This Week in People’s History, May 16 . . .
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Member of Congress using a whip to drive Lady Liberty out of the U.S. Capitol

May 16, 1918. Congress and President Wilson respond to large and growing opposition to U.S. participation in World War I by making it a crime to speak or write in opposition to the war. The Sedition Act is used to jail nearly a thousand people, some of them for many years, for their "seditious" words.

May 17, 1860. The Republican Party adopts a platform including these words: "the African slave trade  . . . [is] a crime against humanity and a burning shame to our country and age; and we call upon Congress to take prompt and efficient measures for the total and final suppression of that execrable traffic." It is one of the first times the phrase "crime against humanity" was used in a public document.

May 18, 1852. Massachusetts becomes the first U.S. state to require that all children attend school, and to require that each town provide free education.…

May 20, 1973. Twenty-eight anti-war activists who had been caught red-handed trashing the draft board's office in Camden, New Jersey, are acquitted of all charges in what is widely regarded as a referendum on the FBI's use of informers to suppress activism against the Vietnam War.

May 21, 1940. President Franklin Roosevelt tells his Attorney General that when "national security" is at stake, the FBI could ignore the recent Supreme Court decision that wiretapping is illegal. Roosevelt says, "I am convinced that the Supreme Court never intended any dictum in the particular case it decided to apply to grave matters involving the defense of the nation.” Then, as now, as a practical matter secret government surveillance  is nearly impossible to prevent.

May 22, 1872. Just seven years after at least 385,000 people had given their lives to win the Civil War and abolish slavery, the U.S. government turns the other cheek by passing the Amnesty Act. The law eliminates most of the penalties imposed on former Confederates by the Fourteenth Amendment. Not surprisingly, the January 6, 2021 insurrectionists have been arguing in court that the Amnesty Act's protections apply to them.

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