Topics in the News
The Brink's Robbery
"Crime of the Century."
Probably no single crime attracted more publicity during the 1950s than the robbery on 17 January 1950 of the Brink's armored-car company in Boston. On that night seven masked gunmen broke into the company's offices, tied up the guards, and walked out with almost $2.8 million in cash, checks, and money orders—the largest amount stolen in a single robbery to that date. The robbers planned the heist carefully and nearly got away with it. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, who referred to the robbery as "the crime of the century," solved the case eleven days before the statute of limitations (the date after which the robbers could no longer be prosecuted) ran out.
A Dishonest Living.
The robbery was the brainchild of Tony (the Pig) Pino, a professional safecracker who by his thirtieth birthday had been arrested some twenty-five times. Released from prison in 1944, Pino soon returned to his chosen career, making a modest living for himself by shoplifting and minor robberies. He was an ambitious criminal, though, and as early as 1945 he had started planning the job that would be his masterpiece. He was inspired one night as he happened to pass Brink's North Terminal Garage while employees loaded bag after bag of money into armored cars.
The Five-year Plan.
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Brown V. Board of Education Topeka, Kansas
Topeka, Kansas, Two Sets of Rights.
The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1866, guarantees that no state may "abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States" nor "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." These words give all Americans, regardless of race, equal rights and equal protection under state and federal laws. Yet at the beginning of the 1950s society was still separated into black and white. Hotels, trains, parks, restaurants, apartment houses, and even state voting precincts were segregated by race through state statutes, called "Jim Crow" laws. African-Americans were criminally prosecuted and jailed for attempting to ride the same trains or eat in the same restaurants as whites.
Separate but Equal.
The constitutionality of these state laws was first considered by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Homer Plessy was an African-American who...
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The Emmett Till Case
The circumstances surrounding the death of Emmett Till provide chilling insight into the racism that dominated the South in the 1950s. Till was a fourteen-year-old Chicago native visiting relatives in Mississippi. While out with his cousins and friends on the night of 24 August 1955, he allegedly accosted a white woman in the grocery store owned by her husband. Accounts vary as to what Till actually said or did. According to the woman Till grabbed her and made lewd remarks. Some witnesses claimed that he only whistled at her. Still others asserted that he made no advances at all, that he whistled habitually to control a speech defect.
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The First Amendment in the 1950s
A Lasting Controversy.
The First Amendment to the Constitution forbids Congress from making any law "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press," The courts have traditionally ruled, however, that the framers of the Constitution never intended to protect all forms of expression. Some works, in fact, are considered so offensive to society's standards of decency that they are banned from any public display. How to tell the difference between a work that is unpopular but tolerable and one that is completely unacceptable has been an ongoing concern of the American court system. During the 1950s the Supreme Court made several significant decisions regarding the controversy.
Is Sacrilege Illegal?
In 1952, in the case of Burstyn v. Wilson, the Court struck down the state of New York's ban on the film The Miracle. The Italian film told the story of a young peasant girl who is impregnated by a hobo she mistakes for Saint Joseph; she goes mad and claims she is the Virgin Mary about to give birth to Jesus, The New York State Board...
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J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI
A Better Bureau.
During the 1950s, as for several decades before and several decades after, J. Edgar Hoover was the Federal Bureau of Investigation. When he was named director of the national police agency in 1924, he was faced with the task of changing it from a corrupt and
Birth of the G-Man.
Through the 1930s and 1940s Hoover and his reformed FBI became more and more popular with the American public. During the Depression the "G-men," as federal agents were called, consistently made headlines by capturing or killing gangsters such as John Dillinger, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd. Hoover shifted the bureau's focus to...
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A Disturbing Trend.
Juvenile delinquency was considered a major social problem in the 1950s. Americans under the age of eighteen were committing serious crimes in growing numbers; their elders were horrified at the severity of the crimes and at the young criminals' disregard for authority. Most of all, though, people were concerned about what the rate of juvenile crime said about how the nation was raising its children. Of course, there had always been youth crime in America, even vicious youth crime. But in the 1950s, because of the growth of cities across the United States, it became a national cause for concern.
Junior Crime Wave.
As early as 1953 the statistics suggested a youth crime wave. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover reported: "persons under the age of 18 committed 53.6 percent of all car thefts; 49.3 percent of all burglaries; 18 percent of all robberies, and 16.2 percent of all rapes. These are the statistics reported to the FBI by 1,174 cities." Moreover, with the post-World War II baby boom creating more potential juvenile delinquents, experts expected the trend toward lawlessness to continue indefinitely. A 1959 study cited in Personnel and Guidance Journal claimed that about one-third—almost six-hundred thousand—of crimes being committed by teenagers went undetected by the police.
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The Kefauver Committee and Organized Crime
Crime Buster from Tennessee.
The Kefauver committee, which has been called "probably the most important probe of organized crime" in U.S. history, revealed to Americans the activities of criminal operations earning millions of dollars yearly and of the corrupt public officials who allowed such operations to flourish. It was formed as the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce, but it came to be called the Kefauver committee after Sen. Estes Kefauver. The energetic Tennessee Democrat, looking to make a name for himself in his first term in the Senate, sponsored the resolution which created the committee and was its chairman. In order for the resolution to pass, Kefauver had to overcome stiff opposition from elder senators who distrusted their junior colleague's ambitions.
Murder in Kansas City.
The murder of two gangsters on 6 April 1950 in a Democratic clubhouse in Kansas City, Missouri, brought the issue of organized crime back into the headlines. For the Republicans the incident provided an opportunity to make an embarrassing connection between the Democrats and corruption in President Harry S Truman's home state; and Democrats, rather than appear afraid of an investigation of big-city political machines, agreed that federal action against the "National Crime Syndicate" was necessary. After some...
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The McClellan Committee and Labor Racketeering
Congress Considers the Unions.
The two most significant congressional probes of criminal activity during the 1950s were the Kefauver committee and the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor-Management Field, or the McClellan committee, after Arkansas senator John L. McClellan, the committee's chairman. The goal of the committee was to investigate allegations of corruption and abuse of power in the country's labor unions, especially the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the largest and strongest union in America. The investigation resulted in the prosecution and disgrace of more than a few top labor leaders. A round of housecleaning among the nation's unions followed, but the reputation of organized labor in America was seriously—and perhaps permanently—damaged.
A labor union operates on the principle that its members, by acting together, can secure for themselves equitable pay, working conditions, and benefits. But by the 1950s many unions had strayed from that original purpose. Corrupt union officials made them-selves rich through a variety of rackets, or crooked schemes. The most common was simple theft of union funds: in larger unions, with thousands of dues-paying members, considerable sums of money were there for the taking. Other rackets included negotiating sweetheart deals with...
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Prison Life in the 1950s
A World Behind Bars.
Americans of the 1950s did not like to dwell on one aspect of the growing crime problem: the nation's increasingly crowded prisons. By the end of the decade, the U.S. prison population—22,492 men and women in federal penitentiaries, 185,021 in state facilities—equaled the population of a city the size of Tulsa, Oklahoma. They made sure, often in violent ways, that the outside world could not ignore them. Between 1950 and 1953 people were shocked by a succession of riots in federal and state penitentiaries around the country, twenty in 1952 alone. With a few shameful exceptions, prisons in America were more humane than they had ever been. Yet convicts from New Jersey to Louisiana to California were demonstrating that some-thing was fundamentally wrong with the penitentiary system.
An Abiding Question.
Were prisons intended to reform convicts, to punish them, or simply to separate them from society? This was a basic question that experts, from law-enforcement officials to social scientists, had been asking since the earliest modern prisons of the 1820s. In the 1950s it still went unanswered. Clearly convicts were not being reformed. A Nations Business magazine article from December 1954 reported that 62 percent of the convicts released from prison would be back. "There is not the slightest reason to believe...
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One evening in 1950, a year after the Communist revolution in China, a Houston couple sat down in a local Chinese restaurant. The woman, a radio writer, asked the Asian owner some questions regarding a program she was producing on recent developments in China. A man seated at a nearby table overheard the conversation, rushed to the nearest phone, and informed the police that people were "talking Communism." The police then arrested the couple and incarcerated them for fourteen hours before concluding that there was no case.
A History of Paranoia.
This was not an isolated incident. Several decades worth of anticommunist paranoia reached a fever pitch during the 1950s. By 1957 nearly six million persons had been investigated by administrative agencies and legislative committees because of their alleged disloyalty to the United States, with only a handful of dubious convictions resulting....
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The Supreme Court of the 1950s
A Change in Philosophy.
Looking at the ideological change in the United States Supreme Court during the 1950s, one would think that it underwent a drastic change in personnel. However, changes in three seats on the Court, between 1953 and 1956, made the difference: with this turnover in justices came a turnover in the way the Court saw its role in government.
One Vote in Nine.
The most visible and significant change in the Court occurred when Earl Warren became chief justice in 1953, replacing Fred M. Vinson, who had led the conservative Court since 1946. Warren has been celebrated as the force behind the Court's active drive toward establishing human and civil rights. (Certainly the John Birch Society thought so: they waged a campaign to impeach him.) Nevertheless, a chief justice has just one of nine votes, and no chief justice can command the beliefs and decisions of his associates.
The Liberal Voice.
The seeds of change were planted when President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Alabama native Hugo Lafayette Black to the Court in 1937. Black was recognized as the leader of the Court's liberal wing, and in many ways it was his philosophy of judicial activism that the Warren court adopted. He envisioned the Court's role as that of a protector of civil liberties, especially those...
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The Ten Most Wanted
The Federal Bureau of Investigation's "Most Wanted" program began in March 1950, after a news story distributed by the International News Service on the "toughest" criminals currently at large appeared in 1949. The success of that story convinced the bureau that publicity might be a valuable tool in the capture of wanted fugitives. The more known a fugitive's face was through news reports and widely circulated wanted posters, the greater the chance he would be recognized and apprehended.
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Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company V. Sawyer
Memories of Rationing.
At the outset of the Korean War in 1950, Americans remembered well the rationing and the scarcity of consumer goods during World War II Fearing a recurrence of these hardships, they began hoarding goods, which caused prices to increase. In an effort to halt inflation, President Harry S Truman established administrative agencies to control wages and prices. The program worked for awhile until the newly established Office of Price Stabilization recommended increases in wages for steelworkers but not in steel prices. In the administration's opinion, steel companies already enjoyed more-than-adequate profits due to the increased demand and production of steel induced by the Korean War. The steel companies did not agree and refused to give the workers raises.
Taking Over the Mills.
On 5 April 1952, at the height of the war, the steelworkers union threatened a nation-wide strike. President Truman feared the catastrophic results that a national steel-mill shutdown might have on the war effort, and he ordered Secretary of Commerce Charles Sawyer to take possession of the mills, essentially nationalizing them. Under the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, Truman could have ordered the union not to strike in the face of a national emergency. However, he chose instead to direct the Commerce Department to operate the mills....
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Chessman, Caryl 19??-1960
CONVICTED RAPIST AND KIDNAPPER
A Question of Fairness.
The story of Caryl Chessman, who was arrested and eventually executed as California's "Red Light Bandit," captured national attention during the 1950s. The question of Chessman's guilt or innocence became less important than the question of whether or not he had received a fair trial. Chessman, in his efforts to avoid the gas chamber, became an author, a self-educated legal scholar, and a celebrity.
The "Red Light Bandit."
The "Red Light Bandit" was responsible for a series of crimes in southern California in the 1940s. He accosted couples parked in secluded areas, robbed them at gunpoint, and on occasion took the women back to his car and sexually assaulted them. He got his name from the red searchlight mounted on his car, the sort that police vehicles used. On 23 January 1948 Chessman, a small-time hood then on parole, was arrested in a car matching the description of the bandit's, and inside the glove compartment were a gun and small flashlight of the type the bandit had used. While in custody Chessman confessed to the crimes; he later claimed that the confession had been tortured out of him.
A Vague Law.
Chessman was prosecuted under California's "Little Lindbergh Law," which specified that any...
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Philbrick, Herbert A. 1915-
A Patriot and Hero.
The title of Herbert Philbrick's bestselling autobiography, I Led Three Lives, describes how its author spent the 1940s: first, as an advertising executive; second, as a member of the Communist party; and third, as an agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, informing on communist activities. In the 1950s, when fear of and fascination with communist conspiracies reached a peak, Philbrick was considered a patriot and a hero for his work as a double agent.
A Communist Front.
Philbrick first became affiliated with the Communist party in 1940 in Boston, his home-town. He had studied engineering in college, but worked as a salesman for an advertising agency. In that capacity he entered the offices of the Massachusetts Youth Council one day. The council, Philbrick was told, coordinated the activities of "progressive youth groups" and served as an advocate of young people. Philbrick was given the opportunity to organize a neighborhood youth group in the nearby suburb of Cambridge. His enthusiasm for the project, however, was soon dispelled when he realized that the council he helped establish was a "front," a supposedly legitimate organization disguising communist activities.
A Dangerous Decision.
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Ethel & Rosenberg, Julius 1915-1953 - 1918-1953
EXECUTED "ATOMIC SPIES
Convicted by Circumstance,
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage for their alleged roles in passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. No hard evidence against them was offered at their trial, although they had been implicated by several of their coconspirators, including Ethel's brother David Greenglass and Max Elitcher, a college classmate of Julius's. The Rosenbergs maintained their innocence throughout their trial. The fact that they were convicted on circumstantial evidence and the severity of their sentence indicate how seriously Americans took two of the greatest fears of the 1950s: communism and the atomic bomb.
A Communist Couple.
Julius Rosenberg met his future wife, Ethel Greenglass, at a 1936 New Year's Eve benefit for the International Seamen's Union. Ethel was a strong union sympathizer, and she found that she and Julius held many political views in common. Julius, a student in electrical engineering at City College of New York, had joined the Young Communist League in 1934. After he graduated...
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Starkweather, Charles 1940-1959
EXECUTED "THRILL KILLER"
Eighteen-year-old Charles Starkweather and his fourteen-year-old girlfriend Carii Ann Fugate shocked the nation in 1958 with a murder spree that crossed two states and took eleven lives, including those of Fugate's mother, stepfather, and two-year-old sister. Starkweather, who idolized the late teen-rebel movie star James Dean, killed his first victim, Robert Colvert, during a gas-station holdup on 1 December 1957. Over a month later, during a visit to Fugate's home, he argued with Fugate's parents and killed both of them and their youngest daughter. For the next several days Starkweather and Fugate stayed at the house, Carii Ann turning away any visitors that appeared. Then they left in Starkweather's car.
An End to the Terror.
In the days that followed Starkweather murdered seven more people in Nebraska and Wyoming. He and Fugate would rob their victims of any valuables or guns and then speed off in the victim's car. The couple was apprehended shortly after Starkweather's last murder, when a passerby struggled with him over a gun. When a...
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Warren, Earl 1891-1974
CHIEF JUSTICE OF THE U.S. SUPREME COURT
A Revolution Made by Judges.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower once called his appointment of Earl Warren to the Chief Justice of the United States "the biggest damnfool mistake I ever made." Eisenhower regretted his choice because he had appointed Warren for his "integrity, honesty, and middle-of-the-road philosophy"—and while Warren's tenure on the Supreme Court certainly embodied those first two qualities, it just as certainly rejected the third. In fact, under Warren the Court practiced what is called "judicial activism," rejecting the tendency of more-conservative Courts to make decisions based on precedent, following the reasoning and authority of earlier, similar decisions. The Warren court frequently overruled earlier decisions, greatly expanding Americans' civil and individual rights even when there was no precedent for such rulings. The changes in the constitutional rights of Americans during the Warren-court era have been described as "a revolution made by judges."
Earl Warren was born in Los Angeles on 19 March 1891. His father, a Norwegian...
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People in the News
In 1956 John Ogden Bigelow, attorney and jurist, was nearly denied a position on the board of governors of Rutgers University because as a lawyer he had defended accused Communist schoolteacher Richard Lowenstein; after bitter debate and personal appeals from New Jersey's governor, the state senate finally agreed to confirm Bigelow.
In 1953 Herbert Brownell, Jr., became U.S. attorney general under President Dwight Eisenhower. He served in the post until his resignation in October 1957. During his first year as attorney general, in November 1953, Brownell made headlines by accusing the Harry S Truman administration of promoting known-Communist Harry Dexter White to a high-level position in the State Department.
In 1954 Roy Cohn, chief counsel for the Senate Permanent Investigations Subcommittee, resigned from the position after facing considerable criticism during that year's army-McCarthy hearings.
Beginning in 1952 Reed Cozart, a pioneer in prison reform, led the effort to transform Louisiana's Angola prison from "America's worst prison" to a modern, humane facility.
In 1953 six-year-old Bobby Greenlease, son of a wealthy Missouri auto dealer, was kidnapped; the kidnappers received $600,000 in ransom from the boy's parents. Bobby was never returned, however: the kidnappers,...
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Alberto Anastasia, 55, "Lord High Executioner" of organized crime's Murder, Inc., 25 October 1957.
Wendell Berge, 52, head of the Department of Justice's Anti-Trust Division (1943-1947), 24 September 1955.
Emanuel H. Bloch, 52, attorney who defended Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, 30 January 1954.
Charles Culp Burlingham, 100, attorney and advocate of civil reform in New York City, 6 June 1959.
Francis Gordon Caffey, 82, federal judge who presided at the twenty-seven-month trial of the antitrust case against the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA), 20 September 1951.
William L. Clark, 66, chief justice of the U.S. Court of Appeals in West Germany (1948-1953), 9 October 1957.
Bartley C. Cram, 59, noted divorce attorney, obtained a million-dollar settlement for actress Rita Hayworth from Prince Aly Khan, 9 December 1959.
Homer Cummings, 86, U.S. attorney general (1933-1939), proposed to President Franklin Roosevelt the idea of "packing" the Supreme Court with justices sympathetic to Roosevelt's policies, 10 September 1956.
William J. Foley, 65, district attorney of Boston (1926-1952), 1 December 1952.
William L. Frierson, 83, U.S. solicitor...
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David Abrahamson, Who Are the Guilty? A Study of Education and Crime (New York: Rinehart, 1952);
Charles Abrams, Forbidden Neighbors (New York: Harper, 1955);
Jack Anderson, The Kefauver Story (New York: Dial, 1956);
Louis E. Burnham, Behind the Lynching of Emmett Louis Till (New York: Freedom Associates, 1955);
Paul A. Carter, Another Part of the Fifties (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983);
Donald Clemmer, The Prison Community (New York: Rinehart, 1958);
Benjamin Fine, 1,000,000 Delinquents (Cleveland: World, 1955);
John Joseph Floherty, Our F.B.I. (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1951);
Karen Sue Foley, The Political Blacklist in the Broadcast Industry: The Decade of the 1950's (New York: Arno, 1979);
Foley, Television and the Red Menace (New York: Praeger, 1985);
J. Edgar Hoover, Masters of Deceit (New York: Holt, 1958);
John Kenneth Jones, The FBI in Action (New York: New American Library, 1957);
Estes Kefauver, Crime in AMerica (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1951);
The Kefauver Committee Report on Organized Crime...
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Important Events in Law and Justice, 1950–1959
- The Federal Bureau of Investigation releases its first Ten Most Wanted list.
- On January 21, Alger Hiss, a former State Department official, is found guilty of perjury by a federal jury in New York.
- On February 20, the Supreme Court upholds the legality of warrantless searches of a lawfully arrested person and the immediate premises where the arrest occurred.
- On April 10, the Supreme Court upholds the convictions of Hollywood screenwriters John Howard Lawson and Dalton Trumbo for contempt of Congress.
- On April 24, the Supreme Court reverses a criminal conviction based on an indictment by a grand jury that excluded African Americans.
- On May 8, the Supreme Court upholds provisions of the Taft-Hartley Labor Act which deny unions access to the National Labor Relations Board if their officers refuse to swear they are not affiliated with the Communist party.
- On June 5, the Supreme Court unanimously holds in Sweatt v. Painter that a state may not bar an African American male admission to its law school despite a "black" law school being available.
- On November, two Puerto Rican nationals try to assassinate President Truman. One of the pair is killed in the attempt.
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