1950's Civil Rights
The Civil Rights Movement in the 1950's
While the civil rights movement is not, in itself, pop culture the societal shift that it creates and the way it begins to change American's perspective is relevant to understanding pop culture during the 1950's and every decade that follows.
During the 1950's we saw iconic figures like Rosa Parks emerge that inspire the Birmingham Bus Boycotts, the Little Rock Nine who begin the integration process in Arkansas against many white citizens and the governors wishes, and the first step in social reform with the signing of the Civil Rights act of 1957.
These figures and events along with countless others begin to redefine the conversation around race and equality in America. These bold steps lead to even greater reform and change in the 1960's.
Task 1: Watch the Introductory Video to this Unit (5 minutes)
Task 2: Review the provided videos and attached links for the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950's (15 minutes)
Task 3: Watch this Video About the Little Rock Nine (20 minutes)
Task 4: Respond to What You Learned During Your Investigation (10 minutes)
Rosa Parks (1913 -2005)
Rosa Parks was a civil rights leader whose refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Her bravery led to nationwide efforts to end racial segregation. Parks was awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Award by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. (https://www.biography.com/activist/rosa-parks )
When asked about her refusal to stand on the bus, Rosa Parks said: “People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Montgomery Bus Boycott
In 1955, African Americans were still required by a Montgomery, Alabama, city ordinance to sit in the back half of city buses and to yield their seats to white riders if the front half of the bus, reserved for whites, was full.
But on December 1, 1955, African American seamstress Rosa Parks was commuting home on Montgomery’s Cleveland Avenue bus from her job at a local department store. She was seated in the front row of the “colored section.” When the white seats filled, the driver, J. Fred Blake, asked Parks and three others to vacate their seats. The other black riders complied, but Parks refused.
She was arrested and fined $10, plus $4 in court fees. This was not Parks’ first encounter with Blake. In 1943, she had paid her fare at the front of a bus he was driving, then exited so she could re-enter through the back door, as required. Blake pulled away before she could re-board the bus.
Approximately 40,000 black bus riders—the majority of the city’s bus riders—boycotted the system the next day, December 5. That afternoon, black leaders met to form the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). The group elected Martin Luther King, Jr., the 26-year-old-pastor of Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, as its president, and decided to continue the boycott until the city met its demands. (https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/montgomery-bus-boycott )
Little Rock Nine
The Little Rock Nine were a group of nine black students who enrolled at formerly all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September 1957. Their attendance at the school was a test of Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. On September 4, 1957, the first day of classes at Central High, Governor Orval Faubus called in the Arkansas National Guard to block the black students’ entry into the high school. (https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/central-high-school-integration )
Central High School, 1957
On 4 September 1957, the first day of school at Central High, a white mob gathered in front of the school, and Governor Orval Faubus deployed the Arkansas National Guard to prevent the black students from entering. In response to Faubus’ action, a team of NAACP lawyers, including Thurgood Marshall, won a federal district court injunction to prevent the governor from blocking the students’ entry. With the help of police escorts, the students successfully entered the school through a side entrance on 23 September 1957. Fearing escalating mob violence, however, the students were rushed home soon afterward.
Observing the standoff between Faubus and the federal judiciary, King sent a telegram to President Eisenhower urging him to “take a strong forthright stand in the Little Rock situation.” King told the president that if the federal government did not take a stand against the injustice it would “set the process of integration back fifty years. This is a great opportunity for you and the federal government to back up the longings and aspirations of millions of peoples of good will and make law and order a reality” (King, 9 September 1957). Aware that the Little Rock incident was becoming an international embarrassment, Eisenhower reluctantly ordered troops from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division to protect the students, who were shielded by federal troops and the Arkansas National Guard for the remainder of the school year. In a 25 September telegram, King praised the president’s actions: “I wish to express my sincere support for the stand you have taken to restore law and order in Little Rock, Arkansas.… You should know that the overwhelming majority of southerners, Negro and white, stand firmly behind your resolute action”.
The Civil Rights Act of 1957
In 1957, President Eisenhower sent Congress a proposal for civil rights legislation. The result was the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. The new act established the Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department and empowered federal prosecutors to obtain court injunctions against interference with the right to vote. It also established a federal Civil Rights Commission with authority to investigate discriminatory conditions and recommend corrective measures. The final act was weakened by Congress due to lack of support among the Democrats. (https://www.eisenhowerlibrary.gov/research/online-documents/civil-rights-act-1957 )
Voting is Important
When Reconstruction ended in 1877, states across the South implemented new laws to restrict the voting rights of African Americans. These included onerous requirements of owning property, paying poll taxes, and passing literacy or civics exams. Many African Americans who attempted to vote were also threatened physically or feared losing their jobs. One of the major goals of the Civil Rights Movement was to register voters across the South in order for African Americans to gain political power. Robert G. Clark, Jr., explained the retaliation against those who dared to register voters in his interview. When Clark worked as a teacher in Belzoni, Mississippi, a local minister named Reverend Lee was shot and killed for registering voters in the mid-1950s. He also remembered the difficulties his father faced in his career for taking the same risk: “My father was a schoolteacher. He was fired in Holmes County because he was teaching voter registration classes… he could not get another job in Mississippi. See, what they would do, they would take your name and give your name to the Sovereignty Commission. That Sovereignty Commission would send those names to all of the superintendents of education.” The Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission was created by an act of the Mississippi State Legislature in 1955 as a backlash against the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case and the perceived encroachment of the federal government’s power. (https://www.loc.gov/collections/civil-rights-history-project/articles-and-essays/voting-rights/ )