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Notes on the 20th Century

by Michael H. Burchett

The New Terraplane Remembers

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


February is Black History Month

A Quick Black History Quiz:

Match each of the following noteworthy African Americans with the correct biographical information:

1. Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay)

2. W.E.B. DuBois

3. Kenneth Clark

4. Shirley Chisholm

5. Crispus Attucks

6. A. Philip Randolph

7. Benjamin Banneker

8. Ella Baker

9. Jesse Owens

10. Booker T. Washington

a) One of five colonists killed by British soldiers in the Boston Massacre of 1770.

b)Born a slave, he became one of the most influential black educators of the pre-civil rights era. His conservative, "accommodationist" views drew criticism from many civil rights activists.

c) An astronomer and mathematician, he helped to survey Washington, D.C. in 1791 and corresponded with Thomas Jefferson

d) This psychologist's research on the negative effects of segregation on African American children influenced the outcome of the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education (1954) case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

e) After winning the world heavyweight championship in 1964, this boxer became a Black Muslim, changed his name, and was stripped of his title when he refused to serve in the military

f) Became the first black woman in Congress when she was sworn into the House of Representatives in January 1969. She ran for president in 1972.

g) He enraged German Chancellor Adolf Hitler by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

h) A civil rights activist and labor organizer, he was instumental in pursuading President Franklin D. Roosevelt to sign an executive order banning discrimination in defense industry and federal bureaus in 1941.

I) An educator, editor, writer, and civil rights activist, he was a founding member of the Niagara Movement and of its offspring, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

J) Became a field secretary for the NAACP in 1938 and went on to work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Was instumental in the foundation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Answers below under "Milestones"

NUMBER 6: January-February 2000

What We Should Remember About the Twentieth Century

A Message from the publisher

Historically, the turn of the century has been a time for reflection on the past, speculation toward the future, and assessment of the present. The impending (see above) passing of the twentieth century into the twenty-first is made unique, however, by the ubiquitous presence of communications media and the resultant overexposure, over-romanticization, and overanalysis of cultural phenomena. The most common and most obvious manifestation of these tendencies to excess is compulsive list-making. Indeed, 1999 was the year of the list in American popular culture. It seemed that everywhere one looked, one found another "top ten," "top fifty," or "top one hundred" of the century or the "millennium." They ranged from the academic (most significant literary works), to the trivial (best TV shows); from the arguable (most influential people) to the arbitrary (most beautiful people).

I do not wish to compromise the dignity of this page or the patience of the reader by adding fuel to the listing frenzy. List-making is often crucial to the historian's task of quantifying, synopsizing, and contextualizing the significant events, people, and trends that shape history. Yet lists are limited in that they touch only on the high spots of the historical topography, ignoring the rolling hills and valleys of context that give rise to historical phenomena. Lists are useful tools, but they only go so far. School children centuries from now may know about the world wars, but that knowledge will be of little use to them if they do not know how the fighting began, and have never run their mind's hand over the scars that it left behind.

The twentieth century -- often dubbed the "American Century" -- marked a period of rapid and lasting change in the United States and across the globe. Yet time often outwits history by diminishing even the most significant of phenomena, and despite the better efforts of historians, links between cause and effect often rust and fall away with neglect. Therefore, I submit to you a brief list of twentieth-century events whose causes and effects need not be forgotten. The events are listed in chronological order, and I have made no effort to rank them. I urge everyone to explore them in greater depth, and to pass them along to succeeding generations:

Prohibition (1919-1933), simply the worst social experiment in American history. Prohibition was progressivism gone awry, a triumph for the dark side of the crusader spirit.

The Great Depression (1929-1943), for it demonstrates that prosperity is fleeting, and that there is more to America than material wealth.

World War II (1939-1945), second only to the Civil War as a test of the national mettle. Future generations of Americans must understand how close the world came to being plunged into darkness in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and how their forebears contributed to preventing that from happening.

The Holocaust. It is important to remember how Hitler came to power: legally, and with promises to restore greatness and "traditional values" to Germany.

The Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968): perhaps the most compelling chapter in the history of twentieth-century America. A movement begun and carried on by common people, led by a humble sage, embraced by a diverse citizenry, and brought to a premature end by a single bullet. The civil rights movement contains a wealth of lessons on problem solving, nonviolent confrontation, and effective rhetoric that constitute a veritable handbook for effective and appropriate political activism.

Those are the basics; but there is so much more to the legacy of twentieth-century America. Never before had so much happened so fast, or been witnessed by so many. Never before had humankind had so much leisure, or experienced so much stress. Yet similarities can be established between twentieth-century America and past civilizations that had enjoyed unprecedented power and affluence only to collapse from their own weight or from internal decay. The above-listed five events contain lessons that may prove crucial to the preservation of a free and just society in the future. We dare not forget them, or fail to pass them on to subsequent generations.

Best wishes for a peaceful and prosperous new year, and a new American century beginning next Jan. 1.

Michael H. Burchett



1972 Scientists employed by the Intel Corporation develop the first silicon microchip, making possible the development of the personal computer.

1964 Before embarking on their first U.S. tour, the Beatles stipulate that they will not play to segregated audiences in the south.

Answers to quiz: 1-e; 2-i; 3-d; 4-f; 5-a; 6-h; 7-c; 8-j; 9-g; 10-b.


Notes on the 20th Century is produced by Jefferson's Terraplane: moving toward the future with an eye on the past.

This page is updated semi-monthly (or thereabouts): visit here again for more essays, quizzes, quotes, and other information on twentieth-century America.

Feedback is encouraged:

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Copyright 1999 Michael H. Burchett

Back to Current Installment


Number 14: A Bad Month for Gerald Ford

Number 13: Origins of American Racial and Ethnic Slurs, Part II

Number 12: History of Black Radio Broadcasting

Number 11: "The "Progressive" Origins of the War on Drugs, Part II

Number 10: Origins of American Racial and Ethnic Slurs

Number 9: Technology -- the Inventors

Number 8: Postwar Prosperity and the Birth of Mass Culture, Part II

Number 7: Pop Culture Quiz, Postwar Prosperity & the Birth of Mass Culture, Part I

Number 6: Black History Quiz, Message from the Publisher

Number 5: Pearl Harbor

Number 4: "The "Progressive" Origins of the War on Drugs, Part I

Number 3: "The Vietnam Conflict: Facts and Figures

Number 2: "The Celebration of Independence Day: A Southern Perspective"

Number 1: "The Birth of FM Radio"


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