THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: SEPTEMBER 15,1963

16th Street Baptist Church Bombing

 

16th-street-baptist-church-bombingA bomb blast in a Negro church in Birmingham during Sunday School September 15 killed 4 Negro girls.

2 Negro youths were killed later September 15 in Birmingham, one during protest rioting and the other, Virgil Wade, 13, as he rode a bicycle on the outskirts of town.

In addition to killing the 4 girls, the bomb injured 14 Negroes, blew holes in the walls of the church (the 16th St. Baptist Church), wrecked 2 cars parked outside and badly damaged 3 others.

Negroes rushed to the scene after the blast and hurled rocks at passing cars carrying whites and at police.

Johnny Robinson, 16, a Negro, was killed by a shotgun blast fired by a policeman who said he fired low to disperse a rock-throwing group of Negro youths. In other incidents, a Negro youth and a white youth were shot but not seriously wounded and 4 whites were injured by stones.

Mayor Albert Boutwell, with tears in his eyes, called the bombing “just sickening” as he and Police Chief Ja-mie Moore appealed September 15 for help from Governor George C. Wallace in the event of further vio-lence.

In response, Wallace September 15 sent 500 National Guardsmen and 300 state troopers. He also offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the bombers. Wallace called the bombing “a tragic event” and said “the perpetrators of this vicious crime must be brought to justice.”

An Alabama jury May 22 found former Ku Klux Klansman Bobby Frank Cherry guilty of first-degree murder in a 1963 Birmingham church bombing that had killed four black girls. Cherry, 71, was sentenced to four life terms in prison, one for each of the victims. The conviction of Cherry, the last of the suspects in the church bombing, formally brought to a close Birmingham’s most historic and famous case.

A jury of six white women, three white men and three black men deliberated for more than six hours before handing down the verdict. Judge James Garrett of Jefferson County Circuit Court in Birmingham presided over the trial, which had opened May 14. Cherry was to have been tried in 2001 with Thomas Blanton Jr., another suspect in the case. However, Cherry’s trial had been delayed when doctors diagnosed him with dementia. Garrett, after further evaluation of Cherry, January 3 ruled that he was fit to stand trial.

Although Cherry had been one of four suspects named by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) shortly after the bombing, no charges were brought against him until 2000. The indictment came only after three federal investigations into the blast. The case had twice been closed and reopened, with no new charges, in 1980 and 1988, only to be reopened again in 1997.

“Last Suspect in 1963 Alabama Church Bombing Found Guilty; Ex-Klansman Cherry Sentenced to Life.” Facts On File. World News Digest. Infobase Learning, 23 May 2002. Web.


Learn more about the long path to justice in this case »

THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: SEPTEMBER 8, 1522

Magellan Expedition Returns to Spain

ferdinand-megellan

Fewer than three decades after Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) made his voyage to the New World, Ferdinand Magellan (c. 1480-1521) set sail in 1519 with nearly 600 men and five ships on a voyage to the Spice Islands (East Indies) via a westward route from Spain. Magellan, undervalued by the Portuguese crown, made the trip under the Spanish flag. They crossed the Atlantic, sailed down the eastern coast of South America, rounded the southern tip of the continent through the shortcut now called the Strait of Magellan and named thePacific Ocean before reaching the eastern shores of Asia. Although Magellan died partway through the trip, one of the five ships in the fleet completed what became the first circumnavigation of the globe in 1522.

Magellan approached the King of Spain with a proposal for a voyage to the Spice Islands by way of the southern tip of South America. Although he was Portuguese and had sailed under the Portuguese crown for more than a decade, Magellan was under-appreciated in his home country. Denied promotion and falsely accused of corruption, Magellan turned to his country’s rival to fund the expedition. The king of Spain agreed. Magellan spent a year preparing, then began the trip on September 8, 1519, with a 560-man crew aboard five ships. The excursion from Spain to South America took three months. Magellan then led the fleet down the east coast, exploring inlets and bays along the way in search of a shortcut across the continent. Finding none, he continued down toward the tip of the continent.

The fleet encountered difficulties almost as soon as it reached South America. In addition to harsh weather conditions that forced the men to overwinter in the southern reaches of the continent, the voyage was fraught with internal bickering, plotting and attempted mutinies. One unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Magellan’s command ended with the marooning of numerous crewmembers on the eastern coast of what is now Venezuela along with the beheading of the ship captains behind the plot. The winter season also claimed one of the five ships in the fleet.

When spring came, the fleet started out again. Magellan continued to take the ships in and out of the bays dotting the coast in his quest to find a shortcut across the continent. When his crew became tired of the lost time with these side trips, Magellan fabricated a story about a map describing a shortcut and convinced the crew to try one last time. It was on this exploratory trip that they discovered what is now known as the Strait of Magellan, a channel that, it was later learned, shaved several hundred miles from their voyage around the tip of the continent. While exploring the strait, the crew of one of the four remaining ships mutinied, turned the ship around and set off for home.

The now-three-ship fleet pressed on, entering the Pacific Ocean on November 20. Magellan and his crew dubbed the watery expanse the Pacific, because it was so calm and peaceful in comparison with the Atlantic they had just left.

Magellan wrongly assumed that the Pacific was a small ocean and that they would be in the Spice Islands in a matter of days. Days turned to weeks and to months. Rations dwindled, and sickness followed. Before they struck land on Guam more than three months after they had entered the waters of the Pacific, 19 of the men had died from scurvy.

Their troubles didn’t end there. After landing in Guam, some of the native people took one of the ship’s boats. It was only after a bloody battle that Magellan was able to take back the boat and set off again. Their next stop was Cebu in the Philippines. Here, Magellan formed what was to become a fatal relationship with the king of the island. The explorer agreed to take part in the king’s attack on a nearby island, and died after sustaining wounds from a poisoned arrow, two spears, and at least one lance.

The crew continued without him, making the decision to return home by continuing their westward route into Portuguese waters. Apparently, their desire to return to Spain overrode their fear of the Portuguese. The crew abandoned one of the three ships. Of the two remaining ships, the Trinidad tried to return across the Pacific against prevailing winds, but was forced back. The Portuguese captured it and jailed its crew. In 1525, after being released from the Portuguese jail, four members of the ill-fated Trinidad crew found their way back to Spain.

Juan Sebastián de Elcano took command of the other ship, the Victoria. He rounded the Cape of Good Hope and successfully brought the ship back to Spain on September 8, 1522, three years to the day since the voyage set out. The final crew numbered only 18 men. De Elcano received numerous accolades, including honors from the king and a monument in his hometown. The monument consists of a globe with the inscription: “The first one to circle me.”

“The First Maritime Circumnavigation of the Globe.” Science and Its Times. Ed. Neil Schlager and Josh Lauer. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 2001. World History in Context. Web.


Learn more about Ferdinand Magellan »

THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: AUGUST 29, 2005

Hurricane Katrina Devastates New Orleans

hurricane-katrinaIn late August 2005 Hurricane Katrina caused major damage in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana. There is no official death toll for Katrina, but it is known that more than 1,800 people lost their lives and in excess of 700 individuals were still listed as missing in 2011. With close to a million refugees, Hurricane Katrina was the greatest displacement of American citizens since the Dust Bowl era.

Of all the cities impacted by this category five hurricane, New Orleans, Louisiana, saw the most extensive devastation. Although New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin had imposed a mandatory evacuation of the city several days before Katrina hit, the city lacked resources to assist those who were too old, infirm, or poor to leave on their own. An estimated 20 percent of the population of New Orleans remained in the city when the hurricane made landfall on Monday, August 29, 2005. Makeshift shelters were set up in the city’s Su-perdome and Convention Center, but these became overcrowded, unsanitary, and unsafe as conditions worsened.

Shortly after the hurricane hit the city, waves on the Mississippi River were reported up to 40 feet high and levees faltered, flooding water into New Orleans. Over the next two days, floodwaters continued to rise, covering 80 percent of the city. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services secretary Michael O. Leavitt declared a public health emergency in the four states affected by the storm. The U.S. National Guard was deployed to help with rescue and evacuation, but some of these troops, fresh from Iraq and Afghani-stan, were criticized for treating evacuees as if they were hostile combatants rather than victims. Exacerbating the situation was the mass looting in the streets and gang violence erupting in and around the Superdome and Convention Center, which forced police and troops to focus on damage control instead of search and rescue. On the September 4, 2005, police shot and killed four people on Danziger Bridge. Initially, the police officers claimed that they were defending themselves from armed civilians; however, an in-vestigation revealed that the officers fired without cause and that the department attempted to cover up the murders by providing false statements and fabricating evidence. In 2011 the five New Orleans police officers were found guilty of a variety of charges, in-cluding deprivation of rights under color of law, conspiracy, counts of obstruction of justice, and civil rights conspiracy.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), headed by Mike Brown, was criticized by victims and media alike for its in-adequate and unequal response to the crisis. Proof surfaced that FEMA knew years ahead of time that the New Orleans levees could not withstand anything above a category three hurricane. It was evident days before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast that the hurri-cane would surpass that level. Jefferson Parish president Aaron Broussard commented, “We have been abandoned by our own country. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will go down as one of the worst abandonments of Americans on American soil ever in U.S. history.”

Brown eventually stepped down from his position, leaving Congress and the president to investigate how this situation spiraled so far out of control. President George W. Bush received much scrutiny for vacationing at his Texas ranch through August 30, when he was aware of the impending hurricane. In a televised news conference, Bush gave the following explanation: “Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government, and to the extent the federal government didn’t fully do its job right, I take responsibility.” This failure on the government’s part, to respond in an equal and timely manner to the Hurricane Katrina disaster, left many Americans questioning their leaders’ ability to handle a national crisis.

Reconstruction and repopulation of New Orleans has been gradual, and the population has yet to recover. It has been estimated that the city’s population has regained approximately 70 percent of its pre-storm population, sitting at 363,000 of the 455,155 residents in 2005; however, much of the population growth occurred in areas that were not decimated by the flooding. Once ranked the twenty-sixth largest city, New Orleans ranked forty-sixth in 2010. The storm effectively reshaped the city, leading to a wealthier and less diverse population. The 2010 census figures show that there were approximately 24,000 fewer white residents and 118,000 fewer black residents than the last census, while the Hispanic population increased by nearly 65 percent. Part of the disparity can be attrib-uted to people relocating to the city for construction jobs, but many of the original residents may never return.

Although Mississippi was also devastated by the hurricane, leading to the entire state being declared a disaster area, Katrina’s his-torical and cultural impact is intricately linked with New Orleans. Far beyond its human costs, it revealed the staggering inadequacies of government agencies to respond to natural disasters as well as the racial and class stratification that exists in many American cities.

Horton, Ron. “Hurricane Katrina.” St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Ed. Thomas Riggs. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. Detroit: St. James Press, 2013. 739-740. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web.


Learn more about Hurricane Katrina »

THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: MARCH 28, 1979

Three Mile Island Nuclear Accident Occurs

three-mile-island-nuclear-accidentThree Mile Island, the site of the worst civilian nuclear power program accident in the United States, is located in the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In the early 1970s, Metropolitan Edison built two reactors on Three Mile Island for commercial energy production. On March 28, 1979, a faulty valve allowed water coolant to escape from Metropolitan Edison’s second reactor, Unit 2, during an unplanned shutdown. A cascade of human errors and technological mishaps resulted in an overheated reactor core with temperatures as high as 4,300 degrees and the accidental release of radiation into the atmosphere. Plant operators struggled to resolve the situation. Press reporters highlighted the confusion surrounding the accident, while Governor Richard L. Thornburgh of Pennsylvania and President Jimmy Carter visited the stricken plant, urging the nation to remain calm. On March 30, state officials evacuated pregnant women and preschool children from the immediate area as a safety measure. On April 2, temperatures decreased inside the Unit 2 reactor, and government officials declared the crisis over on April 9.

A commission authorized by President Carter investigated the calamity. Government analysts calculated that, at the height of the crisis, Unit 2 was within approximately one hour of a meltdown and a significant breach of containment. The lessons learned at Three Mile Island led to improved safety protocols and equipment overhauls at commercial reactors across the country. Three Mile Island also contributed to rising public anxiety over the safety of nuclear energy, anxieties fueled by the coincidental release of The China Syndrome, a fictional movie about the cover-up of a nuclear plant accident, just twelve days before the disaster at Three Mile Island. The Three Mile Island accident became a rallying cry for grassroots antinuclear activists. Wary of sizable cost overruns and public resistance, electrical utilities shied from constructing new nuclear plants in the years that followed. Over an eleven-year period, the cleanup of Three Mile Island’s severely damaged reactor cost in excess of $1 billion.

Guth, Robert M., and John Wills. “Three Mile Island.” Dictionary of American History. Ed. Stanley I. Kutler. 3rd ed. Vol. 8. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003. 122. U.S. History in Context. Web.

THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: MARCH 17, 1941

The National Gallery of Art Opens

national-gallery-of-artThe National Gallery of Art was conceived and given to the people of the United States by Andrew W. Mellon (1855–1937). Mellon was a financier and art collector from Pittsburgh who came to Washington in 1921 to serve as secretary of the treasury. During his years of public service he came to believe that the United States should have a national art museum equal to those of other great nations.

In 1936 Mellon wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt offering to donate his superb art collection for a new museum and to use his own funds to construct a building for its use. With the president’s support, Congress accepted Mellon’s gift, which included a sizable endowment, and established the National Gallery of Art in March 1937. Construction began that year at a site on the National Mall along Constitution Avenue between Fourth and Seventh Street NW, near the foot of Capitol Hill.

Andrew Mellon selected American architect John Russell Pope (1874–1937) to design the building for the new museum. This edifice, now known as the West Building, has formal public entrances on all four sides. Its main floor plan is centered on a rotunda that was modeled after the ancient Roman Pantheon. To the east and west of the Rotunda, barrel-vaulted sculpture halls lead to garden courts, where greenery and fountains provide a restful haven for visitors. Interconnected exhibition galleries extend to the north and south of these large public spaces in such a way that, in principle, a visitor can begin in one room and proceed through the collection without backtracking.

The West Building was designed in a classicizing style but built using the most modern technology of the time. Its exterior was constructed of pale pink Tennessee marble, while its foundations and first floor were formed of concrete with a steel framework. Polished limestone from Indiana and Alabama covers the walls on its main floor, and the Rotunda columns were fabricated in Vermont from Italian marble. The architect recognized the importance of natural light to illuminate and unite the exhibition spaces. To achieve this, he specified that skylights should cover virtually the entire three-acre roof.

Because Mellon believed that visitors should learn from as well as enjoy the art in the collection, works are exhibited by period and national origin in appropriately decorated galleries. The Italian Renaissance galleries, for instance, have Italian travertine wainscot and hand-finished plaster walls and are detailed with base and door surround moldings and include built-in niches to display sculpture, while Dutch 17th-century galleries are finished with wood paneling to evoke original settings.

Andrew Mellon and John Russell Pope died within 24 hours of each other in August 1937, not long after excavation for the West Building’s foundations had begun, but the museum was built in accordance with their concepts. Construction was completed by December 1940, and works of art were installed in the new galleries over the following months. The National Gallery of Art was dedicated on March 17, 1941, with Paul Mellon presenting the museum on behalf of his father, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt accepting the gift for the nation.


Learn more about the National Gallery of Art »

THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: MARCH 11, 1918

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 Begins

influenza-oandemic-1918By far the most deadly outbreak of disease in human history was the flu pandemic that began in 1918, as World War I was reaching its conclusion. It was a true pandemic, spreading rapidly across the world. Although the outbreak lasted approximately two years, as many as two-thirds of the deaths occurred in a six-month period (roughly September 1918 to February 1919). By any measure, this was the most lethal single disease outbreak in human history. Because of the general chaos attending a world war, the task of reliably determining how many actually died has been difficult, though it was undoubtedly in the tens of millions.

Although experts do not fully agree on this point, the most likely origin of this outbreak was somewhere in the United States, having spread from bird populations to swine to humans. In February 1918, soon after its appearance, the flu was apparently brought to Camp Funston, a military base at Fort Riley, Kansas, by conscripted civilians. At the camp, the huge population of potential carriers and victims allowed the virus to spread rapidly. Within three weeks, more than 1,000 men were hospitalized, sick with the flu.

As World War I raged on, the virus spread easily via troop transport ships. When it hit Spain in May 1918, it was erroneously called Spanish flu, a name that is still used despite current knowledge that it did not originate there. Apparently, the lack of wartime censor- ship permitted more widespread reporting of the outbreak in Spain — a noncombatant in World War I — thus giving the impression that the flu was at its worst there.

In early September, the pandemic returned to the United States, again via troop transports, striking Camp Devens outside Boston. This second outbreak was not like the one of the previous spring, however, as the virus had mutated into a much deadlier form dur- ing the intervening months. The flu rolled across the United States, from east to west, leaving devastation in its wake. In a normal influenza outbreak, 10 percent or less of deaths occur among those age 16 to 40. In the 1918 pandemic, by contrast, as many as half of those who died were in their twenties and thirties. The flu was also dangerous for children, the elderly, and pregnant women. Nearly half of all deaths in the United States in 1918 are attributed to influenza.

The worst of the fatal cases were truly horrific. The onset of illness was sudden and often completely unexpected. The victim could expect not just the usual mild fever and aches associated with flu, but extreme fever and chills and excruciating pain. His or her lips and skin might turn blue or nearly black. Some would experience hemorrhaging from the nose or mouth, or even the ears or eyes, losing vast quantities of blood. For better or worse, such suffering was often relatively brief. It was not unusual for a seemingly healthy person to become ill and succumb within a day or two.

Although the flu spread worldwide, it was experienced differently in different countries. It was actually made up of several waves of the virus, which continued around the world well into 1919, with sporadic flare-ups in 1920. Regions that escaped earlier waves could be hit hard by later ones. Australia, for example, had avoided the earlier outbreak but felt the full force of the pandemic in early 1919.

Although experts have only rough estimates of the death toll from the pandemic, the figures that are availableindicate its terrible im- pact. In Paris, 10 percent of those who contracted the flu died; for those who also developed complications such as pneumonia, the mortality rate jumped to 50 percent. The United States had a death toll of approximately 675,000 (by contrast, about 118,000 Ameri- cans were killed in World War I, and about 418,000 were killed in World War II — a total of 536,000 deaths). In some regions, the figures were particularly ghastly.

Alaska and Samoa lost one-quarter of their population, and in the northern Canadian region of Labrador, one-third or more of the population died. In Iran, one nomadic tribe lost nearly one-third of its members to the disease.

Some estimates put the global death toll from the 1918 pandemic at 20 million, but others estimate the death toll in India alone at 21 million. Most who study the 1918 pandemic now agree that the total death toll was likely at least 50 million, perhaps as high as 100 million. Nothing else in human history — not plague, the Holocaust, atomic weapons, or any other form of warfare — has killed as many people in as short a time.

Turner, Julie. “Influenza.” Global Social Issues: An Encyclopedia. Ed. Christopher G. Bates and James Ciment. Armonk, NY: Sharpe Reference, 2013. 591-596. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web.


Read a first hand account of an army doctor at Fort Devens »

THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: MARCH 3 ,1931

The Star Spangled Banner Becomes Our National Anthem

star-spangled-banner-francis-scott-keyThough a celebrated part of American culture today, “The Star Spangled Banner” has not always been America’s national anthem. In fact, some people might argue that the song wasn’t always American. How did Francis Scott Key’s poetic tribute to the defense of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 come to be one of the most revered and recognizable songs in America, gaining legal status as the official song of the United States?

When Key, a slaveholder, lawyer, and sometime poet, penned the “Star Spangled Banner,” he wanted to give words to his emotions after witnessing the 1814 defense of Baltimore from British invasion. Just after dawn, Key looked to see whether the British or the Americans had taken the day. What he saw stirred him — a huge American flag, the “star spangled banner,” still flying at the fort. On the back of a letter Key immediately began composing his lyrics to the tune of an old English drinking song. Within days, the song became a handbill. Then, a Baltimore newspaper printed it, followed by newspapers around the country. By the 1890s, the Army and Navy had adopted the “Star Spangled Banner” as their official song, and in the midst of World War I President Woodrow Wilson ordered it played on all official occasions.

By the end of World War I, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and other patriotic and civic groups began lobbying Congress to make “The Star Spangled Banner” America’s official song, but some Americans opposed it because the music was English in origin and the range of notes made it difficult to sing. Prohibitionists pointed out that the song was based on a drinking song, which they felt was inappropriate for a dry country’s anthem. Still others rejected its archaic wording, and Peace Movement activists deplored the song’s martial spirit. Teachers complained that it did not do enough to teach young Americans how to be good citizens in peacetime as well as in war. Several groups suggested Katharine Lee Bates’s “America the Beautiful” as an alternative. But, on March 3, 1931, after twenty years of wrangling and the introduction of some forty bills and joint resolutions in Congress, President Herbert Hoover signed the bill making “The Star Spangled Banner” the official anthem of the United States.

When it was written, “The Star Spangled Banner” reflected the patriotic mood of the new republic and helped make the flag a venerated symbol of America. Today, it still holds special meaning for Americans. Its familiar choruses inspire American pride and optimism. Some opposition to the anthem still exists among those who favor other songs, but the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, rekindled the anthem’s popularity.

Pash, Melinda L. “National Anthem.” Americans at War. Ed. John P. Resch. Vol. 3: 1901-1945. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 129-130. U.S. History in Context. Web.