The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the 1950s, their lonely battles on rights and the environment heralded changes to come

Some leaders of the women's movement pass a torch that was carried by foot from New York to Houston, Tex., for the November 1977 National Women's Convention. Among the marchers, front, from left to right: tennis star Billie Jean King, in blue shirt and tan pants; former U.S. Congresswoman Bella Abzug, wearing her trademark hat; and feminist writer Betty Friedan, right, in red coat. (Greg Smith/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Forget the stereotype of the patriarchal-family-dominated, suburban-rooted, church-going 1950s of television sitcoms. In its place, James R. Gaines proposes a decade that launched the social activism of the 1960s and 1970s around gay rights, second-wave feminism, civil rights and the environment. This is not an uncommon claim among historians, who often search for origin stories in a deeper past. Gaines, a journalist who rose to be managing editor of Time magazine and has written three serious books of history, adds a twist, however.

In “The Fifties: An Underground History,” he argues that the later successes of these movements can be directly attributed to courageous individuals who often suffered isolation, ostracism, even familial banishment for battling to improve their own, and many others’, lives. That they fought sometimes lonely struggles confirms that the 1950s indeed valued conformity and complacency. Gaines does not deny that reality and in fact documents much ugliness from the era: gay bashing, authoritarian policing, patriarchal oppression, white supremacy and profiteering from environmental contamination. But he also offers a response — and potentially an inspiration — to those today who see around them only systemic and hard-to-budge racism, sexism, economic inequality and climate catastrophe. Instead, he insists, individuals committed to change can make a difference.

In making his case for individual heroism, Gaines provides engrossing character studies of people both well-known and more obscure. Some of the most famous figures are gay rights activist Harry Hay, who founded the Mattachine Society; Black lawyer Pauli Murray, who developed brilliant legal arguments that led to Supreme Court victories for greater gender and racial equality; Betty Friedan, the pioneering feminist who authored “The Feminine Mystique” and helped establish the National Organization for Women (NOW); Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s Mississippi field secretary who worked tirelessly to overturn segregation and was assassinated for it; and biologist Rachel Carson, whose hugely influential book “Silent Spring” is credited with launching the modern environmental movement with its no-holds-barred condemnation of the pesticide-producing chemical industry. All of these lives are well documented in biographies, memoirs and scholarly publications, from which Gaines skillfully draws his evidence. In a few cases, he has also consulted personal papers.

More fascinating to me, however, are the many lesser-known individuals who populate Gaines’s book as agents of change. We meet Frank Kameny, who battled for gay rights from the 1950s until President Barack Obama extended employees’ benefits to same-sex partners in 2010; historian Gerda Lerner, who pioneered the field of women’s history, with particular attention to the untold story of Black women’s lives; decorated Army Sgt. Isaac Woodard, who was blinded by a South Carolina police chief on his way home from World War II; and MIT mathematician turned skeptic of technology Norbert Wiener.

These are only some of the characters who fulfill Gaines’s claim that individual activists mattered. But it is striking how so many of their successes depended on the cadre of like-minded colleagues who fought alongside them. Gaines is correct that the mass movements that emerged in the next decade did not burst forth full-blown. But he misses the importance of this intervening level of activists, without whom the leaders would have failed. It took a village — not a city, but also not one individual soul — to launch a movement with the capacity to take down an entrenched status quo.

Gaines’s focus is on what his subjects did in the 1950s as they launched their movements. Although we learn some about their prior experiences, Gaines did not search for any common patterns in their personal histories. A couple of parallels struck me, however. World War II played an outsize role in inspiring these individuals and sustaining their movements. A vast majority of the activists were veterans, an experience that particularly motivated Black Americans. Lerner was a Holocaust survivor. Wiener designed missile guidance systems, whose legacy grew to frighten him. The self-appointed security force for the March on Washington in 1963 was composed of Black veterans who applied the structure and strategies they learned in the military to keep a demonstration of 250,000 peaceful.

Another, perhaps more unexpected, source of inspiration was participation in the Communist Party or similar radical movements. Hay brought communist-like cells to the Mattachine Society. Lerner’s work to create the communist Congress of American Women launched her feminist institution-building. Friedan applied the polemical skills she had developed writing for left-wing unions in the 1940s to her success selling “the problem that has no name,” her description in “The Feminine Mystique” of female unhappiness in the years after World War II. Wiener was never a member of the Communist Party, but he made no secret of his dislike of capitalism and sympathy with workers whose livelihoods he feared would be lost to automation.

That people’s prior participation in radical politics fed their willingness, and ability, to act against injustice turned out to be indicative of a larger reality in the lives of these activists. Despite our tendency to tie leaders to one particular movement, it turns out that a great deal of cross-fertilization was underway — among individuals as well as movements. Gaines conveys that when he introduces Fannie Lou Hamer in his feminism chapter rather than the one on civil rights. Or when we learn that consciousness-raising and the message that “the personal is political” appeared in Hay’s gay rights struggle, long before the women’s movement to which it is usually attributed. Murray battled both gender and racial discrimination and played a pivotal role in both movements, articulating “intersectionality” years before Kimberlé Crenshaw would label it and give it theoretical depth.

Less surprising but poignant nonetheless is the recurrence in all these movements of a struggle between moderates and radicals. The battle took a different form in each movement. In the early gay rights movement, those hoping for broad cultural change found themselves up against opponents seeking only the decriminalization of homosexuality. The reformist founders of NOW like Friedan alienated Murray with their narrow appeal, to the point that she withdrew her name as a board candidate. Everywhere in the South, the more-establishment NAACP faced challenges, whether from the more direct-action-oriented activists of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee or the militant gun club led by Robert F. Williams. The chapter on ecology, which focuses not on an emerging social movement but rather on two individuals — scientists Carson and Wiener — shows that the struggle between moderation and radical transformation took place within each person over time. Whereas early in their careers Carson and Wiener believed unequivocally in the value of scientific progress, by the end of their lives they “converged on the heretical, even subversive idea that the assertion of mastery over the natural world was based on an arrogant fantasy that carried the potential for disaster.”

Beyond the significance of individual action, this underground history of the 1950s has another message for today. It serves as a reminder of the hard work and personal sacrifice that went into fighting for the constitutional rights of gay people, Blacks and women as well as for environmental protections. As we face ongoing threats in all those arenas, it is clear that despite the somewhat triumphalist trajectory of Gaines’s narrative, pointing as it does to the legislative and regulatory victories to follow, these battles have not been permanently won. Dedicated leaders, flanked by equally committed cadres, are still required.

Lizabeth Cohen is the Howard Mumford Jones professor of American studies at Harvard University. She is the author, most recently, of “Saving America’s Cities: Ed Logue and the Struggle to Renew Urban America in the Suburban Age.”

The Fifties

An Underground History

By James R. Gaines