Good times in the ’50s belie segregation, struggles

League archives/Wayne State UniversityThe 1950s marked a period of peace and prosperity across the country.  With World War II over, and the Korean War ending in 1953, Americans were anxious to get on with their lives, and they were aided in doing so by a consumer-led economy that seemed to know no bounds.

Between 1945 and 1960 the Gross National Product more than doubled, with much of this increase coming from government spending on military equipment and technology, interstate highways and schools, and the distribution of veterans’ benefits. Unemployment was low and wages were high; middle-class Americans had plenty of money to spend and expanded choices of things to buy.

The ’50s also saw the “baby boom,” with approximately 4 million babies born each year throughout the decade. The G.I. Bill subsidized low-cost mortgages and made it possible for returning soldiers to purchase modest tract houses in the outskirts of the nation’s cities.

Labor unions also expanded during this decade; by the late 1950s almost 40 percent of the private workforce was in unions, reflecting a belief in the benefits of union membership. As President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “Only a fool would try to deprive working men and women of their right to join the union of their choice.”

As the radio had done in the ’40s, television—first in black and white, and later in color—provided Americans with their news and entertainment. Disneyland opened in 1955 and The Sound of Music opened on Broadway in 1959. Life seemed very good.

The 1950s, however, was also a time of growing racial tension and fallout from the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The struggle against racism and segregation entered the mainstream of American life when the Supreme Court, in 1954, ruled in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education that separate public schools did not equate with equal educational opportunity. The resulting integration of public schools and universities sparked controversy, mainly in the south. And, in 1955 a young Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Ala. for refusing to give her seat on the bus to a white person. Parks later relocated to Michigan. The resulting boycott of the city’s buses by its black citizens set the stage for the civil rights movement of the ’60s.

The tension that existed between the United States and Russia also shaped domestic policy. It was during this decade that Sen. Joseph McCarthy terrorized the country with the anti-communist “red scare” that resulted in the loss of jobs of many, many Americans labeled “subversives.” The scores of Congressional un-American activities committee hearings held during the early part of the decade uncovered very few treasonous activities.

Photo: Michigan Department of TransportationDuring the ’50s Michigan was also enjoying the prosperity felt by the rest of the nation. Michigan automakers were designing and producing flashy cars; more than 1 million houses were built between 1954 and 1960; Michigan’s Gerber Products kept babies fed; and The Kellogg’s Company cereal boxes were on breakfast tables across the country.

After decades of attempts to connect Michigan’s Upper and Lower peninsulas, the Mackinac Bridgeopened to traffic in November 1957. The five-mile bridge is the third-longest suspension bridge in the country.

During this decade the League’s services were expanded to meet the needs of a growing population and the complex issues that came with that growth. The ’50s brought an increased emphasis on research and services to children and youth. And, as a result of the stable funding provided through the United Health and Welfare Fund, the League’s staff increased to two full-time employees.  Later in the decade two additional functions were also created—an assistant director for research, reflecting a growing need for more analytical data, and a director of education and communications services that would foster citizen participation in social welfare issues.

In his report to the 41st Annual Meeting in 1955, League Executive Director Michael C. Kreider cited the steady growth in the League’s role in overall state planning and coordination in the health and welfare field and outlined what the League viewed as the most pressing social welfare problems in Michigan affecting local communities and needing a statewide solution. These problems included treatment for the developmentally disabled (then referred to as the mentally retarded); the need for a youth correctional program to serve young offenders; the expansion of Old Age Assistance grants to include rehabilitative services; better integration of public and voluntary adult services for those with disabilities; expanded use of probationary services as an alternative to extended incarceration; reform of the state’s juvenile court structure; the need for greater unification in county welfare departments; and the need for adequate social work personnel.

1950s-brochureIt was during this period that the Michigan Welfare League began a discussion of the need to be involved in “social legislation,” and in 1958 the organization adopted new policy on social action.  In 1959 the League officially opposed proposed cuts in public assistance programs.

Also, in 1959 the Senate Judiciary Committee of the Michigan Legislature tabled a proposed adoption reform bill and asked the Michigan Welfare League to review the state’s existing adoption statutes. The League responded by coordinating an 18-month study and made proposals to the Legislature during the 1961 and 1962 sessions.

Using an approach to consensus-building which was by then traditional for the League the Ad Hoc Adoption Committee appointed to conduct the study included representatives from major state organizations and constituencies—most of which the League continues to collaborate with today.

In addition to an expanded policy agenda, the League continued to hold regional and annual conferences, and to initiate special studies and forums. The expansion in services was evident by the boost in the League’s budget from $27,000 in 1950 to over $92,000 in 1962.

— Sharon Parks

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