To determine the impact that Rock n Roll had on the racial climate of the 1950s, it is vital to examine the racial problems that occurred during that epoch. Events such as the Rosa Parks bus incident, the non-violent protest lead by Martin Luther King Jr., and the Little Rock Nine fueled racial tensions in the 1950s. Even though segregation of colored and white people was illegal in the 1950s, it was still a common practice among communities and was reinforced by bylaws. Rock n Roll was becoming popular at the time and segregationists saw that as an opportunity to project their negative ideas about black culture and its association with immoral beliefs and behaviors (Thomas 1). In this regard, it is vital to discuss the racial climate in the 1950s and the role that Rock n Roll played while putting into consideration how tension arose when record companies exploited black performers, bleached the music, and promoted white rock ‘n’ rollers.
The primary impact of the Brown v. Board ruling of 1954 is that it ended segregation in public schools. However, it also had a transcendental impact; people of color around the country were inspired to fight against racism and equality. Later on, Little Rock Central High School entered the history books after refusing to admit nine black students. Even though segregation in schools was common during the era, Little Central High school case received special attention because when the nine black students arrived at school, there was a mob shouting and telling them to back to Africa (Smith 1): Also present was law enforcement officers whose aim was not to protect the few black students from the majority racist white counterparts but the protect the latter from the possible harm that students of color could cause. This incidence further influenced Rock n Roll artists to release music that could unite black and white people.
Rock n Roll played a major role in the racial climate of the 1950s, particularly when The Penguins released their hit song, “Earth Angel,” in 1954. It was one of the few songs that crossed over, breaking the barrier between black and white radio audiences. In this period, it was notable that the press did not identify rock n rollers of color with their race. Rather described them by their specific music style. Also, newspapers of that time referred to African Americans as “colored” or “negro”, particularly when reporting a crime. However, Connecticut’s white majority was unhappy with early rock music. There was frequent racist press commentary using indirect code words. They referred to Rock n Roll music as “jungle staff,” “cannibalistic,” and “tribalistic” (Thornton 1). On March 19, 1955, police raided the New Haven festival with the justification that the “dancers were getting out of hand.” Even though all the event-goers were all above 21 years and vendors sold drinks legally, the authorities seemed to be disturbed only by the dancing. Rock n Roll’s music influenced black and white underclass music fans to find more common ground despite the still-rigid racial segregation.
Unable to deny the impact rock n roll music played on the society, the media, government authorities, and concert venues opted to promote only white Rock n Rollers, effectively bleaching the radical genre. Covers played a significant role in bleaching Rock n Roll music as radio stations insisted on playing bleached music created by African-Americans. Artists such as Baker faced discrimination by radio stations as none of his songs ever played even after a white cover was available. Segregationists organized riots to sabotage concerts held by black rock n rollers even though white people attended the concerts. However, Rock n Roll’s popularity continued to rise. Its themes were tied to the social behavior and language pattern of people with color. Artists also spread the message of equality.
Palmer, Robert. “The 50s: A Decade of Music That Changed the World.” Rolling Stone, 25 June 2018, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/the-50s-a-decade-of-music-that-changed-the-world-229924/.
Smith, David. “Little Rock Nine: the Day Young Students Shattered Racial Segregation.” The Guardian, Guardian News, and Media, 24 Sept. 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/24/little-rock-arkansas-school-segregation-racism.
Thornton, Steve. “Rock and Roll vs. Racism: Connecticut History: a CTHumanities Project.” Connecticut History | a CTHumanities Project, 19 Mar. 2017, https://connecticuthistory.org/rock-and-roll-vs-racism/.
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