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The 1950s: the genius shines through

Merdies Hayes | 2/15/2012, 5 p.m.

The 1950s were a time of strident purpose and striking achievement for African Americans.

Though the postwar "feel good" era of American industrial might and suburban prosperity did not immediately include Black America--a significant portion of which were still mired in poverty in big-city ghettos in New York, Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia--a number of Blacks earned worldwide acclaim for courageous actions and accomplishments.

During World War II, Ralph J. Bunche, Ph.D., a graduate of Jefferson High School and UCLA, became a well-known authority on African issues and was often solicited by world policymakers to answer questions about Africa's stability and possible Axis planning.

Working with the State Department, Bunche supplied U.S. troops with cultural and diplomatic manuals about the political and economic conditions in Africa (Egypt, Tunisia, Lybia) at the beginning of the Axis push into North Africa. This would lead to Bunche becoming the first African American desk officer in the State Department and, in 1945, he became head of the Division of Dependent Affairs and helped draft the United Nations Charter in San Francisco.

Bunche is best known worldwide as Secretary of the Palestine Commission and his role as mediator during the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948. Bunche was able to negotiate an armistice between the warring factions and convinced the Arabs and Israelis to accept the 1949 Armistice Agreements, essentially dividing Jerusalem into one-half Jew, one-half Muslim.

In 1950, Bunche became the first African American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and would later serve as undersecretary of the United Nations. An active supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, Bunche in 1963 received the Medal of Freedom Award from President John. F. Kennedy. The Ralph Bunche Home, 1221 E. 40th Place, Los Angeles, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Harlem during this period exemplified the urgency of social change Blacks had been pressing for since the post-World War I migration north, but with this move from a defined southern agrarian social status came a reaffirmation and resurgence of Jim Crow politics nationwide. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell came to national prominence in the 1950s by exposing the weaknesses of Harlem's health systems and revealing to the world the economic and political inequities within the U.S. inner city.

Powell became a political hero and, by mid-century, was the most prominent voice from the big-city ghetto resonating in Congress.

However, such forceful and adamant demands by a Black man in the national media eventually drew ire from White congressional colleagues, and much of proposed civil rights legislation was never pursued outside of committee nor debated or voted upon on the House floor. Powell's determined efforts did give impetus to President Dwight Eisenhower in submission of a civil rights bill to Congress in 1959 and he was instrumental in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Locally, Dr. H. Claude Hudson was one of the original leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and he played a significant role in the formation of the local Black middle class which, by the tens of thousands, made Los Angeles home after World War II, specifically because of the industrial and housing booms of the 1950s.