These heroes demolish the cliché of the conformist 50s

How did the boring, conformist 1950s lead to the cultural upheavals of the 1960s? Civil rights, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, the environmental movement – ​​all emerged in their own right in the 1960s but, according to journalist and historian James R. Gaines in his new book, The 1950s: an underground historyall have their origins in the sometimes little-known struggles of the previous decade.

“It just seemed to me that history just doesn’t work that way, it’s usually not defined by decades,” Gaines told The Daily Beast. “Why did a period so known for conformity lead to another known for its opposite? So I started looking for the roots of this explosion in the 1950s and found people who gave me a different idea of ​​how change happens. It occurred to me that the people who are agents of change in such a difficult time deserve some recognition.

Gaines’ book is not a sweeping overview, but rather an up-close and personal look at the lives and careers of activists who recognized and fought against various societal issues. Some are well known, like murdered civil rights pioneer Medgar Evers or author Rachel Carson, whose book silent spring warned about the effects of pesticides on the environment. Others, like Harry Hay, an organizer for the Mattachine Society, the first gay rights group, and Norbert Wiener, a pioneer in the study of “thinking machines” and their effect on humans and the natural world and the man who coined the term cybernetics, have been almost forgotten over time. But all had one thing in common: the courage to stand out from the conformist crowd and address issues that had been swept under the table.

“There’s a clarity to these issues that arose from intimate issues in themselves,” Gaines says of these trailblazers. “All of these people were very stubborn, flawed and unique as individuals. They were all intimately affected by the causes they fought for. It was through their personal struggles that they had the courage to initiate change. .

If there’s one such activist Gaines admires more than any other, it’s Pauli Murray, a light-skinned gay black woman who helped found the National Organization for Women and believed that discrimination based on race, class and gender were all linked. “She started out with such a burden,” says Gaines, “her autobiography is sometimes painful to read, the assault on her for her fair skin and society’s assault on her for her confusion about her gender. The fact that ‘she was the only woman in her class at Howard University Law School, faced discrimination and ended up first in her class. And she came out with a law school thesis that helped Thurgood Marshall to make his case in Brown vs. Board of Education It’s a great story of courage against thick and thin.

Another great story of courage is that of black World War II veterans who stepped into a world of racism and helped revive the civil rights movement. Medgar Evers and Anzie Moore of the Mississippi NAACP, Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Floyd McKissick of the Congress on Racial Equality, James Forman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and more, men who, Gaines says in his book, believed that “non-violence without the support of armed resistance to racist violence was tantamount to surrender”.

But, Gaines told the Beast, there’s a reason the military backgrounds of these men, who knew guns well — Evers carried a .45 with him when he traveled and slept with a shotgun at his feet. his bed – seems to have taken a historic backseat to the nonviolent protests of the time. “The character of the nonviolent movement predominated,” he says, “and it was almost an image problem. The idea that black people would revolt with arms, I think, would have inflamed the American public. It was a tactic of the Martin Luther King movement not to emphasize this, despite the fact that King’s house was sometimes an armory.

“Gaines believes that “the environmental movement hasn’t accomplished what it needed to” and that civil rights “are still in progress.””

The 50s also includes the little-known story of President Harry Truman and his support for civil rights. It appears Truman was angered by two high-profile cases of World War II veterans who returned home following racist abuse – Isaac Woodard, blindsided by a white cop when he didn’t addressed to him as “sir”, and George Dorsey, murdered by a white mob for protecting his brother-in-law after an altercation with his landlord. Truman responded to these outrages by appointing a commission to analyze the problems in the South and supported his final program, which included anti-lynching legislation, the abolition of the poll tax and laws to ensure equal treatment. access to housing, education and health. care. When an old friend castigated him for this, Truman replied that “the main difficulty with the South is that they live eighty years behind and the sooner they get out of it the better it will be for the country and for them -selves”.

Truman’s liberal stance, says Gaines, “came from his experiences as an officer in World War I. It angered him, the reception black veterans received when they returned home. He did things that no president had ever done before, he acted on his beliefs.

Despite the courage and convictions of everyone in the book, Gaines admits that the various issues they tackled have succeeded or failed to varying degrees. While that’s not enough, he sees the most progress in the gay and feminist movements, thanks in part to “a generation coming up now that is much more gender egalitarian than previous generations.”

But Gaines believes that “the environmental movement hasn’t accomplished what it needs to,” and civil rights “are still on the way. The initiative preventing people of color from voting, how could it be? The fact that the Supreme Court did nothing to stop it is sickening.

And yet, Gaines believes that readers of The 50s should feel “there is progress, and even when you think it’s least likely, there are people who will stand up and advocate for change and ultimately be supported by our Constitution, and their demonstration of courage and foresight”.

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