February 21, 1965: Malcolm X assassinated

In New York City, Malcolm X, an African American nationalist and religious leader, is assassinated by rival Black Muslims while addressing his Organization of Afro-American Unity at the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights.

Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925, Malcolm was the son of James Earl Little, a Baptist preacher who advocated the black nationalist ideals of Marcus Garvey. Threats from the Ku Klux Klan forced the family to move to Lansing, Michigan, where his father continued to preach his controversial sermons despite continuing threats. In 1931, Malcolm’s father was brutally murdered by the white supremacist Black Legion, and Michigan authorities refused to prosecute those responsible. In 1937, Malcolm was taken from his family by welfare caseworkers. By the time he reached high school age, he had dropped out of school and moved to Boston, where he became increasingly involved in criminal activities.

In 1946, at the age of 21, Malcolm was sent to prison on a burglary conviction. It was there he encountered the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, whose members are popularly known as Black Muslims. The Nation of Islam advocated black nationalism and racial separatism and condemned Americans of European descent as immoral “devils.” Muhammad’s teachings had a strong effect on Malcolm, who entered into an intense program of self-education and took the last name “X” to symbolize his stolen African identity.

After six years, Malcolm was released from prison and became a loyal and effective minister of the Nation of Islam in Harlem, New York. In contrast with civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X advocated self-defense and the liberation of African Americans “by any means necessary.” A fiery orator, Malcolm was admired by the African American community in New York and around the country.

In the early 1960s, he began to develop a more outspoken philosophy than that of Elijah Muhammad, whom he felt did not sufficiently support the civil rights movement. In late 1963, Malcolm’s suggestion that President John F. Kennedy’s assassination was a matter of the “chickens coming home to roost” provided Elijah Muhammad, who believed that Malcolm had become too powerful, with a convenient opportunity to suspend him from the Nation of Islam.

A few months later, Malcolm formally left the organization and made a Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, where he was profoundly affected by the lack of racial discord among orthodox Muslims. He returned to America as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz and in June 1964 founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which advocated black identity and held that racism, not the white race, was the greatest foe of the African American. Malcolm’s new movement steadily gained followers, and his more moderate philosophy became increasingly influential in the civil rights movement, especially among the leaders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

On February 21, 1965, one week after his home was firebombed, Malcolm X was shot to death by Nation of Islam members while speaking at a rally of his organization in New York City.

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February 20, 1985: Ireland allows sale of contraceptives

In a highly controversial vote on February 20, 1985, the Irish government defies the powerful Catholic Church and approves the sale of contraceptives.

Up until 1979, Irish law prohibited the importation and sale of contraceptives. In a 1973 case, McGee v. The Attorney General, the Irish Supreme Court found that a constitutional right to marital privacy covered the use of contraceptives. Pressured by strong conservative forces in Irish society, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, the government was slow to change the law to reflect the court’s decision, and a number of proposed bills failed before reaching the books.

In 1979, the Irish health minister, Charles Haughey, introduced a bill limiting the legal provision of contraceptives to “bona fide family planning purposes.” Signed into law in November 1980, the Health (Family Planning) Act ensured that contraceptives could be sold by a registered pharmacist to customers with a valid medical prescription. Still, many people saw the law as too strict. Over the next several years, a movement began to make contraceptives more easily available, causing bitter divisions inside and outside of the Dail, Ireland’s main house of Parliament.

As the government debated the changes, Catholic Church leaders railed against them, warning that increased access to contraceptives would encourage the moral decay of Ireland, leading to more illegitimate children and increased rates of abortion and venereal disease. On the eve of the vote in early 1985, the Dublin archbishop claimed the legislation would send Ireland down a “slippery slope of moral degradation.” Some politicians were even threatened with violence if they voted for the legislation.

On February 20, 1985, a coalition of the Fine Gael and Labour parties led by Dr. Garret FitzGerald defeated the opposition of the conservative Fianna Fail party by an 83-80 vote. The new legislation made non-medical contraceptives (condoms and spermicides) available without prescriptions to people over 18 at pharmacies; it also allowed for the distribution of these contraceptives at doctors’ offices, hospitals and family planning clinics. Though it was still illegal to advertise contraceptives and use of the birth control pill remained restricted, the vote marked a major turning point in Irish history–the first-ever defeat of the Catholic Church in a head-to-head battle with the government on social legislation.

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February 19, 1847: Donner Party rescued

On this day in 1847, the first rescuers reach surviving members of the Donner Party, a group of California-bound emigrants stranded by snow in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

In the summer of 1846, in the midst of a Western-bound fever sweeping the United States, 89 people–including 31 members of the Donner and Reed families–set out in a wagon train from Springfield, Illinois. After arriving at Fort Bridger, Wyoming, the emigrants decided to avoid the usual route and try a new trail recently blazed by California promoter Lansford Hastings, the so-called “Hastings Cutoff.” After electing George Donner as their captain, the party departed Fort Bridger in mid-July. The shortcut was nothing of the sort: It set the Donner Party back nearly three weeks and cost them much-needed supplies. After suffering great hardships in the Wasatch Mountains, the Great Salt Lake Desert and along the Humboldt River, they finally reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains in early October. Despite the lateness of the season, the emigrants continued to press on, and on October 28 they camped at Truckee Lake, located in the high mountains 21 kilometers northwest of Lake Tahoe. Overnight, an early winter storm blanketed the ground with snow, blocking the mountain pass and trapping the Donner Party.

Most of the group stayed near the lake–now known as Donner Lake–while the Donner family and others made camp six miles away at Alder Creek. Building makeshift tents out of their wagons and killing their oxen for food, they hoped for a thaw that never came. Fifteen of the stronger emigrants, later known as the Forlorn Hope, set out west on snowshoes for Sutter’s Fort near San Francisco on December 16. Three weeks later, after harsh weather and lack of supplies killed several of the expedition and forced the others to resort to cannibalism, seven survivors reached a Native American village.

News of the stranded Donner Party traveled fast to Sutter’s Fort, and a rescue party set out on January 31. Arriving at Donner Lake 20 days later, they found the camp completely snowbound and the surviving emigrants delirious with relief at their arrival. Rescuers fed the starving group as well as they could and then began evacuating them. Three more rescue parties arrived to help, but the return to Sutter’s Fort proved equally harrowing, and the last survivors didn’t reach safety until late April. Of the 89 original members of the Donner Party, only 45 reached California.

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February 18, 1885: Twain publishes The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

On this day in 1885, Mark Twain publishes his famous–and famously controversial–novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Twain (the pen name of Samuel Clemens) first introduced Huck Finn as the best friend of Tom Sawyer, hero of his tremendously successful novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Though Twain saw Huck’s story as a kind of sequel to his earlier book, the new novel was far more serious, focusing on the institution of slavery and other aspects of life in the antebellum South.

At the book’s heart is the journey of Huck and his friend Jim, a runaway slave, down the Mississippi River on a raft. Jim runs away because he is about to be sold and separated from his wife and children, and Huck goes with him to help him get to Ohio and freedom. Huck narrates the story in his distinctive voice, offering colorful descriptions of the people and places they encounter along the way. The most striking part of the book is its satirical look at racism, religion and other social attitudes of the time. While Jim is strong, brave, generous and wise, many of the white characters are portrayed as violent, stupid or simply selfish, and the naive Huck ends up questioning the hypocritical, unjust nature of society in general.

Even in 1885, two decades after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn landed with a splash. A month after its publication, a Concord, Massachusetts, library banned the book, calling its subject matter “tawdry” and its narrative voice “coarse” and “ignorant.” Other libraries followed suit, beginning a controversy that continued long after Twain’s death in 1910. In the 1950s, the book came under fire from African-American groups for being racist in its portrayal of black characters, despite the fact that it was seen by many as a strong criticism of racism and slavery. As recently as 1998, an Arizona parent sued her school district, claiming that making Twain’s novel required high school reading made already existing racial tensions even worse.

Aside from its controversial nature and its continuing popularity with young readers, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been hailed by many serious literary critics as a masterpiece. No less a judge than Ernest Hemingway famously declared that the book marked the beginning of American literature: “There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

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February 17, 1904: Madame Butterfly premieres

On this day in 1904, Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly premieres at the La Scala theatre in Milan, Italy.

The young Puccini decided to dedicate his life to opera after seeing a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida in 1876. In his later life, he would write some of the best-loved operas of all time: La Boheme (1896), Tosca (1900), Madame Butterfly (1904) and Turandot (left unfinished when he died in 1906). Not one of these, however, was an immediate success when it opened. La Boheme, the now-classic story of a group of poor artists living in a Paris garret, earned mixed reviews, while Tosca was downright panned by critics.

While supervising a production of Tosca in London, Puccini saw the play Madame Butterfly, written by David Belasco and based on a story by John Luther Long. Taken with the strong female character at its center, he began working on an operatic version of the play, with an Italian libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Written over the course of two years–including an eight-month break when Puccini was badly injured in a car accident–the opera made its debut in Milan in February 1904.

Set in Nagasaki, Japan, Madame Butterfly told the story of an American sailor, B.F. Pinkerton, who marries and abandons a young Japanese geisha, Cio-Cio-San, or Madame Butterfly. In addition to the rich, colorful orchestration and powerful arias that Puccini was known for, the opera reflected his common theme of living and dying for love. This theme often played out in the lives of his heroines–women like Cio-Cio-San, who live for the sake of their lovers and are eventually destroyed by the pain inflicted by that love. Perhaps because of the opera’s foreign setting or perhaps because it was too similar to Puccini’s earlier works, the audience at the premiere reacted badly to Madame Butterfly, hissing and yelling at the stage. Puccini withdrew it after one performance. He worked quickly to revise the work, splitting the 90-minute-long second act into two parts and changing other minor aspects. Four months later, the revamped Madame Butterfly went onstage at the Teatro Grande in Brescia. This time, the public greeted the opera with tumultuous applause and repeated encores, and Puccini was called before the curtain 10 times. Madame Butterfly went on to huge international success, moving to New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1907.

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February 16, 1923: Archaeologist opens tomb of King Tut

On this day in 1923, in Thebes, Egypt, English archaeologist Howard Carter enters the sealed burial chamber of the ancient Egyptian ruler King Tutankhamen.

Because the ancient Egyptians saw their pharaohs as gods, they carefully preserved their bodies after death, burying them in elaborate tombs containing rich treasures to accompany the rulers into the afterlife. In the 19th century, archeologists from all over the world flocked to Egypt, where they uncovered a number of these tombs. Many had long ago been broken into by robbers and stripped of their riches.

When Carter arrived in Egypt in 1891, he became convinced there was at least one undiscovered tomb–that of the little known Tutankhamen, or King Tut, who lived around 1400 B.C. and died when he was still a teenager. Backed by a rich Brit, Lord Carnarvon, Carter searched for five years without success. In early 1922, Lord Carnarvon wanted to call off the search, but Carter convinced him to hold on one more year.

In November 1922, the wait paid off, when Carter’s team found steps hidden in the debris near the entrance of another tomb. The steps led to an ancient sealed doorway bearing the name Tutankhamen. When Carter and Lord Carnarvon entered the tomb’s interior chambers on November 26, they were thrilled to find it virtually intact, with its treasures untouched after more than 3,000 years. The men began exploring the four rooms of the tomb, and on February 16, 1923, under the watchful eyes of a number of important officials, Carter opened the door to the last chamber.

Inside lay a sarcophagus with three coffins nested inside one another. The last coffin, made of solid gold, contained the mummified body of King Tut. Among the riches found in the tomb–golden shrines, jewelry, statues, a chariot, weapons, clothing–the perfectly preserved mummy was the most valuable, as it was the first one ever to be discovered. Despite rumors that a curse would befall anyone who disturbed the tomb, its treasures were carefully catalogued, removed and included in a famous traveling exhibition called the “Treasures of Tutankhamen.” The exhibition’s permanent home is the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

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February 15, 1898: The Maine explodes

A massive explosion of unknown origin sinks the battleship USS Maine in Cuba’s Havana harbor, killing 260 of the fewer than 400 American crew members aboard.

One of the first American battleships, the Maine weighed more than 6,000 tons and was built at a cost of more than $2 million. Ostensibly on a friendly visit, the Maine had been sent to Cuba to protect the interests of Americans there after a rebellion against Spanish rule broke out in Havana in January.

An official U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry ruled in March that the ship was blown up by a mine, without directly placing the blame on Spain. Much of Congress and a majority of the American public expressed little doubt that Spain was responsible and called for a declaration of war.

Subsequent diplomatic failures to resolve the Maine matter, coupled with United States indignation over Spain’s brutal suppression of the Cuban rebellion and continued losses to American investment, led to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in April 1898.

Within three months, the United States had decisively defeated Spanish forces on land and sea, and in August an armistice halted the fighting. On December 12, 1898, the Treaty of Paris was signed between the United States and Spain, officially ending the Spanish-American War and granting the United States its first overseas empire with the ceding of such former Spanish possessions as Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.

In 1976, a team of American naval investigators concluded that the Maine explosion was likely caused by a fire that ignited its ammunition stocks, not by a Spanish mine or act of sabotage.

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February 14, 278: St. Valentine beheaded

On February 14around the year 278A.D., Valentine, a holy priest in Rome in the days of Emperor Claudius II, was executed.

Under the rule of Claudius the Cruel, Rome was involved in many unpopular and bloody campaigns. The emperor had to maintain a strong army, but was having a difficult time getting soldiers to join his military leagues. Claudius believed that Roman men were unwilling to join the army because of their strong attachment to their wives and families.

To get rid of the problem, Claudius banned all marriages and engagements in Rome. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret.

When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death. Valentine was arrested and dragged before the Prefect of Rome, who condemned him to be beaten to death with clubs and to have his head cut off. The sentence was carried out on February 14, on or about the year 270.

Legend also has it that while in jail, St. Valentine left a farewell note for the jailer’s daughter, who had become his friend, and signed it “From Your Valentine.”

For his great service, Valentine was named a saint after his death.

In truth, the exact origins and identity of St. Valentine are unclear. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “At least three different Saint Valentines, all of them martyrs, are mentioned in the early martyrologies under the date of 14 February.” One was a priest in Rome, the second one was a bishop of Interamna (now Terni, Italy) and the third St. Valentine was a martyr in the Roman province of Africa.

Legends vary on how the martyr’s name became connected with romance. The date of his death may have become mingled with the Feast of Lupercalia, a pagan festival of love. On these occasions, the names of young women were placed in a box, from which they were drawn by the men as chance directed. In 496 AD, Pope Gelasius decided to put an end to the Feast of Lupercalia, and he declared that February 14 be celebrated as St Valentine’s Day.

Gradually, February 14 became a date for exchanging love messages, poems and simple gifts such as flowers.

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February 13, 1633: Galileo in Rome for Inquisition

On this day in 1633, Italian philosopher, astronomer and mathematician Galileo Galilei arrives in Rometo face charges of heresy for advocating Copernican theory, which holds that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Galileo officially faced the Roman Inquisition in April of that same year and agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence. Put under house arrest indefinitely by Pope Urban VIII, Galileo spent the rest of his days at his villa in Arcetri, near Florence, before dying on January 8, 1642.

Galileo, the son of a musician, was born February 15, 1564, in Pisa, Italy. He entered the University of Pisa planning to study medicine, but shifted his focus to philosophy and mathematics. In 1589, he became a professor at Pisa for several years, during which time he demonstrated that the speed of a falling object is not proportional to its weight, as Aristotle had believed. According to some reports, Galileo conducted his research by dropping objects of different weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. From 1592 to 1630, Galileo was a math professor at the University of Padua, where he developed a telescope that enabled him to observe lunar mountains and craters, the four largest satellites of Jupiter and the phases of Jupiter. He also discovered that the Milky Way was made up of stars. Following the publication of his research in 1610, Galileo gained acclaim and was appointed court mathematician at Florence.

Galileo’s research led him to become an advocate of the work of the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1573). However, the Copernican theory of a sun-centered solar system conflicted with the teachings of the powerful Roman Catholic Church, which essentially ruled Italy at the time. Church teachings contended that Earth, not the sun, was at the center of the universe. In 1633, Galileo was brought before the Roman Inquisition, a judicial system established by the papacy in 1542 to regulate church doctrine. This included the banning of books that conflicted with church teachings. The Roman Inquisition had its roots in the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, the purpose of which was to seek out and prosecute heretics, considered enemies of the state.

Today, Galileo is recognized for making important contributions to the study of motion and astronomy. His work influenced later scientists such as the English mathematician and physicist Sir Isaac Newton, who developed the law of universal gravitation. In 1992, the Vatican formally acknowledged its mistake in condemning Galileo.

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February 12, 2002: Milosevic goes on trial for war crimes

On this day in 2002, former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic goes on trial at The Hague, Netherlands, on charges of genocide and war crimes in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. Milosevic served as his own attorney for much of the prolonged trial, which ended without a verdict when the so-called “Butcher of the Balkans” was found dead at age 64 from an apparent heart attack in his prison cell on March 11, 2006.

Yugoslavia, consisting of Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia, became a federal republic, headed by Communist leader Marshal Tito, on January 31, 1946. Tito died in May 1980 and Yugoslavia, along with communism, crumbled over the next decade.

Milosevic, born August 20, 1941, joined the Communist Party at age 18; he became president of Serbia in 1989. On June 25, 1991, Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence from Yugoslavia and Milosevic sent tanks to the Slovenian border, sparking a brief war that ended in Slovenia’s secession. In Croatia, fighting broke out between Croats and ethnic Serbs and Serbia sent weapons and medical supplies to the Serbian rebels in Croatia. Croatian forces clashed with the Serb-led Yugoslav army troops and their Serb supporters. An estimated 10,000 people were killed and hundreds of Croatian towns were destroyed before a U.N. cease-fire was established in January 1992. In March, Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence, and Milosevic funded the subsequent Bosnian Serb rebellion, starting a war that killed an estimated 200,000 people, before a U.S.-brokered peace agreement was reached at Dayton, Ohio, in 1995.

In Kosovo, a formerly autonomous province of Serbia, liberation forces clashed with Serbs and the Yugoslav army was sent in. Amidst reports that Milosevic had launched an ethnic cleansing campaign against Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians, NATO forces launched air strikes against Yugoslavia in 1999.

Ineligible to run for a third term as Serbian president, Milosevic had made himself president of Yugoslavia in 1997. After losing the presidential election in September 2000, he refused to accept defeat until mass protests forced him to resign the following month. He was charged with corruption and abuse of power and finally surrendered to Serbian authorities on April 1, 2001, after a 26-hour standoff. That June, he was extradited to the Netherlands and indicted by a United Nations war crimes tribunal. Milosevic died in his cell of a heart attack before his trial could be completed.

In February 2003, Serbia and Montenegro became a commonwealth and officially dropped the name Yugoslavia. In June 2006, the two countries declared their independence from each other.

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