Civil Rights and the 1950s: Crash Course US History #39

Episode 39: Consensus and Protest: Civil Rights
LOCKED Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course
U.S. history and today we’re going to look at one of the most important periods of American
social history, the 1950s. Why is it so important? Well, first because
it saw the advent of the greatest invention in human history: Television.
Mr. Green, Mr. Green! I like TV! By the way, you’re from the future. How does the X-Files
end? Are there aliens or no aliens? No spoilers, Me From The Past, you’re going
to have to go to college and watch the X-Files get terrible just like I did.
No it’s mostly important because of the Civil Rights Movement We’re going to talk
about some of the heroic figures like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, but much of the
real story is about the thousands of people you’ve never heard of who fought to make
America more inclusive. But before we look at the various changes
that the Civil Rights Movement was pushing for, we should spend a little time looking
at the society that they were trying to change. The 1950s has been called a period of consensus,
and I suppose it was, at least for the white males who wrote about it and who all agreed
that the 1950s were fantastic for white males. Consensus culture was caused first, by the
Cold War – people were hesitant to criticize the United States for fear of being branded
a communist, and, second, by affluence – increasing prosperity meant that more people didn’t
have as much to be critical of. And this widespread affluence was something
new in the United States. Between 1946 and 1960 Americans experienced a period of economic
expansion that saw standards of living rise and gross national product more than double.
And unlike many previous American economic expansions, much of the growing prosperity
in the fifties was shared by ordinary working people who saw their wages rise.
To quote our old friend Eric Foner, “By 1960, an estimated 60 percent of Americans
enjoyed what the government defined as a middle-class standard of living.”[1]
And this meant that increasing numbers of Americans had access things like television,
and air conditioning, and dishwashers and air travel. That doesn’t really seem like
a bonus. Anyway, despite the fact that they were being
stuffed into tiny metal cylinders and hurdled through the air, most Americans were happy
because they had, like, indoor plumbing and electricity.
intro The 1950s was the era of suburbanization.
The number of homes in the United States doubled during the decade, which had the pleasant
side effect of creating lots of construction jobs.
The classic example of suburbanization was Levittown in New York, where 10,000 almost
identical homes were built and became home to 40,000 people almost overnight.
And living further from the city meant that more Americans needed cars, which was good
news for Detroit where cars were being churned out with the expectation that Americans would
replace them every two years. By 1960, 80% of Americans owned at least one
car and 14% had two or more. And car culture changed the way that Americans
lived and shopped. I mean it gave us shopping malls, and drive thru restaurants, and the
backseat makeout session. I mean, high school me didn’t get the backseat makeout session.
But, other people did! I did get the Burger King drive thru though.
And lots of it. Our whole picture of the American standard
of living, with its abundance of consumer goods and plentiful services was established
in the 1950s. And so, for so for many people this era was
something of a “golden age” especially when we look back on it today with nostalgia.
But there were critics, even at the time. So when we say the 1950s were an era of consensus,
one of the things we’re saying is there wasn’t much room for debate about what it
meant to be an American. Most people agreed on the American values:
individualism, respect for private property, and belief in equal opportunity.
The key problem was that we believed in equal opportunity, but didn’t actually provide
it. But some people were concerned that the cookie
cutter vision of the good life and the celebration of the middle class lifestyle was displacing
other conceptions of citizenship. Like the sociologist C. Wright Mills described
a combination of military, corporate, and political leaders as a power elite whose control
over government and the economy was such as to make democracy an afterthought.
In The Lonely Crowd sociologist David Riesman criticized Americans for being conformist
and lacking the rich inner life necessary to be truly independent.
And John Kenneth Galbraith questioned an Affluent Society that would pay for new cars and new
missiles but not for new schools. And we can’t mention the 1950s without discussing
teenagers since this was the decade that gave us Rock and Roll, and rock stars like Bill
Haley and the Comets, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, and Elvis Presley and his hips.
Another gift of the 1950s was literature, much of which appeals especially to teenagers.
Like, the Beats presented a rather drug-fueled and not always coherent criticism of the bourgeois
1950’s morals. They rejected materialism, and suburban ennui and things like regular
jobs while celebrating impulsivity, and recklessness, experimentation and freedom.
And also heroin. So you might have noticed something about
all those critics of the 1950s that I just mentioned: they were all white dudes. Now,
we’re gonna be talking about women in the 1950s and 1960s next week because their liberation
movement began a bit later, but what most people call the Civil Rights Movement really
did begin in the 1950s. While the 1950s were something of a golden
age for many blue and white collar workers, it was hardly a period of expanding opportunities
for African Americans. Rigid segregation was the rule throughout
the country, especially in housing, but also in jobs and in employment. In the South, public
accommodations were segregated by law, while in the north it was usually happening by custom
or de facto segregation. To give just one example, the new suburban
neighborhoods that sprang up in the 1950s were almost completely white and this remained
true for decades. According Eric Foner, “As late as the 1990s,
nearly 90 percent of suburban whites lived in communities with non-white populations
less than 1 percent.” And it wasn’t just housing. In the 1950s
half of black families lived in poverty. When they were able to get union jobs, black workers
had less seniority than their white counterparts so their employment was less stable.
And their educational opportunities were severely limited by sub-standard segregated schools.
Now you might think the Civil Rights Movement began with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus
Boycott or else Brown v. Board of Education, but it really started during WW2 with efforts
like those of A. Philip Randolph and the soldiers taking part in the Double-V crusade.
But even before that, black Americans had been fighting for civil rights. It’s just
that in the 1950s, they started to win. So, desegregating schools was a key goal of
the Civil Rights movement. And it started in California in 1946.
In the case of Mendez v. Westminster the California Supreme Court ruled that Orange County, of
all places, had to desegregate their schools. They’d been discriminating against Latinos.
And then, California’s governor, Earl Warren, signed an order that repealed all school segregation
in the state. That same Earl Warren, by the way, was Chief Justice when the landmark case
Brown v. Board of Education came before the Supreme Court in 1954.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund under the leadership of Thurgood Marshall had been pursuing a legal
strategy of trying to make states live up to the ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson that required
all public facilities to be separate but equal. They started by bringing lawsuits against
professional schools like law schools, because it was really obvious that the three classrooms
and no library that Texas set up for its African American law students were not equal to the
actual University of Texas’s law school. But the Brown case was about public schools
for children. It was actually a combination of 5 cases from 4 states, of which Brown happened
to be alphabetically the first. The Board of Education in question incidentally
was in Topeka Kansas, not one of the states of the old Confederacy, but nonetheless a
city that did restricted schooling by race. Oh, it’s time for the Mystery Document?
The rules here are simple. I read the Mystery Document. If I’m wrong,
I get shocked. “Segregation of white and colored children
in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater
when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually
interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects
the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a
tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive
them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.
[Footnote 10]”[2] Stan, the last two weeks you have given me
two extraordinary gifts and I am thankful. It is Earl Warren from Brown v. Board of Education.
Huzzah! Justice Warren is actually quoting from sociological
research there that shows that segregation itself is psychologically damaging to black
children because they recognize that being separated out is a badge of inferiority.
Alright, let’s go to the Thought Bubble. The Brown decision was a watershed but it
didn’t lead to massive immediate desegregation of the nation’s public schools. In fact,
it spawned what came to be known as “Massive Resistance” in the South. The resistance
got so massive, in fact, that a number of counties, rather than integrate their schools,
closed them. Prince Edward County in Virginia, for instance,
closed its schools in 1959 and didn’t re-open them again until 1964. Except they didn’t
really close them because many states appropriated funds to pay for white students to attend
“private” academies. Some states got so into the resistance that they began to fly
the Confederate Battle flag over their state capitol buildings. Yes, I’m looking at you
Alabama and South Carolina. On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to
move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama and got arrested, kicking off the Montgomery
Bus Boycott that lasted almost a year. A lot of people think that Parks was simply an average
African American working woman who was tired and fed up with segregation, but the truth
is more complicated. Parks had been active in politics since the
1930s and had protested the notorious Scottsboro Boys case. She had served as secretary for
the NAACP and she had begun her quest to register to vote in Alabama in 1943. She failed a literacy
test three times before becoming one of the very few black people registered to vote in
the state. And in 1954 she attended a training session for political activists and met other
civil rights radicals. So Rosa Parks was an active participant in the fight for black
civil rights long before she sat on that bus. The Bus Boycott also thrust into prominence
a young pastor from Atlanta, the 26 year old Martin Luther King Jr. He helped to organize
the boycott from his Baptist church, which reminds us that black churches played a pivotal
role in the Civil Rights Movement. That boycott would go on to last for 381 days and in the
end, the city of Montgomery relented. Thanks, Thought Bubble. So that was, of course,
only the beginning for Martin Luther King, who achieved his greatest triumphs in the
1960s. After Montgomery, he was instrumental in forming
the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a coalition of black civil rights and church
leaders who pushed for integration. And they needed to fight hard, especially in the face
of Massive Resistance and an Eisenhower administration that was lukewarm at best about civil rights.
But I suppose Eisenhower did stick up for civil rights when forced to, as when Arkansas
Governor Orval Faubus used the National Guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock’s
Central High School by 9 black students in 1957.
Eisenhower was like, “You know, as the guy who invaded Normandy, I don’t think that’s
the best use for the National Guard.” So, Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division
(not the entirety of it, but some of it) to Little Rock, Arkansas, to walk kids to school.
Which they did for a year. After that, Faubus closed the schools, but at least the federal
government showed that it wouldn’t allow states to ignore court orders about the Constitution.
In your face, John C. Calhoun. Despite the court decision and the dispatching
of Federal troops, by the end of the 1950s fewer than two percent of black students attended
integrated schools in the South. So, the modern movement for Civil Rights had
begun, but it was clear that there was still a lot of work to do.
But the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement shows us that the picture of consensus in
the 1950s is not quite as clear-cut as its proponents would have us believe.
Yes, there was widespread affluence, particularly among white people, and criticism of the government
and America generally was stifled by the fear of appearing to sympathize with Communism.
But there was also widespread systemic inequality and poverty in the decade that shows just
how far away we were from living the ideal of equal opportunity.
That we have made real progress, and we have, is a credit to the voices of protest.
Next week we’ll see how women, Latinos, and gay people added their voices to the protests
and look at what they were and were not able to change in the 1960s. Thanks for watching.
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[1] Foner Give me Liberty ebook version p. 992

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