“The enormous concentrations of wealth and power stemming from railroading led to political corruption, as railroad entrepreneurs bribed legislators and judges . . . “
—Paul Stephen Dempsey,
“The Rise and Fall of the Interstate Commerce Commission,”
Marquette Law Review, Vol. 95 2012
A coal miner’s daughter
Understanding injustice comes from personal experiences and the lessons we learn from current and historical events.
In 1968, my father, James Dale Clutter, spent a day with Senator Robert F. Kennedy during the Indiana presidential primary traveling aboard the Wabash Cannonball Express.
My father, Jim Clutter, is the man with his arm resting on the rail. Photo reprinted
with permission of The Journal Gazette, Ft. Wayne, IN.
As a nine-year-old boy, this was my first awareness of politics. Later, it was during my own campaign for the Illinois Senate in 1990 when I began my investigation of an epidemic of a rare childhood cancer in Taylorville, Illinois, a town that once employed thousands of coal miners. It was a plague that descended with a cloud of coal tar over this small Midwestern town because of the greed of an electric utility company that made its money burning coal. It happened under the watch of the Illinois EPA that administered the Voluntary Cleanup Program.
This business-friendly initiative of the EPA under Republican Governor “Big” Jim Thompson allowed Central Illinois Public Service Company (CIPS) to dig up hazardous waste at an abandoned coal gasification plant that shut down during the Great Depression.
CIPS disregarded science, and the warnings from its own engineers that it risked creating excess cancers in the community if they failed to spend the money to cover the excavation with a containment dome to trap and treat coal tar dust and vapors. In order to fatten dividends distributed to shareholders, the decision was made by upper management at CIPS to take a risk that wasn’t theirs' to take.
Any cancers that might develop, they thought, would appear years down the road.
In order to fatten dividends distributed to shareholders, the decision was made by upper management at CIPS to take a risk that wasn’t theirs's to take.
What they didn’t consider were children and pregnant mothers. For them, there is no safe threshold of exposure to carcinogens. For the most vulnerable, like children and developing fetus, the latency period is much shorter than it is with adults. After chronic exposure to something like coal tar, it can take decades for cancer to develop in adults from damaged DNA.
For this story about environmental injustice, the children were canaries in the coal mine.
Before he became a presidential candidate, Kennedy embarked on a Congressional fact-finding mission as a member of the Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower, and Poverty and spent two days in Eastern Kentucky. The area was one of the poorest places in the country. The coal economy was in decline. By the end of the 1950s, natural gas had replaced coal to heat homes and businesses, and coal-burning steam engines, like the Wabash Cannonball, had been replaced by diesel locomotives.
RFK’s motorcade traveled through the hills of Appalachia, near the town of Van Lear, the Butcher Holler home of Loretta Lynn, who gained fame a few years later with the release of her hit song, A Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Photo courtesy of Berea College and the Robert F. Kennedy Performance Project.
In the towns of Whitesburg, Prestonsburg and Hazard, Kennedy saw first-hand the hardships of extreme poverty. He was moved by what he observed there: unemployed and disabled coal miners laboring just to breathe, dying a slow death from Black Lung Disease. The corporations that owned the mines were too greedy to spend money on ventilation systems or respirators to protect the workers’ health from the long-term effects of breathing coal dust. In the richest nation on earth, Americans living in Appalachia were starving, and dying from a preventable disease.
“They’re desperate and filled with despair,” he told a reporter.
Four years earlier, President Lyndon Johnson, who assumed the office of President when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, came to Eastern Kentucky with a declaration to wage a War on Poverty, vowing to build a “Great Society” for all, by focusing the resources of the federal government to end poverty.
During his visit, Kennedy questioned why, with all the money going overseas to fight a war in Vietnam, was the Johnson administration cutting funding for domestic programs aimed at helping the unemployed and the poor?
In Knott County, RFK saw the environmental devastation of strip mining. Dee Davis recalled RFK’s trip in a 2007 NPR interview. “When no one shows up to witness the obliteration of mountaintops—vast hillsides being shoved into creek beds—then desperate mining practices flourish.”
In Letcher County, Kennedy addressed a packed high school gymnasium in the town of Neon.
Photo courtesy of Berea College and the Robert F. Kennedy Performance Project.
“This visit has a special meaning to me because of the great interest that President Kennedy took in this area, and the fact that he had intended to come here in December of 1963,” he told the witnesses who waited their turn to testify.
“I need not tell you that hard times have come to this land, and that people that live in the area; that much of the land has been ravished by the extraction of its rich resources; the creeks and the streams which run through nearly every hallow are polluted with trash and sewage and acid waste which seeps down from the scarred hills above; wrecked cars dot the landscape, and the men of our hills who worked at great peril to themselves and their health, and their very lives—these men, many of them who have been disabled by accident and affliction, have been left without work and without hope by the automation of an industry which no longer needs them. Riches still flow from these hills, but they do not benefit the vast majority of those who live here, and I think that situation is intolerable.”
A group of students from Harlan County that included a mix of girls and boys, white and black, calling themselves Youth for a Better Harlan, were in the audience and held up banners. They were the same students who stood outside as the motorcade passed, holding up signs that read: “Stop Strip Mining Now!"; “Don’t Give Promises. Give us Education, Jobs"; “No Power, No Rights, No Freedom”; “Poor Power!”. The high school students wore paper bags over their heads. They understood that their act of civil protest would have adverse ramifications, both at home and at school.
Kennedy smiled. “We are delighted to have you.”
Youth for a Better Harlan advocate “Poor Power” as RFK’s motorcade passes.
Photo courtesy of Berea College and the Robert F. Kennedy Performance Project.
By the time he ended his trip to Appalachia on Valentine’s Day, Kennedy had won the hearts of the people of Kentucky. A man who appeared to be in his 70s from Prestonsburg told a TV reporter, “It’s one of the greatest days we ever had in this town. Especially the young people. They’re all crazy about him.” The man added, “I feel a little prouder being an American.”
A month later, Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, a vocal critic of the war in Vietnam, came within eight percentage points of defeating the incumbent President. Four days later, on March 16, 1968, Robert Kennedy declared his candidacy for president.
Two weeks later, on March 31, before a live-televised audience, President Johnson made the surprise declaration: “With America’s sons in fields far away. . . I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office.” Johnson stunned the nation by declaring, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”
A compassionate voice calms the anger
Three weeks before he boarded the Wabash Cannonball, Bobby Kennedy was scheduled to speak at a rally of African Americans in Indianapolis.
As Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy’s Justice Department had obtained a federal court order to integrate the University of Alabama in 1963. His brother, President Kennedy, enforced the court’s order by deploying federal troops to escort two African American students past a defiant Governor George Wallace, who blocked their entrance into the classroom. White privilege—a college education at a state university—was now accessible to African Americans in the Southern States.
Not since the Civil War had Americans been so deeply divided. The scabs of that conflict had been ripped wide open with the 1954 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, that brought an end to racial segregation of public schools. Conservatives decried the “liberal” elites who were pushing for civil rights for the descendants of slaves.
It was a turning point in American politics.
Out of loyalty to Abraham Lincoln’s legacy, African Americans had faithfully supported the Republican Party for almost a century. The shift toward the Democratic Party, led by President Kennedy, was seismic. Before he died, JFK addressed the nation. His brother, Bobby, helped craft the speech. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” he told the nation. “One hundred years of delay has passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons are not yet free. They are not yet free from the bonds of injustice.” He announced his plan to introduce legislation to end voter suppression and racial discrimination.
But like Lincoln, President Kennedy became a martyr, killed by an assassin’s bullet. And the man who killed him, Lee Harvey Oswald, raised in New Orleans, was the 5th cousin of Robert E. Lee on his paternal branch of the family tree.
White voters in the Deep South still hated the Republican Party, which had formed in 1854 to oppose the spread of slavery. That changed in 1964, the year John F. Kennedy’s name would have been on the ballot for re-election. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, a Southerner from Texas, who assumed the presidency after the death of JFK invoked the memory of the late president to pass the Civil Rights Act, which signed into law on July 2, 1964. In November of that year, Johnson won the General Election in a landslide. His Republican opponent, arch-conservative Barry Goldwater, was one of only six Republican senators to vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Goldwater carried only six states. Aside from his home state of Arizona, all were in the Deep South. For the first time in history, a Republican presidential candidate won the states of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.
As RFK approached the podium on April 4th, 1968, standing on a flat-bed truck at 17th and Broadway Streets, he asked, “Do they know about Martin Luther King, Jr.?”
“They don’t,” he was told by his staff.
At 6:01 p.m. Central Time, shortly before Kennedy was scheduled to speak, a white supremacist, James Earl Ray, from a sniper’s nest fired the shot that killed King as he stepped out onto the balcony from his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
The people began to cheer wildly as Kennedy approached the microphone, but he somberly asked for silence. He requested them to put down their political signs. “I have bad news for you, for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight.”
In unison, the people shrieked, aghast with grief, and fell silent, as Kennedy continued.
“In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of nation we are and what direction we want to move in.”
Kennedy’s vision was for a united America, where all people could live with justice for all and live in harmony together.
“. . . –you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization—black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can try, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.”
He reminded the crowd, “I had a member of my family killed . . .”
He quoted from memory the ancient Greek playwright, regarded as the “father of tragedy.” “My favorite poet was Aeschylus,” said Kennedy.
In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop
upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
Raising his voice, he went on. “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.”
A thunderous eruption of clapping and cheering overwhelmed him, and Kennedy paused.
Then he continued, “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savages of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”
The audience erupted again, consoled by his words, clapping with renewed spirit as Kennedy departed the stage. The speech was only five minutes long. But it resonated with eloquence and power, as much so as the three-minute speech Lincoln delivered at Gettysburg.
While other cities burned, Indianapolis remained calm, soothed by Kennedy’s words. Rioting had erupted in Washington D.C., Baltimore, New York, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City and Los Angeles; 110 cities in all. It was the greatest civil unrest since the Civil War. National Guard troops were deployed to restore order, except in Indianapolis.
“I dream things that never were and say, Why not?”
On April 23, 1968, the Wabash Cannonball steamed out of Logansport, Indiana, a picturesque town on the Wabash River. Those who were there, the confidants of Kennedy, remember that day as the happiest day of his presidential campaign. His wife Ethel, who was pregnant with their eleventh child, and three of their children, along with the family dog, Freckles, all boarded the train.
My Dad started his career working for the Wabash Railroad, based in Decatur, Illinois. He joined the U.S. Navy when he turned 17 and was trained in advanced electronics. After his enlistment ended, he went to work for the railroad as an electrician.
Dad’s work often involved being called to the scene of train derailments to repair electrical systems. With more people driving automobiles after World War II, the number of fatal accidents at rail crossings was steadily increasing each year. As a father with five small children, with me as the oldest, Dad was saddened by the sight of children who were killed aboard school buses, crushed by freight trains.
He came up with an invention that would solve that problem. A warning system, designed to save lives. His invention was a transponder that would emit a radio signal whenever the engineer sounded the horn when approaching a grade crossing. He envisioned school buses, semi-trucks and eventually all new automobiles manufactured could be equipped with the receiver he invented that would alert the driver of approaching freight trains.
On January 5, 1966, two years before he met Kennedy, the Decatur Herald ran a story about Dad’s invention. “Clutter said the device would need Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approval for an operating frequency and federal legislation to require it on . . . school buses and trucks carrying gasoline.” The article noted that Jimmy Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, endorsed Dad’s idea. As a labor leader, Hoffa was concerned about worker safety, wanting to protect the lives of truck drivers.
Dad contacted Springfield’s Congressman Paul Findley from Pittsfield, and U.S. Senator Charles Percy, both Republicans. He also solicited the support of then Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, noted the reporter.
After a Gulf Mobile and Ohio locomotive plowed into a bus at a railroad crossing near Dwight, Illinois on Sunday, June 19, 1966, sending 13 people to the hospital, the reporter for the Decatur Herald contacted my Dad for comment. The story said the accident “…could have been prevented with the help of a warning system invented by a Decatur man.”
Dad vented his frustration with the politicians whose help he tried to enlist. “They expressed interest in it and clearly all of them made favorable comments, but they haven’t taken any step toward initiating legislative action on it. If they could just get a law requiring the system in all school buses and trucks carrying inflammable liquids, it would get it off the ground,” he told the reporter. He said eventually all automobiles could be equipped with a warning device that was cheaper than the cost of installing seat belts, a safety device that had been proposed for automobiles. Two years after he gave that interview, Congress passed federal legislation in 1968 that required manufacturers of automobiles to equip new vehicles with seat belts.
“It was said on the night he died, Victor Hugo wrote in his diary, substantially this sentiment: Stronger than all armies is an idea whose time has come,” Senate Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen, a Republican from Illinois, said while debating the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
For Dad’s idea, it was the political might of the railroads, with their army of lobbyists, who stood in his way. The year after he patented his invention, the Wabash Railroad was bought out by the Norfolk and Western Railway Company based in Virginia, forming a goliath corporation. Dad was unable to convince his employer that the price for his invention was worth the lives it would save. Using cost-benefit analysis to decide corporate policy, the railroad calculated it would be cheaper to defend wrongful death claims than to invest in new technology designed to save lives.
As they boarded the Wabash Cannonball a two-man band, hired by the campaign, played the Ballad of the Wabash Cannonball. The guitar player, Robert James Waller, a business major at Indiana University, years later would become a best-selling author, writing the book Bridges of Madison County that was released in 1993. Two years after that, the book was made into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood.
The lyrics of the Ballad of the Wabash Cannonball was originally penned in 1882 as The Great Rock Island Route, but was rewritten in 1904 with a new title, the Wabash Cannon Ball. Recording artist Roy Acuff popularized the song in 1936 with a top-40 hit single. Other artists, like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, immortalized the Ballad of the Wabash Cannonball as the oldest song to be inducted in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
The Wabash Cannonball had operated along a 489-mile route, linking St. Louis and Detroit. One of the stops along its route was Taylorville, Illinois, which is the setting for the main story of this book. But once privately-owned passenger rail service came to an end, as nearly every American traveled by automobile, so ended the run of the Wabash Cannonball.
As Kennedy boarded the train, he asked Dad if the band could play the Rock Island Line?
“Not on this railroad!” Dad shot back. The crowd erupted into laughter.
Standing on the back of the caboose, Kennedy faced the large crowd that gathered by the tracks of the depot. A fourteen-year-old, Marty Monahan, of Logansport, left school early that day, along with thousands of others to hear Kennedy speak.
Holding a bullhorn, Kennedy ended his speech paraphrasing a line from the Irish poet George Bernard Shaw: “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’,” which he repeated at every whistle stop.
After hearing the speech, Marty Monahan told a reporter, Kennedy was a “shoe-in”.
After pulling away from the station, Kennedy invited Dad to sit with him in his personal parlor car. Between the whistle stops, idle time, with the wheels of the train clicking and clacking beneath their feet, Kennedy asked Dad about his family and about his work with the railroad.
Dad seized the moment. Congress was beginning to formulate legislation, the Railroad Safety Act, to address the tragic consequences of the carnage caused by the intersection of rail and road traffic. Kennedy was impressed with my father and thought Dad’s idea was brilliant. RFK promised to follow-up with my father, and offered a helping hand. After all, if his brother could vow to land an American on the Moon by the end of the decade, making the public safe from the threat of rail accidents was a small step for Congress.
When they reached the end of the line in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the two men parted ways. Kennedy appeared destined to become the next American president of the United States. Dad felt more confident, he had finally overcome the obstacles that had hindered his dream.
When he came home, Dad hugged my mother and celebrated his good fortune by making his favorite family dish of spaghetti from his mother’s recipe. He surprised the family with a souvenir. It was the bullhorn that RFK used during his speeches aboard the Wabash Cannonball.
A few weeks later, on May 7, 1968, Kennedy defeated Eugene McCarthy to win the Indiana primary. Political pundits predicted there would be a rematch of Kennedy vs. Nixon in November.
The Grapes of Wrath
In Roseburg, Oregon, RFK delivered a speech advocating for stricter gun control laws. “With all the violence and murder and killings we’ve had in the United States, I think you will agree that we must keep firearms from people who have no business with guns or rifles,” he told the mob.
Members of National Rifle Association (NRA) showed up to protest, heckling Kennedy as he spoke. They showed up in droves to vote. On May 28th, Eugene McCarthy defeated Kennedy in the Oregon primary.
Kennedy’s speech still haunts the town of Roseburg. On October 1, 2015, a 26-year-old gunman killed eight students and an assistant principal at Umpqua Community College near Roseburg. The following year, a 15-year-old gunman entered Roseburg High School and shot a fellow student four times, but the victim survived, forever scarred by the trauma of the bullets that pierced his body.
It seemed as if the issue of gun violence had been addressed when Congress finally took action to ban assault rifles. In 1989, after a gunman entered a school in Stockton, California with a Russian made Kalashnikov rifle and shot 34 students and a teacher, killing 5, President George H.W. Bush responded by banning the importation of assault rifles. But domestic manufactures were still able to sell assault rifles in the U.S. Another massacre occurred in 1991, at a café in Killeen, Texas that killed 23 and wounded another 27 people. In 1994, Congress finally introduced legislation for a complete ban on the sale of assault rifles. Former presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush all sent letters of support. The NRA had the votes to force an amendment that watered it down, setting a 10-year sunset provision. That bill was adopted by Congress, and President Bill Clinton signed it into law.
In the mid-term elections, President Clinton’s Party suffered a crushing defeat. Propelled by a high turn-out of NRA members, Democrats lost their House majority and Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House. Republicans captured 54 seats in the House and 8 seats in the Senate. Although polls showed an overwhelming majority of voters supported the ban by 77%, voter apathy and a low turnout carried the day for the NRA.
When the sun set, casting a long shadow on the graves of those victims, the ban on assault rifles died in 1994. Right-wing militias were free to purchase the means of mass murder, again. America is still plagued with gun violence today, as politicians influenced by campaign contributions from the gun lobby continue to thwart legislation aimed at addressing this problem.
What few realize is that the 2nd Amendment was added to the Bill of Rights at the insistence of Southern states to prevent the federal government from stripping state militias from their power to preserve the institution of slavery at gunpoint.
With a high turnout of Mexican-American voters, Kennedy made a comeback in California. He won the primary with the help of civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962 that later became the United Farm Workers. The entire agricultural economy of California depended on migrant labor. In the vineyards that were the setting for John Steinbeck’s book, The Grapes of Wrath, migrant workers were earning starvation wages and being exposed to toxic pesticides.
Chavez motivated his members with the slogan “Si, se puede” which translates to “Yes, it can be done!”
I woke up early on the morning of June 5, 1968 to attend Vacation Bible School, where I heard the news. We didn’t normally go to church, but a friend invited me and my younger brother, Steve, to come along. The pastor approached the pulpit with sadness and asked us to pray for Bobby Kennedy’s wife and children. He died the next day.
Sadly, just after midnight after Kennedy delivered his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, his embrace of peace, and for less violence in America, was a dream shattered by a bullet that ended his life.
I hurried into our house after church. I found it in Dad’s den, the bullhorn RKF used aboard the Wabash Cannonball. Like the town crier, I ran out into the front yard and flipped the toggle switch. Birds perched above me fluttered, startled by the loud squawk of amplified sound gone mad, like the distorted cords of Jimi Hendrix’s Star-Spangled Banner. With tears streaming down my face, I announced to the neighborhood, “Bobby Kennedy is dead! He was killed today!”
Two days later, on June 7, 1968, the Decatur Review ran a front-page story about a grieving Ethel Kennedy next to an article with a picture of my Dad, Jim Clutter. He told the reporter how Kennedy offered to help him. The headline read “No Funds.” “Although James D. Clutter had been working without success for three years to gain acceptance of a device to warn vehicles of approaching trains at crossings, he still has not given up.”
Now that Kennedy was dead, Dad was back to where he started. An electrical genius, he was without the means or money to pursue his dream.
The cancer of bigotry
The year 1968 was a low point for our family and for our country, one of the worst years in the history of America.
At the raucous Democratic convention in Chicago, in the sweltering summer of ‘68, there was hope yet of electing another Kennedy as president. Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley led a movement by the Illinois delegates to draft Teddy Kennedy. Mayor Daley tried to convince him to accept the party nomination. Still grieving for his brothers, Teddy declined the offer. The delegates instead nominated Vice-President Hubert Humphrey. What happened next may have been avoided, had Teddy accepted Daley’s invitation, or had RFK not been killed.
The young people who supported Eugene McCarthy, gathered in Grant Park along Lake Michigan to protest, shouting “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” All hell broke loose as the Chicago Police stormed in, swinging Billy clubs as they mowed through the crowd of more than 10,000 students, cracking skulls, breaking ribs, and shattering forearms raised in self-defense. Those injured and jailed were the children of American GI’s who fought to defeat fascism in Europe in defense of Democracy. The police brutality was later characterized in the Walker Report, a commission led by business executive Dan Walker (later elected Illinois Governor in 1972), as a “police riot.”
“That violence,” said the Walker Report of the ’68 melee, “was made all the more shocking by the fact that it was often inflicted upon persons who had broken no law, disobeyed no order, made no threat. These included peaceful demonstrators, onlookers, and large numbers of residents who were simply passing through, or happened to live in, the area where confrontations were occurring.”
The “right of the people peacefully to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances” was a fundamental right of every American citizen, expressly protected by the 1st Amendment of the Bill of Rights.
Americans who had immigrated from Italy during the 1920s and ‘30s had seen this before with the regime of Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party. To maintain political power, brutal force was often used by the fascist dictator to quell political dissent.
Bigotry was on the rise.
George Wallace broke away from the Democratic Party and ran for president under a newly formed American Independent Party. He picked Curtis LeMay as his running mate, who had served as Air Force Chief of Staff during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was LeMay who advised President Kennedy to launch a nuclear strike against Cuba when U-2 spy planes detected the construction of nuclear missile bases 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Bobby Kennedy opposed he idea and advocated for less violent action. The conflict was defused after ships from the Soviet Union bound for Cuba with nuclear missiles aboard were turned away by a naval blockade.
The Wallace/LeMay ticket had the enthusiastic support of the Ku Klux Klan, whose top leadership held prominent roles in organizing Wallace’s campaign. The support from bigots enabled Wallace to win the electoral votes of five states: Alabama; Arkansas; Georgia; Louisiana; and Mississippi.
With the Democratic Party fractured into pieces, Richard Nixon narrowly won the White House in 1968 with his “Law and Order” campaign slogan, and with a pledge to end the war in Vietnam with “honor”. Nixon defeated Humphry by only 511,944 votes.
Unbeknownst to the public, on the same day that Bobby Kennedy announced his candidacy for president, U.S. soldiers entered My Lai, a small hamlet of thatched huts in South Vietnam. The official military publication Stars and Stripes reported the operation as a “military success”. The government claimed 128 Viet Cong and 22 civilians were killed in a “fierce firefight”.
A year later, in November 1969, the truth of the My Lai Massacre was exposed by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, writing for The New York Times. There were no enemy combatants in the village. Only old men, women, and children. A rogue platoon of U.S. soldiers had slaughtered innocent civilians. Some of the soldiers participated in gang-raping the women. More poor villagers would have died that day if it were not for a helicopter crew of three American heroes who landed and aimed their guns to end the violence. A simple act of humanity. Hugh Thompson, pilot of that helicopter, later told a reporter, “I pray to God something like this never happens again.”
Only one person, Lt. William Calley, leader of the platoon, was court-martialed. His supporters held rallies for Calley’s release, while Thompson received death threats for his bravery. Desensitized by racism, Calley’s supporters referred to the victims as “Gooks,” a racial slur toward Asians, rather than acknowledge them as human.
As 1969 came to an end, Dad became deeply depressed. He lost his job with the railroad. Suddenly, our fortunes had drastically changed. I came home from school on a brilliant spring day in April in 1970 to find a large moving van parked in our driveway. I was in the sixth grade, attending Thomas Jefferson Junior High School. Our home on Lake Decatur was nestled on five acres of an old-growth oak forest. With daffodils in bloom and lilacs blossoming, movers were loading our possessions from the house and boxing them up. The Sheriff had served an eviction order. If it were not for the charity of my grandparents, we would have been out on the street.
The following Spring, on April 1, 1971, three days after Lt. Calley was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, President Richard Nixon ordered Calley’s release and commuted his sentence to three years. Calley served the remainder of his sentence on house arrest.
Three years later, on August 8, 1974, Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace. Campaign operatives of the Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP) broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building, gained entry into the file cabinets and were photographing documents of the McGovern presidential campaign when they were caught by an alert security guard. In 1972, there was no such thing as emails to hack into. The “plumbers” who staged the break-in were a mix of CIA operatives and Cuban exiles working at the direction of G. Gordon Libby, a former FBI agent, who headed Nixon’s re-election committee of dirty tricks.
The smoking gun implicating Nixon was obtained after the House Judiciary Committee voted 33-3 on April 11, 1974, with Republicans joining Democrats, to subpoena the White House recordings of Nixon’s conversations with key aides. Several of these aides had already been indicted by a special prosecutor the year before, including White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, White House counsel John Ehrlichman, and the Attorney General of the United States John Mitchell. A total of 14 people connected to the President went to prison. The charges included obstruction of justice, perjury and conspiracy involving the Watergate break-in. After obtaining the incriminating audio tapes of Nixon’s involvement in the coverup, the House voted to impeach the President with bi-partisan support. A delegation of Republican Senators, led by Barry Goldwater, met with Nixon to inform him that he had lost their support as the leader of their Party, after which, Nixon chose to resign rather than face trial in the Senate.
The following year. Dad wrote a letter to the editor that was published in the Bloomington Pantagraph on November 28, 1975, after reading about yet another train-car collision. By this time, we were living in Normal, Illinois. I was a senior at Normal Community High School. He bitterly accused the railroad’s corruption of public officials as the reason his idea never gained traction. “It is ironically appropriate that the Amtrak Turboliner was filled with politicians when struck by a tank truck near Joliet,” wrote Dad. “Ten years ago, I sat in then Governor Kerner’s office in Springfield with various state department heads and representatives. I was attempting to get the state help in evaluating and requiring the railroads to adopt a train warning system that I had developed. Roughly 2,000 people a year are killed at grade crossings that were struck by trains since that meeting. A lousy $5 receiver could have prevented those deaths.”
“Why wasn’t the system even given a study? The reason is simple. The railroads through favor-seeking and outright corrupt politicians, have killed it just as surely as they will continue to kill people at their grade crossings,” he wrote.
The meeting at Governor Kerner’s office included upper management of the Interstate Commerce Commission, the ICC, which regulated the railroads. After the meeting, railroad executives were tipped off that a guy named Clutter was causing trouble for them in Springfield. By the time Dad wrote this op/ed, former Governor Otto Kerner had been convicted of political corruption and had been sentenced to serve time in federal prison.
Dad would tell us the story of witnessing how political corruption worked. He was playing poker one night with railroad executives. A Decatur state legislator joined their card game. The politician was there to collect an envelope full of cash, a campaign contribution. This was before campaign finance laws required strict reporting requirements and limitations on how much individuals and corporations could contribute to politicians.
Dad was right.
Years later, in 1987, I would become an elected official sitting as the youngest member of a new city council in Springfield, Illinois, hometown of Abraham Lincoln. More children would die needlessly at railroad crossings, as I had to deal with unsafe rail crossings as a member of the city council.
Two years before that election, I got my start as a private investigator when I got a call from attorney Michael Metnick to serve the complaint in the Voting Rights Act lawsuit he filed on behalf of African-Americans. That lawsuit alleged that in 1909 city leaders abolished a democratic ward-aldermanic form of government and replaced it with a system intended to dilute the voting power of blacks--a system of 5 commissioners who were elected city-wide. It was also the same year that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP, was formed because of what had happened in the hometown of the Great Emancipator in 1908.
That summer, two black men were lynched and African Americans were driven out of the city by a lynch mob. This civil unrest was triggered by a white woman who bore false witness, one of sins of the 10 Commandments. When her husband unexpectedly came home from work, finding her in a state of undress, the wife exclaimed she had been raped by a “n*****!”
A federal judge sided with the plaintiffs and ordered a new government. I was elected Ward 1 Alderman in a special election. My closest ally on the city council was the person who initiated the lawsuit, lead plaintiff, Frank McNeil. He was the first African-American elected to the city council and represented a minority district. That special election also saw the election of another African-American, Dr. Allan Woodson. What made his election to the city council more historically significant than McNeil’s was the fact that his district, Ward 10, had the highest percentage of whites of all of the 10 wards. As an independent, Woodson overwhelmingly defeated a Republican precinct committeeman who had the backing of the politically powerful Sangamon County Republican Party, which had controlled city politics for more than a decade.
That election in 1987 would prove, “Yes We Can” overcome bigotry and racism as a country. In Springfield, Illinois, home of Abraham Lincoln, there was hope for electing an African American as president.
The December 1987 swearing in ceremony of Springfield’s first Aldermanic government since the 1908 Race Riot. Left to right is Chuck Redpath, Phil Burnett, Frank McNeil, Bill Clutter and Jack Andrew.
I spent the next 14 years working as Mike Metnick’s investigator and it was he who agreed to represent the families whose children were crippled and killed by a rare cancer called neuroblastoma.
In 1962, during John Kennedy’s administration, Rachel Carson, a scientist whose book, Silent Spring, described how the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, commonly known as DDT, was killing songbirds in Central Illinois in mass numbers. DDT threatened the very symbol of our Democracy--the American Bald Eagle--which was on the brink of extinction from the pesticide farmers were applying to their fields.
The first widespread use of DDT occurred during World War II. DDT was sprayed on Jews who were being held in concentration camps by the Nazis to kill lice that spread typhoid fever. During 1943 and 1944, a pharmacologist working for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Hebert O. Calvery, studied the toxicity of DDT on laboratory animals and discovered it was lethal to animals and damaged the liver. His findings were sent in a “restricted” report to the War Department, which issued a bulletin warning American soldiers not to let the oil or dust come into contact with their skin, and to avoid spraying in areas that drained into waterways or near livestock that would be consumed by humans.
As World War II ended in 1945, DDT was marketed for sale in the United States by chemical companies as an agricultural and household insecticide. Photos of children being hosed with DDT are among the most chilling images from the late 1940s and early 1950s. Chemical farming drastically increased crop yields by eradicating insects. But a new epidemic was emerging in populations of people who were being exposed to DDT—cancer.
By the time I was a boy growing up in the 1960s, the Eastern Bluebird had all but vanished from Central Illinois. My father remembered that, when he was a child, the bluebirds colored the meadows and sang the most beautiful love songs each spring. The disappearance of songbirds coincided with the application of DDT and with corporate farming that bulldozed the line of Osage Orange trees that was their habitat.
Rachel Carson was the first scientist to publicly challenge the orthodoxy of the chemical industry. Her book, Silent Spring, persuaded Americans that something must be done to protect the environment. The impact of her book helped change the course of government policies.
On August 29, 1962, after the release of Silent Spring, a reporter asked President John F. Kennedy, “There appears to be growing concern among scientists of the possibility of dangerous long-range side effects from the wide-spread use of DDT and other pesticides. Have you considered asking the Department of Agriculture or Public Health Service to take a closer look at this?” Kennedy replied, “Yes, and I know that they already are. I think particularly, of course, since Miss Carson’s book, but they are examining the matter.”
This is an example of the power of the media and the written word.
The chemical producers, along with major corporate farming interests, hired teams of public relations firms to flood American newspapers and magazines with the benefits of using DDT. They presented reporters with “scientists” who wore lab coats for TV interviews who countered the thesis of Carson’s book, telling Americans it would be impractical to eliminate every risk. They said the benefits of the synthetic pesticide outweighed whatever slight risks there might be.
Eric Severeid of CBS interviewed Carson for a special report that would be aired on television at a time when there were only four television networks, CBS, NBC, ABC and PBS. Before the program aired, major advertisers threatened to pull their advertising if CBS aired the program. Executives at CBS believed strongly in a free press as the cornerstone of American Democracy that set America apart from regimes like the Soviet Union, with their state-controlled and censored media. On April 3, 1963, CBS aired The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson. Millions of viewers tuned in.
The following month, on May 15, 1963, the President’s Science Advisory Committee sent its report to President Kennedy, which he released to the American public. The nation’s top scientist validated Carson’s book. Her thesis was further supported by the National Cancer Institute, which noted that the sharp rise of cancer observed in America after World War II was directly related to the commercial use of chemical carcinogens that had entered our environment.
Rachel Carson became one of those victims. She died of breast cancer on April 14, 1964, at the age of 56. It started as a lump in her breast and spread throughout her body until finally killing her at the peak of her life. Her obituary said, “Miss Carson’s position, as a biologist, was simply that she was a natural scientist in search of truth and that the indiscriminate use of poisonous chemical sprays called for public awareness of what was going on.”
This awareness led government leaders to ban the use of DDT, and slowly, the American Eagle made a comeback, and is flourishing today.
The environmental movement would intensify after the January 28, 1969 blowout of an offshore oil rig off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. Over three million gallons of oil spilled into the Pacific Ocean. The images of over 10,000 dead birds, dolphins, and seals coated in oil and washing up on the beaches inflamed the passion of people who witnessed the devastation on television and on the front pages of newspapers across the country. That event mobilized the conscience of a nation.
Protecting the environment became a major political movement with impact. Dramatic action was taken. Congress enacted the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, and in the following year, passed the Clean Water Act of 1970, and amended the Clean Air Act of 1963 to expand the authority of the federal government to address air pollution caused by gasoline exhaust from vehicles and industrial smokestacks and chemicals dumped into streams and rivers.
Public outrage developed into a political movement that led to the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Over 20 million Americans assembled peacefully in America’s cities and colleges to protest the destruction of the environment by corporate polluters.
In Springfield, Illinois, at Lanphier High School, the alma mater of my mother and father, 24-year-old biology teacher Ray Bruzan, led his students on a march to the Capitol that day. The students had been learning how pollution was killing the planet. They turned Room 308 of their classroom into the “Environmental Action Center.” The mother of one of the students stitched together strips of green and white fabric to form the stripes of the flag. The colors were symbolic, green for a clean earth, and white for clean air. The top corner of the mast was punctuated by a dark green Greek theta letter, the symbol of death. The students held a mock funeral procession for the “dead” earth. As they marched, their Earth Day flag was lifted by the gently breeze of Mother Nature. That flag is today on display at the Smithsonian Institution as part of the collection of Earth Day memorabilia, donated by Ray Brunzan. It was an extraordinary display of civic action. They carried petitions they had circulated, bearing the names of one thousand people. They were met at the Capitol by Lt. Governor Paul Simon, one of the most honest public servants in the history of Illinois. He accepted the petitions and commended them for their participation in democracy.
It was also on that first Earth Day in 1970 when President Richard Nixon created, through executive order, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And later that year, Congress enacted the Occupational Safety and Health Act which led to the formation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) under the Department of Labor that established regulations on industry with the aim of reducing workplace exposure to toxins. Black Lung Disease all but disappeared for a new generation of coal miners.
It was a time when our government was more responsive to the will of the people whose opinions were influenced by the images of a relatively new media, television.
But on that first Earth Day, more than a half-century ago, was a story that failed to get much traction, until now. NBC news anchor Frank Blair reported the warning of a government scientist, J. Murray Mitchell, who started his career in the early 1950s as a climatologist with the United States Air Force in Alaska and by 1970, was working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NBC announced Mitchell’s prediction that pollution from burning fossil fuels was creating a “greenhouse effect” that was warming the planet, and that eventually, would lead to the melting of the polar ice caps.
 The opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bill was led by 20 Democrats from the South, along with one from the North, Robert Byrd of West Virginia. In the 40s Byrd was recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan, and won the electoral votes of two Southern states, Mississippi and Alabama as an independent presidential candidate with Strom Thurmond as his vice-presidential running mate. In 1948, Thurmond ran as an independent campaign for president as a Dixiecrat on a State’s Rights platform. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Thurmond switched parties and became a Republican, endorsing Goldwater for president.  The leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 and shuttered the casinos controlled by the American mafia. He then formed a mutual defense pact with Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in Moscow. More than a decade later, in 1976, a Senate committee lead by Frank Church, a Democrat from Idaho, uncovered a clandestine operation run by the CIA that had targeted heads of state for political assassination. Testimony before the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations revealed that the CIA had recruited the American mafia to assist with plans to kill Castro. The Committee was formed after the New York Times reported in 1974 that the CIA violated its charter by spying on American citizens who organized opposition to the war in Vietnam. Church was targeted for defeat by conservatives, upset that he exposed the truth of what was happening within our government and lost reelection in 1980. The CIA was the “Deep State” that was undermining democracy.
"This is a classic story with very good good-guys and very bad bad-guys, a tale of corporate greed, lethal pollution and sick children and the heroic people who fought to make things right. A wonderful read.”
--Scott Turow To pre-order copies of the book go to: www.coaltarandneuroblastoma.com Release date scheduled for September 2020. Copyright © 2020 by Bill Clutter Published by Investigating Innocence Media | Springfield, Illinois. Cover and book design by Polly Danforth | Morning Star Design
The author will provide a free paperback copy of Coal Tar to individuals who donate $25 or more to a not-for-profit organization of private investigators that he started at www.InvestigatingInnocence.org
About The Author
Louisville Private investigator Bill Clutter started his career in Springfield, Illinois. By the time the lawsuit went to trial, seven children from Taylorville were diagnosed with neuroblastoma, four would die. A jury returned a verdict in favor of the families against CIPS. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld that verdict in 2002. After Clutter narrowly lost the senate race, his investigation helped free three innocent men from death row and he went on to start in 2001 what is now the Illinois Innocence Project. He was credited, among others, by Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn when Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011. He moved to Louisville in 2013 to continue work on capital cases and started a national organization called Investigating Innocence, which help free three people, David Camm, from Indiana; Curt Lovelace, a former state prosecutor from Illinois, who was team captain of the Fighting Illini football team that won the Citrus Bowl in 1990; and Rodney Lincoln from Missouri, who spent 36 years in prison.
HOW TO GET A COPY OF THE BOOK: The paperback edition will be released in September. Before the book is released to the public, the author will send a free autographed copy of the paperback edition for those who make a tax-deductible donation of $25 or more to help Investigating Innocence free more people from prison. Go to www.InvestigatingInnocence.org
FREE TO TEACHERS AND STUDENTS: The author announced on the anniversary of RFK’s death, that he will make a digital version available free of charge to any teacher or student who wants to use the story for classroom use. Those interested should send an email with the word EDUCATION in the subject line to firstname.lastname@example.org