Briefly explain how someone might consider the decade of the 1950s to be a tale of two Americas or even still a decade of paradox.
The 1950s has been labeled by some to be a decade of prosperity. It was a decade of consumerism and freedom of consumer choice. However, it was also a decade of exclusion for blacks and ethnic minorities. This disenfranchisement gave genesis to the civil rights movement led by cultural critics who spoke out against conformity.
I have to question the focus on the 1950s as a period that contrasted prosperity with racial injustice. That contrast existed from the country's birth until passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and even beyond that development.
Racism was an endemic part of the United States from its beginning, evident by the debates that took place regarding the U.S. Constitution and its handling of the issue of slavery. As the country expanded westward and grew economically, the issue of slavery continued to divide the country, while providing the southern economies with cheap labor. The Civil War was the culmination of the struggle over slavery that had its origins decades before. Even after the Civil War, racism continued to fester across much of America. It is illuminating that, 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Blacks were still struggling for fundmantal civil rights.
The 1950s were a period of economic stability, but the country was not without political turbulence. The first half of the decade witnessed the period known as McCarthyism, in which fear of communism and of subversive elements in various sectors of society polarized the nation. The detonation by the Soviet Union of its first atomic bomb in 1949 and that country's imposition of totalitarian control over territories it took over after World War II shook many in the United States. The crushing of the 1956 Hungarian revolt against Soviet rule and the October 1957 launch of the world's first satellite, Sputnik, by the Soviet Union all contributed to mass fear of Soviet aggression.
This, then, is the political context against which the appearance of passivity and prosperity in the United States should be examined. In the meantime, the civil rights movement advanced where and when it could, most notably with the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown versus the Board of Education (1954), which ended the segregation of public schools.
The 1950s were no more a contrast between prosperity and systemic racism than were the previous 200 years.