Rosa Parks and the class of '55
PORTLAND, ORE. — If you think of recorded history as the universe of human achievement, important events from the past flicker in our collective memory like stars against the night sky. In 1955 a number of achievements took place that continue to resonate in American culture. It was a year that initiated changes in lifestyles, attitudes, and perceptions about who we are as individuals and as a nation.
A lot of attention was focused on making life pleasanter for the rapidly expanding middle class. Ray Kroc envisioned a chain of restaurants that appealed to families who wanted an enjoyable, economical break from the daily kitchen routine. In the spring of 1955, he opened his first McDonald's in Des Plaines, Ill. National culinary habits would never be the same.
Families were also the target audience for Walt Disney. He wanted to create an amusement park totally different from established venues like Coney Island and gritty traveling carnivals. The grand opening of Disneyland on July 17 did not get rave reviews. Searing hot weather, equipment breakdowns, and a lack of drinking fountains made Walt's Magic Kingdom seem a bit hexed, but the problems were quickly solved and in the next seven weeks 1 million visitors passed through the front gates.
But while much of America was enjoying the abundance of our postwar economy, a darker mood was seeping into many households. Sloan Wilson made the new suburban angst a central theme of his bestseller, "The Man in The Gray Flannel Suit." As the main characters struggled to figure out why the pursuit of money and material goods caused stress instead of happiness, many readers saw the book as a mirror of their own unsatisfying career choices.
Growing numbers of young people were also feeling restless and misunderstood. For many of them, James Dean became a living symbol of their alienation as he confronted unsympathetic and hostile adults in "East of Eden" and "Rebel Without a Cause." Dean's death after a September car crash made him an icon for every new generation of mavericks and loners.
A lot of people were asking lots of questions, and in Chicago a woman was eager to start giving them answers. Eppie Lederer was hired by the Sun-Times to take over an advice column using the moniker Ann Landers, and she took a wide-open approach that quickly made the column into a public forum for intense debates about the foibles and frustrations of average Americans.
It's hard to know if any of these cultural milestones were on the mind of Rosa Parks as she boarded a transit bus in Alabama on the evening of Dec. 1. Her place in history was secured very suddenly when she refused to get up and move so a white man could sit in her row. At that moment, it would have seemed ridiculous to think that a woman arrested on a bus in Montgomery would one day be buried with national honors.
In the universe of human achievement, each year creates its own constellations. And of all the stars shining in the sky of 1955, Rosa Parks has a rare quality no one could have predicted 50 years ago: Instead of fading as the decades pass, her achievement actually glows brighter.
• Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.