A lawmaker introduces the pun “May the Fourth be with you” on the floor of U.K. Parliament

On May 4, 1994, in a groan-inducing moment on the floor of U.K. Parliament, a lawmaker uses a pun that will spawn its own holiday far, far away from the halls of government.

“May the 4th is an appropriate date for a defense debate. My researcher, who is a bit of a wit, said that it should be called ‘National Star Wars Day,’” said Harry Cohen, then a Member of Parliament from Leyton, an area of East London. “He was talking about the film Star Wars rather than President Reagan’s defense fantasy, and he added, ‘May the fourth be with you.’ That is a very bad joke; he deserves the sack for making it, but he is a good researcher.”

Cohen, of course, was referring to “May the Force be with you,” the guiding principle of the heroes in the wildly popular Star Wars movies, a franchise which was then just three films.

The pun (which may or may not have been original to Cohen’s staff) has been repeated countless times since, to the extent that May 4 is now recognized as Star Wars Day by Lucasfilm, Disney and fans around the world.

Fueled by memes and photos on the internet, fans began organizing “Star Wars Day” events in the 2010s—one of the first appears to have been at the Toronto Underground Cinema in 2011. Having acquired the rights to the Star Wars franchise in 2012, Disney began observing Star Wars Day the following year, with special events and releases marking the occasion.

2015 marked the first known celebration of Star Wars Day in space, when astronauts aboard the International Space Station watched Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Rather than limit their celebration to just one day, fans may choose to observe “Revenge of the Fifth” the day after Star Wars Day, although many hold that “Revenge of the Sixth” is a better pun.

READ MORE: The Real History That Inspired ‘Star Wars’

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Proposition 187 is approved in California

Year
1994
Month Day
November 08

On November 8, 1994, 59 percent of California voters approve Proposition 187, banning undocumented immigrants from using the state’s major public services. Despite its wide margin of victory, the ballot measure never takes effect.

In 1994, California, the home of Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, was not yet the Democratic stronghold many now consider it to be. A popular destination for immigrants from both Latin America and Asia, its demographics changed dramatically in the second half of the century, but neither Republicans nor Democrats won a decisive share of these newcomers’ votes. That would change after a group of Republican activists and state-level legislators, responding to the state’s economic slump and the presence of over a million undocumented immigrants, decided to launch the campaign for what became Prop 187. In the name of saving taxpayer money, the proposition prohibited the undocumented from accessing basic public services such as non-emergency health care and both primary and secondary education. It also required public servants like medical professionals and teachers to monitor and report on the immigration status of those under their charge.

Although public support was high from the start, the threat of barring over a million California residents from basic public services stirred up vocal opposition. As Republican Governor Pete Wilson’s campaign used the threat of immigration in an attempt to scare voters, 70,000 people marched against 187 in downtown Los Angeles, and 10,000 public school students walked out of class on November 2, just days before the vote. The measure’s passage on November 8 was an entirely symbolic and short-lived victory for conservatives.

Within a week, a legal challenge had prevented the new law from taking effect—it was held up in the appeals process until 1999, when a Democratic governor dropped the state’s appeal. Studies have since shown that Proposition 187 played a key role in galvanizing immigrants’ rights activists and pushing Latinx and Asian voters away from the California Republican Party. Over the next decade, 66 percent of newly-registered California voters were Latinx and another 23 percent were Asian. In the same period, Republicans went from holding roughly half of elected offices in the state to less than a quarter. California has since formally repealed Prop 187 and enacted some of the United States’ most sweeping protections for the undocumented.

READ MORE: US Immigration Timeline

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The North American Free Trade Agreement comes into effect


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Year
1994
Month Day
January 01

On January 1, 1994, one of the largest and most significant trade pacts in world history comes into effect. The North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, the United States and Mexico removed most of the trade barriers between the three countries, but it has been controversial in all three since its inception.

Ronald Reagan was the first U.S. president to propose a trilateral free trade agreement between the nations of North America. His successor, George H.W. Bush, opened negotiations with Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, which Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney later joined. The goal was to do away with most tariffs and barriers to the movement of people and products across the three countries’ borders. The debate over ratification of the treaty was heated in all three countries, with critics warning that it would have adverse affects on the ability of workers to organize and, as a result, depress wages. There were also environmental concerns, which were addressed by a side deal. All three nations ratified NAFTA in the end, and President Bill Clinton signed it into law on December 8, 1993. it took effect on New Year’s Day 1994.

The most immediate of all effects of NAFTA was a guerilla uprising in the Mexican state of Chiapas. NAFTA had forced the Mexican government to remove an article from its constitution that protected communal indigenous lands from privatization, viewing it as an intolerable barrier to investment. Rather than assent to the potential selling-off of their lands, the mostly-indigenous Zapatista Army of National Liberation rose up and occupied roughly half of Chiapas overnight, just as the treaty came into effect. The standoff with the Mexican government and de facto rule of the rebels continues to this day.

Since 1994, NAFTA has greatly increased the volume of trade between the three countries. Other effects are disputed, although many credit it with boosting industry in Mexico and small businesses in the United States, while critics often argue that it has hurt Mexican farmers and cost America jobs. In 2016, both Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who voted against ratification, made their criticism of NAFTA a major part of their campaigns.

Once in office, Trump forced a re-negotiation of NAFTA. The new arrangement, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, is somewhat more protectionist and kinder to American industries, most notably pharmaceutical companies, but more or less continues NAFTA’s legacy of free trade. The U.S. House of Representatives voted to approve the USMC trade agreement in December 2019. 

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Russian forces enter Chechnya


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Year
1994
Month Day
December 11

In the largest Russian military offensive since the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, thousands of troops and hundreds of tanks pour into the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya. Encountering only light resistance, Russian forces had by evening pushed to the outskirts of the Chechen capital of Grozny, where several thousand Chechen volunteers vowed a bitter fight against the Russians.

With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Chechnya, like many of the other republics encompassed by the former Soviet Union, declared its independence. However, unlike Georgia, the Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and the other former Soviet states, Chechnya held only the barest autonomy under Soviet rule and was not considered one of the 15 official Soviet republics. Instead, Chechnya is regarded as one of many republics within the Russian Federation. Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who permitted the dissolution of the Soviet Union, would not tolerate the secession of a state within territorial Russia.

About the size of Connecticut and located in southeastern Russia on the Caspian Sea, Chechnya was conquered by the Russians in the 1850s as the Russian empire pushed south toward the Middle East. Its people are largely Muslim and fiercely independent, and the region has been a constant irritant to its Russian and Soviet rulers.

In August 1991, Dzhozkhar Dudayev, a Chechen politician and former Soviet air force general, toppled Chechnya’s local communist government and established an anti-Russian autocratic state. President Yeltsin feared the secession of Chechnya would prompt a domino effect of independence movements within the vast Russian Federation. He also hoped to recover Chechnya’s valuable oil resources. After ineffective attempts at funding Chechen opposition groups, a Russian invasion began on December 11, 1994.

After the initial gains of the Russian army, the Chechen rebels demonstrated a fierce resistance in Grozny, and thousands of Russian troops died and many more Chechen civilians were killed during almost two years of heavy fighting. In August 1996, Grozny was retaken by the Chechen rebels after a year of Russian occupation, and a cease-fire was declared. In 1997, the last humiliated Russian troops left Chechnya. Despite a peace agreement that left Chechnya a de facto independent state, Chechnya remained officially part of Russia.

In 1999, Yeltsin’s government ordered a second invasion of Chechnya after bombings in Moscow and other cities were linked to Chechen militants. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Yeltsin’s handpicked successor as Russian leader, said of the Chechen terrorists, “we will rub them out, even in the toilet.” In 2000, President Putin escalated Russian military involvement in Chechnya after terrorist bombings in Russian cities continued. In this second round of post-Soviet fighting in Chechnya, the Russian army has been accused of many atrocities in its efforts to suppress Chechen militancy. A peace agreement remains elusive.

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First NATO Military Action


Year
1994
Month Day
February 28

In the first military action in the 45-year history of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), U.S. fighter planes shoot down four Serbian warplanes engaged in a bombing mission in violation of Bosnia’s no-fly zone.

The United States, 10 European countries, and Canada founded NATO in 1949 as a safeguard against Soviet aggression. With the end of the Cold War, NATO members approved the use of its military forces for peacekeeping missions in countries outside the alliance and in 1994 agreed to enforce U.N. resolutions enacted to bring about an end to the bloody conflict in the former Yugoslavia. In 1994 and 1995, NATO planes enforced the no-fly zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina and struck at Bosnian Serb military positions and airfields on a number of occasions.

On December 20, 1995, NATO began the mass deployment of 60,000 troops to enforce the Dayton peace accords, signed in Paris by the leaders of the former Yugoslavia on December 14. The NATO troops took over from a U.N. peacekeeping force that had failed to end the fighting since its deployment in early 1992, although the U.N. troops had proved crucial in the distribution of humanitarian aid to the impoverished population of Bosnia. The NATO force, with its U.S. support and focused aim of enforcing the Dayton agreement, proved more successful in maintaining the peace in the war-torn region.

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Leading Mexican presidential candidate assassinated


Year
1994
Month Day
March 23

Luis Donaldo Colosio, Mexico’s ruling party’s presidential candidate, is gunned down during a campaign rally in the northern border town of Tijuana.

As a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the political party that held power in Mexico for most of the 20th century, Colosio became the protégé of future Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari and was elected to the Congress and Senate. In 1988, he was the campaign manager of Salinas’ successful presidential campaign and the same year was named PRI party head. In 1992, President Salinas appointed Colosio social development secretary. He became increasingly reform-minded in this capacity; although his promises to reduce Mexico’s widespread poverty failed to stop anti-government guerrilla activity in the state of Chiapas. Salinas designated Colosio his successor in late 1993, making him the PRI candidate and thus the favorite to win the presidential election scheduled for August 1994.

Colosio campaigned as a man of the people and often appeared without the protection of bodyguards. On March 23, 1994, he was assassinated at a campaign rally in Tijuana. Mario Aburto Martinez, a factory worker, was arrested at the scene and later convicted as the sole shooter. During the next few years, however, evidence was uncovered suggesting a conspiracy that may have led all the way up to President Salinas’ office. Colosio had promised to fight Mexico’s rampant political corruption, of which Salinas, who had ties to organized crime in Mexico, was guilty.

In the wake of the assassination, Salinas appointed Ernesto Zedillo the PRI presidential campaign. Zedillo was elected in an election unusually free from fraud, and served as Mexican president until 2000. Salinas spent the late 1990s in exile but returned to Mexico in 2000. His administration has been implicated in other political assassinations, and in 1999 his brother Raul was convicted of ordering and financing the September 1994 murder of Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, the secretary general of the PRI.

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Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, is inaugurated

Year
1994
Month Day
May 10

In South Africa, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is sworn in as the first black president of South Africa. In his inaugural address, Mandela, who spent 27 years of his life as a political prisoner of the South African government, declared that “the time for the healing of the wounds has come.” Two weeks earlier, more than 22 million South Africans had turned out to cast ballots in the country’s first-ever multiracial parliamentary elections. An overwhelming majority chose Mandela and his African National Congress (ANC) party to lead the country.

READ MORE: Nelson Mandela: His Written Legacy

Mandela, born in 1918, was the son of the chief of the Xhosa-speaking Tembu people. Instead of succeeding his father as chief, Mandela went to university and became a lawyer. In 1944, he joined the African National Congress (ANC), a black political organization dedicated to winning rights for the black majority in white-ruled South Africa. In 1948, the racist National Party came to power, and apartheid–South Africa’s institutionalized system of white supremacy and racial segregation–became official government policy. With the loss of black rights under apartheid, black enrollment in the ANC rapidly grew. Mandela became one of the ANC’s leaders and in 1952 was made deputy national president of the ANC. He organized nonviolent strikes, boycotts, marches, and other acts of civil disobedience.

After the massacre of peaceful black demonstrators at Sharpeville in 1960, Nelson helped organize a paramilitary branch of the ANC to engage in acts of sabotage against the white minority government. He was tried for and acquitted of treason in 1961 but in 1962 was arrested again for illegally leaving the country. Convicted and sentenced to five years at Robben Island Prison, he was put on trial again in 1963 with seven others on charges of sabotage, treason, and conspiracy. In the celebrated Rivonia Trial, named after the suburb of Johannesburg where ANC weapons were found, Mandela eloquently defended his actions. On June 12, 1964, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

READ MORE: The Harsh Reality of Life Under Apartheid

Mandela spent the first 18 of his 27 years in jail at the brutal Robben Island Prison. He was confined to a small cell without a bed or plumbing and was forced to do hard labor in a quarry. He could write and receive a letter once every six months, and once a year he was allowed to meet with a visitor for 30 minutes. However, Mandela’s resolve remained unbroken, and while remaining the symbolic leader of the anti-apartheid movement, he led a movement of civil disobedience at the prison that coerced South African officials into drastically improving conditions on Robben Island. In 1982 he was moved to Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland, and in 1988 to a cottage, where he lived under house arrest.

In 1989, F.W. de Klerk became South African president and set about dismantling apartheid. De Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC, suspended executions, and on February 11, 1990, ordered the release of Nelson Mandela. Mandela subsequently led the ANC in its negotiations with the minority government for an end to apartheid and the establishment of a multiracial government. In 1993, Mandela and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. On April 26, 1994, the country’s first free elections were won by Mandela and the ANC, and a “national unity” coalition was formed with de Klerk’s National Party and the Zulus’ Inkatha Freedom Party. On May 10, Mandela was inaugurated in a ceremony attended by numerous international dignitaries.

As president, Mandela established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate human rights violations under apartheid and introduced numerous initiatives designed to improve the living standards of South Africa’s black population. In 1996, he presided over the enactment of a new South African constitution. Mandela retired from politics in June 1999 at the age of 80. He was succeeded as president by Thabo Mbeki of the ANC, but remained a global advocate for peace and social justice until his death in December 2013.

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U.S. prison population exceeds one million

Year
1994
Month Day
October 27

The U.S. Justice Department announces that the U.S. prison population has topped one million for the first time in American history. The figure—1,012,851 men and women were in state and federal prisons—did not even include local prisons, where an estimated 500,000 prisoners were held, usually for short periods. The recent increase, due to tougher sentencing laws, made the United States second only to Russia in the world for incarceration rates.

Of the characteristics of the prison population, the vast majority of prisoners were male and behind bars on drug-related convictions, while there was an extremely disproportional number of African Americans behind bars compared with their distribution in American society as a whole—more than half the nation’s prisoners were African American, while African Americans made up only 13 percent of the overall U.S. population. This racial imbalance was also present in the 2,890 prisoners under sentence of death in 1994—42 percent of the prisoners on death row were African American.

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Salvatore “Sonny” Bono is elected to the U.S. Congress

Year
1994
Month Day
November 08

If you had made a friendly wager back in 1974 as to which recent or current pop-music figure might go on to serve in the United States Congress in 20 years’ time, you might have picked someone with an apparent political agenda, like Joan Baez, or at least one who was associated with some kind of cause, like nature-lover John Denver. You almost certainly wouldn’t have placed your bet on Sonny Bono, a singer of arguably limited talents who appeared content to stand, literally and figuratively, in the shadow of his far more popular wife, Cher. It was indeed Salvatore “Sonny” Bono, however, who had a future in elective politics—a future that included his election to the United States House of Representatives from California’s 44th Congressional District on November 8, 1994

Sonny Bono fell almost completely out of the public eye following the cancellation of The Sonny and Cher Show in 1977. While his ex-wife and erstwhile musical partner, Cher, launched a hugely successful second phase of her career with well-received acting roles in the 1980s, Sonny left the spotlight behind to focus on the restaurant business. Although he presented himself as a none-too-bright bumbler during his days on television, Bono had been an astute operator in shepherding his and Cher’s early musical career and in his later business dealings. The owner of several successful restaurants, Bono got involved in politics after growing frustrated with the bureaucratic hurdles placed before one of his restaurant construction projects by local officials in Palm Springs, California, in the late 1980s. Though he himself had registered to vote for the first time only one year earlier, Bono was elected mayor of Palm Springs in 1988. Following a failed run in the California Republican Senatorial primary in 1992, Bono turned his attention to the 44th District’s Congressional seat in 1994. A conservative Republican, Bono was swept into office as part of the Newt Gingrich-led Republican “revolution” that year, and he was re-elected in 1996.

During his time in office, Bono did not treat his fellow lawmakers to any singing performances, but the man behind the hits “I Got You Babe” (1965) and “The Beat Goes On” (1967) did trade on his public persona as a good-natured, non-threatening nice guy. As The Washington Post noted in its obituary following Bono’s death in a skiing accident in 1998, “Bono brought to Congress a rare skill: He could make lawmakers—even the most pompous among them—laugh at themselves.” Or as President Bill Clinton said, “”His joyful entertainment of millions earned him celebrity, but in Washington he earned respect by being a witty and wise participant in policymaking processes that often seem ponderous to the American people.”

READ MORE: How Sonny and Cher Went From TV’s Power Couple to Bitter Exes

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Passenger ferry, Estonia, sinks, killing 852

Year
1994
Month Day
September 28

On September 28, 1994, 852 people die in one of the worst maritime disasters of the century when the Estonia, a large car-and-passenger ferry, sinks in the Baltic Sea.

The German-built ship was traveling on an overnight cruise from Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia, to Stockholm, Sweden, when it sank off the coast of Finland. Estonia, a former Soviet republic that gained its independence in 1991 (the last Russian troops left in 1994), was a popular and affordable travel destination for Swedes. The Estonia was a type of ferry known as a “ro-ro,” which featured a smorgasbord, live music, dancing and drinking and allowed people to drive vehicles onto one end of the ship and drive off on the other end.

After hitting stormy weather, with waves reaching an estimated 15 to 20 feet, the Estonia went down in the middle of the night. Many passengers were trapped inside the ship, while others, even some who managed to make it into lifeboats, later drowned in the frigid water or died from hypothermia. Helicopters were used to rescue most of the 137 survivors.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, a joint Swedish-Finnish-Estonian government committee ruled it an accident and blamed it on stormy weather that caused water to pour through an open bow door and into the Estonia’s car deck, destabilizing the ship and capsizing it in less than an hour. However, there were others, including some family and friends of the Estonia victims, who believed the sinking was the result of a pre-existing hole caused by a collision or explosion.

Two years after the sinking of the Estonia, the Bukoba, a passenger steamship, went down in Lake Victoria near Tanzania in May 1996, leaving an estimated 1,000 people dead. In September 2002, a Senegalese passenger ferry, the Joola, sank off the coast of Gambia, resulting in at least 1,800 casualties. By comparison, when the ocean liner Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg off of Newfoundland on its maiden voyage in April 1912, approximately 1,500 lives were lost.

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