Though the 1950s are often cheerfully remembered as the era of baby boomers, it was also a period of change and upheaval in America. Fear of communism and the dawn of the battle for civil rights pervaded every aspect of American life, often resulting in the harsh treatment of those things that were believed to bring about change. Censorship ran rampant in this environment, affecting not only literature, but also music, film and the American workplace.
The most popular form of censorship through the ages, the censorship of literature in the 1950s saw an effort to ban not only classics, but also newly emerging comic books and college curricula. During the 1950s horror comic books were scrutinized as a corrupting force on the minds of young people, an issue overseen by the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenal Delinquency, which sought to ban comic books. Educational literature became a particular target of censorship efforts due to the influence of McCarthyism, an inquisition headed by Sen. Joseph McCarthy to oust communists and communist sympathizers. Several works that became targets of both local and widespread censorship during the 1950s include J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" and "The Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison.
The 1950s saw an increase in music censorship as radio made new kinds of music available to wider audiences. While music had always drawn the attention of would-be censors, the emergence of new music, including rhythm and blues, drew particular attention. Those who fought to censor music considered R&B, among other genres, a socially corrupting influence. Some other factors that led to the censorship of music in the 1950s included race, fear and the generation gap. Several examples of music censorship in the 1950s, according to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, include ABC radio's banning of Billy Holiday's song "Love for Sale," because it was believed to promote prostitution; censorship of the rock band The Weevers for their perceived leftist views; and the refusal of Chicago radios stations to play R&B music after receiving thousands of letters calling it "dirty."
Like music, the technology that made new innovations in film possible in the 1950s also drew the attention of groups that fought to censor the silver screen. According to the American Bar Association, film was especially weak against attempts to censor its material due to a 1950s Supreme Court ruling, Burstyn v. Wilson, that found the film industry deserved no constitutional protection. Notably, in addition to outside censorship, the film industry between the 1930s and the 1960s had a system of self-censorship, much like the modern ratings system, that determined what was and was not acceptable in movies. Two notable films that drew the attention of censors in the 1950s, according to the ACLU, were "A Street Car Named Desire," which had morally ambiguous characters, and "African Queen," which perpetuated “immoral” relationships between characters.
Censorship in the 1950s was not reserved solely for the arts, but also affected the workplaces of many Americans. Those who were believed to hold subversive or dangerous views were often banned from the workplace. Notably, the fear of communism in the 1950s was a motivating factor in much workplace censorship. Workplace censorship extended particularly to teachers, who many feared would use their position to influence the minds of children. The workplace censorship of teachers in the 1950s was upheld by the Supreme Court ruling in Adler v. Board of Education, which held that it was a necessary measure to protect children.
- Marquette University: Young Adult Banned Books
- LeHigh University: Music Censorship
- ABA Division of Public Education: Changing Times, Changing Censorship
- ACLU: Film Censorship
- Big Think: Scare Tactics: Banned Horror Comics of the 1950s
- NCTE: The Fight Against Censorship in the Classroom
- PBS: American Masters: McCarthysim
- Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Rock and Roll vs. Censorship
- Banned Books Week: Banned Books that Shaped America
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