Wednesday, May 31, 1961: The Republic of South Africa

The country officially becomes a republic, breaking away from the Commonwealth of Nations (the remnants of the British Empire). The act followed a referendum in October 1960 in which 52 percent of whites had voted in favor of such a move.

* "Formation of the South African Republic": @
* South African History Online: @
* Country Studies: South Africa (from Library of Congress): @
* Newsreels: @ and @ and @
* Interview with Nelson Mandela (May 1961): @


Monday, May 29, 1961: Food stamps

The second food stamp program in 20th-century America -- the first was during the latter part of the Great Depression -- goes into effect. From the U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Mr. and Mrs. Alderson Muncy of Paynesville, West Virginia, were the first food stamp recipients on May 29, 1961. They purchased $95 in food stamps for their 15-person household. In the first food stamp transaction, they bought a can of pork and beans at Henderson's Supermarket."

* Summary (from livinghistoryfarm.org): @
* Summary (from The West Virginia Encyclopedia): @
* History of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Progam (from USDA): @
* Executive Order 10914, "Providing for an Expanded Program of Food Distribution to Needy Families." (Signed by President Kennedy on January 21, 1961): @
* "20 Years Later, Food Stamps Change" (New York Times, 1981): @


Sunday, May 28, 1961: Amnesty International

The human rights group has its beginnings in an article that appears May 28 in The Observer newspaper in London. Written by Peter Benenson, a British lawyer, it begins: "Open your newspaper any day of the week and you will find a report from somewhere in the world of someone being imprisoned, tortured or executed because his opinions or religion are unacceptable to his government." And later: "We have set up an office in London to collect information about the names, numbers and conditions of what we have decided to call 'Prisoners of Conscience.' "

Berenson outlined the goals of what, at the time, was called Appeal for Amnesty, 1961:

1. To work impartially for the release of those imprisoned for their opinions.
2. To seek for them a fair and public trial.
3. To enlarge the Right of Asylum and help political refugees to find work.
4. To urge effective machinery to guarantee freedom of opinion.

Within a year the effort would grow into a formal, international organization. (The now-familiar logo of a candle wrapped in barbed wire first appeared widely in 1963.)

* Official website: @
* Timeline (from amnesty.org): @
* Text of original article: @
* Image of original article: @
* History (video): @
* "Like Water on Stone: The Story of Amnesty International" (book): @
* Selected posters through the years: @
* Peter Benenson obituary (The Economist, 2005): @


Thursday, May 25, 1961: A mission to the moon

The speech's official name was "Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs." And while President John F. Kennedy spoke about U.S. goals and challenges at home and abroad, the most memorable passage -- and objective -- was this:

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."

* Video (from Miller Center of Public Affairs) : @
* Transcript and audio (from JFK library): @
* Draft of speech, press copy and reading copy (from JFK library): @
* Memo from Kennedy to Vice President Johnson, April 20 (from NASA): @
* Memo from Johnson to Kennedy, April 28 (from NASA): @
* Letter from Dr. Wernher von Braun to Johnson, April 29 (from NASA): @
(Click here for earlier entry on von Braun and Marshall Space Flight Center)


May 1961: Freedom Rides

United Press International photo. The original caption reads:

JACKSON, MISS.: Jackson police and their police dogs watch from sidewalk as Trailways bus carrying "Freedom riders" arrives here 5/24. There were no incidents of violence, but "riders" were arrested and jailed almost immediately.

Thursday, May 4
Aboard two buses, 13 civil rights activists leave Washington, D.C., en route to the American South to test those states' acceptance of and adherence to Boynton v. Virginia, the 1960 Supreme Court ruling that had extended desgregation on interstate travel. The plan was to arrive in New Orleans, Louisiana, on May 17, the seventh anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

The Associated Press reports: "Thirteen members of an interracial group headed for the Deep South today on a bus trip to challenge segregation. Traveling by regular interstate buses, they planned to reach New Orleans on May 17 after numerous stops. Among the seven Negroes on the journey was James Farmer, 41 years old, of New York, national director of the sponsoring organization, the Congress of Racial Equality. At a news conference, Mr. Farmer indicated the project would be a sit-in on wheels, designed to discourage segregation at interstate bus terminal restaurants, rest rooms and similar facilities. "If there is arrest, we will accept that arrest," he said, "and if there is violence, we are willing to receive that violence without responding in kind."

* April 26 letter from James Farmer to President Kennedy (from JFK Library): @
* Original itinerary (from visionaryproject.org): @
* "Pilgrimage Off On Racial Test" (Washington Post, May 5, 1961): @

Monday, May 8
First arrest: Joseph Perkins is charged with trespassing after trying to have his shoes shined at a barber shop in Charlotte, North Carolina. He spends two nights in jail, then is released when a local judge cites Boynton v. Virginia.

Tuesday, May 9
First violence: John Lewis, Albert Bigelow and Genevieve Hughes are roughed up by a group of white men at the bus terminal in Rock Hill, South Carolina. They decline to press charges.

Sunday, May 14
Anniston, Alabama: The first of two buses arrives in Anniston, en route to Birmingham. A white mob attacks at the bus station, smashing windows and slashing tires. After 20 minutes the bus leaves, stopping six miles outside town because of the flat tires -- but the crowd has followed, with cars in front and behind. A firebomb is thrown into the bus, and as it burns, the passengers are beaten as they scramble to get out. (Top photo taken by Joe Postiglione of The Anniston Star.)

* Account from "Freedom Riders" book: @
* Anniston Star newspaper (stories, photos, documents): @
* Historical marker: @

Birmingham, Alabama: Running an hour behind the first bus, a second bus also stops in Anniston, where several whites board and attack the riders. They leave Anniston for Birmingham, but it only gets worse there. Bull Connor, the commissioner of public safety, had agreed to let the attackers have a free hand for 15 minutes before police would intervene. Another, more vicious attack follows.

* Birmingham Civil Rights Institute: @
* "Alabama Mob Ambush Bus, Beat Biracial Group and Burn Bus" (Jet magazine, May 25): @
* "But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle": (book by Glenn T. Eskew) @
* Historical marker: @
* Telegram from James Farmer to President Kennedy: @

Monday, May 15
End of first Freedom Ride: The Birmingham riders are unable to leave for Montgomery, Alabama, their next planned stop; bus drivers are unwilling to make the trip if they are aboard. The U.S. government finally arranges a late-night flight to New Orleans.

* "Eyewitness Report on Dixie 'Freedom Ride' " (Jet magazine, June 1): @
* Phone conversation between Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and George Cruit, superintendent of the Greyhound Bus Depot in Birmingham (from Birmingham History Center): @

Wednesday, May 17
Birmingham: College students in Nashville, Tennessee, decide to keep the Rides going. They travel to Birmingham, where several are held in "protective custody," then driven to the Alabama-Tennessee border just after midnight on May 18, left by the side of the road and advised to return to Nashville. Instead they make their way back to Birmingham.

Saturday, May 20 - Tuesday, May 23
Mongomery, Alabama: The riders leave Birmingham on May 20. They are accompanied by state troopers to the Montgomery city limits and no farther. As was the case in Birmingham, there is no immediate police protection at the Montgomery bus station, and the Riders are attacked. James Zwerg (left) is beaten unconscious, his teeth fractured and several vertebrae cracked. John Seigenthaler, an assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, is in Montgomery to try to ensure the Riders' safety, but cannot ensure his own as he is knocked out by a lead pipe to the head. The Riders take refuge in the First Baptist Church; outside, federal marshals (sent in by Kennedy) and then the Alabama National Guard (after Gov. John Patterson declares martial law) keep the white mob at bay. On May 21, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at the church during a rally for the riders. (Click here for transcript). State and federal officials, thoroughly at odds, wrestle with how to get the riders out of town.

* Account from "Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63" (book by Taylor Branch): @
* New York Times front page (May 21): @
* "Trouble in Alabama" (Time magazine, May 26): @
* "Bloody beatings, burning bus in the South" (Life magazine, May 26): @
* James Zwerg, speaking from hospital bed: @
* Interview with Zwerg (from pbs.org): @
* 2011 story on Zwerg (from CNN): @
* Account from Susan Herrman (as told to Los Angeles Times, 1961): @
* Photos from opening of Freedom Rides Museum (Montgomery Advertiser, May 20, 2011): @
* Summary of all Alabama incidents (from Encyclopedia of Alabama): @
* Newspaper clippings (from Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections; Freedom Riders coverage starts on Page 49): @
* Historical marker: @

Wednesday, May 24
Jackson, Mississippi: The first busload of Riders travels from Montgomery to Jackson. National Guardsmen, the highway patrol and local police line the route and travel alongside -- and aboard -- the bus. (A second busload would arrive later in the day.) Riders are arrested and charged with breach of peace, inciting to riot and failure to obey a police officer. In the coming months, new Riders would answer a nationwide call and descend on Jackson; more than 300 would be arrested at bus and train stations and at the airport. Employing the strategy of "jail, no bail," they would overflow Jackson's city and county jails, and some would be sent to the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

* Mugshots of people arrested in Jackson (from Mississippi Sovereignty Commission): @
* Time magazine, June 2 (click on "Crisis in Civil Rights," "Three Questions of Law" and "Four Freedom Riders"): @
* Time magazine, June 9: @
* Life magazine, June 2: @
* Jet magazine, June 8: @
* Newspaper clippings (from Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections; Freedom Riders coverage starts on Page 8): @
* The Citizens' Council newspaper (organization originally known as White Citizens' Council; coverage of events in Jackson is in June edition): @
* Letter from Parchman superintendent Fred Jones to mother of Joan Trumpower, arrested June 8 (from "Breach of Peace" blog): @
* Bus station historical marker (dedicated May 24, 2011): @

See Resources post for more material.

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