May In American History: Part II

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May 16, 1868
President Andrew Johnson is temporarily acquitted by the US Senate. On February 24 of that year, the House of Representatives began Johnson’s impeachment trial. In 1867, Johnson removed Edwin Stanton from his position as Secretary of War while Congress was out of session, and attempted to appoint Lorenzo Thomas as his replacement. Before that, Johnson had appointed future president Ulysses S. Grant as interim Secretary of War. Due to these two incidents, as well as others, the House sought to remove Johnson from his position as President, stating that he had violated the Tenure of Office Act. This was the first impeachment of a president in US history. Following Johnson’s temporary acquittal, a 10-day recess was held. On May 26, he was acquitted for the final time. As of 2021, only three presidents have been impeached, the other two being Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. No president has, thus far, been removed from office due to impeachment.

May 17, 1954
The US Supreme Court delivers its decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Prior to this, school segregation occurred throughout much of the United States, especially in the Deep South. In 1896, the US Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that segregation meant “separate but equal.” This fueled the continuance of Jim Crow laws and segregationist policies. Many Civil Rights actions were launched as a result, beginning largely with the Montgomery Bus Boycotts in December 1955. With Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation of children in school was unconstitutional.

May 18, 1933
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Tennessee Valley Authority Act. Headquartered in Knoxville, Tennessee, the TVA was tasked with providing electricity and economic recovery to the Tennessee Valley, an area heavily affected by the Civil War and the Great Depression. One of the TVA’s greatest projects was the creation of Fontana Dam, located deep within the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina. Construction of this dam began in 1942, and although controversial at the outset of its construction, it provided electricity to the region and produced jobs for the war effort.

May 19, 1963
Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is published. Written just three days prior, this was the source of one of King’s most famous statements: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere.” During the Birmingham Campaign of the Civil Rights Movement, King was arrested and spent 11 days in the Birmingham City Jail. In his letter, King acknowledged that people have a right to break unjust laws. One memorable excerpt pertaining to this states: “An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law…All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.” King also remarks on the importance of distinguishing legality for morality. On this, he stated, “We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian Freedom Fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’ It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. But I am sure that, if I had lived in Germany during that time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers, even though it was illegal. If I lived in a Communist country today where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I believe I would openly advocate disobeying these anti-religious laws.”

May 20, 1775
The city of Charlotte, North Carolina reportedly becomes the first in the American Colonies to declare independence from the British Empire. During the American Revolution, General Cornwallis referred to the Mecklenburg area as a “Hornet’s Nest of Rebellion.” The document is said to have first been officially published publicly in 1819, leading some to question its authenticity, while others claim that Thomas Jefferson may have used it as inspiration for the Declaration of Independence. The date of May 20, 1775 is displayed on the North Carolina state flag, and “Meck-Deck Day” is celebrated annually to commemorate the Declaration. North Carolina continues to hold the title, “First in Freedom.”

May 21, 1881
The American Red Cross is established by Clara Barton in Washington DC. During the Franco-Prussian War, Barton traveled to Europe and began working with the International Red Cross. This gave her the idea to bring a similar organization to US soil. When John D. Rockefeller and a few others donated to her cause, the national headquarters opened in Washington DC. Many offered their personal services to Barton’s organization, including Frederick Douglass. Today, the ARC provides services to the armed forces and disaster response.

May 22, 1856
Preston Brooks severely beats Charles Sumner with a walking cane in the hall of the US Senate. With the Kansas-Nebraska Act having been drafted by Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas and signed into law by President Franklin Pierce, the territories of those two future states were created. Concurrent to the passing of this law, a violent conflict was being waged in Kansas between anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces, to determine whether Kansas should be free or slave soil. Charles Sumner, a Republican and abolitionist US Senator from Massachusetts, delivered a speech on May 19 and 20, 1856. During the oration, Sumner spoke vigorously against the idea of spreading slavery into new territory. As he was criticizing slave owners, he spoke of one – Andrew Butler – who was related to Preston Brooks. A Democratic US Representative from South Carolina, Brooks took great offense to Sumner’s comments. On May 22, 1856, Brooks approached Sumner and addressed him by stating that Sumner was guilty of libel on behalf of his relative. Brooks proceeded to hit Sumner relentlessly with a cane. The attack resulted in Sumner being badly injured and receiving stitches. This is just one of many incidents that displayed the harsh political climate leading up to the Civil War.

May 22, 1843
A wagon train of roughly one thousand pioneers departs on the Oregon Trail from Elm Grove, Missouri. Stretching over 2,000 miles, the Oregon Trail provided hope to many Midwestern pioneers who sought the promise of a better life in the fertile valleys of the Pacific Northwest. For most travelers, the journey would lead to the Willamette Valley in western Oregon. Others, however, would branch off at certain landmarks and head for Utah or California. The Oregon Trail’s use came to an end around 1869, when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed. Wagon ruts from the trail can still be seen today in certain locations, such as parts of Wyoming.

May 23, 1900
William Harvey Carney is awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Fort Wagner, South Carolina. Born a slave in Norfolk, Virginia, Carney escaped to Massachusetts through the Underground Railroad, where he was reunited with his father. In 1863, he joined the 54th Massachusetts as a sergeant. During the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, Carney was injured, but when the Colorguard fell, he retrieved the flag. Upon returning to his line, he stated, “Boys, I only did my duty. The old flag never touched the ground!”

May 24, 1856
The Pottawatomie Massacre begins. Following the Sacking of Lawrence, Kansas by pro-slavery forces, militant abolitionist John Brown led anti-slavery forces to Pottawatomie Creek. On the night of May 24 and into the early morning hours of May 25, Brown’s men killed five pro-slavery settlers. The massacre was part of a larger conflict known as Bleeding Kansas, during which anti-slavery Jayhawks and pro-slavery Border Ruffians fought violently to establish Kansas as either a free or slave territory. The conflict gained John Brown recognition in the east, and just three years later, he attempted an armed slave uprising at Harpers Ferry, located in the mountains of what is now West Virginia. Bleeding Kansas contributed greatly to the outbreak of the Civil War.

May 25, 1787
The Constitutional Convention convenes in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The delegates who participated included George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and many others. Their original goal at the outset of the convention was to revise the Articles of Confederation. As time passed, however, the many flaws with the Articles were increasingly noticed, and a new Constitution was created, with Hamilton and Madison being the primary architects. The convention ended on September 17 of that year. Upon leaving the convention, Benjamin Franklin was approached by a townsperson, who asked what the delegates had created. His response: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

May 28, 1754
The French and Indian War begins with the Battle of Jumonville Glen. Fought in an area near present-day Uniontown, Pennsylvania, Lieutenant Colonel George Washington led a small force of Continental militia and Mingo warriors against French-Canadian soldiers. The battle ended in a victory for Washington’s forces. The French and Indian War was the first major conflict on American soil (various smaller wars were fought prior). Known outside of America as the Seven Years’ War, it was also fought in many other locations across the world. Due to the heavy cost of the conflict, it inadvertently led to the American Revolution, as British Parliament enacted a series of taxes on the colonies in an effort to pay for the war debt.

May 29, 1917
John F. Kennedy is born in Brookline, Massachusetts. After serving in the Pacific Theater during World War II and earning the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, he served in the US House of Representatives from 1947-1953. He then served as a US Senator from 1953-1960. A member of the Democratic Party, Kennedy served as President from 1961-1963, during which time he faced some of the highest tension of the Cold War. Some of these events included the Bay of Pigs Invasion, construction of the Berlin Wall, increased US involvement in Vietnam, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. On the home front, he signed the Equal Pay Act, which abolished wage discrimination based on gender. On November 22, 1963, Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald, a Communist sympathizer, while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. His body was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. He has perhaps one of the most memorable presidential quotes of all time: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

May 30, 1922
The Lincoln Memorial is dedicated in Washington DC. The memorial was designed by Daniel C. French, architected by Henry Bacon, and carved by the Piccirilli brothers. Numerous other artistic features created by talented individuals are also presented. Inside the monument are two of Lincoln’s most famous speeches: the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address. The site has also been the location of many other famous speeches, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream.” President Warren G. Harding spoke at the dedication, as did former President William H. Taft.

May 31, 1864
The Battle of Cold Harbor begins. During the first few years of the Civil War, Union soldiers under General Ulysses S. Grant secured many victories in Tennessee and Mississippi. After retaking the Western Theater, Grant was given command of the entire Union Army. With the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania nearly one year prior, Union forces were on track to win the war. The armies of both Grant and Robert E. Lee met at Cold Harbor, located just north of Richmond, Virginia. What followed was a battle that lasted nearly two weeks and claimed the lives of more than 17,000 soldiers. The result was a Confederate victory, but Grant ordered his generals to proceed towards Petersburg, where the Union would eventually obtain one of their final major victories necessary to end the conflict.

May 31, 1971
The first Memorial Day is officially observed annually in the US. Prior to this, memoriam of those who gave their lives in America’s wars was held as far back as 1868. During that year, on May 30, James Garfield – Union Civil War veteran, Ohio congressman, and future president – delivered some words of recognition at Arlington National Cemetery. He stated, “We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.” According to PBS, in 1873, New York became the first state to formally celebrate Memorial Day as a holiday. Then, in 1968, US Congress passed the Uniform Holiday Act, setting Memorial Day on the third Monday in May. The final change occurred in 1971, when the law officially took effect, and also moved the day to the last Monday in May. To all of our veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure freedom for our current and future generations, we love and thank you from the bottom of our hearts. God bless you all and you will never be forgotten.

Garrett Smith
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