We remember the 1960s as a time of social protest in the United States, with diverse groups demanding change. But some of those calls for change actually had their roots in the 1950s, led by a few lonely, gifted, stubborn “accidental activists” who would not or could not tolerate the injustices they suffered and witnessed. Journalist and historian James R. Gaines introduces us to some of these courageous individuals in his enlightening, powerful and intimate The Fifties: An Underground History.
One is struck by the differences in these activists’ personal histories, whether their cause was gay rights, racial justice, feminism or environmental justice. Pauli Murray’s experiences as a multiracial Black woman, for example, led to her long legal career making advances for women’s and civil rights, including the argument that finally persuaded the Supreme Court to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sex. She was also the first African American woman to be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. By contrast, Fannie Lou Hamer spent most of her life as a sharecropper in the Mississippi Delta. Her civil rights activism didn’t begin until she was 45 years old, but her strong leadership skills and charismatic personality were natural assets to the movement for voting rights. Gilda Lerner had an entirely different origin story. As a young woman, she barely escaped Nazi-occupied Vienna, but she went on to teach the first college-level courses in women’s history in the United States.
Rachel Carson and Norbert Wiener had nothing in common and probably never met. But in their defining works—“she in the living world, he in the electrical, mechanical, and metaphysical one—they converged on the heretical, even subversive idea that the assertion of mastery over the natural world was based on an arrogant fantasy that carried the potential for disaster,” as Gaines writes.
The ’50s were, among other things, a time of fear for many—when raising questions could lead to losing friends or jobs at best, or to jail time, beatings and even death at worst, just for doing what one knew to be right. The activists profiled here didn’t wholly achieve their goals during the “long Fifties”—the social, cultural and political uprising between 1946 and 1963—but they made significant progress that others built on in the future.
Gaines concludes that the people he writes about were authentic rebels, although they didn’t regard themselves as such. This excellent, well-researched and well-written book shows how far America has come and yet how very far we have to go to become the country we often think we are.