Civil Rights And The 1950

′S Theatre Essay, Research Paper

Civil rights was and still is an ever changing picture. In the 1950?s, civil rights went from being a generally southern issue, to being a national concern. The issues of the day began to be spilled out over a new medium called television. During the 1950?s, television had become popular and spread throughout the United States. The racial issues of the south were now being seen in living rooms across the nation. The 1950?s laid the groundwork for what would become the massive civil rights movement of the 60?s. The laying of this foundation was not without failure and not without it?s share of problems. The issues of the day were not only reflected on the television screen, but on the theatrical stages of New York City. I will discuss the major issues and some of the ways that race was reflected in the plays of the time.

In the early 1950?s and throughout, the nation made steps forward while continuing to take steps backwards. Colleges began to allow some black students while slamming the door in the faces of others. Laws against burning crosses and wearing Ku Klux Klan hoods in public were passed in some states, while remaining in others. African Americans were treated better by many people, but they were still looked down upon by many.

On May 17, 1954 the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the ?separate but equal? doctrine in a case called Brown v. Board of Education. The doctrine, originally stated in an 1896 case called Plessy v. Ferguson, allowed states the right to have segregated facilities as long as the facilities were of the same quality. This had led to the intricate system of Jim Crow laws in the south, which had legally allowed separate schools, hospitals, restrooms, and water fountains. Brown v. Board of Education outlawed the segregation of public schools and other facilities. While this marked a major step forward in the civil rights movement of the 1950?s, the reality was much more harsh. Blacks in the south were harassed and still treated separately and certainly not equally. The Supreme Court had asked for desegregation to ?proceed with all deliberate speed.? This gradual approach caused severe problems for many black students. The south saw several school districts close down rather than submit to the court?s decision. Also, black students were still not being admitted to universities in the south on a regular basis. It would take years before the integration would become a widespread reality in the southern states.

In 1955, a young boy named Emmett Till inadvertently, in the eyes of many, began the civil rights movement for much of the nation. Till, a fourteen year-old black boy from Chicago, was murdered by two white men, while visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi. The story is that Till was dared by some friends to go in and talk to a white female who was working in a store. He did so and later on, when her husband found out, he and a mob of people took Emmett from his relatives home. The men took him to a river, stripped him naked, beat him, gouged out his eye and shot him in the head. They made him carry a seventy-five pound cotton gin fan and threw him in the river. When his corpse was recovered, it was so badly mangled that the only way Emmett Till was identified was by a ring with his initial on it. A picture of Emmett?s corpse was shown in a magazine and the nation was outraged. The country watched the case closely due to it?s brutality and due to the recent decision regarding Brown v. Board of Education. The case marked the first time in the south that two white men were tried for the murder of a black man. While this was seemingly a big step forward in the civil rights movement, it really was to no avail. Due to an all white jury, in a segregated court room, the men were found not guilty. Although they were found to be not guilty, they proved to be far from innocent. The men later admitted to the murder in all its gruesome detail. The nation sat and watched what fueled the fire for so many young blacks, who would come of age in the 1960?s.

In 1955, Montgomery, Alabama had a municipal law which required black citizens to ride in the back of the city’s buses. On December 1st of that year, Mrs. Rosa Parks, a forty-two year old seamstress, boarded a city bus and sat in the first row of seats in the black section of the bus. When some white men got on the bus, the driver, James F. Blake ordered Mrs. Parks to give up her seat and move back. She refused to move, and Blake called the police to have her arrested. When Rosa Parks was arrested, the leaders in Montgomery ’s black community saw the incident as an opportunity for staging a protest against the city’s segregation laws. They held a meeting and began the M.I.A (Montgomery Improvement Association). The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was elected as president of this organization. The Montgomery bus boycott continued into 1956. For all its success, the boycott had its downfalls. Some blacks grew tired of their stand. They grew tired of walking places, they found themselves having to seek insurance from London as it was impossible to get it at home. During that time, reactionaries within the local white communities fought back against the protesters in a variety of ways. Blacks riding in car pools were harassed by the police. Bombs were set off at the houses of both the Reverend King and E. D. Nixon. At one point, King was arrested on a petty speeding offense. Conspiracy charges (based on state anti-boycott law) were brought against King as well as the other leaders of the M.I.A. Finally, in November of 1956, the US Supreme court declared that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional, and the boycott was brought to an end. The boycott was important because it caught the attention of the entire nation. People around the country were made aware of the event because it was launched on such a massive scale and lasted for more than a year. Perhaps even more so, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was important because it set the tone for the whole civil rights movement. In particular, the boycott established Martin Luther King as a leader within the national movement and showed that the non-violent protest was effective.

In 1957, the final major civil rights issue of the 1950?s came to a national scale of recognition. Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, was to begin the 1957 school year desegregated. On September 2, the night before the first day of school, Governor Faubus of Arkansas announced that he had ordered the Arkansas National Guard to monitor the school the next day. When a group of nine black students arrived at Central High on September 3, the were kept from entering by the National Guard. On September 20, Judge Davies granted an injunction against Governor Faubus and three days later the group of nine students returned to Central High School. Although the students were not physically harmed, the harassment of fellow students in the classroom and thousands of townspeople harassing them outside the school, prevented them from remaining at school. Finally, President Eisenhower ordered 1,000 members of 101st Airborne and 10,000 National Guardsmen to Little Rock, and at the end of September, Central High School was desegregated. They graduated their first integrated class in 1959.

Television caused America to look upon these specific issues that would have otherwise gone unseen. The theatre tended to deal with more widespread racial problems being faced by blacks in the 1950?s. In Member of the Wedding , the contradictions between the steps forward and the progress remaining to be made, in the early 1950?s, were clear. Bernice is treated well, almost like a mother to Frankie. The children treat her a a close friend, a best friend. But, the black men are not treated with tremendous respect. Frankie?s father calls Honey ?boy? and ?nigger? and Honey does not relish that. He does not call Frankie?s father ?sir? or treat him with any great respect. Honey is later arrested and put in jail. He ?hangs? himself. This is a case that was seen often in the early 1950?s. Public lynching was outlawed, so private lynching became common practice. Blacks, like Honey, were often found hanging in their jail cells. These ?suicides? were often actually homicides, mini lynchings in the jail cell. That action is what is hinted at near the end of Member of the Wedding. All in all though, this play and theatre in general tended to skirt around the really intense racial subjects.

Not only were issues skirted around, but roles for African Americans throughout the majority of the 1950? movement were few and far between, and the roles were often stereotypical. Alice Childress? play Trouble in Mind offered a look at the theatre from both a generic and racial point of view. The black characters struggle with the expectations placed upon them to play into stereotypes. They were expected to play typical black characters, the ?Jims? and ?Jemimas?. It also shows the relationships, understandings, and misunderstandings between cast mates, white and black. It also takes a slight dig at the generic theatre being offered. Every show was like the show before. Director?s were trying to recreate other plays in new plays. They tried to play off the success of story-lines. So not only the black characters had to deal with stereotyping because everyone was being expected to regurgitate the same roles. So while dealing with racism and stereotyping Childress lessens it?s blow to the thoughts of white America by including some of the same issues for the white characters. It did, however, offer major roles for African American actors.

The 1959 Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun was a major stage in theatrical history. At a time when there was thought to be no black Broadway audience, no commercial chance for success of a serious black play, and no significant white audience for a play about African Americans, it turned out to be an all-out commercial and critical success. For her efforts, unknown 29-year-old playwright Lorraine Hansberry won the Best Play of the Year Award from the New York Drama Critics, the first black author and only the fifth woman to do so. It marks the first time that blacks were portrayed in a realistic and extremely humanistic way. In A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry paints an impressive group portrait of the Youngers, a family composed of powerful individuals who are in many ways typical in their dreams and frustrations. Hans berry seems to have been ahead of her time in attacking the very issues that would soon become the widespread issues in the ’60s and become central themes in the national view. She saw the surge of African American pride, the “black is beautiful” ideal that would become so important in the ’60s, the old battles over integration and equality. While A Raisin in the Sun is very much rooted in its time period, it has also proven to be for all time. Its relevance to modern life is is enforced by the fact that it has continued over three and a half decades to be given important and innovative new productions. It has established itself as an American classic, which is somewhat amazing considering the conditions of the civil rights movement at the time of it?s production.

Civil rights became a national issue and made a leap forward, but without its failures and faltering. Through theatre, though, Hansberry gave hope that America and African Americans could strive together. It led on, with hope, to the civil rights movement of the 1960?s.


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