September 1st 1983: Korean Air Lines Flight 007 shot down
On this day in 1983 the Korean Air Lines Flight 007 from New York City to Seoul was shot down by a Soviet jet fighter over the Sea of Japan. All 269 passengers and crew aboard the flight were killed, leaving no survivors; the majority of the victims were South Koreans. Flight 007 was off course and strayed into Soviet airspace, which was on high alert due to the presence of a US reconnaissance plane that resembled a Boeing 747 aircraft. Soviet pilot Major Gennadi Osipovich was responsible for the attack, and despite privately suspecting it might be a civilian jet, fired a heat-seeking missile at the plane which caused it to crash into the ocean. Occurring in the middle of the Cold War, the incident increased tensions between the world’s two leading superpowers - the United States and the Soviet Union. In what US President Ronald Reagan called a “massacre”, among the 269 victims was a US Congressman from Georgia. This incident has been much discussed recently due to the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine on July 17th 2014.
August 21st 1831: Nat Turner’s rebellion begins
On this day in 1831 the Virginian slave Nat Turner began the deadliest slave rebellion the United States had ever seen, which resulted in the deaths of 55 whites. Turner, a slave preacher, had come to believe that God intended for him to lead a black uprising against the injustice of slavery. In the evening of August 21st 1831, Turner and his co-conspirators met in the woods to make their plans and early the next morning began the rebellion by killing Turner’s master’s family. Turner and his men, who soon numbered over 80, then went from house to house assaulting the white inhabitants. Eventually a local militia, and then federal and state troops, confronted the rebels and dispersed the group. Turner himself initially evaded capture but was captured on October 30th. Subsequently Turner, along with over fifty other rebels, was executed. However the retribution for Nat Turner’s rebellion did not end there. The uprising sent shockwaves across the South, and while full scale rebellion such as Turner’s was rare in the Deep South due to the rigid enforcement of the slave system, caused widespread fear of another rebellion. In the ensuing hysteria over 200 innocent black slaves were killed by white mobs. Turner’s rebellion came close to ending slavery in Virginia, as in its wake the state legislature considered abolishing the ‘peculiar institution’. However the measure was voted down and instead the state decided to increase plantation discipline and limit slaves’ autonomy even further by banning them from acting as preachers and learning to read. Similar measures were adopted across the slave-holding South and thus Nat Turner’s rebellion increased the South’s commitment to slavery, despite undermining the pro-slavery argument that it was a benevolent system and slaves were content. Turner has left behind a complicated legacy, with some seeing him as an African-American hero and others as a religious fanatic and villain; his memory raises the eternal question of whether violence is justified to bring about necessary change.
August 18, 1771. Phillis Wheatley, a famous poet, becomes a full member of Old South Meeting House, the church and public meeting space where she attended since being brought to Boston as an enslaved child more than ten years earlier. Old South Meeting House is where she first heard the Reverend George Whitefield preach, and her poem about him was the first poem to earn her widespread recognition. In 1773, she became the first African to publish a poetry book in the English language, and the third woman in America to do so.
Today, Old South Meeting House is a history museum, and we celebrate Phillis Wheatley day on August 18.
August 10th 1680: Pueblo Revolt begins
On this day in 1680 Pueblo Indians in present day New Mexico began an uprising against Spanish colonisers. Any rebellions against Spanish rule in the province of Santa Fe de Nuevo México by the indigenous people were brutally suppressed. This violence, coupled with Spanish seizure of Indian crops and possessions, and Spanish assaults on pueblo religion and enforcement of Christianity, led to deep resentment of exploitative Spanish rule. This came to a head in 1680, when Tewa leader Popé (or Po’Pay) led a co-ordinated, large-scale uprising against the Spanish. The revolt was in direct response to the Spanish governor’s arrest and beating of 47 pueblo shamans, one of whom was Popé. On the night of August 10th thousands of Indians across the province rose up against the Spanish authorities. 2,500 warriors sacked the colonial headquarters in Santa Fe and in the next few days over 400 Spaniards were killed. The rebellion was ultimately successful in driving the Spanish out of the region. However after Popé’s death in 1688 his loose confederation of pueblos fell apart and descended into infighting and wars with neighbouring tribes. The Spanish were therefore able to launch a reconquest in 1692, but this time were careful to allow pueblo religion to continue. While it was short-lived, the remarkable success of the Pueblo Revolt against the far better armed Spanish makes it the most successful act of resistance ever undertaken by Native Americans against European invaders.
August 6th 1945: Hiroshima bombed
On this day in 1945, the first nuclear attack in history occurred when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The American plane Enola Gay dropped the bomb called ‘Little Boy’, which killed around 70,000 people instantly. The effects of the radiation killed thousands more in later years, resulting in a catastrophic death toll of around 140,000 people. Three days later the ‘Fat Man’ bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, resulting in the loss of around 75,000 lives; in both cases, the majority of casualties were civilian. Whilst other Axis powers including Nazi Germany had already surrendered earlier that year, ending the war in the European theatre, Japan had continued to fight the Allied forces. The bombings were therefore deemed necessary by the United States to end the war and avoid a costly invasion of Japan. In the aftermath of the devastating attacks, Japan surrendered to the Allies on 15th August, thus ending the war in the Pacific theatre of World War Two. Today, 69 years on, the atomic-bomb scarred cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki provide a sharp reminder of the horrors of nuclear warfare.
"My God, what have we done?"
- Enola Gay’s co-pilot Robert Lewis upon seeing the impact
August 2nd 1964: Gulf of Tonkin incident
On this day in 1964, North Vietnamese gunboats allegedly fired on US destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. The incident was used by the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson to show the aggression of the North Vietnamese communists. Congress then passed the Gulf of Tonkin Joint Resolution which authorised the President to intervene in Vietnam to counter “communist aggression”. Thus, Johnson was authorised to send troops into Vietnam to fight the communist North and help the South. There was no formal declaration of war by Congress. It was later confirmed that the USS Maddox in fact fired first on the North Vietnamese.
July 27th 1963: Garrett Morgan dies
On this day in 1963 the prominent African-American inventor Garrett Morgan died in Cleveland aged 86. Born in Kentucky in 1877 the seventh of eleven children and with only an elementary school education, Morgan went on to develop patents for several inventions. His patents included: a new sewing machine (his first job was as a sewing-machine mechanic); an improved traffic signal (he was the first black man in Cleveland to own a car); a hair-strengthening product; and a breathing device. His model of a breathing device, initially meant to help firefighters, went on to be used as the basis for gas masks in World War One. The hair-strengthening product he invented allowed him to start a business which sold these products to African-Americans - the G.A Morgan Hair Refining Company - which had great financial success. However, Morgan faced considerable racial prejudice throughout his career. Some refused to purchase his devices, which led Morgan to hire a white actor to pose as ‘the inventor’ when showcasing some of his inventions. After his heroism during the Cleveland Tunnel Explosion, when Morgan and his brother put on breathing devices and helped save some of the trapped workers, people realised he was African-American and sales of his products dropped. However after his patent of the traffic signal, which he sold to General Electric for $40,000 and provided the basis for the modern signal, he was honoured and respected by many in the business community. Garrett Morgan, who tirelessly supported the African-American community and whose inventions and personal heroism improved countless lives, died on July 27th 1963 in Cleveland.
July 25th 1853: Joaquin Murrieta killed
On this day in 1853 the Mexican outlaw Joaquin Murrieta, sometimes known as ‘the Robin Hood of El Dorado’, was supposedly killed by California Rangers. Most sources agree that he moved to California in 1849 to seek his fortune after the Gold Rush. He and his family were subject to racial discrimination, and eventually were attacked by American miners; Murrieta was beaten, his wife raped and his brother murdered. After this he supposedly, having been rejected legal help, sought vengeance and formed a gang of outlaws. However this story appears only in a 1854 novelised version of his life, though he was undoubtedly discriminated against, and other accounts say he turned to crime in frustration at being prevented from finding work. His gang took part in cattle rustling, bank robberies and murder. Eventually the infamy of their gang led the Governor of California to form the State Rangers and place a $5,000 bounty on Murrieta’s head. On July 25th 1853, the Rangers attacked the outlaws’ camp by surprise and in the ensuing gunbattle eight bandits, supposedly including Murrieta himself, were killed. To claim the reward, the Rangers decapitated Murrieta and preserved his head, which later went on public display. To some, Joaquin Murrieta was just a violent bandit, but to others he is a Mexican hero who sought to correct the injustices faced by Mexicans in the United States. Murrieta has become a symbol of Mexican resistance to Anglo-American domination of California, and other lands ceded to the United States after their victory over Mexico in 1848. A group of his descendants continue to work to correct what they see as historical inaccuracies about his life that portray him as nothing more than a bandit. His status as a folk hero is further cemented by the debates over the veracity of stories of his death. Whilst many who knew him testified that the head the Rangers displayed was Murrieta’s, some of his relatives claimed it wasn’t, and thus theories abound that he actually survived and lived into old age.
August 28th 1955: Emmett Till murdered
On this day in 1955, the 14-year-old African-American boy Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi. While visiting family in the state, Till allegedly flirted with the young white shopkeeper Carolyn Bryant while buying candy. Bryant told her husband and a few nights later he and his half-brother abducted Till and brutally tortured and murdered him. His mutilated body was found three days later in the Tallahatchie river; Till’s face was unrecognisable, but he was identified by the ring he wore engraved with his father’s initials that his mother gave him before he left for Mississppi. The viciousness of this unprovoked, racially-motivated crime sent shockwaves throughout the nation. The case drew attention to the oppression of African-Americans throughout the nation and provided a name and a face to the threat of lynching. Till’s mother Mamie, a highly educated woman who went on to become a devoted fighter for African-American equality, insisted on an open-casket funeral in order to show the world what was done to her young son. Thousands attended the funeral and thousands more saw the horrific images of Till’s body. Due to the fierce reactions the murder had engendered it was a particularly painful, but sadly expected, outcome when the all-white jury in Mississippi acquitted Till’s killers, despite Till’s great-uncle openly identifying them in court. A few months later the killers, now protected by double jeopardy laws, sold their story to Look magazine and openly confessed to the murder in chilling detail. Taking place a year after the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, the outrage over the murder galvanised the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. 100 days after Emmett Till’s murder Rosa Parks, on her way back from a rally for Till hosted by the then-unknown Martin Luther King Jr., refused to give up her seat for a white man on an Alabama bus. This sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, thus beginning the movement that would result in the dismantling of the system of Jim Crow segregation and win successes in promoting African-American social and political equality.
August 20th 1938: Lou Gehrig hits 23rd Grand Slam
On this day in 1938 the famous New York Yankees baseball first baseman Lou Gehrig hit his 23rd Grand Slam. Nicknamed ‘The Iron Horse’, Gehrig’s 23 Grand Slams remained the most on record until it was broken by fellow Yankees player Alex Rodriguez in 2013. The remarkable career of this exceptionally talented baseball player ended in 1939 when, after his performance had been deteriorating, Gehrig was diagnosed with a terminal neurodegenerative disease which severely limits physical mobility (often to the point of paralysis) while not affecting the brain. The disease is known by different names, for example in the UK it is called motor neurone disease (or MND), and in the US as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The diagnosis led Gehrig to retire aged 36 and on a July 4th 1939 ‘Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day’ at Yankee Stadium, he gave an emotional farewell speech that has become known as baseball’s Gettysburg Address. Lou Gehrig died two years later just before his 38th birthday. His legacy continues as one of the greatest players of all time and in the fact that many Americans now refer to ALS/MND as ‘Lou Gehrig’s Disease’. Other notable people to have this disease include Stephen Hawking, whose is an unusual case as he has lived with it for over 50 years. This cruel disease, which affects hundreds of thousands of people across the world, has been brought to the forefront of public attention due to the recent ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ in which someone has a bucket of ice water tipped over their head and then nominate others to do the same and donate to charity. To donate to this cause and find out more about the disease visit the ALSA website (US) or MNDA website (UK). The effort to raise funds and awareness of this disease which tragically ended Lou Gehrig’s life has been a great success, with over $30 million in donations being made to the ALSA and celebrities like Bill Gates, Robert Downey Jr. and the Foo Fighters getting involved.
"Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth…I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for”
- Lou Gehrig in his 1939 farewell speech
August 15th 1965: Beatles at Shea Stadium
On this day in 1965 the Beatles played their iconic concert at Shea Stadium in New York City. The gig was part of the band’s 1965 tour of the United States, by which time they were international superstars and ‘Beatlemania’ gripped the world. The band formed in Liverpool in 1960, and came to prominence with their first hit ‘Love Me Do’ in 1962. By the time of the Shea Stadium gig they had a huge following in the US, and at Shea played to around 55,600 fans. As typical of Beatlemania, the crowd was deafening with their screams, which meant that the music could not really be heard, and were often seen crying and fainting. The Beatles did still manage to play a 30 minute set (very short by modern standards) with 12 songs. It was the intensity of these concerts, and the fact they could not hear themselves, that contributed to the band’s decision to stop touring in 1966. Soon after the Shea Stadium gig, which was followed by another huge concert at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl, the band recorded their sixth album ‘Rubber Soul’. The Shea Stadium gig was immortalised in a 1966 documentary about the event, which contributed to it becoming one of the band’s most famous concerts. Shea was also an important milestone for the Beatles, and in fact for all musicians, as it ushered in the age of stadium concerts.
"At Shea Stadium, I saw the top of the mountain"
- John Lennon in 1970
August 9th 1974: Nixon resigns
On this day in 1974 at noon, Richard M. Nixon became the first and only President of the United States to resign from office. He was replaced by his Vice-President Gerald Ford, who remains the only President to have never been elected Vice-President (as he was appointed in 1973 to replace Spiro Agnew), or President (as he lost his presidential re-election bid in 1976 to Jimmy Carter). Richard Nixon resigned due to the revelations of the Watergate scandal that his administration had been involved in illegal activities, which included breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex, covering up said break-in, and widespread wiretapping. He long denied direct knowledge of these activities, but after the Supreme Court forced him to hand over the tapes of his conversations in the Oval Office, Nixon’s involvement was clear. What was also made evident by the tapes was Nixon’s intense paranoia, his rough demeanor and his often racist attitudes. He resigned rather than face impeachment and almost certain removal by Congress. He was later pardoned for his crimes by Ford, who hoped his decision would help America heal and move on. 40 years on, Richard Nixon is mainly remembered for the corruption and dishonesty of Watergate, which discredited the presidency for many years after. However, his numerous achievements in office must not be forgotten: he cooled down the Cold War with his policy of détente and was the first President to visit China and Moscow; withdrew American troops from Vietnam; supported affirmative action policies; established the Environmental Protection Agency; supported the Equal Rights Amendment; and oversaw major desegregation of schools. Nixon is rightfully remembered for his role in Watergate and his unprecedented resignation in disgrace but we must be wary of only seeing one side of one of the most controversial figures of American history.
40 years ago today
August 3rd 1936: Jesse Owens wins 100 metre dash
On this day in 1936 at the Berlin Olympics, American athlete Jesse Owens won the 100 metre dash, defeating world record holder Ralph Metcalfe. Owens won four gold medals, in the 100 metres, 200 metres, long jump, and 4x100 metre relay, which made him the most successful athlete in the 1936 Games. Germany’s Nazi Chancellor Adolf Hitler had intended to use the Games to showcase Aryan supremacy, thus the success of African-American Owens was particularly poignant. His success made him a famous figure, but back home in America segregation was still in place. After a ticker-tape parade for him in New York, he had to ride a separate elevator to reach a reception in his honour. It was often said that Hitler snubbed Owens at the Games, refusing to shake his hand, but whilst the racist Hitler was certainly displeased by Owens’s success, these stories may have been exaggerated. In fact, Owens maintains that it was US President Franklin D. Roosevelt who snubbed him, neglecting to congratulate the athlete for his success. Jesse Owens died in 1980 aged 66.
"A lifetime of training for just ten seconds”
- Jesse Owens
August 1st 1842: Lombard Street riot
On this day in 1842 the Lombard Street race riot began in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Despite a reputation as the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia’s history in the years before the Civil War is marred by frequent violent episodes such as this. The day started when one thousand African-Americans began a peaceful march to commemorate the eighth anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the West Indies. They held banners with a black man breaking his chains and the words ‘How grand in age, how fair in truth, are holy Friendship, Love and Truth’. When the marchers reached Fourth Street, they were violently assailed by a predominantly white Irish mob. The ensuing violence raged for three days and in the tumult several buildings, including a church and an abolitionist meeting hall, were burned down. The mob even turned their attention to the local black leader and ‘President of the Underground Railroad’, Robert Purvis. Fortunately, the mob was convinced by a Catholic priest to let Purvis alone, but he was so shaken by the experience that he left Philadelphia for good. The incident was one of many eruptions of violence between Philadelphia’s beleaguered African-American and Irish communities. Both faced threats (from slave-catchers and anti-immigrant nativists respectively), and both struggled for jobs and economic betterment. However the Lombard riot was one of the worst in Philadelphia’s history, and has only recently begun to be discussed by historians and the city itself. The historical marker for the event was erected in 2005 following a campaign by a class of high school students who thought the incident, and Philadelphia’s history of racial intolerance, should not be forgotten.
July 26th 1948: Desegregation of US military
On this day in 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 to abolish racial discrimination in the military. The order established the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services, which committed the United States government to the desegregation of the military and equality within the ranks. This came in the aftermath of the Second World War, where thousands of African-American men and women joined the armed forces. The discrimination faced by African-American soldiers while fighting for their country led to a ‘Double V’ campaign against fascism abroad and racism at home. Activists like A. Philip Randolph had pushed for integration of the armed forces for a long time before Truman’s action. President Truman aimed to implement limited civil rights legislation to protect African-Americans but was thwarted by the threat of Southern filibuster in Congress; he therefore resorted to executive action and by the end of the Korean War the US military was almost completely integrated. Full civil desegregation in the United States did not begin until after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka which ruled school segregation unconstitutional.