25 Moments That Changed America in the 20th century (Part 2)

07-05-2016

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13. The Birth Control Pill Is Approved (May 9, 1960)
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The birth control pill was one of the most significant achievements of the 20th century. Contraception wasn’t new: From ancient times, women have used methods of varying degrees of reliability to prevent getting pregnant. But the Pill, which was much more effective, transformed society. Americans began to think differently about sex, contraception and about women’s capacity to control their own bodies and participate as truly equal members of society. Sex uncoupled from procreation, the freedom to choose when and if to become a mother, the ability for a woman to plan her life without fear of an unwanted pregnancy getting in the way—these opened the door for the liberation of women.
 
 
14. The Children March in Birmingham (May 2, 1963)
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The civil rights breakthrough in the 1960s required galvanizing the whole country, not just through rational arguments but by really breaking down people’s emotional resistance and making citizens across the country see they needed to do something. The children’s march really was the single event most responsible for inducing faraway people in Montana and Maine to say, “I need to do something about this.” Demonstrations spread like wildfire all across the country. It led to the March on Washington and it really pushed President Kennedy to propose what became the Civil Rights Act basically a month after those demonstrations.
 
   
15. Thich Quang Duc’s Self-Immolation Is Broadcast (June 11, 1963)
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The international newspaper and TV coverage of Buddhist monk Thích Qu?ng Ð?c burning himself to death during a demonstration in Saigon changed the course of the Vietnam War and of American life. In the immediate aftermath, it caused horror and a reassessment of policy, which eventually led to more American troops on the ground and in the air but also to more media coverage in which Americans could actually see the war. It encouraged draft dodging and antiwar protests, some of which led to violence. Its effects have been residual as well. It sparked a so-far-permanent distrust of our government, which said we were winning the war when the media showed we were actually not. It caused polarization in our society between those who thought we should support the war and those who didn’t. In addition, the War on Poverty was interrupted because funds went to supporting the war, and it has never been restarted.
 
 
   
16. Howard Smith Amends the Civil Rights Act (Feb. 8, 1964)
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By 1964, little headway had been made in the women’s movement since winning the vote in 1920. So women’s rights supporters were delighted that year when Representative Howard Smith of Virginia offered a one-word amendment to Civil Rights Act, adding sex to the list of forms of discrimination prohibited by the act. Smith, a segregationist, opposed the bill—but he argued that if it passed, white women should get the same protections being extended to black men and women.
 
Many legislators hoped, and others feared, that adding gender equality would kill the entire bill. Even after its passage, the director of the newly-formed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission refused to enforce the sex clause, calling it “a fluke…conceived out of wedlock.”
 
Women’s fury at that refusal jump-started a wave of legal and political activism that forever changed the roles of women (and men) at work and at home.
 
   
17. Ronald Reagan Speaks to Conservatives (Oct. 27, 1964)
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Barry Goldwater’s campaign was floundering a week before the 1964 election. The candidate inspired none but the truest of believers; the Republican regulars were dejectedly heading for the exits. In a desperate effort to energize donors, the campaign put a political unknown on television—and Ronald Reagan proceeded to electrify the country. His 30-minute address, labeled “A Time for Choosing,” transformed the washed-up actor into the darling of conservatives and launched a political career that would carry Reagan to White House, revive American conservatism and push Soviet communism to the brink of dissolution.
 
   
18. The Immigration and Nationality Act Is Signed (Oct. 3, 1965)
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In a dramatic ceremony at the Statue of Liberty, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, catalyzing an increase in cultural diversity in the United States. In the wake of the civil rights movement, the old restrictive quotas from the 1920s, which favored northern Europeans over southern Europeans, struck many Americans as anachronistic. President John F. Kennedy called this quota system “intolerable.” The 1965 act was meant to promote family unification, level the field for lawful entry and ease the way for foreign-born professionals. Fifty years later, its impact can be seen at all levels of society. Today over 40 million foreign-born individuals live in the United States, about three-quarters of whom have legal status. They and their American-born children comprise nearly 25% of the U.S. population. “The lady with the light”—to quote one Cambodian refugee—continues to burn bright.
 
   
19. Alcatraz Is Occupied (Nov. 20, 1969)
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While organizing for self-determination within Native Americans communities and nations had proceeded throughout the 1960s, few in the general public were aware until the November 1969 seizure and 18-month occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. The occupation grabbed world-wide media attention. An alliance known as Indians of All Tribes was initiated by Native American students and relocated Natives living in the Bay Area. They built a thriving village on the island, which drew Indigenous pilgrimages from all over the continent and radicalized thousands, especially the youth. Treaties, self-determination, and land restitution returned to the national agenda, as the occupiers demanded implementation of international law. Negotiations ended the occupation when the Nixon administration agreed to amnesty for those involved.
 
   
20. Affirmative Action Goes Unchallenged (Oct. 12, 1971)
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For much of the 20th century, unions, private employers and government agencies affirmatively discriminated based on race—until, through workplace protests, public demonstrations and political negotiation, African Americans compelled Congress and President Richard Nixon to adopt affirmative action policies. In the late 1960s, the “Philadelphia Plan,” inspired by a set of local initiatives in that city, set federal hiring benchmarks for proportional representation of African Americans in many skilled and white-collar jobs generated by government contracts. Though the idea was challenged, in 1971 the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal, thus allowing the policy to stand and encouraging the growth of affirmative action.
 
Every sphere of American life transformed as a result. From college classrooms to corporate boardrooms, African Americans entered the middle-class in record numbers. White women and immigrants of color from around the globe also moved from the margins to the center of U.S. corporate culture. And the immediate and lasting impact of affirmative action has fueled nearly 40 years of conservative opposition and cries of “reverse discrimination” which remain at the heart of American political culture today.
 
   
21. California Passes Proposition 13 (June 6, 1978)
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In June of 1978 the voters of California overwhelmingly passed Proposition 13, limiting local property taxes and making it harder for communities to raise them in the future. This 20th-century tax revolt opened the floodgates to other anti-tax ballot measures at the state level and initiated a general shift in popular opinion. This anti-tax reorientation has decreased the amount and quality of public services; led to increases in alternative, regressive sources of taxation such as the sales tax; and encouraged new kinds of inequalities such as between old and new homeowners, between residents able to afford privatized services and those not, and between communities with other sources of revenue to support schools and services and those without. On a broader scale, Proposition 13 represented a new unwillingness to view government as a provider of positive benefits to all members of a community and an embrace of more consumerist and individualized ways of securing services.
 
   
22. The Embassy in Tehran Is Occupied (Nov. 4, 1979)
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The takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran set us down the track we’re still on in the Middle East. Iranian militants held Americans hostage for 444 days while decrying the U.S. and demanding the return of the Shah and his riches. The crisis cemented Iran, a former ally, as our greatest foe in the region. It bound us more closely to Saudi Arabia and other Sunni regimes. It led us to build up Saddam Hussein’s power as a bulwark against Iran—and we know how that turned out. Thirty-six years after the takeover, Americans still regard Iranians as treacherous and cast Shi’ites in general as extremists. U.S. impotence during the hostage crisis—including a disastrous rescue attempt—also helped sink Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election. There’s an intriguing what-if: had events played out differently in Iran, we might not have had Ronald Reagan as president.
 
   
23. The Pneumocystis Pneumonia Report (June 5, 1981)
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June 5, 1981. That’s the date that the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) published an article titled “Pneumocystis Pneumonia–Los Angeles.” This succinct, two-page essay turned out to be the first published account of the AIDS epidemic. It described Pneumocystis carinii, a rare protozoan infection that exploits weak immune systems, as it had developed in five gay men. The years that followed brought untold suffering. But AIDS also ushered in a revolution in attitudes that has allowed us to talk about sexuality more frankly than ever before. In the end, ironically, this helped open the door to gay marriage.
 
   
24. The Americans With Disabilities Act Is Signed (July 26, 1990)
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The Americans With Disabilities Act formally recognized the fact that people who are disabled, physically as well as mentally, are part of society. Toward the end of the 20th century, the United States came face to face with the fact these people cannot simply be ignored. This is a very personal observation, because we have a daughter who was born with some brain damage. Just as racial desegregation was important, it’s important that people with handicaps be recognized as full-fledged members of society. It’s a progression toward recognizing all people of all categories. The idea that some people are different, we are much more tolerant about that, and that’s one of the most major achievements of the 20th century. (As told to Lily Rothman)
 
   
25. The 1994 Midterm Elections Go to the Republicans (Nov. 8, 1994)
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In the 1994 midterm elections, Republicans—led by Newt Gingrich—took control of Congress for the first time since 1954. Gingrich and his allies ran a masterful campaign that revolved around “The Contract with America,” ten promises that the GOP vowed to enact if they took power. Their victory opened up the Republican Party to more conservative elements, and shaped the generations of Republicans who have dominated Capitol Hill since that time, even during the period of Democratic control. But the outcome of that election was not just important in terms of who controlled the majority of Congress, but also because it launched an era when conservatism would make the legislative branch, rather than the White House, the base of their power. Through legislative control and partisan tactics that had once been considered impermissible, the post-1994 congressional Republicans made it much more difficult for liberal ideas to succeed in the United States.
 
 
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