Harlem Cultural Festival begins

On the afternoon of June 29, 1969, a crowd consisting mostly of Black people from the nearby area packs Harlem’s Mt. Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park). Over the course of this afternoon and the next five Sunday afternoons, Black performers from many different genres and eras appear on the park’s brightly-colored, sunlit stage in a dazzling series of shows known as the Harlem Cultural Festival. The festival will draw a total of over 300,000 people.

Tony Lawrence, the eccentric lounge singer, concert promoter, and youth director of a local church, was chosen to organize and emcee the Harlem Cultural Festival by the New York Parks Department. The festival began in 1967 and drew big crowds in its first two years, convincing Lawrence to make the 1969 edition the biggest yet. In the wake of 1968, when the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (and subsequent assassination of Robert Kennedy) had led to massive unrest in Harlem, the administration of Mayor John Lindsay felt compelled to offer cultural programing to the city’s Black residents, perhaps in an effort to keep the peace. Despite the city’s support and the sponsorship of Maxwell House coffee, the budget was tight: without enough money to pay for proper lighting, organizers situated the stage facing West to take advantage of sunlight. A steep cliff opposite the stage would serve as a makeshift grandstand as more and more people crowded into the park. The Black Panthers provided security for the concert series, some appearing in the crowd in uniform, some undercover, and some perched in the trees.

The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival featured some of the most popular acts in the United States. Sly and the Family Stone’s set included “Everyday People,” a number-one hit at the time, and Gladys Knight and the Pips performed “Heard it Through the Grapevine” which had recently reached No. 2 on the charts. The acts were eclectic, showcasing talented Black artists from across a spectrum of genres. Jazz icon B.B. King, a young Stevie Wonder, Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji, psychedelic-influenced acts like the 5th Dimension, and legendary comedienne Moms Mabley were just a few of the acts that took the stage over the course of six Sundays. Critics have long pointed to the festival as a crucial point in American musical history, a coming-together of the sounds that were defining Black music at the time and would set the tone for American popular music for the next decade.

READ MORE: 11 Anthems of Black Pride and Protest Through American History

It was also an important moment for Harlem’s Black community, a chance to collectively mourn Dr. King and others lost in recent years while also celebrating Black pride and Black power. Nina Simone performed her yet-to-be-released “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” an uplifting message to Black youths, and closed her set by reciting a poem that asked the audience, “Are you ready to smash white things? …to build Black things? …Are you ready to kill if necessary?” That same day, when the show was interrupted by the announcement that American astronauts had landed on the moon, the crowd booed the news — “Cash they wasted, as far as I’m concerned, in getting to the moon, could’ve been used to feed poor Black people in Harlem” one attendee told the evening news.

In one particularly meaningful moment, the legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, whose grandparents were enslaved, signaled to a young Mavis Staples to join her in a duet. The pair sang a raw, moving rendition of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” MLK’s favorite song. Before the performance, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was with King when he was shot, told the audience that MLK had mentioned it immediately before his death, and that King had “died asking the Lord to lead his hand, to help him lead us.”

The Harlem Cultural Festival was an unqualified success, but it would not return in 1970 and the footage languished in obscurity. Lawrence had hoped to tour the country with a similar show, and to put on another the following year, but neither idea came to fruition. He eventually began to accuse white investors and even the mafia of scuttling his efforts. As some Black observers correctly predicted, the festival was immediately overshadowed in America’s collective memory by Woodstock, which took place between August 15 and 18 in upstate New York. Although attempts to turn footage from the festival into a “Black Woodstock” film began as soon as the concert series ended, it would not be until the 2021 release of Questlove’s documentary, Summer of Soul, that footage of the Harlem Music Festival became easily accessible to the public. 

READ MORE: Why the Watershed 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival Was Overshadowed for 50 Years


In epic Super Bowl upset, Jets make good on Namath guarantee

On January 12, 1969, at the Orange Bowl in Miami, the New York Jets of the American Football League defeat the NFL’s Baltimore Colts, 16-7, in Super Bowl III—a result considered one of the biggest upsets in sports history. Days earlier, Jets quarterback Joe Namath guaranteed a victory by New York, an 18-point underdog.

The win was the first in the Super Bowl for the AFL, which merged with the NFL for the 1970 season.

Before Super Bowl III, an NFL coach said, “Namath plays his first pro football game today.” But the Colts, who had a 15-1 record entering the game, trailed 16-0 after three quarters.

Namath, a four-year-veteran and former University of Alabama star, completed 17 of 28 passes for 206 yards and was named the game’s Most Valuable Player. 

“We overcame our critics,” Namath told reporters in a jubilant Jets locker room. “Most people predicted a 42-13 loss.”

In the fourth quarter, backup quarterback Johnny Unitas—subbing for ineffective NFL MVP Earl Morrall—led the Colts on their only scoring drive.

Said Baltimore coach Don Shula: “We had more opportunities in the first half and just couldn’t get the blamed thing going. I don’t think we did anything right.” 

Shula said the key to the game was Namath’s ability to exploit Baltimore’s weaknesses. 

“He not only made me believe—he made us all believe,” said Jets rookie safety John Dockery said of Namath. “I never saw another fella like him in my life.”

READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About the First Super Bowl


Barbara Jo Rubin becomes first female jockey to win race at U.S. thoroughbred track

On February 22, 1969, 19-year-old Barbara Jo Rubin becomes the first female jockey to win a race at an American thoroughbred track when she rides Cohesion to a victory by a neck over Reely Beeg in the ninth race at Charles Town, West Virginia.

That she raced at all was a testament to Rubin’s ability to overcome physical hardship and prejudice. When she was 6, Rubin contracted polio. Some in the sport were adamantly against a woman jockey competing.

Rubin became enamored with horses after watching on TV the movie National Velvet, a 1944 film starring Elizabeth Taylor, about a girl who loves horses. “From that time on,” she told the New York Post, “I set my heart on riding horses.”

After riding at horse shows as a teen, Rubin decided she wanted to race. In 1968, Rubin left Broward (Florida) Junior College to work at the Tropical Park race track in Miami. While galloping horses in New England that summer, Rubin met Bryan Webb, a trainer who became her mentor.

With Webb’s encouragement, Rubin applied for a jockey’s license. In January 1969, she was supposed to ride a Webb-trained horse named Stoneland at Tropical Park for her debut. But after male jockeys threatened to boycott the track if Rubin raced, she withdrew. The breaking point for her came when a brick was thrown through the window of a trailer that served as Rubin’s changing room.

Rubin wasn’t deterred to give up racing, so she competed in the Bahamas. In her first race on Nassau’s Hobby Horse track, she rode Fly Away to a three-length victory.

Rubin was offered a spot in the 1969 Kentucky Derby, but the horse she was scheduled to ride, Picnic Fair, was scratched. Rubin retired from horse racing in 1970 at 20. 

“I want to come back in the worst way,” she told reporters, “but my legs are giving me an awful lot of trouble.”


Charles Manson cult kills five, including actress Sharon Tate

On August 9, 1969, members of Charles Manson’s cult kill five people in movie director Roman Polanski’s Beverly Hills, California, home, including Polanski’s pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate. Less than two days later, the group killed again, murdering supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary in their home. The savage crimes shocked the nation and turned Charles Manson into a criminal icon.

Manson was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1934 to an unwed 16-year-old mother. He spent much of his childhood in juvenile reformatories and his early adulthood in prison. After his release in 1967, Manson moved to California and used his unlikely magnetism to attract a group of hippies and set up a commune, where drugs and orgies were common, on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

Manson preached his own blend of eccentric religious teachings to his acolytes, who called themselves his “Family.” He told them a race war between blacks and whites was imminent and would result in great power for the Family. Manson said they should instigate the war by killing rich white people and trying to make it look like the work of blacks.

READ MORE: How Charles Manson Got Under America’s Skin 

Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, The Pianist), was not the cult leader’s intended target. Manson, an aspiring musician, chose the Polanski house because he had once unsuccessfully tried to get a recording deal from a producer who used to live there. Polanski was out of town at the time of the murders, but his wife and her friends, including coffee heiress Abigail Folger, were shot or stabbed to death. Manson stayed out of the Polanski house on the night of the crime and didn’t take part in the LaBianca killings either. However, he would later be charged with murder on the grounds he had influenced his followers and masterminded the crimes.

After initially eluding police suspicion, Manson was arrested only after one of his followers, already in jail on a different charge, started bragging about what had happened. Manson’s subsequent trial became a national spectacle, in which he exhibited bizarre and violent behavior. In 1971, he was convicted and given the death penalty; however, that sentence became life behind bars when the California Supreme Court overturned the death penalty in 1972.

Manson has been the subject of numerous movies and books, including the best-seller Helter Skelter (the title is a reference to a Beatles’ song of the same name, through which Manson believed the group was sending secret messages to start a race war). Manson died in prison in 2017. 

READ MORE: How Charles Manson Took Sick Inspiration from the Beatles’ ‘Helter Skelter’


Golda Meir elected as Israel’s first female prime minster

Month Day
March 17

On March 17, 1969, 70-year-old Golda Meir makes history when she is elected as Israel’s first female prime minister. She was the country’s fourth prime minister and is still the only woman to have held this post.

Meir, who was born in Kiev, Ukraine and raised in Wisconsin, began her career as a Zionist labor organizer, and later held several positions in Israeli government, including Minister of Labor and Minister of Foreign Affairs. Upon the sudden death of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol in 1969, Meir was chosen as his successor. 

During her tenure, Meir gained a reputation as a savvy diplomat. She saw the country through the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, after Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel. Although Israel was victorious, over 2,500 Israelis died, and many criticized the government for a lack of preparedness.

Due in part to her age and ailing health, Meir resigned in October 1974. She was succeeded by Yitzhak Rabin.

Meir died in Jerusalem on December 8, 1978, at the age of 80. 

READ MORE: 7 Women Leaders Who Were Elected to Highest Office


The Stonewall Riots begin in NYC’s Greenwich Village

Sometime after midnight on June 28, 1969, in what is now regarded by many as history’s first major protest on behalf of equal rights for LGBTQ people, a police raid of the Stonewall Inn—a popular gay club located on New York City‘s Christopher Street—turns violent as patrons and local sympathizers begin rioting against the authorities.

READ MORE: What Happened at the Stonewall Riots? A Timeline of the 1969 Uprising

Although the police were legally justified in raiding the club, which was serving liquor without a license among other violations, New York’s gay community had grown weary of the police department targeting gay clubs, many of which had already been closed. 

Soon, the crowd began throwing bottles at the police. The protest spilled over into the neighboring streets, and order was not restored until the deployment of New York’s riot police sometime after 4 a.m. 

The Stonewall Riots were followed by several days of demonstrations in New York and was the impetus for the formation of the Gay Liberation Front as well as other gay, lesbian and bisexual civil rights organizations. The next year, in 1970, New York’s first official gay pride parade set off from Stonewall and marched up 6th Avenue. June was later designated LGBTQ Pride Month to commemorate the uprising. 

READ MORE: 7 Surprising Facts About the Stonewall Riots and the Fight for LGBTQ Rights

In 2019, the New York Police Department formally apologized for its role in the Stonewall Riots, and for the discriminatory laws that targeted gay people. 

Explore the history of the LGBTQ movement in America here


President Eisenhower dies

Month Day
March 28

Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president of the United States and one of the most highly regarded American generals of World War II, dies in Washington, D.C., at the age of 78.

Born in Denison, Texas, in 1890, Eisenhower graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1915, and after World War I he steadily rose in the peacetime ranks of the U.S. Army. After the U.S. entrance into World War II, he was appointed commanding general of the European theater of operations and oversaw U.S. troops massing in Great Britain. In 1942, Eisenhower, who had never commanded troops in the field, was put in charge of Operation Torch, the Anglo-American landings in Morocco and Algeria.

As supreme commander of a mixed force of Allied nationalities, services, and equipment, Eisenhower designed a system of unified command and rapidly won the respect of his British and Canadian subordinates. From North Africa, he successfully directed the invasions of Tunisia, Sicily, and Italy, and in January 1944 was appointed supreme Allied commander of Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of northwestern Europe. Although Eisenhower left much of the specific planning for the actual Allied landing in the hands of his capable staff, such as British Field Marshall Montgomery, he served as a brilliant organizer and administrator both before and after the successful invasion.

After the war, he briefly served as president of Columbia University before returning to military service in 1951 as supreme commander of the combined land and air forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Pressure on Eisenhower to run for U.S. president was great, however, and in the spring of 1952 he relinquished his NATO command to run for president on the Republican ticket.

In November 1952, “Ike” won a resounding victory in the presidential elections and in 1956 was reelected in a landslide. A popular president, he oversaw a period of great economic growth in the United States and deftly navigated the country through increasing Cold War tension on the world stage. In 1961, he retired with his wife, Mamie Doud Eisenhower, to his farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He died in 1969 and was buried on a family plot in Abilene, Kansas.


Zager and Evans end a six-week run at #1 with their smash-hit “In The Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus)”

Month Day
August 22

The American pop-rock duo Zager and Evans end a six-week run at the top of the charts with their ponderously titled single “In The Year 2525.” It would be their one and only hit. 

Zager and Evans never returned to the pop charts after their triumphant debut in the summer of ’69. The disbanded just two years later, in 1971. In their very brief career, however, they spent longer atop the pop charts (six weeks) than many more enduring acts. Like so many stars whose hits have not stood the test of time, however, they have been nearly expunged from cultural memory.


Qaddafi leads coup in Libya

Month Day
September 01

Muammar al-Qaddafi, a 27-year-old Libyan army captain, leads a successful military coup against King Idris I of Libya. Idris was deposed and Qaddafi was named chairman of Libya’s new governing body, the Revolutionary Command Council.

Qaddafi was born in a tent in the Libyan desert in 1942, the son of a Bedouin farmer. A gifted student, he graduated from the University of Libya in 1963 and the Libyan military academy at Banghazi in 1965. An ardent Arab nationalist, he plotted with a group of fellow officers to overthrow King Idris, who was viewed as overly conservative and indifferent to the movement for greater political unity among Arab countries. By the time Qaddafi attained the rank of captain, in 1969, the revolutionaries were ready to strike. They waited until King Idris was out of the country, being treated for a leg ailment at a Turkish spa, and then toppled his government in a bloodless coup. The monarchy was abolished, and Idris traveled from Turkey to Greece before finding asylum in Egypt. He died there in Cairo in 1983.

Blending Islamic orthodoxy, revolutionary socialism, and Arab nationalism, Qaddafi established a fervently anti-Western dictatorship in Libya. In 1970, he removed U.S. and British military bases and expelled Italian and Jewish Libyans. In 1973, he took control of foreign-owned oil fields. He reinstated traditional Islamic laws, such as prohibition of alcoholic beverages and gambling, but liberated women and launched social programs that improved the standard of living in Libya. As part of his stated ambition to unite the Arab world, he sought closer relations with his Arab neighbors, especially Egypt. However, when Egypt and then other Arab nations began a peace process with Israel, Libya became increasingly isolated.

Qaddafi’s government financed a wide variety of terrorist groups worldwide, from Palestinian guerrillas and Philippine Muslim rebels to the Irish Republican Army. During the 1980s, the West blamed him for numerous terrorist attacks in Europe, and in April 1986 U.S. war planes bombed Tripoli in retaliation for a bombing of a West German dance hall. Qaddafi was reportedly injured and his infant daughter killed in the U.S. attack.

In the late 1990s, Qaddafi sought to lead Libya out of its long international isolation by turning over to the West two suspects wanted for the 1988 explosion of an airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland. In response, the United Nations lifted sanctions against Libya. The United States removed its own embargo in September 2004. After years of rejection in the Arab world, Qaddafi also sought to forge stronger relations with non-Islamic African nations such as South Africa, remodeling himself as an elder African statesman.

In February 2011, as unrest spread through much of the Arab world, massive political protests against the Qaddafi regime sparked a civil war between revolutionaries and loyalists. In March, an international coalition began conducting airstrikes against Qaddafi strongholds under the auspices of a U.N. Security Council resolution. On October 20, Libya’s interim government announced that Qaddafi had died after being captured near his hometown of Sirte.


Soccer legend Pelé scores 1,000th goal

Month Day
November 19

Brazilian soccer great Pelé scores his 1,000th professional goal in a game, against Vasco da Gama in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana stadium. It was a major milestone in an illustrious career that included three World Cup championships.

Pelé, considered one of the greatest soccer players ever to take the field, was born Edson Arantes do Nascimento in Tres Coracos, Brazil, in 1940. He acquired the nickname Pelé during his childhood though the name has no meaning in his native Portuguese. When he was a teenager, he played for a minor league soccer club in Bauru in Sao Paulo state and in 1956 joined the major league Santos Football Club in the city of Sao Paulo, playing inside left forward. Two years later, he led the Brazilian national team to victory in the World Cup. Pelé, who was only 17 years old, scored two goals to defeat Sweden in the final.

Pelé was blessed with speed, balance, control, power, and an uncanny ability to anticipate the movements of his opponents and teammates. Although just five feet eight inches tall, he was a giant on the field, leading Santos to three national club championships, two South American championships, and the world club title in 1963. Under Pelé’s leadership, Brazil won the World Cup in 1958, 1962, and 1970. In 1970, Brazil was granted permanent possession of the World Cup’s Jules Rimet Trophy as a tribute to its dominance. On November 19, 1969, Pelé scored his 1,000th goal on a penalty kick against Vasco da Gama. Eighty thousand adoring fans in Maracana stadium cheered him wildly, even though Santos was the opposing team.

Pelé announced his retirement in 1974 but in 1975 accepted a $7 million contract to play with the New York Cosmos. He led the Cosmos to a league championship in 1977 and did much to promote soccer in the United States. On October 1, 1977, in Giants Stadium, he played his last professional game in a Cosmos match against his old team Santos.

During his long career, Pelé scored 1,282 goals in 1,363 games. In 1978, Pelé was given the International Peace Award and in 1993 he was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame. Since retiring, he has acted as an international ambassador for his sport and has worked with the United Nations and UNICEF to promote peace and international reconciliation through friendly athletic competition.