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The Fifties
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Page 1234

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A Teenage Culture Emerges

We never really had teenagers before. Teenagers were just young people. And it isn't until the mid-1930s that over half of Americans are going to high school. They start to go to high school in great numbers during the Great Depression, because during the Great Depression there are no jobs.

Then when they start to graduate from high school the war comes along, and the first conscription law, the first draft law, provides that kids under the age of 19--they lowered it, eventually lowered it to 18--couldn't serve in the Armed Forces. You can't serve in the Armed Forces, you're in high school, you don't have a job, you're a special class of people. Teenagers.

And teenage culture I think comes into real force in the 1950s. To the parents of young Americans, Levittown and places like that represented the American ideal. But a lot of young people found the culture conformist and stifling and started to break away from it a little bit.

A piece of technology allows this generational rift to get wider. And that little piece of technology isn't the television, because daddy controls the television. That's in the living room, okay, like the old radio had been. Now you've got a transistor radio that you can buy in a store, and the transistor just comes online in the 1950s.


Elvis Presley

All of a sudden, you could turn that dial any way you want. The time was right for Elvis. "We saw for the first time on television a young gentleman that we think is going to a lot of places in the entertainment field... we brought him back again. And here he is ladies and gentleman, Mr. Elvis Presley."

[picture of Elvis Presley]

The Elvis story is an interesting story. I mean, he changed the way we talked, he changed the way we walked, he changed the way we spoke, and he changed the beat of the country. And he made the music of the underclass the music of the world.

In a sense that makes him a revolutionary. And he truly was in that respect. Although a very innocent and almost unknowing revolutionary. Certainly he didn't set out to be one.

He's a poor kid from Tupelo, Mississippi whose father had worked in a munitions factory during World War II. They were just poor roustabouts looking for work, the whole family. And they headed for Memphis.

You've got to understand, Memphis is an interesting place. It's a convergent point really for two immigration movements. The immigration of whites, of Scotch-Irish and Irish descent through the Appalachian Mountains and out into Mississippi.

We often call their music hillbilly music, okay? Rockabilly they often called it. At the same time lots of these people were living in Memphis.

And just below Memphis, all the way down from Memphis to Vicksburg, is a place called the Delta, the great cotton planting region of the South at the time of the Civil War. And Memphis is a cotton-exporting center. And there's a lot of poverty in the Delta, but there's rich music coming out of the Delta. Howling Wolf, and all the early greats like B.B. King, blues singers are coming out of there.

And they're migrating to a place called Beale Street, which is almost an all-black entertainment section in Memphis. And Beale Street fascinates Elvis. And he and his friends started to go down there along with another -- a couple of other white rebel kids. And then more and more of these kids started to go there.

And the interesting thing is that a lot of the black clubs wouldn't let white kids in. They started to let them in, but they roped them off into a separate section. Then all of a sudden, the music gets going, the rope goes down and everybody's out there dancing.

And that's taboo. This is the solid south, the segregationist south. And Memphis is a bastion of segregation. So this is a strange city for a revolution like this to take place.

And a revolution it was, because people like Elvis were not only playing black music; but when Elvis hit it, and he hit it because he got hooked up with a guy named Sam Phillips. And Sam Phillips was an interesting kind of entrepreneur. He wasn't a social revolutionary; he was out to make a little money. He was a record producer with Sun Records.

And he used to say to himself, "What I need, if I really want to make a lot of money in this section of the country is, I need a white kid that can sing like a black guy." And Elvis happened to stumble into his studio one day and cut a record, That's All Right Mama. And Phillips said, "There's the guy, there's the guy."

And Elvis simply took off after that. And people are listening to his music. But get this, they're white kids listening to his music, and the white kids are picking up also on the black music.


Catalysts for Civil Rights

[picture of Thurgood Marshall]

But what's happening in the south as well in the 1950s is there's a ground swell that's starting to take place. Individuals start to emerge, insurgents, North as well as South. Thurgood Marshall who takes this big case before the Supreme Court in 1954 wins the Brown v. Board of Education case, and opens up schools to integration. And that starts to change everything in the South.

There's a theory in history that often very, very small events can trigger huge changes. Rosa Parks gets on a bus in Montgomery. Buses were like plantations in Montgomery, Alabama. In most of the South, the bus was divided into the white section and the black section.

But it was flexible in Montgomery, and it was all up to the plantation master, the bus driver. So the bus driver ruled. Rosa Parks sits on the bus one day and she's sitting in a black section, a white guy gets on. He doesn't want to sit next to a black person.

The bus driver turns around and says to Rosa Parks, who's tired after a hard day as a seamstress, "You've got to move. Move another seat. Move up a little bit further." She said, "I'm in the black section."

She refuses to move, she's arrested, and she starts a civil rights revolution in a sense. The court intervened at the end of the Montgomery bus boycott and declared that the Montgomery law segregating buses was unconstitutional. So there's hope there, that the federal government's on their side. And that creates this surge of resistance.

If you're looking for the roots of the 1960s and the rebellion of the '60s, you don't go to 1968, to the zenith and peak of the movement, you go back to 1956, '57, '58, when all of this starts to germinate. I mean, there's a tremendous undercurrent of dissent and disagreement in the `50s. You see it in popular music; you see it in popular literature with books like Jack Kerouac's On the Road. You even see it in the academic community with books like John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society.

You see it in the early works of C. Wright Mills, who's criticizing the whole direction and bent of American prosperity, which ignores, as he says, "thirty percent of the Americans who happen to be poor." And Rachel Carson writes The Silent Spring which becomes the foundation of the modern environmental movement. Louis Mumford starts to write a series of books about the city in history and technology in history, talking about our over-dependence on technology.

"The automobile industry has a formula..." Ralph Nader starts to question this, with the exhaust from cars and the safety of cars. General Motors comes out with the Corvair. "This is the sizzling Covair Monza spider, with a whopping 150 horse power turbo air engine..."

The Corvair had a problem. It flipped; it flipped all the time. Nader starts exposing this. They start investigating him. All of a sudden you've got a movement for safety belts and safety control and things like this.

[picture of the cover of 'The Feminine Mystique']

A northern housewife by the name of Betty Freidan from Smith College returned to Smith College reunion to do a couple of articles about what it's like in college now in 1957 as opposed to what it was like when she went to school. She was aghast at what she saw; that these girls, highly trained, expensively educated, are just going to be off into a kitchen the day after they graduated, and there were no careers open to them. And she writes The Feminine Mystique. And that became a powerful inciter of the women's movement in the 1960s.

In the popular mind, the `50s were all about boring conformity, the man in the gray flannel suit, bland suburbanization, resistance to anything that threatened the established order. But below the surface, there was something else, the seeds of the `60s, and the decade of social, cultural, and political upheaval.



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