VARIOUS TEXTS: AMERICA IN THE 1950s (civil rights)

America in the 1950s (from 'The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid' by Bill Bryson)

Of course not everyone shared equally in the good times. Black people who tried to improve their lot, particularly in the Deep South, particularly in Mississippi, were often subjected to the most outrageous and shocking abuse (made all the more so by the fact that most people at the time didn't seem shocked or outraged at all). Clyde Kennard, a former Army sergeant and paratrooper* and a person of wholly good character, tried to enrol* at Mississippi Southern College in Hattiesburg in 1955. He was sent away, but thought it over and came back and asked again. For this repetitive wilful* uppitiness*, university officials - I'll just make that quite dear: not students, not under-educated townspeople in white sheets, but university officials - planted illicit* liquor and a bag of stolen chicken feed in his car and had him charged with grand theft*. Kennard was tried and sent to prison for seven years for crimes he didn't commit. He died there before his term was completed.

Elsewhere in Mississippi at that time the Reverend George Lee and a man named Lamar Smith tried, in separate incidents, to exercise their right to vote. Smith actually succeeded in casting a ballot* - in itself something of a mirade - but was shot dead on the courthouse steps five minutes later as he emerged with a dangerously triumphant smile. Although the killing was in broad daylight in a public place, no witnesses came forward and no assailant* was ever charged. The Reverend Lee, meanwhile, was turned away at his polling station, but shot dead anyway, with a shotgun from a passing car as he drove home that night. The Humphreys County sheriff ruled the death a traffic accident; the county coroner* recorded it as being of unknown causes. There were no convictions in that case either.

Perhaps the most shocking episode of all occurred in Money, Mississippi, when a young visitor from Chicago named Emmett Till rashly whistled at a white woman outside a country store. That evening Till was hauled from his relatives' house by white men, driven to a lonesome spot, beaten to a pulp*, shot dead and dumped in the Tallahatchie River. He was fourteen years old.

Because Till was so young and because his mother in Chicago insisted on leaving the coffin open so that the world could see what her son had suffered, there was, finally, a national outcry. In consequence, two men - the husband of the woman who had been whistled at and his half-brother - were arrested and a trial was duly held. The evidence against the two was pretty overwhelming. They hadn't done much to cover their tracks, but then they didn't need to. After less than an hour's deliberation*, the jury - all local people, all white of course - found them not guilty The verdict would have been quicker, remarked the grinning foreman, if the jurors hadn't taken a break to drink a bottle of pop. The next year, knowing that they could never be retried*, the two accused men happily admitted in an interview in Look magazine that they had indeed beaten and killed young Till.
525 words

Source: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson, Black Swan paperback, pp. 331-333

* paratrooper - Fallschirmjäger
* to enrol - sich einschreiben (e.g. an einer Uni)
* wilful - absichtlich, eigensinnig
* uppitiness - Einbildung
* illicit - illegal, gesetzwidrig
* grand theft - schwerer Diebstahl
* to cast a ballot - eine Stimme abgeben
* assailant - Angreifer
* county coroner - Bezirksgerichtsmediziner
* beaten to a pulp - krankenhausreif schlagen
* deliberation - Beratung
* to retry - wieder vor Gericht bringen

1. What 'crimes' were the four blacks accused of, how were they treated by the law and the people involved in the incidents?
2. The story about Emmett Till triggered of fiery discussions. Find out by the help of the internet how his case was addressed.
3. Think of any other incident which became famous in the course of the civil rights movement. Describe it and say what effects it had on the blacks' fate.
4. This excerpt has been taken from a novel which can be established by an interfering narrator. At which points does the narrator interfere and what does the author want to achieve by those remarks?
5. The civil rights movement of the 1950s in the US served as an example for protests and demonstrations in other parts of the world. Go into details at least on one example.

amazon.de The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
Bill Bryson

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