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: https://www.commonlit.org/texts/emmett-till
That same year, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, beginning the Montgomery bus boycott: https://www.commonlit.org/texts/rosa-parks-and-the-montgomery-bus-boycott
A young preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. gained national fame rallying support for the Montgomery bus boycott: https://www.commonlit.org/texts/martin-luther-king-jr
The end of segregation also began in the South with the Showdown in Little Rock in 1957: https://www.commonlit.org/texts/showdown-in-little-rock

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Comment (20)

  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.

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