Saturday Jul. 2, 2016

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The Beginning of Something Is Always the End of Another

Take the day, for instance: How the ruff
of sun’s first light shoulders the night

aside and when I butt my morning
cigarette, my absolute last cigarette,

I begin to chew my cuticles and why
my next-door neighbor drops by

daily to cry about her ex who ran off
with some little slut he met in tango class,

and when my twenty-year-old cat
misses the litter box, howls at

headlights that strafe the ceiling,
I know this will end in ashes

at a cemetery where we stood
over my mother’s urn, hugless, useless

hands dangling from our dumb arms
while on the hill above us a guy wearing

soiled khakis lounged in a golf cart,
waiting for us to understand this was it,

the end, we needed to leave already
so he could finally begin to dig.

“The Beginning of Something Is Always the End of Another” by Sarah Freligh from Sad Math. © Moon City Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1776, The Second Continental Congress, assembled in Philadelphia, formally adopted a resolution for independence from Great Britain. The vote was unanimous, with New York abstaining. The 13 colonies had been warring with Great Britain for over a year because of steep taxes, the Stamp Act of 1765, and the fact that they were being ruled by a king an ocean away, with no voice in Parliament. Though some colonists wished to remain under British rule, many did not. The publication of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense (1776), in which he asserted that King George III was a brute, among other things, had gradually turned the tide in favor of independence: it was a sensation among colonists, selling more than 500,00 copies, one for every five colonists. Paine, ever the patriot, signed his royalties over to Congress.

The resolution had first been presented to Congress on June 7 by Richard Henry Lee, but New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and South Carolina were still hesitant to declare independence. The Congress agreed to meet at a later date, and, in the meantime, assembled a committee of five to draft a document explaining and declaring independence.

The committee consisted of a red-haired lawyer from Virginia named Thomas Jefferson; a Connecticut lawyer named Roger Sherman; Benjamin Franklin; John Adams; and Robert Livingston. Adams declared that Jefferson should be the chief writer, since “I am obnoxious, suspect, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise.” As they discussed the wording, arguments broke out. Sherman picked his teeth and Franklin threatened to play his harmonica if Sherman didn’t stop.

Jefferson carefully penned the document in 17 days on a portable desk that he’d designed. On July 2, Congress formally adopted the resolution to break with Great Britain and declare independence, becoming the United States of America.

The Declaration of Independence was not formally adopted until July 4, though, which is the day we now mark as Independence Day. At 26, Edward Rutledge was the youngest signer of the Declaration. At 70, Benjamin Franklin was the oldest. Two future presidents signed the document: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Benjamin Harrison, the father and great-grandfather of two future presidents, also signed the document.

Because John Hancock was president of the Congress, he got to sign the Declaration of Independence first, and his large, flamboyant signature became an informal synonym for “signature,” as in, “Put your John Hancock right here.”

After John Hancock signed the document, it’s rumored that the delegate from Massachusetts cried out, “Well, the British ministry can read that name without spectacles!”

It’s the birthday of Wislawa Szymborska (books by this author), born in Poland (1923). When she won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1996, few people outside of Poland had ever heard of her. Her first poems were published in the Krakov newspaper, and for almost 20 years she edited a weekly column for the journal Literary Life, for which she also wrote scores of book reviews, as well as translations of French poetry. Her early poems dealt with the horrors of World War II and of the Stalin era. Her later poems are more personal, and her work is celebrated for its candor and gentle humor. When she accepted the Nobel Prize, she said: “They say the first sentence in any speech is always the hardest. Well, that one’s behind me, anyway.”

It’s the birthday of civil rights activist, lawyer, and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (1908), born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. Marshall’s ruling in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case (1954) was instrumental in ending legal racial segregation. Marshall was the first African-American appointed to the Supreme Court (1967).

Marshall was born Thoroughgood, but changed the spelling to “Thurgood” in the second grade because he found it difficult to spell. His father was a steward at an exclusive club and liked to listen to cases at the local courthouse and then go home to talk about the lawyers’ arguments with his sons, which often led to heated discussions. Marshall said: “Now you want to know how I got involved in law? I don’t know. The nearest I can get is that my dad, my brother, and I had the most violent arguments you ever heard about anything. I guess we argued five out of seven nights at the dinner table.”

Marshall was an indifferent student. He called himself “a hell-raiser” and once had to memorize the entire United States Constitution as punishment for misbehaving in class. At Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, he became friends with future singer Cab Calloway and future poet Langston Hughes, who called Marshall “rough and ready, loud and wrong” because of Marshall’s penchant for pranks. It wasn’t until he was expelled from Lincoln for hazing and then readmitted that he got serious about his studies, becoming a star debater and planning for law school.

He applied to the University of Maryland, but they rejected him because he was black, which left a lasting impression on him and led to his interest in civil rights. He went to Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C., instead. His mother pawned her wedding rings to pay his application fees.

Thurgood Marshall went on to work for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Baltimore before being handed the Brown vs. the Board of Education case. A group of black parents in Topeka, Kansas, had filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of their children, who were forced to attend all-black, segregated schools, sometimes having to travel miles from home every day, even though a white school was closer.

On the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, which challenged the doctrine of “separate but equal,” Thurgood Marshall said, “Equal means getting the same thing, at the same time, and in the same place.” On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, which changed the landscape of American education forever.

Thurgood Marshall died in 1993. In the aftermath of his death, one obituary read, “We make movies about Malcolm X, we get a holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, but every day we live with the legacy of Justice Thurgood Marshall.”

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