This Week In History: April 2-8


This week in history: ACLU defends the First Amendment, Martin Luther King, Jr. shot, and Pompeii is excavated.  Read more below and dive deeper with The Great Courses Plus.

April 3rd, 1957 — Poem “Howl” is defended against obscenity charges

By Ludwig Urning (Photograph by Ludwig Urning) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Allen Ginsberg, 1978
Allen Ginsberg’s book, Howl, was accused of being obscene. The American Civil Liberties Union announces on April 3, 1957 that they will defend it against the charges. By this time, US Customs had seized about 520 copies of the book as they were brought in thru England. Ginsberg had premiered the title poem, Howl, to much acclaim from his fellow poets. It was not to everyone’s tastes, though, as its  racy language, honest subject matter, and lack of form offended some. Similar to Jack Kerouack’s pieces, the poem became a rallying cry to the youth of the 1960’s.American publisher and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti announced he would publish Howl in the US. He was arrested and tried for “promoting obscene materials.” The ACLU took up the case and defended both Ferlinghetti and the book based on the first amendment to free speech; he was found not guilty and the book can still be found printed in the United States.
Learn more about the Amendments in History of the Supreme Court 

April 4th, 1968 — Dr. King Shot

America lost a powerful presence on April 4, 1968. A clergyman and a civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was fatally shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Because of his unpopular views of equality, Dr. King often received death threats. After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, King told his wife Coretta, By Thomas R Machnitzki (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons“This is what is going to happen to me also. I keep telling you, this is a sick society.”¹ While King died fighting for equality, his cause continued and motivated the creation of the Lorraine Motel museum.

The Lorraine Motel is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum complex and is still standing as it was when King was shot. The museum traces the civil rights movements from the 17th century on in American history.

Learn more about Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement in A History of the United States, 2nd Edition

April 6th, 1748 — Pompeii Excavation Begins

By Jebulon (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Cast of a sitting victim of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, 79 CE, Pompeii, Italy
Pompeii was an ancient Roman city in the Campania region of Italy. It sat on the foothills of Mount Vesuvius along with other towns such as Herculaneum. These two towns and many surrounding villas were destroyed under 13-20 feet of volcanic ash and pumice when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. A young man by the name of Pliny the Younger witnessed the eruption and described the destruction in a letter to his uncle. This was one of the only surviving pieces of proof of the existence of Pompeii until about 1500 years later.

Pompeii was initially rediscovered in 1599 and explored 150 years later. Spanish Engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre started the 1748 excavations. To everyone’s surprise, the artifacts were nearly perfectly preserved due to lack of air and moisture. Human remains, though, were gone, but their cavities were preserved. Plaster was used to fill in the voids where people lived their final moments and now give us a clear view of what life was like during Pax Romana and during the disaster.

Learn more about the discovery of Pompeii and what life was like in the ancient city Pompeii: Daily Life in an Ancient Roman City
Attribution and citations:
¹ Dyson, Michael Eric (2008). “Fighting Death”. April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr.’s death and how it changed America (1st ed.). New York City: Basic Civitas Books. ISBN 978-0465002122.