cover image The Fifties: An Underground History

The Fifties: An Underground History

James R. Gaines. Simon & Schuster, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4391-0163-6

Historian Gaines (For Liberty and Glory) delivers a compassionate and insightful group portrait of “singular men and women” who spoke out on LGBTQ issues, women’s rights, civil rights, and the environment in the 1950s. Documenting how these pioneers sowed the seeds for the political, cultural, and legal sea changes of the 1960s and ’70s, Gaines spotlights Harry Hay, founder of the gay rights advocacy group the Mattachine Society; Gerda Lerner, an Austrian Jewish refugee from the Holocaust who taught the first women’s history course in the U.S. at the New School in 1962; Medgar Evers, the original field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi, whose desegregation efforts led to his murder in 1963; and cybernetics originator Norbert Wiener, who warned of “the many ways cutting-edge technologies could benefit humanity but also draw its blood.” Other profile subjects include feminist Betty Friedan, conservationist Rachel Carson, and civil rights activist Robert F. Williams. Gaines provides essential historical context and vividly captures the resilience of these and other “authentic rebels” who battled the FBI, McCarthyism, the medical industry, and the Ku Klux Klan “in a time infamous for rewarding conformity and suppressing dissent.” This revisionist history is packed with insights. Illus. Agent: Liz Darhansoff, Darhansoff & Verrill. (Jan.)