By Bill Clutter An excerpt of his book COAL TAR: How Corrupt Politics and Corporate Greed Are Killing US with Cancer
"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 place an order visit www.coaltarandneuroblastoma.com
“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
The A coal miner's daughter
Understanding injustice comes from our personal experiences and from the lessons we learn from historical and current events.
In 1968, my father, James Dale Clutter, spent a day with Senator Robert F. Kennedy traveling aboard the Wabash Cannonball during the Indiana presidential primary.
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.
This was my first awareness of politics. I was nine years old.
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gas had replaced coal to heat homes and businesses, and coal-burning steam engines, like the Wabash Cannonball, had been replaced by diesel locomotives.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 owners of the companies that owned the coal mines were too greedy to spend money on ventilation systems or respirators to protect the health of workers 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,” Kennedy told a reporter.
Four years earlier, President Lyndon Johnson came to eastern Kentucky with a declaration to wage a “war on poverty.” He vowed to build a “Great Society” for all, by focusing the resources of the federal government to end poverty.
When Robert Kennedy toured this same region he asked 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. “When no one shows up to witness the obliteration of mountaintops—vast hillsides being shoved into creek beds—then desperate mining practices flourish,” said Dee Davis, who recalled RFK’s trip for a story that aired on National Public Radio (NPR) in 2007.
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.”
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.”
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.
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 Johnson. Four days later, on March 16, 1968, Robert Kennedy declared his candidacy and began the process of getting his name on the ballot for the Indiana presidential primary.
By the end of the month, on March 31, before a live-televised audience, President Johnson made a surprise announcement: “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.” The President declared, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”
For many Americans, like the forgotten voices of the children of Appalachian coal miners, there was hope for a better future. They had a candidate for president in Bobby Kennedy who was committed to protecting the mountain tops from being ravaged by the mining machines of the coal companies, and who cared about protecting the health of coal miners who labored in the mines. Most of all, the children were given hope for peace and equal justice, for all.
Kennedy had given a voice to the people who struggled to end systemic injustice.
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. Shortly before his death, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy addressed the nation. His brother, Bobby, helped craft the speech.
“We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” President Kennedy 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, Kennedy became a martyr, killed by an assassin’s bullet. And the man who killed him, Lee Harvey Oswald, raised in New Orleans in the Deep South, was the 5th cousin of Robert E. Lee on his paternal branch of the family tree.
White voters in the 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, assumed the presidency after the death of JFK. When he signed the Civil Rights Act into law on July 2, 1964, he invoked the memory of John Kennedy. His Republican opponent, arch-conservative Barry Goldwater, was one of only six Republican senators to vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In November of that year, President Johnson won the General Election in a landslide. 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 his staff, “Do they know about Martin Luther King, Jr.?”
“They don’t,” he was told.
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 in harmony together, with justice for all.
“. . . –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, pregnant with their eleventh child, along with three of their children, and the family dog, Freckles, all boarded the train.
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 into 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. After privately-owned passenger rail service came to an end by the late 1960s, as ownership of automobiles became ubiquitous, 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 with laughter.
My Dad started his career with the U.S. Navy when he turned 17 and was trained in advanced electronics. After his enlistment ended, he went to work for the Wabash Railroad, in Decatur, Illinois, hired 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 help 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 his receiver he invented that would alert motor vehicle drivers 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 his 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 Herald 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 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,” said Senate Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen, a Republican from Illinois, 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.
Standing on the back of the caboose, Bobby Kennedy, who had successfully managed his brother’s campaign for president, 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 to hear Kennedy speak, joining thousands of others.
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, 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. He 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 the family his favorite dish, spaghetti from his mother’s recipe. He also 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
After winning the Indiana primary, Robert F. Kennedy went on to campaign in Roseburg, Oregon, where he 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.
The history of the 2nd Amendment was that it was added to the Bill of Rights at the insistence of Southern States to prevent the federal government from stripping state militias of their power to preserve the institution of slavery at gunpoint.
Members of National Rifle Association (NRA) showed up to protest, heckling Kennedy as he spoke. They flexed their muscle on Election Day. On May 28th, Eugene McCarthy defeated Kennedy in the Oregon primary.
Kennedy made a comeback in California, with the help of civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, and a high turnout of Mexican American voters. Chavez 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!”
Just after midnight Kennedy delivered his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, but after stepping from the podium, his dream of peace and non-violence was shattered by a bullet. He died the next day.
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.
I hurried into our house after church. I found it in Dad’s den, the bullhorn RFK used aboard the Wabash Cannonball. I ran out into the front yard and flipped on 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, like the town crier, I announced the news to the neighborhood that Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated!
Two days later, on June 7, 1968, the Decatur Review ran a front-page story about a grieving Ethel Kennedy. That same edition was accompanied by an article with a picture of my Dad, Jim Clutter. 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.” The story told how he had met RFK, who had offered to help him with his invention.
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.
Another form of cancer
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 15,000 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 peaceably 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.
Chicago Police attacking student protesters during the Democratic National Convention. Bettmann/Getty Images
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 the 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. Wallace won the electoral votes of five states: Alabama; Arkansas; Georgia; Louisiana; and Mississippi.
With the Democratic Party fractured, 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 Humphrey by only 511,944 votes.
In March of 1969, Richard Nixon’s Justice Department indicted the students who organized the Democratic National Convention demonstration. They were charged with crossing state lines to incite “mob violence.” By the time the case went to trial in the Everett M. Dirksen Federal Building in downtown Chicago in 1970, a young law student from nearby John Marshall Law School, Michael B. Metnick, was among the people in the gallery who watched the trial of the Chicago Seven, the highest profile criminal case in the country. The jury saw through the injustice of the government’s indictment. The seven defendants, who led the youth of America in protest against an unjust war, were all acquitted by the jury.
After earning his law degree, Metnick began his private law practice in Abraham Lincoln’s hometown, in Springfield, Illinois, and it was Metnick who agreed to represent the families whose children were crippled and killed by a rare cancer called neuroblastoma.
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. A rogue platoon of U.S. soldiers had slaughtered innocent civilians. There were no enemy combatants in the village that day, only old men, women, and children. 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.
In Chicago, on December 4, 1969, Fredrick Allen Hampton Sr., a charismatic 21-year-old African American, was assassinated by the FBI and Chicago Police. In a pre-dawn raid of his West Monroe Street apartment, ostensibly to serve a search warrant, authorities released a barrage of more than a hundred bullets on the sleeping Black Panther Party leader. Hampton’s persuasive oratory led to his ascendancy as an organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to become Chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, Hampton survived the initial barrage of bullets, but was dragged out of his bed by police to the doorway. Hampton’s partner, Deborah Johnson, pregnant with his child she would name after him, heard one of the police ask, “Is he dead?” Another replied, “He’s barely alive. He’ll make it.” Then she heard the ring of two more bullets. Hampton had been shot twice in the head at close range.
Fred Hampton’s obituary, prepared by his grief-stricken mother and father, stated: “In 1967, Fred became president of the Maywood NAACP Youth Chapter leading, without fear for personal safety, protest marches for recreational activities for black youth of Maywood who had none, for open housing and improvement of school relationships at Proviso East High School. In November 1968, Fred became chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, working with superhuman strength and dedication to better the lot of black people.”
A church choir sang “Onward Christian Soldiers” to open Fred Hampton’s funeral service. In his sermon, Father George Clemens repeated the words once spoken by Fred Hampton: “You can kill the revolution. You can jail the liberator, but you can’t jail the liberation.”
More than 5 thousand mourners shuffled through the Rayner Funeral Home where his body lay in an open casket before being taken to the memorial service at First Baptist Church of Melrose Park. The people saw the lifeless body of Fred Hampton, whose voice was silenced by a bigoted police-state, intolerant of dissenting political speech that called for an end to racial injustice.
Children were among the mourners. Ray Foster/Chicago Tribune/via Getty Images
Like the children who organized Youth for a Better Harlan, advocating for “Poor Power” in eastern Kentucky, Fred Hampton had the same goals for his people in the inner city, calling for basic human rights of “Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice and Peace.”
A "government of the people, by the people, and for the people . . ."
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 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 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. All of our family possessions, including the bullhorn from the Wabash Cannonball, were sold at auction by order of the Sheriff to pay for storage fees.
The following spring, on April 1, 1971, three days after Lt. William Calley was convicted of the My Lai atrocities 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 Liddy, a former FBI agent. Liddy headed Nixon’s CREEP, famous for its “dirty tricks” that helped Nixon win the presidency.
The smoking gun implicating Nixon came 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.
Once the incriminating audio tapes of Nixon’s involvement in the coverup were turned over, the House voted to impeach the President with bi-partisan support. A delegation of Republican Senators 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 year following Watergate, 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 high school senior. Dad 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, or 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 knew what he was talking about.
Years later, in 1987, I was elected Ward 1 Alderman, becoming the youngest member of a new city council in Springfield, Illinois, hometown of Abraham Lincoln. More children would die needlessly at railroad crossings, so now I had to deal with the issue of unsafe rail crossings as a member of the city council.
Two years before that election, after offering my services as a private investigator, I got a call from attorney Michael Metnick’s office to serve the complaint in a lawsuit he filed in federal court on behalf of African Americans that alleged systemic discrimination under the Voting Rights Act against the City of Springfield. A federal judge sided with the plaintiffs and ordered a new government of 10 aldermanic districts to replace the 5 commissioners who were elected city-wide.
My closest ally on the city council was the person who initiated the lawsuit, 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 Woodson’s election to the city council more significant than McNeil’s was the fact that his district, Ward 10, had the highest percentage of white voters of all of the 10 new wards. Woodson’s election gave hope that White America would discard its history of bigotry and racism to someday elect 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. It was Metnick who filed the lawsuit against the utility company that crippled and killed the children of Taylorville, Illinois.
It was during my run for the Illinois Senate in 1990, when I began an investigation of an epidemic of a rare childhood cancer called neuroblastoma. It broke out in a town that once employed thousands of coal miners--a plague that descended with a cloud of coal tar over this small Midwestern town--because of the greed of an electric utility company, Central Illinois Public Service Company (CIPS), that made its money burning coal.
It was a sad injustice, and it happened under the watch of our government, the Illinois EPA that administered the Voluntary Cleanup Program. This business-friendly initiative under Republican Governor “Big” Jim Thompson allowed CIPS to dig up hazardous waste at an abandoned coal gasification plant that ceased operating during the Great Depression, without federal Superfund enforcement.
When the source of pollution was discovered, the EPA required CIPS to remediate the damage that had been done to the environment. CIPS disregarded science and failed to heed the warnings from its own engineers who predicted that an open-air excavation of coal tar posed an unacceptable risk of cancer to the people living nearby.
Scientists from both the EPA and the engineering firm hired by CIPS recommended a safer solution, but CIPS wanted to save money. More interested in maximizing profits and dividends to its shareholders, CIPS used a risky and cheaper alternative. The scientists recommended building a containment dome to cover the excavation, with negative pressure, and to trap and treat coal tar dust and vapors, thus eliminating the risk of cancer from airborne emissions. The decision was made by upper management at CIPS to risk the health of the people.
There is no safe threshold of exposure to carcinogens. Any cancers that might develop, they thought, would appear years down the road. What management at CIPS didn’t consider were children and pregnant mothers. For this vulnerable group, cancers develop soon after a child or fetus is exposed. With adults, it’s just the opposite. It can take decades for cancer to develop in adults from damaged DNA.
The children were the canaries in the coal mine.
In 1962, Rachel Carson, a scientist, released her 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 US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Hebert O. Calvery, studied the toxicity of DDT on laboratory animals and discovered it was lethal to animals. 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 had drastically increased crop yields by eradicating insects, but came at deadly cost to the environment. And 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 told us when he was a child, bluebirds colored the meadows and sang the most beautiful love songs each spring. Their disappearance, along with other songbirds, coincided with the application of DDT and with corporate farming that bulldozed the rows 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” wearing 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 three television networks, CBS, NBC, and ABC. 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 scientists validated Carson’s book. What she wrote about DDT 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 first Earth Day
Protecting the environment became a major political movement with impact. Dramatic action was taken.
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.
Congress responded by enacting 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 that was being caused by gasoline exhaust from vehicles and industrial smokestacks.
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. Their classroom, Room 308, became the “Environmental Action Center.” One of the books the students were assigned to read was Silent Spring.
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 flag 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 gentle breeze of Mother Nature. The flag today is on display at the Smithsonian Institution, donated by Bruzan, part of the collection of Earth Day memorabilia.
Students from Ray Bruzan’s class march down Capitol Avenue in Springfield, IL on the first Earth Day in 1970. Photo courtesy of Pam Bruzan.
The march of students was an extraordinary display of civic action. The students carried petitions they had circulated, bearing the names of one thousand people. They were met at the Capitol by Lt. Governor Paul Simon, who accepted the petitions and commended the students for their participation in democracy.
On that first Earth Day in 1970 President Richard Nixon created, through executive order, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 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. OSHA 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 there was another story on that first Earth Day, one that failed to get much attention, until now. NBC news anchor Frank Blair reported that a government scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), J. Murray Mitchell, predicted that pollution from burning fossil fuels was creating a “greenhouse effect” that was warming the planet; this eventually would lead to the melting of the polar ice caps if we did nothing to stop it, Mitchell warned.
More than a week after that first Earth Day, on May 4, 1970, national guardsmen fired on student war protesters at Kent State University, killing 4 and wounding nine others. The nation was divided between Doves and Hawks over Nixon’s expansion of the war in Vietnam by invading Cambodia. I came of age listening to the song Ohio that Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young released three weeks later: “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s comin’ . . . This summer I hear the drummin’ Four dead in Ohio.”
One wonders, like the Christmas movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”, how history might have been different had Bobby Kennedy lived to lead America as its President?
"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.”
FREE TO TEACHERS AND STUDENTS: The author 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 email@example.com
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
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 time for Christmas 2020. Before the book is released to the public, the author will send a digital version of the book to 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