October 24, 1972 – Death of Two Civil Rights Pioneers Who Both Refused to Move to the Back of the Bus

On this day in history, both Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson passed away. (Robinson was 53 and Parks was 92).

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. (You can read our post about the details of her act of civil disobedience here.) Many Americans know her story. But on July 6, 1944, Lieutenant Jack Roosevelt (“Jackie”) Robinson also refused to move to the back of the bus, and he received a court martial.

Jackie Robinson in military uniform, 1945

Jackie Robinson in military uniform, 1945

Jackie Robinson, later to become famous as the first black to integrate major league baseball in modern times, was assigned to Camp Hood near Waco, Texas during World War II. Camp Hood had a bad reputation among blacks, not only because of the segregation on the post but also because of the depth of racism in the neighboring towns.

On July 6, 1944, Robinson was riding a bus on the base and sitting next to a fellow officer’s light-skinned wife. The driver instructed Robinson to move to a seat farther back. Robinson argued with him, and when he got off at his stop, the bus dispatcher joined in the altercation. A crowd formed and military policemen arrived. The MPs took Robinson into the station. John Vernon, an archivist at the National Archives (Prologue, Spring 2008), tells what happened next:

…when they arrived at the station to meet with the camp’s assistant provost marshal, a white MP ran up to the vehicle and excitedly inquired if they had ‘the nigger lieutenant’ with them. The utterance of this unexpected and especially offensive racial epithet served to set Robinson off and he threatened ‘to break in two’ anyone, whatever their rank or status, who employed that word.” Robinson continued to show “disrespect” and received a court martial.”

Robinson contacted the NAACP and sought publicity from the Negro press. He also wrote to the U.S. War Department. The white press picked up on the situation as Robinson was a well-known athlete from his days at UCLA. (In his time at UCLA, Robinson won a national championship in track and field, two consecutive conference scoring titles as a basketball player, was an honorable mention All-American in football, and also played a little baseball.) Higher ups were worried about this “political dynamite.”

Jackie Robinson at UCLA

Jackie Robinson at UCLA

At the court martial trial, Robinson’s commanding officer gave a glowing report on his character. His army-appointed defense attorney pointed out inconsistencies in witnesses’ accounts. The attorney also suggested that Robinson’s assertiveness was a legitimate expression of resentment given the racially hostile environment. Ultimately, the court acquitted Robinson of all charges.

While what happened to Robinson was not unique, the outcome of the conflict was unusual. It would more than another decade before blacks were free to sit where they chose on the bus.

October 22, 1962 – President Kennedy Announces His Decision to Blockade Cuba in “The Cuban Missile Crisis”

On this day in history, President Kennedy addressed the nation to announce the discovery of Soviet missile bases in Cuba. These missile sites, under construction but nearing completion, were designed to house medium-range missiles capable of delivering nuclear payloads to a number of major cities in the U.S.

President Kennedy Addressing the Nation, October 22, 1962

President Kennedy Addressing the Nation, October 22, 1962

Kennedy said he was ordering a naval “quarantine” of Cuba to prevent Soviet ships from transporting any more offensive weapons to the island and declared that the United States would not tolerate the existence of the missile sites currently in place. He said America would not stop short of military action to end what he called a “clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace.”

Aerial view of missile launch site at San Cristobal, Cuba. (John F. Kennedy Library)

Aerial view of missile launch site at San Cristobal, Cuba. (John F. Kennedy Library)

On October 23, the quarantine of Cuba began, but Kennedy decided to give Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev more time to consider the U.S. action by pulling the quarantine line back 500 miles. The leaders eventually publicly agreed to a deal in which the Soviets would dismantle the weapon sites in exchange for a pledge from the United States not to invade Cuba. In a separate secret deal, the United States also agreed to remove its nuclear missiles from Turkey.

You can watch archival footage of his address here.

October 20, 1803 – Ratification of the Louisiana Purchase Treaty

On this day in history, the U.S. Senate ratified the Louisiana Purchase Treaty by a vote of twenty-four to seven. The agreement provided for the purchase of the western half of the Mississippi River basin from France at a price of $15 million, or approximately four cents per acre. The deal doubled the size of the country and paved the way for westward expansion beyond the Mississippi.

All or portions of the following states were carved from the original Louisiana Territory: Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Minnesota.

The Louisiana Purchase is considered the greatest real estate deal in history.


October 18, 1912 – Boxing Champion Jack Johnson Arrested For Violating the Mann Act

On this day in history, John Arthur (“Jack”) Johnson (“The Galveston Giant”), the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion, was arrested on the grounds that his relationship with Lucille Cameron (who later became his second wife) violated the White Slave Traffic Act (also known as the Mann Act).

Jack Johnson

Jack Johnson

As originally passed in 1910, The Mann Act made it a felony to engage in interstate or foreign commerce transport of “any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose”. Its primary stated intent was to address prostitution, “immorality”, and human trafficking particularly where it was trafficking for the purposes of prostitution.

Ms. Cameron refused to testify against Johnson. The Assistant U.S. District Attorney asked the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI) to mount an all-out effort to find any evidence at all that Johnson had violated the Mann Act. They soon found a prostitute named Belle Gifford a.k.a. Belle Schrebier willing to testify against Johnson, and within days, a grand jury issued seven Mann Act indictments.

In the courtroom of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the future Commissioner of Baseball who perpetuated the baseball color line until his death, Johnson was convicted by an all-white jury in June 1913. It took them less than two hours to find Johnson guilty on all counts. Despite the fact that the incidents used to convict Johnson took place before passage of the Mann Act, he was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.

Jack Johnson on his wedding day to Lucille Cameron

Jack Johnson on his wedding day to Lucille Cameron

On June 24, while out on bail pending appeal, Johnson fled the country, returning to the U.S. seven years later. He surrendered to Federal agents at the Mexican border and was sent to the United States Penitentiary at Leavenworth to serve his sentence.

On June 10, 1946, Johnson died in a car crash on U.S. Highway 1 in North Carolina, after racing angrily from a diner that refused to serve him. He was 68 years old at the time of his death.

October 16, 1968 – Black Power Salute at the Olympics

On this day in history, American Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood atop the medal podium at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists during the playing of the American national anthem. Smith and Carlos (both of whom are National Track and Field Hall of Famers) were kicked out of the Olympic village, suspended from the U.S. team, and even received death threats.

But neither man ever apologized for his raised fist or his bowed head.

The Australian silver medalist in the 200 meters in 1968, Peter Norman, displayed his solidarity with their action by wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge during the medal ceremony.

Gold medalist Tommie Smith (center) and bronze medalist John Carlos (right) raise black-gloved fists during the American national anthem at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Australian sprinter Peter Norman, who won silver in the 200 meters and supported Carlos and Smith's protest, stands at left.  John Dominis—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Gold medalist Tommie Smith (center) and bronze medalist John Carlos (right) raise black-gloved fists during the American national anthem at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Australian sprinter Peter Norman, who won silver in the 200 meters and supported Carlos and Smith’s protest, stands at left. John Dominis—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

In 2012, Carlos said in an interview:

It’s like this: If I don’t stand and fight for change, then I’m part of the tyranny that’s taking place. I refuse to succumb to being a second class citizen, and not being able to go the university of my choice, or live in this community. I refuse to always be the doorman, or the guy who cleans the toilets. You can’t whitewash what God has planned for me in my life.”

Carlos reported that Norman was scorned for his support, and not even acknowledged at the 2000 Olympic games in Australia. In spite of this, Norman never changed his position on human rights. In 2006, both Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Norman’s funeral.

October 14, 1964: Martin Luther King, Jr. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

On this date in history, Martin Luther King, Jr., at age 35, became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. recreates the moment he received word by phone that he has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize as he lies in hospital bed in Atlanta, Ga., October 14, 1964, where he went for a checkup

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. recreates the moment he received word by phone that he has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize as he lies in hospital bed in Atlanta, Ga., October 14, 1964, where he went for a checkup

In his acceptance speech he said:

I am mindful that only yesterday in Birmingham, Alabama, our children, crying out for brotherhood, were answered with fire hoses, snarling dogs and even death. I am mindful that only yesterday in Philadelphia, Mississippi, young people seeing to secure the right to vote were brutalized and murdered. And only yesterday more than 40 houses of worship in the State of Mississippi alone were bombed or burned because they offered a sunctuary to those who would not accept segregation.

I am mindful that debilitating and grinding poverty afflicts my people and chains them to the lowest rung of the economic ladder.

Therefore, I must ask why this prize is awarded to a movement which is beleaguered and committed to unrelenting struggle; to a movement which has not won the very peace and brotherhood which is the essence of the Nobel Prize.

After contemplation, I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time — the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression.

…I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the “isness” of man’s present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts him.”

His words, of course, are still relevant today. You can see a video of Dr. King delivering the speech here.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. picking up the Nobel Prize for Peace from Gunnar Jahn, president of the Nobel Prize Committee, in Oslo on December 10, 1964

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. picking up the Nobel Prize for Peace from Gunnar Jahn, president of the Nobel Prize Committee, in Oslo on December 10, 1964

October 12, 1898 – Ten Killed in Miners’ Riot in Campaign for Eight-Hour Workday

On this day in history, The Battle of Virden, also known as the Virden Massacre, took place in Virden, Illinois during a miner’s strike, leaving four security guards and seven striking mine workers dead, and more than thirty people wounded.

Virden sits atop a large seam of coal. After the 1850s, when the Chicago and Alton railroad was completed, coal-mining became quite profitable.


As Carl Weinberg reports in his history of the incident,

Before 1897 most mining families faced the twin hazards of hunger above ground and death down below without benefit of a union. In 1892, two years after the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) was formed, the treasury of the Illinois District 12 contained the grand total of $5.40.”

But membership in the union grew and there was a bitter six-month statewide strike in Illinois at the end of 1897 for better wages. Nevertheless, despite an agreement arrived at in January of 1898 to settle the strike, Chicago-Virden Coal Company determined it would not in fact pay the new higher wage scale of 40 cents per ton of coal mined. Instead, the coal company built a timber stockade around its minehead adjoining the railroad tracks, and hired African-Americans from Southern states to come to Illinois as coal miners. The Chicago-Virden Company knew that African-Americans, who were attempting to escape Jim Crow labor conditions, would not request union-scale wages.

On September 24, a trainload of potential strikebreaking African-American miners recruited by the company pulled into Virden on the Chicago & Alton railroad and were informed by representatives of UMWA Local 693 that they were entering a strike. That train continued north to Springfield, Illinois without incident.

On October 12, 1898, another train pulled into Virden, loaded with some fifty additional potential strikebreakers. This train also carried ex-police from Chicago and private detectives from St. Louis all armed by The Chicago-Virden Company with brand new Winchester rifles. The train stopped on the C&A RR tracks just outside the minehead stockade. As the strikers attempted to surround the train, the guards opened fire.


The strikers were also armed. A gun battle broke out in and around the strikebreakers’ train. After a short time of firing on both sides, the train’s engineer reconsidered stopping in Virden and continued on to Springfield, his strikebreaking cargo still aboard.

The mine owners capitulated in mid-November and accepted the UMWA unionization of the Virden coal mines. The union and the mine owners also agreed to segregate the Virden mines, and Virden remained a “sundown town” for decades thereafter. (A sundown town is a town, city, or neighborhood in the US that was purposely all-white. The term came from signs that were posted stating that people of color had to leave the town by sundown.) (Today, Census data reveals that of the 3,375 citizens of Virden, a total of five are black.)

A monument in the Virden town square commemorates the coal strike and the battle of October 12th. At the center top the bas-relief is a bronze portrait of Mary Harris Jones (“Mother Jones”), who supported the strikers.

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For many historians, the defiance of union coal miners at the Virden Massacre marked the turning point in the labor movement.


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