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100 Years Ago Today: The Halifax Explosion

One hundred years ago today the largest man-made explosion prior to World War II devastated Halifax, Nova Scotia. Two ships collided in the harbor, one carrying 2,300 tons of wet and dry picric acid, 200 tons of TNT, 10 tons of gun cotton and 35 tons of benzol. The subsequent blast killed 1,900 people, and left 10% of the city’s population injured.

Holiday visitors to Boston enjoy the beautiful  Christmas tree at the Prudential Center, an annual gift from Halifax citizens, grateful for the many Bostonians who fought their way through a raging blizzard to come to their city’s aid.

I first learned of the disaster from an obituary in a Boston area paper. The deceased lost her sight as a young child on that terrible winter day. Her face pressed against a window, she watched the ships burn. Then the explosion; a shock wave shattered thousands of windows. Shards of glass tore into her eyes. Others suffered a similar fate.

The Halifax disaster and Boston’s relief mobilization should not be forgotten.


[Sources: This summary and the CBC photos below were obtained from a link of the Nova Scotia Museum  that is no longer active. Additional information about the tragedy can be found  on the museum’s website and here.]

December 7, 1941 – Pearl Harbor

Seventy-five years ago today Japanese forces attacked American military installations in Hawaii. A day later President Franklin Roosevelt requested Congress for a declaration of war with Japan. 

Listen his speech here. It concludes:

Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger. 

With confidence in our armed forces- with the unbounding determination of our people- we will gain the inevitable triumph- so help us God. 

I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.

Remembering a Seminarian’s Courage


Jonathan_DanielsFifty years ago today VMI graduate and Episcopal theological student Jon Daniels was murdered in Hayneville, Alabama.

A New Hampshire native, Daniels spent much of the spring and summer of 1965 working in Selma, Alabama’s voter registration campaign. While picketing racially discriminatory businesses in Ft. Deposit on August 14, he was one of a group of  protestors arrested and transported to the county jail in nearby Hayneville. In wretched living conditions, Daniels labored for the better part of a week to keep up the group’s spirits, leading his fellow prisoners in prayer and hymn singing.  An Episcopal group offered to post bail for Daniels. He declined; there wasn’t enough money to free all the prisoners. He would remain with his colleagues.

Unexpectedly and ominously,  the prisoners were released on August 20 without posting bail. Turned out on the street, they were alone and without transportation to safety.

Tired, dirty, and hungry, four members of the group walked one block to the Varner Cash Store to buy sodas. Seventeen year-old Tuskegee student Ruby Sales led, followed by Daniels, Catholic priest Richard Morrisroe, and Joyce Bailey. They were met at the door by a highway employee and unpaid special sheriff’s deputy armed with a 12-gauge shotgun. He cursed Sales and pointed his weapon at her. Daniels pushed her to the ground, shielding her from the subsequent blast. As Morrisroe and Bailey fled, a second round tore into the young priest’s back. Severely wounded, he would survive. Daniels died instantly.

Martin Luther King Jr. called his sacrifice “one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry.”

Sam Waterston narrates a documentary tribute to Jon Daniels’ life.  Near its conclusion is a chilling interview with Daniels’ killer, Tom Coleman. Asked if he would change anything if he went through the same experience again, he replied: “I wouldn’t have changed a bit. If the same thing happened in the morning that happened that day, I would shoot them both tomorrow.”  Acquitted of manslaughter by an all-white male jury after two hours of deliberation, he lived another 35 years in Hayneville until his death at age 86.

After dinner in Georgia last week with one of Daniels’ VMI classmates, Lynne and I drove to Hayneville. Friends of VMI placed a monument in front of the Lowndes County Courthouse.

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Sadly, the Cash Store was torn down last year. The asking price for the property proved too high for those who wished to preserve it.  When it became apparent the building would be demolished, individuals sought to obtain the steps upon which Daniels died. These too were destroyed and a civil rights landmark lost to history. The picture below shows the new construction on the site.


The white X below is on an adjacent piece of property, about 12′ from where Daniels fell. A monument will be placed there to remember the seminarian who laid down his life for his friend.


Jonathan Daniels’ story of Christian honor and courage must never be forgotten.


For more information about Jon Daniels, see Taylor Branch, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years 1965-1968 and Charles W. Eagles, Outside Agitator: Jon Daniels and the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama.



A Catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement


Sixty years ago this summer, two men removed a seventy-four pound fan (used for ginning cotton) from this building. After torturing and murdering fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, they wrapped barbed wire around his neck and the fan, and dumped them into Tallahatchie River. The young black teenager’s alleged whistling at a white woman at Bryant Grocery and Meat Market in nearby Money, Mississippi set in motion the events that led to his abduction and death.

The cotton gin, located in Glendora, Mississippi, now houses the The Emmett Till Museum. Lynne and I visited several years ago when the museum was closed. During our visit to the Delta yesterday, we were able to return and view its sobering exhibits.

In August 1955 Mamie Till put her happy son on a train bound from Chicago to visit family in the Mississippi Delta. He was returned to her in a pine coffin. After viewing her son’s grotesquely mutilated face, she directed he receive an open-casket funeral, a decision that had far-reaching consequences. Pictures of Emmett Till – the smiling young boy and the savagely beaten corpse – were transmitted around the world. The historical marker at the site of Bryant’s Grocery continues the story:

News of the murder and the trial that followed outraged black and sympathetic white Americans, and the case became a catalyst for the American civil rights movement. . . . on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a white man on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, precipitating the Montgomery bus boycott. When asked why she did not go to the back of the bus after being threatened with arrest, she said she thought of Emmett Till, and she couldn’t go back.

Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam were charged, tried, and acquitted of Emmett Till’s murder by an all-white jury. Shortly thereafter, they confessed to the crime in a Look magazine interview, for which they received $4,000. Double jeopardy protection shielded them from retrial.

For information about the Emmett Till murder, watch this episode of PBS’s American Experience.

Glendora, Mississippi is three hours northwest of Jackson. I encourage RTS students to make the trip and visit the Emmett Till Museum.



“I Am Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired”


Indomitable physical courage, moral strength, and Christian conviction marked the life of Fannie Lou Hamer. Yesterday Lynne and I visited her gravesite at Ruleville in the Mississippi Delta.

Mrs. Hamer came to national prominence when she addressed the 1964 Democratic National Convention Credentials Committee. She described the imprisonment and brutal beating she endured during the 1963 summer voter registration drive. Watch a brief  historical introduction and then listen to her eight minute speech.

The youngest of twenty children, her family were sharecroppers. Her attempt to register to vote in 1962 led to the firing of her and her husband from the plantation where she had worked for eighteen years.

Her gravesite is located in the Fannie Lou Hamer Memorial Garden. A few hundred yards to the west is the Fannie Lou Hamer Museum. Visitors should leave at least an hour to tour the exhibits.

She said, “I’m never sure when I leave home whether I’ll make it back or not . . . but if I fall, I fall five feet and four inches forward and I’m not backing off it!”  Her plaintive epitaph reads: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Charles March’s God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights includes a brief biography of Fannie Lou Hamer. He observes that “the church had sustained her wearied spirit when all other institutions had served contrary purposes” (13).

Two and one half hours northwest of Jackson, I encourage RTS students to visit the Garden and Museum.





The Boys in the Boat



The pageantry of the 1936 Berlin Olympics was a triumph for Hitler’s propaganda machine. Evidences of the Reich’s virulent anti-semitism were swept from the streets. Gone for the duration of the games were the “Jews not welcome” signs in stores and shops. On display were the orderliness, architectural grandeur, and growing military muscle of Nazi Germany. Berlin would be the last Olympic contest until 1948, long after Hitler was dead and the city reduced to rubble.

Among the athletes competing in Berlin were Americans who became famous for not only their athletic skill, but their unconquerable courage: Jesse Owens, Glenn Cunningham, Louis Zamperini, and the men of the United States Olympic rowing team.

Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat tells the story of the University of Washington’s 8-oar crew team chiefly through the experiences of Joe Rantz, who overcame the death of his mother, expulsion from his family, grinding poverty, and Depression-era tumult to succeed as a rower, engineering student, and devoted husband and father. The other “boys” in the boat are profiled. Their stories are told against the background of preparations for the games in Berlin, and the propagandist Nazi film-making exploits of Leni Reifenstahl.

Before I read the book, I knew nothing about competitive rowing. Yet, my interest never wavered as the author described both the sport and the ingredients of a successful rowing team, not the least of which is physical strength.  The author explains that “physiologists . . . have calculated that rowing a two-thousand-meter race – the Olympic standard – takes the same physiological toll as playing two basketball games back-to-back. And it exacts that toll in about six minutes.” (40)

But in addition to strength, the rowing coach must select for his team the young man with “the nearly superhuman stamina, the indomitable willpower, and the intellectual capacity necessary to master the details of technique,” and who also possessed “the ability to disregard his own ambitions to throw his ego over the gunwales, and to leave it swirling in the wake of his shell, and to pull not just for himself, not just for glory, but for the other boys in the boat.” (23)

Athletes, coaches, and all who enjoy an inspirational story will love this book.


Daniel James Brown, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin OlympicsNew York: Penguin Books, 2014.



The Death of a Great Man: Winston Churchill, January 24, 1965

Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill, arguably the greatest leader of the 20th century. This brief video contains footage of his state funeral.

In yesterday’s National Review Online, Victor Davis Hanson argues that “the United States has never owed more to a foreign citizen than to Winston Churchill, a monumental presence 50 years after his death.”