Popular culture often portrays the 1950s as a time of prosperity and peace. Television shows set in the 1950s tend to focus on happy, suburban families where the man works outside of the home while the woman stays at home, raises the children, and takes care of the home. Deep in the throes of the Cold War and on the heels of the Red Scare and McCarthy, popular culture of the time emphasized "American" values and morals - patriotism, capitalism, democracy, and the like. The threat of nuclear war and communism lurk in the background, specters that remain a constant threat. Scrubbed away, ignored, or perhaps forgotten are the tumultuous events of the 1950s that changed the nation. The Civil Rights Movement and Feminism are thought of as phenomena of the 1960s, but momentum for these movements is rooted in the 1950s.
The consumer economy of the United States grew during the 1950s. Automobile ownership was increasing dramatically, work saving appliances such as dishwashers were common, and televisions became less of a luxury item and more of a standard household feature (more than 80% of Americans owned a TV by the 1960s) - to name a few. The demand for consumer goods drew more people out of the rural countryside and into the urban and suburban centers across the nation.
The image of the average American household included modern appliances, an automobile or two in the garage, the housewife at home putting dinner on the table, and the family gathered around the television.
There is some truth to this image. Thanks to the growing middle class there was a much larger market for consumer goods. Cold War defense related jobs were steadily and rapidly on the rise (employing more than 3 million people by the early 1960s) - which helped to grow the middle class and draw those families out of the dense urban city-centers and into the suburbs. Meanwhile, the growing demand for consumer goods created more jobs in manufacturing and other related industries, drawing poorer rural families (particularly African Americans in the South) into urban areas. The middle class was fleeing the cities while poor families were leaving farming and headed for the city.
Women who had patriotically headed to work by the millions during World War II were encouraged to do their "patriotic duty" and leave the workforce, making room for men to return to the factories, and to stay at home to raise children. This "ideal" was far from the reality; more than 1/3 of women worked outside the home. The number was increasing as families, particularly poor, minority families (and recent immigrants) found that the wages of a single family member (the husband/father) to be insufficient to support a family.
Latin American immigrants were a growing population in the 1950s for whom the "ideal" American family was not a reality. More than 250,000 people, primarily from Mexico, immigrated to the United States during the 1950s under the Bracero Program.
During World War II the Bracero Program encouraged Latin Americans to immigrate to the United States, temporarily, for work in agricultural jobs—planting and harvesting for the most part. Most settled in the West and Southwest of the United States. This work was, and is, seasonal and migratory in nature. Farm laborers follow the different picking seasons, performing difficult, necessary work for low wages. They often faced violence and discrimination and generally experienced harsh working conditions and few protections under the law.
The image of the "average" American family typically failed to include the realities of life at the lower end of the economic scale, the desires and dreams of women, racial minorities, immigrants, or homosexuals. The "nuclear family" consisting of a man who worked outside the home, his wife who had often abandoned her educational and career goals to be married, and their two to three children all living in a spacious suburban home full of modern conveniences was out of reach for many Americans.
Movements for equality and civil rights have been a nearly constant theme throughout American history. Much of the progress towards equality that is typical today in the United States is due to major changes that took place during the 1950s.
Growing support for Civil Rights and stronger organization and leadership in the African American community helped accelerate the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1940s and into the 1950s. President Truman's administration supported desegregation in the housing market, supported anti lynching laws, and desegregated the military through an executive order. The Great Migration of African Americans into Northern and Western cities made them a more significant voting bloc than they had been in the South, where they had been largely disfranchised. This helped to create greater political pressure in favor of Civil Rights.
Several of the largest achievements in the Civil Rights Movement took place during the 1950s. In 1954 the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Court ruled that "separate but equal" was inherently unequal, overturning the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 that legalized segregation. In 1957 that ruling was put to the test in Little Rock, Arkansas. Under the Brown decision, schools, transportation, and other public institutions were forced to "integrate," to end segregation. In September of 1957 nine African American students became the first black students at Little Rock's Central High School. The nine teenagers faced mobs of angry whites attempting to block their entrance into the high school. The governor of Arkansas called out the National Guard to block the integration. President Eisenhower reacted by calling up 10,000 members of the Arkansas National Guard into active duty and sending them, along with 1,000 other federal troops, to Little Rock to enforce desegregation.
Not all positive steps towards civil rights were initiated by federal action. As would be true in the 1960s, many of the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement were achieved by the hard work, dedication, and courage of the African American community. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to prominence in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. In December of that year, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus. Although she was not the first black woman to make such a stand, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin had been arrested early that same year for the same reason, the actions of Rosa Parks was the catalyst for a building Civil Rights protest. Within days of Parks' arrest, a city-wide bus boycott was in effect. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was chosen as the movement's leader. The boycott lasted 381 days, nearly bankrupted the bus company, slowed business in stores in the downtown area, and made the Civil Rights Movement, with Dr. King as one of its prominent leaders, a national issue.
Equal rights for gay men and women began to become a mainstream, national issue as well during the 1950s. The Mattachine Society was founded in 1951 and in 1954 the Daughters of Bilitis was established. Both groups worked for equal rights and protection against homophobic laws. Homosexuals, however, continued to face discrimination in the workforce and violence for decades to come. The LGBT community continues to face discrimination, but initial steps taken in the 1950s has led to some of the advances towards equality that have been recently achieved.
Politics in the 1950s was influenced heavily by the Cold War, particularly at a national level. The new measure of a president became his ability/willingness to stand up to the Soviet Union and Communism. Meanwhile, in Congress, the House Un American Activities Committee and McCarthy attacked political and social opponents - labeling them communists, spies, and even traitors.