This Day in History
On this day in 1871, flames spark in the Chicago barn of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary, igniting a two-day blaze that kills between 200 and 300 people, destroys 17,450 buildings, leaves 100,000 homeless and causes an estimated $200 million (in 1871 dollars; $3 billion in 2007 dollars) in damages. Legend has it that a cow kicked over a lantern in the O’Leary barn and started the fire, but other theories hold that humans or even a comet may have been responsible for the event that left four square miles of the Windy City, including its business district, in ruins. Dry weather and an abundance of wooden buildings, streets and sidewalks made Chicago vulnerable to fire. The city averaged two fires per day in 1870; there were 20 fires throughout Chicago the week before the Great Fire of 1871.
Despite the fire’s devastation, much of Chicago’s physical infrastructure, including its water, sewage and transportation systems, remained intact. Reconstruction efforts began quickly and spurred great economic development and population growth, as architects laid the foundation for a modern city featuring the world’s first skyscrapers. At the time of the fire, Chicago’s population was approximately 324,000; within nine years, there were 500,000 Chicagoans. By 1893, the city was a major economic and transportation hub with an estimated population of 1.5 million. That same year, Chicago was chosen to host the World’s Columbian Exposition, a major tourist attraction visited by 27.5 million people, or approximately half the U.S. population at the time.
In 1997, the Chicago City Council exonerated Mrs. O’Leary and her cow. She turned into a recluse after the fire, and died in 1895.
On this day in 2003, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger is elected governor of California, the most populous state in the nation with the world’s fifth-largest economy. Despite his inexperience, Schwarzenegger came out on top in the 11-week campaign to replace Gray Davis, who had earlier become the first United States governor to be recalled by the people since 1921. Schwarzenegger was one of 135 candidates on the ballot, which included career politicians, other actors, and one adult-film star.
Born in Thal, Austria, on July 30, 1947, Arnold Schwarzenegger began body-building as a teenager. He won the first of four “Mr. Universe” body-building championships at the age of 20, and moved to the United States in 1968. He also went on to win a then-record seven “Mr. Olympia” championships, securing his reputation as a body-building legend, and soon began appearing in films. Schwarzenegger first attracted mainstream public attention for a Golden Globe®-winning performance in Stay Hungry (1976) and his appearance in the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron. At the same time, he was working on a B.A. at the University of Wisconsin, from which he graduated in 1979.
Schwarzenegger’s film career took off after his starring turn in 1982’s Conan the Barbarian. In 1983, he became a U.S. citizen; the next year he made his most famous film, The Terminator, directed by James Cameron. Although his acting talent is probably aptly described as limited, Schwarzenegger went on to become one of the most sought-after action-film stars of the 1980s and early 1990s and enjoyed an extremely lucrative career. The actor’s romantic life also captured the attention of the American public: he married television journalist and lifelong Democrat Maria Shriver, niece of the late President John F. Kennedy, in 1986.
With his film career beginning to stagnate, Schwarzenegger, a staunch supporter of the Republican party who had long been thought to harbor political aspirations, announced his candidacy for governor of California during an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Aside from his well-known stint serving as chairman of the President s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports under President George H.W. Bush, Schwarzenegger had little political experience. His campaign, which featured his use of myriad one-liners well-known from his movie career, was dogged by criticism of his use of anabolic steroids, as well as allegations of sexual misconduct and racism. Still, Schwarzenegger was able to parlay his celebrity into a win, appealing to weary California voters with talk of reform. He beat his closest challenger, the Democratic lieutenant governor Cruz Bustamante, by more than 1 million votes.
On this day in 1866, the Reno gang carries out the first robbery of a moving train in the U.S., making off with over $10,000 from an Ohio & Mississippi train in Jackson County, Indiana. Prior to this innovation in crime, holdups had taken place only on trains sitting at stations or freight yards.
This new method of sticking up moving trains in remote locations low on law enforcement soon became popular in the American West, where the recently constructed transcontinental and regional railroads made attractive targets. With the western economy booming, trains often carried large stashes of cash and precious minerals. The sparsely populated landscape provided bandits with numerous isolated areas perfect for stopping trains, as well as plenty of places to hide from the law. Some gangs, like Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch, found robbing trains so easy and lucrative that, for a time, they made it their criminal specialty. Railroad owners eventually got wise and fought back, protecting their trains’ valuables with large safes, armed guards and even specially fortified boxcars. Consequently, by the late 1800s, robbing trains had turned into an increasingly tough and dangerous job.
As for the Reno gang, which consisted of the four Reno brothers and their associates, their reign came to an end in 1868 when they all were finally captured after committing a series of train robberies and other criminal offenses. In December of that year, a mob stormed the Indiana jail where the bandits were being held and meted out vigilante justice, hanging brothers Frank, Simeon and William Reno (their brother John had been caught earlier and was already serving time in a different prison) and fellow gang member Charlie Anderson.
On this day in 1947, President Harry Truman (1884-1972) makes the first-ever televised presidential address from the White House, asking Americans to cut back on their use of grain in order to help starving Europeans. At the time of Truman’s food-conservation speech, Europe was still recovering from World War II and suffering from famine. Truman, the 33rd commander in chief, worried that if the U.S. didn’t provide food aid, his administration’s Marshall Plan for European economic recovery would fall apart. He asked farmers and distillers to reduce grain use and requested that the public voluntarily forgo meat on Tuesdays, eggs and poultry on Thursdays and save a slice of bread each day. The food program was short-lived, as ultimately the Marshall Plan succeeded in helping to spur economic revitalization and growth in Europe. In 1947,television was still in its infancy and the number of TV sets in U.S. homes only numbered in the thousands (by the early 1950s, millions of Americans owned TVs); most people listened to the radio for news and entertainment. However, although the majority of Americans missed Truman’s TV debut, his speech signaled the start of a powerful and complex relationship between the White House and a medium that would have an enormous impact on the American presidency, from how candidates campaigned for the office to how presidents communicated with their constituents. Each of Truman’s subsequent White House speeches, including his 1949 inauguration address, was televised. In 1948, Truman was the first presidential candidate to broadcast a paid political ad. Truman pioneered the White House telecast, but it was President Franklin Roosevelt who was the first president to appear on TV–from the World’s Fair in New York City on April 30, 1939. FDR’s speech had an extremely limited TV audience, though, airing only on receivers at the fairgrounds and at Radio City in Manhattan.
The Soviet Union inaugurates the “Space Age” with its launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. The spacecraft, named Sputnik after the Russian word for “satellite,” was launched at 10:29 p.m. Moscow time from the Tyuratam launch base in the Kazakh Republic. Sputnik had a diameter of 22 inches and weighed 184 pounds and circled Earth once every hour and 36 minutes. Traveling at 18,000 miles an hour, its elliptical orbit had an apogee (farthest point from Earth) of 584 miles and a perigee (nearest point) of 143 miles. Visible with binoculars before sunrise or after sunset, Sputnik transmitted radio signals back to Earth strong enough to be picked up by amateur radio operators. Those in the United States with access to such equipment tuned in and listened in awe as the beeping Soviet spacecraft passed over America several times a day. In January 1958, Sputnik’s orbit deteriorated, as expected, and the spacecraft burned up in the atmosphere.
Officially, Sputnik was launched to correspond with the International Geophysical Year, a solar period that the International Council of Scientific Unions declared would be ideal for the launching of artificial satellites to study Earth and the solar system. However, many Americans feared more sinister uses of the Soviets’ new rocket and satellite technology, which was apparently strides ahead of the U.S. space effort. Sputnik was some 10 times the size of the first planned U.S. satellite, which was not scheduled to be launched until the next year. The U.S. government, military, and scientific community were caught off guard by the Soviet technological achievement, and their united efforts to catch up with the Soviets heralded the beginning of the “space race.”
The first U.S. satellite, Explorer, was launched on January 31, 1958. By then, the Soviets had already achieved another ideological victory when they launched a dog into orbit aboard Sputnik 2. The Soviet space program went on to achieve a series of other space firsts in the late 1950s and early 1960s: first man in space, first woman, first three men, first space walk, first spacecraft to impact the moon, first to orbit the moon, first to impact Venus, and first craft to soft-land on the moon. However, the United States took a giant leap ahead in the space race in the late ’60s with the Apollo lunar-landing program, which successfully landed two Apollo 11 astronauts on the surface of the moon in July 1969.
At the end of a sensational trial, former football star O.J. Simpson is acquitted of the brutal 1994 double murder of his estranged wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. In the epic 252-day trial, Simpson’s “dream team” of lawyers employed creative and controversial methods to convince jurors that Simpson’s guilt had not been proved “beyond a reasonable doubt,” thus surmounting what the prosecution called a “mountain of evidence” implicating him as the murderer.
Orenthal James Simpson–a Heisman Trophy winner, star running back with the Buffalo Bills, and popular television personality–married Nicole Brown in 1985. He reportedly regularly abused his wife and in 1989 pleaded no contest to a charge of spousal battery. In 1992, she left him and filed for divorce. On the night of June 12, 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were stabbed and slashed to death in the front yard of Mrs. Simpson’s condominium in Brentwood, Los Angeles. By June 17, police had gathered enough evidence to charge O.J. Simpson with the murders.
Simpson had no alibi for the time frame of the murders. Some 40 minutes after the murders were committed, a limousine driver sent to take Simpson to the airport saw a man in dark clothing hurrying up the drive of his Rockingham estate. A few minutes later, Simpson spoke to the driver though the gate phone and let him in. During the previous 25 minutes, the driver had repeatedly called the house and received no answer.
A single leather glove found outside Simpson’s home matched a glove found at the crime scene. In preliminary DNA tests, blood found on the glove was shown to have come from Simpson and the two victims. After his arrest, further DNA tests would confirm this finding. Simpson had a wound on his hand, and his blood was a DNA match to drops found at the Brentwood crime scene. Nicole Brown Simpson’s blood was discovered on a pair of socks found at the Rockingham estate. Simpson had recently purchased a “Stiletto” knife of the type the coroner believed was used by the killer. Shoe prints in the blood at Brentwood matched Simpson’s shoe size and later were shown to match a type of shoe he had owned. Neither the knife nor shoes were found by police.
On June 17, a warrant was put out for Simpson’s arrest, but he refused to surrender. Just before 7 p.m., police located him in a white Ford Bronco being driven by his friend, former teammate Al Cowlings. Cowlings refused to pull over and told police over his cellular phone that Simpson was suicidal and had a gun to his head. Police agreed not to stop the vehicle by force, and a low-speed chase ensued. Los Angeles news helicopters learned of the event unfolding on their freeways, and live television coverage began. As millions watched, the Bronco was escorted across Los Angeles by a phalanx of police cars. Just before 8 p.m., the dramatic journey ended when Cowlings pulled into the Rockingham estate. After an hour of tense negotiation, Simpson emerged from the vehicle and surrendered. In the vehicle was found a travel bag containing, among other things, Simpson’s passport, a disguise kit consisting of a fake moustache and beard, and a revolver. Three days later, Simpson appeared before a judge and pleaded not guilty.
Simpson’s subsequent criminal trial was a sensational media event of unprecedented proportions. It was the longest trial ever held in California, and courtroom television cameras captured the carnival-like atmosphere of the proceedings. The prosecution’s mountain of evidence was systemically called into doubt by Simpson’s team of expensive attorneys, who made the dramatic case that their client was framed by unscrupulous and racist police officers. Citing the questionable character of detective Mark Fuhrman and alleged blunders in the police investigation, defense lawyers painted Simpson as yet another African American victim of the white judicial system. The jurors’ reasonable doubt grew when the defense spent weeks attacking the damning DNA evidence, arguing in overly technical terms that delays and other anomalies in the gathering of evidence called the findings into question. Critics of the trial accused Judge Lance Ito of losing control of his courtroom.
In polls, a majority of African Americans believed Simpson to be innocent of the crime, while white America was confident of his guilt. However, the jury–made up of nine African Americans, two whites, and one Hispanic–was not so divided; they took just four hours of deliberation to reach the verdict of not guilty on both murder charges. On October 3, 1995, an estimated 140 million Americans listened in on radio or watched on television as the verdict was delivered.
In February 1997, Simpson was found liable for several charges related to the murders in a civil trial and was forced to award $33.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages to the victims’ families. However, with few assets remaining after his long and costly legal battle, he has avoided paying the damages.
In 2007, Simpson ran into legal problems once again when he was arrested for breaking into a Las Vegas hotel room and taking sports memorabilia, which he claimed had been stolen from him, at gunpoint. On October 3, 2008, he was found guilty of 12 charges related to the incident, including armed robbery and kidnapping, and sentenced to 33 years in prison.
On this day in 1985, actor Rock Hudson, 59, becomes the first major U.S. celebrity to die of complications from AIDS. Hudson’s death raised public awareness of the epidemic, which until that time had been ignored by many in the mainstream as a “gay plague.”
Hudson, born Leroy Harold Scherer Jr., on November 17, 1925, in Winnetka, Illinois, was a Hollywood heartthrob whose career in movies and TV spanned nearly three decades. With leading-man good looks, Hudson starred in numerous dramas and romantic comedies in the 1950s and 60s, including Magnificent Obsession, Giant and Pillow Talk. In the 1970s, he found success on the small screen with such series as McMillan and Wife. To protect his macho image, Hudson’s off-screen life as a gay man was kept secret from the public.
In 1984, while working on the TV show Dynasty, Hudson was diagnosed with AIDS. On July 25, 1985, he publicly acknowledged he had the disease at a hospital in Paris, where he had gone to seek treatment. The news that Hudson, an international icon, had AIDS focused worldwide attention on the disease and helped change public perceptions of it.
The first cases of AIDS were reported in 1981 and the earliest victims were gay men who often faced public hostility and discrimination. As scientists and health care officials called for funding to combat the disease, they were largely ignored by President Ronald Reagan and his administration. Rock Hudson was a friend of Reagan’s and his death was said to have changed the president’s view of the disease. However, Reagan was criticized for not addressing the issue of AIDS in a major public speech until 1987; by that time, more than 20,000 Americans had already died of the disease and it had spread to over 100 countries. By 2006, the AIDS virus had killed 25 million people worldwide and infected 40 million others.
On this day in 1890, an act of Congress creates Yosemite National Park, home of such natural wonders as Half Dome and the giant sequoia trees. Environmental trailblazer John Muir (1838-1914) and his colleagues campaigned for the congressional action, which was signed into law by President Benjamin Harrison and paved the way for generations of hikers, campers and nature lovers, along with countless “Don’t Feed the Bears” signs.
Native Americans were the main residents of the Yosemite Valley, located in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, until the 1849 gold rush brought thousands of non-Indian miners and settlers to the region. Tourists and damage to Yosemite Valley’s ecosystem followed. In 1864, to ward off further commercial exploitation, conservationists convinced President Abraham Lincoln to declare Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias a public trust of California. This marked the first time the U.S. government protected land for public enjoyment and it laid the foundation for the establishment of the national and state park systems. Yellowstone became America’s first national park in 1872.
In 1889, John Muir discovered that the vast meadows surrounding Yosemite Valley, which lacked government protection, were being overrun and destroyed by domestic sheep grazing. Muir and Robert Underwood Johnson, a fellow environmentalist and influential magazine editor, lobbied for national park status for the large wilderness area around Yosemite Valley. On October 1 of the following year, Congress set aside over 1,500 square miles of land (about the size of Rhode Island) for what would become Yosemite National Park, America’s third national park. In 1906, the state-controlled Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove came under federal jurisdiction with the rest of the park.
Yosemite’s natural beauty is immortalized in the black-and-white landscape photographs of Ansel Adams (1902-1984), who at one point lived in the park and spent years photographing it. Today, over 3 million people get back to nature annually at Yosemite and check out such stunning landmarks as the 2,425-foot-high Yosemite Falls, one of the world’s tallest waterfalls; rock formations Half Dome and El Capitan, the largest granite monolith in the U.S.; and the three groves of giant sequoias, the world’s biggest trees.
The USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine, is commissioned by the U.S. Navy.
The Nautilus was constructed under the direction of U.S. Navy Captain Hyman G. Rickover, a brilliant Russian-born engineer who joined the U.S. atomic program in 1946. In 1947, he was put in charge of the navy’s nuclear-propulsion program and began work on an atomic submarine. Regarded as a fanatic by his detractors, Rickover succeeded in developing and delivering the world’s first nuclear submarine years ahead of schedule. In 1952, the Nautilus‘ keel was laid by President Harry S. Truman, and on January 21, 1954, first lady Mamie Eisenhower broke a bottle of champagne across its bow as it was launched into the Thames River at Groton, Connecticut. Commissioned on September 30, 1954, it first ran under nuclear power on the morning of January 17, 1955.
Much larger than the diesel-electric submarines that preceded it, the Nautilus stretched 319 feet and displaced 3,180 tons. It could remain submerged for almost unlimited periods because its atomic engine needed no air and only a very small quantity of nuclear fuel. The uranium-powered nuclear reactor produced steam that drove propulsion turbines, allowing the Nautilus to travel underwater at speeds in excess of 20 knots.
In its early years of service, the USS Nautilus broke numerous submarine travel records and in August 1958 accomplished the first voyage under the geographic North Pole. After a career spanning 25 years and almost 500,000 miles steamed, the Nautilus was decommissioned on March 3, 1980. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1982, the world’s first nuclear submarine went on exhibit in 1986 as the Historic Ship Nautilus at the Submarine Force Museum in Groton, Connecticut.
On this day in 2005, New York Times reporter Judith Miller is released from a federal detention center in Alexandria, Virginia, after agreeing to testify in the investigation into the leaking of the identity of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame. Miller had been behind bars since July 6, 2005, for refusing to reveal a confidential source and testify before a grand jury that was looking into the so-called Plame Affair. She decided to testify after the source she had been protecting, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, signed a waiver giving her permission to speak.
The Plame Affair dates back to a July 6, 2003 op-ed piece for the New York Times written by former U.S. diplomat Joseph Wilson, Plame’s husband. In it, Wilson questioned the Bush Administration’s reasons for going to war in Iraq. Later that month, on July 14, undercover agent Valerie Plame’s identity was revealed in a newspaper column by Robert Novak. Wilson’s claim that the disclosure was retaliation by the White House for his op-ed piece sparked an investigation in December 2003 led by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. A 1982 law made it illegal to reveal information about a covert agent to anyone not authorized to receive such classified information.
Fitzgerald interviewed President George W. Bush, Vice President Cheney and other top administration officials, along with various journalists. Although Miller hadn’t written an article about Plame, she did meet with Libby shortly after Wilson’s op-ed piece was published and Fitzgerald believed Miller had information that was relevant to his investigation.
After 85 days in jail, Miller was released and testified before a grand jury that prior to the Novak column, she had several discussions with Scooter Libby in which he talked about Plame. On November 9 of that same year, Miller announced her retirement from the Times after a 28-year career with the newspaper.
On March 6, 2007, Scooter Libby was convicted of obstruction of justice, perjury and making false statements to federal investigators in the Plame investigation. In June, he was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison and fined $250,000. However, one month later, on July 2, President George W. Bush commuted Libby’s prison term before the ex-White House aide served any time.
On this day in 1941, the Boston Red Sox’s Ted Williams plays a double-header against the Philadelphia Athletics on the last day of the regular season and gets six hits in eight trips to the plate, to boost his batting average to .406 and become the first player since Bill Terry in 1930 to hit .400. Williams, who spent his entire career with the Sox, played his final game exactly 19 years later, on September 28, 1960, at Boston’s Fenway Park and hit a home run in his last time at bat, for a career total of 521 homeruns.
Williams was born on August 30, 1918, in San Diego, and began his major league career with the Red Sox in 1939. 1941 marked Williams’ best season. In addition to his .406 batting average–no major league player since him has hit .400–the left fielder led the league with 37 homers, 135 runs and had a slugging average of .735. Also that season, Williams, whose nicknames included “The Splendid Splinter” and “The Thumper,” had an on-base percentage of .553, a record that remained unbroken for 61 years, until Barry Bonds achieved a percentage of .582 in 2002.
In 1942, Williams won the American League Triple Crown, for highest batting average and most RBIs and homeruns. He duplicated the feat in 1947. In 1946 and 1949, he was named the American League’s Most Valuable Player and in June 1960, he became the fourth player in major league history to hit 500 homers. He was selected to the All-Star team 17 times.
Williams played his last game on September 28, 1960, and retired with a lifetime batting average of .344, a .483 career on-base percentage and 2,654 hits. His achievements are all the more impressive because his career was interrupted twice for military service: Williams was a Marine Corps pilot during World War II and the Korean War and as a result missed a total of nearly five seasons from baseball.
Williams, who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966, managed the Washington Senators (renamed the Texas Rangers in 1972) from 1969 to 1972. In 1984, the Boston Red Sox retired his uniform number (nine). Williams died of cardiac arrest at age 83 on July 5, 2002, in Florida. In a controversial move, his son sent his father’s body to be frozen at a cryonics laboratory.
On this day in 1779, the Continental Congress appoints John Adams to travel to France as minister plenipotentiary in charge of negotiating treaties of peace and commerce with Great Britain during the Revolutionary War.
Adams had traveled to Paris in 1778 to negotiate an alliance with France, but had been unceremoniously dismissed when Congress chose Benjamin Franklin as sole commissioner. Soon after returning to Massachusetts in mid-1779, Adams was elected as a delegate to the state convention to draw up a new constitution; he was involved in these duties when he learned of his new diplomatic commission. Accompanied by his young sons John Quincy and Charles, Adams sailed for Europe that November aboard the French ship Sensible, which sprang a leak early in the voyage and missed its original destination (Brest), instead landing at El Ferrol, in northwestern Spain. After an arduous journey by mule train across the Pyrenees and into France, Adams and his group reached Paris in early February 1780.
While in Paris, Adams wrote to Congress almost daily (sometimes several letters a day) sharing news about British politics, British and French naval activities and his general perspective on European affairs. Conditions were unfavorable for peace at the time, as the war was going badly for the Continental Army, and the blunt and sometimes confrontational Adams clashed with the French government, especially the powerful Foreign Minister Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes. In mid-June, Adams began a correspondence with Vergennes in which he pushed for French naval assistance, antagonizing both Vergennes and Franklin, who brought the matter to the attention of Congress.
By that time, Adams had departed France for Holland, where he was attempting to negotiate a loan from the Dutch. Before the end of the year, he was named American minister to the Netherlands, replacing Henry Laurens, who was captured at sea by the British. In June 1781, capitulating to pressure from Vergennes and other French diplomats, Congress acted to revoke Adams’ sole powers as peacemaker with Britain, appointing Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay and Laurens to negotiate alongside him.
The tide of the war was turning in America’s favor, and Adams returned to Paris in October 1782 to take up his part in the peace negotiations. As Jefferson didn’t travel to Europe and Laurens was in failing health after his release from the Tower of London, it was left to Adams, Jay and Franklin to represent American interests. Adams and Jay both distrusted the French government (in contrast with Franklin), but their differences of opinion and diplomatic styles allowed the team to negotiate favorable terms in the Peace of Paris (1783). The following year, Jefferson arrived to take Adams’ place as American minister to France, forming a lifelong bond with Adams and his family before the latter left to take up his new post as American ambassador to London and continue his distinguished record of foreign service on behalf of the new nation.
For the first time in U.S. history, a debate between major party presidential candidates is shown on television. The presidential hopefuls, John F. Kennedy, a Democratic senator of Massachusetts, and Richard M. Nixon, the vice president of the United States, met in a Chicago studio to discuss U.S. domestic matters.
Kennedy emerged the apparent winner from this first of four televised debates, partly owing to his greater ease before the camera than Nixon, who, unlike Kennedy, seemed nervous and declined to wear makeup. Nixon fared better in the second and third debates, and on October 21 the candidates met to discuss foreign affairs in their fourth and final debate. Less than three weeks later, on November 8, Kennedy won 49.7 percent of the popular vote in one of the closest presidential elections in U.S. history, surpassing by a fraction the 49.6 percent received by his Republican opponent.
One year after leaving the vice presidency, Nixon returned to politics, winning the Republican nomination for governor of California. Although he lost the election, Nixon returned to the national stage in 1968 in a successful bid for the presidency. Like Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Nixon declined to debate his opponent in the 1968 presidential campaign. Televised presidential debates returned in 1976, and have been held in every presidential campaign since.
Under escort from the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division, nine black students enter all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Three weeks earlier, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus had surrounded the school with National Guard troops to prevent its federal court-ordered racial integration. After a tense standoff, President Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and sent 1,000 army paratroopers to Little Rock to enforce the court order.
On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation in educational facilities was unconstitutional. Five days later, the Little Rock School Board issued a statement saying it would comply with the decision when the Supreme Court outlined the method and time frame in which desegregation should be implemented.
Arkansas was at the time among the more progressive Southern states in regard to racial issues. The University of Arkansas School of Law was integrated in 1949, and the Little Rock Public Library in 1951. Even before the Supreme Court ordered integration to proceed “with all deliberate speed,” the Little Rock School Board in 1955 unanimously adopted a plan of integration to begin in 1957 at the high school level. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed suit, arguing the plan was too gradual, but a federal judge dismissed the suit, saying that the school board was acting in “utmost good faith.” Meanwhile, Little Rock’s public buses were desegregated. By 1957, seven out of Arkansas’ eight state universities were integrated.
In the spring of 1957, there were 517 black students who lived in the Central High School district. Eighty expressed an interest in attending Central in the fall, and they were interviewed by the Little Rock School Board, which narrowed down the number of candidates to 17. Eight of those students later decided to remain at all-black Horace Mann High School, leaving the “Little Rock Nine” to forge their way into Little Rock’s premier high school.
In August 1957, the newly formed Mother’s League of Central High School won a temporary injunction from the county chancellor to block integration of the school, charging that it “could lead to violence.” Federal District Judge Ronald Davies nullified the injunction on August 30. On September 2, Governor Orval Faubus—a staunch segregationist—called out the Arkansas National Guard to surround Central High School and prevent integration, ostensibly to prevent the bloodshed he claimed desegregation would cause. The next day, Judge Davies ordered integrated classes to begin on September 4.
That morning, 100 armed National Guard troops encircled Central High School. A mob of 400 white civilians gathered and turned ugly when the black students began to arrive, shouting racial epithets and threatening the teenagers with violence. The National Guard troops refused to let the black students pass and used their clubs to control the crowd. One of the nine, 15-year-old Elizabeth Eckford, was surrounded by the mob, which threatened to lynch her. She was finally led to safety by a sympathetic white woman.
Little Rock Mayor Woodrow Mann condemned Faubus’ decision to call out the National Guard, but the governor defended his action, reiterating that he did so to prevent violence. The governor also stated that integration would occur in Little Rock when and if a majority of people chose to support it. Faubus’ defiance of Judge Davies’ court order was the first major test of Brown v. Board of Education and the biggest challenge of the federal government’s authority over the states since the Reconstruction Era.
The standoff continued, and on September 20 Judge Davies ruled that Faubus had used the troops to prevent integration, not to preserve law and order as he claimed. Faubus had no choice but to withdraw the National Guard troops. Authority over the explosive situation was put in the hands of the Little Rock Police Department.
On September 23, as a mob of 1,000 whites milled around outside Central High School, the nine black students managed to gain access to a side door. However, the mob became unruly when it learned the black students were inside, and the police evacuated them out of fear for their safety. That evening, President Eisenhower issued a special proclamation calling for opponents of the federal court order to “cease and desist.” On September 24, Little Rock’s mayor sent a telegram to the president asking him to send troops to maintain order and complete the integration process. Eisenhower immediately federalized the Arkansas National Guard and approved the deployment of U.S. troops to Little Rock. That evening, from the White House, the president delivered a nationally televised address in which he explained that he had taken the action to defend the rule of law and prevent “mob rule” and “anarchy.” On September 25, the Little Rock Nine entered the school under heavily armed guard.
Troops remained at Central High School throughout the school year, but still the black students were subjected to verbal and physical assaults from a faction of white students. Melba Patillo, one of the nine, had acid thrown in her eyes, and Elizabeth Eckford was pushed down a flight of stairs. The three male students in the group were subjected to more conventional beatings. Minnijean Brown was suspended after dumping a bowl of chili over the head of a taunting white student. She was later suspended for the rest of the year after continuing to fight back. The other eight students consistently turned the other cheek. On May 27, 1958, Ernest Green, the only senior in the group, became the first black to graduate from Central High School.
Governor Faubus continued to fight the school board’s integration plan, and in September 1958 he ordered Little Rock’s three high schools closed rather than permit integration. Many Little Rock students lost a year of education as the legal fight over desegregation continued. In 1959, a federal court struck down Faubus’ school-closing law, and in August 1959 Little Rock’s white high schools opened a month early with black students in attendance. All grades in Little Rock public schools were finally integrated in 1972.