February 21, 1965: Malcolm X is assassinated.
Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain - and we will smile. Many will say turn away - away from this man, for he is not a man but a demon, a monster, a subverter and an enemy of the black man - and we will smile. They will say that he is of hate - a fanatic, a racist - who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle! And we will answer and say to them : Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did you would know him. And if you knew him you would know why we must honor him.
Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood! This was his meaning to his people. And, in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves.
Eulogy of Malcolm X, delivered February 27, 1965
February 19, 1942: Franklin D. Roosevelt issues Executive Order 9066.
The order provided for the designation of military areas (to be decided by the Secretary of War and commanders of the U.S. armed forces) from which “any or all persons” could be relocated. No specific ethnic groups or sections of the nation were singled out in the text of the order, but it stated that these new powers would serve as “protection against espionage and against sabotage”. In practice, it resulted in the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans, nearly two-thirds of whom were American-born citizens; smaller numbers of German- and Italian-Americans were interned as well, but no ethnic group was targeted by the government to the extent that the Japanese were.
Virtually every Japanese-American living on the West Coast was interned, while a small fraction of those living in Hawaii - just over a thousand - suffered the same fate. The justification for the executive order was practical; it was believed that many Japanese, Issei and Sansei alike, could not possibly remain loyal to the United States if it went to war with Japan. It was outwardly practical (the Ni’ihau Incident seemed to prove American suspicions), and it was deeply rooted in racial prejudice. Many white farmers were glad to see their Japanese competition uprooted and displaced; several newspapers printed opinion pieces that supported wholeheartedly the internment based on their own personal feelings toward the Japanese; the American public (including even Theodore Geisel/Dr. Seuss) generally supported the move; and the Supreme Court, the ultimate defender and interpreter of the U.S. Constitution, upheld the constitutionality of the executive order in Korematsu v. U.S. (also see: Hirabayashi v. U.S.). Camps were run by the Wartime Civil Control Administration and the War Relocation Authority; the largest of these by population were Tule Lake and Poston, but the most well-known today is Manzanar.
Some Japanese-Americans escaped internment by volunteering to serve in the U.S. Army, and many of them served in the famous 442nd Infantry Regiment, a unit that fought in Europe after 1944. Ironically, while many of its members’ families remained interned at home based on widespread racism and suspicions of disloyalty, this all-Japanese unit eventually became the most decorated infantry regiment in the history of the U.S. Army: twenty-one of its members were awarded the Medal of Honor.
Executive Order 9066 was eventually rescinded in 1976, and surviving Japanese internees received payments and apologies from the U.S. government in the 1990s. But money paid four decades later could not compensate for the time lost in the camps; the businesses, homes, farms, and other property sold last-minute at ridiculously low prices by their owners or vandalized and destroyed in their absence; and the humiliation and disillusionment at having been denounced by their own countrymen and rounded up by their own government.
February 4, 1913: Rosa Parks is born.
I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.
January 15, 1929: Martin Luther King, Jr. is born.
Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
January 10, 1920: The Treaty of Versailles goes into effect.
Exactly five years after the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Allied Powers (France, the British Empire, Japan, Italy, and the United States) signed this treaty with Germany, officially declaring peace between the nations after the 1918 armistice ended hostilities. The terms of the treaty were shaped by a monumental six month period in Paris, during which dozens of world leaders met at the Paris Peace Conference to discuss the state of affairs in a post-World War I world, dealing with issues ranging from racial equality to self-determination to the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. And the course of this conference (with regard to the Treaty of Versailles, at least) was shaped by David Lloyd George, George Clemenceau, and Woodrow Wilson, all of whom had their own aims at the conference. President Wilson’s main goal was to have the new peace treaty incorporate the principles laid out in his Fourteen Points; this undertaking ended mostly in failure, although the Allied leaders attempted to appease Wilson by creating a League of Nations (according to his fourteenth point). The British wanted to see Germany subdued, though perhaps not punished. The French, whose country had been invaded by Germany/German states in both 1870 and again in 1914, wanted Germany weakened, and they achieved this through the Treaty of Versailles.
The treaty determined that Kaiser Wilhelm and other German leaders would be tried as war criminals; it provided that the Rhineland would be occupied for fifteen years by Allied forces; Germany’s armed forces was limited to no more than 100,000 men; its navy was limited to a certain amount of ships and no submarines at all; its military could not use poison gas, tanks, or armed aircraft; much of Germany’s territories were transferred and ceded to surrounding nations. Most famously, the treaty’s “war guilt clause” blamed the “aggression of Germany and her allies” for the “loss and damage” incurred by World War I, and in 1921, Germany was made to pay billions of marks in reparations to the Allied nations. In reality, Austria, Hungary, and Turkey should have also helped pay off reparations, but Germany was the only country of them rich enough to afford to. Germans were, as a whole, both outraged at the massive amounts of money they would have to pay, and entirely in denial of having done anything wrong in the first place.
In the end, the United States rejected the treaty, and none of the main parties were fully satisfied, least of Germany, which, for years before 1939, violated provisions of the treaty one after another. The factors contributing to the rise of National Socialism in Germany are numerous and complex, but the aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles is nearly always regarded as one of them. Nazi propaganda played heavily on the German public’s lingering bitterness toward the treaty.
December 17, 1903: The Wright Brothers fly the Wright Flyer near Kitty Hawk.
Orville and Wilbur Wright’s simple but memorable aircraft was the first heavier-than-air powered machine to achieve successful controlled and sustained flight with a pilot aboard. It is said that the brothers actually flipped a coin to see who would be granted the honor of piloting the plane first - Orville won, and it is he who is pictured flying the aircraft in the famous Surfman John T. Daniels photograph. The brothers achieved this feat only after years of designing and testing different kite and glider models in order to acquire the expertise and knowledge necessary to build a fully-functional powered craft. The end result was the Wright Flyer, which was powered by a simple four-cylinder engine. It flew four times that day in an open area south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina; the first flight lasted twelve seconds and the last just under a minute, after which the brothers discovered that the plane’s frame had broken. The crafts used in the Wrights Brothers’ later flights in 1904 and 1905 vastly improved upon the original (one flew for nearly forty minutes), but all these were overshadowed by the Kitty Hawk flight that is so well-remembered by history.
[A] bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular, and what no just government should refuse.
- Thomas Jefferson, 1787.
December 15, 1791: The U.S. Bill of Rights goes into effect.
The first twelve amendments to the U.S. Constitution were introduced on September 25, 1789, and ten of them (collectively referred to as the Bill of Rights) were eventually ratified and went into effect on December 15, 1791. The basic rights granted in the Bill of Rights were based on or influenced heavily by the English Bill of Rights (1689), American Revolution ideals, and the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776). The latter was drafted by George Mason, who refused to sign the Constitution without the addition of amendments protecting the rights of individual Americans (in the context of the Bill of Rights, this included only white males and excluded minorities and women).
Alexander Hamilton and other Federalists argued against the addition of a Bill of Rights; one of their arguments was that they feared that a stated list of rights would imply that rights left unstated would not be protected at all (a fear addressed in the Ninth Amendment). But desire for a bill of rights was felt almost universally, and among the Founding Fathers the most vocal support came from George Mason and Patrick Henry. Although James Madison authored the amendments, he was doubtful of the effectiveness of this “parchment barrier”. The Bill of Rights went into effect after its ratification by Virginia, although two proposed amendments were rejected by several states, one regarding apportionment and the other regarding congressional pay raises. Specifics regarding race or gender were not explicitly mentioned, but it was tacitly accepted that the provisions of the Bill of Rights did not extend to blacks (enslaved and free alike), women, Native Americans, and land-less white men. Firmly ingrained in the culture of the United States, its people, and its government, the Bill of Rights is currently located in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom alongside the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
December 1, 1955: Rosa Parks is arrested.
Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man and her subsequent arrest marked the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which eventually led to the federal ruling that declared bus segregation laws unconstitutional. At the time of her arrest Parks had been working as a seamstress, and she was also secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, although her arrest was not planned out beforehand as a move to challenge the state and city bus segregation laws. But even if her action had not been an official gesture of protest, her defiance of the law was the result of years and years of frustration with the injustice of the law and others like it. In her 1992 biography, Parks wrote:
People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.
Martin Luther King, Jr. offered a similar explanation in his own book, Stride Toward Freedom:
No one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realizes that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, ‘I can take it no longer.’
Parks had been sitting on a bus, on the way home from work. The bus’s white-reserved seats quickly filled up so that several white passengers were left standing, whereupon Parks and three other African-American riders were ordered by the bus driver to move toward the back of the bus, to the “colored” section. The other three obeyed; Parks did not. The bus driver then threatened to have her arrested, to which she replied simply, “You may do that”. The police eventually did come and arrest her, and she was charged with the violation of a Montgomery city segregation law (she was eventually fined $10 after a brief trial). Three days after Parks’ arrest, news of a planned boycott - the Montgomery Bus Boycott - spread through newspapers and black churches; meanwhile, Edgar Nixon and Martin Luther King, Jr. conferred on how to carry out their official challenge of Alabama’s segregation laws. In the end, they decided that Rosa Parks (who was described by King as “one of the finest citizens of Montgomery”) would serve as the plaintiff for a test cause against the segregation laws.
After 381 days, the boycott ended. In one iconic image (pictured above), Rosa Parks is pictured riding on a bus of Montgomery’s newly-integrated transportation system. In 1996 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 1999, the Congressional Gold Medal.
November 27, 1978: Harvey Milk and George Moscone are assassinated.
When he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay male ever to be elected to office in the United States. He served from January 1978 until his assassination by Dan White, a former member of the board. During his brief service as supervisor, Milk proved himself to be both unpredictable and energetic; he was a tireless advocate for gay rights and an ally of San Francisco mayor George Moscone, who eventually signed into law the “most stringent and encompassing” anti-discriminatory gay rights bill “in the nation”. Milk also campaigned against the Briggs Initiative, a California proposition that would have made it illegal for gays and lesbians to work in the state’s public schools.
Just ten months after the start of his term, Milk and Mayor Moscone were assassinated by former policeman and firefighter Dan White, who had served alongside White on the Board of Supervisors and had clashed often with his more liberal colleagues on the board throughout his term. White resigned from the board on November 10, 1978 and was replaced by a more liberal supervisor, appointed by Moscone himself. On the day of the appointment, White entered Mayor Moscone’s office at city hall and killed him with a revolver. He met Milk on the way to his own (former) office and killed him as well, with five shots to the wrist, chest, and head.
White turned himself in and was convicted in an extremely controversial trial of voluntary manslaughter, due to what became known derisively as the “Twinkie defense” - White’s lawyers were able to argue that he had been depressed and that his mental capacity had been diminished, citing his consumption of junk food as evidence. White eventually received a seven-year prison sentence, which (combined with other factors) enraged the gay community of San Francisco so much that the White Night riots erupted the same day White’s sentence was announced. White eventually committed suicide, but Milk was immortalized, despite his short career, as a martyr and icon. In 2009, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom ”as a pioneer of the LGBT civil rights movement” and for “his exceptional leadership and dedication to equal rights.”
November 21, 1922: Rebecca Latimer Felton becomes the first female member of the U.S. Senate.
Felton was not only the first woman to serve in the Senate but also the oldest freshman senator (appointed at age eighty-seven), the shortest serving Senator (her symbolic term lasted a day), and the last former slaveowner to serve as a Senator. When one of her political allies and Georgia Senator died suddenly after the end of the 67th Congress, Governor Thomas Hardwick seized upon this chance to improve his standing with women voters, who remained cold to him for his opposition to the 19th Amendment (Georgia was notably the first state to reject the 19th Amendment and did not ratify it until 1970). Hardwick offered the post to Felton, who was then sworn in on November 21, 1922. She served for one day before the actual winner of the special election took the Senate seat.
Felton advocated strongly for women’s rights and education reform, especially for girls, while at the same time promoting a view on race relations that was quite the opposite direction in progressiveness. She, like many southerners at the time, was highly concerned with the threat she believed “half-civilized gorillas” - black men - posed to white women. Not only did Felton argue against black suffrage (while fighting for women’s suffrage), she actually spoke in favor of lynching black men as a means to ensure the safety of women. As a former slaveowner, she acknowledged the “abuses” that occurred because of slavery, one of these abuses being “ violations of the moral law”, meaning miscegenation. A proud southerner, lynching advocate, and women’s rights activist, Felton said of her own milestone term as senator:
A Senator of the U.S., a woman, is still a sort of political joke with our masculine leaders in party politics…. But the trail has been blazed! The road is apparently rough—maybe rocky—but the trail has been located. It is an established fact. While it is also a romantic adventure, it will ever remain an historical precedent—never to be erased.
The first woman elected to serve a full term as Senator was Hattie Caraway.