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



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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. The 1950s were a time of economic expansion, new technologies, and a growing middle class. America was becoming a suburban nation thanks to cookie-cutter housing developments like the Levittowns. While the white working class saw their wages and status improve, the proverbial rising tide wasn’t lifting all proverbial ships. A lot of people were excluded from the prosperity of the 1950s. Segregation in housing and education made for some serious inequality for African Americans. As a result, the Civil Rights movement was born. John will talk about the early careers of Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, and even Earl Warren. He’ll teach you about Brown v Board of Education, and the lesser known Mendez vs Westminster, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and all kinds of other stuff.

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Hey teachers and students – Check out CommonLit’s free collection of reading passages and curriculum resources to learn more about the events of this episode. The Civil Rights Movement gained national attention with the murder of Emmett Till in 1955:
That same year, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, beginning the Montgomery bus boycott:
A young preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. gained national fame rallying support for the Montgomery bus boycott:
The end of segregation also began in the South with the Showdown in Little Rock in 1957:

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hi I'm John Green this is crash-course US 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 enter there aliens are no aliens no spoilers me from the past you're gonna 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 and this widespread affluence was something new in the United States between 1946 and 1964 than double and unlike many previous American economic expansions much of the growing prosperity in the 50s was shared by ordinary working people who saw their wages rise to court our old friend Eric Foner by 1960 an estimated 60% of Americans enjoyed what the government defined as a middle class standard of living and this meant that increasing number of Americans had access to 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 hurtled through the air most Americans were happy because they had like indoor plumbing and electricity 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 were 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 percent of Americans owned at least one car and fourteen percent had two or more and car culture changed the way that Americans lived and shopped I mean it gave us shopping malls and drive-through 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 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 that 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 sociologists see right mills described a combination of military corporate and political leaders as a power elite whose control over government in the economy was such as to make democracy an afterthought in the lonely crowd sociologist David Reisman 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 in the commets Buddy Holly and the crickets and Elvis Presley and his hips so you might have noticed something about all those critics the 1950s that I just mentioned they were all white dudes now we're going to 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 50s 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 to Eric Foner as late as the 1990s nearly 90% of suburban whites lived in communities with non-white populations less than 1% 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 substandard segregated schools now you might think the civil rights movement began with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott or else Brown versus Board of Education but it really started during World War two 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 with the civil rights movement and it started in California in 1946 in the case of Mendez versus 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 versus Board of Education came before the Supreme Court in 1954 the n-double-a-cp 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 versus 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 five cases from four 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 racially integrated school system Stan the last two weeks you have given me two extraordinary gifts and I am thankful it is Earl Warren from Brown vs. 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 all right 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 though Prince Edward County in Virginia for instance closed at schools in 1959 and didn't reopen them again until 1964 except it didn't really close them because many states appropriated funds to pay for white students to attend quote 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 1st 1955 Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery Alabama and not arrested kicking off the Montgomery bus boycott that lasted almost a year a lot of people think that Rosa Parks was simply an average african-american working woman who was tired and fed up with segregation but the truth is more complicated Marx had been active in politics since the 1930s and had protested the notorious Scottsboro Boys case she'd served as secretary for the n-double-a-cp and she had begun her quest to register to vote in Alabama in 1943 she failed the 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 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 Central High School by nine 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 hundred and first 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 valve is 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 2% 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 in 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 I'll see you then crash course is made with the help of all of these nice people and it's possible because of your support through subbable.com subbable is a voluntary subscription service that allows you to subscribe to crash course at the price of your choosing including zero dollars a month but hopefully more than that there are also great perks that you can get like signed posters so if you like and value crash course help us keep it free for everyone forever by subscribing now at subbable you can just click on my face now my face move but you can still click on it thanks again for watching crash course and as we say in my hometown don't forget to be awesome

37 thoughts on “Civil Rights and the 1950s: Crash Course US History #39”

  1. Those who call the 1950's the Consensus Era are mistaking consensus for socially-enforced, oppressive conformity that punished non-conformity with social marginalization and its lack of access to the mechanisms for acquiring the good life. This is the era when your boss told you what to wear and how often to remove the hair from your face. And woe to you if you didn't follow his orders. Trading your birthright for a mess of pottage, whether in fear, ignorance, or delusion, is not consensual.

    richard hargrove

    "The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it."
    — George Bernard Shaw (through Inspector Javert)

  2. Sweet Jesus. The demographics of the United States in 1950, nay, even 1960, was 85% European-American, 11% African-American, 3% Hispanic, and less than 1% Asian, Must we constantly pummel ourselves with guilt about why most of the narratives that came out of this time period were written by "white males?" In addition, my family was one of the many "white" families (up to 50% by some accounts) who did not share in this massive mythological wealth accruement that historians attribute to "most Americans" in the 1950s. As a result, I have always felt out of place with this narrative (in addition to the rebellious "progress-making" decade of the 1960s popular historical narrative) that followed. And, even while feeling excluded from those narratives, the hopeful part of me would like to think that the re-evaluations of rigid Anglo-American exceptionalist mythology have improved the United States in some way. However,, all that I see now is massive confusion, a complete destruction of all traditions, a rapid shifting back and forth between extreme ideological left and right "solutions" to complex problems, and an inability to accept the deep truth that all of us (yes, even the most "progressive" of us in the 21st century) are deeply flawed human beings with prejudices and self-interested values who are nonetheless trying our best everyday.

  3. Come to think of it, the Civil Rights Movement happened on the heels of Kenya's Mau Mau revolt. The British were subjecting indigenous Kenyans to hard labor, in a so-called effort to convert them to so-called Christianity. The Kenyans retaliated, but the Brits won the war. And despite the CRM's banner of freedom and equality, it had all the elements of Britain's involvement in Kenya: religion, "work will set you free", etc. Dr. King merely spin doctored this theme, to make it palatable to the black majority.

    BTW, the reason I put "work will set you free" in quotation marks, is because it is the exact inscription the Nazis placed on the gates of Auschwitz, to warmly welcome their Jewish guests.

  4. 10:39 "Race mixing is communist" Jeez. It's scary and frustrating how ignorance molds the very definition of the self. These people could not accept, the thought wouldn't cross their mind, that they are not justified in their outrage.

  5. Wonder if anyone knew that Democrat SENATOR JFK voted against the Civil Rights Act 1957 that Republican Eisenhower (and majority of the R-Senators) pushed through? JFK didn’t come into taking a platform on equal rights as a Democrat until he found favor in it with young voters as he forged closer to the White House. Later, as President he had Dr. King wiretapped and investigated by the FBI. I just finished doing alarming research on this and wanted to share, but of course, reach out yourself and study up finding the PDF of votes of Dems vs. Repub’s on who voted for what in the Senate.

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