Monday, June 19, 2017

Color Arrives (1958-60)

Although we are accustomed to think of our time in terms of decades, in terms of social consciousness decades don't match the decimal figure. The Sixties actually began in late 1963. Between 1958 and 1963 there was a "twist" of social consciousness, and in this entry in the series* I concentrate on 1958-60.

The significant cosmetic touch of the time was the introduction of color television and Technicolor (somebody's trademark). The first televised presidential debate took place. Then came cars with extravagant fins and the beginnings of rock and roll.

Color of another kind also came into prominence. The country was still largely segregated by the color of the skin. (It was called "race," but as we all know today, race is a social construct of prejudice and not a biological fact.)

In some states the separation was carried out legally and ubiquitously. But in 1954, the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of the schools; the armed forces, it should be noted, had desegregated by President Truman's order in 1946. There was a Civil Rights Act passed in 1958 that made some minor changes, but segregation continued.

What did it mean, in practical terms, to separate people by the color of their skin? There were separate facilities everywhere: white bathrooms and black bathrooms; restaurants for one and another color; separate seats on buses and trams.

This was not so obvious to me in New York, where that sort of segregation was just impractical and, after all, we were in the North. In New York, segregation was largely socioeconomic. African Americans were kept poor through discrimination in education and employment, in addition to housing.

I saw apartheid-type segregation when we moved to Washington, which is south of the Mason-Dixon line, the cultural and legal divide that had once separated slave states and free states. In Washington, as in New York, there was socioeconomic separation. Whites lived in the best neighborhoods, with the best schools and got the best positions.

In addition, I saw in the parks that there were water fountains marked "white" and next to them, other fountains, generally smaller and less well kept, for "colored" (as a child the word struck me as odd: white is a color and, strictly speaking, no one was really white). There were separate seats on the buses (but, interestingly, not on the streetcars).

Taxi drivers, waiters and, in general, service staff, were black. The police were white, as were the bus drivers.

I went to private Catholic schools (and to the French school a year), so I did not see black children in school. There was an amusement park, Glen Echo, to which I loved to go; only years later, when I returned from a long absence abroad, I learned that it had closed because it was segregated: it was a shock to realize I had never noticed there were no black children.

I also saw another type of segregation. At a time when African nations were becoming independent and began to send their first diplomatic delegations to Washington, a hotel we initially stayed in denied them lodging.

The Windsor Park Hotel which is now located in the Kalorama area is the annex building that the original hotel; it was quickly acquired to accommodate African diplomats. The main building eventually became the Chinese embassy and only this year was it demolished.

Despite these problems, the civil rights movement began to pick up momentum in those years and there was a sense that the United States was willing to become a country with a bigger heart. At that moment came a young politician who symbolized breaking another kind of prejudice, John F. Kennedy.

* This is the second of a short series of deliveries that attempt to sketch the contemporary U.S.cultural and social history. I intend to present how the time and place was felt from a personal perspective, and only in the background, the history whose first draft appeared in the newspapers.

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