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Not-So-Famous Firsts: The Civil Rights Movement

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In honor of Martin Luther King Day, let's take a look at a few not-so-famous firsts in the American Civil Rights Movement.

Get on the Bus

Eleven years before Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus to a white passenger, Irene Morgan did the same on a Greyhound bus bound from Virginia to Maryland. It was a hot and humid July morning in 1944, and Morgan had been visiting her mother in Gloucester, Virginia. She was probably feeling the effects of the oppressive heat more than many other passengers, as she’d suffered a miscarriage just a few weeks earlier and was still not 100 percent recovered. She purchased a $5 Greyhound ticket bound for Baltimore, Maryland, where she lived with her husband and two children and where she also worked at a defense plant that manufactured B-26 Marauders.

Her seat was in the section designated for “Coloreds,” but when a white couple boarded the crowded bus near Saluda, Virginia, the driver ordered Morgan and another woman to vacate their seats. Morgan refused, stating she’d paid for her ticket just like every other passenger.

A local sheriff was summoned, and during the ensuing arrest Morgan kicked him. She was jailed for a day and charged with both resisting arrest and violating Virginia’s segregated seating laws. She pled guilty to the first charge, but protested the second and a young NAACP attorney named Thurgood Marshall took on her case. Morgan vs The Commonwealth of Virginia went all the way to the Supreme Court and won on the grounds that, because that Greyhound bus was crossing state lines, it represented “an unconstitutional burden on the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce and that it threatened free movement across state lines.”

Greyhound Bus Lines eliminated their Jim Crow seating policy after the ruling, and Irene Morgan went on to raise her children and then go to college and earn a master’s degree in Urban Studies at the age of 72.

Rock the Vote

As part of Reconstruction, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Fifteenth Amendment into law in 1870, which guaranteed that no U.S. citizen could be “denied the right to vote based upon race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The amendment was ratified on March 30, 1870, and on March 31 Thomas Mundy Peterson of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, became the first African-American to cast a vote in a U.S. election. Peterson worked as a custodian at the town’s Public School Number One, and on the morning of March 31, 1870, his boss, J.L. Kearny, approached him as he worked and suggested that he take some time off and go to the polls to “exercise a citizen’s privilege.” The issue on the ballot was whether to revise or abandon the town’s charter. Peterson not only cast his vote, he was also later selected to serve on the committee of seven to revise the charter after the election. He later became the city’s first African-American to serve on a jury. In 1989 Perth Amboy’s P.S. 1 was renamed Thomas Mundy Peterson Elementary School.

Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves

Born into a family of educators in Baltimore in 1910, Anna Pauline “Pauli” Murray attended New York’s Hunter College after graduating from high school with the intent of getting a teaching degree. She earned her tuition by any means necessary, including menial jobs as well as tutoring students in remedial reading and occasionally successfully getting articles and poems published in local magazines. In 1938 she applied to the then all-white University of North Carolina (which would have made her the school’s first African-American student) but she was denied admission. Despite support from the NAACP and some national publicity, Murray’s application was still rejected.

Nevertheless, her campaign caught the attention of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and the two formed a lifelong friendship. Murray graduated from Howard University Law School in 1944 (first in her class, and the only female) and was awarded the prestigious Julius Rosenwald Fellowship for graduate work, which traditionally is accomplished at Harvard Law School. However, Murray was rejected by Harvard not because of her race, but because of her gender; despite a glowing letter of reference from President Franklin D. Roosevelt (a Harvard alum himself), the university would not budge on its “males only” policy. Murray went on to earn her Master of Law degree from the University of California, and her Harvard rejection helped to form her career focus – fighting “Jane Crow” laws that discriminated against female minorities. In 1965 she became the first African-American to receive a Doctor of Juridical Science degree from Yale University Law School.

Old School, New Thinking

The first institute of higher learning in the U.S. that freely admitted any student regardless of gender or race was Oberlin College in Ohio. Located just outside of Cleveland, the school was founded by two Presbyterian ministers in 1833. In its earliest days the school accepted qualified students regardless of their ability to pay tuition – if they were lacking funds, they could “work off” their fees by providing the manual labor necessary to sustain the college.

In 1841, three women graduated from Oberlin, making them the first females in the United States to receive their AB degrees. In 1857 a 17-year-old African-American woman named Mary Jane Patterson enrolled at Oberlin for a one year “preparatory course.” Her grades were so stellar that she was encouraged to stay for an additional three years to get a degree. In 1862 she became the first black woman in the United States to earn a bachelor’s degree from an established college. Inspired by her success, Mary’s three younger siblings all went on to graduate from Oberlin and earn teaching degrees. As for Mary, she moved to Washington, DC, in 1869 to work as a teacher and two years later became the first African-American principal of the newly-established Preparatory High School for Negroes.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 

PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

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