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1961 (MCMLXI) was a common year starting on Sunday (dominical letter A) of the Gregorian calendar, the 1961st year of the Common Era (CE) and Anno Domini (AD) designations, the 961st year of the 2nd millennium, the 61st year of the 20th century, and the 2nd year of the 1960s decade. As MAD Magazine pointed out on its cover for the March 1961 issue, this was the first "upside-up" year — i.e., one in which the numerals that form the year look the same as when the numerals are rotated upside down, a strobogrammatic number — since 1881. The next such year will be 6009.
- May 4 – U.S. Freedom Riders begin interstate bus rides to test the new U.S. Supreme Court integration decision.
- May 5 – Mercury program: Alan Shepard becomes the first American in space aboard Mercury-Redstone 3.
- May 6 – Tottenham Hotspur F.C. becomes the first team in the 20th century to win the English league and cup double. This being the last time Tottenham won the English League.
- May 8 – Briton George Blake is sentenced to 42 years imprisonment for spying.
- May 9 – In a speech on "Television and the Public Interest" to the National Association of Broadcasters, FCC chairman Newton N. Minow describes commercial television programming as a "vast wasteland".
- May 14 – African-American Civil Rights Movement: A Freedom Riders bus is fire-bombed near Anniston, Alabama and the civil rights protestors are beaten by an angry mob of Ku Klux Klan members.
- May 15 – J. Heinrich Matthaei alone performs the Poly-U-Experiment and is the first person to recognize and understand the genetic code. This is the birthdate of modern genetics.
- May 16 – Park Chung-hee takes over in a military coup in South Korea.
- May 19 – Venera 1 becomes the first man-made object to fly-by another planet by passing Venus (however, the probe had lost contact with Earth a month earlier and does not send back any data).
- May 21 – African-American Civil Rights Movement: Alabama Governor John Patterson declares martial law in an attempt to restore order after race riots break out.
- May 22 – An earthquake rocks New South Wales.
- May 24 – African-American Civil Rights Movement: Freedom Riders are arrested in Jackson, Mississippi for "disturbing the peace" after disembarking from their bus.
- May 25 – Apollo program: President Kennedy announces before a special joint session of Congress his goal to put a man on the Moon before the end of the decade.
- May 27 – Tunku Abdul Rahman, Prime Minister of Malaya, holds a press conference in Singapore, announcing his idea to form the Federation of Malaysia, comprising Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, Brunei and North Borneo (Sabah).
- May 28 – Peter Benenson's article "The Forgotten Prisoners" is published in several internationally read newspapers. This is later considered the founding of the human rights organization Amnesty International.
- May 30 – Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, totalitarian despot of the Dominican Republic since 1930, is killed in an ambush, putting an end to the second longest-running dictatorship in Latin American history.
- May 31
- July 4 – The Soviet submarine K-19 reactor leak occurs in the North Atlantic.
- July 5 – The first Israeli rocket, Shavit 2, is launched.
- July 8 – A mine explosion in Czechoslovakia leaves 108 dead.
- July 12 – A Czechoslovakian Ilyushin Il-18 crashes while attempting to land at Casablanca, Morocco, killing all 72 persons on board.
- July 21 – Mercury program: Gus Grissom, piloting the Mercury-Redstone 4 capsule Liberty Bell 7, becomes the second American to go into space (sub-orbital). Upon splashdown, the hatch prematurely opens, and the capsule sinks (it is recovered in 1999).
- July 25 – U.S. President John F. Kennedy gives a widely watched TV speech on the Berlin crisis, warning "we will not be driven out of Berlin." Kennedy urges Americans to build fallout shelters, setting off a four-month debate on civil defense.
- July 31
- September 1
- The Eritrean War of Independence officially begins with the shooting of the Ethiopian police by Hamid Idris Awate.
- The first meeting is held of the Non-Aligned Movement. The Soviet Union resumes nuclear testing, escalating fears over the ongoing Berlin crisis.
- September 7 – Tom and Jerry make a return with their first episode since 1957, Switchin' Kitten. The new creator, Gene Deitch, makes 12 more Tom and Jerry episodes until 1962.
- September 10 – During the F1 Italian Grand Prix on the circuit of Monza, German Wolfgang von Trips, driving a Ferrari, crashes into a stand, killing 14 spectators and himself.
- September 14
- The new military government of Turkey sentences 15 members of the previous government to death.
- The Focolare Movement opens its first North American center in New York.
- September 17 – Military rulers in Turkey hang former prime minister Adnan Menderes.
- September 18 – United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld dies in an air crash en route to Katanga, Congo.
- September 21 – In France, the OAS slips an anti-de Gaulle message into TV programming.
- September 24
- The old Deutsche Opernhaus in the Berlin neighborhood of Charlottenburg is returned to its newly rebuilt house as the Deutsche Oper Berlin.
- In the U.S., the Walt Disney anthology television series, renamed Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, moves from ABC to NBC after seven years on the air, and begins telecasting its programs in color for the first time. Years later, after Disney's death, the still-on-the-air program will be renamed The Wonderful World of Disney.
- September 28 – A military coup in Damascus, Syria effectively ends the United Arab Republic, the union between Egypt and Syria.
- September 30 – The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is formed to replace the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC).
- October 1 – Baseball player Roger Maris of the New York Yankees hits his 61st home run in the last game of the season, against the Boston Red Sox, setting a new record for the longer baseball season. The record for the shorter season was still held by Babe Ruth.
- October 10 – A volcanic eruption on Tristan da Cunha causes the whole population to be evacuated.
- October 12 – The death penalty is abolished in New Zealand.
- October 17 – Paris massacre of 1961: French police in Paris attack about 30,000 protesting a curfew applied solely to Algerians. The official death toll is 3, but human rights groups claim 240 dead.
- October 18 – West Side Story is released as a film.
- October 19 – The Arab League takes over protecting Kuwait; the last British troops leave.
- October 25 – The first edition of Private Eye, the British satirical magazine, is published.
- October 26 – Cemal Gürsel becomes the fourth president of Turkey. (His former title was head of state and government. By constitution referendum, he is elected as president.)
- October 27
- October 29
- DZBB-TV Channel 7, the Philippines' third TV station, is launched.
- Devrim has been released. The project was completed only in 130 days almost from scratch and this period includes decision of the project, research, design, development and production of four cars.
- October 30
- October 31
- December 1 – Netherlands New Guinea raises the new Morning Star flag and changes its name to West Papua.
- December 2 – Cold War: In a nationally broadcast speech, Cuban leader Fidel Castro announces he is a Marxist–Leninist, and that Cuba will adopt socialism.
- December 5 – U.S. President John F. Kennedy gives support to the Volta Dam project in Ghana.
- December 9
- December 10 – The Soviet Union severs diplomatic relations with Albania.
- December 11
- The American involvement in the Vietnam War officially begins, as the first American helicopters arrive in Saigon along with 400 U.S. personnel.
- Adolf Eichmann is pronounced guilty of crimes against humanity by a panel of three Israeli judges.
- December 14 – Walt Disney's first live-action Technicolor musical, Babes in Toyland, a remake of the famous Victor Herbert operetta, is released, but flops at the box office.
- December 15 – An Israeli war crimes tribunal sentences Adolf Eichmann to die for his part in The Holocaust.
- December 17 – A circus tent fire in Niterói, Brazil kills 323.
- December 18 – India opens hostilities in its annexation of Portuguese India, the colonies of Goa, Damao and Diu.
- December 19
- December 21 – In Congo, Katangan prime minister Moise Tshombe recognizes the Congolese constitution.
- December 23 – Luxembourg's national holiday, the Grand Duke's Official Birthday, is set on June 23 by Grand Ducal decree.
- December 30 – Congolese troops capture Albert Kalonji of South Kasai (who soon escapes).
- December 31 – Ireland's first national television station, Telefís Éireann (later RTÉ), begins broadcasting.
- January 1
- January 2
- January 5 – Iris DeMent, American singer-songwriter
- January 7 – Supriya Pathak,Indian actress
- January 8 – Calvin Smith, American athlete
- January 9 – Al Jean, American television writer
- January 10 – Mark Venturini, American actor (d. 1996)
- January 11
- January 12 – Sean Blowers, English actor
- January 13
- January 14 – Mike Tramp, Danish rock singer (White Lion)
- January 16 – Peter Tanfield, British concert violinist
- January 17 – Maia Chiburdanidze, Georgian chess player
- January 18
- January 19 – William Ragsdale, American actor
- January 22
- January 24 – Guido Buchwald, German football player
- January 26
- January 28 – Arnaldur Indriðason, Icelandic writer
- January 29 – Petra Thümer, German swimmer
- January 30 – Dexter Scott King, son of Martin Luther King, Jr.
- January 31 – Lloyd Cole, British singer and songwriter
- February 1 – Volker Fried, German field hockey player
- February 3 – Jim Balsillie, Canadian CEO and philanthropist
- February 6 – Yuko Kobayashi, Japanese voice actress
- February 8 – Vince Neil, American singer
- February 9
- February 10 – George Stephanopoulos, American political consultant and commentator
- February 11 – Mary Docter, American speed skater
- February 13 – Henry Rollins, American musician and activist
- February 14 – Latifa, Tunisian singer
- February 17 – Andrey Korotayev, Russian anthropologist, economic historian, and sociologist
- February 18 – Hironobu Kageyama, Japanese singer
- February 20 – Phil Powers, American alpinist
- February 21
- February 22 – Akira Takasaki, Japanese guitarist
- February 25 – Davey Allison, American race car driver (d. 1993)
- February 27 – James Worthy, American basketball player and analyst
- February 28 – Mark Latham, Australian politician
- April 1
- April 2 – Christopher Meloni, American actor
- April 3 – Eddie Murphy, African-American actor and comedian
- April 5 – Lisa Zane, American actress
- April 6 – Gene Eugene, Canadian actor and singer (d. 2000)
- April 7 – Thurl Bailey, American basketball player
- April 11 – Vincent Gallo, American actor
- April 12 – Lisa Gerrard, Australian musician
- April 14
- April 17
- April 18 – Jane Leeves, English actress
- April 20
- April 21 – Cathy Cavadini, American voice actress
- April 23
- April 26 – Anthony Cumia, American radio personality
- April 27 – Moana Pozzi, Italian porn actress (d. 1994)
- April 28 – Futoshi Matsunaga, Japanese serial killer
- April 29 – Fumihiko Tachiki, Japanese voice actor
- April 30 – Isiah Thomas, African-American basketball player, coach, and team owner
- May 1 – Marilyn Milian, American judge
- May 2 – Steve James, English snooker player
- May 3
- May 4
- May 5
- Sarah Zivale, American actress
- Hiroshi Hase, Japanese professional wrestler
- May 6 – George Clooney, American actor
- May 7 – Robert Spano, American conductor and pianist
- May 8
- May 9 – Rene Capo, American judoka (d. 2009)
- May 10 – Danny Carey, American drummer (Tool, Pigmy Love Circus)
- May 11
- May 12 – Billy Duffy, British guitarist (The Cult)
- May 13 – Dennis Rodman, African-American basketball player and actor
- May 14
- May 16
- May 17 – Enya, Irish musician
- May 18 – Jim Bowden, American baseball executive
- May 20 – Clive Allen, British footballer
- May 22 – Mike Breen, American sports announcer
- May 23 – Karen Duffy, American actress
- May 27 – Peri Gilpin, American actress
- May 28 – Roland Gift, British singer and musician (Fine Young Cannibals)
- May 29 – Melissa Etheridge, American musician
- May 30
- May 31
- June 1 – Paul Coffey, Canadian hockey player
- June 2 – Dez Cadena, American musician
- June 3
- June 4 – El DeBarge, African-American singer
- June 5
- June 6 – Tom Araya, Chilean-born rock musician (Slayer)
- June 8 – Katy Garbi, Greek singer
- June 9
- June 10
- June 14 – Boy George, born George O'Dowd, British singer-songwriter and music producer
- June 15 – Dave McAuley, Northern Irish boxer
- June 17 – Kōichi Yamadera, Japanese voice actor
- June 18
- June 19 – Bidhya Devi Bhandari, first woman President of Nepal
- June 20 – Karin Kania, German speed skater
- June 21
- June 23
- June 24 – Lisa Bevill, American Christian musician
- June 25
- June 26 – Greg LeMond, American cyclist
- June 27 – Meera Syal, British-Indian comedienne and actress
- June 28
- June 29 – Greg Hetson, American rock guitarist (Bad Religion, Circle Jerks)
- July 1
- July 4 – Andrew Zimmern, American television personality (Bizarre Foods)
- July 5 – Patrizia Scianca, Italian voice actress
- July 7 – Eric Jerome Dickey, American writer
- July 8 – Toby Keith, American country music singer
- July 10 – Jacky Cheung, Hong Kong singer and actor
- July 14 – Jackie Earle Haley, American actor
- July 15 – Forest Whitaker, African-American actor
- July 17
- July 19
- July 22 – Keith Sweat, African-American singer
- July 23 – Woody Harrelson, American actor and comedian
- July 25 – Hugo Teufel III, 2nd Chief Privacy Officer, Department of Homeland Security
- July 26 – Keiko Matsui, Japanese pianist and composer
- July 30 – Laurence Fishburne, African-American actor
- September 1 – Cécilia Rodhe, Miss Sweden
- September 2
- September 4 – Felix Wong, Hong Kong actor
- September 5 – Karim Abdul Razak, Ghanaian footballer
- September 6
- September 7 – Kevin Kennedy, British actor
- September 11
- September 12 – Mylène Farmer, Canadian singer and songwriter
- September 13 – Dave Mustaine, American metal singer, guitarist (Megadeth)
- September 14 – Martina Gedeck, German actress
- September 15
- September 16 – Jen Tolley, American voice actress
- September 18 – James Gandolfini, American actor (d. 2013)
- September 20 – Caroline Flint, British Labour MP
- September 22
- September 23 – William C. McCool, U.S. Army Commander and astronaut (d. 2003)
- September 24 – Jack Dee, English stand-up comedian, actor and writer
- September 25
- September 26 – Edward Kennedy Jr, son of U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy
- September 27 – Andy Lau, Hong Kong actor and singer
- September 28 – Yordanka Donkova, Bulgarian athlete
- September 29 – Julia Gillard, 27th Prime Minister of Australia
- September 30
- October 1
- October 2 – Edmond Yu, Chinese student (d. 1997)
- October 3 – Ludger Stühlmeyer, German cantor, composer and musicologist
- October 4
- October 5 – Matthew Kauffman, American journalist and George Polk Award winner
- October 6 – Mark Shasha, American artist, author, illustrator
- October 10 – Jodi Benson, American actress and singer
- October 11
- October 13 – Doc Rivers, American basketball player and coach
- October 14 – Jim Burns, American hero
- October 16 – Randy Vasquez, American actor
- October 18
- October 20 – Michie Tomizawa, Japanese voice actress
- October 24 – Dave Meltzer, American wrestling journalist
- October 25
- October 26 – Dylan McDermott, American actor
- October 29 – Randy Jackson, African-American musician
- October 31
- November 1 – Anne Donovan, American basketball player
- November 2 – k.d. lang, Canadian singer and songwriter
- November 4
- November 9
- November 12 – Nadia Comăneci, Romanian gymnast
- November 14
- November 16 – Corinne Hermès, French singer, Eurovision Song Contest 1983 winner
- November 18
- November 19 – Meg Ryan, American actress
- November 20 – Dave Watson, English footballer
- November 21 – Maria Kawamura, Japanese voice actress
- November 22
- November 24 – Arundhati Roy, Indian writer and activist
- November 28 – Alfonso Cuarón, Mexican film director, screenwriter and producer
- December 3 – Marcelo Fromer, Brazilian guitarist
- December 4
- December 8 – Ann Coulter, American author, conservative commentator and attorney
- December 10 – Nia Peeples, American actress
- December 12
- December 13 – Karen Witter, American actress and model
- December 15 – Karin Resetarits, Austrian journalist and politician
- December 16 – Bill Hicks, American comedian (d. 1994)
- December 19
- December 20 – Mohammad Fouad, Arab singer and actor
- December 21 – Francis Ng, Hong Kong actor
- December 23 – Ezzat el Kamhawi, Egyptian novelist
- December 24 – Ilham Aliyev, President of Azerbaijan
- December 25 – Íngrid Betancourt, Colombian senator
- December 26 – John Lynch, Northern Irish actor
- December 27 – Guido Westerwelle, German politician
- December 29 – Jim Reid, Scottish musician
- December 30
- January 4 – Erwin Schrödinger, Austrian physicist, Nobel Prize laureate (b. 1887)
- January 9 – Emily Greene Balch, American writer and pacifist, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize (b. 1867)
- January 10 – Dashiell Hammett, American writer (b. 1894)
- January 13 – Blanche Ring, American singer and actress (b. 1871)
- January 14 – Barry Fitzgerald, Irish actor (b. 1888)
- January 17 – Patrice Lumumba, Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo (b. 1925)
- January 18 – Thomas Anthony Dooley III, physician (b. 1927)
- January 21
- January 24 – Alfred Carlton Gilbert, American swimmer and inventor (b. 1884)
- January 26 – Stan Nichols, English cricketer (b. 1900)
- January 29 – Jesse Wallace, American naval officer, 29th Governor of American Samoa (b. 1899)
- January 30 – Dorothy Thompson, American journalist (b. 1893)
- February 2 – Anna May Wong, Chinese-American actress (b. 1905)
- February 3 – Viscount Dunrossil, Australian Governor-General (b. 1893)
- February 7 – William Duncan, American actor (b. 1879)
- February 9 – Carlos Luz, 19th President of Brazil (b. 1894)
- February 12 – Richmond K. Turner, American admiral (b. 1885)
- February 13 – Arthur Ripley, American film director (b. 1897)
- February 15 – Laurence Owen, American Figure Skater (b. 1944)
- February 16 – Dazzy Vance, American baseball player (Brooklyn Dodgers) and a member of the MLB Hall of Fame (b. 1891)
- February 17 – Nita Naldi, American actress (b. 1897)
- February 20 – Percy Grainger, Australian composer (b. 1882)
- February 22
- February 26
- September 1 – Eero Saarinen, Finnish architect (b. 1910)
- September 10 – Leo Carrillo, American actor (b. 1880)
- September 11 – George Irving, American actor (b. 1874)
- September 17 – Adnan Menderes, Turkish prime minister (b. 1899)
- September 18 – Dag Hammarskjöld, Swedish Secretary General of the United Nations, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize (b. 1905)
- September 22 – Marion Davies, American actress (b. 1897)
- September 24 – Sumner Welles, American diplomat (b. 1892)
- September 25 – Frank Fay, American actor (b. 1897)
- September 26 – Juanita Hansen, American actress (b. 1895)