By the time the Korean
War ended, in 1953, fifty thousand Americans had returned
home in coffins. With the end of the War came President
Eisenhower's promise of a bright future for the United States.
It was the beginning of an economic boom unlike any in the
history of the Country. For the first time since the Great
Depression of 1929 America was not in crisis.
During the latter part
of 1953 mass consumerism was on the rise and money was in
the bank. Americans moved up to the "middle class"
at the rate of one million a year and real wages were rising
at an unprecedented 4.5% yearly.
It was a time of conformity
when men, dressed in gray flannel suits and white shirts,
went to their white-collar jobs and women kept the home
fires burning in their pastel, "cookie cutter"
houses of America's new suburbia. Life centered around the
stability of home and family and 97% of marriageable men
and women were married, it was a couples society and they
were all having children, the baby boom was in full swing..
Americans began their
love affair with TV during the early part of the decade
and by the mid 50s 3/4 of them owned a telvision set and
spent 1/3 of their waking hours watching I Love Lucy, The
Honeymooners, Jack Benny, Queen for A Day, What's My Line,
Ed Sullivan and American Bandstand. Consumerism flourished
as television ads convinced viewers of the need to keep
up with the "Jones'" by owning the latest gadgets
For Black citizens,
in the midst of this new American prosperity, life remained
unchanged but change was in the air. The 1954 United States
Supreme Court decision in Brown
v. the Board of Education was among the most significant
turning points in the development of our country. It dismantled
the legal basis for racial segregation in schools and other
public facilities by declaring that the discriminatory
nature of racial segregation ... "violates the 14th
amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees all
citizens equal protection of the laws,".
The southern states resisted integration.
On December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks, weary from an exhausting
day of work as a seamstress, boarded a bus in Montgomery,
Alabama. She sat in the black section at the back of the
bus but when the white seats had filled she was told to
give up her seat to a white man. Rosa Parks refused and
in so doing became the first prominent figure of what became
The twenty-six year old minister, Martin Luther
King, Jr. led the black citizens in a non-violent boycott
of the Montgomery buses. During the boycott white extremists
bombed Kings home. The boycott continued for 381 days until,
in 1956, the Federal Supreme ruled to desegregate the buses.
Dream of a King
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In 1957 President Eisenhower sent in the 101st
Airborne to accompany the Arkansas Nine to classes at Central
High in Little Rock. Three weeks earlier the black students
were prevented by white students, teachers and parents from
entering the school in spite of the Brown v. The Board of
King I Have a Dream
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There was a change happening in music. A sound
that had its roots in black music and was referred to as
"race music" was becoming popular with white teens.
Early in 1951 disc jockey, Alan Freed, realized that white
teenagers with money to spend were buying records of what
had been considered exclusively Negro music a year earlier.
By the summer of that same year the "Moondog Show"
premiered from Cleavland. Disc jockey, Alan Freed, was "The
Moondog" and played this new music with a "beat".
His shows were a phenomenal hit and Alan Freed is credited
for naming the new music, "Rock 'n Roll"
Sam Phillips, a Memphis recording man and
enthusiast of black music immediately recognized a special
quality in Elvis Presley, who had been influenced by Southern
black gospel and blues. On July 5, 1954
at Sun Records Elvis recorded "I'm All Right, Mama"
with "Blue Moon of Kentucky" on the flip side.
Soon after, he was named "Most Up and Coming Hillbilly
Artist of The Year".
By February of 1955 Bill
Haley's version of "Shake Rattle and Roll"
had sold 1 million copies, Chuck Berry's
"Maybellene" was on the charts and then came
Little Richard with, "Tutti Frutti". Rock'n Roll
was born, and here to stay. Even as parents disapproved
of it as "devil music" the kids couldn't get enough.
The automobile became an American icon during
the prosperity of the 50s. The Ford Thunderbird, Chevrolet
sedans and Chrysler station-wagons became symbols of the
new affluent American society. The nation was suddenly mobile
and "Drive-in" became a part of the language and
culture. Public Works began the construction of an extensive
highway system like no other time in history and road trips
in big-finned cars became a national past-time.
The Cold War between the world's Super Powers,
America and Russia, cast a shadow of fear over the Frivolous
Fifties. The Atomic and Hydrogen bombs were created and
the military performed 200 above-ground nuclear tests between
1954 and 1958. There was failure after failure in the rocket
launching competition between the two countries until Russia
realized success with it's Sputnik on October 4, 1957. Americans
found themselves watching the skies and learning to "duck
By the latter part of the decade Marilyn Monroe
had appeared as the first centerfold in Hugh Hefner's Playboy
magazine and Ed Sullivan had backed down by inviting Elvis
to perform, two months after calling him vulgar and exclaiming
that he would never appear on his television show. The youth
had their own music and the Beats, with their hip new language,
became the forefathers of the 60s counter-culture.
Profound economic, political, racial and social
changes had taken place in a short time. Happy Days? Yes,
but complex and evolving too.