These Heroes Demolish the Cliché of the Conformist ’50s

how boring, conformist 50s led to the cultural upheavals of the 60s? Civil rights, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, the environmental movement – they all rose to prominence in the ’60s but, according to journalist and historian James R. Gaines in his new book, Fifty: Underground Historyall of which have their roots in the sometimes little-known struggles of the last decade.

“It doesn’t seem to me that history plays out that way, it’s often not defined by decades,” Gaines told The Daily Beast. “Why should a period known for conformity lead to a period known for the opposite? So I started looking for the roots of that boom in the 1950s, and found people who gave me another idea of ​​how the change happened. It suddenly dawned on me that those who were the ones who made change in a time too difficult to do so deserve credit. “

Gaines’ book is not a broad overview, but a closer and more personal look at the lives and careers of activists who have recognized various social issues. and fight them. Some famous people, like murdered civil rights pioneer Medgar Evers or author Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring warning about the effects of pesticides on the environment. Others, like Harry Hayan organizer of the Mattachine Society, the first gay rights group, and Norbert Wienerpioneer in the study of “thinking machines” and their influence on humans and the natural world and coiner of the term Cybernetics, has been almost forgotten over time. But they all have one thing in common: the courage to stand out from the conformist crowd and tackle the issues that have been talked about.

Gaines said of these precursor problems: “There is clarity about problems that arise from deep problems within them. “All of these people are very stubborn, and flawed, and unique. They are all intimately affected by the causes they have caused. Thanks to their personal struggles, they have the courage to start changing.”

If there is one activist Gaines admires more than any other, it is, Pauli Murray a gay, light-skinned black woman who helped found the National Organization for Women and believes that discrimination on the basis of race, class, and sex is interconnected. “She began with such a burden,” says Gaines, whose autobiography is sometimes painful to read, the attack on her for her light skin, and the onslaught of society towards her because of her confusion about her gender. In fact, she was the only woman in her class at Howard University Law School, discriminated against and at the top of her class. And she delivered a law school thesis that helped Thurgood Marshall make her argument in Brown vs. Board of Education. It’s a great story of courage against long odds. “

Also a great story of courage are the Black Men’s World War II veterans who returned home to a racist world and helped launch 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 Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and more , the men, Gaines said in his book, believed that “nonviolence without armed support against racist violence could yield.”

But, Gaines told The Daily Beast, there’s a reason why coming from the military of these men, who are used to weapons — Evers carries a .45 when traveling and sleeps with one. short at the foot of the bed — seems to have laid a historical foothold for the nonviolent protests of the time. “The ethos of the nonviolent movement prevailed,” he said, “and it was almost a matter of shape. The idea that blacks would rebel with weapons, I think, caused a stir in American public opinion. It’s a tactic of the Martin Luther King movement that doesn’t emphasize it, despite the fact that the King’s house is sometimes an arsenal.”

Gaines feels that “the environmental movement has not achieved what it should” and that citizenship is “still a work in progress”.

The fifties also includes the little-known story of President Harry Truman and his support for civil rights. It seems Truman was angered by two famous cases of World War II veterans returning home from racist violence — Isaac Woodard, blinded by a white police officer when he didn’t call he is “sir” and George Dorsey, murdered by a white mob for protecting his brother-in-law after a melee with his landlord. Truman responded to these outrages by appointing a committee to analyze problems in the South and back his final agenda, including anti-loose laws, repeal of the poll tax. and laws to ensure equal access to housing, education and health care. care. When an old friend accused him of this, Truman replied that “the main problem with the South is that they are living 80 years behind their time and the sooner they get out, the better it will be for the country.” and themselves”.

Truman’s liberal stance stems from his experience as an officer in World War I, says Gaines. That angered him, the black veterans who greeted them 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 all of the people in the book, Gaines admits that the different problems they tackled have succeeded or failed to varying degrees. While not enough, he sees the most progress in the gay and lesbian movement, thanks in part to “a generation coming now that is far more gender-equal than previous generations.”

But Gaines feels the “environmental movement hasn’t achieved what it should” and that citizenship “is still underway. Initiative to prevent people of color from voting, how is that possible? The fact that the Supreme Court has done nothing to stop it is getting worse.”

However, Gaines felt that readers of The fifties there should be a feeling “there’s progress, and even if you think it’s least likely, there are people who will stand up and argue for change and ultimately be supported by our Constitution, and the their display of courage and foresight.”

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