This Week In American History: June 26th - July 2nd

June 26

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In the Herbst Theater auditorium in San Francisco, delegates from 50 nations sign the United Nations Charter, establishing the world body as a means of saving “succeeding generations from the scourge of war." The idea of the United Nations began to be articulated in August 1941, when U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter, which proposed a set of principles for international collaboration in maintaining peace and security. Later that year, Roosevelt coined “United Nations” to describe the nations allied against the Axis powers–Germany, Italy and Japan.

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In a ceremony presided over by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Queen Elizabeth II, the St. Lawrence Seaway was officially opened, creating a navigational channel from the Atlantic Ocean to all the Great Lakes. The seaway, made up of a system of canals, locks, and dredged waterways, extends a distance of nearly 2,500 miles, from the Atlantic Ocean through the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Duluth, Minnesota, on Lake Superior. Since its official opening, more than two billion tons of cargo, with an estimated worth of more than $300 billion, have moved along its canals and channels.

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Strom Thurmond, who served in the US Senate for a record 46 years, died. Thurmond’s long and controversial political career had ended with his retirement one year earlier. Thurmond’s political career began in 1946 when he became governor of South Carolina. As governor, as well as in the early part of his Congressional career, he was famously pro-segregation. Although it is unknown whether his personal beliefs regarding racial equality ever changed, his political behavior became more moderate in the 1970s. This change of heart, whether genuine or not, was exemplified by his endorsement of a renewal of the Voting Rights Act in 1982 and his vote in favor of creating the Martin Luther King, Jr. federal holiday in 1983.

June 27

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The Smithsonian Institute was established when English scientist James Smithson died, leaving behind a will saying his estate would go to “the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Smithson’s bequest was curious considering he had never visited America. Today, the Smithsonian is composed of 19 museums, nine research centers throughout the US and the world and the national zoo. The National Air and Space Museum is the most visited museum in the world, exhibiting marvels of aviation and space history such as the Wright brothers' plane and Freedom 7, the space capsule that took the first American into space.

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The American Library Association (ALA) awarded the first Newbery Medal, honoring the year’s best children’s book, to The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon. The idea for an award honoring outstanding contributions to children’s literature came from Frederic G. Melcher, a former bookseller who in 1918 became an editor of Publisher’s Weekly. Over his long career, Melcher often looked for ways to encourage reading, especially among children. Two years later, Melcher suggested the creation of a children’s book award at a June 1921 meeting of the Children’s Librarians’ Section of the ALA. He proposed that it should be named for John Newbery, the 18th-century English bookseller and author who was considered the father or ”inventor” of children’s literature.

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PresidentHarry S. Truman announced that he is ordering U.S. air and naval forces to South Korea to aid the democratic nation in repulsing an invasion by communist North Korea. The United States was undertaking the major military operation, he explained, to enforce a United Nations resolution calling for an end to hostilities, and to stem the spread of communism in Asia. In addition to ordering U.S. forces to Korea, Truman also deployed the U.S. 7th Fleet to Formosa (Taiwan) to guard against invasion by communist China and ordered an acceleration of military aid to French forces fighting communist guerrillas in Vietnam.

June 28

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Workers at a Chevrolet plant in Flint, Michigan, assembled the first Corvette, a two-seater sports car that would become an American icon. The first completed production car rolled off the assembly line two days later, one of just 300 Corvettes made that year. The idea for the Corvette originated with General Motors’ pioneering designer Harley J. Earl, who in 1951 began developing plans for a low-cost American sports car that could compete with Europe’s MGs, Jaguars and Ferraris. While sales were initially lackluster, survival came when it was equipped with the more powerful V-8 engine in 1955. Its performance and appeal steadily improved and it went on to earn the nickname “America’s sports car."

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In what is now regarded by many as history’s first major protest on behalf of equal rights for LGBTQ people, a police raid of the Stonewall Inn—a popular gay club located on New York City's Christopher Street—turned violent as patrons and local sympathizers begin rioting against the authorities. Although the police were legally justified in raiding the club, which was serving liquor without a license among other violations, New York’s gay community had grown weary of the police department targeting gay clubs, many of which had already been closed. In 2019, the New York Police Department formally apologized for its role in the Stonewall Riots, and for the discriminatory laws that targeted gay people.

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The Bald Eagle was removed from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife; once close to vanishing from North America around the middle of the 20th century, the de-listing program was one of the most notable wildlife rehabilitation efforts in American history. Sacred to some Indigenous American cultures, the bald eagle is the national bird of the United States and features prominently in its iconography. Despite its significance, the bird's population declined rapidly over the first half of the 20th century. The overall population in the lower 48 states, estimated to have been around 400,000 in the 1700s, had declined to fewer than 1,000 by the 1950s.

June 29

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Edward Rutledge, one of South Carolina’s representatives to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, expressed his reluctance to declare independence from Britain in a letter to the like-minded John Jay of New York. Contrary to the majority of his Congressional colleagues, Rutledge advocated patience with regards to declaring independence. At age 26, Edward Rutledge was the youngest American to literally risk his neck by signing The Declaration of Independence. He would go on to serve as Governor of South Carolina.

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Celebrated actress Jayne Mansfield was killed instantly when the car in which she is riding strikes the rear of a trailer truck on U.S. Route 90 east of New Orleans. Her three children with ex-husband Mickey Hargitay, eight-year-old Mickey, six-year-old Zoltan and three-year-old Mariska, survived with minor injuries. Mansfield came to Hollywood to become an actress in 1954 and wasn’t afraid to make the most of her assets, particularly her curvaceous figure, flowing platinum blonde hair and dazzling smile. While her screen career amounted to about a dozen less-than-memorable films, off screen she played the movie star role to perfection, and became one of the most visible glamour girls of the era.

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The American space shuttle Atlantis docked with the Russian space station Mir to form the largest man-made satellite ever to orbit the Earth. This historic moment of cooperation between former rival space programs was also the 100th human space mission in American history. At the time, Daniel Goldin, chief of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), called it the beginning of “a new era of friendship and cooperation” between the U.S. and Russis. With millions of viewers watching on television, Atlantis blasted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in eastern Florida. NASA’s Shuttle-Mir program continued for 11 missions and was a crucial step towards the construction of the International Space Statin now in orbit.

June 30

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Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, one of the best-selling novels of all time and the basis for a blockbuster 1939 movie was published. In tracing Scarlett O'Hara's life from the antebellum South through the Civil War and into the Reconstruction era, Mitchell drew on the tales she had heard from her parents and other relatives, as well as from Confederate war veterans she had met as a young girl. The novel caused a sensation in Atlanta and went on to sell millions of copies in the United States and throughout the world. Gone With the Wind drew criticism for its whitewashed depictions of slavery. Mitchell nonetheless won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1937, and by that time a movie project was already in the works.

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Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological horror thriller, Psycho, opened in theaters across the US. The plot centers on an encounter between on-the-run embezzler Marion Crane and shy motel proprietor Norman Bates and its aftermath, in which a private investigator, Marion's lover Sam Loomis, and her sister Lila investigate her disappearance. It has been praised as a major work of cinematic art due to its slick direction, tense atmosphere, impressive camerawork, a memorable score and iconic performances. Often ranked among the greatest films of all time, it set a new level of acceptability for violence, deviant behavior and sexuality in American films, and is widely considered to be the earliest example of the slasher film genre.

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Considered one of the world’s greatest ballet dancers of all time, Soviet virtuoso Mikhail Baryshnikov choreographs his own Cold War-era defection from the U.S.S.R. after four years of planning. Known as “Misha” to his admirers, Baryshnikov, then 26, finished a performance with the Leningrad-based Kirov Ballet in Toronto while on a Canadian tour, and then evaded his KGB handlers, disappearing into the crowd outside, hopping into a waiting car and hiding out until he was officially granted political asylum in Canada. Soon after, he received political asylum in the United States, where he became principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet. He became a U.S. citizen on July 3, 1986.

July 1

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The Battle of Gettysburg, one of the largest military conflicts in North American history, began when Union and Confederate forces collided at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Two months prior to Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee had dealt a stunning defeat to the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville, Virginia. Lee lead his army of 80,000 through the Shenandoah Valley to begin his second invasion of the North and clashed with the Union's 100,000 troops. The epic battled lasted three days and resulted in a retreat to Virginia by Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. 50,000 Union and Confederate lives were lost, making it the most costly battle in US history.

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The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which overseas the voluntary rating system for movies, introduced a new rating, PG-13. According to the MPAA, the content of a PG-13 film “may be inappropriate for a children under 13 years old” and “may contain very strong language, nudity (non-explicit), strong, mildly bloody violence or mild drug content.” On August 10, 1984, the action film Red Dawn, starring Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen, became the first-ever PG-13 movie to be released in theaters. All MPAA movie ratings are voted on by a Los Angeles-based ratings board.

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The last Thunderbird, Ford Motor Company’s iconic sports car designed in response to the Chevrolet Corvette, emerged from a Ford factory in Wixom, Michigan. Beginning production in 1955, the Ford Thunderbird became an instant success. John F. Kennedy included 50 Thunderbirds in his 1961 inaugural procession, and even the Beach Boys gave the Thunderbird a mention in their hit song "Fun Fun Fun" in 1964. Sales remained strong until the 1990s, but by 1997, the Thunderbird was no more. In 2002, the T-Bird was resurrected, boasting a nostalgic flair from its original predecessor. While initial sales proved promising, Ford ceased production in 2005, as sales, again, began to slip. 

July 2 

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The Lockheed aircraft carrying American aviator Amelia Earhart and navigator Frederick Noonan was reported missing near Howland Island in the Pacific. The pair were attempting to fly around the world when they lost their bearings during the most challenging leg of the global journey: Lae, New Guinea, to Howland Island, a tiny island 2,227 nautical miles away, in the center of the Pacific Ocean. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca lost radio contact with Earhart soon after she sent messages that she was lost and running low on fuel. An intensive search of the vicinity by the Coast Guard and U.S. Navy found no physical evidence of the fliers or their plane and no traces of the plane, Earhart or Noonan have ever been discovered.

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American novelist, short-story writer, journalist, Pulitzer Prize winner and Nobel Prize winner Ernest Hemingway died by suicide at his Ketchum, Idaho home. One of the most influential writers of the 20th century, Hemingway's stripped-down new literary voice captivated critics and readers alike. His outsized personality and macho swagger made him a star beyond the printed pages of his literary work. Behind the façade, however, Hemingway faced a lifelong battle against depression, alcoholism and mental health issues. But it wasn’t just Hemingway who suffered, as several generations of his family confronted similar issues, in what one of his granddaughters called the “Hemingway curse.”

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U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the historic Civil Rights Act in a nationally televised ceremony at the White House. The most sweeping civil rights legislation passed by Congress since the post-Civil War era, the Civil Rights Act prohibited racial discrimination in employment and education and outlawed racial segregation in public places such as schools, buses, parks and swimming pools. After using more than 75 pens to sign the bill, he gave them away as mementoes of the historic occasion, in accordance with tradition. One of the first pens went to King, leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), who called it one of his most cherished possessions.