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The Stable Fifties

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Document-Based QuestionDocument-Based Question

Homogenized Society and Conformity

To what extent did the decade of the 1950s deserve its reputation as one of consensus and conformity?

Respond to the above question using your knowledge of the time period and the sources provided to support your arguments.

Document Links

A. Michigan Anti-communist Law
B. Montgomery, Alabama, Code on Segregation
C. Talking Un-American Blues
D. DuMont Television Ad
E. Brown v. Board of Education: Denial of Equal Protection
F. The Affluent Society
G. Homogenized Children of New Suburbia
H. The Suburban Community
I. Folk Song: Little Boxes
J. The American Dream

A. Michigan Anti-communist Law

Primary source: Michigan Communist Control Law, 1952.
Background information: The state of Michigan passed this legislation in 1952.

752.327 Appearance on ballot prohibited. [M.S.A. 28.243(17)]
Sec. 7. The name of any communist or of any nominee of the communist party shall not be printed upon any ballot used in any primary or general election in this state or in any political subdivision thereof.

752.328 Holding non–elective position prohibited; persons in classified service, hearing; refusal to testify. [M.S.A. 28.243(18)]
Sec. 8. No person may hold any non–elective position, job or office for the state of Michigan, or any political subdivision thereof, where the remuneration of said position, job or office is paid in whole or in part by public moneys or funds of the state of Michigan, or of any political subdivision thereof, where reasonable grounds exist, on all of the evidence, from which after hearing. the employer or superior of such person can say with reasonable certainty that such person is a communist or a knowing member of a communist front organization. In cases involving a person within the classified service of the state of Michigan such hearing shall be held by the civil service commission:

Provided, That the refusal of any person who holds a nonselective position, job or office for the state of Michigan, or any political sub–division thereof, who upon being called before a duly authorized tribunal or in an investigation under authority of law, to testify concerning his being a communist or a member of a communist front organization on the ground that his answers might tend to incriminate him, shall be, in the hearing provided for in this section, prima facie evidence that such person is a communist or a knowing member of a communist front organization.

Michigan, Michigan Communist Control Law, Public Act 117 (1952).

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B. Montgomery, Alabama, Code on Segregation

Primary source: Code of the City of Montgomery, Alabama, 1952.
Background information: This piece of municipal legislation mandates the separation of races on city bus lines.

Sec. 10. Separation of races—Required.

Every person operating a bus line the in the city shall provide equal but separate accommodations for white people and Negroes on his buses, by requiring the employees in charge thereof to assign passengers seats on the vehicles under their charge in such manner as to separate the white from the Negroes, where there are both white and Negroes on the same car. . . .

[ . . . ]

Code of the City of Montgomery, Alabama (Charlottesville: Michie City Publishing, 1952).

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C. Talking Un-American Blues

Primary source: "Talking Un-American Blues," folk song, 1952.
Background information: The lyrics to a 1952 song about a person summoned to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities follow.

Early one morning got an invitation
To help Congress out in an investigation;
Man came around a–knocking at my door,
Give me a paper that said what for.
Subpoena, looking for Un–Americans;
Look in the mirror.

Now if you want an invite, here' s what to do,
You got to talk with peace, sing it too;
Visit your neighbors, hear what they say,
Before you know it, you're on your way.
Fare paid! Ride in style. First class!

Well, you brush your hair and you dress real pretty,
You got a date with the Un–American Committee;
Take the stand, they swear you in,
Old Man Wood is wearing a grin.
He thinks he's got you, got a short memory.
Can't recall what happened when they stuck a
Union label on his cantankerous investigation.

"Are you now, or have ever been,
Were you ever sympathetic or interested in. . . 
When did you start, how long did it last,
Tell us all about your interesting past.
Answer yes or no."

"Did you go to a meeting, did you sign a petition,
Did you ever hold an executive position?
Did you make a speech, carry a card,
Did you ever hold a conference in your back yard?"
Fifth Amendment!

Now they were asking questions, but we wouldn't buy it,
Like those union brothers did it, it was time for us to try it;
Added up the facts and the figures historical,
Asked them a question which sounds a bit rhetorical.
Mister Wood –– Are you now or have you ever been a bastard?
You don't have to answer that question if you think
It might tend to incriminate you.

Now Mister Wood, get out of your rut,
Do you swear to tell the truth and nothin' but?
Well, Wood said he would, but we knew he wouldn't
And even if he would, well he damn well couldn't,
But that's Congress for you,
Week in, week out, weak all over.

Now Wood couldn't rest on his laurels,
He tried his best to corrupt our morals;
He talked about Philbrick, Budenz too,
"They're getting theirs, how about you?"

Now I like chicken, I like duck
And I don't object to making a buck.
But I ain't got wings and sure can't fly,
But there's one bird that I won't buy:
That's Stoolpigeon! I'm strictly in the market for doves of peace!

It is known that birds of a feather
Have a habit of flockin' together.
So listen, McCarran, Wood and the rest,
You can't use us to feather your nest.
That's strictly for birds!

So here's the moral without a doubt,
If you want to be free, you've got to sing out.
Sing it loud, sing it strong,
People are singing a freedom song!
That's my music! Solid with a freedom beat!
So keep singing, and keep fighting!

"Talking Un-American Blues," reprinted in Songs for Political Action, Ronald D. Cohen and Dave Samuelson (Bear Family Records, 1996), 201.

Lyrics by Irwin Silber and Betty Sanders.
Copyright 1952.

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D. DuMont Television Ad

Primary source: "DuMont Television Advertisement," 1951.
Background information: This television advertisement portrays a middle-class family.

A campaign banner for the Republican ticket in 1860.

"DuMont Television Advertisement," National Geographic, March 1951.

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E. Brown v. Board of Education: Denial of Equal Protection

Primary source: Brown v. Board of Education, Supreme Court decision, 1954.
Background information: This is an excerpt of the 1954 Supreme Court decision rendered in Brown v. Board of Education, which declares separate facilities for blacks and whites as unequal.

[. . . ]

Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law; for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the Negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to retard the educational and mental development of Negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racially integrated school system. Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson, this finding is amply supported by modern authority. Any language in Plessy v. Ferguson contrary to this finding is rejected.
[. . . ]

Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). Full text of the decision is at

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F. The Affluent Society

Primary source: John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society, 1958.
Background information: Galbraith's classic study of 1950s America discusses the irony of the existence of significant poverty in affluent America.

[. . . ] Poverty—grim, degrading, and ineluctable—is not remarkable in India. For few, the fate is otherwise. But in the United States, the survival of poverty is remarkable. We ignore it because we share with all societies at all times the capacity for not seeing what we do not wish to see. Anciently this has enabled the nobleman to enjoy his dinner while remaining oblivious to the beggars around his door. In our own day, it enables us to travel in comfort by Harlem and into the lush precincts of midtown Manhattan. But while our failure to notice can be explained, it cannot be excused. "Poverty," Pitt exclaimed, "is no disgrace but it is damned annoying." In the contemporary United States, it is not annoying but it is a disgrace. [. . . ]

John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society, 4th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984), 254.

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G. Homogenized Children of New Suburbia

Primary source: Sidonie M. Gruenberg, "Homogenized Children of New Suburbia," newspaper article, 1954.
Background information: The new American suburbs are described in this 1954 newspaper article.

[ . . . ]

New Suburbia is something else again. Around every major city from the Atlantic to the Pacific the new suburbs have been springing up like mushrooms in a damp season. They are sometimes created by dividing large estates—as on Long Island, in Westchester County and in areas around Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles. More often the new suburbs are built on what had been until recently empty acreage. Whether in California or New Jersey they are typically "prefabricated" in all their details and the parts are suddenly assembled on the spot. Unlike towns and cities and the suburbs of the past, they do not evolve gradually but emerge full–blown. They are designed and constructed by corporations or real estate operators who work on mass–production principles. A hundred or a thousand houses open their doors almost simultaneously, ready for occupancy.

[ . . . ]

Sidonie M. Gruenberg, "Homogenized Children of New Suburbia," New York Times Sunday Magazine, 19 September 1954, p. 14.

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H. The Suburban Community

Primary source: Wendell Bell, "Social Choice, Life Styles, and Suburban Residence," 1958.
Background information: This chart indicates the lifestyle-related reasons that Americans gave for moving to the suburbs in the 1950s.

Broad Classes of Reasons Given for Moving to the Suburbs, and Percentage of Respondents Mentioning Each Type
Type of Reason Per Cent*
Better for children 81
Enjoy life more 77
Husband's job 21
Near relatives 14
Other 3
*Since many respondents gave more
than one reason, the sum of
the percentages does not equal 100.

Percentage Distribution of Specific Reasons in the "Better for Children" Category:

Specific Reasons for Moving to the Suburbs Per Cent
Physical reasons (N=172): 72.3
More space outside house 19.7
More space inside house 14.3
"The outdoors" (fresh air, sunshine, etc.) 12.6
Less traffic 11.8
Cleaner 6.3
No neighbors in same building 3.8
Quiet 2.1
No stairs 1.7
Social reasons (N=66): 27.7
Better schools 10.2
"Nice" children to play with 9.2
Other children to play with 2.5
More organized activities 2.5
Home of own (security) 1.7
Adults "nice" to children 0.8
Better churches 0.8
Total reasons in this category (N=238) 100.0

Wendell Bell, "Social Choice, Life Styles, and Suburban Residence," in The Suburban Community, ed. William Dobriner (New York: Putnam, 1958), 234–35.

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I. Folk Song: Little Boxes

Primary source: "Little Boxes," folk song, 1962.
Background information: The folk-song movement in America grew after World War II, and in this song, Malvina Reynolds critiques the American way of life in the 1950s. After receiving her doctorate, she met Pete Seeger and became a folk singer and songwriter.

Little Boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little Boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same,
There's a green one and a pink one, and a blue one and a yellow one,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.

And the people in the houses all went to the university,
Where they were put into boxes and they all came out the same,
And there's doctors and lawyers, and business executives,
And they're all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.

And they all play on the golf course and drink their martini dry,
And they all have pretty children and the children go to school
And the children go to summer camp and then to the university,
Where they are all put in boxes and they all come out the same.

Words and music by Malvina Reynolds, 1962. Schroder Music Co. (ASCAP) / Renewed 1990 / Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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J. The American Dream

Primary source: Mrs. Klerk, quoted in Expanding the American Dream, 1993.
Background information: A woman who lived in the suburbs in the 1950s recalls the sense of community she and others felt living in their neighborhood.

"We were all in the same boat . . . We shared everything; we shared tools and cars, minded each other's kids, passed play-pens and high-chairs from house to house—everything. It was—at least to us—a Paradise."

Mrs. Klerk, quoted in Expanding the American Dream: Building and Rebuilding Levittown, by Barbara M. Kelly (Albany: State University of New York, 1993).

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