HOLOCAUST REMEMBRANCE DAY

This week, many countries, including, among others, Israel and the US, will honor Holocaust victims by observing Holocaust Remembrance Day. Although HRD is observed in many different countries, the methods of celebration and even the date itself vary. For example, in Israel it is observed on the 27th day of Nisan, which corresponds to April 27 in the Hebrew calendar. The US observes eight “Days of Remembrance” beginning on April 27. Most other countries, however, including most of Europe and the UN, observe HRD on January 27, which is the date on which Auschwitz was liberated. Israel also observes a “Day of Struggle against Anti-Semitism” on January 27.

A few countries observe HRD on other dates that correspond to significant dates in that country’s history. For instance, France observes it on July 16 as it was on that date in 1943 that pro-Vichy police rounded up Parisian Jews and deported them to Nazi death camps; and Romania observes it on October 9, which was the date in 1942 that Romanian Jews were first departed to death camps.

The choice of April 27th was somewhat arbitrary. As we know, the Holocaust did not begin and end on a specific date. It spanned several years before and during WWII. Therefore, there was no universal, obvious date to designate. For instance, Israel observed the first HRD on December 28, 1949. But, in 1951 the Israeli Knesset decided to settle the matter. It considered the following dates:

(1) the 10th day of Tevet, which is a day of mourning and fasting that commemorates the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE,
(2) the 8th of Av, which was when, in 1942 the Nazis commenced transporting Jews from Warsaw to death camps,
(3) Passover-eve, which was the date in 1943 when the Warsaw Ghetto uprising began, and
(4) September 1, which, in 1939, was the date on which Germany invaded Poland, beginning WWII.

All of these dates were rejected for various reasons, and in 1951 the Knesset designated April 27 as the official date. The US selected April 28 and 29 as “Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust” in 1978. It was on that date in 1945 that US troops liberated Dachau. The first observation was in 1979.

In Israel the observation begins at 10:00 am with a siren that blasts for two minutes. It is followed by ceremonies at Yad Vashem. The highlights include speeches, a wreath-laying and the “Every Person Has a Name” ceremony during which Holocaust victims’ names are read by members of the general public. The purpose is remember every victim by his or her given name, not a demeaning number.

CONCLUSION AND PREDICTION

What is the significance of these observations and memorials beyond the obvious? In my opinion, one reason is to ensure that the world never forgets the horrors that were visited upon Jews before and during WWII. Although there were indications during the War of the existence of the concentration camps and the horrors being perpetrated in them the Allies failed to take action. Some historians say that the reason was that the stories about the camps were so heinous as to be unbelievable or even preposterous. Others claim the US and British governments were indifferent to the plight of the Jews or even anti-Semitic.

And, then there is the heart-rending case of the “St. Louis.” The “St. Louis” was a passenger ship that steamed from Hamburg in 1939. Most of its 937 passengers were Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. The ship was en route to Havana where it had a permit to land and offload the passengers, but the Cuban government invalidated the permits and refused them entry. The ship then tried to enter the US to no avail. It actually steamed close enough to Florida so that the passengers could see the lights and hear music. Imagine that! So near, and yet so far. No country would grant the passengers asylum. Eventually, the “St. Louis” returned its passengers to Europe, and most of the Jews on the ship ended up perishing in concentration camps.

I believe that another reason many countries observe HRD is to assuage guilt for their actions and inactions during the Holocaust. The perpetrators were not only the Nazis, but also collaborators and ordinary citizens in many countries that the Nazis were occupying as well as those who stood by and did nothing. You can include the US in that latter group.

One can say that remembering what happened is the first step toward ensuring that it won’t happen again, but I feel that anti-Semitism is very much alive and well in many parts of the world. It is simmering just below the surface waiting for the “right” combination of circumstances to burst forth. Given the current economic situation and political and social unrest in many countries, I fear that it will do so at some point in the not too distant future.

A final thought. We should all read and heed the lesson illustrated in the following quote by Martin Niemoller, a Pastor living in Nazi Germany. It speaks to the consequences of not acting until it is too late. There are many versions of this quote, but the gist is as follows:

“First, they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then, they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then, they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then, they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

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75 YEARS OF TELEVISION

What are your favorite types of television programs? Do you like comedies, cop shows, movies, reality shows, news shows, sports, or a combination of the above? We all have our own opinions. Although the technology for sending and receiving tv signals had been around for several years, April 30, 1939 is the date that is generally cited as the birth of tv viewing as we know it. Why that date so precisely? Well, that was the opening date of the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, NY, and on that date President Franklyn D. Roosevelt opened the Fair with a speech that was carried on tv. To be sure, the speech could only be viewed by a very limited number of people – essentially, fairgoers who could view the speech at the Westinghouse and RCA Pavilions and a few thousand people in the NYC area who had tv sets and were within the very limited signal range, but it was a start.

In 1939 a tv set cost up to $10,000 in today’s dollars, not very affordable. But, before long, advances in technology and manufacturing efficiency reduced the price of a tv to within the range of the middle class. People bought more and more tv sets, tv stations multiplied, radio shows shifted to tv, and tv as we know it evolved into what it is today. For better or worse, tv has been an essential part of our lives – entertainer, news provider, and baby sitter, to name a few. It remains such even with the development of the internet and social media.

So, what have been your favorite tv shows? Which ones stand out in your memory from your childhood and/or young adulthood? Everyone has his or her own list. Mine includes seven that I not only enjoyed tremendously, but also that I consider to have been significant milestones. I could name many more, but I am limited by time and space. Therefore, below please find my list in alphabetical order.

1. ALL IN THE FAMILY

The show ran on CBS from 1971 to 1979. It was the first series to lead the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive years (1971-1976). The main stars were Carroll O’Connor as Archie, Jean Stapelton as Edith, Sally Struthers as Gloria, their daughter, and Rob Reiner as Michael aka “Meathead.” It was considered to be a big risk as it was the first tv show to deal with controversial issues such as racism, homosexuality, women’s liberation, rape and the Viet Nam War, which had been considered taboo on tv. The rousing success of the show paved the way for other shows to follow suit. In those pre-DVR days, many people stayed home on Saturday nights just to watch the show. Archie was seen as a “lovable bigot” and the good-natured butt of the jokes. His debates with Michael, the hippie son-in-law, were seen as allegories for debates taking place in the country as a whole. Audiences understood the humor, and did not take offense. It is difficult to imagine such a show being as successful in this day and age of political correctness.

2. CBS EVENING NEWS WITH WALTER CRONKITE

Cronkite was the anchor for the CBS Evening News for 19 years (1962-1981). During this pre-internet era the evening news was the critical vehicle to provide most Americans with up-to-date news, and, therefore, shape public opinion. Cronkite’s seminal moment came when he “scooped” the rest of the news media to report that President Kennedy had been assassinated. His around-the-clock coverage of this critical event in an era of relatively primitive communications was extraordinary. I vividly remember the moment he told the nation that JFK had died. He stopped speaking, put on his glasses and read from a bulletin that had just been handed to him: “President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time (glancing up at the clock on the wall) 2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.” He was also a strong supporter of the NASA space program, covering it extensively. He reminded people of their grandfather. At least one public opinion poll named him “the most trusted man in America.” When he began to express doubts about the Viet Nam War he helped turn public opinion against it.

3. ESPN

ESPN launched on September 7, 1979 as the first all-sports network. At the time there were significant doubts that it would last. Critics asked, how could they expect to fill 24 hours a day solely with sports talk? Well, 43 years later ESPN has not only succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, but it has spawned a plethora of imitators all over the country. At last count, approximately 98 million households (86% of cable customers) receive ESPN. It has also provided a second career for hundreds of former athletes as announcers, hosts and commentators.

4. I LOVE LUCY

I Love Lucy starred Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who were married to each other in real life, with William Frawley and Vivian Vance as Fred and Ethel Mertz, their landlords and friends. The show ran on CBS from 1951-1957 and was the most watched show during four of those six seasons. The show was a groundbreaker in several ways. For example, tv producers, in their infinite non-wisdom were reluctant to cast Desi Arnaz in the lead role because he was Cuban. Depicting an interracial marriage on tv was thought to be too risque, but, in the end Desi and Lucy prevailed. It was the first scripted show to be shot in front of a live audience. In addition, Lucy’s pregnancy with Desi Jr. became part of the show, which was a very controversial subject matter in the stodgy 1950s. They couldn’t even mention the word “pregnant” despite the fact that in several epicodes leading up to the birth Lucy is clearly shown to be pregnant. They even showed the real-life birth on tv with an audience of 44 million. In later years, when standards and mores became more permissive, Lucy recounted how controversial it was, saying that censors were loath even to mention the word “pregnant.” They tip-toed around the word in several ways, even calling one epicode “Lucy is Enceinte,” which is French for pregnant. Now, she reportedly said, “you can not only mention it but also show how the woman got that way.”

5. SESAME STREET

Sesame Street premiered in 1969. It is an educational television series aimed at children, which entertains and teaches primarily through the use of “muppets” developed by Jim Henson. It has and still does play a substantial role in educating young children. According to a recent survey approximately 77 million Americans had watched the show as children.

6. TEXACO STAR THEATRE

The Texaco Star Theatre ran from 1948 – 1956. TST was the first really popular tv show. It was hugely popular, and its star, Milton Berle, became known as “Mr. Television.” In fact, it was so popular that it was largely credited with driving the sales of tv sets. Tv ownership increased from 500,000 in 1948 to over 30 million in 1956. Many of those purchasing tv sets did so to watch “Uncle Miltie.”

7. TONIGHT SHOW

“Heeeeere’s Johnny!” The Tonight Show debuted in 1954 on NBC. It demonstrated that late night tv could be a ratings and money making bonanza for the networks. The best acknowledgment of this is the many imitators that have been launched through the years by all the networks. Imitation is the strongest form of flattery. Through it all, however, “Tonight” has remained #1.

It has had many hosts (How many of them can you name? See the list below.), but the best, most influential and most famous was Johnny Carson, who hosted from 1962-1992. For 30 years people would tune in, many of them undressed and in bed, to hear that famous cry and be entertained. How influential was Carson? Countless entertainers who made their debut on the show have gone on to be big stars. Furthermore, it is said that Carson singlehandedly created a run on toilet paper in the US after he commented, in jest, about a looming shortage. (Note: there have been ten permanent hosts of the Tonight Show, not counting the many guest hosts. They are Steve Allen, Ernie Kovacs, Jack Lescoulie, Al “Jazzbo” Collins, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, Jay Leno – twice, Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Fallon.)

CONCLUSION AND PREDICTION

Well, that’s my list. As I said my selections are based on both the quality of the show and the show’s significance in influencing later tv shows and American culture. What’s your list. I’d like to know.

JEWS IN EASTERN UKRAINE

Apparently, for Jews living in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, it is “deja vu all over again,” as Yogi Berra would say. The other day, as reported by both Ynet News, Israel’s largest news website, and Donbass, a Ukrainian news agency, Jews were handed a leaflet as they left Passover services, which instructed them to (1) register themselves and all family members with the pro-Russian militants who have taken control the city, (2) provide a list of any and all property they own, and (3) pay a $50 “registration fee.” Failure to do so would result in confiscation of said property, revocation of citizenship, and deportation. The leaflets were distributed by the militants. The leaflets required Jews to produce identification, such as a passport, as well as proof of ownership of all property.

As we know, throughout history rulers have sought to blame Jews for any economic, social or political problems in their country in order to deflect responsibility. Jews, not despotic rulers, would then become the common enemy of the populace. Unfortunately, generally, this strategy has worked. It worked in the Middle Ages; it worked in Nazi Germany and Europe before and during WWII; and it is working now.

Secretary of State John Kerry has condemned the action calling it “beyond unacceptable.” Michael Salberg, Director of International Affairs of the Anti-Defamation League called it yet another example of despots using Jews as the “default scapegoat.” These protests are all well and good. Any sane person would agree that these actions are outrageous, but realistically, I don’t see what the US can do about the situation. The US and NATO have ruled out military intervention. Whether or not you agree with that decision be advised that all the polls indicate that the overwhelming majority of Americans are not in favor of military action. In any event, it is doubtful that we have sufficient forces in the area to intercede in any meaningful way even we wanted. Even the half-baked sanctions we have applied have been ineffective. Basically, Putin and pro-Russian elements in the Ukraine know that they can pretty much proceed as they want without interference from the rest of the world.

CONCLUSION AND PREDICTION

Let this be a history lesson to Jews and their sympathizers, including all fair-minded individuals regardless of their race or religion. Anti-Semitism is alive and well in the world. It is both overt (e. g. Middle East and Ukraine) and covert (most of the rest of the world). It is not just being reborn now; it never died out in the first place. It has been there all the time, simmering just below the surface, like a volcano, just waiting for some provocation. It is a fact that history does repeat itself. Anyone who studies history will find innumerable examples of that.

So, what can we, as Jews, do? With respect to the Jews in eastern Ukraine, unfortunately, not much. Apparently, the world does not have the will or the means. However, American Jews should be increasingly vigilant. I know that we are busy with our own lives. Many of us are just trying to get by, especially in these tough economic times. But, American Jews are a powerful and influential political and economic force. We should not hesitate to use that power and influence. Furthermore, let us not lose sight of the lessons of history. To paraphrase George Santayana, a famous Spanish philosopher, poet, novelist and essayist, those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.

JACKIE ROOSEVELT ROBINSON

Quickly, what is the significance of today’s date, April 15? No, I’m not referring to Income Tax Day. It was on this date, April 15, 1947, 67 years ago, that Jackie Roosevelt Robinson made his major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. What, you may ask was the significance of that event? Well, Jackie was the first black man to play in a regular season Major League game since the 1880s! Before Jackie, blacks, if they played professional baseball at all, were forced to play in a separate league known as the Negro Leagues. Often, they barnstormed with major leaguers after the regular season; occasionally, they played exhibition games against them. But, they were never permitted to play in the Major Leagues, not openly, anyway, although it was rumored that a few light-skinned blacks managed to “pass” as whites. It was an extremely frustrating situation as it was apparent to many observers that a large number of the black players were as good as their major league counterparts and could have been successful if they had been given a chance. But, there was an unofficial “color barrier” that kept blacks segregated (consistent with the segregation practiced in all other areas of life in the country during that period). Jackie Robinson changed that, with an assist from Branch Rickey, the Dodgers executive who signed him and orchestrated the process of ending the color barrier.

Jackie Roosevelt Robinson was born on January 31, 1919 into a family of sharecroppers in Cairo, GA. He was the youngest of five children. He was given his middle name in honor of former President Theodore Roosevelt. Jackie was an all-around athlete, excelling in baseball, basketball, football and track, at Pasadena High School, Pasadena Junior College and UCLA. At UCLA he played football with another famous person, the actor Woody Strode. (For those of you who are not movie aficionados, Strode appeared as a “heavy” in several John Ford westerns and played the gladiator who fought Kirk Douglas in “Spartacus.”) Interestingly, he was not the only star athlete in the family. His older brother, Mack was a silver medalist in the 200 meter dash in the 1936 Olympics, the one in which Jesse Owens, another black athlete, won four gold medals, embarrassing Adolph Hitler. During WWII Jackie took a break from athletics, serving in the Army. Afterwards, he played baseball for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues.

In the mid-1940s Branch Rickey, GM and part owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers and a man with a great deal of foresight, was looking to end the color barrier in Major League Baseball. He had been around the game his entire adult life as a player, manager, executive and part-owner. He was one of the most brilliant baseball minds of his time. He recognized that there was a plethora of talent in the Negro Leagues and that the time was ripe. After all, America had just won a war in which blacks had fought with much distinction and bravery, President Truman had integrated the armed forces, and life, in general, was changing. (A cynic might say that by signing the first black player Rickey was hoping to tap into a large share of this talent for the Dodgers. In fact, this is exactly what happened.)

He was looking for the right person, one who possessed not only the talent to play, but also the temperament to handle the copious abuse, which was sure to come. He realized that if the first one failed, it might be many years before the next one got a chance. (Talk about pressure! Jackie would not only be playing for himself and his team, but, to an extent, for all blacks everywhere.) Rickey saw that Jackie was not only a superior player, but also the right age (mid 20s), highly intelligent, well-educated and an ex-army officer. Baseball observers knew that Jackie was not the best player in the Negro Leagues at that time. Players such as Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, had better resumes, were more famous, and more experienced. In fact, Paige, a pitcher, and Gibson, a catcher, were arguably the best at their positions at that time, white or black. But, Rickey knew that with the combination of ability, maturity, age, intelligence and temperament, Jackie was the right choice. If Jackie was the right player at the right time, then Rickey was right executive at the right time. Together, they made history.

Sometimes, Jackie exhibited a short fuse, but if he could control it, he could succeed. In a famous meeting between the two men Rickey was warning Jackie of the abuse he was sure to face. Jackie reportedly challenged Rickey “are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey’s response: “I’m looking for a Negro with the guts NOT to fight back.”

Rickey, liking what he saw, signed Jackie. After a stint at the Dodgers’ AAA affiliate in Montreal in 1946, he made his Dodger debut. Jackie did, in fact, suffer major abuse, from teammates, opposing players and fans. His teammates came around after management threatened to cut or trade any “troublemakers.” In those pre-agent, pre-guaranteed contracts days, management had the upper hand over the players and could get away with this aggressive approach. Opponents were another issue. Jackie was called the “N” word as well as any other derogatory name you could imagine. After all, a majority of the players at that time were not college educated and came from Southern or rural areas where segregation was a way of life. One of the worst venues was Cincinnati, which was basically a city with Southern attitudes towards race. Before one game some fans were giving Jackie a particularly hard time when Peewee Reese, the Dodgers captain and a Kentuckian, went over to him and put his arm around him in a show of solidarity. Peewee was so well-respected that his action carried great weight and gave a significant boost to Jackie.

Jackie’s baseball statistics belied his abilities and significance to his team’s success. His lifetime batting average was .311 with only 137 home runs, 734 RBI and 197 stolen bases. But, he did win the Rookie of the Year Award in 1947, the NL MVP award in 1949, was named an all-star from 1949 through 1954 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1962. He was also one of the best base runners of his time. He would drive opponents to distraction on the base paths. He even stole home during the World Series. One had to actually see him play to appreciate his abilities. He was a leader and a winner. In his ten-year career his teams won six pennants and one World Series. As Rickey had foreseen, Jackie’s success led to a flood of other black players. Most of them have acknowledged that Jackie blazed the trail for them.

Jackie retired as a player in October 1956. (The impetus for his retirement was that the Dodgers traded him to the NY Giants. Rather than report to the hated Giants, he retired.) After retirement, Jackie dabbled in many jobs, such as television analyst, corporate executive and actor. But, his primary focus was in civil rights. He became a strong spokesman and advocate, using his notoriety for the benefit of minorities. Unfortunately, he was not a healthy man, suffering from diabetes and heart disease. Most likely, all the stress he endured did not help. He died in 1972 at the age of 53.

CONCLUSION AND PREDICTION

One cannot overestimate the considerable impact Jackie had not only on black people, but also on whites as well. With respect to baseball, he demonstrated that blacks, could, in fact, compete with whites. Strange as it sounds, there was doubt of that in some quarters at the time. Outside of baseball he used his stature to advance the quality of life for blacks socially and economically. He was a vociferous spokesman for civil rights. Martin Luther King called Jackie “a legend and a symbol in his own time” who “challenged the dark skies of intolerance and frustration.” His stature was such that in 1947 a survey identified him as the second most popular man in the US behind Bing Crosby. Picture that for a black man in 1947! In 1999 “Time” Magazine called him one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Also in 1999 “The Sporting News” included him on its list of the 100 greatest baseball players. In addition, there are countless buildings, schools, plaques, roads and statues that bear his name. Finally, in 1997 in the ultimate tribute, Major League Baseball permanently retired his number, 42, and each year on April 15 players pay the ultimate homage to Jackie. On that day, every player on all teams wears #42. Yes, Jackie was truly a great man, a transcendent figure.

WOMEN’S RIGHTS AND FREE SPEECH

Chances are, until last week most of you had never heard of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and what she stands for. Now, thanks to the bullying and intimidation tactics of a radical Muslim organization called Council on American-Islamic Relations (“CAIR”) and the cowardice of the administration of Brandeis University, Ms. Ali and her views have become quite well known indeed. Briefly, what happened was that Brandeis University had invited Ms. Ali to speak at its commencement ceremonies next month at which time she was to receive an honorary degree. These honorariums are not unusual. Indeed, dignitaries representing the entire spectrum of political and social viewpoints have been so honored by universities. However, CAIR pressured Brandeis into “disinviting” Ms. Ali. It seems that CAIR had strenuously objected to what they perceived as Ms. Ali’s extremely anti-Muslim statements and attitudes.

Hirsi Ali was born on November 13, 1969 in Somalia. She was raised as a Muslim, although presently, she is an atheist. She has lived in many countries, including, among others, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, and the US. In 2005 “Time” Magazine named her as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the world. She is married with one child, a son. She became a naturalized citizen of the US in 2013 and currently is affiliated with the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

She has been a very harsh critic of the Muslim religion, in general, and its treatment of women, in particular. She has spoken out against the practice of gender mutilation of which she was a victim as a 5 year old, violence and general intolerance of women, which are routine in the Muslim world. She has characterized it as a “backward religion” and “the new fascism.” All this has brought her to the attention of radical Muslim groups, such as CAIR, which vigorously oppose any criticism of Islam. CAIR was able to pressure Brandeis University’s administration into withdrawing her speaking invitation.

This is outrageous. Whatever happened to free speech? I always thought that in this country everyone was entitled to express his or her views. Do we now only allow certain viewpoints to be heard and not others? Where are the women’s groups who claim there is a “war on women” in the US? They protest every perceived wrong against women regardless of how minor it might be. What about this one? This is a real issue. Free speech and women’s rights all rolled into one. The harsh treatment of women in the Muslim world has been well and thoroughly documented. Ms. Ali can provide a firsthand account. Let’s hear what she has to say. Those who disagree can give their own speeches. Furthermore, how about the prominent politicians and Hollywood celebrities? Their silence has been deafening.

CONCLUSION AND PREDICTION

Traditionally, colleges have invited a diverse group of dignitaries to speak at commencement ceremonies and other occasions. Many of them were very controversial and divisive. For example, Mamoud Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia University in 2012.

There are many losers here. The biggest ones are Brandeis University and CAIR, not Ms. Ali. This situation has backfired on them big-time. Most people had never heard of the school before. Now, their first impression is of a school led by a cowardly administration afraid of its own shadow, which has embarrassed itself publicly by knuckling under to CAIR. As we know, first impressions are usually the ones that endure. CAIR comes across as a bully afraid to let any opposing views see the light of day. How about an honest debate on the issue?

The hypocrisy of women’s groups, celebrity activists and politicians has become evident. Much of their credibility has been destroyed. If one is going to be an activist and advocate for a cause, e.g., women’s rights and free speech, be consistent. Don’t pick and choose when to get involved. If you believe that there is a “war on women” in the US, speak up in this case. This is a really serious issue. Unfortunately, I predict they will remain silent on this issue for fear of offending anyone.

As for Ms. Ali, she and her views have gotten more publicity from this matter than she could have ever received had she been permitted to speak as scheduled. Good for her, and kudos to the journalists who have reported the story.

MARTIN LUTHER KING

There are highly significant moments, both good and bad, in every person’s life, i.e. marriage, birth of a child, death of a cherished relative or friend. These personal significant moments stay with us forever. However, there are also moments in time, historic events, that affect all of us profoundly, even people who were not even born when they occurred. For example, people of a certain age still remember where they were on December 7, 1941 when they heard that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. At the time, FDR called it “a date that will live in infamy,” and it has. In addition, anyone who was alive in 1963 remembers where he was on November 22 when he heard JFK had been shot. Well, a similar event occurred 46 years ago this week, April 4, 1968. I’m referring, of course, to the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee. To this day, many believe that James Earl Ray, who was convicted of the crime, did not act alone but was part of a broader conspiracy. An FBI investigation did not disclose any such conspiracy, but that has not resolved the issue. Many of the records of the investigation remain classified to this day, which adds to the mystery. Americans do love their conspiracies.

MLK was born on January 15, 1929. He was the most prominent civil rights leader of his time, maybe ever. He believed that more could be achieved by civil disobedience than by violence. Unlike any African American before or since, he had the ability to unite, rather than divide. He was respected by all African Americans and many whites as well. In that regard, he was similar to Nelson Mandela. After his death, despite the urgings of some civil rights leaders who wanted to continue MLK’s philosophy, more militant African American leaders, such as Stokely Carmichael and Malcom X, came into prominence. There was rioting in over 100 US cities, and a slew of violent incidents at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in front of the national press and millions of Americans. The Civil Rights movement was changed forever.

MLK came into prominence in 1955 when he led a bus boycott, peacefully, in Montgomery, Alabama. The boycott had been fueled by the famous Rosa Parks incident when she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person. Later, he became the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and remained so until his death. He applied his non-violence philosophy to protests in Selma, Ala., St. Augustine, FL, and the March on Washington, D. C., among others.

Some little-known facts about MLK:

1. His birth name was Michael King, Jr., after his father. In 1931 his father changed his own name to Martin Luther King, after the German theologian, Martin Luther, whom he admired. At the same time, he changed his son’s name.

2. In 1958 MLK was stabbed in the chest after a speech by a woman who had been stalking him and nearly died.

3. MLK won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 at the age of 35, the youngest age ever at the time.

4. MLK won a Grammy Award in 1971, posthumously. It should be denoted that he won it, not because he displayed a great singing voice, but for a “Spoken Word Album,” “Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam.”

5. Even though MLK was one of the great public speakers of his time, inexplicably, he got a “C” in a public speaking course at the seminary. (Kind of like a baseball scout saying Willie Mays can hit “a little bit.”)

6. MLK is one of three individuals and the only native-born American to have a holiday named after him. In case you’re wondering, the others are George Washington (born in the COLONY of Virginia), and Christopher Columbus.

CONCLUSION AND PREDICTION

Today, there is much division among African Americans as well as their leaders. Some are moderate and want to work within the system; others are more militant. They have their own agendas and look for any excuse to foment distrust and discord. I believe that these leaders, and we all know who they are, do more harm than good, but that is a subject for another blog.

One can speculate whether and to what extent MLK’s assassination changed the course of history. In my opinion, had MLK lived, the Civil Rights Movement would have been considerably different over the last 46 years, more peaceful and less divisive, with better results. Furthermore, his assassination had a significant impact, not only on the history of the civil rights movement, but also on the overall history of the country, itself.

I hope and believe that eventually a moderate leader will emerge and bridge the gap as MLK did half a century ago.

APRIL FOOLS DAY

This is NOT an April Fools joke. It is a legitimate blog.

As you know, today is April 1, also known as “April Fools Day.” I like a good joke as much as anyone, but I am not a big fan of pranking people on this date. Maybe when I was 10, but not now. But, I am curious about the origins of the holiday, and how it is celebrated around the world.

AFD is not a official holiday in the US, or in any other country, for that matter, but it is widely recognized and celebrated around the world unofficially. Some people love to play jokes and perpetrate hoaxes. So, if you hear that Obamacare has been repealed or China as “forgiven” the US’s debt, don’t believe it. Those would, most certainly, be AFD jokes.

Even the media can be a willing participant. One of my favorite AFD pranks occurred on April 1, 1985. The Sports Illustrated cover story that day was about a baseball pitching phenom named Sidd Finch. At first, the story appeared to have credibility, as it was written by George Plimpton and published in SI. Finch was presented as an unknown rookie pitching prospect in the NY Mets training camp. So far, so good. But, as one read the details of the story, particularly about his 160 MPH fastball, it became apparent that it was an AFD joke.

Surprisingly, there are records of continuous AFD celebrations back as far as 536 BC in present day Iran. They celebrate the Persian holiday of Sizdah Bedar, which falls on the 13th day of the Persian New Year, (April 1). In addition, the Romans celebrated festivals called “Hilaria” on March 25 and the “Medieval Feast of Fools” on December 28. In certain Spanish-speaking countries, the latter is still a date on which pranks are played on people. Finally, there is a reference to the holiday in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.”

Nowadays, the holiday is celebrated differently around the world. Some examples are as follows:

1. UK – The April Fool joke is disclosed when the perpetrator shouts “April fool” at the recipient. Traditionally, April fool jokes are to cease at midday. After that time, anyone trying to prank someone becomes the “April fool” himself. These AFD customs are similar in other countries whose traditions were influenced by the UK,such as the US.

2. Scotland – AFD is called “Hunt the Gowk day.” “Gowk” is Scots for a foolish person.

3. Ireland – A common tradition is to give the “prankee” an important letter in an envelope to give to a certain person. That person would ask the “prankee” to give it to another person, and so on and so on. Eventually, someone would open the envelope. The letter inside would say “send the fool further.”

4. Poland – Traditionally, April 1 is a day to play jokes and hoaxes. The media participates as well. Serious matters are to be avoided. For example, supposedly, a treaty signed on April 1, 1683 was later backdated to March 31.

5. France/Italy/Belgium – The holiday is called “April fish,” for some reason. One common prank is to attach a paper fish to the victim’s back without being detected. (Along these lines, in high school we used to put a “kick me” sign on a victim’s back, although not just on AFD. Movie buffs may recall that this joke was played on McFly Senior in the movie Back to the Future.)

6. Sweden/Denmark – They celebrate on May 1 in addition to April 1. Many Danish and Swedish news outlets will intentionally publish one false story on April 1.

CONCLUSION AND PREDICTION

April Fools Day can be fun, especially for kids. A little harmless fun never hurt anyone. For example, earlier today my son told me that he had told my grandson, who is 6 and a huge Mets fan, that David Wright had been traded to the hated Yankees. To his credit, my grandson, merely shrugged his shoulders and asked “who for?” I can remember being the perpetrator and butt of April fool jokes in grade school and middle school. All in good fun.

I predict that some of you will be victimized today. Maybe you have been already.

Please tell me some of your favorite April fools moments. Were you the perpetrator or the victim? I promise you I won’t put it on Facebook.

Now, THAT was an April fool joke.