Alabama History in May

Excerpted from Alabama Department of Archives and History

May 1, 1780: John McKinley, Alabama’s first Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, is born in Virginia. McKinley moved to Alabama in 1819 and was elected to the Alabama legislature from Madison County in 1820. During the next fifteen years he served in both the Alabama state legislature and U.S. Congress. He was chosen by President Martin Van Buren to serve on the Supreme Court in 1837; he held that position until his death in 1852.

May 1, 1961: Harper Lee of Monroeville wins the Pulitzer Prize for To Kill A Mockingbird, her first, and only, novel. The gripping tale set in 1930s Alabama became an international bestseller and was made into a major Hollywood motion picture starring Gregory Peck.

May 3, 1963: Peaceful African American demonstrators, many of them teenagers, are beaten back in downtown Birmingham by fire hoses and police dogs. The extreme tactics, ordered by police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor because his jails were already full of protestors, brought international attention to Project C, the name given to civil rights demonstrations in the city led by Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth.

May 4, 1865: At Citronelle, Alabama, three and a half weeks after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the last major Confederate force east of the Mississippi surrenders. Lt. Gen. Richard Taylor surrendered the 12,000 troops of the Department of East Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama to Maj. Gen. E. R. S. Canby of the U.S. Army.

May 5, 1799:U.S. Army Lieutenant John McClary takes possession of Fort St. Stephens from the Spanish and the United States flag is raised for the first time on soil that would eventually belong to Alabama.

May 5, 1910: An explosion at Palos Coal Mine No. 3 in Jefferson County kills 84 miners. At the time it was the second-worst mine disaster in Alabama history, and it followed on the heels of a mine explosion at nearby Mulga that killed 40 miners. The Palos tragedy also marked the first time that the Red Cross led a disaster relief effort in Alabama.

May 8, 1820: The Alabama Supreme Court convenes for the first time. The court, meeting in the capital of Cahaba, was composed of Alabama’s circuit court judges. Clement C. Clay, who later served in Congress and as governor, was appointed Chief Justice.

May 11, 1811: The first newspaper in Alabama, The Mobile Centinel, is published at Fort Stoddert.

May 13, 1914: Joe Louis, “The Brown Bomber,” is born near LaFayette. In 1926 the family moved to Detroit and Louis began boxing. Louis held the world heavyweight boxing title from 1937 to 1948 and made a division record 25 successful title defenses. His matches in 1936 and 1938 against Max Schmeling of Germany were seen by many as heroic fights between the democratic free world and the Nazi forces. Louis died in 1981.

May 15, 1972: Gov. George C. Wallace is shot in Maryland while campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president. The assassination attempt by Arthur Bremer left the Governor paralyzed from the waist down and effectively ended his chances at the nomination. He campaigned again for president in 1976, marking his fourth consecutive run for that office.

May 17, 1934: The Ave Maria Grotto park is dedicated at the St. Bernard Benedictine Abbey in Cullman. Known by visitors from around the world as “Jerusalem in Miniature,” the park is filled with miniature re-creations of historic buildings by monk Joseph Zoettl.

May 18, 1933: Congress establishes the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The New Deal program would have a lasting impact on Alabama, especially the northern third of the state. As its focus, TVA constructed hydroelectric dams on the Tennessee River, which, among other benefits, brought electricity to rural areas and attracted industry.

May 19, 1963: Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is issued to the public in a press release. Begun April 16 from the Birmingham City Jail, where King was under arrest for participation in civil rights demonstrations, the letter was addressed to eight local clergymen who had recently urged civil rights leaders to use the courts and local negotiations instead of mass demonstrations to promote their cause in Birmingham. King’s letter, which soon became a classic text of the civil rights movement, rejected the clergymen’s plea.

May 20, 1894: The first bloodshed of the 1894 miners’ strike occurs when a strike breaker is killed by striking miners near Birmingham. In their first show of industrial strength and discontent, 8,000 Alabama miners left the job in April 1894. The strike was over by August, as the powerful coal companies prevailed with the help of the State Militia and leased convicts.

May 20, 1961:The Freedom Riders arrive at the Greyhound bus terminal in Montgomery where they are attacked by an angry mob. The Freedom Ride, an integrated bus trip from Washington D.C., through the Deep South, was formed to test the 1960 Supreme Court decision prohibiting segregation in bus and train terminal facilities. Before reaching Montgomery, they had already suffered violent reprisals in Anniston and Birmingham. The Freedom Ride eventually resulted in a campaign that caused the Interstate Commerce Commission to rule against segregated facilities in interstate travel.

May 21, 1861:The Confederate Congress meets for the last time in Montgomery. Montgomery served as capital for just three months, from February to May 1861. After Virginia joined the Confederacy in April 1861, leaders urged the move to the larger city of Richmond, which was closer to the military action.

May 21, 1901: The Constitutional Convention of 1901 assembles in Montgomery to write Alabama’s sixth constitution. Convention president John B. Knox of Anniston, pointing to ongoing “race conflict” in state politics, explained that the foremost objective of the convention was “to establish white supremacy in this State.” The delegates accomplished that by producing a document that effectively disfranchised blacks, along with poor whites. Voters ratified the Constitution of 1901 in November of that year.

May 25, 1865: During the early weeks of Federal occupation of Mobile, the city suffers one of its worst disasters as twenty tons of captured Confederate gunpowder explodes in a warehouse being used as an arsenal. Property loss was put at $5,000,000 and the number of casualties was never determined, although it has been estimated at possibly 300. The entire northern part of the city was laid in ruins by the explosion.

May 25, 1910: The first-ever nighttime airplane flight is made at Orville Wright’s flying school near Montgomery. Walter Brookins and Archibald Hoxsey piloted the plane, which the Montgomery Advertiser described as “glinting now and then in the moonlight” during flight. The flying school closed shortly after the historic event, but the site eventually became home to Maxwell Air Force Base.

May 25, 1971: President Richard Nixon visits Mobile to mark the start of construction of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. The waterway, when completed in 1985, ran from Pickwick Lake to Demopolis, Alabama, to connect the Tennessee River to the Tombigbee River. A link between the two rivers had long been desired, having been first proposed by the French in the eighteenth century.

May 28, 1828:A United States arsenal is established at Mt. Vernon, near the juncture of the Tombigbee and Alabama Rivers. It had previously been the headquarters for General Claiborne in the Creek War of 1813-1814. In 1873 the Arsenal was converted into a barracks, which from 1887 to 1894 housed Apache Indian prisoners, including Geronimo. In 1895 the land was conveyed to the State of Alabama and became the site of the Mt. Vernon Hospital.

May 28, 1951: Batting for the New York Giants against the Boston Braves, Alabama native Willie Mays gets his first hit in the Major Leagues–a home run. Born near Birmingham, the “Say Hey Kid” went on to be named National League Rookie of the Year and hit 660 homers in a legendary Hall of Fame career.

May 29, 1901: Seven days into the Constitutional Convention of 1901 a petition submitted by Booker T. Washington and twenty-three other African-American leaders is read to convention delegates, all of whom are white. The petition asked that the black Alabamian be given “some humble share in choosing those who shall rule over him.” Nevertheless, with the ratification of the Constitution of 1901 in November, blacks–along with poor whites–were effectively disfranchised.