BLACK HISTORY FROM THE PAGES OF EBONY: The Colored People of the 1950s
With WWII ending the previous decade, the ’50s found the United States and its NATO allies firmly entrenched in the Cold War. Both “colored” people who had fought abroad for U.S. interests and those who stayed behind would no longer tolerate a denial of citizenship through voter suppression, nor would they comply with the legal structures erected by entrenched racist powers to prevent them from building economic wealth. Confident of their rights as full citizens, they continued to chip away at racist practices and policies by challenging the laws that held them firmly in place.
The ’50s saw the Supreme Court declaring segregation unconstitutional and illegal in: D.C. restaurants (1951), public education (1954), public housing (1954) and public transportation (1956). Congress established the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first legislation of its kind since Reconstruction, which created the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ and the Federal Civil Rights Commission, two agencies that allowed federal investigation and criminal pursuit of individuals and institutions found to be prohibiting American Negroes from fully exercising their full rights as citizens.
Other significant events of this decade included U.S. diplomat Ralph Bunche winning the Nobel Peace Prize for successful mediation of Middle East Peace Talks between Arab and Israeli leaders. JET magazine, the weekly sister publication of EBONY, was born. The NBA color barrier was broken. Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till of Chicago (whose story is chronicled in JET magazine) was kidnapped and murdered by White thugs while visiting Mississippi. Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a White man on a city bus, kicking off the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Nat King Cole became the first colored man to host a national TV show in prime time, and Lorraine Hansberry became the first Negro woman to have a stage play, A Raisin in the Sun, produced on Broadway.
EBONY took a progressive if not controversial approach to publishing during this time. Several issues featured covers and articles on interracial marriages, including those of exiled Chieftan Seretse Khama, the first president of Botswana, and Ruth Williams Khama (which the chieftan penned himself); opera singer Marion Anderson and Orpheus Fisher; Pearl Bailey and Louie Bellson; and Lena Horne and Lennie Hayton. Alongside articles about middle-class vacation spots and pieces penned by celebrities including Richard Wright, Eartha Kitt, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Dorothy Dandridge and Louis Armstrong covering topics from their sex lives to their opinions about race and politics, EBONY also featured pieces that explored the lives of those who fell outside of the Negro mainstream, such as the divorced spouses of Billy Eckstine and Harry Belafonte, as well as a man who lived for 30 years as a woman and a cross-dressing lesbian who defended her right to love whomever she chose. Billy Graham, Frank Sinatra and William Faulkner also penned opinion pieces in support of racial equality and conciliation.
The face of the nation was rapidly changing. EBONY magazine not only kept pace, but it also often led the charge.