First 9-1-1 call is placed in the United States


Year
1968
Month Day
February 16

February 16, 1968 sees the first official “911” call placed in the United States. Now taken for granted as first course of action in the event of emergency by nearly all of the nation’s 327 million people, 911 is a relatively recent invention and was still not standard across the United States for many years after its adoption by Congress.

As telephones became common in U.S. households, fire departments around the country recommended establishing a single, simple number to be dialed in the event of a fire or other emergency. A similar system had been implemented in the United Kingdom decades earlier, in 1936, when the code 999 was chosen for emergency telegraph and phone communications. The Federal Communications Commission decided to act in 1967, but the number itself came not from the government but from AT&T, the corporation that controlled nearly all phone lines in the U.S. via its long-distance service and ownership of local Bell Telephone subsidiaries. At the time, AT&T was considered a “natural monopoly,” a monopoly allowed to exist because high infrastructure costs and barriers to entry prevented challengers from emerging. AT&T suggested the number 911 because it was easy to remember and, crucially, had not yet been designated as an area code or other code, which would make the transition easier.

The first 911 call was placed by Rep. Rankin Fite, the Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives, in the town of Haleyville, AL on February 16th of the following year. Nome, Alaska adopted the system a week later. Still, it would years before the system was widespread and decades before it was uniform. It was only in 1973 that the White House issued an official statement in favor of 911, and even that a suggestion rather than a law or executive order. By 1987, 50 percent of the nation was using the system. Canada chose to adopt the same number for its emergency calls, and 98% of the US and Canada can now contact emergency services by dialing 911. 999 is in use in a number of former British colonies, and the number 112 is used in Russia, Brazil, and other nations, even sometimes routing to the same services as 911 in the U.S.

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Three protestors die in the Orangeburg Massacre


Year
1968
Month Day
February 08

On the night of February 8, 1968, police officers in Orangeburg, South Carolina open fire on a crowd of young people during a protest against racial segregation, killing three and wounding around 30 others. The killing of three young African Americans by state officials, four years after racial discrimination had been outlawed by federal law, has gone down in history as the Orangeburg Massacre.

After decades of protests across the country, segregation was abolished in the United States by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While its passage was a major victory, many racists throughout the South simply refused to obey it, knowing local police would not care to enforce. In early February of 1968, a group of activists in Orangeburg tried to convince one such man, Harry Floyd, to desegregate his bowling alley, but he refused. Several days of expanding protests followed, during which protesters damaged a window of the bowling alley, police responded with arrests and beatings, and unrest spread to the nearby campus of South Carolina State University, a historically black college.

The night of the 8th, officers of the South Carolina Highway Patrol responded to a bonfire on the campus. When a protester pried a banister from an abandoned house and threw it at an officer, the police opened fire. The Highway Patrol would subsequently claim, and newspapers would subsequently report, that the students had used firebombs and even sniper rifles to attack before the police fired; however, multiple investigations of the incident failed to turn up any evidence to support the claims. The police barrage claimed the lives of two SCSU students, Samuel Hammond, Jr. and Henry Smith, as well as a local high school student, Delano Middleton, who had been sitting near the protest waiting for his mother to get off work.

The killings sparked outrage across the nation, but the Governor of South Carolina blamed “black power advocates” rather than his police. The massacre is still commemorated by the university and others in South Carolina, but social commentators have noted that its place in America’s collective memory is not as prominent that of the similar Kent State and Jackson State Massacres, both of which occurred during anti-Vietnam War protests and which collectively claimed the lives of six white students in 1970. Shootings on college and high school campuses continue to plague the United States, as does police violence against African Americans—nearly 1,000 people are killed by police every year, and black people are 2.5 times more likely to die at the hands of law enforcement than white people.

READ MORE: Segregation in the United States

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Viet Cong officer is shot in the head, iconic photo taken


Year
1968
Month Day
February 02

Saigon, South Vietnam was a chaotic and bloody place in the winter of 1968. On January 30, North Vietnamese forces struck suddenly and with shocking force at targets throughout the South, taking the South Vietnamese and their American allies by surprise and turning the tide of a war that President Lyndon Johnson had assured his people they were close to winning. As the reeling South Vietnamese army worked to re-establish order in their capital, an American photographer captured an image that would come to symbolize the brutality of the conflict.

The Tet Offensive directly countered the American narrative that the North was incapable of mobilizing in large numbers and was on the retreat. Conventional and guerrilla warriors struck targets and areas that had been considered to be safely under U.S./Southern control. As the Viet Cong overran Saigon in the first hours of the Tet Offensive, a fighter named Nguyễn Văn Lém was part of a death squad that targeted the National Police and their families. According to the South Vietnamese military, Lém’s squad had just killed 34 people associated with the police, at least 24 of whom were civilians, when he was captured on February 1st.

Lém, who had worn civilian clothes as he carried out his alleged war crimes, was brought to Brigadier General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan. Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams saw the prisoner being escorted to the general and decided to take a few pictures. “I prepared to make that picture—the threat, the interrogation,” Adams recalled. “But it didn’t happen. The man just pulled a pistol out of his holster, raised it to the VC’s head and shot him in the temple.”

Adams captured the exact moment when the bullet from Loan’s Smith & Wesson entered Lém’s head at point-blank range. The image, which very much appeared to depict the summary execution of an unarmed civilian by a South Vietnamese military official, ran in newspapers around the world, causing a sensation. The story behind the photo was much more complex, but the shot came to encapsulate Americans’ darkest fears about the war: that it was a haphazard, amoral bloodletting in which the United States’ cruelty rivaled that of its enemies.

Indeed, while Lém was not the innocent victim he appeared to be, it was later concluded that his execution had been a war crime. It was far from the only one committed by American and South Vietnamese forces—just a few months later, on March 16, American troops killed somewhere between 347 and 504 civilians in what came to be known as the My Lai Massacre. “Saigon Execution,” as Adams titled his photo, became a symbol of all that was wrong with American involvement in the war and won the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography for 1969. Four years later, another AP photographer would win the prize for a similar photo, “Terror of War,” which depicted terrified children fleeing after the South Vietnamese air force mistakenly attacked their village with napalm.

READ MORE: Vietnam War Timeline

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Johnny Cash performs at Folsom Prison


Year
1968
Month Day
January 13

In the midst of depression and a steep decline in his musical career, legendary country singer Johnny Cash arrives to play for inmates at California’s Folsom Prison on January 13, 1968. The concert and the subsequent live album launched him back into the charts and re-defined his career.

Despite his outlaw image, Cash never went to prison, save for a few nights drying out in various jails. It was not his own experience but rather the crime film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison that inspired him to pen “Folsom Prison Blues,” which was a modest hit for Cash in 1956. The song, characteristically mournful, is written from the point of view of an inmate “stuck in Folsom Prison” after shooting a man in Reno “just to watch him die” – Cash explained that he wanted to come up with the most senseless reason imaginable for the speaker to have committed murder. A decade later, Cash’s alcoholism and addiction to pills had taken a marked toll on his health. Cash was popular in prisons across America and was known to correspond with imprisoned fans, and first played at Folsom in 1966 on the suggestion of a local preacher. Two years later, needing something to jump-start his career, he convinced his record company to let him record a live album there.

Cash felt a personal responsibility to put on a good show at Folsom. He rehearsed feverishly in the days leading up to the concert and taught himself “Greystone Chapel,” a song written by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley. Despite the presence of armed guards on the walkways above them, and the warden’s prohibition against standing during the show, Cash’s audience was raucous, invigorating the performers and lending a unique verve to the live recording. Cash tailored the setlist to prisoners, including the namesake song and ending with “Greystone Chapel.” The album went to No. 1, as did a subsequent album recorded at San Quentin, and suddenly Cash was a household name again.

The iconic performance linked Cash permanently with prisoners in the American imagination. In his 1971 song “Man in Black,” Cash explains that he adopted his trademark dark clothing in solidarity with “the poor and the beaten down” as well as “the prisoner who has long paid for his crime.” Cash testified before Congress and met with President Richard Nixon to discuss prison reform in 1972, and continued to crusade on behalf of the imprisoned for the rest of his career. Live at Folsom Prison stands as a testament to the bond he felt with inmates as well as a major entry in the canon of 20th Century American music.

READ MORE: I Went With Johnny Cash to Folsom Prison

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Mass graves discovered in Hue


Year
1968
Month Day
February 26

Allied troops who had recaptured the imperial capital of Hue from the North Vietnamese during the Tet Offensive discover the first mass graves in Hue.

It was discovered that communist troops who had held the city for 25 days had massacred about 2,800 civilians whom they had identified as sympathizers with the government in Saigon. One authority estimated that communists might have killed as many as 5,700 people in Hue.

The Tet Offensive had begun at dawn on the first day of the Tet holiday truce (January 30), when Viet Cong forces, supported by large numbers of North Vietnamese troops, launched the largest and best coordinated offensive of the war. During the attack, they drove into the center of South Vietnam’s seven largest cities and attacked 30 provincial capitals ranging from the Delta to the DMZ. 

Among the cities taken during the first four days of the offensive were Hue, Dalat, Kontum, and Quang Tri; in the north, all five provincial capitals were overrun. At the same time, enemy forces shelled numerous allied airfields and bases. By February 10, the offensive was largely crushed, but resulted in heavy casualties on both sides.

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Dick Fosbury flops to an Olympic high jump record

Year
1968
Month Day
October 20

On October 20, 1968, 21-year-old Oregonian Dick Fosbury wins gold—and sets an Olympic record—when he high-jumps 7 feet 4 1/4 inches at the Mexico City Games. It was the first American victory in the event since 1956. It was also the international debut of Fosbury’s unique jumping style, known as the “Fosbury Flop.”

The Flop, according to one journalist, “looked like a guy falling off the back of a truck.” Instead of the traditional scissors- or straddle-style forward kick over the bar, it featured a midair rotation so that the jumper landed back-of-the-head-first on the mat. Fosbury described it this way: “I take off on my right, or outside, foot rather than my left foot. Then I turn my back to the bar, arch my back over the bar and then kick my legs out to clear the bar.” It looked odd, but it worked better than any other technique.

Fosbury had invented his Flop in high school, when he discovered that, though he was terrible at the scissors-kick, the straddle and the belly-roll, if he stretched out on his back and landed headfirst, he could jump higher than anyone on his high-school track team. “The advantage,” he said, “from a physics standpoint is, it allows the jumper to run at the bar with more speed and, with the arch in your back, you could actually clear the bar and keep your center of gravity at or below the bar, so it was much more efficient.” At Oregon State University, he used the Flop to win the 1968 NCAA title and the Olympic Trials.

“I think quite a few kids will begin trying it my way now,” he said when the Games were over. “I don’t guarantee my results, and I don’t recommend my style to anyone. All I say is if a kid can’t straddle, he can try it my way.” And indeed, kids everywhere began to practice the Flop over the backs of their sofas and into piles of leaves in the yard. Parents and coaches worried that Fosbury’s technique was dangerous—U.S. Olympic Coach Pat Jordan even warned that it would “wipe out an entire generation of high jumpers because they will all have broken necks”—but the Flop soon became standard practice at track meets. Within a decade, almost every elite high-jumper was doing it Fosbury’s way. 

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The first Miss Black America pageant takes place

Year
1968
Month Day
August 17

At nearly three in the morning, Saundra Williams walked across a stage with a cream rhinestone cape around her shoulders, a sash across her torso and a scepter in her hand, ready to be crowned as pageant royalty. Though it was the same night as the Miss America pageant, Williams’ crowning wasn’t just about beauty. It was about protest.

She was the first Miss Black America, and her message was clear: Black is beautiful, too. 

A year before Williams took the stage, J. Morris Anderson, a Philadelphia entrepreneur, asked his two young daughters what they wanted to be when they grew up. They gave an answer that most girls at the time would: they wanted to be Miss America. But he knew that the racist standards would keep them from even being considered for the crown. It was then that he decided to do something—to show his girls they could be Miss America, too.

Phillip H. Savage, then director of the Tri-State NAACP, helped the groundbreaking—but then taboo—pageant get national coverage. They decided to hold it the same night, and in the same city, as the Miss America pageant. They chose to start their so-called “positive protest” at midnight, in hopes that newsmen would drop by when they left Convention Hall after the conclusion of the other pageant.

The 19-year-old winner from Philadelphia grew up in a middle class home and said she never experienced racism until she went to college at Maryland State College. For the first time, she walked into a restaurant and was refused service. That’s when she became an activist in the Black Awareness Movement, leading a silent protest march to attempt to integrate that very same restaurant.

For talent, Williams performed a traditional African dance and, during the Question and Answer segment, she shocked the crowd by saying men and women should do equal housework because she thought “the male is getting awfully lazy.”

The men in the audience booed, but it wasn’t enough to cost her the crown, a trip to Puerto Rico, a modeling contract and a trophy.

Williams said being ordained with this crown was even better than winning Miss America. She wanted this to be the first of many positive messages to Black women.

“There is a need to keep saying this over and over because for so long none of us believed it,” she said. “But now we’re finally coming around.”

Sixteen years later, Vanessa Williams would be crowned Miss America. She was the first Black woman to win the honor. The Miss Black America pageant continues to this day.

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Protesters disrupt the Miss America Pageant

Year
1968
Month Day
September 07

On September 7, 1968, 50 women—one representing each state of the United States—prepared to be judged on their beauty by millions of eyes across the country, in the 41st annual Miss America pageant. But this year would be different.

As the contestants walked across the stage, protesters unfurled a bed sheet turned political statement from the rafters that read “Women’s Liberation” in large letters. The women shouted “No More Miss America!” over the crowd in the first ever protest against Miss America. While they didn’t get caught on camera, their words hit print in the next day’s newspapers, dragging the second wave of feminism into the mainstream.

As the protesters shouted from the rafters inside the show, outside hundreds of women took over the Atlantic City Boardwalk, carrying signs that said “Can make-up hide the wounds of our oppression?” and “All Women Are Beautiful.” One woman holding pots and pans and a baby mopped the boardwalk while another another chained herself to a puppet giant puppet of Miss America to symbolize how women are imprisoned by beauty standards. The protesters even crowned a sheep to symbolize how the pageant treated women like livestock at a county fair competition to a crowd of laughing and grimacing spectators.

READ MORE: I Was There: The 1968 Miss America Pageant Protest

The protesters dumped feminine items they deemed symbols of oppression including “bras, girdles, curlers, false eyelashes, wigs, and representative issues of Cosmopolitan, Ladies’ Home Journal, Family Circle, etc.” into a giant “freedom trash can” that they intended to set on fire.Though they weren’t allowed to light a fire on top of the flammable boardwalk, the bra burners myth was born later, in a New York Post story on the protest.

The protest was inspired at a meeting of the New York Radical Women. The group of activists discussed a film about the role beauty standards play in women’s oppression. The movie used the swimsuit competition as an example. That’s when feminist activist, Carol Hanisch, decided taking on the nearly 50-year-old iconic pageant might be the perfect way force this conversation around beauty into the public eye.

In the months before the pageant, the protesters advertised their demonstration as a change to stand up to “an image that oppresses women in every area in which it purports to represent us.” They also issued a press release that included 10 reasons for their hatred of the pageant, as an open invitation to women in August.

The group condemned the consumerism around sponsoring the program and how it valued women’s beauty before her personality. They felt the contest reinforced “the degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie Symbol.” Also drawing their ire were the pageant’s racist standards that kept women of color from wearing the crown. The protesters also rejected the double standard that demanded that the women be “sexy and wholesome, delicate but able to cope, demure yet titillatingly bitchy.” Worst of all, they felt the pageant stripped the contestants of their voices, pushing women to be “inoffensive” and “bland.”

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Kerner Commission Report released


Year
1968
Month Day
February 29

The President’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders—known as the Kerner Commission—releases its report, condemning racism as the primary cause of the recent surge of riots. Headed by Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois, the 11-member commission was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in July 1967 to uncover the causes of urban riots and recommend solutions.

The report, which declared that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal,” called for expanded aid to African American communities in order to prevent further racial violence and polarization. Unless drastic and costly remedies were undertaken at once, the report said, there would be a “continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.”

The report identified more than 150 riots or major disorders between 1965 and 1968 (including the deadly Newark and Detroit riots) and blamed “white racism” for sparking the violence—not a conspiracy by African American political groups as some claimed.

Statistics for 1967 alone included 83 people killed and 1,800 injured—the majority of them African Americans—and property valued at more than $100 million damaged or destroyed.

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Worker protests mount in France

Year
1968
Month Day
May 16

In France, the May 1968 crisis escalates as a general strike spreads to factories and industries across the country, shutting down newspaper distribution, air transport and two major railroads. By the end of the month, millions of workers were on strike, and France seemed to be on the brink of radical leftist revolution.

After the Algerian crisis of the l950s, France entered a period of stability in the 1960s. The French empire was abolished, the economy improved, and President Charles de Gaulle was a popular ruler. Discontent lay just beneath the surface, however, especially among young students, who were critical of France’s outdated university system and the scarcity of employment opportunity for university graduates. Sporadic student demonstrations for education reform began in 1968, and on May 3 a protest at the Sorbonne (the most celebrated college of the University of Paris) was broken up by police. Several hundred students were arrested and dozens were injured.

In the aftermath of the incident, courses at the Sorbonne were suspended, and students took to the streets of the Latin Quarter (the university district of Paris) to continue their protests. On May 6, battles between the police and students in the Latin Quarter led to hundreds of injuries. On the night of May 10, students set up barricades and rioted in the Latin Quarter. Nearly 400 people were hospitalized, more than half of them police. Leftist students began calling for radical economic and political change in France, and union leaders planned strikes in support of the students. In an effort to defuse the crisis by returning the students to school, Prime Minister Georges Pompidou announced that the Sorbonne would be reopened on May 13.

On that day, students occupied the Sorbonne buildings, converting it into a commune, and striking workers and students protested in the Paris streets. During the next few days, the unrest spread to other French universities, and labor strikes rolled across the country, eventually involving several million workers and paralyzing France. On the evening of May 24, the worst fighting of the May crisis occurred in Paris. Revolutionary students temporarily seized the Bourse (Paris Stock Exchange), raised a communist red flag over the building, and then tried to set it on fire. One policeman was killed in the night’s violence.

During the next few days, Prime Minister Pompidou negotiated with union leaders, making a number of concessions, but failed to end the strike. Radical students openly called for revolution but lost the support of mainstream communist and trade union leaders, who feared that they, like the Gaullist establishment, would be swept away in a revolution led by anarchists and Trotskyites. On May 30, President de Gaulle went on the radio and announced that he was dissolving the National Assembly and calling national elections. He appealed for law and order and implied that he would use military force to return order to France if necessary. Loyal Gaullists and middle-class citizens rallied around him, and the labor strikes were gradually abandoned. Student protests continued until June 12, when they were banned. Two days later, the students were evicted from the Sorbonne.

In the two rounds of voting on June 23 and 30, the Gaullists won a commanding majority in the National Assembly. In the aftermath of the May events, de Gaulle’s government made a series of concessions to the protesting groups, including higher wages and improved working conditions for workers, and passed a major education reform bill intended to modernize higher education. After 11 years of rule, Charles de Gaulle resigned the presidency in 1969 and was succeeded by Pompidou. He died the next year just before his 80th birthday.

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