Chapter 27 American Life After the War

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Chapter 27

American Life After the War

For many Americans, life after World War II was good: Business was booming. Jobs were plentiful. Americans had money to spend and plenty of goods to buy. Millions of Americans married, began families, and settled down to a quiet life in the suburbs.

But for other Americans, life after the war was difficult. Many Blacks did not share in the nation's prosperity. Blacks were usually given the poorest jobs, housing, and education. By the end of the 1950s, Blacks were demanding their rights and a share of the good life in America.

  • Why did the economy remain strong after the war?

  • How did metropolitan areas develop in the 1950s?

  • How did the civil rights movement begin?

  • Why did Americans call for reforms in schools in the late 1950s?

Key Words You will be using these words in this chapter. Look them up in the glossary at the back of Part 2.





An Age of Affluence

When World War II ended, Americans feared that the prosperity of the war years would also end. But that did not happen. Instead, the nation began a period of prosperity-an age of affluence, or wealth.

The Economy Grows

During the war, the federal government paid billions of dollars to America's businesses. Factories worked night and day making war goods. After the war, people expected government spending to drop sharply. That would mean fewer jobs and a slowdown in the economy.

Instead, government spending almost doubled. Between 1947 and 1957, the federal government spent billions of dollars, much of it on military supplies to fight the cold war. And state and local governments increased their spending too.

Spending by consumers also increased after the war. During the war, many people earned good wages, but there were few goods to buy. So, people saved their money.

After the war, factories began making peacetime goods again, such as automobiles and washing machines. Americans eagerly bought those goods. Consumer spending helped the economy grow.

Higher wages also helped increase consumer spending. The growing businesses of the 1950s were paying the highest wages in the nation's history. Labor unions were also strong during the 1950s. Unions won pay raises for many workers.

Looking Back

1. Why did the economy grow after the war?

2. Why did consumer spending increase?


Life in the Age of Affluence

During the depression and the war years, many families were small. After the war, families began getting larger.

Beginning in 1946, the number of babies born each year kept rising. The increase in births was called the baby boom. It continued into the 1960s.

The baby boom was good for business. Spending on diapers, baby food, cribs, toys, and children's clothes increased.

Growing Families Need Housing

The baby boom also helped the housing industry grow. The depression had left the nation with a housing shortage. Not many people in the 1930s could afford to build houses. Young married couples often lived with parents.

During World War II, the housing shortage got worse. Making weapons was more important than building houses. And there was a shortage of materials and workers.

As families grew larger after the war, they needed more space. Millions of new homes were built on inexpensive land in the suburbs.

Americans Move to the Suburbs

The high wages of the 1950s meant that many families could now afford a home in the suburbs. Veterans could also borrow money from the government to buy a house through the GI Bill. (Congress passed the GI Bill in 1944. That law gave benefits to Americans in the Armed Forces during the war.)

During the 1950s, millions of Americans moved to the suburbs. Many believed that suburbs were a better place to raise a family than cities. Suburbs were quieter and less crowded. And they were usually safer and cleaner.

---This U.S. postage stamp honors World War II veterans.

New Leisure-Time Activities

During the 1950s, many families had time and money to enjoy new leisure-time activities. By 1950, many workers had a 40-hour work week. They had two-day weekends and two weeks of paid vacation a year.

Many people enjoyed new sports such as waterskiing in their leisure time. Sales of camping equipment and sporting goods rose. Book sales also increased. Americans had begun buying inexpensive paperback books during the war. After the war, more and more paperback books became available.

Teenagers spent time listening to a new kind of music-rock 'n' roll. Rock 'n' roll performers, such as Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, were very popular.

Television Enters the Home

The nation's favorite new leisure-time activity was watching television. Most people had never seen television in 1945. But by 1960, Americans had bought over 60 million television sets. By then, the average person spent six hours a day watching television.

Television entertained viewers with everything from dramatic plays to professional wrestling. People could also watch the news and see their political leaders on television.

Television helped the economy too. Television commercials persuaded Americans to spend money on everything from soap to cough drops.

Looking Back

1. What was the baby boom?

2. Why could many Americans afford new homes in the 1950s?

3. Why did many young families move to the suburbs?

4. How did Americans of the 1950s spend their free time?


---Left: New neighborhoods such as Levittown, New York, sprang up quickly after World War II ended. Right: This photograph shows one of the houses in Levittown.

The Changing American City

In Chapter 10, you read that large numbers of Americans began to move from farms to cities in the early 1800s. The mills and factories of the cities provided people with jobs.

Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, Americans continued to leave the farms for the cities. But in the 1930s, during the depression, there were few jobs to be found in the nation's cities. So, fewer people left the farms.

During the 1950s, the factories and businesses of the cities were booming again. People began to leave farms and small towns in greater numbers than ever.

By 1960, seven of every ten Americans lived in a metropolitan area. A metropolitan area is made up of a large city and the suburbs that surround it.

Whites Move to the Suburbs

Most of the growth in metropolitan areas came in the suburbs. Many of the nation's big cities grew very little during the 1950s. Some, such as Detroit and New York City, lost population.

The people moving out of cities were mostly Whites. New groups moved into the neighborhoods they left behind.

Many of the new city people were southern Blacks. They had moved north looking for work in factories. Two million Blacks left the South from 1940 to 1960.

Other newcomers were immigrants from Mexico and Puerto Rico. By 1960, more Puerto Ricans were living in New York City than in Puerto Rico's capital, San Juan. More Mexicans were living in Los Angeles than in any city in Mexico except its capital.

Many Businesses Leave the Cities

Many city businesses moved to the suburbs during the 1950s. When businesses left, they stopped paying city taxes. Those cities then found it difficult to pay for police and fire protection. They had less tax money to take care of parks, streets, and schools.

When cities lost businesses, they also lost jobs. Newcomers had trouble finding work. Many people living in the nation's cities never enjoyed the prosperity of the 1950s.

Looking Back

1. Why did many Americans move to metropolitan areas during the 1950s?

2. How did big cities change during the 1950s?

3. How were cities hurt when businesses moved to the suburbs?


Blacks Fight Segregation

Wherever Blacks lived in the 1950s, they faced prejudice and segregation.

In the South, segregation was backed by state laws. Those laws said Blacks could not go to "White" schools. Blacks could not eat in "White" restaurants, sit in the "White" sections of buses, or drink from "White" drinking fountains.

Outside the South, segregation was not usually written into law. But many Whites discriminated against Blacks: Landlords in "White" neighborhoods would often not rent to Blacks. Blacks could find housing only in crowded "Black" neighborhoods.

Many White business owners would not hire Blacks. Many labor unions would not let Blacks into their training programs. Blacks could only get low-skilled, low-paying jobs.

Some Blacks tried to get around segregation by starting businesses of their own. They soon found that White bankers would not lend them money to get started. And White landlords would not rent them business space.

Most Blacks Live in Poverty

During the 1950s, Black families earned about half the income of White families.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was a young minister from Atlanta, Georgia. He saw how segregation hurt Blacks. King said Blacks lived "on an island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of ... prosperity."

A Black Family Fights School Segregation

In 1951, a Black family in Topeka, Kansas, decided to fight segregation in the city's schools. Their daughter was turned away from a school because of her race. With the help of the NAACP, the family sued the Topeka Board of Education. The family's name was Brown.

---Rosa Parks arrives at a Montgomery, Alabama, courthouse for her trial. She was fined $14 for failing to move to the segregated section of a bus.

The Browns took their case first to the U.S. District Court. They asked the court to end school segregation. The district court ruled against the Browns. The Browns appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals, then to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1954, the Supreme Court decided the case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka. The Court ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional. It said the 14th Amendment promises every citizen "equal protection" of the laws. That means laws must treat all people equally. To segregate school children because of their race is not equal treatment.

Federal Troops Enforce Desegregation

In 1955, the Supreme Court ordered segregated schools to desegregate, or end segregation, as quickly as possible. At first, many Whites did everything they could to stop desegregation. Black students who tried to enter desegregated schools were often attacked by Whites.

In Little Rock, Arkansas, crowds of angry Whites tried to keep Blacks out of Central High School. President Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock in 1957. Under the troops' protection, the Black students entered the school.

Desegregation moved slowly during the 1950s. But more of the nation's schools began to open their doors to students of all races.

Looking Back

1. How did state laws support segregation in the South?

2. How did Whites discriminate against Blacks in the North?

3. What did the Supreme Court say about school segregation?


The Civil Rights Movement

During the 1950s, Blacks demanded an end to segregation and discrimination. They called on the government to protect their civil rights. Their fight for equal rights was known as the civil rights movement.

Montgomery Blacks Boycott the Buses

Blacks won an important victory against segregation in Montgomery, Alabama. In December 1955, Rosa Parks, a Black woman, got on a bus in Montgomery. She took a seat in the "White" section of the bus. When the driver ordered Rosa Parks to give her seat to a White passenger, she refused. She was arrested and taken to jail.

Blacks in Montgomery then began a bus boycott. During the next year, 17,000 Blacks refused to ride city buses. They walked or shared car rides.

Blacks also challenged Montgomery's segregated bus system in court. In 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation on buses was unconstitutional. By December 1956, Blacks were sitting wherever they pleased on Montgomery's desegregated buses.

King Becomes a Leader

The bus boycott in Montgomery was led by Martin Luther King. The success of the boycott made him the most important leader in the civil rights movement.

King's life was threatened and his home was bombed. Still, King urged Blacks not to use violence themselves. Instead, he urged Blacks to use nonviolent protest, or peaceful protest, to end segregation.


The success of the Montgomery bus boycott encouraged Blacks to use nonviolent protest against other forms of segregation.

In 1960, Black college students walked into a department store in Greensboro, North Carolina. They sat down at the lunch counter for Whites. When asked to leave, they refused. Instead, they opened their books and began to study. They said they would sit at the counter until they were served. Their protest became known as a sit-in.

The students' sit-in proved successful. The lunch counter began to serve Blacks. Soon, Blacks in other cities were using sit ins to protest segregation at lunch counters and other public places. Thousands of people, most of them Black, were arrested. But the protests continued.

Freedom Rides

Soon, civil rights workers of different races joined together for freedom rides across the South. Waiting rooms, restaurants, and restrooms in bus stations were segregated. The freedom riders rode buses from town to town, protesting such segregation.

The freedom riders were often met with violence. They were attacked by angry mobs. They were beaten and arrested. Their buses were burned. But freedom rides continued.

In time, civil rights protests began to change life in the South. "WHITE" and "COLORED" signs were pulled down from bus station waiting rooms. Restaurants, hotels, and stores no longer refused to serve Blacks.

Looking Back

1. What was the goal of the civil rights movement?

2. How did Blacks use nonviolent protest to fight segregation?


America Enters the Space Age

On October 4, 1957, Americans heard some shocking news. The Soviet Union announced that it had sent a small satellite, called Sputnik I, into space. Sputnik I was the first man-made object to circle the earth.

A few months later, the Soviets launched Sputnik II. It carried a live dog into space.

The launchings of Sputnik I and Sputnik II surprised Americans. They had always believed that American technology was ahead of Soviet technology. But now the Soviets seemed to be ahead in the building of rockets and satellites.

"Why has the United States fallen behind?" many Americans asked.

Americans Call for Reforms in Schools

Some Americans argued that the Soviet Union had taken the lead in technology because Soviet schools were better than American schools. Those Americans argued that Soviet schools were producing better scientists and engineers.

Those who complained about America's schools said that students were spending too much time studying subjects such as music, art, and home economics. Instead, students should be spending more time studying math and science. Many Americans called for reforms in education.

In 1958, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act. The Act provided money to public schools to build science labs, buy textbooks, and improve the teaching of math, science, and foreign languages. The Act also provided loans to college students so they could complete their studies.

This US, postage stamp honors the US, space program.

---Top: This satellite was launched in 1967. Bottom: This photograph taken in 1985 shows a space shuttle landing.

America Races to Catch Up

Sputnik I and Sputnik II gave the Soviet Union an early lead in the space race. To the Soviet Union and the United States, success in space meant leadership in science, engineering, and national defense. So, the two countries competed with each other to develop space programs. Each wanted to be the leader in space.

In January 1958, the United States launched its first satellite, Explorer L Two months later, the United States launched another satellite, Vanguard I.

In 1958, Congress set up the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Its purpose was to develop America's space program. The hard work of NASA scientists and engineers would bring American successes in space in the 1960s and 1970s.

Looking Back

1. Why did the launching of Sputnik I surprise Americans?

2. Why did some Americans call for reforms in America's schools?

3. What is NASA?


Chapter 27


Facts First

Use words below to complete each sentence.

baby boom



Martin Luther King







Chapter 27 Notes

1. The 1950s were a time of for most Americans.

2. The increase in the number of babies born in America was called the .

3. Many White families moved from the cities to the .

4. Cities lost money and jobs when people and moved away.

5. throughout the country faced segregation and discrimination.

6. The Supreme Court ruled that segregation in schools was .

7. led a boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, to end segregation on buses.

8. Blacks also used sit-ins and freedom rides to against segregation.

9. The Soviets launched the first in 1957 .

10. Many Americans called for in the nation's schools to improve education.

Word Check

Write the meaning of each of these words. Then use each word in a sentence.





Skill Builder

Find out about one of these famous Americans. Then report what you learned.

Agnes De Mille

Edna Ferber

Martin Luther King

Thurgood Marshall

Margaret Mead

Edward R. Murrow

Walter Reuther

Jackie Robinson

Bishop Fulton

Sheen Margaret

Chase Smith

Adlai Stevenson

Earl Warren

Chapter 27 Notes

Read over the chapter. Find answers to these questions:

1. Why were the 1950s called an "Age of Affluence"?

2. Why did many young families move to suburbs?

3. Why did many cities become poorer?

4. How did segregation harm Blacks?

5. How did Blacks fight segregation?

6. Why did some Americans call for changes in education?

Be a Historian

What do Americans protest against today? How do Americans protest?

Cut out a picture from a newspaper or magazine that shows Americans Protesting. Paste the picture onto a sheet of paper. On the paper, tell when and where the picture was taken. Also tell what the people in the picture are protesting against.


1. Find out how young people looked and dressed in the 1950s. Visit your school library and look through two or three yearbooks from the 1950s. With your class, discuss how styles have changed.

2. Find an early rock 'n' roll record by one of these people: Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, or Bill Haley. (You may borrow it from a public library.) Bring the record to class for your classmates to hear.


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