The Spirit of '56

America turns 50 this year -- the America, that is, that we recognize as ours. It was half a century ago that our new founding fathers made their debut on the national stage: Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Elvis Presley. The latter, per Life's August 27, 1956, issue, was “Elvis -- A Different Kind of Idol”: a different idol for a different America.

The chronicler -- or maybe even the Tom Paine -- of this new New World was the 31-year-old Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank. “I am photographing how Americans live, have fun, eat, drive cars, work, etc.,” Frank wrote to his parents. From December 1955 through the summer of 1956, Frank crossed and re-crossed the continent, driving south from New York, out to California, and back east through the Midwest, stopping in Chicago for the Democratic National Convention. It was there that a handsome young senator who was not yet well known to the wider public, John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, was put forth as a candidate for vice president; although another senator got the nod, Kennedy was tabbed as a political Elvis -- front-runner for the 1960 nomination.

Frank photographed Detroit autoworkers; Hoboken, New Jersey, politicians; New York City drag queens; the workday crowd on New Orleans' Canal Street; Oral Roberts on television. His subject matter encompassed rodeos, picnics, funerals; he specialized in solitary lunch counters and empty highways. Frank was the first to document the Strip -- the ubiquitous yet ignored, nowhere but everywhere, a democratic realm at once concrete and allegorical of billboards, drive-ins, and gas stations. A vanguard beatnik, he completed his road trip ahead of the 40,000-mile interstate highway system authorized by Congress, as well as Time's assertion that such highways were “really the American art ... a true index of our culture.”

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By comparison to previous photo-travelogues, Frank's paid striking attention to black, as well as white, America -- separate and unequal. His signature photograph “Trolley-New Orleans” pondered a succession of Americans on their journey through life, faces framed through the vehicle's windows, and blacks confined to the rear seats. It was while Frank was on the road that, less two years after the Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional, the Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King Jr. initiated the resistance against American apartheid.

Time first reported the boycott in mid-January; there were segregationist riots in nearby Tuscaloosa, where Autherine Lucy -- the first black student to attend the University of Alabama -- was banned from campus for what the university's board termed her own safety -- and King's home was bombed in January. By the end of the month, he was booked, along with almost 100 other civil-rights leaders, for violating the state's anti-boycott law. By now, Montgomery had become an ongoing national news story and King's indictment would make front-page headlines. Even network television was covering the boycott and the arrests.

The whole world, as would later be said, was watching, and the context was global: An ABC commentator compared the Alabama protests to those led by Gandhi against the British in India. King himself made the point more forcefully, implicitly linking the civil-rights movement to the previous year's Bandung conference of Third World nations, when he told a mass meeting that, part of “a great moment in history,” the Montgomery boycott was “bigger than Montgomery” and that the protesters were part of global movement: “The vast majority of the people of the world are colored, [and] up until four or five years ago [most] were exploited by the empires of the west.”

The so-called Third World continued to find its voice. In mid-July, Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, and Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt would issue a joint communiqué calling for the end of French rule in Algeria, as well as the suspension of all nuclear tests and the institution of United Nations–directed disarmament. A few days later, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal -- setting the stage for a post-colonial war that fall when Britain and France launched an attack to regain the canal, with Israel's help.

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Meanwhile, behind the Iron Curtain, shockwaves were spreading from Moscow: The 20th Communist Party Congress opened in mid-February with Nikita Khrushchev's criticism of the Stalinist personality cult. This attack would be greatly elaborated 11 days later in Khrushchev's so-called secret speech enumerating Stalin's crimes. Even before the Daily Worker opened the floodgates as the lone Communist daily to publish the complete secret speech, the newspaper editorialized against Soviet anti-Semitism and, for the first time in memory, let a thousand flowers bloom. Beginning with a column by its managing editor, the newspaper frankly acknowledged the tumult convulsing world communism, giving space to both Stalin's attackers and defenders (as well as those seeking a middle position).

The Old Left was dead; the New Left, not yet born. It was a moment for manifestos. In early March, Allen Ginsberg began running off mimeographed copies of “Howl,” the barbaric yawp with which he had presented several months earlier to the beatnik audience at a San Francisco poetry reading. Around the same time Ginsberg's countercultural samizdat appeared, “Blue Suede Shoes” became the first record to reach the top of the pop, R&B, and country music charts. As self-assertive in its way as “Howl,” albeit declaring the singer's sartorial independence, Carl Perkins' rockabilly hit was a new national anthem. Years later, rock journalist Stanley Booth would call it “one of the most important steps in the evolution of American consciousness since the Emancipation Proclamation.

The success of “Blue Suede Shoes” among blacks represented an actually grass-roots acknowledgment of a common heritage, a mutual overcoming of poverty and lack of style, an act of forgiveness, of redemption.

From an artistic point of view, the energies liberated by the Supreme Court's decision in Brown received their fullest expression that May with the release of John Ford's great and troubling evocation of American race hatred and reconciliation, The Searchers. In its return to the genre's root issues, The Searchers was the most radical western ever made -- grappling with the idea that Americans were no longer white Europeans but something else.

Indeed, it was while The Searchers was in production that Memphis record producer Sam Phillips expressed his desire for a new America in commercial terms: The time was ripe for “a white boy who could sing like a Negro” and, as if answering Phillips' prayer, an 18-year-old Mississippi-born guitar-playing truck driver materialized in his studio -- the first and greatest of White Negroes, to appropriate the title of Norman Mailer's celebrated essay, published in Dissent in the summer of 1957.

Elvis Presley enjoyed the most meteoric rise in the history of American show biz. If 1955 had been the year of the juvenile delinquent -- Congress held hearings and magazines waxed solemn as The Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause introduced a new mythology of violence based on the hot-rod and the switchblade -- something was still missing: a focal point for the mass audience of crazy mixed-up kids.

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Communism was over! Throughout the summer of '56, Elvis was attacked by newspapers, preachers, teachers, cops, politicians, the entire state ideological apparatus. There were demands he be banned, curbed, run out of town. The August 27 issue of Life showed pictures of fundamentalist congregations praying for his soul, and of Elvis fans prostrating themselves on his front lawn. Of course, Elvis the Pelvis had no need to minister to teen spiritual angst; at the very moment of his apotheosis, a less corporeal idol hovered over the land, subject of a parallel and equally hysterical craze. In late summer, Time reported “a weird new phenomenon is loose in the land; a teenage craze for a boyish Hollywood actor named James Dean, who has been dead for 11 months.”

The tumult reached its climax in November. Time reported that TV had “joined the weird posthumous cult of James Dean” by re-broadcasting three undistinguished tele-dramas in which Dean played minor parts. “He's hotter than anybody alive,” one unnamed executive declared. Well, almost anyone. President Eisenhower was overwhelmingly reelected, and the opening of Love Me Tender, the routine western into which Elvis had been hastily inserted, was a media event comparable to The Jazz Singer -- returning its production costs in two weeks.

November 1956 was also the end of the glorious Hungarian Revolution and the end of the hopes inspired by the 20th Party Congress. The Voice of America may have encouraged the Hungarian uprising, but America itself paid only lip service to the rebellion. Eisenhower used his political capital to halt the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Suez rather than Soviet invasion of Budapest. Still, Time's man of the year would be a long-haired youth with a gun, perfect sublimation for the juvenile delinquency that succeeded communism as America's great internal threat. Suddenly the ideological apparatus turned cheerleader, re-imagining the crazy mixed-up kid as Freedom Fighter.

As the year ended, the Supreme Court rejected Montgomery's last appeal and the bus boycott ended, triumphant. Black militancy had asserted itself, a counter-culture announced its presence, America's vernacular landscape was recognized and a new youthful demographic ran wild. In Europe, reform communism was crushed by Russian tanks. There's a sense in which 1968 was the 12th anniversary of the forces unleashed in ‘56.

J. Hoberman is a senior film critic for The Village Voice and the author of The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties.