On June 26, 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down Texas’ sodomy laws, along with similar laws in 13 other states. The decision in Lawrence v. Texas is a landmark one, reaffirming the existence of a “right to privacy” that is not enumerated in the Constitution and effectively legalizing same-sex sexual activity in the United States.
Although enforced sporadically by the 21st century, laws against homosexual sex were ubiquitous in America as late as 1960, when every state had one. Over a dozen states still considered gay sex a crime in September of 1998, when police responded to reports of someone brandishing a gun in the Harris County, Texas apartment of John Lawrence. Upon entering the apartment, they discovered Lawrence having sex with another man and arrested him under Texas’ “Homosexual Conduct” law, which barred “deviate sexual intercourse with another individual of the same sex.”
Five years later, the Supreme Court heard the case. Lawyers for the State of Texas tried to draw a distinction between the privacy of “a marital bedroom” and the circumstances of the case, but the Court sided with Lawrence. In a 6-3 decision, it ruled that “The state cannot demean [anyone’s] existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime,” finding that the right to privacy that underpinned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision also covered sex among consenting adults. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, with Scalia writing that “The court has largely signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda” and “taken sides in the culture war,” adding that he had “nothing against homosexuals.” Overnight, gay sex became legal in the United States, paving the way for further acceptance of homosexuality in the coming years.
On June 19, 1968, a long-term anti-poverty demonstration known as Resurrection City reaches its high-water mark. On “Solidarity Day,” over 50,000 people flock to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. to protest, sing, hear speeches and demonstrate on behalf of national legislation to address the plight of the American poor. “Today is really only the beginning,” Rev. Ralph Abernathy tells the crowd. “We will not give up the battle until the Congress of the United States decides to open the doors of America and allow the nation’s poor to enter as full-fledged citizens into this land of wealth and opportunity.”
In May 1968, poor people from all over the country came to the National Mall and made temporary homes in plywood shelters, creating a settlement they called Resurrection City. The protest began less than two months after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and grew out of the Poor People’s Campaign and the campaign for an Economic Bill of Rights, both of which had been major focuses of King’s at the time of his death. The goal was to convince legislators of the need for laws that would lift poor people of all races out of poverty, and to sway public opinion by making the plight of the poor impossible to ignore. Protesters came from all over the country—“caravans” drove from as far away as Los Angeles and Seattle while a “Freedom Train” brought people from Memphis and one group from Marks, Mississippi rode mule-drawn wagons.
Marches and demonstrations took place in Washington as more and more activists arrived throughout May, including a Mother’s Day march organized by the National Welfare Rights Organization and led by Coretta Scott King. Ethel Kennedy, wife of Sen. Robert Kennedy, was involved with the demonstrations, and his funeral procession stopped at Resurrection City on June 8, following his assassination on June 5. Businesses, schools and other fixtures of normal life flourished within the settlement, which also saw conflicts stemming from animosities between different groups living there, leadership disputes and the inherent uncertainty of living in makeshift dwellings on the National Mall. During this time, leaders of the movement met and testified before members of Congress. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, dubbed the “mayor” of Resurrection City, sought to lift spirits with his sermons, one of which became famous for the chant of “I am somebody!” which temporarily re-energized the protesters. The original permit issued by the National Parks Service expired a few days before Solidarity Day, but it was extended by four days.
After being moved due to an internal conflict among organizers, Solidarity Day took place on Juneteenth and was attended by over 50,000 people. Abernathy and Coretta Scott King spoke, along with leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Native American activist Martha Grass, the president of the United Auto Workers (80 busloads of UAW members were in attendance) and Democratic presidential hopefuls Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey.
The day may well have gone down as a powerful and peaceful day of activism on par with the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, but the conclusion to the story of Resurrection City was far less inspiring. Allegedly in response to rocks thrown at them from the camp, and with the Parks Service permit expiring, the police moved to evict residents on June 23, firing tear gas into Resurrection City and rounding up its occupants for arrest. One SCLC leader remembered the eviction as “worse than anything I saw in Mississippi or Alabama.”
Today, Solidarity Day and Resurrection City are footnotes in the overall story of the civil rights movement, overshadowed by earlier, more successful protests and by the violence and conflict that defined 1968. At the time, however, the settlement by the Reflecting Pool was impossible to ignore—particularly for lawmakers and residents of Washington, D.C.—and regardless of its failure to achieve sweeping social change or anti-poverty legislation, it remains one of the largest and most sustained social justice protests in the history of the United States.
Since the Constitution was ratified in 1789, hundreds of thousands of bills have been introduced attempting to amend the nation’s founding document. But only 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution have been ratified, out of 33 passed by Congress and sent to the states. See summaries of all 27.
Even before the U.S. Constitution was created, its framers understood that it would have to be amended to confront future challenges and adapt and grow alongside the new nation. In creating the amendment process for what would become the permanent U.S. Constitution, the framers made constitutional reform easier—but not too easy.
According to Article V of the Constitution, an amendment must either be proposed by Congress with a two-thirds majority vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, or by a constitutional convention called for by two-thirds of state legislatures. Either way, a proposed amendment only becomes part of the Constitution when ratified by legislatures or conventions in three-fourths of the states (38 of 50 states).
Since the Constitution was ratified in 1789, hundreds of thousands of bills have been introduced attempting to amend it. But only 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution have been ratified, out of 33 passed by Congress and sent to the states. Under Article V, states also have the option of petitioning Congress to call a constitutional convention if two-thirds of state legislatures agree to do so. This has never occurred, though state legislatures have passed hundreds of resolutions over the years calling for a constitutional convention over issues ranging from a balanced budget to campaign finance reform.
Here is a summary of the 27 amendments to the Constitution:
First Amendment (ratified 1791)
In order to secure support for the Constitution among Anti-Federalists, who feared it gave too much power to the national government at the expense of individual states, James Madison agreed to draft a Bill of Rights during the first session of Congress. Of these first 10 amendments, the First Amendment is arguably the most famous and most important. It states that Congress can pass no law that encroaches on an American freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble and freedom to petition the government. These fundamental rights of thought and expression go to the heart of the revolutionary idea of popular government, as envisioned in the Declaration of Independence.
Second Amendment (ratified 1791)
The text of the Second Amendment reads: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” During the Revolutionary War era, “militia” referred to groups of men who banded together to protect their communities, towns, colonies and eventually states.
Differing interpretations of the amendment have fueled a long-running debate over the original intention of the Second Amendment. The crux of the debate is whether the amendment protects the right of private individuals to keep and bear arms, or whether it instead protects a collective right that should be exercised only through formal militia units. Those who argue it is a collective right point to the “well-regulated Militia” clause in the Second Amendment. Gun rights supporters, as well as Supreme Court decisions such as District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), have argued the Second Amendment protects the right of an individual person to keep and bear arms for the purposes of self defense.
Third Amendment (ratified 1791)
This amendment prohibits the quartering of militia in private homes in either war or peacetime without consent of the homes’ owners. As a reaction against past laws allowing British soldiers to take shelter in colonists’ homes whenever they wanted, the Third Amendment doesn’t appear to have much constitutional relevance today, as the federal government is unlikely to ask private citizens to house soldiers. The Supreme Court has never decided a case on the basis of the Third Amendment, but it has referred to its protections in cases surrounding issues of property and privacy rights.
Fourth Amendment (ratified 1791)
The Fourth Amendment’s guarantee of “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” also grew directly out of colonial Americans’ experiences prior to the Revolutionary War. Most notably, British authorities made use of general warrants, which were court orders that allowed government officials to conduct searches basically without limitations. Beginning in the 20th century, with the growth in power of federal, state and local law enforcement, the Fourth Amendment became an increasingly common presence in legal cases, limiting the power of the police to seize and search people, their homes and their property and ensuring that evidence gathered improperly could be excluded from trials.
Fifth Amendment (ratified 1791)
In addition to the famous right to refuse to testify against oneself (or “plead the Fifth”), the Fifth Amendment establishes other key rights for defendants in criminal proceedings, including the need for formal accusation by a grand jury and the protection against double jeopardy, or being tried for the same crime twice. It also requires the federal government to pay just compensation for any private property it takes for public use. Most importantly, the Fifth Amendment guarantees that no one can face criminal punishment without receiving “due process of law,” a protection that the Supreme Court later extended under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment.
Sixth Amendment (ratified 1791)
The Sixth Amendment also deals with protecting the rights of people against possible violations by the criminal justice system. It ensures the right to a public trial by an impartial jury without a significant delay and gives defendants the right to hear the charges against them, call and cross-examine witnesses and retain a lawyer to defend them in court.
According to the modern interpretation of the amendment—shaped by Supreme Court cases such as Powell v. Alabama (1932), which involved the defendants known as the Scottsboro Boys—the state is required to provide effective legal representation for any defendant who cannot afford to employ a lawyer on their own.
Seventh Amendment (ratified 1791)
With the Seventh Amendment, Madison addressed two Anti-Federalist concerns: that the document failed to require jury trials for civil (non-criminal) cases, and that it gave the Supreme Court the power to overturn the factual findings of juries in lower courts. Considered one of the most straightforward amendments in the Bill or Rights, the Seventh Amendment extends the right to a jury trial to federal civil cases such as automobile accidents, property disputes, breach of contract, and discrimination lawsuits. It also prevents federal judges from overturning jury verdicts based on questions of fact, rather than law. Unlike nearly every other right in the Bill of Rights, the Supreme Court has not extended the right to civil jury trial to the states, although most states do guarantee this right.
Eighth Amendment (ratified 1791)
The Eighth Amendment continues the theme of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments by targeting potential abuses on the part of the criminal justice system. In banning the requirement of “excessive bail,” the imposition of “excessive fines,” and the infliction of “cruel and unusual punishment,” but leaving the exact interpretation of these terms unclear, it paved the way for future generations to battle over their meaning. In particular, differing opinions over what constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” fuel the ongoing debate in the United States over capital punishment.
Ninth Amendment (ratified 1791)
During the debate that produced the Bill of Rights, skeptics argued that by listing such fundamental rights in the Constitution, the framers would be implying that the rights they did not list did not exist. Madison sought to allay these fears with the Ninth Amendment. It ensures that even while certain rights are enumerated in the Constitution, people still retain other non-enumerated rights.
Legal scholars and courts have long debated the meaning of the Ninth Amendment, particularly whether or not it provides a foundation for such rights as privacy (as in the 1965 case Griswold v. Connecticut) or a woman’s right to an abortion (1973’s Roe v. Wade).
10th Amendment (ratified 1791)
As the final amendment in the Bill of Rights, the 10th Amendment originally aimed to reassure Anti-Federalists by further defining the balance of power between the national government and those of the individual states. According to the 10th Amendment, the federal government’s powers are limited to those expressly given to it by the Constitution, while all other powers are reserved for the states or the people. Over the generations, debate has continued over which powers fall into this latter category, and what limitations should be placed on the expanding powers of the federal government.
11th Amendment (ratified 1795)
The first amendment to be ratified after the Bill of Rights, the 11th Amendment was also the first to be framed in direct response to a Supreme Court verdict. In Chisholm v. Georgia (1793), the Court had ruled that the plaintiff, a resident of South Carolina, had the right to sue Georgia for repayment of debts incurred during the Revolutionary War. After many states argued that using the federal courts in this way would shift too much power to the national government, Congress passed the 11th Amendment, which removes all cases involving suits between states from federal court jurisdiction.
12th Amendment (ratified 1804)
Passed in the wake of the chaotic presidential election of 1800, in which Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Democratic-Republican Aaron Burr received the exact same number of votes in the Electoral College, the 12th Amendment provides the method for selecting president and vice president of the United States. Though Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution had mandated that each elector cast two votes without differentiating between their choices for president and vice president, the 12th Amendment requires electors to split the balloting for the two offices.
13th Amendment (ratified 1865)
More than six decades passed between ratification of the 12th and 13th Amendments. With the United States roiled by sectional tensions over slavery, few in the post-founding generations wanted to provoke a constitutional crisis by proposing a potentially divisive amendment. But after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed only enslaved people behind enemy lines during the Civil War, support grew for a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. Ratified after Lincoln’s assassination, the 13th Amendment finally put an end to the institution that had marred the country since 1619.
14th Amendment (ratified 1868)
Intended to give Congress the authority to protect the rights of Black citizens in the South, where white-dominated state governments enacted discriminatory “Black codes” immediately following the end of the Civil War, the 14th Amendment was arguably the most important of the three amendments passed during Reconstruction. Section 1 of the amendment reversed the Supreme Court’s notorious decision in 1857’s Dred Scott v. Sandford by stating that anyone born in the United States is a citizen. It also extended the civil rights of citizens and their right to due process by protecting civil rights from infringement by the states as well as the federal government. Finally, Section 1 guarantees “equal protection under the laws” to all citizens.
Together with the Bill of Rights, these broad protections form the foundations of civil rights law in the United States, and have been invoked over the years by various groups of citizens (as well as corporations) seeking equal treatment under the law.
Section 2 of the 14th Amendment repealed the three-fifths clause of the original Constitution, which held that each enslaved person counted for three-fifths of a person. It specified that every resident of a state should be counted as a full person for the purposes of congressional representation. Section 3, aimed at former Confederate leaders, holds that Congress can bar any official who “shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the United States from holding public office. Section 4 exempted federal and state governments from paying any debts incurred by the former Confederate states or compensating them for the loss of their human property. Finally, Section 5 of the 14th Amendment gives Congress the authority to create laws to enforce the amendment’s provisions, a sweeping mandate that would strengthen the power of the federal government in relation to the states.
15th Amendment (ratified 1870)
After Congress enfranchised Black male voters in the South by passing the Reconstruction Act of 1867, it sought to protect this right under the Constitution. As the last of the so-called Civil War amendments, all of which sought to ensure equality for African Americans, the 15th Amendment outlaws discrimination in voting rights on the basis of race, color or previous condition of servitude. With the end of Reconstruction in 1877, however, Southern states effectively disenfranchised Black voters by enacting poll taxes, literacy tests and other discriminatory practices. The promise of the 15th Amendment to protect Black voting rights remained unfulfilled until the civil rights movement and passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
16th Amendment (ratified 1913)
Though Americans had paid income taxes in earlier eras (during the Civil War, for example), the Supreme Court ruled in 1894’s Pollock v. Farmer’s Loan and Trust that an income tax imposed by Congress was unconstitutional given Article I’s requirement that such “direct” taxes be apportioned among the states on the basis of population. The decision drew widespread outrage, and led to the passage of the first of four constitutional amendments that would be ratified during the Progressive era. The 16th Amendment gives Congress the power to enact a nationwide income tax, vastly expanding the federal government’s source of revenue and spending power and enabling it to become a stronger force in American life than ever before.
17th Amendment (ratified 1913)
The movement in favor of the popular election of senators gained strength in the late 19th century, fueled by a view of the Senate as an out-of-touch, elitist group subject to corruption. By 1912, many state legislatures had lent their vocal support to the change, leading to ratification of the 17th Amendment the following year. The amendment substantially altered the structure of Congress as set out in Article I of the Constitution, removing from state legislatures the power to choose U.S. senators and giving it directly to the voters of each state.
18th Amendment (ratified 1919)
Though the temperance movement had existed since the earliest years of the nation’s history, it gained strength during the Progressive Era, especially in rural American communities. The new income tax freed the government from its dependence on the liquor tax, and senators (now directly elected) were subject to greater pressure from temperance advocates. Congress followed up on ratification of the 18th Amendment, which banned “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors,” but not their consumption, with passage of the Volstead Act to enforce it. Prohibition remained in effect for the next 13 years, until its repeal with the 21st Amendment.
19th Amendment (ratified 1920)
Susan B. Anthony and other supporters of women’s suffrage were bitterly disappointed after the Civil War, when Congress excluded gender from the list of categories that could not be used to deny voting rights in the 15th Amendment. With a constitutional amendment stalled in Congress for decades, suffragists focused their efforts on the states, where they were able to make gradual progress. By the time the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, forbidding the United States or any state from denying or abridging the right to vote to any citizen “on account of sex,” 30 states and one territory allowed women to vote in at least some elections. Even after ratification of the 19th Amendment, many women of color were subject to various types of voter suppression until passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
20th Amendment (ratified 1933)
Before ratification of the 20th Amendment, 13 months had passed between the election of a new Congress and the time it held its first meeting. The amendment shortened this “lame-duck” period by specifying that regular terms for members of the Senate and House of Representatives begin on January 3 of the year following their election. It also moved up the inauguration of the president by six weeks, moving it to January 20. The 20th Amendment was quickly proposed, passed and ratified during the Great Depression, when many people regretted that Franklin D. Roosevelt had to wait four months to succeed the unpopular Herbert Hoover.
21st Amendment (ratified 1933)
Prohibition became widely unpopular during the Depression, especially in American cities, where some demonstrators marched in parades carrying signs declaring “We Want Beer.” The 21st Amendment, which ended Prohibition and left the states in charge of regulating the sale and consumption of liquor, is the only amendment that repeals an earlier amendment (the 18th). It’s also the only one to be ratified by state ratifying conventions rather than state legislatures. As the temperance movement still held sway in many states, supporters of the 21st Amendment realized that state legislators could be subject to political pressure, and opted to follow the convention route instead.
22nd Amendment (ratified 1951)
Though term limits were not a part of the Constitution, later generations of Americans believed that George Washington set a valuable precedent when he made the decision to step away from the presidency after two terms in 1796. Several later presidents flirted with the idea of a third term, but Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first to follow through. Guiding the nation through the tumultuous era spanning the Depression and World War II, FDR won an unprecedented four presidential elections, but died several months after his fourth term began in 1945. Two years later, Congress began the process of passing the 22nd Amendment, which limited future presidents to two terms.
23rd Amendment (ratified 1961)
Since the District of Columbia became the seat of the U.S. government in 1800, debate had raged over the inability of its residents to participate in federal elections. The 23rd Amendment addressed this, giving D.C. residents the right to choose electors for presidential and vice-presidential elections in the same way the states do. While the original version of the amendment approved by the Senate would have granted the District representation in the House of Representatives, the House rejected this idea. In 1978, Congress adopted another proposed amendment that provided for D.C. to “be treated as though it were a State,” including congressional representation, but it failed to win ratification.
24th Amendment (ratified 1964)
Starting in the years following Reconstruction, many white-dominated Southern legislatures enacted poll taxes as a method of disenfranchising Black voters. Congress repeatedly debated legislation to eliminate poll taxes starting in 1939, but none passed. Though only five states still had such taxes in place by 1964, supporters of the civil rights movement saw their abolition as an important objective in combating racism and discrimination against Black Americans. The 24th Amendment applied only to federal elections, and after its ratification several southern states tried to maintain poll taxes for separately held state elections. In Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections (1966), the Supreme Court deemed such taxes a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.
25th Amendment (ratified 1967)
After John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, a movement grew to clarify the vague procedures that had existed around presidential disability and the right of succession. The 25th Amendment states that the vice president will succeed the president in case of the latter’s death or resignation, and lays out the procedure for filling a vacancy in the vice president’s office. It also allows the president to declare a temporary inability to serve—as in the case of undergoing surgery—and resume powers when able. The fourth and most controversial section, which has never been invoked, empowers the vice president to become acting president if the president is determined (by the vice president and the majority of the Cabinet, backed by Congress) to be unable to perform the duties of the office.
26th Amendment (ratified 1971)
The long-running debate over whether young Americans should be asked to risk their lives fighting for their country before they were given the right to vote intensified during the Vietnam War. In 1970, Congress passed a statute lowering the age of voting in all federal, state and local elections to 18. When Oregon challenged that law, the Supreme Court sided with the state, ruling that Congress only had jurisdiction over federal elections. With a groundswell of popular support, the 26th Amendment was passed and ratified in record time, lowering the legal voting age to 18 in all U.S. elections.
27th Amendment (ratified 1992)
By prohibiting any law raising or lowering the salaries of members of Congress from taking effect before the start of a new session of Congress begins, the 27th Amendment aims to reduce corruption in the legislative branch of the federal government. Originally introduced by Madison, it was left in limbo when the first 10 amendments were ratified in 1791 and largely forgotten by the late 20th century, when Gregory Watson, a college student in Texas, read about it in a class on American government. Watson later rallied enough popular support (and resentment of Congress) to get the requisite three-quarters of U.S. states to ratify the 27 Amendment by 1992, nearly 200 years after Madison first proposed it.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a virus that had previously appeared sporadically around the world began to spread throughout the United States. Originally identified as a “gay disease” because gay men were one of the primary groups afflicted, HIV and the syndrome it causes, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, were unknown in 1981 but had become household terms and the number one threat to public health by the late 1980s.
For several years after the Center for Disease Control first realized that the illnesses cropping up in communities around the country were all the work of the same virus, the American government did little to address the epidemic, a failure to act that many attribute to the fact that HIV/AIDS was primarily affecting gay men, intravenous drug users, immigrants and racial minorities.
HIV/AIDS activists, medical professionals, artists and a number of people with AIDS who went public with their diagnoses despite the stigma surrounding the disease eventually spurred a massive response from the U.S. government and the international health community. By the mid-1990s, HIV/AIDS numbers were on the decline in America, and today there are a variety of effective treatments for HIV/AIDS that have made the diagnosis significantly less dire than it was when the epidemic began—but there is still no cure. Despite significant progress, the global AIDS epidemic is far from over: 1.7 million people around the world were infected with HIV in 2019, bringing the total number of people living with AIDS today to 38 million.
Origins and Silent Spread
Early 20th Century – At some point in the first few decades of the 20th century, Simian Immunodeficiency Virus makes the jump from chimpanzees to humans in Central Africa. Now known as the subtype HIV-1, the virus begins circulating in Léopoldville, now Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—believed to be the first zoonotic transmission of HIV.
1959 – A man dies in the Congo—tests of his blood samples later establish this is the earliest confirmed HIV-related death.
1960s – HIV-2 is believed to have jumped to humans from monkeys in West Africa, likely Guinea-Bisseau, around this time. Studies later reveal that HIV-1 arrived in the Americas during the late 1960s. A significant number of Haitians were working in the Congo at the time, with some likely bringing the virus back to the Caribbean on their return.
December 12, 1977 – Grethe Rask, a Danish physician and surgeon who spent years working in the Congo, dies of pneumonia. Over several years, she suffered from a number of opportunistic infections and severe immunodeficiency. Ten years after her death, a blood test finds she was infected with HIV.
A Gay Men’s Crisis
April 24 – The CDC receives a report on Ken Horne, a gay man living in San Francisco who is suffering from Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a rare and unusually aggressive cancer linked with weakened immunity. Horne dies on November 30, 1981. The same year, the CDC retroactively identifies Horne as the first American patient of the AIDS epidemic.
May 18 –Lawrence Mass, a gay doctor in New York City, writes an article for TheNew York Native, an LGBT newspaper, titled “Disease Rumors Largely Unfounded.” Although the headline would soon be proven false, his report that a number of gay men have been admitted to New York City intensive care unites with severely compromised immune systems is the first article to mention what soon becomes known as AIDS.
June 5, 1981 – The CDC publishes an article describing five cases of a rare lung infection in young, otherwise healthy gay men in Los Angeles, two of whom have died and three of whom die a short time after. The same day, New York City dermatologist Dr. Alvin Friedman-Kien reports a cluster of instances of Kaposi’s Sarcoma in gay men in New York and California. Several major outlets report on the article, and the CDC begins to receive a steady trickle of reports of similar cases. This article is often cited as the official beginning of the AIDS Crisis.
July 1981 – An LGBT newspaper in San Francisco, The Bay Area Reporter, writes about “Gay Men’s Pneumonia” and urges gay men experiencing shortness of breath to see a doctor. The New York Times article “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals” leads to the coining of the term “gay cancer” to describe Kaposi’s Sarcoma.
August 11, 1981– Writer and film producer Larry Kramer hosts a fundraiser in his New York City apartment, at which Dr. Friedman-Kien addresses a crowd of gay men. He raises $6,635 to fund research into the mysterious new illness, the only money raised for the cause in 1981. Kramer soon co-founds the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), a community-based non-profit dedicated to serving the community throughout the emerging crisis.
May 11 – In an article titled “New Homosexual Disorder Worries Health Officials,” the New York Times first publishes the phrase Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, or GRID, contributing to the widespread misconception that AIDS only affects gay men.
September 24 – The CDC uses the term “AIDS” for the first time. It defines Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome as “A disease at least moderately predictive of a defect in cell-mediated immunity, occurring in a person with no known cause for diminished resistance to that disease.”
January 1 – Ward 86, the world’s first dedicated outpatient clinic for people with AIDS, opens at San Francisco General Hospital. The clinic develops the San Francisco Model of Care, a holistic approach that focuses not only on medical care but also on making patients comfortable, providing them with resources they need to deal with the many challenges of living with AIDS, and allowing patients facing severe social stigma to live, and in many cases die, with dignity. This compassionate model is adopted by medical professionals around the world and sets the standard for excellence in treating HIV-AIDS patients.
January 7 – The CDC reports the first cases of AIDS in women.
March 4 – The CDC publishes an article saying that AIDS is most prevalent “among gay men with multiple sexual partners, people who inject drugs, Haitians, and people with hemophilia.” It suggests that sexual contact and exposure to blood and blood products are the most likely vectors for the disease.
May 20 – Dr. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and her colleagues at France’s Pasteur Institute report their discovery of a retrovirus believed to be the cause of AIDS. She and a colleague eventually receive the Nobel Prize for their work.
June 12 – At the National AIDS Forum in Denver, 11 gay men with AIDS take over the stage. They issue a statement laying out what becomes known as the Denver Principles, asserting the rights of people with AIDS to be protected from discrimination, to have their voices heard by organizations making decisions about AIDS research and treatment, and to respect and dignity. They also demand that the phrase “AIDS victims” be replaced by “people with AIDS.”
September 9 – The CDC rules out the possibility of transmission by casual contact, air, water, food, or environmental services, but misconceptions about the ways AIDS can be spread lingers for years.
November 22 – The World Health Organization convenes its first meeting on AIDS and begins formal surveillance of the illness.
Awareness Spreads, Misconceptions Linger
March 1 – A study in the American Journal of Medicine examines a cluster of 40 patients with KS and other opportunistic illnesses, tracing their sexual contacts. It describes an unidentified flight attendant, “Patient O” (the O standing for “outside Southern California,” where the study was focused), who was known to have hundreds of sexual partners a year. The report states this man had sexual contact with eight of the men in the study, and was the first patient in the study to show the onset of HIV/AIDS symptoms. Misconceptions around the study (and a misreading of Patient O”) give rise to the myth of Patient Zero, a promiscuous or even malicious gay man who single-handedly and knowingly touched off the AIDS pandemic in the United States.
April 23 – The Department of Health and Human Services announces the discovery of a retrovirus they call HTLV-III, the cause of AIDS. They also announce the development of a blood test and raise hopes that a vaccine could be developed in the next two years.
July 13 – The CDC recommends avoiding injection drug use and reducing needle sharing as ways of preventing transmission.
March 2 – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration licenses the first blood test for HIV, and blood banks begin screening the country’s blood supply.
April 22 – The Normal Heart, an autobiographical play about the early days of the crisis by Larry Kramer, opens off-Broadway.
July 25 – Rock Hudson, a legendary actor from the Golden Age of Hollywood whose homosexuality was an open secret in the industry, announces he has AIDS. Media coverage of AIDS increases dramatically in the following months.
August 27 – Ryan White, a teenager who contracted AIDS through donated blood, is barred from attending his middle school in Russiaville, Indiana due to his condition. The ensuing legal battle makes White a national figure, highlighting the stigma of the disease and the misconceptions surrounding how it is spread and who can contract it.
September 17 – President Ronald Reagan mentions AIDS publicly for the first time. He calls it a “top priority” and rebuffs accusations that his administration has not taken it seriously.
January 16 – The CDC reports that 1985 saw an 89 percent increase in AIDS diagnoses from 1984, and predicts that the number will double in 1986.
May 1 – The International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses officially gives the name Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV, to the virus that causes AIDS.
July 18 – A group of minority community leaders meet with Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to voice concerns about HIV/AIDS in communities of color, unofficially founding the National Minority AIDS Council.
November – In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology, the first collection of writings about the AIDS crisis from 29 Black, gay authors, is published. The book receives little mainstream attention at publication, but goes down in history as a watershed moment in gay literature.
February – Cleve Jones creates the first panel of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in honor of his friend Marvin Feldman, who died of an AIDS-related illness the previous October. Jones makes the panel three feet by six feet, the standard size of a grave plot, intending it and subsequent panels to serve as a way of remembering, grieving and celebrating the lives of people who have died from AIDS in a society where many families refused to acknowledge their cause of death and some funeral homes and cemeteries refused to handle their remains. The project becomes the NAMES Project.
February 4 – Legendary pianist Liberace dies of an AIDS-related illness. His doctor claims that Liberace, who had long denied rumors that he was gay, died of a heart attack. A week later, the actual cause of his death is revealed.
March 12 – Kramer helps found the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, a direct-action group that pressures officials, governments, pharmaceutical companies, and other institutions to protect those at risk of HIV and those who have contracted it. The organization’s motto is “Silence = Death.” ACT UP begins agitating for increased access to experimental medications, as well as a coordinated national AIDS response.
March 19 – The FDA approves AZT, the first medication for treat AIDS. The treatment does not cure HIV-AIDS, but can be used to slow its progress and prevent transmission in some instances, such as during birth. The FDA also adjusts regulations to expand access to experimental medications.
March 31 – President Reagan and French President Jacques Chirac agree that their countries will share credit for the discovery of HIV.
May 15 – The Public Health Service adds HIV to its immigration exclusion list. For the next 23 years, visa applicants are required to take a blood test and may be denied entry to the U.S. if they test positive.
May 31 – Reagan gives his first speech about AIDS. On June 24, he creates the first Presidential Commission on AIDS.
August 5 – A federal judge rules that a Florida school board cannot ban three HIV-positive brothers, Ricky, Robert, and Randy Ray, from attending school. The community of Arcadia, Florida responds with death threats, bomb threats and a school boycott.
August 18 – The FDA green-lights the first human test of a candidate vaccine against HIV.
August 28 – After weeks of threats following a ruling that they could not be banned from school for being HIV-positive, the home of brothers Ricky, Robert, and Randy Ray is burned to the ground while the family is staying elsewhere. The Rays later announce that they will leave Arcadia.
October 1 – The first national AIDS Awareness Month begins, with the CDC launching a massive public education campaign that warns “everyone is at risk.”
October 11 –The NAMES Project displays its AIDS Memorial Quilt on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. for the first time. The Quilt bears the names of 1,920 people who died of AIDS-related illnesses when it is first displayed—the number eventually grows to over 10,000, making the Quilt the largest piece of community folk art in the world.
November – San Francisco Chronicle journalist Randy Shilts publishes And the Band Played On, a book about the early years of the AIDS crisis. Shilts traces the story of AIDS from the death of Grethe Rask to the death of Rock Hudson, arguing that the epidemic was allowed to happen thanks to incompetence, apathy, and discrimination against the populations it affected the most. His framing also leads to French Canadian flight attendant Gaëtan Dugas being identified as “Patient Zero.”
May 26 – The Surgeon General releases the nation’s first coordinated HIV/AIDS education strategy, mailing out 107 million copies of a pamphlet titled Understanding AIDS in an attempt to reach every household in America, the largest public mailing in history.
November 4 –PresidentReagan signs the first comprehensive federal AIDS bill, the Health Omnibus Programs Extension (HOPE) Act, establishing the Office of AIDS Research and authorizing federal funds for AIDS prevention, research, and testing.
December 1 – The WHO declares the first World AIDS Day.
February 16 – Keith Haring, a pop artist whose graffiti-inspired works often promoted AIDS-related charities and other social causes, dies of an AIDS-related illness.
June 6 – The International AIDS Conference convenes in San Francisco, but a number of organizations boycott in protest of American immigration restrictions.
July 26 – President George H.W. Bush signs the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act, allocating over $220 million in federal funds for care and treatment of people with AIDS in its first year. The bill is the result of a bargain—in exchange for instituting “payer of last resort” programs to cover treatment for poor and uninsured people with HIV/AIDS, conservatives won the inclusion of clauses stipulating that certain funds will only be available to states that have passed harsh criminal laws against knowingly transmitting HIV.
May – The Visual AIDS’ Artists Caucus launches the Red Ribbon project, creating small red ribbons for people to wear to raise awareness and fight against the stigma of HIV/AIDS. The ribbons receive widespread attention the following month, when they are worn by a number of attendees and presenters at the 45th Tony Awards.
November 7 –Earvin “Magic” Johnson, a future Hall of Fame basketball player and one of the most famous athletes in the country, announces that he has tested positive for HIV and will retire immediately. He does not elaborate on how he contracted the virus, but later acknowledges that he had unprotected sex with many women over the course of his career. The news reverberates around the country, and while rumors spread that Johnson is gay, for many his diagnosis confirms that straight people also face risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.
November 24 – Legendary Queen frontman Freddie Mercury dies of an AIDS-related illness, one day after announcing that he has AIDS. A gay icon and the first rock star known to have died of HIV/AIDS, his death sets of outpourings of grief around the world, as many in the AIDS activist community express their gratitude that he made his diagnosis public.
AIDS becomes the leading cause of death for American men aged 25 to 44.
April 8 – Tennis star Arthur Ashe, the only Black man to win singles titles at Wimbledon, the US Open and the Australian Open, announces that he is HIV-positive. He believes he contracted the virus via a blood transfusion he received during heart surgery.
April 20 – The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness draws a crowd of 72,000 to London’s Wembley Stadium.
December 13 – Fifteen-year-old Ricky, the oldest of the Ray brothers, dies of an AIDS-related illness.
February 3 – Rudolf Nureyev, a Soviet ballet dancer whose 1961 defection and subsequent performances with London’s Royal Ballet made him an international sensation, dies in Paris of an AIDS-related illness.
June –President Bill Clinton establishes the Office of National AIDS Policy to coordinate federal effort to combat HIV/AIDS.
December 14 – Philadelphia, a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks as a gay man with AIDS and Denzel Washington as his lawyer in an anti-discrimination lawsuit, debuts to rave reviews. One of the first mainstream films to deal with homophobia and HIV/AIDS, it is a box office hit and Hanks wins Best Actor at the 66th Academy Awards.
AIDS becomes the leading cause of death for all Americans aged 25-44.
February 17 – Journalist Randy Shilts dies of an AIDS-related illness.
June – The FDA approves the first protease inhibitor, ushering in the era of highly active antiviral therapy (HAART). Over the next few years, aggressive treatments like this become the new standard in HIV care.
September 22 –The National Academy of Sciences concludes that syringe exchange programs are effective in preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS.
November – The number of total AIDS cases reported in the United States passes 500,000.
November 11 – Pedro Zamora dies of an AIDS-related illness. The 22-year-old broke many barriers as a contestant on MTV’s The Real World, in which he discussed living with AIDS with his housemates, dispelled many misconceptions, and began a relationship with another contestant, with whom he shared the first same-sex commitment ceremony to be aired on American television.
February 23 – Greg Louganis, who swept the diving events at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics and is considered by many the greatest American diver ever, announces that he is HIV-positive. First diagnosed six months before the 1988 games, Louganis had kept his diagnosis and treatment a secret, even after coming out as gay in 1994.
The number of AIDS cases diagnosed annually in the U.S. declines for the first time since the pandemic began. AIDS ceases to be the leading cause of death for all Americans aged 25-44, although it remains the leading case of death among African Americans aged 25-44.
November 21 – The Food and Drug Administration Modernization Act institutes an accelerated drug-approval process, enshrining in law a demand frequently made by activists.
President Clinton declares HIV/AIDS a “severe and ongoing health crisis” in African American and Hispanic communities, after community leaders develop a “Call to Action” to address the dramatically disproportionate amount of cases in their communities. Congress soon allocates $156 million for the Minority AIDS initiative.
Despite declining numbers in the United States, the WHO announces that AIDS has become the fourth-leading cause of death worldwide and the number one killer in Africa.
In 1958, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas traveled the country and engaged in a series of seven public debates about slavery.
From August to October of 1858, Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Illinois, took on the incumbent Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas in a series of seven debates. Thousands of spectators and newspaper reporters from around the country watched as the two men battled over the primary issue facing the nation at the time: slavery and the battle over its extension into new territories.
As the architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Douglas was one of the most prominent politicians in the country, and seen as a future presidential contender. The controversial 1854 law repealed the Missouri Compromise and established the doctrine of popular sovereignty, by which each new territory joining the Union would decide for itself whether to become a free or slave state.
Opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act had drawn Lincoln, a lawyer and former one-term Whig congressman, back into the political arena. He launched a Senate run in early 1855, but stepped aside to make way for another candidate.
WATCH: Abraham Lincoln’s ‘House Divided Speech’
By 1858, Lincoln was the most prominent leader in the new Republican Party in Illinois, and the clear choice to run against Douglas. He kicked off his campaign in earnest with a speech in Springfield that June, in which he famously declared that “A house divided against itself cannot stand..this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.”
Seven Debates, Seven Congressional Districts
Lincoln and Douglas met in seven debates between August and October 1858, located in different congressional districts around the state. In all, they traveled over 4,000 miles during the Senate campaign. While Lincoln traveled by railroad, carriage or boat, Douglas rode in a private train fitted with a cannon that fired a shot every time he arrived in a new location.
Each debate followed the same structure: an hour-long opening statement by one candidate, an hour and a half-long response by the other candidate and a half-hour rebuttal by the first candidate. Despite their length and often tedious format, the debates became a huge spectacle, attracting crowds of up to 20,000 people. Thanks to the many reporters and stenographers who attended, and new technologies such as the telegraph and the railroad, the candidates’ arguments drew national attention, and would fundamentally alter the national debate over slavery and the rights of Black Americans.
Douglas and the Freeport Doctrine
Aside from the physical contrast—Lincoln was tall, lanky and rumpled; Douglas short, stocky and dressed in expensive suits—the two men represented starkly opposing viewpoints on the issues at hand. From their first debate on August 21 in Ottawa, Douglas accused Lincoln of running on a radically antislavery “Black Republican” platform and attempted to link him with leading abolitionists like Frederick Douglass.
Lincoln attacked Douglas for his support of the Supreme Court’s notorious 1857 decision in the Dred Scott case, which denied citizenship to all Black people, enslaved or free, and accused him of seeking to make slavery legal throughout the United States. In the second debate, on August 27 in Freeport, Lincoln asked Douglas whether or not popular sovereignty allowed settlers to exclude slavery from a territory before it joined the Union. Douglas said yes, clarifying that territories could choose not to enforce Dred Scott by withholding protection for slaveholders under local law. Known as the Freeport Doctrine, this stance alienated many Southerners and would come back to haunt Douglas during his 1860 presidential run.
Douglas backed the idea (common to Jacksonian Democrats) that power was best exercised at the local level. By contrast, Lincoln argued that only the federal government had the power to abolish slavery.
Differing Views on Race
Douglas repeatedly attacked Lincoln’s supposed radical views on race, claiming his opponent would not only grant citizenship rights to freed slaves but allow Black men to marry white women (an idea that horrified many white Americans) and that his views would put the nation on an inevitable path to war. Lincoln responded that he had “no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the Black races” and that “a physical difference between the two” would likely prevent them from ever living in “perfect equality.” Though he believed slavery was morally wrong, Lincoln made it clear that he shared the belief in white supremacy held by Douglas and nearly all white Americans at the time.
But while Douglas held that the nation’s founding document had been written by white men, who intended it to apply only to white men, Lincoln argued that “there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence.” Though he assured Southerners he did not plan to interfere with slavery where it already existed, he argued that the Founding Fathers—many of whom enslaved people—had regarded the institution of slavery as a moral evil that must eventually disappear.
In the elections held in November 1858, Lincoln and other Republican candidates won 53 percent of the popular vote statewide. But the congressional districts represented in the Illinois legislature at the time favored the Democrats, and the state legislature chose to return Douglas to the Senate.
Despite his loss, Lincoln’s commanding performance in the debates with Douglas, and his eloquent and bold statement of the Republican Party’s position on slavery, established him as a figure of national importance. Over the next two years, he would hone his arguments on the morality of slavery in speeches around the country, emerging as the dark horse Republican nominee in the 1860 presidential election.
Meanwhile, Douglas’ Democratic Party continued to split over the issue of slavery’s extension. Douglas succeeded in winning the Democratic nomination in 1860, but with Southern Democrats backing John Breckenridge, he won only one state: Missouri. Exhausted by the campaign, as well as his efforts to rally northern Democrats to the Union cause as the Civil War began, Douglas died in June 1861, at the age of 48.
Fergus M. Bordewich, “How Lincoln Bested Douglas in Their Famous Debates.” Smithsonian, September 2008.