Today in 1887 Anne Sullivan began teaching six-year-old Helen Keller, who lost her sight and hearing after a severe illness at the age of 19 months. Under Sullivan’s tutelage, including her pioneering “touch teaching” techniques, the previously uncontrollable Keller flourished, eventually graduating from college and becoming an international lecturer and activist. Sullivan, later dubbed “the miracle worker,” remained Keller’s interpreter and constant companion until the older woman’s death in 1936.
Helen Keller became a public speaker and author; her first book, “The Story of My Life” was published in 1902. From 1920 to 1924, Sullivan and Keller even formed a vaudeville act to educate the public and earn money. Helen Keller died on June 1, 1968, at her home in Westport, Connecticut, at age 87, leaving her mark on the world by helping to alter perceptions about the disabled.
Today in 1952 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a New York state law that prohibited communists from teaching in public schools in a 6-3 decision.
The New York statute—called the Feinberg Law—banned from the teaching profession anyone who called for the overthrow of the government; the law was specifically aimed at communists. Several other states adopted similar measures. In New York, a group of teachers and parents challenged the law. The majority decision upholding the Feinberg Law supported the belief that “the state had a constitutional right to protect the immature minds of children in its public schools from subversive propaganda, subtle or otherwise, disseminated by those ‘to whom they look for guidance, authority and leadership.’” The dissenting opinion from justices William O. Douglas, Hugo Black, and Felix Frankfurter charged that the New York statute “turns the school system into a spying project.” In New York, the Teachers Union vowed to continue fighting the law. Eight teachers had already been dismissed under the provisions of the law and as many others were facing hearings.
The Feinberg Law remained in force until another Supreme Court decision in 1967 declared most of its provisions unconstitutional.
Congress enacts the so-called Comstock Law, making it illegal to send any “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” book through the mails. Also unlawful under the law is sending anything “designed or intended for the prevention of conception or procuring of abortion.”
The law was named after Anthony Comstock, the one-man moral majority of his time. He devoted his entire life to fighting what he perceived as vice, particularly obscenity and gambling. As he once explained, “the place for a woman’s body to be denuded is in the privacy of her own apartments with the blinds drawn.”
The Comstock Law prompted many states to add laws of their own, and heavy-handed restrictions on sexually oriented material continued for many years. James Joyce’s Ulysses was even barred from the United States until court challenges finally determined that it was not obscene. The current Supreme Court standard exempts from obscenity prosecution any material that has literary value.
Today in 1820 Congress passed the Missouri Compromise, a bill that temporarily resolved the first serious political clash between slavery and antislavery interests in U.S. history.
In February 1819, Representative James Tallmadge of New York introduced a bill that would admit Missouri into the Union as a state where slavery was prohibited. At the time, there were 11 free states and 10 slave states. Southern congressmen feared that the entrance of Missouri as a free state would upset the balance of power between North and South, as the North far outdistanced the South in population, and thus, U.S. representatives. Opponents to the bill also questioned the congressional precedent of prohibiting the expansion of slavery into a territory where slave status was favored.
Even after Alabama was granted statehood in December 1819 with no prohibition on its practice of slavery, Congress remained deadlocked on the issue of Missouri. Finally, a compromise was reached. Congress passed a bill granting Missouri statehood as a slave state under the condition that slavery was to be forever prohibited in the rest of the Louisiana Purchase north of the 36th parallel, which runs approximately along the southern border of Missouri. In addition, Maine, formerly part of Massachusetts, was admitted as a free state, thus preserving the balance between Northern and Southern senators.
The Missouri Compromise, although criticized by many on both sides of the slavery debate, succeeded in keeping the Union together for more than 30 years. In 1854, it was repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which dictated that slave or free status was to be decided by popular vote in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska; though both were north of the 36th parallel.
Today in 1863 the U.S. Congress passed a conscription act that produces the first wartime draft of U.S. citizens in American history. The act called for registration of all males between the ages of 20 and 45, including aliens with the intention of becoming citizens, by April 1. Exemptions from the draft could be bought for $300 or by finding a substitute draftee. This clause led to bloody draft riots in New York City, where protesters were outraged that exemptions were effectively granted only to the wealthiest U.S. citizens.
Although the Civil War saw the first compulsory conscription of U.S. citizens for wartime service, a 1792 act by Congress required that all able-bodied male citizens purchase a gun and join their local state militia. There was no penalty for noncompliance with this act. Congress also passed a conscription act during the War of 1812, but the war ended before it was enacted. The government of the Confederate States of America also enacted a compulsory military draft. The U.S. enacted a military draft again during World War I, in 1940 to make the U.S. ready for its involvement in World War II, and during the Korean War. The last U.S. military draft occurred during the Vietnam War.
Today in 1931 President Herbert Hoover signed a congressional act making “The Star-Spangled Banner” the official national anthem of the United States.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” was regarded as the national anthem by most branches of the U.S. armed forces and other groups, but it was not until 1916, and the signing of an executive order by President Woodrow Wilson, that it was formally designated as such. Congress passed an act confirming Wilson’s presidential order, and President Hoover signed it into law.
Today at on March 3, 1991, at 12:45 am, Rodney G. King stopped his car after leading police on a nearly 8-mile pursuit through the streets of Los Angeles, California.
Officers Laurence Powell, Timothy Wind, Ted Briseno, and Roland Solano tried to force King down, but he resisted, and the officers stepped back and shot King twice with an electric stun gun known as a Taser, which fires darts carrying a charge of 50,000 volts.
At this moment, civilian George Holliday, standing on a balcony in an apartment complex across the street, focused the lens of his new video camera on the commotion unfolding by Hansen Dam Park. In the first few seconds of what would become a very famous 89-second video.
With King running in his direction, Powell swung his baton, hitting him on the side of the head and knocking him to the ground. This action was captured by the video, but the next 10 seconds were blurry as Holliday shifted the camera. From the 18- to 30-second mark in the video, King attempted to rise, and Powell and Wind attacked him with a torrent of baton blows that prevented him from doing so. From the 35- to 51-second mark, Powell administered repeated baton blows to King’s lower body. At 55 seconds, Powell struck King on the chest, and King rolled over and lay prone. At that point, the officers stepped back and observed King for about 10 seconds. Powell began to reach for his handcuffs.
At 65 seconds on the video, Officer Briseno stepped roughly on King’s upper back or neck, and King’s body writhed in response. Two seconds later, Powell and Wind again began to strike King with a series of baton blows, and Wind kicked him in the neck six times until 86 seconds into the video. At about 89 seconds, King put his hands behind his back and was handcuffed.
An ambulance was called, and King was taken to the hospital. Struck as many as 56 times with the batons, he suffered a fractured leg, multiple facial fractures, and numerous bruises and contusions. Unaware that the arrest was videotaped, the officers downplayed the level of violence used to arrest King and filed official reports in which they claimed he suffered only cuts and bruises “of a minor nature.”
On April 29, 1992, the 12-person jury, which included 10 whites and no African Americans, issued its verdicts: not guilty on all counts, except for one assault charge against Powell that ended in a hung jury. The acquittals touched off rioting and looting in Los Angeles that grew into the most destructive U.S. civil disturbance of the 20th century. In three days of violence, more than 50 people were killed, more than 2,000 were injured, and nearly $1 billion in property was destroyed. On May 1, President George H.W. Bush ordered military troops and riot-trained federal officers to Los Angeles to quell the riot.
Under federal law, the officers could also be prosecuted for violating Rodney King’s constitutional rights, and on April 17, 1993, a federal jury convicted Koon and Powell for violating King’s rights by their unreasonable use of force under color of law. Although Wind and Briseno were acquitted, most civil rights advocates considered the mixed verdict a victory. On August 4, Koon and Powell were sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for the beating of King. King received $3.8 million in a civil suit against the Los Angeles police department.
Today in 1915 director D.W. Griffith’s controversial silent film and Civil War epic The Birth of a Nation opened in New York City. Originally entitled The Clansman, it was denounced by the NAACP, among others, for its negative portrayal of African Americans.
Based on a novel of the same name by Thomas Dixon, Griffith’s career-making film depicted the white supremacist organization the Ku Klux Klan as a welcome force of order that arose amid the chaos of the post-Civil War era in the South. The later title change reflected Griffith’s view that it was the Civil War–and specifically the victory of the Union over the Confederacy–that bound the collection of disparate American states into a true nation under one central authority.
From the moment of its release, The Birth of a Nation drew harsh criticism for honoring the Klan’s historic role as a force of opposition to the Reconstruction-era idea that blacks could be integrated into white society. Many historians disputed Griffith’s view of history as a distortion that glamorized the violent actions of the Klan and demonized African Americans. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) published a pamphlet denouncing the film, referring to it as “three miles of filth.”
Despite the controversy (which included attempts to ban the film entirely), The Birth of a Nation would become the first true Hollywood blockbuster, earning more than $10 million (the equivalent of $200 million today) as audiences lined up to pay the unprecedented rate of $2 per ticket.
Today in 1879 Congress established the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Although the rough geographical outlines of much of the American West were known by 1879, the government still had astonishingly little detailed knowledge of the land. Congress decided to transform the earlier system of sporadic federal geological explorations into a permanent government agency.
Congress appointed Clarence King, a brilliant young mining engineer and geologist, as the first director. He resigned as director in 1881 to pursue what he hoped would be more lucrative opportunities. John Wesley Powell, a bold geologist-explorer who had led the first American explorations of the Grand Canyon, succeeded King as director.
Powell extended the work of the survey into new areas like paleontology and soon became controversial for his bold assertion that much of the arid West would remain unsettled without large-scale irrigation projects. The direct and plainspoken Powell was so closely associated with the USGS during his 14-year term as director that many people have mistakenly believed he was the first director of the agency.
Subsequent directors of the USGS also remained true to King’s early focus on aiding the economic development of the West, providing topographical and geological maps that have continued to prove essential to the mineral, agricultural, and hydraulic development of the region to this day.
Today in 1845, Congress had overridden President John Tyler’s use of the presidential veto with the necessary two-thirds vote. This marked Congress’ first use of the Consitutional provision allowing Congressional veto overrides.
About two weeks earlier, Tyler had vetoed a Congressional bill that would have denied him the power to appropriate federal funds to build revenue-cutter ships without Congress’ approval. With the override, Congress insisted that the executive branch get the legislature’s approval before commissioning any new military craft.
Tyler used the presidential veto 10 times on a variety of legislation during his administration; the frequency of his use of the veto was second only to that of Andrew Jackson, who employed it 12 times during his tenure.
On this day in 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes is sworn in as the 19th president of the United States in the Red Room of the White House. Two days later, Hayes was again inaugurated in a public ceremony.
Some historical accounts claim that Hayes’ first swearing-in ceremony had occurred in secret due to threats made on the new president’s life. Other accounts say that since inaugural day fell on a Sunday, Congress decided to perform a private ceremony the Saturday before the official inauguration date and repeat the performance in public the following Monday.
Hayes had lost the popular vote by a slim margin of 250,000 votes, yet appeared to have won a majority in the Electoral College. Accusations of fraudulent Electoral College vote counts in three southern states (including Florida, which would again play a major role in a contested election in 2000) led Congress to form an electoral commission to make the final decision. On March 2, the commission voted along party lines and put the Republican, Hayes, in office.
Hayes’ presidency was notable for his role in presiding over the end of post-Civil War Reconstruction. In an effort to please southern Democrats, he agreed to pull the last federal troops out of the former Confederate States, mistakenly believing that southern Democrats would enforce civil rights for black Americans. Hayes resisted partisan pressure in making federal appointments and fought legislation to prevent Chinese immigration into the United States. After campaigning on a pro-labor platform, Hayes disappointed workers when he used federal troops to quell the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, a move many saw as an abandonment of his reformist principles. He kept his promise to serve only one term and quietly left office in 1881.
Today in 1913 a women’s suffrage march in Washington D.C. was attacked by angry onlookers while police stood by. The march occurred the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. Many of the 5,000 women participating were spat upon and struck in the face as a near riot ensued. Secretary of War Henry Stimson then ordered soldiers from Fort Myer to restore order. The shocking event is believed to have influenced the new president’s endorsement of women suffrage.
Happy birthday George Pullman, engineer and industrialist, born today in 1831 at Brocton, New York.
Pullman improved railroad sleeping accommodations, developing the folding upper berth and lower berth designs. His company went on to become the biggest railroad car building organization in the world. He also founded a company town, Pullman, for the workers who manufactured it. His Pullman Company also hired the African-American men to staff the Pullman cars, who became known and widely respected as Pullman porters.
After the violent suppression of workers to end the Pullman Strike of 1894 (which involved federal troops), the Supreme Court of Illinois in 1898 ordered the Pullman Company to divest itself of the town, which was annexed and absorbed by Chicago, becoming a neighborhood.
Pullman died October 19, 1897. He was age 66.
Happy birthday Alexander Graham Bell, scientist, inventor, engineer and innovator, born today in 1847(1847-1922) at Edinburgh, Scotland.
Bell is credited with inventing the first practical telephone Although he was, and still is, accused of stealing the telephone from Elisha Gray. Bell’s later life, including work in optical telecommunications, hydrofoils and aeronautics. In 1888, he became one of the founding members of the National Geographic Society. He has been described as one of the most influential figures in human history.
Bell died August 2, 1922, at Beinn Bhreagh, Nova Scotia. He was age 75.
Though much of Bell’s work was done in the US and made a major impact on US society, he was a British citizen.