Surviving in an Affluent Society – OpenBUCS

Surviving in an Affluent Society – OpenBUCS


When most people think of the Civil
Rights movement and this lecture is focused on the Civil
Rights movement in the 20th century. When most people think of the Civil Rights
movement often they associate that movement with cases like Brown vs Board of
Education in the 1950’s and with such important figures as
Martin Luther King Jr. As often is the case that sort of simple notion of what the Civil Rights movement was, what it was about, contradicts something that’s very complex. If we think alone about the 1950’s for instance, consider that the 1950’s represented what appeared to be an era of
considerable affluence, postwar affluence. John Kenneth
Galbraith wrote in 1958, The Affluent Society, and projected that United States had the
capacity to continue to develop and progress and that ultimately it was possible to
consider this growth of affluence to mean a gradual end to poverty. This new society that was being created would end poverty certainly reduce it. But, as is often the case historically, this notion of an affluent America while it’s not unreal wasn’t unreal also isn’t the whole story. I want to give
you a quick example. I teach in East Tennessee and that’s in a larger sort of region known as
Appalachia. In Central Appalachia in the 1950’s, thousands upon
thousands of coal miners were experiencing not affluence, but forces that were leading toward poverty and really pushing these Appalachian miners
and their families out of the region to look for work. In
the midst of affluence, in the wake of the Second
World War, they were being pushed from deep mining
jobs being replaced by machines. And by the 1960’s really by the late 50’s, but into the
60’s, increasingly deep mining was being replaced by surface
mining. The result for those miners who stayed, miners who had come or whose families had come or
ancestors had come in places like West Virginia and Southwest
Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, they’d come because they saw
opportunity, they, they saw opportunity in the coal mines. And in
the life of the coal camps those miners who had come now faced you know the end of their
industry as they had known it. They were being put out of work and this is common, not just to Appalachia, but it’s common
across America even in the 1950’s and will continue into the 1960’s and 70’s. But high unemployment, the loss of jobs for those who stayed,
essentially meant a debilitating poverty. It was this
poverty that the news cameras of CBS and NBC
and the reporters and the journalists who came to
gawk and stare at this just poverty-ridden seemingly backward people, children
dressed in rags, and running around barefoot – barefooted people. You know who seemed hopeless and drawn and haggard and not American. It didn’t seem to match up
with the idea of the 50’s of glamour of progress, of science. My point on this is sometimes even in
the midst of affluence you gotta remember it’s not total. It wasn’t just Appalachia of course where
poverty was a daily reality of life for people. In California migrant workers working under
the hot sun and difficult conditions, bent over backs, you know literally in pain day after day
for minimal wages living in conditions where violence was
not uncommon where their liberties their capacities as
human beings was restricted by their employers, What kind of existence is that in an affluent
economy – an affluent world? All I’m suggesting here is it’s worthwhile to consider the
complexity of things that image may not be all. And if those two examples aren’t enough let’s
consider the inner-city the growing inner-cities of the United States. Inner
cities that like the mountains of Appalachia were
hemorrhaging jobs and hemorrhaging people. As whole populations abandoned the inner cities for the suburbs leaving behind often those least able because of discrimination, but also because of
perception to compete and to maintain what existed. In 1960’s and 70’s America’s
inner-cities would become problems for the nation, but whatever the case all along this other America continued to exist, not the America of plenty but the America of poverty. I tell you this because I want to remind
you that it’s in the context of the times that the events of the Civil Rights
movement happened and it’s somehow false I think to pull
out the Civil Rights movement and treat it as a whole in spite of the fact that it always
happened within the context of its times. The events of the Civil Rights
movement occurred within the context. But I also go back and talk about these
other areas of America otherness to suggest that the feelings
were similar the feelings, were often the same, was often
African-Americans, but not just African-Americans who functioned as the other in society, who struggled heartily to survive and I also tell you this story and
bring these other examples up to suggest the complexity of Civil
Rights that it’s not just a simple story, it’s not just Rosa Parks, and it’s not just Martin Luther
King Jr., and it’s not just Montgomery, and it’s
not just Brown v Board. It’s individual acts, community acts local acts, many acts of considerable bravery to
challenge a system that had been built since the 19th century on violence and
the threat of violence on terror no less. That’s courage. It’s not the only vision of courage, but it certainly is
courage and it’s central to American history. Because the ultimate question whether
it’s in Appalachia or whether it’s a question of Civil Rights or the Civil
Rights movement is the question at the heart of American,
history it’s the question of what it means to be an American. What does it mean to have rights? Does it mean the same for everyone? Will it? Has it meant the same over time? Does it
matter? I think it does and if you’ll recall we started this class, this course way back with Reconstruction and if you
think about it we’re asking the same questions. What would it mean for the freedmen to
have rights? And here we are a hundred years on in the 1960s still talking about rights, not just for African-Americans, but for
Americans. It is an ongoing debate in this country
because we claim to have these rights and it’s imperative in thinking about
American history that we understand the past, we
understand sort of what has happened, how the rights have
evolved, have they’ve changed how the images have have changed, and also that we are knowledgeable enough to
engage in the continuing debate over what that
claim to have rights actually means. That’s what this course is all about. It’s not about memorizing and it’s not
about looking up to heroes and it’s not about any of that, it’s about becoming people capable of
participating in the ongoing dialogue about what it
means to be an American. And if we’re not doing that then you
wonder what the purpose is at all. So in this lecture we talk about the Civil Rights movement, what has been
called by historians the Second Reconstruction. We’ll pick up that story in just a minute.

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