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the work of history

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    November 20, 1969: The Occupation of Alcatraz begins.

    On this day in 1969, seventy-nine Native Americans, mostly student protesters, set out in a boat to occupy the San Francisco Bay’s famous island prison at Alcatraz (“the Rock”). In this highly-publicized event, occupiers protested the American government’s policy in dealing with Native Americans, particularly its numerous broken treaties with Native American tribes and its Indian termination policy. The protest was fairly effective in achieving recognition for the latter issue; in 1970, President Nixon delivered to Congress a message in which he criticized termination and instead recommended self-determination, and throughout the 70s, the federal government passed legislation that promoted the sovereignty of Native American tribes. During this period, President Nixon also more than doubled the budget of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. 

    The principal organizer of the occupation was Adam Fortunate Eagle, a half-Chippewa activist; the spokesperson for the Indians of All Tribes organization was part-Sioux, part-Mexican activist John Trudell; another leader was Richard Oakes, a Mohawk Indian who lived with his family on Alcatraz until 1970 and sent this message to the San Francisco Department of the Interior:

    We invite the United States to acknowledge the justice of our claim. The choice now lies with the leaders of the American government - to use violence upon us as before to remove us from our Great Spirit’s land, or to institute a real change in its dealing with the American Indian…

    We and all other oppressed peoples would welcome spectacle of proof before the world of your title by genocide. Nevertheless, we seek peace.

    When the Ohlone and other indigenous peoples inhabited the San Francisco Bay Area, Alcatraz was regarded with suspicion, and it was even used as a place of exile and ostracism. It was abandoned as a federal penitentiary in 1963, and it was subsequently claimed by the 1969 protesters by “right of discovery”, the doctrine used to justify the acquisition of native-held lands by colonial powers (especially in the 19th century). The occupation lasted until 1971, and, for nineteen months, students, married couples, and even children lived on the island, garnering support from even celebrities like Jane Fonda and Marlon Brando. The last protesters left in June of 1971, after electrical power and telephone lines were cut off by the government. The occupation’s stated goal of creating a spiritual and cultural center on the island was never fulfilled, and most of the activists’ demands were never met, but it was influential overall, especially given its direct effect on federal policy toward Native Americans. 

    photograph collection

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    November 21, 1922: Rebecca Latimer Felton becomes the first female member of the U.S. Senate.

    Felton was not only the first woman to serve in the Senate but also the oldest freshman senator (appointed at age eighty-seven), the shortest serving Senator (her symbolic term lasted a day), and the last former slaveowner to serve as a Senator. When one of her political allies and Georgia Senator died suddenly after the end of the 67th Congress, Governor Thomas Hardwick seized upon this chance to improve his standing with women voters, who remained cold to him for his opposition to the 19th Amendment (Georgia was notably the first state to reject the 19th Amendment and did not ratify it until 1970). Hardwick offered the post to Felton, who was then sworn in on November 21, 1922. She served for one day before the actual winner of the special election took the Senate seat. 

    Felton advocated strongly for women’s rights and education reform, especially for girls, while at the same time promoting a view on race relations that was quite the opposite direction in progressiveness. She, like many southerners at the time, was highly concerned with the threat she believed “half-civilized gorillas” - black men - posed to white women. Not only did Felton argue against black suffrage (while fighting for women’s suffrage), she actually spoke in favor of lynching black men as a means to ensure the safety of women. As a former slaveowner, she acknowledged the “abuses” that occurred because of slavery, one of these abuses being “ violations of the moral law”, meaning miscegenation. A proud southerner, lynching advocate, and women’s rights activist, Felton said of her own milestone term as senator:

    A Senator of the U.S., a woman, is still a sort of political joke with our masculine leaders in party politics…. But the trail has been blazed! The road is apparently rough—maybe rocky—but the trail has been located. It is an established fact. While it is also a romantic adventure, it will ever remain an historical precedent—never to be erased.

    The first woman elected to serve a full term as Senator was Hattie Caraway. 

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    American presidents and their Thanksgiving turkeys.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

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    November 22, 1963: John F. Kennedy is assassinated.

    Sixty-two years after the assassination of William McKinley, President John F. Kennedy became, at the age of forty-six, the fourth president to be assassinated in American history. He had arrived in Dallas the same day he was assassinated, on tour campaigning for the 1964 election. Prior to his arrival, he had been warned against visiting the city by many, including Adlai Stevenson, who had himself faced jeers and threats of violence when he visited the city a month earlier. Kennedy decided to go anyway; he and Jacqueline arrived in Dallas at around noon and stepped into a presidential limousine headed for the Dallas Trade Mart, where Kennedy would have spoken at a luncheon. 

    Kennedy was travelling in a motorcade that took him along a ten-mile route through Dallas, allowing him to greet the crowds of excited people who packed the streets. The Kennedys were joined in their limousine by the governor of Texas and the governor’s wife, who reportedly spoke the last words Kennedy heard before being shot: 

    Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you.

    As the limousine turned and entered Dealey Plaza (passing in front of the Texas School Book Depository, a bullet struck the president, and then, as a Secret Service agent rushed to his aid, another hit him, this time straight in the head. Jacqueline Kennedy climbed onto the back of the limousine and screamed “I have his brains in my hand!” The limo then sped off to the hospital, but little more could be done. John F. Kennedy was declared dead half an hour later. Fifteen minutes later, Lee Harvey Oswald shot a Dallas police officer on the side of a road. He was soon found in a theater, where he was arrested. Controversy still surrounds the assassination, especially regarding Oswald, his guilt, and his involvement in a possible conspiracy orchestrated by several different parties (the KGB, the CIA, the mafia, even then-Vice President Johnson). The Warren Commission, which was established a week after Kennedy’s assassination, found nothing of note, but the commission’s findings did nothing to quell controversy; in fact, it probably exacerbated it. 

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    John F. Kennedy’s body lies in repose in the East Room of the White House - November 23, 1963. 


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    Darwin's first evolutionary "tree of life", from around 1837

    …from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

    November 24, 1859: Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is published.

    On this day in 1859, the English naturalist laid the foundations for evolutionary biology when he published his instantly popular study, in which he introduced (or at least brought into mainstream) the theory of evolution by natural selection, a simple concept that would revolutionize the field. The term “natural selection” was Darwin’s own, and the findings in his book were the product of two decades of independent research and experimentation; however, Darwin was not the first to theorize a mechanism by which evolution might occur. In fact, Alfred Russel Wallace independently conceived a similar theory as a result of his own research, and he presented a paper on the subject in 1858 (although its importance was not apparent until Darwin’s book was published). Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was the first to suggest a fully-formed theory on the mechanics of evolution, but his (now mostly discredited) theories were never accepted by mainstream science.

    On the Origin of Species targeted a wider audience and helped to achieve a consensus in the scientific community that evolution had, indeed, occurred (how exactly was still debatable). The first and second editions of the book sold out quickly, and four more editions were subsequently printed during Darwin’s life. The fifth, published in early 1869, was the first to use the phrase “survival of the fittest”. To avoid further controversy, Darwin had barely touched on the subject of human evolution in his book, and he waited until 1871 to publish his theories on the matter in The Descent of Man

    Reaction to Darwin’s publication was, naturally, mixed. Darwin had already established himself as a prominent and respected scientist, so there was no way his theories could simply be dismissed as junk science, but his book was criticized nonetheless. There was a sharp divide between religious figures and atheists in reaction to the book, for it (and its author) received much praise from the latter but criticism and outrage from the former. Robert Fitzroy, who had captained the HMS Beagle during Darwin’s voyage, was one critic; a religious man, he claimed that the book had given him “the acutest pain” and that he even felt guilty over his minimal part in helping Darwin form his theories. Despite initial controversy, Darwin’s book and the theories presented in it proved enduring and helped to overturn the seemingly unshakeable idea (once upheld by most of the world’s most prominent scientists) - that species and their destinies are fixed and immutable.

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    November 24, 1963: Jack Ruby kills Lee Harvey Oswald.

    Two days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the assassin himself was shot down as he was being transported from the basement of the Dallas Police Headquarters to a nearby county jail. As Oswald and the policemen accompanying him passed through a crowd of reporters, Jack Ruby, a nightclub operator, emerged from the group and fired at Oswald with a revolver; his fatal wounding of Kennedy’s killer was broadcast on live television, and he was arrested immediately afterward. 

    Ruby’s motives remain unclear, but the House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded that, at the very least, the murder “involved at least some premeditation”. The Warren Commission found no connection between Ruby, Oswald, or any larger conspiracy, and Ruby himself claimed that he ”did it for Jackie and the kids”, and that his actions helped “redeem” Dallas in the eyes of the rest of the nation. Others believe that his murder of Oswald was part of a cover-up of a larger conspiracy, especially given his (alleged) connections to the Mafia and other organized crime groups. Ruby was convicted in 1964 of murder with malice. He was granted a new trial in 1966, this time held in Wichita Falls rather than in Dallas, but he succumbed to cancer before he could be retried. 

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    November 25, 1963: John F. Kennedy is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

    Following his assassination in Dallas on November 22, John F. Kennedy’s body lay in repose in the East Room of the White House for twenty-four hours before it was taken to the Capitol to lie in state (open to public viewing). Hundreds of thousands of people passed through the rotunda to pay their respects in what an NBC anchor described as “the greatest and most solemn wake in history.” During this time, over two hundred foreign dignitaries arrived in Washington, D.C. for the president’s funeral. Ninety-two foreign nations were represented at Kennedy’s funeral, including the Soviet Union; the Soviet representative, Anastas Mikoyan spoke briefly at the funeral with Jacqueline Kennedy, who said to him ““My husband’s dead. Now peace is up to you”.

    John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession left the Capitol at around 11 AM; the route would take the casket to the White House and then to St. Matthew’s Cathedral before ending at Arlington National Cemetery. A million people lined the streets to watch Kennedy’s casket pass by, and millions more watched the ceremony on television. President Johnson marched in the procession as well, though he was warned against doing so for fear of another assassination attempt; Johnson later described the decision as “especially one of the most difficult” he had ever made. 

    Inspired by the flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, the president’s widow requested that an eternal flame be lit over her husband’s grave. An official gravesite was opened in early 1967, under which excerpts from Kennedy’s famous 1961 inaugural address are inscribed:



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    November 26, 1922: Howard Carter discovers Tutankhamun’s tomb.

    In 1915, George Hebert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon (Lord Carnarvon), acquired the concession to excavate the Valley of the Kings, an archaeological site by the Nile where, over the course of half a millennium, Egyptian Pharaohs and nobles were buried in magnificent tombs. Among those buried there include Seti I, Ramesses II (“the Great”), Hatshepsut, and, of course, Tutankhamun. Tutankhamun ruled for less than ten years and died at the age of eighteen; compared to Ramesses or Seti, the Egyptian boy king was far less important a ruler, yet the excavation of his tomb marks perhaps the most famous archaeological discovery in modern times.

    Lord Carnarvon hired Howard Carter to excavate site shortly before the onset of World War I. After years of fruitless work, Carter’s efforts paid off when, in early November of 1922, his workmen uncovered steps that led to a tomb later designated KV62. Carter was, according to his journal entries, excited but also wary of the discovery. He believed he “was on the verge of perhaps a magnificent find”, yet there was no way of telling whether his team had discovered a royal tomb, a cache, or an empty room. Carter’s financial backer arrived in Luxor several weeks later to inspect the discovery himself. By this time Carter was certain that the tomb was in fact a cache, not a tomb, and that it had been entered (and raided) sometime in the indiscernible past. On November 26, Carter breached the doorway in the presence of Lord Carnarvon. He noted inside the chamber “strange animals, statues, and gold - everywhere the glint of gold” and, when asked whether he could see anything, replied simply “Yes, wonderful things.

    The next months were spent meticulously cataloguing the contents of the chamber. In early 1923, Carter’s team discovered Tutankhamun’s burial chamber and, inside it, his sarcophagus. Unfortunately, Lord Carnarvon died shortly afterward, fueling a media frenzy over the supposed “Curse of the Pharaohs”. Despite Tutankhamun’s relative insignificance as a ruler, he is among Egypt’s most famous thanks to the media’s sensational coverage of the excavation. Around the same time, the British Empire declared Egypt the independent Kingdom of Egypt with Fuad I at its head. This exchange of power led to disagreements between Carter and the new government; in the end, he received £8,500 and was allowed to complete his excavation, but the tomb and all its contents were deemed the property of the new Egyptian government. 

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    A member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force demonstrates self-defense techniques on a man at an RAF police school - January 1942. 

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    November 27, 1978: Harvey Milk and George Moscone are assassinated.

    When he was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay male ever to be elected to office in the United States. He served from January 1978 until his assassination by Dan White, a former member of the board. During his brief service as supervisor, Milk proved himself to be both unpredictable and energetic; he was a tireless advocate for gay rights and an ally of San Francisco mayor George Moscone, who eventually signed into law the “most stringent and encompassing” anti-discriminatory gay rights bill “in the nation”. Milk also campaigned against the Briggs Initiative, a California proposition that would have made it illegal for gays and lesbians to work in the state’s public schools. 

    Just ten months after the start of his term, Milk and Mayor Moscone were assassinated by former policeman and firefighter Dan White, who had served alongside White on the Board of Supervisors and had clashed often with his more liberal colleagues on the board throughout his term. White resigned from the board on November 10, 1978 and was replaced by a more liberal supervisor, appointed by Moscone himself. On the day of the appointment, White entered Mayor Moscone’s office at city hall and killed him with a revolver. He met Milk on the way to his own (former) office and killed him as well, with five shots to the wrist, chest, and head. 

    White turned himself in and was convicted in an extremely controversial trial of voluntary manslaughter, due to what became known derisively as the “Twinkie defense” - White’s lawyers were able to argue that he had been depressed and that his mental capacity had been diminished, citing his consumption of junk food as evidence. White eventually received a seven-year prison sentence, which (combined with other factors) enraged the gay community of San Francisco so much that the White Night riots erupted the same day White’s sentence was announced. White eventually committed suicide, but Milk was immortalized, despite his short career, as a martyr and icon. In 2009, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom ”as a pioneer of the LGBT civil rights movement” and for “his exceptional leadership and dedication to equal rights.”

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    What a lovely message; thank you very much!

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    November 28, 1757: William Blake is born.

    Although several decades older than many of the individuals who are traditionally regarded as the leading figures of the English Romantic movement, William Blake was one of the famous and influential poets of the era. Blake was both an artist and poet, and his works generally combined words and illustrations in a highly visual form of poetry in a manner that recalls the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. 

    Blake was not a notable figure during his own life, and although his poem “The Tyger” is one of the most anthologized poems in the English language, his later body of work has been described as “in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language”. Rather less accessible compared to his earlier and more commercial works, Blake’s “prophetic books” contained a rich mythology of his own invention. Ideologically Blake is difficult to categorize. He championed abolitionism and “free love”; he may have also been an early kind of anarchist; he was fervently religious but disdained conventional, organized religion, and he believed that orthodoxy in religion wrongly suppressed natural bodily urges that he argued were simple extensions of the soul. Blake’s impassioned and sometimes radical views shaped his work, but they may have also prevented him from achieving any mainstream recognition during his own lifetime. 

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    November 29, 1972: Pong is released.

    Atari’s simple two-dimensional tennis game was one of the earliest arcade video games ever created. Although the oldest video games were developed decades earlier, Pong was arguably the first mainstream, widely-accessible video game; its success caused many companies to subsequently produce copies and knock-offs of the game, but it is the original that is considered “one of the most historically significant” titles in the history of gaming. Pong was quickly made obsolete, eventually replaced by games with more sophisticated graphics and gameplay, such as Asteroids, Space Invaders, and Pac-Man. Incredibly simple even for the time it was released, Pong still marks a milestone in video game history. 

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    November 30, 1835: Mark Twain is born.

    Mark Twain, whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, was born in Missouri precisely two weeks before the perihelion of Halley’s Comet (coincidentally, he died within days of the comet’s perihelion in 1910). Twain was raised in Hannibal, Missouri, a port town located on the Mississippi that served as the inspiration for the settings of his novels The Adventures Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. At twenty-four he received his license to pilot steamboats down the Mississippi; he also received from his occupation his pen name, which was a reference to river depth. “Mark Twain” was actually one of many pen names that Twain adopted during his life. One was “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass”, and another was simply “Josh”. 

    When the Civil War broke out, Twain was forced to drop the steamboating business and instead enlisted in a Confederate militia, albeit briefly - he quit the militia weeks later and travelled west instead, and some of these travels provided material for his first successful published work, a short story called “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”. Through the 1870s and 80s, Twain subsequently published works like Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, Huckleberry Finn, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. He also wrote several travel pieces after the success of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog”, and his satirical novel (on which he collaborated with another author) The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today is the source of the term commonly applied to the period of political corruption and social problems hidden beneath economic growth following the end of Reconstruction. Twain’s satirical coming-of-age novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is commonly regarded as one of the first of the “Great American Novels”, and Twain himself was called “the father of American literature” by William Faulkner. Ernest Hemingway once remarked that “all modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called HUCKLEBERRY FINN.”

    Irrelevant facts! He was good friends with Nikola Tesla, who claimed that Twain’s works had helped him recover from illness as a young man. Twain is also credited as the man who first described Helen Keller’s teacher Anne Sullivan as a “miracle worker”. 

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    Oh, haha, probably because they’re queued to post at 7:30 AM! Maybe I should change that… But thanks!

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    December 1, 1955: Rosa Parks is arrested.

    Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man and her subsequent arrest marked the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which eventually led to the federal ruling that declared bus segregation laws unconstitutional. At the time of her arrest Parks had been working as a seamstress, and she was also secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, although her arrest was not planned out beforehand as a move to challenge the state and city bus segregation laws. But even if her action had not been an official gesture of protest, her defiance of the law was the result of years and years of frustration with the injustice of the law and others like it. In her 1992 biography, Parks wrote:

    People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.

    Martin Luther King, Jr. offered a similar explanation in his own book, Stride Toward Freedom:

    No one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realizes that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, ‘I can take it no longer.’

    Parks had been sitting on a bus, on the way home from work. The bus’s white-reserved seats quickly filled up so that several white passengers were left standing, whereupon Parks and three other African-American riders were ordered by the bus driver to move toward the back of the bus, to the “colored” section. The other three obeyed; Parks did not. The bus driver then threatened to have her arrested, to which she replied simply, “You may do that”. The police eventually did come and arrest her, and she was charged with the violation of a Montgomery city segregation law (she was eventually fined $10 after a brief trial). Three days after Parks’ arrest, news of a planned boycott - the Montgomery Bus Boycott - spread through newspapers and black churches; meanwhile, Edgar Nixon and Martin Luther King, Jr. conferred on how to carry out their official challenge of Alabama’s segregation laws. In the end, they decided that Rosa Parks (who was described by King as “one of the finest citizens of Montgomery”) would serve as the plaintiff for a test cause against the segregation laws.

    After 381 days, the boycott ended. In one iconic image (pictured above), Rosa Parks is pictured riding on a bus of Montgomery’s newly-integrated transportation system. In 1996 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 1999, the Congressional Gold Medal

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    It’s by Viktor Vasnetsov, and it’s of Sleeping Beauty. Hmm… I’m not sure if there’s an actual title, or if it’s just called Sleeping Beauty

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    December 2, 1823: James Monroe issues the Monroe Doctrine.

    Since its introduction during the so-called “Era of Good Feelings”, the Monroe Doctrine has remained an essentially unchanging part of the United States’ foreign policy. It was conceived by a United States that feared the restored and allied monarchies of post-Napoleon Europe would attempt to establish colonies or spheres of influence in the New World. As a result, James Monroe established his namesake doctrine at his seventh State of the Union Address, which stated that

    …the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.

    In short, the doctrine declared that any attempts by European powers to take over New World territories would be seen by the United States as an act of hostility (although existing colonies would be tolerated). The United States, not yet a world power, had not the military power nor the global influence to issue such a bold statement to the European powers, but it was mostly enforced by the British navy, which laid the foundation for the two nations’ “Special Relationship”. 

    The Monroe Doctrine was significantly applied several times throughout U.S. history. At face value it seemed to be a decrial of colonialism, and the United States did raise objections to some European actions on the grounds of the doctrine’s principles - in 1862, France’s invasion of Mexico was deemed to be a violation of the doctrine, for example. Criticism for the doctrine comes mostly for its later use as a tool for establishing American hegemony in the Western Hemisphere; rather than defending the Americas from European domination, it would simply replace a European oppressor with an American one. In 1845, it was used as justification for the United States’ acquisition of Texas in pursuit of “Manifest Destiny”. In 1904 Theodore Roosevelt added the Roosevelt Corollary; by this time the United States was an emerging world power, so it now had the strength to support this new corollary. It declared that the country had the right to intervene in Latin America to stave off European influence, leading some to criticize the United States’ subsequent role as “hemispheric policeman.” The Monroe Doctrine was also invoked several times during the Cold War, this time against the spread of communism. 

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