The year 1955 was chock-full of events of economic, social, medical, & cultural importance. Perhaps the year's biggest story was Dr. Jonas Salk's development of a successful vaccine to prevent the terrifying childhood disease known as polio. The economy remained strong, overcoming a scare from Pres. Eisenhower's heart attack. The AFL-CIO merger marked a landmark in labor history. Commercial enterprises like McDonald's debuted that took advantage of the growing car culture. The Baby Boom creating a new market for family entertainment, as evidenced by the success of a new Southern California theme park known as Disneyland. Further Soviet nuclear advances led schools to require Boomer children to hide under their desks in "duck-and-cover" drills. Rock & roll reached new heights of popularity as part of a growing youth culture. Adults became increasingly fearful of "juvenile delinquency," triggered by movies about street gangs, violent comic books, & rebellious film stars such as James Dean (who tragically died in '55). Westerns & quiz shows dominated the growing medium of television. Women's social roles & fashion choices remained highly limited amidst the gender conservatism of Fifties culture. Popular religious fervor encouraged some government officials to blur the lines between church & state. Some communities remained outside the growing prosperity, including poor whites in Appalachia, Latinos in the Southwest, & African-Americans in both the rural South & urban North. The brutal murder of black teenager Emmett Till sparked a new wave of civil rights activism, leading Rosa Parks & Martin Luther King to take leadership roles in the rising Montgomery Bus Boycott.Support the show
From Boomers to Millennials is a Modern US History podcast, providing a fresh look at the historic events that shaped current generations from 1946 to the present. Welcome to 1955, a/k/a Episode 10: “Daily Life for a Boomer Kid.” This episode provides a bookend to our first season, covering the decade from ’46 to ’55. We profiled the Boomers’ parents in our first episode, & today we’ll focus upon the formative childhood years of the Boomers in the final episode of our first season. We will be taking a break from releasing new full-length episodes for the rest of the summer, & will then return in the fall to debut the second season of “From Boomers to Millennials.” Please stay subscribed to our show. We will be providing brief podcast updates in the meantime. We are planning some exciting new changes to the podcast for our next season, so stay tuned – this is nowhere near the end of the story of “From Boomers to Millennials.”
The focus of today’s show is upon social, cultural, & economic issues, but we do have to check in with the American political situation first. The mid-1950s was a time when the country was enjoying increased political stability under the leadership of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1955, the country got a brief scare when the president had a mild heart attack. However, biographer Jean Edward Smith notes that (quote) “If Eisenhower had to have a heart attack, Sept. ’55 was a good time to have one. Congress was in recess, the [year’s big international summit] meeting had already taken place, there were no urgent foreign or domestic matters that required his personal attention, & the 1956 election campaign had not begun” (close quote). Smith notes that Eisenhower instructed his doctors to be frank & open with the press about his condition. Not all presidents have showed such admirable transparency about health problems, including Ike’s immediate successor, but that’s a story for another day. After an initial plunge in the stock market in reaction to the news of Ike’s heart trouble, the economy steadied after it became clear that Pres. Eisenhower was going to make a full recovery. Indeed, after a few months of recuperation, the president was back conducting cabinet meetings by the end of 1955, a year that, by Cold War standards, had been relatively calm on the geopolitical front.
In 1955, most white Americans were enjoying the benefits of the booming economy that was allowing the ranks of the country’s middle class to steadily grow. According to historian James T. Patterson, (quote) “By 1960, the median family income was . . . 30% higher in purchasing power than [it was] in 1950” (close quote). Throughout most of the Eisenhower years, inflation & unemployment remained low, while both gross national product & the average worker’s wages continued to steadily increase. Labor peace between corporate management & trade unions remained intact, & in December 1955, the old American Federation of Labor (or AFL), which had traditionally organized highly-skilled workers, merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (or CIO), which had focused upon semi-skilled laborers. The consolidated AFL-CIO became by far the largest & most influential labor union in the US. This merger amounted to an institutional step toward conservatism within the labor movement, because the more-radical CIO (quote) “became a sort of junior partner” to the more cautious AFL leadership. In his book Grand Expectations, Patterson writes that labor unions nevertheless still (quote) “managed to negotiate contracts that solidified the advantages of employee seniority” & “provided much-cherished job security” to workers (close quote). That security meant that many Americans could rely on staying with the same company for decades, often working their way up the salary scale.
During the Fifties, the federal government also helped stimulate the economy through spending on infrastructure & national defense. In the mid-20th Century, top marginal tax rates were twice as high as they are today, which provided the government with plenty of revenue to invest in building up the American nation. Highways & roads proliferated, & the car culture grew as a result. More families could afford automobiles & they commuted out to new houses in the suburbs. However, it’s important to note that most families were limited to sharing just one car. For this reason, most Baby Boomer children walked to school or took the bus – their fathers needed the car to commute to work. The car culture changed the landscape of America & led to the decline of urban city centers (see Episode 3A for details). Companies began catering to consumers in cars with “drive-thru” restaurants & “drive-in” movie theaters (innovations that also have particular relevance to us now during the pandemic). Some of these enterprises would eventually become companies with a nationwide & even international influence. Inspired by a drive-up hamburger restaurant called McDonald’s that he encountered in San Bernardino, California, a 52-year-old Midwestern businessman named Ray Kroc made a deal to franchise the operation. Patterson recalls that in April 1955, Kroc (quote) “built the first modern-style McDonald’s, featuring the famous golden arches” where “a family of four could eat for $2 or less, & do so in their cars if they wished. By 1960, there were 228 McDonalds’s franchises, with annual sales of $37 million” (close quote).
New conveniences were not limited to life on the road. Affordable & handy electronic appliances proliferated in the suburban family kitchen. The Baby Boomers’ parents enjoyed modern technologies previous generations had lacked, such as automatic clothes washers, powerful vacuum cleaners, & home freezers. But despite these time-saving & labor-saving innovations, mothers nevertheless often remained busy looking after the home & a large number of kids. Previous generations often lived in tight-knit urban neighborhoods or small towns where extended family could serve as a support network. But many young families in the suburbs had moved away from older relatives who could help with childcare. Some women did work (they made up the majority of the nation’s nurses, telephone operators, secretaries, & elementary school teachers, for example), but due to social expectations, the pay was low & there were few daycare options available. Most American women were primarily occupied with maintaining & managing their growing households, including such activities as cooking, cleaning, shopping, & sewing.
The Fifties’ Baby Boom created a new market for family entertainment that could appeal to people of all ages, including children. Animator Walt Disney attempted to fill this niche by creating Disneyland, which opened up in Anaheim, California during July 1955. Its opening day was a complete fiasco – counterfeit tickets led to overcrowding, vendors ran out of food, & the park’s drinking fountains did not work. Nevertheless, Disneyland soon became, in Patterson’s words, (quote) “An enormously successful business enterprise, [one that] testified to the power of affluence & . . . consumer culture” (close quote). The need for children’s entertainment during the 50s also led to toy crazes for fashionable accessories such as coonskin caps & hula hoops. The invention of new types of plastics allowed designers to create a broad array of cheap & durable consumer goods (perhaps too durable, it would turn out, from an ecological perspective). These plastics were shaped into various toys including wiffle balls, Pez dispensers, Frisbees, & Barbie dolls that provided entertainment to legions of Baby Boomer children. Children’s play was often far less supervised during the 50s than today, particularly in relatively safe small towns & suburbs. Many kids were allowed to go outside, hang out with friends, & wander the neighborhood so long as they made it home for dinner. Because families often had many children, sometimes older siblings could look after the younger ones, so that mothers could get a break from constant childcare.
Still, taking care of the kids remained a task predominantly delegated to their mother. Patterson documents a common cultural perception during this era that (quote) “the woman should be a helpmate so that the man could rise in the world.” (close quote). As a result, fathers tended to focus on their careers, leaving their wives responsible for almost all domestic matters. Many people who were raised during this era report having emotionally distant fathers, who were, after all, expected to be breadwinners rather than nurturers. In some cases, the emotive aloofness may relate to suppressing trauma from World War II – some battles, particularly in the Pacific theater, involved a shocking brutality often glossed over in the popular mythology of the so-called “Good War.” Although many men of this era were not demonstrably affectionate or nurturing, contemporary television shows like “Father Knows Best” captured an idealized white middle-class nuclear family situation in which the wise father was there to provide gentle & thoughtful guidance to the children. Although unrealistic as a reflection of domestic daily life, programs such as “Father Knows Best” & “Leave It to Beaver” at least implied that fathers could be more involved in family life. Patterson argues that on 1950s television shows, (quote) “Fathers tended to be all-knowing, mothers all-supportive (& always at home),” & for the most part, “nothing very bad ever happened” (close quote). These archetypes reflected the aspirations of many American nuclear families, often not the reality. (By the way, the term “nuclear family” referred to a nucleus of both a husband & wife - not any kind of exposure to radioactivity, thankfully).
The baby boom mentality prizing domesticity wouldn’t last forever. Under the surface, there were seeds of discontent among some men & women living in these nuclear family arrangements. In the early 60s, books & articles about women’s dissatisfaction with being limited to the role of homemaker, most famously Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, would help launch a new feminist movement. Some cultural historians also document an incipient male revolt against “family values.” One of the early signs of this was the success of Playboy magazine, founded in 1953, which idealized a bachelor lifestyle & which chafed at the financial commitments & sexual restraints required by married life. The US history textbook Liberty, Equality, Power observes that publisher Hugh Hefner’s magazine promoted a version of the good life where (quote) “the man rented a ‘pad’ rather than owned a home; drove a sports car rather than a station wagon, & courted the Playmate of the Month rather than the Mother of the Year” (close quote). Nevertheless, most of the Baby Boomers’ parents accepted the status quo & focused upon maintaining a traditional family.
There were some fears that all Americans parents, regardless of race, class, or region, held in common during the early 50s. Chief among these was polio, a horrible disease that tended to strike children, & which sometimes caused muscle atrophy & permanent paralysis. Every summer, the disease seemed to stalk the land with new outbreaks. Of course, the most famous 20th century polio patient was Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was in the minority of polio victims who contracted the disease well into adulthood. Many biographers have speculated that this experience helped the privileged FDR to develop a greater empathy for disadvantaged people, which helped to inform his New Deal programs meant to assist needy Americans. FDR left a unique legacy to sufferers of polio in 1938 by founding the March of Dimes, a charitable organization that researched a cure for polio, raising money in ten-cent increments from large numbers of individual donors all across the country. The organization received so many small donations that it eventually added up to a massive stockpile of funds. According to James T. Patterson, (quote) “some 100 million people – nearly 2/3 of the population in the early 1950s – contributed to the March of Dimes” (close quote).
This research process took many years, but by the mid-1950s the March of Dimes was close to a breakthrough. It funded an aggressive scientist named Dr. Jonas Salk of the University of Pittsburgh, who pioneered a controversial “killed-virus vaccine” for polio, & subsequently attempted an inoculation program. When the data for the properly-administered vaccine was aggregated, Salk learned that his bold plan had succeeded in safely creating immunity from the disease. Patterson writes that it was in April 1955, on (quote) “the tenth anniversary of the death of FDR . . . Salk announced that the vaccine was effective. It was one of the most exciting days of the decade. People honked their horns, rang bells, fired off salutes . . . & [parents] thanked God for deliverance. Within a few years . . . polio ceased to be a major concern [in the USA]” (close quote). In the late 50s, widespread vaccination eliminated the spread of the virus that caused polio. There was little public resistance from American parents to allowing their children to be inoculated with Salk’s vaccine, in large part because there was far more trust in medical experts during this era than there seems to be during our own time.
Even after the advent of the polio vaccine, the Baby Boomers grew up under the shadow of another threat. Cold War kids grew up secure, living in comfortable, safe, & prosperous American suburbs. Indeed, Patterson notes that the Boomers’ parents fully expected, that (quote) “their children would enjoy a better world than the one they themselves had grown up in” (close quote). Yet those hopes could be dashed in an instant if the Cold War turned hot. Historian John Lewis Gaddis notes that (quote) “the Soviet Union had tested its first air-dropped thermonuclear bomb in November 1955, by which time it already had long-range bombers capable of reaching American targets” (close quote). Many US schools responded with drills where children were taught to “duck & cover” under their desks in order to protect themselves from a nuclear attack. Hiding under a desk would do little to shield someone from a nearby atomic blast, but the drills at least gave students the illusion that there was some way to prepare & protect themselves. The knowledge that a supposedly civilized modern world stood on the brink of destroying itself in a nuclear apocalypse is commonly cited as a cause of anti-establishment rebellion among some Boomers, who eventually concluded that a society engaged in an arms race to build weapons of genocidal power had gone badly wrong in terms of its morality, & maybe even its sanity.
On the other hand, the recent US victory in World War II & the current pressures of the Cold War led many Americans of all ages to embrace hyper-patriotism, which certainly permeated the Boomers’ 1950s childhoods. A mass-media uniform culture & widespread prosperity frayed old ethnic ties to ancestral homelands. Patterson observes that (quote) a “low level of immigration, together with the formidable patriotic fervor exerted by the Cold War, sustained an assimilationist” spirit (close quote). School textbooks taught the superiority of the American system, & downplayed the darker chapters of US history. Most American schoolchildren were required to pledge allegiance to the flag every morning. Many young Boomers adopted & never lost this patriotic mindset, even after Vietnam & Watergate. Indeed, most Baby Boomers never fully embraced the radical critique of capitalist America that was espoused by some Boomer college students during the late 60s & early 70s.
By 1955, even the oldest Boomers had not yet reached age 10. However, a distinct youth culture was beginning to develop that would expand exponentially when most Boomers reached their teenaged years during the 1960s. In the early 50s, rock and roll music was developed by groundbreaking black artists such as Chuck Berry & Little Richard. White artists soon took up the rock-&-roll style as well, and in 1955, Bill Haley & the Comets’ song “Rock Around the Clock” topped the charts. Teenagers during the Fifties often used money saved up from part-time jobs or allowances to buy these popular records. They also discovered new music on television programs like the Ed Sullivan Show. There were just 3 major TV networks at this time, so any act appearing on national television was getting the eyes & ears of a substantial portion of the American public. Rock ‘n roll soon reached new heights of youth popularity with the emergence of the handsome & charismatic young white Southerner Elvis Presley. His audiences, according to Patterson, were (quote) “composed mainly of young people [who] screeched & wailed in scenes that frightened [older] observers” (close quote). Patterson recalls that one writer to a Congressional committee on juvenile delinquency complained that Elvis’s provocative performances (quote) “threaten to rock-n-roll the juvenile world into open revolt against society. The gangster of tomorrow is the Elvis Presley type of today” (close quote). Other, more level-headed Americans, considered rock ‘n roll as a harmless passing fad. Few expected this music to evolve into the long-lasting & hugely influential cultural phenomenon that it eventually became during the 60s & 70s.
Even in its prototypical stage during the Fifties, rock music’s unique combination of African-American & rural white influences struck many older Americans as unrefined & lowbrow. Some of its lyrics & dance moves were far too suggestive for many adults during the restrained Fifties; this loosening of social strictures was an early sign of a cultural generation gap that would only grow during the decade ahead. Rock music was not the only aspect of youth culture that was drawing controversy by the mid-50s. Movies like “Blackboard Jungle” that depicted urban gang violence helped to generate a great deal of cultural anxiety during this era about troublemaking teenagers & so-called “juvenile delinquents.” This moral panic exaggerated the problem of troubled teens. In reality, crime remained low throughout the Fifties, & youthful unrest during the decade was quite tame compared to what would take place during the 60s & 70s. Nevertheless, parents fretted over new cultural products like comic books that were widely regarded as a corrupting influence upon the youth. Some “horror comics” did show grotesque images such as severed heads & limbs on their covers at this time. The comic book industry adopted a censorship code in 1954 to counter critics & reassure parents; it prohibited depictions of graphic violence, obscenity, the occult, & the glamorization of crime.
The Baby Boomers were the first generation raised by television. Patterson reports that (quote) “By the 1960s, polls reported that television was the favorite leisure activity of nearly 50% of the population & that TV sets were on for an average of more than 3 hours a day in American homes” (close quote). In stark contrast with the mind-boggling number of stations on 21st Century satellite TV, viewers during the 1950s were mostly limited to the offerings of the 3 major broadcast television networks (NBC, CBS, & ABC) plus perhaps a few independent local stations. Critics & intellectuals tended to disparage television as a shabby, shallow, & lowbrow medium. The most famous of these criticisms was issued by Federal Communications Commission Chair Newton Minow in 1961, who called television a quote-unquote “vast wasteland” of commercialism, formulaic comedies, & violent dramas. The need to maintain a wide audience for advertising sponsors had made broadcast TV a relatively risk-averse business; networks sought programs that would be inoffensive & had appeal to a wide variety of people. Patterson notes that political controversies & sexual matters in particular were mainly off-limits. Game shows became popular for a time, but by the end of the decade they lost credibility when news broke that some of them had been rigged so that charismatic champions would keep on winning. This phenomenon was dramatized in one of the most critically-acclaimed movies about mass media during the Fifties, the 1994 Robert Redford-directed film “Quiz Show.” According to Patterson, the game show scandal seems to have encouraged the TV business to clean up its act; embarrassed network executives responded by promising greater integrity & more public service programming. As a result (quote) “News staffs increased, current affairs documentaries made a comeback, & the networks offered to televise debates between the major presidential candidates in the 1960 campaign” (close quote).
The most successful type of television drama during the 50s was the Western. This genre was set in the 19th Century frontier of the American West. Characters such as gunslinging lawmen & outlaws were common, but most of their violence was cartoonish rather than graphic in order to remain family-friendly. Westerns were often moralistic, depicting a black-and-white struggle between good guys & bad guys, & focusing on the need for American heroes to defeat bandits in order civilize a lawless frontier. These themes hearkened back to the writings of American historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who famously wrote during the 1890s that the experience of settling the frontier had been the key factor in shaping the American character. Turner’s theory that the frontier spirit made the USA exceptional had a resurgence during the mid-20th Century; future President John F. Kennedy would soon emphasize the importance of Americans pursuing (quote) “new frontiers.” Westerns portrayed US history as a story of civilization triumphing over chaos, which appealed to a strong sense of national mission & pride during this patriotic Cold War era. Later critics would note the dark sides of the frontier mythology, pointing out that the celebrated conquest of nature involved environmental destruction, & that the (so-called) “civilizing settlements” had displaced & exploited indigenous peoples. Future westerns made during the 60s & 70s would attempt to incorporate these critiques into the genre, but those airing in the 50s were mostly unambiguous melodramas & morality plays.
The movies also remained a highly influential part of the American cultural landscape during the 1950s. The motion picture business during this era still labored under the so-called “Hays Code” that had established a system of Hollywood censorship since the 1930s. During the 20s, some films were pushing the envelope of what middle-class Americans considered decent. Arbiters of morality engaged in an outcry for government regulation of the entertainment industry. To head off this outside interference, Hollywood regulated itself by adopting a Production Code starting in 1934, two decades before the aforementioned comic book business did the same. Movie studios hired Will Hays, a former Republican Party official, to design this code. Hays was a devout Midwestern Protestant, & he also worked closely with Roman Catholic clergy in designing a code intended to police the moral content of the cinema. As you might expect, the Hays Code contained rules restricting depictions of graphic violence, sexual content, drug use, nudity, & profanity. However, it went deeper than that. It attempted to ensure that films would teach proper moral lessons, & avoid glamorizing antisocial behavior. As a result, crime & sin were not to be portrayed sympathetically. So-called “anti-heroes” like Tony Soprano & Walter White on 21st Century cable-TV dramas would not be welcome on the silver screen during the Hays-Code era. Hays believed movies needed to show that crime did not pay. The agents of law, such as police, were not to be ridiculed. The Code also encouraged directors to portray religion respectfully. Patterson notes that amid the growing religiosity & fear of “Godless communism” during the Fifties, Hollywood produced a number of historical epics (such as “Quo Vadis?” “The Robe” & “Ben-Hur”) (quote) “in which Christians starred as heroes against authoritarian & pagan Roman villains” (close quote). However, Patterson also notes that other films began to challenge postwar cultural norms of sexual traditionalism & repression. During the 50s, attractive actresses like Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, & Carroll Baker (quote) “began to star in films that showed a good deal more female flesh than a few years earlier” (close quote). This was the start of a trend away from strict adherence to the Hays Code that would speed up with the arrival of the 1960s.
Depictions of young people in Hollywood films reflected a growing perception of youthful discontentedness. For example, think of James Dean defiantly smoking cigarettes while wearing a t-shirt & jeans (a look that would eventually become the default casual outfit for young people across much of the Western world). Patterson writes that a rebellious image may have seemed cool to teenagers, but parents developed concerns that (quote) “ranged from serious matters such as gang fights & teenaged drinking parties to more trivial matters such as the growing tendency of young ‘greasers’ to wear cut-off T-shirts & blue jeans and to style their hair in pompadours & duck-tails. [Questionable] role models such as [Marlon] Brando & [James] Dean especially worried conservatives” (close quote). Dean’s angsty roles & image may have helped create a template imitated by many angry young men, but his story comes to an end in September 1955, when he died in a car crash on a rural highway outside San Luis Obispo, California. Dean’s most iconic film role was in a movie called “Rebel Without a Cause,” & Patterson concludes that phrase might be a pretty good description of alienated teenagers in the 1950s. He concludes that during this era, (quote) “young people who were unhappy with the status quo did not much concern themselves with larger political & social problems” (close quote). This is not to say that teenagers had no real grievances – this was, after all, a conformist era when people who didn’t fit into a particular “white bread” mold often felt alienated. Nevertheless, even the rebels were distinctly in the minority, as (quote) “Most educators in the 50s detected a [conformist] ‘silent generation’” in the nation’s schools & universities (close quote).
Young men may have emulated movie idols by wearing jeans, but during this time, women were usually expected to wear dresses in public, even in school & the workplace. Patterson notes that (quote) “In the war years, when unprecedented numbers of women had gone to work, it had been thought acceptable for women to wear slacks,” but by the late 40s, there was a new trend toward styles that stressed femininity. “Women’s fashions, largely prescribed by men who had an image of how the opposite sex should look, had hardly been so confining since the 19th Century” (close quote). Some women did wear pants in the 50s, especially in the capri style, but this usually occurred within informal settings or in eccentric subcultures, such as the so-called “beatniks.” Mainstream women’s fashions emphasized a cultural focus upon traditional gender roles that remained powerful throughout the Fifties & the early Sixties. For Boomer students, this typically meant that girls were usually encouraged to take “home economics” classes in high school that could help them prepare for domestic duties, while boys were steered toward shop classes, which usually involved using tools to craft projects made of wood or metal. Such skills might help prepare them for a mid-century workforce dominated by industrial manufacturing jobs.
For the Boomers’ parents, predominant gender expectations meant that husbands & wives tended to stay together, even if they were in troubled or unhappy marriages, because of a strong social stigma against divorce. Patterson writes that (quote) “Despite the passage of more liberal divorce laws in [some localities during] the 1950s, [divorce] rates remained lower throughout the 1950s (& early 1960s) than they had been since 1942” (close quote). He notes Americans during the 50s (quote) “were more likely to be married . . . than people anywhere else on the planet” (close quote). There was particular pressure for women to wed & bear children, and to do a damn good job of raising them, to boot. Feminist historian Ruth Rosen writes that (quote) “social critics blamed working women for many of [what were perceived to be] America’s social ills: alcoholic husbands, homosexual children, & juvenile delinquency” (close quote). On a similar note, history professor Elaine Tyler May argues that mothers had to walk a proverbial tightrope: maternal neglect was thought to lead to delinquency & crime, but (quote) “mothers who overindulged their sons [were thought to turn them] passive, weak, & effeminate” (close quote), which was unacceptable during this era when strength & masculinity were seen as vital to the American people’s quest to fight off the global communist threat.
Women’s opportunities to take on leadership roles other than wife & mother were limited. Patterson contends that, in part due to the disproportionately male population that was eligible for the veterans benefits of the GI Bill, (quote) “men were much more likely to go on to college & universities” (close quote) than women were. The percentage of undergraduate college degrees issued to women actually went down compared with previous decades. Even women’s colleges often discouraged female professional aspirations, sometimes treating young women’s intellectual abilities in a manner that bordered upon the downright insulting. Patterson reports that Mills College, an all-female liberal arts college in Oakland, during the 50s (quote) “demanded a ‘distinctively feminine curriculum’ & featured such subjects as ceramics, weaving, & flower arrangement” (close quote). In 1955, former (& future) Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson gave a speech at Smith College, a prestigious New England women’s college that educated some of the country’s brightest & most ambitious women, but he nevertheless focused his remarks on how they should prepare to be effective wives & mothers. Patterson notes that corporate recruiters of the 50s eagerly recruited college-educated men, but (quote) “were not much interested in talented women.” Professional schools rarely admitted women, & those few able to enroll & graduate faced discrimination that stood in the way of their career aspirations. Future Supreme Court justices Sandra Day O’Connor & Ruth Bader Ginsburg both initially had difficulty finding a job practicing law, despite their having graduated from top law schools with high marks during the 50s. Nevertheless, both blazed a trail that the less-restricted next generation of ambitious women could follow.
As previously discussed in Episode 6, the Fifties were a time of rising religiosity. Facing an officially atheist USSR in the Cold War, Americans publicly embraced piety to a degree not seen since the 19th Century. President Eisenhower characterized the United States as a “Judeo-Christian” nation that was built upon a shared tradition of monotheistic beliefs. Eisenhower explained his position, somewhat awkwardly, as (quote) “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith - and I don’t care what it is” (close quote). Many legislators acted to appease constituents who likewise wanted the federal government to officially endorse generic religious faith. Congress voted to install a Prayer Room within the Capitol building, that its members were to use for purposes of prayer & meditation, which opened during 1955. Additionally, a law passed adding “In God We Trust” to all American coins, the Pledge of Allegiance was amended by statute to include the words “Under God” to describe the nation. Jewish philosopher Will Herberg’s influential 1955 book Protestant-Catholic-Jew emphasized the commonalities between the three biggest religious traditions existing in the mid-20th Century USA. Most Boomer kids grew up attending religious services with their family in a house of worship (for the vast majority, at a church). Data cited by Patterson indicates (quote) “The percentage of people who said they belonged to a church or synagogue increased from 49% in 1940 to . . . a record-high 69% in 1959” (close quote). He opines that while many people became more religious out of genuine spiritual conviction, others joined a church out of conformity to an increasingly popular social trend. Religious participation had become useful for purposes of status, networking, & community belonging within new suburban neighborhoods. The textbook Liberty, Equality, Power reports that 95% of people during the Fifties at least identified with a religious denomination, as even non-practitioners & non-attenders often held onto a denominational identity as part of their ancestral, ethnic, or regional heritage.
The respect for religious organizations was only one component of an across-the-board confidence in institutions & authority figures (including business leaders, academics, & politicians) during the 50s. In some ways this reverence for expertise was positive for American society – 1950s scientists & medical experts were actually widely listened to & trusted by the public, something that might come in handy in the event of, say, a pandemic (to pick a random example). However, this public deference to authority also left the door open for abuses of power. American society was increasingly dominated by big hierarchical organizations, such as corporations, labor unions & political machines, that could be difficult for an unconnected outsider to navigate. One example of the inflexible “good old boy” network that sometimes existed within these institutions was recalled by Abner Mikva, a prominent federal judge in Illinois. As an idealistic young law student in 1948, Mikva entered a local Chicago Democratic Party office & tried to volunteer as a campaigner for the party’s statewide ticket. The cigar-chomping party machine official looked at him skeptically and asked, “Oh yeah, who sent you?” “Nobody sent me,” Mikva replied. The crusty official responded, “Well, we don’t want nobody that nobody sent.” Clearly, people operating outside of the nepotistic, favor-exchanging party machine were not understood or trusted in the world of tight-knit urban ethnic neighborhoods. These forms of political organization could be parochial & hierarchical, yet the localized centers of power within machine politics did provide representation to citizens from a wide variety of neighborhoods & social classes. Our current political system is ostensibly a more level playing field, but in recent decades the loosening of laws regulating lobbying & campaign donations means that in reality, today big donors’ concerns are often prized above all other interests.
In the 50s, the rise of big government, big business, & big labor led some intellectuals to worry about people losing their sense of individual identity through subservience to large organizations. Sociologists William H. Whyte & David Riesman voiced these critiques during this era, warning that the conformist mindset of the quote-unquote “organization man” was reducing Americans’ ability to think independently. Our podcast has previously discussed the rise of conformist culture in the context of the Red Scare & the Cold War. Both men in the workplace & women in the suburban neighborhood felt the pressure to follow along with the norms of the era. Patterson observes that this became a key concern of public intellectuals during the 1950s, who (quote) “tended to be optimistic about the economy” but had “cultural concerns. They worried about the all-pervasive sameness [&] blandness . . . & [the] threat to individualism they thought [was caused by] the onrushing materialism of middle-class life in the suburbs” (close quote). Of course, most Americans could live with a world where the major concerns were about excessive affluence & conformity; this was certainly preferable to the bigger problems of poverty & unemployment that had existed back in the 1930s. Furthermore, the worries of white middle-class life seem miniscule when compared with those of groups shut out of the suburban prosperity.
Stubbornly-persistent regional pockets of poverty remained in various corners of the US despite the general prosperity of the age, particularly in remote rural regions of Appalachia & the Deep South. Racial factors also helped to determine which groups were excluded from the rising affluence. Discrimination against minority groups like African-Americans, Native Americans & Hispanics was common & actually was legal in some parts of the country. This situation began to change with the 1954 US Supreme Court decision in the case of Hernandez v. Texas, written by Chief Justice Earl Warren as a follow-up to Brown v. Board of Education ruling that had found public school segregation unconstitutional (as discussed in Episode 8). The Hernandez case involved discrimination in a South Texas county, where the large local Mexican-American population faced segregated public facilities & had been systematically excluded from participation on juries. Chief Justice Warren ruled that the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution prohibited discrimination against all racial & ethnic groups facing unfair treatment, dismissing the Texas state government’s argument that the amendment only barred discrimination against blacks. However, this ruling was just one step in the slow process of dismantling racial hierarchies; more subtle displays of prejudice allowed economic & educational discrimination to remain endemic in places like South Texas, where Latinos remained far poorer than the local Anglo population.
The largest minority group in the USA during the Fifties remained African-Americans, who had always been trapped at the bottom of the nation’s racial caste hierarchy. They also remained largely excluded from the decade’s trend of upward economic mobility for most Americans. Modern American students learn that black people in the South were prohibited by the Jim Crow system of segregation from using the same public accommodations as white people: they had separate bathrooms, separate drinking fountains, separate swimming pools, had to sit in the back of city buses, etc. However, slightly less well known is the continuing problem of Southern vigilante violence, which was used especially often against black men who violated regional racial taboos.
In August 1955, a 14-year-old black teenager from Chicago named Emmett Till visited relatives in the Deep South state of Mississippi. Perhaps unaware of the strict rules African-Americans were expected to follow in that region, he allegedly did something that offended a white female store clerk (some say it was a comment, some say he whistled at her). This interaction went against the social norms accepted in the South, & she later complained to her husband about the incident. The reaction the white community had to the possibility of interracial flirtation strikes modern sensibilities as downright demented. Patterson reports that Till (quote) “was found dead in the Tallahatchie River. He had been shot in the head & tied to a cotton gin fan so that he would sink. His body was badly mangled” (close quote). Emmett Till’s corpse was sent to his family in Chicago & then he was displayed in an open casket during his funeral, because his mother wanted the world to see what the murderers had done to her son. Photos of the funeral were circulated all around the country, & received an especially large amount of coverage in black newspapers. Nevertheless, the two men accused of the murder were acquitted by an all-white jury in Mississippi (although they would later admit to their involvement in the killing). The New York Times reports that the store clerk who accused Till admitted in a 2008 interview that she had considerably exaggerated the incident at the trial of the killers. She stated that (quote) “a crucial piece of her testimony in court was fabricated. Till never ‘grabbed her around the waist and uttered obscenities’ as she had avowed on the witness stand” (close quote). The murder of Emmett Till, so reminiscent of the lynching of blacks common in the post-Reconstruction South, became a rallying point for the nation’s black population & for the nascent civil rights movement. It was comparable to the reaction to the recent killing of George Floyd in our own time, but with one key difference – concern over Till’s death was far more limited outside of the African-American community. However, its ripple effects would result in a new wave of enthusiasm for political activism within the black community, one that would eventually force the entire nation to sit up & pay attention.
It’s no coincidence that just months after the Till killing, a lifelong civil rights activist named Rosa Parks refused to go to the black section in the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, & was arrested for her defiance. In 1956, the black community in Montgomery would unite, especially through their church congregations, to launch a bus boycott that became the seminal event of the grassroots civil rights movement that would soon stun, aggravate, & inspire the American nation during the early 1960s. A charismatic young reverend & gifted orator from Georgia rose to a position of leadership in the boycott. His name was Martin Luther King Jr., & his movement would shake up the complacent status quo of 1950s America that has been described throughout this program. But the Montgomery Bus Boycott is a story for our next episode, all about the events of the year 1956.
The “From Boomers to Millennials” podcast is co-produced by Erin Rogers & Logan Rogers. Logo design by Camie Schaefer & Erin Rogers. Written and narrated by Logan Rogers. Please subscribe to our show rather than downloading individual episodes. You can also donate to our Patreon at patreon.com/boomertomillennial. Check out our Source Lists on our Patreon page for information about the various sources we rely upon to research each episode. You can also follow us on Instagram @boomerstomillennials & on Twitter @boomer (underscore) to. If you have comments or suggestions about our podcast, please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Once again, we want to thank our listeners for supporting us throughout this first season. We won’t be releasing the debut episode of our second season until Fall 2020, but please, stay subscribed to our podcast! We will be back before you know it, & hopefully the content will be better than ever at helping you make sense of the past that has shaped the world we now live in, both for better & for worse. Until our return, we wish all of you a safe, sane, & (if possible) relaxing summer, & we look forward to talking at all of our amazing listeners again in the autumn. Thank you!