1954. May 17, 1954 was as important a date in our lives as November 22, 1963 and August 7, 1964. In many respects the events of this day put the American Dream on trial. We boomers would test inter-racialism. If we could manage to live, work and play together, then the Dream had legs. If not — we couldn’t live separately and equal.
This pleasant spring day in a sunny capital, the Supreme Court ended the Constitutional validation for racial segregation.
“Separate is inherently unequal.”
— Oliver O. Brown versus the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas et al
Had Chief Justice Earl Warren not included that idea in the unanimous decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, the decision might not have carried such significance. In writing the decision, he sought to gut the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision that sanctioned racial subordination. As important — and still overlooked — he also addressed the issue of equal separate facilities.
“Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other “tangible” factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal education opportunities? We believe that it does.”
Powerful words. A lesson for our times. The Warren court
held that the two great American races could not exist apart under any
circumstances. The decision held out the promise of unlimited access to
the subjugated. It should have inspired everyone. It could have inspired
most everyone had Ike not opposed it. Executive support was painfully slow
in coming. The law changed, life did not. Appearing so decisive at its
inception, Brown turned out to be merely a tentative first step. A furious
Ike opposed even that, as he had the integration of the military. When
asked what he thought of his appointment of Earl Warren, California governor
and vice-presidential candidate, he erupted, “The biggest damfool
mistake I ever made.”
* * *
What a complex society that could craft legends around frontier individualism and righteousness while simultaneously beating down any black American who dared practice them. Morality had two meanings, even then.
Be sure you're right and then go ahead.
It's up to you to do what Davy Crockett said.
— Walt Disney's Davy Crockett
Beginning in December, the “King of the Wild Frontier,” as embodied in the uber-WASP image of 29 year old Fess Parker, brought to TV an attractive view of right and wrong, self-assuredness with a little history about western expansion before the Civil War thrown in. The real Davy Crockett was cooked up as a rustic rival to Andrew Jackson. The real David Crockett actually said, “Know you’re right, than go ahead.”
Forty million Americans tuned in to Disneyland on ABC that first Wednesday night Davy Crockett aired. Disney had the insight to film the three-part episode in color for eventual release in theaters. Although ninety million viewers watched on TV, the movie version (three episodes spliced together and bridged thematically by the “Ballad of Davy Crockett”), brought in $2.5 million. In 1958 Disneyland became Walt Disney Presents and in ‘61 Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. The show itself had been on since late October.
The coonskin cap came to represent America’s moral authority, even to Euro-boomers who loved the wholesome TV shows and movies every bit as much as we did. The lesson in simplistic righteousness was for all the world to see. Manufacturers caught on, too. By springtime boomers were running their neighborhood wearing coonskin caps, fighting fabled rough and tumble riverboat pirate Mike Fink, giving their lives defending the Alamo from Santa Ana. The shows overlooked the fact that the Mexican general was trying to enforce the ban on slave importation while holding onto the northern third of his country. But never mind.
Companies such as Sears and Roebuck were sure they were right about one thing. Lots of money was there to be made in Davy Crockett wear. Our parents shelled out $10 million for coonskin caps alone before the craze ended. It came to $100 million in all, including buckskins, chaps, powder horns, sheets, blankets, toothbrushes, lunchboxes, plastic versions of Old Betsy, and the record, the “Ballad of Davy Crockett,” which was translated into twenty-six languages and sold four million 45s. Three thousand different items all told. This first boomer craze drove up the wholesale cost of raccoon from 25 cents a pound to $8. Manufacturers had to switch to squirrel and rabbit when they ran out of raccoon.
The Coonskin Congressman was truly king. We’d been playing
Cowboys and Indians for years. There’d been Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry,
Roy Rogers, Wyatt Earp (“None could deny it, the legend of Wyatt, forever
would live on the trail”), the Cisco Kid, and last but not least The Lone
Ranger, who started as a radio western in 1933. One after another we followed
them right through the decade, blazing away.
* * *
Had there been fast food on the wild frontier, Davy Crockett would no doubt have endorsed it. In an ironic way his activities are connected to fast food. Along with frontiersmen such as Lewis and Clark, Daniel Boone and Zebulon Pike, Crockett opened up thousands of acres of land suitable for grazing beef cattle, thus transforming American diet to red meat. But it was Ray Kroc and his peers who brought affordable red meat to the huddled masses. Before World War II, Americans ate mostly pork. The fast food industry changed all that. Prosperity enabled baby boomers and their parents to make the once disreputable hamburger (it was considered slightly better than garbage) America’s favorite food. Convenient and inexpensive, its hand-held format made it perfect for kids. Besides that, working class families finally had a place they could afford to eat outside the home. In the honk of a car horn, America became a red meat-eating country, our new diet protein-rich and fat-laden.
In Southern California in 1948 the McDonald brothers invented fast food based on menus reduced to hamburgers, french fries and milkshakes, which cut waiting time from twenty minutes to seconds. In 1954 Ray Kroc, their former milkshake mixer salesman, became their franchising agent, stressing cleanliness and Cold War regimentation. “We have found out,” he claimed, “that we cannot trust some people who are nonconformists. We will make conformists out of them in a hurry.” In 1961 the McDonalds sold the entire business to him for $2.7 million.
Although intended as a place where working class families
could take their kids to dinner, McDonald's succeeded because of boomer
attraction to fast food joints, where we could assemble and eat while sitting
on the hoods of our cars, arrayed in the parking lot like a laager of covered
wagons. Our car culture owes a lot to Dick and Mac McDonald and Ray Kroc
— and Davy Crockett, too. We couldn't cruise for burgers if there weren't
any burger joints to be cruised. The marriage of convenience between entrepreneurial
capitalism and the emerging youth market re-directed the American diet
and youthful social activity. By 1970 Americans were spending about $6
billion on fast food, bulging out to $100 billion by 1997. These days we
spend more on fast food than higher education, PCs and new cars combined.
The price we’ve paid for the convenience of the “McDonaldsization of America”
was high, stretching well beyond numbing uniformity. We became a nation
of lard butts.
* * *
As fascinated by the wonders of the new-fangled tube as we were, our parents were forced to confront the dark possibilities that lurked like sandworms beneath the surface of planet America. With the specter of a South Vietnamese village named Bien Tre yet a ghost in the white noise, our parents finally came to grips with the fact that the junior senator from Wisconsin was doing more damage to the political fabric than pinkos, fellow travelers or outright communists, not to mention a parking lot full of juvenile delinquents.
In what can only be explained as the insanity of self-promotion, this runaway train accused the United States military of being riddled with these traitorous types. After an extensive “investigation,” McCarthy came away with one “trophy,” an army dentist at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, with a leftist past. The victory came at the expense of his career. The televised Army-McCarthy hearings showed this abusive liar to be unworthy of his Senate seat. When Army Counsel Welch chastised him for his gutter-sniping, ad hominem attacks, damn few people watching at home disagreed. Even the timid (in those days) press corps broke into applause.
“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really
gauged your cruelty or your recklessness ... If it were in my power to
forgive you for your reckless cruelty, I would do so. I like to think I
am a gentle man, but your forgiveness will have to come from
someone other than me ... sir, at long last, have you no sense of decency?”
— Joseph Welch during the Army-McCarthy hearings
An abashed McCarthy shrugged as if to say, “What did I do?” Through his own Nixonian musings about his life, he gave new meaning to the question Ike posed about him, “How stupid can you get?”
While it was true he was not responsible for the Red Scare, this egregious fool of a man, who accused the Democratic Party of “twenty years of treason,” distorted and cheapened the political process. His legacy, which his supporters must inevitably share, was hate, divisiveness and demagoguery disguised as “Awl shucks” populism.
The Senate censured him in December and he died a broken,
disgraced alcoholic three years later.