A raised fist on a New Hampshire wall: How the Lincolns made the paper

October 8, 2012
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On the walls of the New Hampshire State House, there are numerous items meant to inspire visitors: a massive painting of a battle from America’s civil war, portraits of famous Granite Staters like Governor Gil Winant who, as ambassador to the court of St James, greatly helped sway American opinion toward supporting the British in their fight against the Nazis. In my fourteen years as state senator laboring in those halls, I also took note of a small bronze plaque commemorating the brave Hungarians of 1956 who fought against the Soviets in the ill-fated uprising.

I was fairly certain there were no New Hampshire citizens in that fight, but through my years of interest in preserving the memory of the Americans who fought as premature antifascists in the Spanish Civil war, I knew for sure some of them left from New Hampshire to fight the good fight. Logic entered my brain and it seemed clear that those twelve or so Granite Staters who joined the Lincoln Brigade really deserved commemoration, too.

Through my work on the ALBA board, as well as reading The Volunteer, I knew of at least a couple of plaques that had been erected to honor the Lincolns.

Some time in late 2000, I went before the Facilities Committee, which makes decisions regarding what hangs on the walls of the State House, with my proposal to honor the New Hampshire vets.

I told them about the Spanish Civil War and how Hitler and Mussolini backed one side. And I told them that while America, still skittish from the horror of the Great War, officially stayed neutral, about 2,800 brave Americans, men and women, black and white, fought for the good guys.

They were interested and asked that I get a price quote from the Seattle area sculptor who’d made the other plaques. (He was a buddy of my incredibly inspirational friend Abe Osheroff.)

The sculptor came back with a total price of $1,500, including shipping, and with one dissension the committee voted to approve appropriation of the funds.

The plaque was delivered to my office in January 2001. When my colleague and I opened the package, we were frankly a bit taken aback by the look of the plaque—a large raised fist dominated the piece. The raised fist was not, strictly speaking, the symbol of the Lincolns or the Internationals. But it’s what I had so I went with it. Had the plaque simply shown the three-pointed star of the International Brigades, it would possibly be hanging in the State House today. Possibly. But that’s not what happened.

Perhaps naively, I thought there’d be a quiet little dedication ceremony with Peter Carroll of ALBA giving a little talk about the legacy of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Ha.

What ended up actually occurring created infinitely more awareness of the heroes than I could have imagined.

Somehow the word had gotten out that some of the folks in the Lincoln Brigade were–wait for it–Communists!!

The day picked for the dedication was Lincoln’s Birthday, February 12, 2001. I was a bit nervous and early in the day,  I was talking to students at the University of New Hampshire about the Lincolns, calling up staff at the State House regularly to see if indeed the plaque was being mounted on the intended wall.

The plaque went up. And it came down within an hour or two. The headline of the infamous Union Leader newspaper that day screamed: Communists in the State House! The powers that were–in the Republican leadership, that is–ordered the plaque be taken down.

Peter and I held our dedication ceremony anyway, in the Legislative Office Building across the street, with the plaque on an easel.

Newspapers, radio, and TV all covered of the story. One newspaper, Foster’s Daily Democrat (a Republican paper in truth), actually did a Sunday special on the great story of the Lincolns, complete with renderings of posters of the defenders of the Spanish Republic. It was a fabulous education for the people of New Hampshire, much better than I could have imagined.

In the months following, the Facilities Committee held a special set of hearings on the controversy. Probably a hundred people came to voice their opinions.  I told the committee why I thought it was appropriate to honor these brave New Hampshire citizens. Most vociferous against the plaque were people from the Knights of Columbus, who said the Lincolns had participated in some of the atrocities committed against the Catholic clergy of Spain—which of course was not true. Speakers alternated between those for and those against allowing the plaque to hang in the State House. It was just about even.

Then came the vote of the committee. One member who had abstained in the original meeting, now voted against. Senator Jack Barnes publicly equated the Lincoln vets with the North Koreans who killed his buddies in the early ‘50s. All Commies are the same, you see. Eventually the Republican-dominated committee (though Democrats were none too brave) voted to store the plaque in a locked vault. And there it sits today, the people of New Hampshire protected from its apparently powerful influence.

Some future legislature could declare the plaque to be “surplus property” and offer it for sale. But given the make-up of the New Hampshire legislature these days—incredibly right wing, much more so than usual–it’ll be a while.

But it is still there. I left the senate in 2004, but every time I go up there to testify on this or that, I make sure to check on the old bronze plaque. Gathering dust in that vault in the back of room 103 of the State House. Until it’s time comes. No regrets!

I did a lot of things in my fourteen years in the New Hampshire Senate, and though the people, including school children who regularly tour the historic building, are now deprived of the inspiration the plaque was intended to spark, the endeavor remains one of the proudest moments of my tenure. Its time will come.

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