Well, good morning America! My goodness, what a distraught scene! The great BLM protest movement of 2020 has extended all over the world, with marches in Britain, Germany, France, Denmark, Italy, Syria (what, Syria?). Now that’s heartening to see so many united for a good cause, but please, if we could do this with less killing, less looting, and less destruction, that’d be peachy-keen?
While you’re at it, as long as you’re doing all this activism, you could do it while being a little more aware of its historic context. It looks like it’s time for a history lesson from Uncle Petey. Sit down, kids, take a rest, and let me teach you the stuff nobody else will.
The American struggle for Civil Rights is far younger than you think!
Starting from Generation X and going into generations Millennial and Z, we were all mislead a bit in school. We were raised to believe this conventional narrative that racism was this extinct thing, long-ago buried and forgotten. Ancient history! Today when we encounter a sputtering racist (like Iowa’s own FINALLY-voted-out loony representative Steve King), we think of them as this dinosaur, a throwback to the Neanderthals. But Steve King is a Baby Boomer, born in 1949. The Boomers all grew up over the course of the 50s and 60s, coming to their teens right about at the end of the 1960s decade.
Ask anybody today about the 1960s, and they’ll say it was all about the Flower Power, love-ins, and Woodstock. But here are a few photos from the 1960s that you don’t often see. Please stand back, because these will hit like a truck:
That’s just a taste of what life was like under the “Jim Crow” United States. It was inescapable, omnipresent, taken for granted. Every water fountain, every taxicab, every bus had racism boldly painted on a sign. God forbid you got injured and the only ambulance around wasn’t taking your color. Yes, this really happened.
These sources will show you images even more shocking than what we selected. Every single bit of this is within the timeline of your average Baby Boomer today, in living memory for anyone aged 60 or older right now. That is what time it is in America today.
We spend a lot of effort now sweeping the Jim Crow era under the rug. It’s so ugly to our modern eyes. But perhaps we should be taking a harder look at that time, because the Civil Rights Act didn’t pass until 1964, and the Voting Rights Act didn’t pass until 1965. That was only 55 years ago.
And now to the point of our lesson today. Many of the foundational cornerstones of what we call modern geek culture were started as a progressive response to racial segregation. They were formed to express solidarity with the causes of Civil Rights, made to be a call to action in ending bigotry on every possible front. Consult this timeline of the Civil Rights movement. – Geek culture media was making statements about it as it happened, day by day. Here’s a few examples:
The Munsters‘ lesson in diversity and acceptance
I wouldn’t have even included this one (it’s a bit far afield for “geek” culture), but literally as I wrote, the whole Internet rediscovered and made viral this speech from Herman Munster of The Munsters in their first season – which just so happened to be in 1965!
This seems like a trite message if you heard it in reruns in, say, 1980. Simple Sunday School and Golden Rule stuff, right? But in 1965, you would hardly DARE to say this out loud! At least not in front of the bigots with the MLK doll hanging in front of their porch back there. Both The Munsters and The Addams Family were part of a wave of mid-60s TV shows that carried a hardcore message of diversity, acceptance, and everybody getting along no matter their differences. It was “Universal themed monsters as social commentary.”
These shows said to viewers, oh, so you have a hard time bussing to school with folk of a different hue? The 1960s sitcoms were there to tell you, “Look, people can even get along with vampires and werewolves! You can keep a lion for a pet and there’s still a place for you in America!” Breaking the sterilized 1950s TV sitcom neverland, 1960s sitcoms were about all the different people trying to fit in. Witches on Bewitched, djinns on I Dream of Genie, magical women of the cloth in The Flying Nun, or psychic babysitters in Nanny and the Professor, 1960s sitcoms said “There’s different people moving into suburbia – watch the hilarious hijinks as we all try to get along!”
Star Trek was cast with the blessings of Martin Luther King, Jr.
I’ve mentioned before that Star Trek was not just a TV space show, but a vision Gene Roddenberry had for promoting progressive values. In fact, no less than Martin Luther King, Jr., personally met actress Nichelle Nichols to convince her to stay on the show, as an inspiration for racial diversity at the time. Here she is herself to tell the story:
The original Star Trek series launched in 1966 and ran until 1969. And here was Nichelle Nichols, a black woman, who was not playing a maid, not being a Gone With the Wind reference or an Aunt Jemima, but a professional communications officer on a spaceship. This had never happened in American television before.
Star Trek carried on this tradition with stories that addressed the ongoing Cold War, social changes of all kinds, and a head-on racial message in the episode Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. How obvious can you get from the makeup:
This episode aired January 10th, 1969. It’s about these two half-moon faced aliens, one who owned the other as a slave before the slave revolted and fled, and the two chase across the galaxy. Engineer Scotty calls the mutually hateful aliens “disgusting.” Point made.
One month later, the chairman of the Illinois Black Panther party was shot during a police raid.
Stan Lee launched the X-Men in support of Civil Rights
The founder of the Marvel Comics universe and guiding producer of many of its most famed characters, the late Stan Lee was also a staunch ally of the Civil Rights movement. He conceived his superhero stories often with a humanist theme. These were not aliens or monsters, but ordinary people with their own mundane problems who suddenly found themselves gifted with freakish powers. Stan Lee gets in a brief line about the social issues in his stories at the end of this clip:
In the cinematic universe, 2003’s X2: X-Men United has the character of Colonel William Stryker, a political figure who is bent on bringing down the X-Men as a menace to society, based on the thoroughly McCarthyist logic “look at them they’re freaks” argument. The X-Men have to grapple with their dual status as heroes and hated minorities. The social message even bridges the gap from race into LGBTQ territory, as one mutant’s natural mother asks him “Have you tried not being a mutant?”
This is only one of the many times the X-Men universe addressed the fundamental conflict of a class of different people trying to get along in a society which shuns them. The timing of that film, even though it was taken from a universe started in – wait for it! – 1963, was an answer to the resurgence of xenophobia in the immediate post-9/11 world.
Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone carried heavy progressive messages
Small wonder, Rod Serling also was steered towards making The Twilight Zone to answer his urge to make commentary on social and political issues of his day. We have one of our strongest examples with Rod Serling, because we have this full essay in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, “Social Justice from the Twilight Zone: Rod Serling as Human Rights Activist.”
And here is a perfect lesson in why we explore civic lessons in sci-fi so often, if you look to the section there starting with “Traveling Through Another Dimension: The Activist Disguised as Entertainer.” It’s a bit long to quote here, so let’s summarize:
Serling would try to make socially-relevant stories for TV, taken from the headlines of the day
Sponsors would get cold feet and Serling’s script would be rewritten to remove the controversy
Tired of having his message pulped out of everything he wrote, he waved a false white flag and said “Fine I’ll make zany science fiction stuff! Are you blue-nosed bigots OK with me telling some flying saucer stories?”
No more social messages now, I promise. (*fingers crossed*)
But there WERE social messages in dozens of Twilight Zone episodes, only they were just couched in sci-fi and fantasy allegories instead of contemporary American life!
Here’s a video essay on how Rod Serling came to carry his socio-political messages in a sci-fi basket, along with some of the background I’ve included here:
The Twilight Zone is a very early outlier in our theme of science fiction as Civil Rights Movement commentary. The original series ran from 1959 until 1964, practically laying the groundwork for allegorical sci-fi right up to the threshold of the Civil Rights Act. Nevertheless, Rod Serling managed to work messages relevant to the Civil Rights struggles of the decade. A lot of these episodes seem sappy and heavy-handed now, but that just goes to show that we’ve made some progress since they were made.
On the other hand, Twilight Zone style political commentary is just as relevant today, which is why you see so many images of Rod Serling in political memes. You can stir up controversy with a Twilight Zone story now just as easily as you could in 1964, which goes to show how far we haven’t come.
The sci-fi anthology series Dangerous Visions ushered in the progressive New Wave of sci-fi
While the late Harlan Ellison remains one of my favorite sci-fi grand masters, even in his eulogy I had to allow that the man was a bit of a poop. He sure wasn’t very progressive when it came to feminism, for instance. But Ellison was a very active Civil Rights crusader, as he’ll tell you in this video essay about his part in the March on Selma:
Before you go thinking of him as a white guy carpetbagging in the early BLM movement for social media points (to borrow the parlance of our times), Ellison was Jewish, another race which has faced its share of discrimination, he said understatedly. Ethnic Jews joined often with African-Americans both culturally and politically in the 1960s, some of it due to shared goals and values and some of it because both classes of society were equally ostracized and found their ghettos right next to each other.
ANYWAY, the Golden Age of Science Fiction was steeped deeply in the ethos of the 1950s. We Americans were going to beat those Ruskies to the moon, were going to enjoy a utopia of Jetsons crystal dome cities and flying cars. The New Wave of Science Fiction is the one that scratched the needle off the old message and brought us the forms of sci-fi more popular today. The New Wave took the Rod Serling approach, using sci-fi to tell allegorical stories about humanity in its present state.
The New Wave was controversial, and it was most prominently ushered in by Harlan Ellison’s editorial anthology series Dangerous Visions, first published in – wait for it! – 1967. Just two years after the March on Selma, Ellison assembled this list of intentionally controversial sci-fi, and typed the lines for the introduction: “What you hold in your hands is more than a book. If we are lucky, it is a revolution.”
The zombie genre was founded on a metaphor for divided society
This started out as a blog post and now I’m struggling to keep it from turning into a book. Just to finish on a lighter note, we can review the very familiar civics thesis which holds that the entire zombie genre is a political metaphor. Well, duh. Zombies make a handy little stand-in for whatever your chosen menace of the day is:
Fear of primitive cultures by analogy with Haitian voodoo
Fear of nuclear extinction and the Red Scare
Fear of the other side of the Civil Rights movement
Fear of science or nature run amok
Just plain old fear of other people
Your humble author recently went mad. Even before the entire world turned into Civil Rights Riot II, I gave up all allegory and declared that we are in a zombie apocalypse proper right now. I mean, there’s a deadly virus sweeping the world and everybody is fighting in melee skirmishes all over the place. So what’s the difference?
Of course, the foundation of the zombie apocalypse genre was laid in – wait for it! – 1968 in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, one of the few cases where a single work founded an entire genre almost unassisted. The Baltimore Sun noted the Civil Rights subtext of the film. Black and white characters share a house while zombies attack from outside. The black guy is the last one standing and ventures outside only to be gunned down by police.
Let me hammer a few gonads on the anvil and be sure everybody gets this analogy: The movie shows the downfall of society as a result of our failure to cooperate with each other in the face of an external threat.
Right now, we have a global threat, CoronaVirus, which we should be quarantining from so we don’t all catch it and die. But we can’t do that because we all have to go outside and fight with each other about Civil Rights – again! The current news headlines show the downfall of society as a result of our failure to cooperate with each other in the face of an external threat.
Apparently we need to keep yelling that message louder for the zombies in the back rows.