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15 Historic Events That Have Changed Us As a Nation

On muggy Labor Day, a friend remarked that by week’s end the skies would be clear, the sun strong, and the air cool. “You know — September 11th weather,” he said. For people in New York on 9/11, September’s beauty has been forever tarnished.

I was taking the 2 train uptown to my job at Columbus Circle when the first plane hit Tower 1. Right around 14th Street, the subway slammed to a halt. Looks passed through the car, which is an unusual occurrence on its own  — prolonged eye contact on the morning commute. Riding the rails everyday, you get to know how the trains feel. This wasn’t the kind of stop one makes because of traffic, it was the kind that signals emergency, something I think everyone on that train felt.

After a few moments the subway continued, and I would’ve forgotten about the interruption, except while climbing the stairs toward that crystal blue rectangle of sky a besuited man looked at his phone — pre-smartphone, I assume he received a text — and announced to no one in particular, “They ran a plane into the World Trade Center?” Though I had no idea who “they” might be, or even if the stranger was telling the truth or just New York crazy, I walked to the office without stopping for coffee and found my coworkers huddled around the television in the conference room. The second plane had hit at that point, and Manhattan put on lockdown.

That day is etched into the memory of every American who lived through 9/11, a dividing line between two realities, a marker for a world that forever changed. Afterward, we spoke a new vocabulary — Al Qaeda, terrorist threats, security alerts, the Patriot Act, Enemy Non-Combatants — and viewed the security of our country with new, wary eyes. But September 11th is not alone in our nation’s history. There have been numerous events that mark a significant cultural shift in how Americans see and think about the world.

Here are 14 historic events that we came up with, from the 1960s to today:

  • Besides 9/11, other events that have become a part of our nation’s consciousness include… 1 of 15
    WTC
  • The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (August 28, 1963) 2 of 15
    MLK

    The March on Washington, organized by civil rights groups and religious and labor leaders, helped put public pressure on politicians to pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, largely because of Reverend Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, which was televised live. Images of the massive crowd of several hundred thousand in front of the Lincoln Memorial were inspirational, proof of the Civil Rights Movement's power.

     

    Public domain image via Wikimedia

  • President John F. Kennedy’s Assassination (November 22, 1963) 3 of 15
    JFK

    Kennedy was young, handsome, and after the Cuban Missile Crisis, immensely popular. From his historic Inaugural Address, he positioned himself as the image of optimism. To see him gunned down while sitting next to his beautiful wife was, at least in my mother's recollection, shocking. In her memory, the rest of the day passed in muted anxiety, with everyone gathered around the television wondering why. That question was never answered with any satisfaction, and to this day conspiracies abound as to the motive behind Kennedy's murder.

     

    Photo copyright Jeff Dean via Wikimedia 

  • Stonewall Riots (June 28, 1969) 4 of 15
    gay pride

    During the 1950s and '60s, openly gay people were restricted in the places they could frequent. While bars like Greenwich Village's Stonewall Inn accepted them, police often raided and arrested the bar patrons. It was on one such raid that spontaneous riots broke out against the New York City Police officers. The violence continued for a few nights before gay people in New York and other cities organized and formed activist organizations, based in part on models of The Civil Rights Movement and anti-war protests. A year later, the riots at Stonewall were marked by the first ever Gay Pride marches in New York, L.A., and Chicago. Today, Gay Pride events throughout the world commemorate the event. These organizations and events have gone a long way toward combatting discrimination based on sexual preference, and laid the groundwork that led to the fight for marriage equality.

     

    Photo by JoeinQueens via Wikimedia

  • Apollo 11 Lands on the Moon (July 20, 1969) 5 of 15
    moon

    An event that many Americans watched in their homes, Neil Armstrong's historic first steps on the moon proved that not even the stars were beyond humanity's potential to reach. Our view of the night sky was never the same!

     

    Photo by NASA via Wikimedia

  • The Vietnam War (1955 to 1975) 6 of 15
    vietnam

    The prolonged, brutal conflict in Vietnam, escalated by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1963, showed Americans that not all wars can be won. The conflict was essentially the Cold War made hot, with anti-communist countries supporting the South Vietnamese, and communist countries (mostly China) backing the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong, who waged a guerrilla campaign against the anti-communists. The conflict took the lives of over 58,000 U.S. service members, and an untold number of civilians. It ignited a peace movement and anti-government protests in the United States, and its memory still inspires acts of civil disobedience, such as the Occupy Movement.

     

    Public domain image via Wikimedia

  • First Earth Day (April 22, 1970) 7 of 15
    earth day

    Though the idea of Earth Day was floating around in the late '60s, Wisconsin democrat Gaylord Nelson is credited with founding Earth Day as an environmental teach-in that largely took place on college campuses and schools across America, and in marches in American cities like New York that captured media coverage. Though the extent of Earth Day celebrations has varied over the years, one thing is certain it is in part responsible for raising the country's environmental consciousness!

     

    Graphic by TheOriginalSoni via Wikimedia

  • Watergate Scandal (Early 1970s) 8 of 15
    nixon

    Watergate was the office complex where the Democratic National Committee had its headquarters. On June 17, 1972 operatives working on behalf of President Nixon broke into the offices to photograph documents and install listening devices. The resulting cover-up revealed corruption up to the President himself, and ended in Nixon's resignation in August, 1974. Media reports (most famously the investigation by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein) uncovered the depths to which politicians can sink in order to hold onto power, and the nation has never really regained trust in their government. Notice how every political scandal gets the suffix "-gate" stuck on the end?

     

    Photo of President Richard Nixon by Oliver F. Atkins via Wikimedia

  • The Challenger Explosion (January 28, 1986) 9 of 15
    challenger

    Christa McAuliffe would have been the first teacher in space, but 73 seconds after lift-off, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart over the Atlantic Ocean because of a faulty O-ring. The explosion killed McAuliffe and the other six members of the crew. Because of McAuliffe, every classroom in my grade school was watching the shuttle launch, with the audio broadcast on the loudspeaker. I was in the hallway, headed to the bathroom when the shuttle disintegrated. Sticking my head in the nearest classroom, I saw the strange, almost octopus-shaped cloud the shuttle left behind. Up to this point, traveling to the stars seemed fun and exciting. The shuttle explosion demonstrated how dangerous it could be, and began a lack of interest (and funding) in space flight that sadly continues today.

     

    Photo by NASA via Wikimedia

  • AIDS Epidemic (1980s) 10 of 15
    aids

    The Reagan administration was slow to respond to the threat of AIDS in the early 1980s, a time when Human Immunodeficiency Virus Infection / Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (HIV/AIDS) was known as the gay plague. Ryan White — a middle school student from Indiana infected with AIDS via a blood transfusion — helped to change that perception and garner media attention about combatting the disease. He worked to support increased research in the disease till his death in 1990.

     

    Demonstrations in the late 1980s by members of ACT UP (an acronym of AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) also put pressure on the US Government to better fund the fight against AIDS and educate the public on how to prevent it. Since then, Americans have come to be very cautious about sexual health, and educating young adults on the dangers of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases has become a priority.

     

    Photo of the National AIDS Quilt by the National Institutes of Health via Wikimedia

  • The Oklahoma City Bombing (April 19, 1995) 11 of 15
    oklahoma

    One hundred and sixty eight people were killed, and hundreds injured, when a Ryder truck filled with explosives blew up in front of the Alfred P. Murray Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Quickly, Timothy McVeigh, a sympathizer of the American militia movement and Gulf War veteran, was arrested and linked to the attack, along with accomplice Terry Nichols. The bombing corresponded with the fire that ended the 1993 FBI siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, and was designed to send a message to the federal government. This was not the first act of terror perpretrated by an American against other citizens of this country, but it was certainly the most deadly. The Oklahoma City bombing escalated a defensive militarization of American cities — with barricades protecting significant buildings, and police check points — that escalated after 9/11. We don't just fear enemies outside of our country, but enemies within.

     

    Photo by Staff Sergeant Preston Chasteen via Wikimedia

  • The Columbine High School Shooting (April 20, 1999) 12 of 15
    columbine

    At Columbine High School in Colorado, high school seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered twelve students and one teacher before committing suicide. Their attack included fire bombs to divert fire fighters, and was timed for — and apparently designed to rival — the Oklahoma City Bombing, though the exact motives of the young men are still unclear. The massacre sparked a debate on violence and gun culture that has not ended since. Nor, sadly, have shootings on school campuses.

     

    Photo by Kimberlee Hewlitt via Wikimedia

    From the photo's description: President George W. Bush talks with former Columbine High School student Craig Scott during a panel discussion on school safety at the National 4-H Conference Center in Chevy Chase, Md., Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2006. "All of us in this country want our classrooms to be gentle places of learning, places where people not only learn the basics — basic skills necessary to become productive citizens, but learn to relate to one another," said President Bush.

  • Hurricane Katrina (August, 2005) 13 of 15
    katrina

    The storm surge from Hurricane Katrina rose the water in Lake Pontchartrain, breaking the levees and flooding the city of New Orleans and surrounding areas. People who had not evacuated to higher ground found themselves stranded, the majority of them African American and poor. Exacerbated by the slow response of the federal government, the situation in New Orleans became grave and anarchic, with reports of bodies floating in the street. Americans were horrified by the situation, which looked like something out of a war-torn, impoverished country, and not one of its grandest cities, and also made clear a racial and class divide most would prefer not talk about, since the middle class and wealthy residents in the area either lived on high ground or had the means to leave the area. Since then, Americans have debated and discussed the role of government in responding to natural disasters, as well as the role of global warming in causing such disasters. But one thing is clear — our nervousness about weather related catastrophes is on the rise.

     

    Photo by NASA via Wikimedia

  • The 2008 Presidential Campaign 14 of 15
    obama

    Whatever your feelings on our current president, the 2008 presidential election was historic because it led to the election of the first African-American president, Barack Obama, and also saw women playing prominent roles: Hilary Clinton came closer than any woman has in history to obtaining a major party nomination, and Sarah Palin joined John McCain on the Republican ticket as Vice President. The 2008 election made true an American dream that anyone can be the president of the United States, regardless of color and gender. It no longer seems a question of if a woman can be President, but when.

     

    Photo by TonyTheTiger via Wikimedia

  • The Occupy Movement (2011) 15 of 15
    occupy

    On September 17, 2011, protesters heeding a call by the magazine Adbusters moved into Zucotti Park near Wall Street to protest the greed and corruption in government, and social inequality prevalent in our country. Their non-violent demonstrations critiqued our capitalist culture, and called for a more egalitarian reorganization of wealth. "We are the 99%," went one slogan, and that idea — that 1% of the country's population, the uber-rich, control the economy and and influence government policy, while 99% toil without representation or advocacy — has taken hold. Occupy Wall Street, and the resulting occupation protests across the country, gave hope that something could be done to address the growing economic disparity in the United States, or that it's at the very least become something that we talk about instead of pretending it doesn't exist.

     

    David Crosby and Graham Nash performing at Occupy Wall Street on Tuesday, November 8th

    Photo by David Shankbone via Wikimedia

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