California during the 1950s and 1960s
by Cynthia C. Scott
The effects of WWII influenced the social and economic
shifts that took place in California during the 1950s and 1960s, defining much of what the state has become
today. The war opened up new and unique economic opportunities, while also creating a population boom
that effected the state’s racial, social, and political climate.
After the economic collapse the state suffered during
the Great Depression, the war economy, as it did with much of the country, brought California back to
financial renewal. When the Soviet Union tested its own atomic bomb in 1949, the United States was thrust
into a Cold War, making California a bellwether in the new technology and war machinery that aided the
country during this period.
Such aerospace corporations as Douglas, Lockheed, and North American,
were based in California and produced the missile technology which made the United States a leader in
war production and technology. Research labs such as California Institute of Technology, Lawrence Livermore
Lab, and Stanford University attracted the leading scientists in research and development, creating a
booming economy in the modern defense.
In order to meet the demands of a growing economic boom, the state needed an educated class. The
federal G.I. Bill, a law passed by the U.S. Congress, enabled returning war veterans the financial
means to pursue a higher education, thus creating a white-collar and educated class. A more educated population not only
supplied the military industrial complex in California with skilled workers, but it also helped create a
larger middle class, one which would in turn feed back into the economy with a
This led to a housing boom in the state, as more and more Americans moved out of the cities and into
suburban developments. The sub urbanization of California also went underway as freeway development enabled
Californians the mobility to travel from suburban tracts to the cities, where most of the jobs
were still located. Freeway construction also enabled for a decentralization of production and planning,
particularly in agriculture, as produce could be shipped with greater efficiency state- and nationwide.
Yet the emergence of an economy that was more dependent on educated skills and created a middle
class that was moving with increasing alacrity away from the urban centers meant that those who were
unable to take advantage of these enormous changes in the state were left behind both socially and
During WWII, African Americans migrated to the state to take advantage of the economic
opportunities that the war economy provided for them. There were approximately 63,774 African Americans
living in the city of Los Angeles in 1940, but those numbers jumped to 171,209 by 1950, five years after
the war ended. Many of these transplants were industrial and factory workers, whose blue-collar
skills were necessary in the war effort. Yet many of these same laborers were shut out of the post-war
economic boom in California, their blue-collar skills no longer needed. Racism, including the lack of
educational opportunities, also played a role in denying Blacks the opportunities to benefit in the new
Likewise, Latino labor was in great demand in agriculture during the war as the sons of the Dust
Bowl Okies, who came to California during the dust bowl of the 1930s and found work on California farms,
went to war. In response to the depletion of farm laborers, the United States created the Bracero
program, in which Mexican conscripts were brought to the country to temporarily replace white farm
workers. Once the war ended, the Bracero program was terminated, thus putting many Mexican migrants out of
work. As more white Californians left the cities for the suburbs, African Americans and Latinos were
heavily concentrated in urban centers, often living in ghettoes that were economically deprived. The
loss of a tax base also effected the school systems and, along with racism, led to the disintegration of many public
schools, creating a vicious cycle of social and economic degradation.
The social unrest that made up of California life during the 1960s were directly involved in the
political activism of African Americans and Latinos seeking a better life. The Watts riots of 1965,
sparked by police brutality, became a social symbol of the struggle for African Americans in the state. Later
in the decade, the emergence of the Black Panther Party, formed by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale in
Oakland, California, became a visual and vocal political movement that challenged the civil rights
movement as a means for collective resistance among African Americans.
The Chicano movement, which began largely in Los Angeles, and also involved the farm
workers strikes led by Cesar Chavez, likewise illuminated the struggles of Chicanos in the state in
seeking political and social redress against racism and economic exploitation. Political activism in the state, though, began
earlier on college campuses.
The Cold War, with its emphasis on educating a larger white collar base in
which to employ the “best and brightest” to maintain the United States’ economic and military hegemony,
created on college campuses nationwide a social and intellectual conformity that had little room for
public dissent. The McCarthy era during the 1950s was an example of the conformity and fear that was
fostered in the country during this time. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which had a
branch in the state government, created tensions between UC students and the college board, when
students protested the actions of the committee, particularly the loyalty oaths members of academia had
to pledge in order to retain their collegiate positions. Concurrently, white students, mostly at UC
Berkeley, were involved in the civil rights movement in the South through the activism of C.O.R.E., the
Congress of Racial Equality, an organization which had its start in the late 1940s.
The Free Speech Movement began when the UC school system tried to silence
student activities both locally and abroad. Students, such as Mario Savio, saw in the efforts to silence
their political activism as part of a broader effort to stifle dissent and establish a conformist,
hegemonic environment in higher education. The Free Speech Movement centered the California college campus
as the locus of political activism and social uplift, both good and bad. The movement, which also invited
those around the country who were not as fully committed to political change as they were to social
unrest, created a backlash which ushered in Ronald Reagan as governor in 1967.
Clearly, the economic advantages California experienced during the post-war played a key role in
creating the social and political movements that defined the state during the 1950s and 1960s, while
also influencing the rest of the nation politically and culturally.
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