restricted access 1961: Movies and Civil Rights
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1961 Movies and Civil Rights ANNA EVERETT This was a particularly notable year for Hollywood films as the so-called “turbulent decade” got under way and radically transformed many familiar social, cultural, political, and economic institutions in American civil society. It was also marked by a number of historic milestones, including the breaking off of diplomatic relations with Cuba on 3 January and the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April, a considerable increase in American involvement in Vietnam, Astronaut Alan B. Shepard becoming the first American successfully launched into space on 5 May, and the invention of the laser. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me were published, and by the end of the year the romantic comedy Come September initiated the age of film exhibition on airliners. America exported the Twist dance craze to Europe, Bob Dylan made his debut in New York City, Dave Brubeck’s LP Time Out, the first jazz album to sell over a million copies, was released, and the nation accepted the crossover appeal of African American rhythm and blues (R&B) music with songs like the Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” Ray Charles’s “Hit the Road, Jack,” and the Marcels’ up-tempo doo-wop version of “Blue Moon” high on the charts. In fact, society’s embrace of youth music culture signaled a pivotal or vanguard moment in charting visible evidence of the possibility for peaceful interracial coexistence, of sorts, as Black and white youths danced together, and sexy, alluring Black music artists were permitted to integrate the hugely popular music show “American Bandstand” (1952–1989). Clearly, this image of integration was much more palatable than televised images of the violence attending the heightening civil rights struggle. But most significant was the ratcheting up of the political stakes with regards to civil rights as the civil rights movement’s Summer Freedom Rides in Montgomery , Alabama, unfolded; the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, the youngest man ever elected to the presidency; and the nation’s political movement toward a “New Frontier” ethos characterized by what Douglas T. Miller calls “cautious liberalism” (78). These epochal events coincided with 44 shifting postwar suburban and urban residential patterns based on race, the phenomenal rise of television, and its unprecedented capacity to transmit visually raw and powerfully visceral images captured from the front lines of these controversies and broadcast them live into the living rooms of the nation’s incredulous TV audiences. At the same time, Hollywood and independent filmmakers inaugurated explicit, socially relevant films addressing volatile civil rights matters for racially segregated and declining mainstream movie audiences. Most recognizable early in the decade was the film industry’s production of movies that capitalized on the era’s palpably changing attitudes about race, class, gender, and matters of sexuality, and other civil rights concerns. At this point, both Hollywood and independent filmmakers upped the ante in their efforts to erode the longstanding tyranny of film censorship institutionalized by the 1934 Production Code and its strictures against cinematic content potentially sympathetic to and tolerant of many of these volatile issues. With the legislative and legal victories of the previous years, the modern civil rights movement gained new historic protections that emboldened Black activists and progressive white supporters to test the nation’s resolve to dismantle racial segregation in public institutions throughout America. It was against this backdrop that two interracial groups from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) boarded Greyhound and Trailways buses bound for the Deep South with the intent of integrating America’s public interstate travel system and procuring service accommodation at all terminal facilities en route. This strategic act of civil disobedience in May kicked off the year’s spate of Summer Freedom Rides with similar sit-ins in other areas of public accommodation throughout the South, which led to the erosion of overtly racist Jim Crow segregation laws. Despite tough prison sentences, severe beatings and bombings, and other levels of violent reprisals by southern whites, including police officers and other authority figures, civil rights movement activists were not deterred. As if playing out Frederick Douglass’s famous nineteenth-century aphorism that power concedes nothing without a demand, by late summer more than a thousand people had participated in the Freedom Rides (Miller 105), pushing forward their nonnegotiable demands for immediate civil rights protections and equal rights. Leading this latest iteration of post-Reconstruction Black-led freedom fighting was a coterie of in...


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Subject Headings

  • Motion pictures -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Motion pictures -- United States -- Plots, themes, etc.
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