Bureau director J. Edgar Hoover had made his career fighting the perceived threat of communism.
In early 1962, Attorney General Robert Kennedy approved a request from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to install wiretaps on the home and office of a New York City-based lawyer named Stanley David Levison. According to FBI informants, Levison had been an influential member of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) as late as 1956. They believed he was now wielding influence in a different way—as a top adviser to the nation’s most prominent civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
As King’s fame and stature grew over the next several years, the FBI intensified its surveillance of him under its domestic counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, arguing it was a matter of national security. While the bureau’s relentless scrutiny of King failed to reveal any communist leanings, it did turn up evidence of King’s extramarital affairs. Hoover and his agents then tried to leverage that information not only to discredit and weaken King as a leader of the civil rights movement, but to blackmail him into taking his own life.
Hoover’s Campaign Against Communism—and the Civil Rights Movement
Hoover built his nearly five-decade FBI career on fighting the perceived threat of communism. His determined efforts to root out suspected sympathizers during the first Red Scare helped cement his meteoric rise to lead the FBI in 1924, at just 29 years old. With the dawn of the Cold War, he rededicated his efforts to investigate communists and others whom he considered potential enemies of the United States—seeing red in, among other places, Hollywood’s labor unions and creative class. By the time of his death in 1972, Hoover had amassed confidential files on an impressive array of public figures, from Charlie Chaplin to Muhammad Ali to Eleanor Roosevelt.
Because the CPUSA had supported greater civil rights for Black Americans as far back as the 1930s, Hoover was not alone in viewing the emerging civil rights movement of the 1950s as susceptible to communist influence. The FBI first took notice of King in 1955, when the young minister played a leading role in the Montgomery bus boycott.
For his part, King preached actively against communism from the early 1950s onward, arguing that it was fundamentally incompatible with Christianity. Despite this, he was forced to defend himself against allegations that he was a communist throughout his career.
Stanley Levison and the Origins of the FBI’s Surveillance of King
King and Levison met in 1956 through Bayard Rustin, another civil rights leader. Levinson ultimately became one of King’s closest advisers, helping the movement with fundraising, ghostwriting speeches and more, including editing and securing a publishing deal for King’s first book, Stride Toward Freedom.
As King biographer David Garrow wrote in his 1981 book, The FBI and Martin Luther King, Jr., valued informants provided the FBI with credible reports about Levison’s role as a top CPUSA financier from the mid-1940s to 1956. Though Levison reportedly disappeared from party affairs around the time he met King, Hoover remained convinced he was still involved. His arguments were enough to convince Robert Kennedy to authorize wiretapping Levison’s home and office within weeks of learning of his connection with King.
Members of the Kennedy administration—including President John F. Kennedy—later warned King personally to distance himself from Levison and another suspected Communist, Jack O’Dell, who worked for King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). After King fired O’Dell in 1963 but continued to work with Levison through an intermediary, Clarence Jones, Robert Kennedy authorized the wiretapping of Jones’s home and offices as well.
King’s Rise to Greater Fame—and Greater Scrutiny—in 1963
In August 1963, King delivered his now-iconic “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington. His growing prominence brought increasing scrutiny from the FBI. “We must mark [King] now…as the most dangerous Negro of the future of this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and National security,” wrote William Sullivan, head of the bureau’s domestic intelligence division, on August 30.
In October 1963, Robert Kennedy authorized the installation of wiretaps in King’s Atlanta home and the SCLC offices, with the understanding that the FBI was continuing to investigate his suspected communist ties. Within months, however, the bureau expanded its surveillance of King, placing bugs and wiretaps in the hotel rooms he visited. The expansion reflected the FBI’s new objective: collecting evidence of King’s extramarital activities in order to sully his reputation and weaken him as leader of the civil rights movement.
Tensions Between Hoover and King, and the ‘Suicide Letter’
Even as King was scoring historic victories in 1964—including passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Nobel Peace Prize—his public criticism of the FBI and its failure to act on civil rights violations in the South brought him into direct public conflict with Hoover.
At a press conference in November 1964, Hoover called King the “most notorious liar in the country,” prompting King to defend himself in the press and seek a meeting at the director’s office to defuse tensions. After the two men met for more than an hour in Hoover’s office in early December, King told reporters he and Hoover had enjoyed a “quite amicable discussion.” His aide Andrew Young, who was present at the meeting, later recalled that there was “not even an attitude of hostility.”
Meanwhile, Hoover’s FBI took one of its most shocking actions toward King. A few days after Hoover’s press conference, Sullivan drafted an anonymous letter to the civil rights leader, suggesting intimate knowledge of his alleged sexual activities. Through agents, he sent the letter to King in Atlanta, along with a tape recording supposedly documenting some of those extramarital encounters.
As historian Beverly Gage has written, King and his close associates believed the letter was suggesting he should kill himself. It set a deadline of 34 days “before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation” and concluded by saying “There is only one thing left for you to do.” They also (correctly) assumed that the source of the letter, and the tape, was the FBI. Senate investigators revealed in 1975 that a draft of the letter was found in Sullivan’s files, though he denied any knowledge of it and suggested it had been Hoover’s work.
Though the FBI stopped wiretapping King’s home in April 1965 and his office the following year—it continued investigating him all the way up until his assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968. The extent of the FBI’s campaign attempt to use King’s personal life against him, including the infamous “suicide letter,” as it became known, first came to light in 1976, four years after Hoover’s death, with the damning report of the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities, popularly known as the Church Committee.
“The FBI has stated that at no time did it have any evidence that Dr. King himself was a communist or connected with the Communist Party,” the Church Committee reported in a section dedicated to the King investigation. “Rather than trying to discredit the alleged communists it believed were attempting to influence Dr. King, the Bureau adopted the curious tactic of trying to discredit the supposed target of Communist Party interest—Dr. King himself.”
In 1977, King’s former assistant Bernard Lee sued the FBI for damages relating to the bureau’s surveillance of King. A federal judge in the case denied Lee’s request that surveillance tapes and transcripts be destroyed, instead ordering the FBI to turn them over to the National Archives, where they remain sealed until 2027.
A captain and his crew needlessly endangered the lives of those on board.
Many famous naval disasters happen far out at sea, but on January 13, 2012, the Costa Concordiawrecked just off the coast of an Italian island in relatively shallow water. The avoidable disaster killed 32 people and seriously injured many others, and left investigators wondering: Why was the luxury cruise ship sailing so close to the shore in the first place?
Whether or not Captain Francesco Schettino was trying to impress his girlfriend is debatable. (Schettino insisted the ship sailed close to shore to salute other mariners and give passengers a good view.) But whatever the reason for getting too close, the Italian courts found the captain, four crew members and one official from the ship’s company, Costa Crociere (part of Carnival Corporation), to be at fault for causing the disaster and preventing a safe evacuation. The wreck was not the fault of unexpected weather or ship malfunction—it was a disaster caused entirely by a series of human errors.
“At any time when you have an incident similar to Concordia, there is never…a single causal factor,” says Brad Schoenwald, a senior marine inspector at the United States Coast Guard. “It is generally a sequence of events, things that line up in a bad way that ultimately create that incident.”
The Concordiawas supposed to take passengers on a seven-day Italian cruise from Civitavecchia to Savona. But when it deviated from its planned path to sail closer to the island of Giglio, the ship struck a reef known as the Scole Rocks. The impact damaged the ship, allowing water to seep in and putting the 4,229 people on board in danger.
Sailing close to shore to give passengers a nice view or salute other sailors is known as a “sail-by,” and it’s unclear how often cruise ships perform these maneuvers. Some consider them to be dangerous deviations from planned routes. In its investigative report on the 2012 disaster, Italy’s Ministry of Infrastructures and Transports found that the Concordia “was sailing too close to the coastline, in a poorly lit shore area…at an unsafe distance at night time and at high speed (15.5 kts).”
In his trial, Captain Schettino blamed the shipwreck on Helmsman Jacob Rusli Bin, who he claimed reacted incorrectly to his order; and argued that if the helmsman had reacted correctly and quickly, the ship wouldn’t have wrecked. However, an Italian naval admiral testified in court that even though the helmsman was late in executing the captain’s orders, “the crash would’ve happened anyway.” (The helmsman was one of the four crew members convicted in court for contributing to the disaster.)
Evidence introduced in Schettino’s trial suggests that the safety of his passengers and crew wasn’t his number one priority as he assessed the damage to the Concordia. The impact and water leakage caused an electrical blackout on the ship, and a recorded phone call with Costa Crociere’s crisis coordinator, Roberto Ferrarini, shows he tried to downplay and cover up his actions by saying the blackout was what actually caused the accident.
“I have made a mess and practically the whole ship is flooding,” Schettino told Ferrarini while the ship was sinking. “What should I say to the media?… To the port authorities I have said that we had…a blackout.” (Ferrarini was later convicted for contributing to the disaster by delaying rescue operations.)
Schettino also didn’t immediately alert the Italian Search and Rescue Authority about the accident. The impact on the Scole Rocks occurred at about 9:45 p.m. local time, and the first person to contact rescue officials about the ship was someone on the shore, according to the investigative report. Search and Rescue contacted the ship a few minutes after 10:00 p.m., but Schettino didn’t tell them what had happened for about 20 more minutes.
A little more than an hour after impact, the crew began to evacuate the ship. But the report noted that some passengers testified that they didn’t hear the alarm to proceed to the lifeboats. Evacuation was made even more chaotic by the ship listing so far to starboard, making walking inside very difficult and lowering the lifeboats on one side, near to impossible. Making things worse, the crew had dropped the anchor incorrectly, causing the ship to flop over even more dramatically.
Through the confusion, the captain somehow made it into a lifeboat before everyone else had made it off. A coast guard member angrily told him on the phone to “Get back on board, damn it!”—a recorded sound bite that turned into a T-shirt slogan in Italy.
Schettino argued that he fell into a lifeboat because of how the ship was listing to one side, but this argument proved unconvincing. In 2015, a court found Schettino guilty of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck, abandoning ship before passengers and crew were evacuated and lying to authorities about the disaster. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison. In addition to Schettino, Ferrarini and Rusli Bin, the other people who received convictions for their role in the disaster were Cabin Service Director Manrico Giampedroni, First Officer Ciro Ambrosio and Third Officer Silvia Coronica.
WATCH: ‘When Big Things Go Wrong’ premieres Tuesday, June 30 at 9/8c. Watch a preview now.
The disasters had a wide range of causes, from marching soldiers to a circus clown in a barrel.
Although bridges are among history’s greatest feats of engineering, in rare cases they have unexpectedly and catastrophically failed due to structural deficiencies, weather conditions or too much weight. These seven collapses are among history’s deadliest bridge disasters.
Ponte das Barcas
Casualties: Est. 4,000
History’s deadliest bridge collapse occurred during the Peninsular War as the forces of Napoleon attacked the Portuguese city of Porto. While the First Battle of Porto raged on March 29, 1809, thousands of civilians attempted to flee a bayonet charge by the French imperial army by crossing the Ponte das Barcas, a pontoon bridge constructed in 1806 by linking some 20 boats together with steel cables. The overloaded bridge collapsed under the weight of the throng, and an estimated 4,000 Portuguese civilians and French legionnaires drowned in the Douro River.
Great Yarmouth Suspension Bridge
Merriment suddenly turned to horror in the English city of Great Yarmouth on the afternoon of May 2, 1845. To promote the arrival of William Cooke’s Circus, clown Arthur Nelson planned to ride the River Bure’s flood tide in a washtub drawn by four geese. Despite rainfall, several thousand spectators lined the riverbanks, and hundreds more—including many children—crowded the suspension bridge spanning the river to view the spectacle. As Nelson passed beneath the bridge, which opened in 1829, the onlookers suddenly shifted from one side of it to the other to keep watching the clown’s journey. The sudden weight change caused the bridge’s chains to snap. As the deck turned perpendicular, children were crushed against the parapet railing before the deck fell into the river. An imperfectly welded joint was blamed for the collapse, which killed 79 people, including 59 children, some as young as two.
As a thunderstorm lashed Angers, France, on April 16, 1850, a battalion of nearly 500 French soldiers struggled to stay upright as it marched across the Basse-Chaîne Bridge spanning the Maine river. High winds, combined with force of the soldiers’ rhythmic steps, caused the 335-foot-long suspension bridge to sway severely, snapping its wire cables. One of the 11-year-old structure’s cast-iron towers collapsed on the soldiers, and the deck plummeted into the river below. An investigation into the accident, which killed 226 people, blamed the storm, the corrosion of the bridge’s anchors and the soldiers’ synchronous stepping. The collapse, along with others such as the one in Great Yarmouth, raised concerns about the safety of suspension bridges, and two decades passed before another was built in France. The disaster also reiterated the importance of soldiers “breaking step” when crossing bridges to prevent dangerous resonance.
Whangaehu River Rail Bridge
New Zealand, 1953
At 10:21 PM on Christmas Eve in 1953, a Wellington-to-Auckland express passenger train with 285 passengers and crew aboard approached the Whangaehu River Rail Bridge in rural Tangiwai, New Zealand. Minutes earlier, a volcanic mudslide from nearby Mount Ruapehu had undermined a portion of the bridge, and six rail carriages plunged into the river. Quick action by the locomotive crew to apply the emergency brake and sand the tracks to make the train stop faster prevented three first-class carriages from leaving the tracks, but the crew were among the 151 killed. Visiting New Zealand on her first royal tour as monarch, Queen Elizabeth II expressed sympathy for the victims in her Christmas broadcast from Auckland hours after the accident and visited with survivors.
With its artistic and innovative design, the Morandi Bridge became an instant landmark in the Italian port city of Genoa after its 1967 opening. But on the morning of August 14, 2018, cables in the bridge’s southern stays snapped during a heavy summer downpour, causing sections of its western side to break apart. Dozens of cars on the A10 motorway fell 150 feet into the Polcevera river and adjacent streets and railroad tracks. One of the bridge’s three narrow, A-frame towers crumbled, but the eastern section remained standing. An independent investigation blamed the collapse, which resulted in 43 deaths and 16 injuries, on the corrosion of steel cables after cracks in the bridge’s concrete allowed water and salt air to seep inside. A replacement bridge opened in August 2020.
Sunshine Skyway Bridge
On the morning of May 9, 1980, a sudden squall engulfed the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, spanning the mouth of Tampa Bay south of St. Petersburg, Florida. With its radar down, the nearly 20-ton freighter MVSummit Venture collided with two of the bridge’s support columns as it struggled to navigate the bay’s shipping channel through fog, torrential rain and hurricane-force winds. A 1,200-foot-long section of the southbound span fell into the water along with six cars, one pickup truck and a Greyhound bus. The accident killed 35 people, although the pickup truck driver survived the 150-foot plunge when he managed to swim to safety after his vehicle bounced off the freighter’s hull into the bay. A replacement span opened in 1987.
During the evening rush-hour on August 1, 2007, the center span of an eight-lane, steel truss arch bridge—one that carried Interstate 35W over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota—suddenly collapsed. Adjoining sections then crumbled. Commuters in 111 vehicles and 18 construction workers fell as much as 115 feet onto the river and its banks. The accident killed 13 people and resulted in 145 injuries. According to a National Transportation Safety Board investigation, the bridge’s metal gusset plates were too thin to support the weight of the span, along with rush-hour traffic and the construction equipment on the deck at the time of the accident. A replacement span opened in September 2008.
In what came to be known as the ‘long, hot summer,’ US cities exploded—more than 150 times—into violent upheaval.
During the summer of 1967, 158 riots erupted in urban communities across America. Most shared the same triggering event: a dispute between Black citizens and white police officers that escalated to violence. During those convulsive months, the massive social unrest—alternately labeled riots, rebellions, uprisings and civil disorder—resulted in 83 deaths and 17,000 arrests, according to a 2007 study in The Journal of Economic History. In Detroit, the bloodiest of the uprisings, there were 43 deaths, 7,200 arrests and more than 2,500 buildings looted, damaged or destroyed in five days of rioting. The property damage—adjusted for 2020 dollars—made the ’67 upheavals in Detroit ($322 million) and Newark ($115 million) two of the 10 costliest civil disorders in American history, in terms of insurance claims.
In the riots’ aftermath, President Lyndon Johnson set up the Kerner Commission, an 11-person task force, to investigate why they happened. “Race prejudice has shaped our history decisively; it now threatens to affect our future,” stated the published report in 1968. “White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.”
Social unrest in Black communities had long been building. A century after emancipation, Black citizens were still barred from many rights and privileges afforded to white Americans. And while the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s was making slow inroads, racial injustice and police brutality persisted, fomenting tension. In 1964, two weeks after the landmark Civil Rights Act passed, outlawing racial discrimination, police in New York City shot and killed a Black teen, sparking a six-day-long protest-turned-uprising in Harlem and other large African American communities around the city. In 1965, a traffic stop in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles quickly exploded into six days of violence, with more than 30 people dead, more than 1,000 injured and more than 600 buildings damaged or destroyed.
Three months prior to the start of the unrest in Newark and Detroit, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned of coming violence, even as he pressed for nonviolent direct action: “All of our cities are potentially powder kegs,” said the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner in a speech at Stanford University entitled “The Other America.” But, he was careful to note, “I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air,” citing persistent poverty and the dismal conditions of segregated housing and schools. “All of these things have brought about a great deal of despair and a great deal of desperation, a great deal of disappointment and even bitterness in the Negro communities.”
Writer and activist James Baldwin, one of the most eloquent critics of racism during the civil rights movement, famously summarized the strife this way to a radio host: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage, almost all the time.” His 1966 essay titled “A Report from Occupied Territory,” published in The Nation, elaborated on the harsh conditions in America’s Black communities, calling out impoverished schools, limited employment opportunities and, especially, racist policing: “The police,” he wrote, “treat the Negro like a dog.”
Such treatment had deep roots in American history—from 19th-century slave patrols to Jim Crow-era “Black Codes” (designed to ease the arrest of Black people and profit from their free labor) to police-involved lynchings. By the mid-1960s, “conflicts between Blacks and the police became flashpoints of racial resentment,” as white residents in cities like Detroit and Newark felt threatened by the “Black invasion” to their neighborhoods, writes New York University historian Thomas Sugrue, author of The Origins of the Urban Crisis. “Decades of racial conflict and economic inequality provided the tinder for the 1967 [Detroit] riot; a police action provided the spark.”
In May 1967, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission advised the mayors of cities with large Black populations that the summer ahead had the “potential for racial conflict.” Noting that many incidents of civil disorder had escalated from an incident between a Black citizen and a police officer, the commission called for police departments to “reemphasize the equal application of its rules and regulations regarding courtesy, conduct and language.”
Over the summer of ’67, violent unrest erupted in scores of U.S. cities, including Milwaukee, Buffalo, Tampa and Cincinnati. But the nation was galvanized by the events that transpired in July in Newark and Detroit.
The Newark uprising began on July 12 when a Black cab driver was beaten by two white police officers for a minor traffic offense. The five days of rioting and looting that followed produced 26 deaths, 700 injuries and more than 1,400 arrests. The National Guard and state troopers were called in to restore order. “To some, the flames and violence were riots, wrecking neighborhoods and driving away white and middle-class residents,” wrote Rick Rojas and Khorri Atkinson in The New York Times on the 50th anniversary of the Newark upheaval. “Or was it a rebellion, the uprising of a long-oppressed community that had finally had enough?”
Less than a week after the violence ended in Newark, it began in Detroit—on the night of July 23, when white police officers raided an illegal Black nightclub. In the five days of violence and confrontations that followed, the mostly white police force and military units who deployed to the city were responsible for killing 30 of the 37 Black people who died. As scores of the city’s blocks burned, President Johnson delivered a televised speech to the nation. “Not even the sternest police action nor the most effective federal troops can ever create lasting peace in our cities,” he said. “The only genuine long-range solution for what has happened, lies in an attack, mounted at every level, upon the conditions that breed despair and violence.”
In the first draft of the Kerner Report, entitled “The Harvest of American Racism,” social scientists cited police brutality as the central cause of the uprisings and black discontent in urban America. But the commission buried those findings by the researchers, and President Johnson chose to focus his response on segregation and economic equality. The Kerner Report did acknowledge that the “nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
According to Nicole Lewis, a reporter for TheMarshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system, Johnson used the riots to double down on a law-and-order agenda. “In the wake of the violence, two separate and opposing forces formed,” Lewis wrote. “While the Black community pushed for police reform alongside socioeconomic improvement, the federal government responded by equipping police with new tools to control violent expressions of civil unrest.”
Congress passed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, a crime bill that authorized $400 million in grants to states to provide resources to local law enforcement.
The ’67 uprisings helped to usher in a new era of Black activism and empowerment that contributed to reforms in law enforcement, economic inequality and the election of the first Black mayors in the early ’70s in both Newark and Detroit.
“The Black community was definitely empowered,” Junius Williams, a Newark-based law professor and civil rights activist, told TheNew York Times. “Nobody wanted that violence. But at the same time…we had the opportunity to turn that destructive power into something that was positive for the community.”
From Olga Korbut’s famous flip to Kerri Strug’s vault landing to Simone Biles’ multiple golds, see the feats that wowed the world.
Women’s gymnastics has been an official sport in the Summer Olympics since 1928, when the first female Olympic gymnasts competed in Amsterdam. Since then, it has become one of the most popular sports in the international games. Here’s a look at some of the sport’s most memorable moments in Olympics history.
1. US Wins First Team Medal for Women’s Gymnastics
The 1948 London Olympics marked the return of the Olympic Games after World War II, and it also marked the first time the U.S. women’s gymnastics team won a medal in the team competition. The U.S. team received the bronze medal, following Hungary with silver and Czechoslovakia with gold.
The team captain, 27-year-old Clara Schroth Lomady, went on to set a record by winning six all-around titles at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships. She remained the only woman to win that many all-around titles until Simone Biles matched her record in 2019 and broke it in 2021.
2. Olga Korbut Performs Her Famous Flip
One of the most popular athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics was Olga Korbut, a 17-year-old gymnast from the Soviet Union. Korbut won three gold medals and wowed audiences with her daring stunts. She was the first Olympic gymnast to do a backward somersault on the beam and also the first to perform a back flip to catch on the uneven bars. The latter move is now known as the “Korbut Flip.”
3. Nadia Comăneci Earns the First Perfect 10
In 1976, 14-year-old Nadia Comăneci became the first gymnast to receive a perfect 10 in an Olympic event. When the Romanian athlete earned the perfect score for her performance on the uneven bars at the Montreal Olympics, the scoreboard couldn’t even show it because the board was only designed to display three digits—not the four required to display a “10.00.”
Comăneci ended up scoring six more perfect 10s during the 1976 Montreal Olympics and taking home three gold medals.
4. Mary Lou Retton Vaults to Stardom
In 1984, 16-year-old Mary Lou Retton became the first female gymnast outside of Eastern Europe to win the individual all-around gold medal. Retton was inspired to become a gymnast by Comăneci’s historic performance at the 1976 Olympics. She even trained with Comăneci’s coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi, who defected from Romania to the United States in 1981.
Retton earned two perfect 10 scores at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics—one for her floor routine and a second for her famous vault. Retton’s triumphant pose after her vault made the cover of Sports Illustrated, which named her Sportswoman of the Year. She also became the first U.S. gymnast to be on a Wheaties box and to be named Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press.
5. Dominique Dawes Becomes First Black US Gymnast to Win Olympic Medal
The 1996 Atlanta Olympics were a major year for U.S. women’s gymnastics. The U.S. team, hailed as the “Magnificent Seven,” won the country’s first gold medal in the women’s gymnastics team competition. After team member Kerri Strug injured her ankle (more on that in a bit), 19-year-old Dominique Dawes ended up taking Strug’s place in the individual floor exercise. Dawes won the bronze in that competition, becoming the first Black American to win an Olympic medal in gymnastics.
6. Kerri Strug Sticks the Landing with a Bad Ankle
One of the stars of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics was 18-year-old Kerri Strug. During her first vault, Strug landed awkwardly on her ankle and tore two ligaments. Gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi—the same man who had coached Comăneci and Retton—pressured her to do her second vault instead of pulling out. She stuck the landing, hopping on one leg for the crowd before collapsing from the pain. Afterward, she had to be carried off of the podium.
7. Gabby Douglas Wins All-Around Gold
At the 2012 London Olympics, 16-year-old Gabby Douglas became the first Black American to win a gold medal in the individual all-around gymnastics category. She and her team—known as the “Fierce Five”—also won a gold medal in the all-around team competition, making them the second U.S. team to do so after the Magnificent Seven in 1996. With these wins, Douglas became the first American to win gold medals in both the team and individual all-around competitions.
8. Simone Biles Debuts—and Dazzles
By the time 19-year-old Simone Biles attended the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, she was already an international star athlete with ten World Championship gold medals. During the Rio Olympics, Biles won one three gold medals for individual events and a fourth gold medal that the U.S. team, nicknamed the “Final Five,” won together. As the winner of 30 Olympic and World Championship medals and the only woman to hold seven all-around U.S. championship titles, she is currently the most decorated U.S. gymnast and will be one of the star athletes at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign took protest to a whole new level in 1968 with a tent city that operated as a town.
They began arriving by the busloads on May 12, 1968 to demand economic justice. The Poor People’s Campaign, the brainchild of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), drew a diverse coalition of white, Latino, Indigenous and Black Americans to Washington, D.C., from across the country.
They came from big cities, both coasts, Appalachia, the Deep South, the Midwest and the Southwest, then all settled in to become residents of “Resurrection City.” The makeshift tent city spread across 15 acres near the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument in an encampment designed as a multi-day protest against government inaction on poverty.
Rather than hold a one-day demonstration to raise awareness about income inequality, leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign called on activists to camp out on the National Mall until the federal government committed to the anti-poverty policies featured in their economic bill of rights.
For almost six weeks, about 2,700 demonstrators huddled in the plywood tents of Resurrection City, enduring rain and mud, clashes with police and, sometimes, chaos. Although conditions became rough, the event ultimately ushered in food assistance and nutrition programs that benefitted low-income people three years after President Lyndon B. Johnson’s unsuccessful war on poverty.
“The war on poverty was declared but never fully fought or funded, in part, because of the distraction of the Vietnam War and the amount of resources that went into the Vietnam War,” says historian Gordon Mantler, author of Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960-1974. “King…had come to the conclusion that there needed to be a real dramatic effort to get the government to rededicate itself to the war on poverty, and that that was inextricably linked to the war.”
Martin Luther King Jr.’s Assassination Overshadows Campaign
But King never lived to see his vision play out. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968 and his death then overshadowed the Poor People’s Campaign. As the nation reeled, the campaign was forgotten—it was later described as “the biggest protest on the Mall that nobody’s ever heard of.” But scholars argue the campaign deserves more recognition not only for its gains, but also for its influence on 21st-century populist movements.
Lenneal Henderson was a 20-year-old University of California-Berkeley student at the time of the protest and was among the throngs of campers at Resurrection City. Henderson was also on the Berkeley campus in 1967 when King visited to recruit Poor People’s Campaign activists.
“The one thing that stood out was his statement that in the 1963 March on Washington, the slogan was freedom and jobs,” says Henderson, now a senior fellow and eminent scholar at Virginia State University and adjunct professor of government at the College of William & Mary. “And he felt that there was much more of a focus on the freedom part but not enough on the jobs and, therefore, not enough on the issues of poverty and unemployment. So, he wanted the next campaign to focus on poverty, jobs and job development.”
Henderson also recalls King saying that he wanted the Poor People’s Campaign to be much more diverse than his previous civil rights campaigns because poverty affects every community.
Just before the campaign was set to begin, King was assassinated in Memphis. Riots broke out in the wake of King’s death, and there was uncertainty about who would lead the effort and the SCLC. The Rev. Ralph Abernathy eventually stepped into the role, while the Rev. Jesse Jackson served as Resurrection City manager.
Campaign leaders presented government officials with a list of anti-poverty policy recommendations. They wanted workers to have meaningful jobs that paid a living wage and the unemployed to have a guaranteed income. They also called for the public to have access to land and capital, and for citizens to play a role in the development and implementation of government programs that affected them.
Stormy Weather Made Conditions Uncomfortable
Resurrection City functioned like a real town with its own city hall, general store, medical center, barber shop, mess hall and even its own zip code. But a storm in late May leveled the mess hall and led to the departure of roughly 1,000 participants. Rainfall drenched Washington during the demonstration and made camping on the Mall a trying experience.
“I think the weather had a lot to do with [some of the departures] because it’s excruciatingly hot and humid in Washington, D.C., in the summer, and these tents did not have air conditioning,” Henderson recalls. “We had portable air conditioning but it was certainly inadequate, so that will scatter a few people.”
Media emphasized outbreaks of violence and crime at Resurrection City. But Aaron Bryant of the National Museum of African American History and Culture says that pictures by the late photographer Robert Houston depict a different reality. Rather than crime, Houston’s photos show weary families, smiling women and earnest children. To mark the campaign’s 50th anniversary in 2018, Bryant curated the exhibit “City of Hope: Resurrection City and the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign,” which features Houston’s photos.
“Bob Houston had captured these images that sort of contradicted many of the things that you would read in the newspapers, or even in the congressional records of testimony from conservative politicians,” Bryant says. “There were a lot of negative reports out there about all of these poor people camping out on the National Mall.”
Resurrection City came to an end when the 36-day permit for the demonstration ran out. Organizers secured a permit extension, but the day after it expired on June 24, police cleared out the tent city. Afterward, only about 500 protesters remained, and campaign leaders, including Abernathy, were arrested. Some of the Resurrection City residents protested in response, and the authorities used tear-gas grenades to disperse the crowd.
Henderson camped out at Resurrection City for its duration, describing the movement as a “life-changing experience.” He acknowledges some have deemed the project a failure, but he disagrees. He pointed out that civil rights groups such as the NAACP, National Urban League, League of United Latin American Citizens, and the National Council of La Raza “picked up some of the themes from the campaign and then made them into their own image and likeness.”
MLK’s Mission to Highlight Poverty
Mantler says that he tries not to measure social movements in terms of traditional concepts of success and failure, but he recognizes that the Poor People’s Campaign did not have clear-cut victories such as desegregation of schools or buses. “But there were smaller victories, and there were more resources put into poverty programming,” he says. “Some people were able to get some of the federal agencies to listen to people’s stories of poverty and how particular policies impacted them on the personal level.”
The Poor People’s Campaign was the culmination of King’s life work, according to Bryant. “He had always been concerned with issues related to poverty and economic justice and human rights,” Bryant says, “and the Poor People’s Campaign is really a combination of things that he was interested in going all the way back to the 1950s. The Poor People’s Campaign transitioned us from a time of focusing on racial justice to human justice and human rights.”