“Solidarity Day” rally at Resurrection City

On June 19, 1968, a long-term anti-poverty demonstration known as Resurrection City reaches its high-water mark. On “Solidarity Day,” over 50,000 people flock to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. to protest, sing, hear speeches and demonstrate on behalf of national legislation to address the plight of the American poor. “Today is really only the beginning,” Rev. Ralph Abernathy tells the crowd. “We will not give up the battle until the Congress of the United States decides to open the doors of America and allow the nation’s poor to enter as full-fledged citizens into this land of wealth and opportunity.”

In May 1968, poor people from all over the country came to the National Mall and made temporary homes in plywood shelters, creating a settlement they called Resurrection City. The protest began less than two months after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and grew out of the Poor People’s Campaign and the campaign for an Economic Bill of Rights, both of which had been major focuses of King’s at the time of his death. The goal was to convince legislators of the need for laws that would lift poor people of all races out of poverty, and to sway public opinion by making the plight of the poor impossible to ignore. Protesters came from all over the country—“caravans” drove from as far away as Los Angeles and Seattle while a “Freedom Train” brought people from Memphis and one group from Marks, Mississippi rode mule-drawn wagons.

READ MORE: When Protesters Occupied D.C. for Six Weeks to Demand Economic Justice

Marches and demonstrations took place in Washington as more and more activists arrived throughout May, including a Mother’s Day march organized by the National Welfare Rights Organization and led by Coretta Scott King. Ethel Kennedy, wife of Sen. Robert Kennedy, was involved with the demonstrations, and his funeral procession stopped at Resurrection City on June 8, following his assassination on June 5. Businesses, schools and other fixtures of normal life flourished within the settlement, which also saw conflicts stemming from animosities between different groups living there, leadership disputes and the inherent uncertainty of living in makeshift dwellings on the National Mall. During this time, leaders of the movement met and testified before members of Congress. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, dubbed the “mayor” of Resurrection City, sought to lift spirits with his sermons, one of which became famous for the chant of “I am somebody!” which temporarily re-energized the protesters. The original permit issued by the National Parks Service expired a few days before Solidarity Day, but it was extended by four days.

After being moved due to an internal conflict among organizers, Solidarity Day took place on Juneteenth and was attended by over 50,000 people. Abernathy and Coretta Scott King spoke, along with leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Native American activist Martha Grass, the president of the United Auto Workers (80 busloads of UAW members were in attendance) and Democratic presidential hopefuls Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey.

The day may well have gone down as a powerful and peaceful day of activism on par with the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, but the conclusion to the story of Resurrection City was far less inspiring. Allegedly in response to rocks thrown at them from the camp, and with the Parks Service permit expiring, the police moved to evict residents on June 23, firing tear gas into Resurrection City and rounding up its occupants for arrest. One SCLC leader remembered the eviction as “worse than anything I saw in Mississippi or Alabama.”

Today, Solidarity Day and Resurrection City are footnotes in the overall story of the civil rights movement, overshadowed by earlier, more successful protests and by the violence and conflict that defined 1968. At the time, however, the settlement by the Reflecting Pool was impossible to ignore—particularly for lawmakers and residents of Washington, D.C.—and regardless of its failure to achieve sweeping social change or anti-poverty legislation, it remains one of the largest and most sustained social justice protests in the history of the United States.

READ MORE: Civil Rights Movement Timeline

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First scientific report on AIDS is published

On June 5, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publishes an article in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report describing five cases of a rare lung infection, PCP, in young, otherwise healthy gay men in Los Angeles. It was unknown at the time, but the article is describing the effects of AIDS. Today, the article’s publication is often cited as the beginning of the AIDS crisis.

The article prompted medical professionals around the country, particularly in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, to send the CDC information about similar, mysterious cases. Because it is first detected circulating among gay men, Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, as it will be dubbed the following year, was colloquially referred to as “gay cancer” and formally dubbed Gay-Related Immune Deficiency before the term AIDS was coined in 1982. 

AIDS is not lethal in and of itself—rather, it severely impacts the immune system’s ability to fight off illness, leaving the patient vulnerable to all manner of infections, particularly “opportunistic infections.” PCP is one such opportunistic infection, and it was one of a handful of illnesses whose increased occurrence in the year 1981 revealed that there was an HIV/AIDS epidemic. Within a few years, the AIDS epidemic became the major public health crisis of the late 20th century, although many continued to believe it only affected gay men. Due largely to the misconception that it was a “gay disease,” it would be two years before the New York Times published its first front-page article about AIDS and four years before then-President Ronald Reagan first mentioned it publicly.

Two of the men mentioned in the study were dead by the time it was published, and the three others died a short time later. By the end of the millennium, nearly 775,000 Americans died of AIDS-related illnesses. 

READ MORE: How AIDS Remained an Unspoken—But Deadly—Epidemic

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George Floyd is killed by a police officer, igniting historic protests

Black History Milestones: George Floyd Protests

On the evening of May 25, 2020, white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kills George Floyd, a Black man, by kneeling on his neck for almost 10 minutes. The death, recorded by bystanders, touched off what may have been the largest protest movement in U.S. history and a nationwide reckoning on race and policing.

The 46-year-old Floyd, a Houston native and father of five, had purchased cigarettes at a Minneapolis convenience store. After a clerk suspected that Floyd had used a counterfeit $20 bill in the transaction, the store manager called the police. When officers arrived, they pulled a gun on Floyd, who initially cooperated as he was arrested. However, Floyd resisted being placed in the police car, saying he was claustrophobic. Officers eventually pulled him from the car and Chauvin pinned him to the ground for nine minutes and 29 seconds. Floyd was unresponsive when an ambulance came and was pronounced dead at a local hospital.

After video of the incident was posted on Facebook, protests began almost immediately in Minneapolis and quickly spread across the nation. Demonstrators chanting “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe” took to the streets from coast to coast, and police departments around the country responded at times with riot-control tactics. Floyd’s murder came after protests over the killings of Ahmaud Arbery in Atlanta in February and of Breonna Taylor in Louisville in March, and also came in the third month of nationwide lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

By early June, protests were so widespread that over 200 American cities had imposed curfews and half of the United States had activated the National Guard. Marches continued and spread throughout June, despite the restrictions on gathering during the COVID-19 pandemic and militarized resistance from federal and local law enforcement.

All told, more than 2,000 cities and towns in all 50 states saw some form of demonstration in the weeks after Floyd’s death, as well as major cities across the globe.

The protests set off local and national dialogue about the role and budgets of American police departments, as well as intense discussions in schools and corporations about how to end racism and create inclusivity, equality and equity.

Chauvin, who had at least 17 other misconduct complaints lodged against him prior to killing Floyd, was arrested on May 29, 2020 and charged with second-degree and third-degree murder, as well as second-degree manslaughter. On April 20, 2021, after a trial, which was broadcast live online and on TV due to the pandemic, a jury found Chauvin guilty of all charges.

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New York City’s Chinatown shuts down to protest police brutality

New York City’s Chinatown is almost entirely shut down on May 19, 1975, with shuttered stores displaying signs reading “Closed to Protest Police Brutality.” The demonstration is a reaction to the New York Police Department’s treatment of Peter Yew, a Chinese-American architectural engineer who was arrested, viciously beaten and charged with felonious assault after he witnessed the police beating a Chinese teenager and attempted to intervene.

In late April of 1975, Yew witnessed the NYPD stop a 15-year-old for an alleged traffic violation and tried to intervene when they began assaulting him. In doing so, he angered the officers, who Yew alleged beat him and arrested him, took him to the local precinct, stripped him, and beat him more while charging him with a felony. The shocking incident was the final straw for Chinatown residents who had long endured racist and dehumanizing treatment at the hands of the NYPD, and it led to weeks of unrest in the area. In the aftermath of the beatings, locals demonstrated outside the precinct, receiving further violent backlash from the police, and 2,500 people marched on nearby City Hall in a protest that, according to the New York Times, “had young students protesting side‐by‐side with their parents and grandparents, chanting together in Chinese.”

On May 19, local businesses joined the protest and activists again marched in the streets, coming to blows with police as they demanded better social services for their community. The charges against Yew were eventually dropped, the captain of the local precinct was reassigned—though not fired—and the unrest galvanized support for organizations like the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and Asian Americans for Equal Employment, both of which organized in protest of Yew’s beating.

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Sojourner Truth delivers powerful speech on African American women’s rights

At the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, on May 29, 1851, the formerly enslaved woman, Sojourner Truth, rises to speak and assert her right to equality as a woman, as well as a Black American. The exact wording of her speech, which becomes famous for the refrain, “Ain’t I a Woman?” has been lost to history. In fact, historians have since challenged whether Truth ever used the famous refrain as she spoke. Nonetheless, her speech becomes widely regarded as one of the most powerful moments of the early women’s liberation movement.

Born into slavery in Ulster County, New York, Isabella Baumfree escaped with her infant daughter in 1826 and chose the name Sojourner Truth. She later successfully sued a slaveowner for custody of her son, becoming the first Black woman to take a white man to court and win. She remained an antislavery activist and, after the Civil War, a crusader for the rights of African Americans for the rest of her life. Her speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention formed much of the foundation of her legacy.

LISTEN: Sojourner’s Truth on HISTORY This Week Podcast

There are two conflicting versions of the speech, neither of which was transcribed at the time Truth actually gave it. An account reported in the Anti-Slavery Bugle was the first to be published and does not actually include the titular phrase. On May 2, 1863, Frances Gage, a white abolitionist and president of the Convention, published an account of Truth’s words in the National Anti-Slavery Standard. In her account, Gage wrote that Truth used the rhetorical question, “Ar’n’t I a Woman?” to point out the discrimination Truth experienced as a Black woman.

Various details in Gage’s account, however, including that Truth said she had 13 children (she had five) and that she spoke in dialect have since cast doubt on its accuracy. Contemporaneous reports of Truth’s speech did not include this slogan, and quoted Truth in standard English. In later years, this slogan was further distorted to “Ain’t I a Woman?”, reflecting the false belief that as a formerly enslaved woman, Truth would have had a Southern accent. Truth was, in fact, a New Yorker.

Regardless, there is little doubt that Truth’s speech—and many others she gave throughout her adult life—moved audiences. Truth straightforwardly described of the predicament of Black women, who were not even afforded the paternalistic treatment their white counterparts received. 

According to the Bugle version, she also facetiously described the predicament of white men, who were “surely between a hawk and a buzzard” with both women and African Americans demanding equality. As Truth deftly criticized not only sexism and racism, but also the racism of her fellow feminists, her speech is now regarded not only as one of the earliest entries in the canon of American feminism but also an early example of intersectionality, more than a century and a half before the term came to prominence.

READ MORE: Early Women’s Rights Activists Wanted Much More than Suffrage

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Chinese gold miners are slaughtered in the Hells Canyon Massacre

The Hells Canyon Massacre begins on May 27, 1887, in Lewiston, Washington Territory, in what is now Idaho. The mass slaughter of Chinese gold miners by a gang of white horse thieves was one of many hate crimes perpetrated against Asian immigrants in the American West during this period.

Two groups of Chinese workers were employed by the Sam Yup Company of San Francisco to search for gold in the Snake River in May of 1887. As they made their camps along the Snake River around Hells Canyon, a gang of seven white men who were known as horse thieves ambushed them, shooting them until they ran out of ammunition, mutilated some of the bodies and threw them in the river, and made off with several thousand dollars’ worth of gold. Although the eventual indictment listed 10 counts of murder, other accounts hold that the seven white riders killed a total of 34 people.

The massacre was part of a broader pattern of racism and violence against Asians during the period. Anti-Chinese sentiment and the belief that Asian laborers were “stealing” white jobs led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, banning all immigration from. In 1885 and 1886, white residents of Tacoma and Seattle had rioted and forced Chinese residents to leave the country, and San Francisco experienced three days of anti-Chinese pogroms in 1877. The Hells Canyon Massacre remained a historical footnote until 1995, when a Wallowa County clerk discovered court documents pertaining to the case—despite one of the assailants giving detailed testimony against them, the three men tried for the massacre were found innocent by an all-white jury. 

In 2005, the site of the massacre was renamed Chinese Massacre Cove, and in 2012 a memorial with inscriptions in Chinese, English and Nez Perce was erected there.

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The first Freedom Ride departs from Washington, D.C.

On May 4, 1961, a group of thirteen young people departs Washington, D.C.’s Greyhound Bus terminal, bound for the South. Their journey is peaceful at first, but the riders will meet with shocking violence on their way to New Orleans, eventually being forced to evacuate from Jackson, Mississippi but earning a place in history as the first Freedom Riders.

Two Supreme Court rulings, Morgan v. Virginia and Boynton v. Virginia, forbade the racial segregation of bus lines, and a 1955 ruling by the Interstate Commerce Commission outlawed the practice of using “separate but equal” buses. Nonetheless, bus lines in the South continued to abide by Jim Crow laws, ignoring the federal mandate to desegregate, for years. The Congress of Racial Equality, with assistance from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, decided to protest this practice by sending white and Black riders together into the South, drawing inspiration both from recent sit-ins and the 1947 Journey of Reconciliation, in which activists attempting to desegregate buses were imprisoned in North Carolina for violating Jim Crow laws.

READ MORE: Mapping the Freedom Riders’ Journey Against Segregation

The riders who boarded the buses on May 4 were mostly students, and several were teenagers. Among them was 21-year-old John Lewis, who would go on to co-organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and represent a Georgia district containing most of Atlanta in Congress for 33 years. Trained in nonviolence, they sat in mixed-race pairs on the buses in order to make a statement about integration while deterring violence. When they reached Rock Hill, South Carolina, however, Lewis was badly beaten, and things got worse as they approached Birmingham, Alabama. In Anniston, outside of Birmingham, a crowd of local Klansmen attacked one of the buses, setting it ablaze and sending several riders to the hospital. Local police fired warning shots in the air to dispel the riot, although it has since been revealed that they had privately assured the Klan they would give them time to carry out an attack before intervening. In Birmingham, more Klansmen beat the riders with baseball bats and bicycle chains as the local police, led by the notorious Bull Connor, stood down. 

The original Freedom Riders finally abandoned their plan to reach New Orleans and were evacuated from Jackson, Mississippi, but even as the first ride came to an end more Freedom Riders were beginning theirs. Over the course of the summer, over 400 people took part in dozens of Freedom Rides followed in their footsteps. Like the first Riders, they were often met with violence and arrested, but their actions drew national attention to the brutality of white supremacy and the flagrance with which Southern states, businesses, and law enforcement continued to disregard federal law and finally won true desegregation of the buses.

Listen to HISTORY This Week Podcast: Freedom Rides Down Under

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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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The U.S. officially begins construction on the Panama Canal

A ceremony on May 4, 1905 marks the official beginning of the second attempt to build the Panama Canal. This second attempt to bridge the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans will succeed, dramatically altering world trade as well as the physical and geopolitical landscape of Central America.

For decades before it was attempted, merchants and engineers fixated on the idea of creating a passage through Central America for ocean-going vessels, sparing them thousands of nautical miles and the dangerous trip around Cape Horn. A French company was the first to attempt building such a canal, but the results were disastrous: roughly 20,000 workers perished due to accidents and tropical diseases, and the company collapsed without coming close to completing the canal. 

In 1902, the United States Congress passed the Spooner Act, authorizing the acquisition of the defunct French company. After failing to reach a deal with Colombia to dig the canal, the Unites States backed separatists in the Isthmus of Panama, leading to the birth of a new nation as well as the Panama Canal Zone, a strip of land 10 miles wide along the route of the canal over which the United States would hold jurisdiction.

WATCH: Modern Marvels: Panama Canal Supersized on HISTORY Vault

On May 4, 1905, dubbed “Acquisition Day,” the project became official. The Americans largely avoided the mistakes that had doomed the French project. Engineers used dams to create an inland lake, connected to the oceans by locks, rather than building a sea-level canal all the way across the isthmus. In addition to creating Gatún Lake, then the largest artificial lake in the world, the project also required the blasting of the Galliard Cut, also known as the Culebra Cut, an artificial gorge which was dynamited out of the rock of the Continental Divide so that the canal could flow through.

In October of 1913, nearly 10 years after construction had resumed, a telegraph from President Woodrow Wilson triggered the detonation of a dike and the flooding of the Culebra Cut, joining the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific. The following August, the Panama Canal officially opened, immediately altering patterns of world trade in ways comparable only to the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. 

Accidents, disease and the extremely hot conditions killed 5,609 workers over the decade it took to complete the canal. The United States remained the de facto sovereign of the canal and the Canal Zone until 1979 when, under President Jimmy Carter, the U.S. agreed to transfer management of the canal to Panama on December 31, 1999.

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“Sip-In” takes place at Julius’ Bar in New York City

On the afternoon of April 21, 1966, a bar crawl in New York’s West Village leads to an important early moment in the gay liberation movement. In what will be dubbed the “Sip-In,” Dick Leitsch, Craig Rodwell and John Timmons publicly identify themselves as gay and demand to be served anyway, challenging the unofficial but widespread practice of banning gay customers from bars.

Although the gay community in New York grew and established numerous clandestine hubs over the course of the 1950s and ’60s, they were still met with open contempt at most bars, restaurants, and nightclubs in the city. Gay men were often accused of “disorderly conduct” simply for being gay and thrown out of bars even though there was no law against homosexuality or serving gays. These were acts of bigotry, but also self-preservation, as the NYPD routinely raided and shut down bars where gays were known to congregate. It was not uncommon for bars to put up signs with messages like “If you are gay, please stay away,” or the slightly subtler “Patrons Must Face the Bar While Drinking,” a coded warning against men trying to pick up other men.

READ MORE: How the Mob Helped Establish NYC’s Gay Bar Scene

Leitsch, Rodwell, and Timmons—later joined by Randy Wicker—were members of the Mattachine Society, a group that tried to break the taboo around homosexuality and present themselves as clean-cut model citizens to combat homophobia and carve out a place in the public sphere for openly gay men. Borrowing an idea from the civil rights movement, they decided to sit down at various bars in Lower Manhattan, announce that they were gay and refuse to leave without being served. The trio was kicked out of the first bar before they arrived—a reporter they had tipped off beat them to the bar and spilled the beans to the bartender, who closed his bar rather than serve them. The group proceeded to two more bars, telling their servers they were gay, and each instance ended with a discussion with the manager and free drinks for the activists. “I’m starting to feel drunk,” Timmons recalled telling his friends. “We better get this done already.”

They finally made their stand at Julius’ Bar, a spot popular with the gay community. The bartender put a glass down in front of Leitsch as he approached the bar, only to place his hand over it after Leitsch announced that he was gay. A newspaper photographer captured the moment, and the Sip-In became legend. Some accounts of the Sip-In hold that the bartender at Julius’ was playing along with the Mattachine in order to help them attract publicity, while others claim that Julius’, though usually gay-friendly, denied the men their drinks because it had been raided by the police just a few days before.

Although its legacy would be dwarfed by the Stonewall Riots, which began in the same neighborhood three years later, the Sip-In did cause a stir. News of the event prompted an official announcement from the chairman of the New York State Liquor authority, affirming that there was nothing in state law about denying service to gays, and a ruling from New York’s Commission on Human Rights that one could not be denied service simply for being homosexual. Across the river in New Jersey, the Mattachine began suing bar owners who denied them service the following year, winning a state Supreme Court ruling that, while labelling gays “unfortunates,” held that “their status does not make them criminals or outlaws.”

READ MORE: The Gay ‘Sip-In’ that Drew from the Civil Rights Movement to Fight Discrimination

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