Poodle skirts. Grease and Happy Days, Elvis,Ann Margaret in Bye, Bye, Birdie. Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best. Even movies like The Wild One, which were meant to showcase rebellion, seem so innocent when you watch them now.
But the fifties were a much more interesting (and layered) decade than they were made out to be. Readng Beat poets like Gregory Corso made me realize what a huge influence they had on the artists of the 1960s and even now. I also think the antiwar protests of the sixties and seventies may well have been inspired by campaigns like the Ban the Bomb marches in the 1950s and by activists like César Chavez, who might have been influenced by people like Mahatma Gandhi.
While writing The Beat on Ruby’s Street, I wanted to connect my characters with some of the more complex people and situations in the 1950s and explore the impressions they made on characters’ lives. Ruby and Manuela may not have known much about Gandhi and César Chavez, but they knew both men were using non-violent protests to start changing things, one step at a time. Their protests inspired Ruby and Manuela to stand up for themselves; take risks; and do things I don’t think either one of them would have had the strength to do alone.
What does it get them? At first, both Ruby and Manuela do seem to get what they want; later, not so much. I think that must have been the same for Chavez and Gandhi. Chavez was a community organizer in the 1950s and later founded the National Farm Workers Association. The union joined with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee and started a strike against grape growers in California in 1965. Strikes and boycotts went on for years as Chavez battled for improved labor conditions. He went on numerous hunger strikes over the years to draw attention to his cause.
While it is believed the hunger strikes he endured contributed to Chavez’s death, the union he founded did make gains and win some victories. At the same time, he would probably say that he lost almost as many battles as he won; and, more importantly, that he didn’t expect to win, but wanted to inspire other people to continue what he started. I like to think he inspired people like Ruby and Manuela, too.
None of this is to say I don’t like poodle skirts, Grease or Elvis. (In fact, I found a poodle skirt in a vintage store last week and brought it home). And yes, Elvis was part of a rebellion against convention and all that. But if someone tries to tell you that’s all the fifties were about, you might want to take a closer look. I know a lot of people who say 1968 was the year that changed the world. But a lot of that really started in 1958—and before.
Note: This post was originally published at bookloverplace.com.