November 20, 1969: The Occupation of Alcatraz begins.
On this day in 1969, seventy-nine Native Americans, mostly student protesters, set out in a boat to occupy the San Francisco Bay’s famous island prison at Alcatraz (“the Rock”). In this highly-publicized event, occupiers protested the American government’s policy in dealing with Native Americans, particularly its numerous broken treaties with Native American tribes and its Indian termination policy. The protest was fairly effective in achieving recognition for the latter issue; in 1970, President Nixon delivered to Congress a message in which he criticized termination and instead recommended self-determination, and throughout the 70s, the federal government passed legislation that promoted the sovereignty of Native American tribes. During this period, President Nixon also more than doubled the budget of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The principal organizer of the occupation was Adam Fortunate Eagle, a half-Chippewa activist; the spokesperson for the Indians of All Tribes organization was part-Sioux, part-Mexican activist John Trudell; another leader was Richard Oakes, a Mohawk Indian who lived with his family on Alcatraz until 1970 and sent this message to the San Francisco Department of the Interior:We invite the United States to acknowledge the justice of our claim. The choice now lies with the leaders of the American government - to use violence upon us as before to remove us from our Great Spirit’s land, or to institute a real change in its dealing with the American Indian…
We and all other oppressed peoples would welcome spectacle of proof before the world of your title by genocide. Nevertheless, we seek peace.
When the Ohlone and other indigenous peoples inhabited the San Francisco Bay Area, Alcatraz was regarded with suspicion, and it was even used as a place of exile and ostracism. It was abandoned as a federal penitentiary in 1963, and it was subsequently claimed by the 1969 protesters by “right of discovery”, the doctrine used to justify the acquisition of native-held lands by colonial powers (especially in the 19th century). The occupation lasted until 1971, and, for nineteen months, students, married couples, and even children lived on the island, garnering support from even celebrities like Jane Fonda and Marlon Brando. The last protesters left in June of 1971, after electrical power and telephone lines were cut off by the government. The occupation’s stated goal of creating a spiritual and cultural center on the island was never fulfilled, and most of the activists’ demands were never met, but it was influential overall, especially given its direct effect on federal policy toward Native Americans.
African American woman being carried to police patrol wagon during demonstration in Brooklyn, New York] / World Telegram & Sun photo by Dick DeMarsico.
New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)
Female Chinese band parading through a crowd at a political event supporting the presidential campaign of Republican candidate Barry Goldwater.
#1: © Ken Ross:
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and one of his aides, Jesse Jackson, at Mason Temple Wednesday, April 3, 1968. On that stormy night, Dr. King delivered his last public speech to an audience of more than 2,000. The speech has become known as the “Mountaintop” speech.
#2: © Charles Nicholas:
A youth hoisted an upraised fist - a symbol of black power - as the airplane carrying Coretta Scott King and the body of her husband departed Memphis for Atlanta April 5, 1968.
#3: © Sam Melhorn
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, Coretta Scott King, and three of the couple’s four children - Yolanda King (left), Martin Luther King III and Dexter King - led a march through downtown Memphis Monday, April 8, 1968. The march, originally planned to refocus attention on the sanitation strike, became a memorial to King.
#4: © Charles Nicholas
On Friday morning, April 5, 1968, more than 300 mourners paid tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at R.S. Lewis & Sons Funeral Home, 374 Vance. “Jesus will take care of him,” one mother whispered to her little boy. An old man in coveralls and shoes without toes waited his turn in line. When he reached the casket he leaned over and said, “We won’t give up, and we won’t bring no shame to your name.” It was a tiny chapel, draped in lavender. People were shoulder to shoulder when Dr. Ralph Abernathy, King’s top aide and closest friend, arrived. Dr. Abernathy led them in a stanza of the civil right’s leader’s theme song, “We Shall Overcome.”
In his final campaign before his death, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. lent his support to a strike by sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee. This flyer was distributed to sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, asking them to “March for Justice and Jobs” on March 22, 1968. Included are directions for the route to be followed and instructions to the marchers to use “soul-force which is peaceful, loving, courageous, yet militant.”
Exhibit 1 in City of Memphis vs. Martin Luther King, Jr, 1968
Mrs. E. Jackson wrote to the House Judiciary Committee the day after Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, in Selma, Alabama. She was reacting to scenes of police brutality during a voting rights march that many Americans witnessed on television news programs. The interlined handwriting in pencil is likely that of House Judiciary Chairman Emanuel Celler, who was Mrs. Jackson’s representative in Congress and an active supporter of voting rights legislation in the House. Interested in teaching or learning more about Voting Rights Act of 1965? Visit our web-lesson, Congress Protects the Right to Vote: the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Letter from Mrs. E. Jackson, 3/8/1965, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives (ARC 2173239)