African Americans Become Stars


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The early 1960’s in America was fraught with fear looming over from the onset of the cold war. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was sworn into office as the 35th President in January of 1961. Within a few months of taking office, he helped orchestrate the Bay of Pigs Invasion, which had a negative result. In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded, and the fear of communism in the United States was stronger than ever. 1963 signaled the beginnings of unrest in Laos and Vietnam, due to a perceived communist threat. Kennedy was preparing to face the crisis mounting in Southeast Asia when he was assassinated on November 22nd, 1963. The assassination of JFK was a pivotal moment not just for American history, but also for American popular culture.

The term counterculture has been defined as a culture with values and mores that run counter to, or against those, of established society. There has always been a counterculture to oppose the dominant culture in America, but this group tended to be in the minority of the population until the mid to late 1960’s. The assassination of JFK, which was all the more shocking due to the fact that it was the first televised assassination in American history, changed the fabric of the United States. Young people were not merely beginning to question the authority of their parents; they were questioning their rights as citizens, and to have a mistrust of their government.

The 1960’s countercultural revolution in the US was not only brought on by political events. The birth of rock and roll in the late 1950’s had changed the face of popular music forever, and many new musicians were emerging with a new look, and a new sound. Arguably, the most important band to emerge in the 1960’s were not American, but British musicians. Ladies and gentlemen…The Beatles!

The Beatles

The Beatles were part of the “British Invasion” of bands during the early to mid 1960’s, who were becoming extremely popular with American youth. When they first appeared, they sported a clean-cut look, with short hair and suits. As their popularity grew into an international phenomenon, they began to change their appearance, and began to experiment with drugs. Both British, and American youth cultures were transformed by “Beatlemania”, as it was called. As the band changed, young people changed with them. Not everyone was a fan of the strong opinions of John Lennon, one of The Beatles two front men. During an interview in 1966, John Lennon remarked that The Beatles had become “more popular than Jesus“. This caused outrage in the Southern United States, and in Birmingham, Alabama, young people were urged by religious and social leaders to burn Beatles records. Consequently, this was the same part of the country where the civil rights movement was also taking place.

Bob Dylan

Another notable musician, and also an American, Bob Dylan also helped shape the countercultural structure of the 1960’s. Dylan, who is still recording music today, started out in the early 1960’s as a folk musician. His songs resonated with young people, and helped to start the “hippie” movement, which essentially was comprised of young American adults trying to escape from the dominant culture supported by their parents. Dylan met the Beatles in 1965, and was a very strong influence on them both politically, and musically.

Woodstock

Woodstock is perhaps one of the most famous counter-cultural moments of the 1960’s. Band manager Michael Lang and songwriter turned record company executive Artie Kornfeld came up with the idea for the festival when they began to raise money to build a recording studio in Woodstock, New York. This little town was a sanctuary for musicians including Bob Dylan, and Van Morrison. Ironically, Bob Dylan did not play at Woodstock. Woodstock took place in Bethel, New York, and not Woodstock, as was originally planned. Young people from across America flocked to the festival in August of 1969, to protest the Vietnam war, racial inequality, and to “turn on, tune in, and drop out”.

Jimi Hendrix headlined the festival, and as he was the last musician to play, many people had left the festival already due to short supplies of food and water. Those who were there to witness his rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” have since described his performance of the national anthem as one of the defining moments of the 1960’s. When listening closely to the feedback of his guitar, one can almost hear the helicopters and guns blazing through the Vietnamese jungle. Hendrix never admitted that his version of the Star Spangled Banner was a Vietnam protest song, but it is widely accepted in popular cultural lore that the message behind it was the anthem for the emotions of American youth at that time.

The Civil Rights Movement

During the era of the Truman Administration (1945-1953), not enough had been done with regard to improving civil rights for minorities. President Truman actually did accomplish some steps toward civil rights, through making orders that prohibited discrimination in the federal government, and ended segregation in the armed forces. Further progress was made during Eisenhower’s presidency, (1953-1961), when Supreme Court decisions and organized protests by African-Americans fought against Jim Crow laws. Eisenhower accepted full accountability for ensuring that the decisions of the federal courts were followed. Congress, on the other hand, moved at a snail’s pace to advance the legal standing of blacks and other minorities.

Brown vs. The Board of Education.

In 1950, the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People (NAACP) disputed the 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy vs. Ferguson,which had established the “separate but equal” doctrine. Several legal cases on public-school segregation were making their way through the federal courts at that time, and the first to make it to the Supreme Court was Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional. President Eisenhower called for the desegregation of schools in Washington, D.C., and the procedure went over well in some of the states that had segregated school systems. In other parts of the country, however, opposition to desegregation was shockingly powerful.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott

Another important social event that took place during the civil rights movement was the Montgomery bus boycott. In December 1955, while riding a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person, as was required by law. Parks was fined, and arrested. Under the guidance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the African-American community in Montgomery reacted to Parks’ arrest with a boycott of the Montgomery bus system. This prohibition of the city bus system went on until November 1956, when the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public transportation was unconstitutional. These actions in Montgomery helped Dr. King become the recognized head of the civil rights movement, and gave credibility to his peaceful approach to racial equality. He would later be assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in April of 1968.

The Civil Rights Act of 1960 gave federal judges the authority to assign intermediaries to guarantee that blacks were permitted to register and vote. The Birmingham, Alabama civil rights protests of 1963 were rife with violence, and were televised. Americans were beginning to see the products of racial inequality in their living rooms for the first time, and it began to change the dominant cultural beliefs of the time.

African Americans Become Stars

During the 1960’s, African American actors were finally beginning to take center stage on television, and in Hollywood. Bill Cosby was a rising star in 1965, when he became the costar of the hit TV show, “I Spy”. Many naysayers said at the time that Cosby would never make it as a star. Cosby went on to be one of the most successful actors, comedians, and producers for television in American popular history. He is also an activist for the black community, and is a source of pride and respect for American popular culture.

Another actor who should be mentioned in terms of the civil rights movement and popular culture is Nichelle Nichols, star of the original series of “Star Trek”. Nichols was the first black woman to star in a TV series. Star Trek was groundbreaking for its interracial cast of lead characters. Nichols also caused controversy when she shared the first interracial kiss on television with William Shatner’s character, Captain Kirk. Nichols received a lot of public scrutiny for her role on the show, and at one point, she wanted to quit, but was encouraged to stay on by a fan. That fan was Dr. Martin Luther King.

Sidney Poitier was a famous Hollywood actor during the 1960’s, and was the first black man to win an Oscar for his role in 1963’s “Lillies of the Field”. 1967’s critically acclaimed film, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” starred Poitier as a young black man who was marrying a white woman, and shows the troubles they both faced when introducing each other to their families.

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