By the time the decade drifted toward its end in 1959, fissures had appeared in the white washed facade of American exceptionalism. Comedians, folk singers and a few dissenters had begun to challenge the orthodoxy, even to bring about minor change. A moratorium on nuclear testing signed in 1958 after the rise of a peace movement led by SANE. A new Civil Rights Act passed in 1957.
Reed was lily-white. Race wouldn’t have entered my mind if it hadn’t been for Warren Sussman’s emphasis on the breakdown of Reconstruction in 1877. Once Federal troops left the south after the Civil War, African-Americans faced a brutal reversal of rights gained during the occupation. Not much had changed in the eighty years since. Despite the passage of Brown v the Board of Education in May, 1954, the implementation of school desegregation hadn’t done a thing in the South.
Emmet Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy from Chicgo, accused of flirting with a white married woman of 21, was beaten and killed by the woman’s husband and a lynch mob of Mississippi white men in August of 1955. Till’s story made national news for a few weeks and again later when the likely perpetrators were found not guilty by an all white jury.
Till’s brutal murder and the lack of accountability was the spark that started what Louis Lomax called the “Negro revolt.” A few months later, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in defiance of a Montgomery, Alabama, law. Her resistance became national news.
Martin Luther King started the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It lasted until December 20th, 1956, when a federal court overturned Alabama’s bus segregation laws. Whites, angry about the boycott, had bombed four African-American churches and the homes of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King and E.D. Nixon.
Eisenhower did not want to get involved with civil rights. Governor Orval Faubus forced his hand when he used Alabama’s National Guard to block nine Negro students from entering Little Rock High School. The students were attending under a federal court order. It was a defiance of Federal authority that Eisenhower could not abide. He federalized the Arkansas National Guard and ordered them to return to their armories. Then he sent in the 101st Airborne to enforce the Federal court order.
The next year, Congress passed and Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which created the Civil Rights Commission and authorized the Justice Department to investigate cases of African-Americans denied voting rights. In reality, it too changed almost nothing.
In the Spring of 1958, pursuing my aim of being a professor, I applied for and received a Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship. I wanted to go to New York City, perhaps not as romantic as Paris, but the most cosmopolitan city in The United states. I married that summer and we moved to New York in August. My wife found a job with the ACLU and I started graduate school.
Classes at Columbia were a joke after Reed’s rigorous insistence on student participation. Professors lectured, students took notes, wrote papers and took tests. I audited an undergraduate course by C. Wright Mills who arrived in the Columbia quad on his motorcycle. He was a great showman. I had read White Collar and The Power Elite, and his ideas were familiar, but when Mills strode on stage, ripped off his leather jacket and began to talk, it was an act worth watching.