1954: Five Congressmen Shot by Puerto Rican Nationalists

In this image taken moments after the shooting on March 1, 1954, (from left foreground) House Pages Bill Goodwin, Paul Kanjorski, and Bill Emerson carry a stretcher bearing wounded Representative Alvin Bentley of Michigan, to a waiting ambulance on the East Front of the Capitol. (Photo via U.S. House of Representatives)

On this date in 1954, four Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire in the House of Representatives chamber in the United States Capitol building.

Here are some things you may not have known about it.

The Puerto Rican Nationalist Party was founded in the 1920s in an attempt to secure the island’s independence from the United States. The U.S. had gained possession of Puerto Rico as part of the Treaty of Paris of 1898, which ended the Spanish-American War. The U.S. also acquired Guam, the Philippines and Cuba as part of the treaty. An amendment to the U.S. declaration of war prevented the U.S. from keeping Cuba.

The Puerto Rican nationalists argued that their island wasn’t the property of Spain in the first place, so the Spanish couldn’t give the island to the United States.

In 1950, Puerto Rico was made a “Free Associated State,” meaning the people of Puerto Rico could elect their own governor and legislators in a manner similar to full-fledged American states. The U.S. government retained responsibility for defense and foreign relations. In October, the U.S. helped the Puerto Rican National Guard put down a nationalist uprising, which resulted in 28 fatalities. Two days later, two nationalists attempted to assassinate President Harry Truman in Washington, D.C. The attack was unsuccessful, but a White House police officer and one of the attackers were killed.

In 1952, 82 percent of Puerto Rican voters decided to accept the new status as a commonwealth. The only other option provided on the ballot was for maintaining direct American rule. Independence was not an option.

On March 1, 1954, Lolita Lebrón, Rafael Cancel Miranda, Irvin Flores and Andres Figueroa Cordero smuggled semi-automatic pistols into the visitors’ gallery above the House of Representatives chamber in the U.S. Capitol.  The group recited the Lord’s Prayer, Lebrón stood up and shouted “¡Viva Puerto Rico Libre!” or “Long live a free Puerto Rico” and unfurled a Puerto Rican flag. The group then opened fire.

Five congressmen were shot: Alvin Bentley of Michigan, Clifford Davis of Tennessee, Ben F. Jensen of Iowa, George Hyde Fallon of Maryland and Kenneth A. Roberts of Alabama. Bentley was the most severely injured, having been shot in the chest. Lebrón said she fired her gun into the ceiling. It’s reported that Figueroa Cordero’s gun jammed. Cancel Miranda claimed to have fired most of the shots and injured all of the congressmen.

The nationalists were immediately arrested. After her arrest, Lebrón said, “I did not come to kill anyone, I came to die for Puerto Rico.”

All of the wounded congressmen survived their injuries.

The four nationalists were convicted of attempted murder and conspiracy. Each of them except Cancel Miranda were given 76-year sentences. Cancel Miranda, who was considered to be the primary shooter, was sentenced to 85 years in prison and sent to Alcatraz.

Figueroa Cordero was released from prison in 1978, the others were pardoned in 1979.

Cancel Miranda is the only surviving participant of  the plot. He’s 86 years old and lives in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico.

Since 1967, there have been four referendums on the status of Puerto Rico. Maintaining the commonwealth and pursuing statehood have been the top vote getters. Another referendum is scheduled for June 11, 2017. The only options on the ballot will be statehood or independence/free association.

Our question: What are the names of the other three major islands in the Greater Antilles?

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One response to “1954: Five Congressmen Shot by Puerto Rican Nationalists”

  1. Three other islands of the Greater Antilles: Jamaica, Cuba and Hispaniola (made of Dominican Republic and Haiti). Trinidad, farther South, could qualify as one of the larger Antilles.
    This answer is a year late, but I could not resist the fun. Good day to all.

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