The 1950s


To many, the 1950s recall an idyllic era when everyone conformed and everyone lived simply and happily. Beneath this conformity, people were stirring and new ideas were simmering; some would not explode until the 1960s.

Television became a powerful medium. Commercials sold everything from chewing gum to presidents. The increased purchase of television sets was indicative of mid-century society's materialistic mood. Beatniks turned against that materialism, did drugs and advocated sexual freedom, a lifestyle that would find wider acceptance in the 1960s and 1970s. This was the decade when rock 'n' roll began in earnest.

Congress was preoccupied with the Cold War and the Red Scare. Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy began his crusade to rid the United States of Communism. This decade saw the growth of the Women's Rights Movement and the Civil Rights Movement, though injustices lasted into future decades.

Journalists and media personalities

Edward R. Murrow

Edward R. Murrow

Already famous for his radio career in the 1940s, Murrow led news into television as well. As CBS News Vice President and Director of Public Affairs, Murrow remained uncomfortable as an executive and returned to reporting in 1951. Although he was wary of television, he made the transition with See It Now the first television newsmagazine. Murrow also interviewed celebrities in their homes for the popular Person to Person. This show surprised some people who preferred the more serious Murrow. The serious Murrow took on the Red Scare and McCarthy in 1954.

Marguerite Higgins

Marguerite Higgins

Covered the Korean War, despite discrimination that almost kept her out of Korea because "war was no place for a woman." She refused to return to Japan despite the Army's orders and won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1951. In 1953, while covering the French military defeat in Vietnam, Higgins received wounds from the land mine that killed the photojournalist, Robert Capa.

John Cameron Swayze

John Cameron Swayze

Swayze's show Camel News Caravan was one of the first national news shows on television. Because of the need for visuals, the show often relyed on newsreel-type footage produced by the movie industry. Camel also insisted on having an ashtray with a visible, lit Camel cigarette on camera during every show.

Walter Cronkite

Walter Cronkite

Although he once turned down the opportunity to be a Murrow boy, Cronkite was named a CBS anchor for the 1952 Democratic and Republican conventions. This new job popularized the term "anchor," or, in those days, "anchor man." Cronkite's popularity grew after the 1950s and CBS started the first half-hour show with Cronkite as the anchor.

Chet Huntley

Chet Huntley

Huntley was the older, more serious component of the popular Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC. Huntley broadcast from New York, while co-anchor David Brinkley was in Washington D.C. The pair became known for their famous sign-off: "Good night, David," "Good night, Chet." The Huntley-Brinkley Report would continue on the air until 1970.

David Brinkley

David Brinkley

As half of the successful news team of the Huntley-Brinkley Report, Brinkley, a young southerner, took to television easily. Brinkley's wry wit ushered in the role of the anchor as a national celebrity. The two first paired up at the 1956 political conventions. The relationship between Brinkley and Huntley was, ironically, never close. They lived and worked in different cities. Following Huntley's retirement in 1970, Brinkley became unhappy with reporting the news from New York. He moved to ABC -- and back to Washington -- for a new show, This Week With David Brinkley.

Mike Wallace

Mike Wallace

Wallace began his career as an announcer and game show host before he became a journalist. Wallace started on the radio for CBS and returned to CBS television during the Vietnam War. Wallace is best known for his investigative journalism and interviewing skills. In the 1950s, he interviewed the young Hugh Heffner about the role of Playboy in society. He went on to the popular Sunday news program 60 Minutes. Born in 1918, he continued his career into the next century as the oldest working journalist on television.

Betty Friedan

Betty Friedan

Frustrated by the rejection she received from magazines that would not print her articles about women who did not conform to the 1950s housewifely ideal, Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique. Published in 1963, the book marks a milestone in the women's rights movement. She also addressed the absence of women journalists in television in the 1950s.

I. F. "Izzy" Stone

"Izzy" Stone

I.F. Stone was a radically liberal journalist in the 1950s when there were not many leftists in any field. As a leftist, he started his own newspaper, The Progress, when he was 14 and worked for several papers, always leaving for one reason or another. He wrote The Hidden History of the Korean War and criticized the government openly in the 1950s. In 1952, Stone started his own paper; I.F. Stone's Weekly, a liberal paper he used to espouse his views. He escaped accusations of Communism because he had visited the Soviet Union and returned with strong negative views. His anti-Soviet stance left him without allies on the far left and made him a target for the right wing. He became popular during the 1960s and 1970s for his anti-war sentiment. He was ahead of his time in the 1950s.

Ed Sullivan

Ed Sullivan

A converted newspaper columnist, Sullivan's on-air mannerisms were more often the subject of ridicule than reverence. But his ability to spot talent and cater to the tastes of younger Americans made his Sunday night variety show a TV staple, and provided the nation with a slew of historical moments in popular culture.

Political Scene

Social Climate

Media Moments

1952 — Nixon talks about his dog

Nixon talks about his dog

Vice Presidential Candidate Richard Nixon delivers the famous Checkers speech on television. Nixon addresses the nation – detailing the use of his funds, denying any wrongdoing and appealing to the audience's hearts by claiming the only gift that he was keeping was the family dog, Checkers.

1953 — The decline of newspapers begins slowly

The decline of newspapers begins

Newspaper employees strike in New York City over wages. After these strikes many papers have a hard time regaining subscribers and suffer due to competition with television.

March 9, 1954 — Murrow confronts McCarthy

McCarthy holding a list of conspirators

Edward Murrow's See It Now broadcast exposes McCarthy's accusations, which contributes to his downfall. The Murrow's confrontation of McCarthy is considered one of many high points in Murrow's career, but would help sour his relationship with CBS management.

May 17, 1954 — Segregation ends in violence

Elizabeth Eckford on her way to school as a white mob follows

Supreme Court rules segregated schools unconstitutional in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. The unanimous decision declared that "separate is inherently unequal." But in Little Rock, Ark., it takes federal troops to force integration of the high schools.

1955 — The murder of Emmett Till

Emmett Till before his death

Two white men brutally beat and kill Till, a black Chicago teenager visiting Mississippi, after the boy allegedly flirts with a white woman. Till's mother chooses to leave her son's casket open and Jet magazine publishes a photo of Till's battered body on its cover. Northern press covers the funeral and the resulting trial. The two men, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, are acquitted and later sell the story of killing the boy to Look magazine. The pair cannot be tried again because of double jeopardy.

Emmett Till's mangled body as it lay in the casket

September 25, 1957 — Forced integration

Orval Faubus

Dwight Eisenhower orders the Arkansas National Guard and the 101st Airborne Division to protect nine black students attempting to enter Little Rock Central High School. Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus (pictured) had previously used the Arkansas National Guard and local police to prevent the students from attending school.

October 5, 1957 — The space race begins

Sputnik I

The Russians launch the first satellite in space. Sputnik means the United States is losing the Space Race and makes Americans worry that their enemies have gained the advantage, especially in math and science. The familiar "beep-beep," which the satellite emitted, was a constant reminder that could be heard on the radio 24-hours-a-day. Explorer 1, the first Earth satellite from the United States, would not enter orbit until January 31, 1958.

1958 — Quiz shows fixed

Charles Van Doren

America learns that the popular television quiz shows of the decade are fixed. Columbia University Professor Charles Van Doren and popular winner of the show Twenty-One had been given the questions and answers before the show.

February 3, 1959 — The day the music died

Newspaper headline announcing the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper and their pilot

Famous Rock 'n' Roll Singers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. Richardson and a pilot died in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, while on tour. The date lives on in history as "the day the music died" in Don McLean's song American Pie.

1959 — Payola exposed

Disc jockey Alan Freed

The "payola" scandals revealed that record promoters had paid disc jockeys to play certain songs and insured some songs more success than they could earn on their own. Famous Disc Jockey Alan Freed was questioned in the scandal, but maintained "he only played songs he liked."

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