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Civil rights landmarks

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Interviewer: What were the landmarks for the civil rights movement in the 1950s, and how would you compare Martin Luther King to earlier African American leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglass?

Eric Foner: The great landmarks of the civil rights movement in the 1950s were, first of all, the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 (it began in 1955 and went into the next year), which was the first mobilization of a mass movement with the black church at its center. This became the organizing base for mass protest, nonviolent protest, in the South against segregation. The victory of the Montgomery bus boycott showed the possibility of this new tactic of massive nonviolent resistance even in the heart of the Deep South, the most violently segregated area in the country. It also required a Supreme Court decision for the Montgomery bus boycott to win. Then, in 1957, it required another Supreme Court decision and federal troops being sent into Little Rock, Arkansas, by President Eisenhower to enforce decisions to integrate Central High School, another great landmark which suggested that outside power was also going to be absolutely necessary if the racial system of the South was going to be overturned. Now, these were the years in which Martin Luther King, a young man at that time, came to the fore as the most prominent national figure in the civil rights movement. King was a brilliantly eloquent speaker who had the capacity to draw on traditional American values and deep traditional Christian values in the cause of civil rights and to use the mass media. King knew that television was now putting daily events right into people's living rooms every single day, and if he could shape the way the black movement was presented it would have a powerful effect on public opinion. He used television, in effect, to force white America to think, to face up to what it really wanted the country to be. Who was white America if it was willing to sit by with all this injustice existing? Television really brought that issue right into people's homes in a way it hadn't been before. So, in a way, King was the descendant of Frederick Douglass, of Du Bois, of black leaders who were advocates for integration, for democracy, but he had his own style and his own tactics.

McCarthyism, pt 1: limits of political debate

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Interviewer: How did McCarthyism narrow the limits of acceptable political debate in the fifties?

Eric Foner: "McCarthyism" is a term for a much broader era than simply the time of one particularly outrageous senator and his depredations (Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin). It began really in 1947 with the Truman administration's National Loyalty Program, in which employees of the federal government were forced to prove their loyalty against unseen charges and unnamed accusations. It was often carried out by private organizations, which led to the blacklisting of individuals; universities fired professors, and Hollywood refused to hire writers and producers. Various employers let go of people who were said to be subversive. It was an era in which a very rigid definition of Americanism, of loyalty, dominated the society and in which dissent was stigmatized as un-American. In the Cold War the country had to be all united and anyone who criticized American life was seen to be unpatriotic. So it had a very chilling effect, as we say, on dissent of all kinds. People had nothing to do with communism but simply didn't want to face the consequences of criticizing the way American society was functioning. So that period, from the late forties to the early to mid-fifties, was an era in which conformism and, in a sense, political silence reigned in many parts of American life.

McCarthyism, pt 2: decline of McCarthyism

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Interviewer: What would you say caused it to wane? How did things get pulled back in?

Eric Foner: I think that the excesses of the McCarthy crusade led to a reaction against it. Of course, McCarthy met his undoing when he went after the U.S. Army, claiming that it was showing favoritism in promotions to people who were Communist. President Eisenhower, who never liked McCarthy, but had let him do his thing because he was helping the Republican party (he thought), was an ex-general, and he didn't want the army dragged through the mud by McCarthy. That eventually undermined McCarthy's credibility; when he starts accusing generals, and prominent figures like that, of being traitors to the country, it makes his whole effort seem very implausible.

By the late 1950s, the Cold War was waning; this was a period of what we called a "thaw," and the Supreme Court began, cautiously, to overturn some of the laws that were passed suppressing freedom of speech. For example, the government had deprived Communists, and people accused of being Communists, of having a passport, to travel abroad, and the court overturned that. They began to overturn laws restricting membership in different organizations. More and more people began to say, what's happening is our freedom is falling into disrepair, into disuse. It's one thing to say, "I don't agree with these Communists," but to go around, scatter-shot, accusing all sorts of people of being un-American, is undermining the practice of the very freedom that we claim to be supporting and exemplifying in the battle against Soviet Communism.

Growth in California

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Interviewer: In the 1950s, economic and demographic growth in California was explosive. How do you account for that?

Eric Foner: California grew rapidly in the 1950s, and by the early sixties or the mid-sixties it had become the most populous state, surpassing New York. A lot of this had to do with the Cold War. California and the Southwest became major centers of the aerospace industry, of what was called by President Eisenhower the "military-industrial complex"—the combination of weapons production, scientific research, and other governmental-industrial efforts to build up the military side of the Cold War. Much of this went on in California. California was on the Pacific Coast, so of course it got the naval bases; it got the Lawrence Livermore Lab where the H-bomb was developed; and a great deal of federal defense money poured into California. Of course, this was also the era of suburbanization, and California was the quintessentially suburban state. It was the era of the car becoming absolutely necessary, and California became the car state, with freeways all over the place, no real public transportation, and everybody having to drive everywhere. So it exemplifies all these elements of 1950s life.