Friday, March 6, 2009

USH17: The Not-so-Fabulous Fifties

As I pointed out at the end of my last post, in a way the fifties began in 1947 with Truman's anti-communist speech. A lot of the 1950s in the United States seemed to be defined in reaction to communism--containment policies, aiding countries we didn't want to see go communist, worrying about atomic war with the commies (and building fallout shelters and practicing air raid drills), and seeing communists everywhere--a practice perfected by Joe McCarthy. The fifties seem obsessed with communism. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were two of a bunch of people charged with passing secrets to the Soviets--but everyone else cooperated with the government and got prison sentences; the Rosenbergs took the fifth amendment when asked if they were communists and proclaimed their innocence, and they got electrocuted. There were pamphlets like "One Hundred Things You Should Know About Communism", books like I Married a Communist, and magazine articles like "Communists are After Your Child". Captain America went looking for "...commies, spies, traitors, and foreign agents!" Even the American Civil Liberties Union was reluctant to defend communists in the fifties. And then there was Sputnik--the communists were first in space. Not to mention the Korean War, the hot part of the cold war, which was fought from one end of the Korean peninsula to the other, and ended up at the same boundary line as it started--except that over fifty thousand Americans and over two million Koreans died in it. All to save it from Communism.

Over this core of red paranoia was pasted a layer of suburban, whitebread contentment. The fifties can be seen as a bland paradise, a land of 'everything's fine and don't ask any questions'. (This is what the movie Pleasantville took aim at.) But there were cracks in the reality of this don't ask, don't tell facade.

World War II opened a period of questioning for some. For example, in 1948, a young writer named Jack Kerouac first used the term 'the Beat Generation' to describe his circle of friends--friends who included writers like Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. According to Burroughs, they were seeking a "supreme reality"--they were looking for spontaneous, visceral engagement with the world and to do this they tried drugs, sex, and spirituality (Buddhist, Taoism, Catholicism, and Judaism). Influenced by jazz musicians and criminals, not to mention Dada, Surrealism, and the Symbolist poets, they wrote novels and poetry that redefined a generation. The beats eventually included writers like Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane DiPrima, and LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka). In 1958, Herb Caen wrote a column in the San Francisco Chronicle referring to the beats as 'beatniks' and the name stuck (and as I said, everything out of the ordinary in the fifties was tarred as commie--Sputnik had just been launched and therefore the term 'beatnik' had an implication that there were communists involved). By the early '60s, the beatnik was the stereotype for those questioning society.

And in spite of the very straight image, there was a lot of gay organizing going on in the fifties: the Mattachine Society, the first longlasting nationwide 'homophile' organization was formed in 1950--but a bunch of other groups also emerged, among them: the Knights of the Clock, a support group for interracial gay couples in Los Angeles (also founded in 1950); ONE Magazine, an early gay publication (founded in 1952); and the Daughters of Bilitis, the first US lesbian rights group (founded in San Francisco in 1955. And, like everything in the fifties, communism played a part in all this: several of the founders of the Mattachine Society (including Harry Hay, a lifelong gay activist) and early leaders were communists (they really were) and were ousted from leadership as the group grew--and red scare in the US grew.

Another affect of World War II on some people was a renewed commitment to nonviolence. The Peacemakers was a group founded in 1948 following a conference on “More Disciplined and Revolutionary Pacifist Activity” which advocated nonviolent resistance. A J Muste (see my post of 2/26/09) was one of the founders. In 1952 Muste wrote an influential pamplet entitled *Of Holy Disobedience. Partly in response to this pamphlet, the Committee for Nonviolent Action was formed in 1957 by Muste and other pacifists. CNVA engaged in such protests as trying to enter nuclear proving grounds in Nevada, and most famously, the sailing ships The Golden Rule and the Phoenix of Hiroshima were used to enter nuclear testing areas in Pacific in 1958.

But probably the most notable contradiction to the 'all's well' attitude of mainstream, white America, was the civil rights movement, which had its start in the fifties. One of the beginnings of that movement was in 1951 when Reverend Oliver Brown tried to enroll his daughter in an all-white school in Topeka, He and his daughter were black. That resulted in a court case that went to the Supreme Court and in 1954 the court ruled in his favor in the landmark case, Brown v the Board of Education. In 1955, a seamstress named Rosa Parks sat down on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. She was arrested when she refused to give up her seat for a white person. This led to the Montgomery bus boycott, under the leadership of a young minister named Martin Luther King. (However, both Rosa Parks and MLK had been training for this moment at the Highlander School, a leadership training center in Tennesee founded in 1932. In the thirties and forties they trained labor leaders. In the fifties they started training civil rights leaders. This didn't go unnoticed in the South. In 1957 a Georgia Education Commission labeled them--what else--a "Communist Training School".) The desegregation of the southern US did not go easy. In 1957 President Dwight Eisenhower had to send over a thousand paratroopers into Little Rock, Arkansas, to allow eight black children to attend Little Rock Central High School. This was only the beginning of the civil rights movement, but the rest of the story goes into the 1960s.

Quote of the Day: "The so-called Beat Generation was a whole bunch of people, of all different nationalities, who came to the conclusion that society sucked." - Amiri Baraka

Kenneth Davis, Don't Know Much About History
Staughton Lynd, Nonviolence in America
Wikipedia, various articles (particularly the one on the Beat Generation and articles on the Mattachine Society, etc and links from them)
Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

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