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


In which John Green teaches you about the early days of the Civil Rights movement. By way of providing context for this, John also talks a bit about wider America in the 1950s. The 1950s are a deeply nostalgic period for many Americans, but there is more than a little idealizing going on here.

Transcript Provided by YouTube:

00:00
Episode 39: Consensus and Protest: Civil Rights LOCKED
00:01
Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course U.S. history and today we’re going to look
00:03
at one of the most important periods of American social history, the 1950s.
00:07
Why is it so important?
00:08
Well, first because it saw the advent of the greatest invention in human history: Television.
00:12
Mr. Green, Mr. Green!
00:14
I like TV!
00:15
By the way, you’re from the future.
00:16
How does the X-Files end?
00:17
Are there aliens or no aliens?
00:19
No spoilers, Me From The Past, you’re going to have to go to college and watch the X-Files
00:22
get terrible just like I did.
00:24
No it’s mostly important because of the Civil Rights Movement We’re going to talk
00:26
about some of the heroic figures like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, but much of the
00:31
real story is about the thousands of people you’ve never heard of who fought to make
00:35
America more inclusive.
00:36
But before we look at the various changes that the Civil Rights Movement was pushing
00:40
for, we should spend a little time looking at the society that they were trying to change.
00:43
The 1950s has been called a period of consensus, and I suppose it was, at least for the white
00:48
males who wrote about it and who all agreed that the 1950s were fantastic for white males.
00:54
Consensus culture was caused first, by the Cold War – people were hesitant to criticize
00:58
the United States for fear of being branded a communist, and, second, by affluence – increasing
01:04
prosperity meant that more people didn’t have as much to be critical of.
01:07
And this widespread affluence was something new in the United States.
01:10
Between 1946 and 1960 Americans experienced a period of economic expansion that saw standards
01:16
of living rise and gross national product more than double.
01:19
And unlike many previous American economic expansions, much of the growing prosperity
01:23
in the fifties was shared by ordinary working people who saw their wages rise.
01:27
To quote our old friend Eric Foner, “By 1960, an estimated 60 percent of Americans
01:32
enjoyed what the government defined as a middle-class standard of living.”[1]
01:35
And this meant that increasing numbers of Americans had access things like television,
01:39
and air conditioning, and dishwashers and air travel.
01:42
That doesn’t really seem like a bonus.
01:44
Anyway, despite the fact that they were being stuffed into tiny metal cylinders and hurdled
01:47
through the air, most Americans were happy because they had, like, indoor plumbing and
01:51
electricity.
01:56
intro The 1950s was the era of suburbanization.
02:04
The number of homes in the United States doubled during the decade, which had the pleasant
02:08
side effect of creating lots of construction jobs.
02:10
The classic example of suburbanization was Levittown in New York, where 10,000 almost
02:15
identical homes were built and became home to 40,000 people almost overnight.
02:20
And living further from the city meant that more Americans needed cars, which was good
02:23
news for Detroit where cars were being churned out with the expectation that Americans would
02:27
replace them every two years.
02:29
By 1960, 80% of Americans owned at least one car and 14% had two or more.
02:35
And car culture changed the way that Americans lived and shopped.
02:38
I mean it gave us shopping malls, and drive thru restaurants, and the backseat makeout
02:43
session.
02:44
I mean, high school me didn’t get the backseat makeout session.
02:46
But, other people did!
02:47
I did get the Burger King drive thru though.
02:49
And lots of it.
02:51
Our whole picture of the American standard of living, with its abundance of consumer
02:54
goods and plentiful services was established in the 1950s.
02:58
And so, for so for many people this era was something of a “golden age” especially
03:01
when we look back on it today with nostalgia.
03:04
But there were critics, even at the time.
03:06
So when we say the 1950s were an era of consensus, one of the things we’re saying is there
03:10
wasn’t much room for debate about what it meant to be an American.
03:14
Most people agreed on the American values: individualism, respect for private property,
03:18
and belief in equal opportunity.
03:20
The key problem was that we believed in equal opportunity, but didn’t actually provide
03:24
it.
03:25
But some people were concerned that the cookie cutter vision of the good life and the celebration
03:28
of the middle class lifestyle was displacing other conceptions of citizenship.
03:32
Like the sociologist C. Wright Mills described a combination of military, corporate, and
03:36
political leaders as a power elite whose control over government and the economy was such as
03:41
to make democracy an afterthought.
03:43
In The Lonely Crowd sociologist David Riesman criticized Americans for being conformist
03:48
and lacking the rich inner life necessary to be truly independent.
03:52
And John Kenneth Galbraith questioned an Affluent Society that would pay for new cars and new
03:56
missiles but not for new schools.
03:59
And we can’t mention the 1950s without discussing teenagers since this was the decade that gave
04:03
us Rock and Roll, and rock stars like Bill Haley and the Comets, Buddy Holly and the
04:08
Crickets, and Elvis Presley and his hips.
04:09
Another gift of the 1950s was literature, much of which appeals especially to teenagers.
04:10
Like, the Beats presented a rather drug-fueled and not always coherent criticism of the bourgeois
04:11
1950’s morals.
04:12
They rejected materialism, and suburban ennui and things like regular jobs while celebrating
04:13
impulsivity, and recklessness, experimentation and freedom.
04:14
And also heroin.
04:15
So you might have noticed something about all those critics of the 1950s that I just
04:16
mentioned: they were all white dudes.
04:17
Now, we’re gonna be talking about women in the 1950s and 1960s next week because their
04:20
liberation movement began a bit later, but what most people call the Civil Rights Movement
04:24
really did begin in the 1950s.
04:25
While the 1950s were something of a golden age for many blue and white collar workers,
04:29
it was hardly a period of expanding opportunities for African Americans.
04:32
Rigid segregation was the rule throughout the country, especially in housing, but also
04:36
in jobs and in employment.
04:38
In the South, public accommodations were segregated by law, while in the north it was usually
04:43
happening by custom or de facto segregation.
04:46
To give just one example, the new suburban neighborhoods that sprang up in the 1950s
04:50
were almost completely white and this remained true for decades.
04:53
According Eric Foner, “As late as the 1990s, nearly 90 percent of suburban whites lived
04:58
in communities with non-white populations less than 1 percent.”
05:01
And it wasn’t just housing.
05:03
In the 1950s half of black families lived in poverty.
05:06
When they were able to get union jobs, black workers had less seniority than their white
05:10
counterparts so their employment was less stable.
05:13
And their educational opportunities were severely limited by sub-standard segregated schools.
05:17
Now you might think the Civil Rights Movement began with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus
05:21
Boycott or else Brown v. Board of Education, but it really started during WW2 with efforts
05:26
like those of A. Philip Randolph and the soldiers taking part in the Double-V crusade.
05:30
But even before that, black Americans had been fighting for civil rights.
05:33
It’s just that in the 1950s, they started to win.
05:37
So, desegregating schools was a key goal of the Civil Rights movement.
05:40
And it started in California in 1946.
05:42
In the case of Mendez v. Westminster the California Supreme Court ruled that Orange County, of
05:47
all places, had to desegregate their schools.
05:50
They’d been discriminating against Latinos.
05:52
And then, California’s governor, Earl Warren, signed an order that repealed all school segregation
05:57
in the state.
05:58
That same Earl Warren, by the way, was Chief Justice when the landmark case Brown v. Board
06:02
of Education came before the Supreme Court in 1954.
06:06
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund under the leadership of Thurgood Marshall had been pursuing a legal
06:11
strategy of trying to make states live up to the ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson that required
06:16
all public facilities to be separate but equal.
06:19
They started by bringing lawsuits against professional schools like law schools, because
06:23
it was really obvious that the three classrooms and no library that Texas set up for its African
06:28
American law students were not equal to the actual University of Texas’s law school.
06:33
But the Brown case was about public schools for children.
06:36
It was actually a combination of 5 cases from 4 states, of which Brown happened to be alphabetically
06:41
the first.
06:42
The Board of Education in question incidentally was in Topeka Kansas, not one of the states
06:46
of the old Confederacy, but nonetheless a city that did restricted schooling by race.
06:50
Oh, it’s time for the Mystery Document?
06:54
The rules here are simple.
06:55
I read the Mystery Document.
06:56
If I’m wrong, I get shocked.
06:58
“Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect
07:02
upon the colored children.
07:03
The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the
07:07
races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group.
07:12
A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn.
07:16
Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational
07:21
and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they
07:25
would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.
07:28
[Footnote 10]”[2] Stan, the last two weeks you have given me
07:30
two extraordinary gifts and I am thankful.
07:33
It is Earl Warren from Brown v. Board of Education.
07:36
Huzzah!
07:37
Justice Warren is actually quoting from sociological research there that shows that segregation
07:42
itself is psychologically damaging to black children because they recognize that being
07:46
separated out is a badge of inferiority.
07:48
Alright, let’s go to the Thought Bubble.
07:50
The Brown decision was a watershed but it didn’t lead to massive immediate desegregation
07:55
of the nation’s public schools.
07:57
In fact, it spawned what came to be known as “Massive Resistance” in the South.
08:01
The resistance got so massive, in fact, that a number of counties, rather than integrate
08:05
their schools, closed them.
08:06
Prince Edward County in Virginia, for instance, closed its schools in 1959 and didn’t re-open
08:11
them again until 1964.
08:12
Except they didn’t really close them because many states appropriated funds to pay for
08:17
white students to attend “private” academies.
08:21
Some states got so into the resistance that they began to fly the Confederate Battle flag
08:24
over their state capitol buildings.
08:26
Yes, I’m looking at you Alabama and South Carolina.
08:29
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama
08:34
and got arrested, kicking off the Montgomery Bus Boycott that lasted almost a year.
08:38
A lot of people think that Parks was simply an average African American working woman
08:41
who was tired and fed up with segregation, but the truth is more complicated.
08:45
Parks had been active in politics since the 1930s and had protested the notorious Scottsboro
08:50
Boys case.
08:51
She had served as secretary for the NAACP and she had begun her quest to register to
08:55
vote in Alabama in 1943.
08:57
She failed a literacy test three times before becoming one of the very few black people
09:01
registered to vote in the state.
09:04
And in 1954 she attended a training session for political activists and met other civil
09:07
rights radicals.
09:08
So Rosa Parks was an active participant in the fight for black civil rights long before
09:12
she sat on that bus.
09:13
The Bus Boycott also thrust into prominence a young pastor from Atlanta, the 26 year old
09:18
Martin Luther King Jr.
09:19
He helped to organize the boycott from his Baptist church, which reminds us that black
09:23
churches played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement.
09:26
That boycott would go on to last for 381 days and in the end, the city of Montgomery relented.
09:32
Thanks, Thought Bubble.
09:33
So that was, of course, only the beginning for Martin Luther King, who achieved his greatest
09:36
triumphs in the 1960s.
09:38
After Montgomery, he was instrumental in forming the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,
09:42
a coalition of black civil rights and church leaders who pushed for integration.
09:46
And they needed to fight hard, especially in the face of Massive Resistance and an Eisenhower
09:50
administration that was lukewarm at best about civil rights.
09:53
But I suppose Eisenhower did stick up for civil rights when forced to, as when Arkansas
09:57
Governor Orval Faubus used the National Guard to prevent the integration of Little Rock’s
10:02
Central High School by 9 black students in 1957.
10:05
Eisenhower was like, “You know, as the guy who invaded Normandy, I don’t think that’s
10:08
the best use for the National Guard.”
10:10
So, Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division (not the entirety of it, but some of it) to
10:14
Little Rock, Arkansas, to walk kids to school.
10:17
Which they did for a year.
10:20
After that, Faubus closed the schools, but at least the federal government showed that
10:24
it wouldn’t allow states to ignore court orders about the Constitution.
10:28
In your face, John C. Calhoun.
10:30
Despite the court decision and the dispatching of Federal troops, by the end of the 1950s
10:35
fewer than two percent of black students attended integrated schools in the South.
10:39
So, the modern movement for Civil Rights had begun, but it was clear that there was still
10:43
a lot of work to do.
10:44
But the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement shows us that the picture of consensus in
10:47
the 1950s is not quite as clear-cut as its proponents would have us believe.
10:52
Yes, there was widespread affluence, particularly among white people, and criticism of the government
10:57
and America generally was stifled by the fear of appearing to sympathize with Communism.
11:01
But there was also widespread systemic inequality and poverty in the decade that shows just
11:06
how far away we were from living the ideal of equal opportunity.
11:11
That we have made real progress, and we have, is a credit to the voices of protest.
11:15
Next week we’ll see how women, Latinos, and gay people added their voices to the protests
11:20
and look at what they were and were not able to change in the 1960s.
11:24
Thanks for watching.
11:25
I’ll see you then.
11:26
Crash Course is made with the help of all of these nice people and it’s possible because
11:29
of your support through Subbable.com.
11:32
Subbable is a voluntary subscription service that allows you to subscribe to Crash Course
11:36
at the price of your choosing, including zero dollars a month.
11:39
But hopefully more than that.
11:40
There are also great perks you can get, like signed posters.
11:42
So if you like and value Crash Course, help us keep it free for everyone for ever by subscribing
11:47
now at Subbable.
11:48
You can click on my face.
11:49
Now, my face moved, but you can still click on it.
11:51
Thanks again for watching Crash Course and as we say in my hometown, don’t forget to
11:54
be awesome.
11:55
________________ [1] Foner Give me Liberty ebook version p.
11:56
992 [2] http://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/347/483/case.html


This post was previously published on YouTube.

Photo credit: Screenshot from video