Television Radicalization

To begin to understand all this, one needs to understand the protest movements of the ’60s, and to understand that turmoil, one must at least glance at the decade that produced all those angry young activists: the 1950s. For much of white America, the ’50s was a time of suffocating conformity, when parents born during the Depression and empowered by winning a “good war” taught their children that America represented everything that was right and true in the world. These were the “happy days,” when a booming economy sent wealth soaring and children, born by the millions, grew up in homes where every family seemed to have two cars in the driveway, a stereo cabinet, and, in fifty million homes by 1960, a television. How happy were Americans? When a 1957 Gallup poll asked people whether they were “very happy, fairly happy, or not too happy,” an astounding 96 percent answered very or fairly happy. “The employers will love this generation,” University of California president Clark Kerr said in 1959. “They are not going to press many grievances . . . they are going to be easy to handle. There aren’t going to be riots.”

And then, as if overnight, things changed. More than anything else, it was the pictures young Americans began seeing on those new televisions in 1960—of stoic Southern blacks dragged away from all-white lunch counters, of black protesters being beaten bloody by red-faced Southern deputies—that laid the groundwork for the white protest movement. The violence and injustice itself was shameful enough, but it was what those pictures said about America, about what an entire generation of young people had been taught, that felt like a betrayal. America wasn’t a land of equality. It wasn’t a land of the good and the just and the righteous. It was all a lie.