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The 1950s. Emergence of the modern civil rights movement The affluent society and “the other America” Consensus and conformity: suburbia and middle-class America Social critics, nonconformists, and cultural rebels Impact of changes in science, technology, and medicine.

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the 1950s

The 1950s

Emergence of the modern civil rights movement

The affluent society and “the other America”

Consensus and conformity: suburbia and middle-class America

Social critics, nonconformists, and cultural rebels

Impact of changes in science, technology, and medicine

emergence of the modern civil rights movement
Emergence of the modern civil rights movement
  • The experience of WWII helped to expose the ongoing paradox of American race relations. African Americans (and other ethnic minorities) made undeniable contributions to the war effort, both in military service abroad and war production at home. Recall that in 1941 black labor leader A. Phillip Randolph successfully persuaded FDR to issue an executive order guaranteeing access to war-time jobs- an event widely considered the seminal moment of the modern civil rights movement.
  • Throughout the war, black advocacy groups (NAACP, Congress for Racial Equality, and others) rallied behind the “Double V” campaign- an overt appeal to recognize the hypocrisy of America fighting to save liberty from fascism abroad, while maintaining brutal racial segregation and oppression at home. Nonetheless, the war years witnessed riotous convulsions of racial tension in many of the northern cities where large numbers of blacks had migrated for jobs, and despite the official efforts of the federal government, blacks were still routinely relegated to the least desirable jobs, or denied access altogether in some industries.
emergence of the modern civil rights movement1
Emergence of the modern civil rights movement
  • The meager efforts of the government and the growing philosophical recognition of hypocrisy notwithstanding, it would take much more direct action and confrontation to foment real change and begin the civil rights movement in earnest.
  • Under increasing pressure to reconcile the glaring contradictions between the professed American values of liberty and the reality of institutionalized racism, a growing number of northern and western states and cities began dismantling restrictions in access to public accommodations. Yet even among the more racially tolerant “enlightened” white urbanites of the north, the response was largely to flee the urban cores for the suburbs.
  • Meanwhile, the general response in the South (where the vast majority of the nation’s 15 million blacks still lived) was to circle the wagons even more tightly around Jim Crow segregation. In rhetoric that echoed their defense of slavery a century prior, many southern whites declared the movement toward integration as an attack on their very culture and “way of life.”
  • For his part, Truman saw that a more direct approach from the federal government was needed to address America’s seemingly intractable race problems. He was inspired in part by the appalling murders of six returning black servicemen in the summer of 1946. He established a Commission on Civil Rights later that year, and in 1947 became the first president to address a convention of the NAACP. Despite fierce opposition, Truman announced the full integration of the nation’s armed forces the following year.
  • As important as these steps were, Truman was quite limited in what he could do, and it was becoming increasingly clear that progress would have to come through the efforts of blacks themselves.
emergence of the modern civil rights movement2
Emergence of the modern civil rights movement
  • Other tokens of racial progress continued through the late 1940s and early 1950s (think Jackie Robinson, for example) but the most momentous harbinger of change came in the mid-1950s, with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education. In that case, the court unanimously declared the “separate but equal” doctrine (the basis of institution segregation since the 1890s) unconstitutional.
  • The following year, the Montgomery Bus Boycott put civil rights front and center again, establishing the young Martin Luther King, Jr. as an eloquent and visionary leader of the movement. In 1957 King founded the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) to promote the cause via black churches.
  • In that same year, President Dwight Eisenhower finally invoked federal authority to uphold the Court’s decision in the Brown case. Eisenhower had been rather indifferent to civil rights up to that point, but the attempts of Arkansas governor Orville Faubus to openly and flagrantly resist integration orders at Little Rock’s Central High School was seen as a direct challenge to federal authority. Seeing the danger of allowing such a precedent, Eisenhower ordered military escorts to ensure the safety of the “Little Rock Nine.”
  • Still, progress for civil rights was painfully slow and piecemeal. It would take even more direct confrontation and at least another decade before universal and permanent civil rights would be established.
the affluent society and the other america
The affluent society and “the other America”
  • The 1950s is widely viewed as a period of unprecedented prosperity and socio-economic mobility for many Americans. Rising incomesand low inflation inspired the continued rapid expansion of the middle class: home ownership increased dramatically, and the consumer revolution, suspended by nearly 20 years of depression and war, rebounded with aplomb.
  • Indeed in nearly every economic metric, the 1950s witnessed fairly sustained economic growth, (which continued unabated through the next decade). But beneath the surface of the “affluent society” that emerged in the idylls of post-war America, there remained substantial segments of the population that saw only very modest gains or were left behind altogether.

In fact the origin of the term “The Affluent Society” came from a criticism of the American economy, in a famous book of the same name by the liberal Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith. Published in 1958, Galbraith asserted that American affluence was almost entirely privatized, at the inevitable expense of more viable and valuable social and cultural “wealth-” investments in public goods such as infrastructure and education. Contrary to what many believed, his analysis included an explanation of how wealth disparities were actually growing.

  • “The Other America” is another famous book, from 1962, written by Michael Harrington. Inspired in part by Galbraith, Harrington presented a study of poverty in the United States which shocked many Americans with its findings. He claimed that upwards of 25% of Americans were below the “poverty line” for household income. The book exposed the galling fact that huge numbers of Americans were desperately poor, a frightening number among them suffering from chronic malnutrition and little to no access to health care of any kind. Harrington’s study is often credited for being part of the inspiration for the later efforts of Lyndon Johnson to address these issues through his War on Poverty and Great Society programs (Medicare, Medicaid etc).
consensus and conformity suburbia and middle class america
Consensus and conformity: suburbia and middle-class America
  • The “consensus and conformity” of the 1950s is often seen as a hallmark of the era. While this view belies the fact that 1950s culture was quite diverse as a whole, the desires for conformity had real consequences and are explainablein part through a cultural context. Firstly, there are strong parallels to the calls for “normalcy” after WWI. As in that conflict, and more so, Americans in the post-WWII period were ready to put the war behind them and get on with “normal” life. Consensus and conformity took on an even deeper meaning with the emergence of the Cold War. The paranoia and fear that American values and democratic institutions were threatened by outside forces bolstered the notion of conformity by linking it with conservatism, nationalism and patriotism.
  • The expansion of the middle class and the rise of suburbia is also closely tied to the notion of conformity in the 1950s. In the years following the war, millions of (mostly white) Americans abandoned crowded urban centers for the suburbs- orderly, planned, prefabricated “bedroom” communities where baby boom families could grow in neatly arrayed , single family homes. One of the first modern suburbs- Levittown on Long Island- provided an archetype for suburban development and the image of street after street of the same “tract” homes helps to support notions of the robotic conformity of the era.
  • Perhaps the most important reinforcement of cultural conformity came with the rise of a strongly reinvigorated mass market consumer culture, bolstered immeasurably by the advent of television. A novelty for the wealthy in late 1940s, by 1960, 90% of American homes had at least one television, and nearly all were watching the same programs, and influenced by the same advertising, which were both calculated to appeal to the broadest possible segment of the population.
social critics nonconformists and cultural rebels
Social critics, nonconformists, and cultural rebels
  • For all the “sameness” that can attributed to the 1950s, there were a number of social critics, nonconformists and cultural rebels who decried the perceived blind conformity of the era and rejected the premises of cultural consensus.
  • While any number of 1950s subcultures can be identified, one that found popular expression was the fast-living leather-bound, motorcycle-riding rebel exemplified in such films as “Blackboard Jungle” and “Rebel Without a Cause.” These depictions of creed-less misfits led to a minor hysteria over the prospect of a new generation of juvenile delinquents, but ironically its co-option into popular conscience probably helped to diffuse the supposed threat of rebellion.
  • Changes in popular music also reflected an emerging perception of rebellion in youth culture in the 1950s. Born from the pulsating back beat of black Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Roll challenged racial paradigms, and with its sometimes blatant innuendo, also presented a threat to conservative sexual mores of the era.
  • Some of the most direct and profound rejections of conformity in the 1950s can be found in art and literature. Painters like Jackson Pollack explored an abstract expressionism that seemed to offer a visual refutation of the pragmatic conservative culture of the era. Even more direct were the so-called “Beat” writers- poets and novelists like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, and others- whose stream of consciousness literary innovations shocked readers with their explorations of taboo subjects and utter rejection of social norms in pursuit of deeper meaning and personal freedom. Centered in the bohemian neighborhoods of New York and San Francisco, the ethos of the Beats would later influence the much broader counterculture movement of the 1960s.
impact of changes in science technology and medicine
Impact of changes in science, technology, and medicine
  • The 1950s were marked by several monumental and impactful developments in science, technology and medicine.
  • Chief among these was the development of thermonuclear weapons and associated technology. Harnessing the power of nuclear fusion remains one of the most astounding achievements of science in human history and although it inspired justifiable fear of the end of humanity, it also inspired a huge number of ancillary, non-military technologies that have proven more impactful over time. For example, the incredibly complex mathematical calculations required to construct the H-Bomb led to the development of the earliest computers. Computing power was later greatly expanded in the 1950s with the development of transistorized integrated circuits that are the basis of modern computers to the present.
  • Americans were rightfully proud of the nation’s scientific achievements and they gave a sense of technological superiority and thus peace of mind in the context of the Cold War. But The US monopoly on nuclear technology was short lived- the Soviets successfully tested their own H-Bomb only a year later. The supposed technological edge of the US was further shaken in 1957, when the Soviets launched the first satellite into orbit. Dubbed “Sputnik,” the basketball sized orb weighed less than 200 pounds, but the fact that the Soviets seemed to be so far ahead of the US in rocket technologies sent shock waves through the nation.
  • Several important medical advances are also associated with the 1950s. For example, innovations in the use of antibiotics led to much improved treatments of many common diseases. The crowning achievement of 1950s medicine, undeniably, was the development of a polio vaccine, unveiled by Dr. Jonas Salk in 1955 (coincidentally exactly 10 years to the day of the death of polio’s most famous victim, FDR). Poliomyelitis was a devastating, often deadly viral infection that was among the most feared of childhood diseases, affecting tens of thousands of people in almost annual outbreaks. Salk’s vaccine was the culmination of decades of research, and was literally celebrated in the streets after it was announced that trials of the new treatment had been successful. Within a few short years, polio had been virtually exterminated in the US- a triumph of modern medical research.