulted in an ecological wasteland:
·         The loss of a once rich and prosperous agriculture
·         The destruction of fisheries as a direct result of ongoing pollution
·         The concentration of sulfur in creeks and watering holes poisoned by indiscriminate oil spillage.
It is what Saro-Wiwa referred to as a "slow genocide.  In reaction to this reality, Saro-Wiwa presided over the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP); an organization that began in 1990.  This organization called for the immediate compensation from the Nigerian government and Royal Dutch Shell to the Ogoni people, and sponsored mass demonstrations that were both peaceful and non-violent.  On account of his unrelenting and open criticism of the Nigerian government and the military and his role in the demonstrations, he was arrested in 1992 by the Nigerian military and held in prison without trial.  On account of intense international pressure, Shell ultimately ceased operations in the Ogoni region.  On January 4, 1993, MOSOP sponsored a mass rally calling for nonviolent resistance; some 300,000 people participated.  In regards to Saro-Wiwa's role in the demonstration he said, "It had fallen to me to wake them – the Ogoni people – from the sleep of the century."
At that time the Ogoni military was led by General Ibrahim Babangida.  Saro-Wiwa was eventually released from prison and general elections were held on June 12 of 1993.  MOSOP boycotted that election.  General Moshood Abiola was chosen to lead by the electorate.  However, General Abacha declared the results of the election were null and void and imprisoned the victor.  On June 12, 1993, Saro-Wiwa was arrested by the State Security Service (SSS); he was asked to write a statement about his activities and was released.
The situation as he witnessed it looked bleak; oil money had a very corrupting influence on the government and its policies.  For this reason, Saro-Wiwa continued his protests.  As a result of his activities, he was arrested once again.  This time the charge was incitement to murder; an accusation that was without merit.  He was imprisoned for more than a year and tried by a specially convened tribunal that amounted to a show trial.  On Thursday November 2, 1995, he and eight other co-defendants were sentenced to death and on November 10 of that year, he was executed.
In response to this reprehensible act of horrific injustice, much of the world became incensed.  To this day, Ken Saro-Wiwa's contribution to the cause of peace and social justice is honored and remembered.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf - the Role of Women in the Search for Peace

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the head of state of the nation of Liberia, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 along with two other women - Leymah Gbowee, 39, a social worker and a peace activist and Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni journalist.  She is the first woman to be the elected head of state of an African nation.  She was awarded this coveted prize for her undaunted efforts to bring peace to her once troubled homeland.


Liberia of all contemporary African nations has a unique history tied intimately to the existence of slavery within the United States.  Slaves were first brought into the American colonies in 1670 and the institution of slavery flourished within the United States for 270 years.  The practice of slavery was not addressed by the "founding fathers" and no reference to it was made in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States at the nation's inception.  As an institution, it was not abolished until the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.  Slavery was finally completely outlawed following the additions of Amendments XIII and XIV of the United Sates Constitution – 1865 and 1868, respectively.

The Abolitionist Movement that sought to end slavery was particularly strong amongst the Quakers.  Among them was an influential maritime businessman by the name of Paul Cuffee.  Cuffee believed that the best solution to end the blight of slavery would be to help establish these slaves in their own homeland in Africa.  He, therefore, both financed and led, as captain, a journey to Sierra Leone by ship.  A group of American-Americans came along with him with the purpose of beginning a colony of African-Americans in the hopes that they would be able to, "rise to be a people" and thrive in a way they would be unable to do as slaves in the United States.  Cuffee had an image of a prospering black trade implemented by ex-slave who could utilize the skills they had learned in captivity.   Cuffee died in 1817; his plans were never fully realized.

In 1817, well-known Americans such as Henry Clay, John Randolph of Roanoke, and Justice Bushrod Washington became members of the American Colonization Society (ACS).   The purpose of the ACS was to encourage African-Americans to settle in Africa if they wished to do so.  Many were wary of this new organization, however, because it denied blacks membership.

The ACS sent its first immigrants to Sherbro Island in Sierra Leone. This initial attempt was met with some major setbacks that involved serious illness and death.  As a result, a member of ACS was authorized to purchase land further north that might be more hospitable to the new settlers.

Ultimately, on April 25, 1822 those who survived the initial settlement arrived at Cape Mesurado and began their settlement.   Eventually, after initial disputes with the ACS governing authority, a constitution, government, and system of laws were created that helped usher in the current-day nation of Liberia.   In this new country, both slavery and participation in the slave trade were forbidden.   Initially, the settlement was called Christopolis and was renamed Monrovia after the American president, James Monroe.  Eventually, it was called Liberia.

Once Liberia was established, the slave states in the United States saw the opportunity to free themselves of their African American populations who were no longer slaves.  These states included Virginia, Maryland and Mississippi.  In 1838, the colonies established by the Virginia Colonization Society in addition to those established by a Quaker group and the ACS merged as the Commonwealth of Liberia and appointed a governor.

It was not until 1847 that a Liberian Declaration of Independence was formally adopted and signed.  The government of the new state of Liberia then proceeded to charge the United States with injuries to its people who had previously been enslaved and denied their civil rights.  The new government called upon other governments to recognize the statehood and independence of Liberia.  Not surprisingly, Great Britain was one of the first nations to do so.  The Liberian Constitution was ratified in 1848 and the first elections were held.  In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln officially recognized the state of Liberia.

Ironically, as the new nation developed, a two-tier social system evolved in which the native black population of Liberia was not afforded the same rights as the transplanted African-American population.  By 1869, the so-called True Whig Party was founded and became the dominant political force in the country until the coup of 1980.  At the end of World War I, Liberia was one of the first sovereinties to accept the legitimacy of the League of Nations.  By 1946, the right to vote and to participate in elections was finally extended to the native population.

Liberia's first republic abruptly came to an end in 1980 with the assassination of the then President Tolbert and the insertion of the leader of the military coup, Samuel K Doe in the leadership position.  Civilian rule was reaffirmed in 1985, and a new constitution was adopted that established the second republic of Liberia leaving Doe in power.  This state of relative peace did not last long, however, for in 1989 Charles Taylor toppled the Doe government.  This threw the nation into an era of civilian unrest.  With international assistance, peace was restored and by 1997, Charles Taylor became the elected president of what came to be the third republic of Liberia.  Sirleaf campaigned against Taylor in the 1997 election and received 10% of the vote and was subsequently charged with treason.

The essential cause of the civil strife that plagued the relatively new country was the apparent and divisive social and economic inequalities that existed between the dominant Afro-American population and the indigenous peoples in Liberia.


Sirleaf was born on October 29, 1938 in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia; she is a direct descendent of African-Americans who first helped settle the territory that would eventually become the nation of Liberia.  She received education in economics at the College of West Africa in Monrovia and was married to James Sirleaf when she was seventeen years old.  Eventually she received a masters degree in public administration at Harvard University in the United States in 1971.  Upon her return to Liberia, she immediately entered into the political arena working for President Tolbert's administration.  She served as Minister of Finance between 1972 and 73, leaving over a policy dispute in regards to public spending.  She witnessed the horrific and unsettling coup of 1980 as mentioned previously and subsequent execution of President Tolbert.  This was followed by a brutal purge of the government orchestrated by Doe.  Sirleaf recognizing the danger of her situation, fled to Kenya where she served as Director of Citibank in Nairobi from 1983 to 85.  As conditions improved in Liberia, she returned to participate in the 1985 elections against Doe.  She was immediately placed under house arrest and sentenced to ten years in prison.  Her prison sentence was subsequently commuted provided she agreed to leave the country; she chose to return to Kenya where she continued her career in banking.

During her hiatus, she was an Assistant Administrator and, ultimately, Director of the UN Development Program in the Regional Bureau for Africa.  During this time, civil strife continued in Liberia, and, finally, elections were held in 1996 due, in part, to the presence of West African peacekeepers.

As mentioned earlier, Sirleaf took part in this election, but was defeated by Charles Taylor.  The leadership of Taylor was disastrous, resulting in a state of civil war.  On August 11, 2003, Taylor finally relinquished power and a peace accord was reached that signaled a new round of elections to choose a new leader.  In the election of 2005, Sirleaf became the new President of Liberia – a post that she retains until this day.


As President she sought to restore basic services, such as water and electricity, to the capital of Monrovia in keeping with the preservation of the Commons. In addition, she has sought to place an emphasis on agriculture with the goal of bringing back food independence to the people of Liberia.  She has also sought to utilize her skills as an economist to repair the damage done to the nation's economy and infrastructure as a result of many years of civil strife.

In a speech she delivered in 2006 at Georgetown University's Gaston Hall she said, "Across Africa and around the world, we must show that freedom can deliver prosperity and peace. Failure to do so will be more costly than we can contemplate and in Liberia that failure could be catastrophic."

"Our children are beginning to smile again with faith in the future," she said. "I tell you there is one thing that bores down on us very, very hard and that is a sense of urgency. We have got to deliver fast to be able to keep that hope alive and to have that hope build on a solid foundation."


Finally as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize of 2001, she uplifted the role of women in securing a more peaceful world in her acceptance speech, "… in the universal struggle for peace and social justice in the following way, In its selection this year, the Nobel Committee has brought here three women linked by their commitment to change, and by their efforts to promote the rule of law and democracy in societies riven by conflict. The fact that we – two women from Liberia – are here today to share the stage with a sister from Yemen speaks to the universality of our struggle.

The enduring spirit of the great women whose work transcended gender and geographical boundaries is in this room with us. From Baroness Bertha Felicie Sophie von Suttner of Austria, honored for promoting the Hague Peace Conference of 1899, to Jane Addams of Hull House fame; from the American activist Emily Greene Balch to Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan of Northern Ireland; from Mother Teresa to the heroic Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as Rigoberta Menchu, Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, and Wangari Maathai: these our forebears, these women who are Nobel Peace Laureates, challenge us to redouble our efforts in the relentless pursuit of peace…"