This Week in History, May 12 - May 18
May 12, 1957
Race car driver A.J. Foyt gets first pro victory. On this day in 1957, race car driver A.J. Foyt (1935- ) scores his first professional victory, in a U.S. Automobile Club (USAC) midget car race in Kansas City, Missouri. A tough-as-nails Texan, Anthony Joseph Foyt, Jr. raced midget cars--smaller vehicles designed to be driven in races of shorter distances--and stock cars before moving up to bigger things in 1958, when he entered his first Indianapolis 500 race. Foyt won his first Indy 500 crown in 1961, when rival Eddie Sachs was forced to make a tire change in the final laps, giving Foyt the chance to overtake him and win with a then-record average speed of 139.13 mph.
May 13, 1846
President Polk declares war on Mexico. On May 13, 1846, the U.S. Congress overwhelmingly votes in favor of President James K. Polk's request to declare war on Mexico in a dispute over Texas. Under the threat of war, the United States had refrained from annexing Texas after the latter won independence from Mexico in 1836. But in 1844, President John Tyler restarted negotiations with the Republic of Texas, culminating with a Treaty of Annexation. The treaty was defeated by a wide margin in the Senate because it would upset the slave state/free state balance between North and South and risked war with Mexico, which had broken off relations with the United States. But shortly before leaving office and with the support of President-elect Polk, Tyler managed to get the joint resolution passed on March 1, 1845. Texas was admitted to the union on December 29.
May 14, 1804
Lewis and Clark depart. One year after the United States doubled its territory with the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark expedition leaves St. Louis, Missouri, on a mission to explore the Northwest from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Even before the U.S. government concluded purchase negotiations with France, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned his private secretary Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, an army captain, to lead an expedition into what is now the U.S. Northwest. On May 14, the "Corps of Discovery"--featuring approximately 45 men (although only an approximate 33 men would make the full journey)--left St. Louis for the American interior.
May 15, 1937
Madeleine Albright is born. On this day in 1937, Madeleine Albright, America's first female secretary of state, is born Maria Jana Korbelova in Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). The daughter of Czech diplomat Josef Korbel, Albright fled to England with her family after the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939. Though Albright long believed they had fled for political reasons, she learned as an adult that her family was Jewish and that three of her grandparents had died in Nazi concentration camps. The family returned home after World War II ended but immigrated to the United States in 1948 after a Soviet-sponsored Communist coup seized power in Prague. Josef Korbel became dean of the school of international relations at the University of Denver (where he would later train another female secretary of state, Condoleeza Rice).
May 16, 1929
First Academy Awards ceremony. On this day in 1929, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hands out its first awards, at a dinner party for around 250 people held in the Blossom Room of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, California. The brainchild of Louis B. Mayer, head of the powerful MGM film studio, the Academy was organized in May 1927 as a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement and improvement of the film industry. Its first president and the host of the May 1929 ceremony was the actor Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Unlike today, the winners of the first Oscars--as the coveted gold-plated statuettes later became known--were announced before the awards ceremony itself.
May 17, 1954
Brown v. Board of Ed is decided. In a major civil rights victory, the U.S. Supreme Court hands down an unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, ruling that racial segregation in public educational facilities is unconstitutional. The historic decision, which brought an end to federal tolerance of racial segregation, specifically dealt with Linda Brown, a young African American girl who had been denied admission to her local elementary school in Topeka, Kansas, because of the color of her skin. In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that "separate but equal" accommodations in railroad cars conformed to the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection. That ruling was used to justify segregating all public facilities, including elementary schools. However, in the case of Linda Brown, the white school she attempted to attend was far superior to her black alternative and miles closer to her home. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) took up Linda's cause, and in 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka reached the Supreme Court. African American lawyer (and future Supreme Court justice) Thurgood Marshall led Brown's legal team, and on May 17, 1954, the high court handed down its decision.
May 18, 1920
Pope John Paul II born. On May 18, 1920, Karol Jozef Wojtyla is born in the Polish town of Wadowice, 35 miles southwest of Krakow. Wojtyla went on to become Pope John Paul II, history's most well-traveled pope and the first non-Italian to hold the position since the 16th century. After high school, the future pope enrolled at Krakow's Jagiellonian University, where he studied philosophy and literature and performed in a theater group. During World War II, Nazis occupied Krakow and closed the university, forcing Wojtyla to seek work in a quarry and, later, a chemical factory. By 1941, his mother, father, and only brother had all died, leaving him the sole surviving member of his family. Although Wojtyla had been involved in the church his whole life, it was not until 1942 that he began seminary training. When the war ended, he returned to school at Jagiellonian to study theology, becoming an ordained priest in 1946. He went on to complete two doctorates and became a professor of moral theology and social ethics. On July 4, 1958, at the age of 38, he was appointed auxiliary bishop of Krakow by Pope Pius XII. He later became the city's archbishop, where he spoke out for religious freedom while the church began the Second Vatican Council, which would revolutionize Catholicism. He was made a cardinal in 1967, taking on the challenges of living and working as a Catholic priest in communist Eastern Europe. Once asked if he feared retribution from communist leaders, he replied, "I’m not afraid of them. They are afraid of me."