History 17B Lecture 18 War of the Generations Page 2

B.  Racism

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Speaker for the White Citizen's Council of Alabama.

Opposition to rock music took on racial overtones in the South where the White Citizen's Council of Alabama branded rock music as an NAACP plot to "mongrelize America."  Rock's intent, they believed, was to force Negro culture on the South, for it appealed to the base qualities in many by bringing out animalism and vulgarity.

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Though they were unable to do much to stop the momentum of rock music, one particular outburst, ironically, was directed at the non-rock singer Nat King Cole.  In 1956 he was attacked by three men in the middle of a concert in front of an all-white audience in Birmingham, Alabama.  The three men, who were against all be-bop and Negro music, were hailed by the White Citizen's Council as heroes.  Meanwhile, many white southern churches had joined the White Citizen's Council crusade to ban rock music from juke boxes throughout the South because of the Negro plot to corrupt white southern youth.

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Nat King Cole

III.  "I'm not a juvenile delinquent."

A.  Violence

Many parents were more concerned about what seemed to be a violent element of rock music than they were of racism.  The riots that accompanied many rock concerts led parents to conclude that rock 'n' roll was a violent sort of music that destroyed the morals of America.  A Cleveland rock concert reinforced this belief.

Alan Freed felt he had enough listeners to stage a concert featuring the bands he played on his radio show, and his first attempt was in June of 1952 at the Cleveland Arena.  More than 21,000 people showed up at the 10,000 seat capacity arena, causing such a panic that "Moondog's Coronation Ball" had to be called off.  Though Freed was able to keep future concerts orderly (until 1958 in Boston), the impression was already transfixed in the media:  rock 'n' roll causes violence.

blackbd_jungle.JPG (20330 bytes) This impression was only strengthened by the outburst of violence with several films.  Blackboard Jungle, released in 1955, was about a classroom of juvenile delinquents who spent half their time listening to rock music, and the other half terrorizing the teachers.  The inclusion in the film of Bill Halley's song ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK made the the film (and the musician) an instant success with youth audiences.  The release of the 1956 film Rock Around the Clock resulted in youth riots throughout the world.  British movie houses banned the movie because of the damage done to the theaters by moviegoers.  The film spawned riots in Iraq, Cuba, and the Soviet Union (which called rock music a capitalist conspiracy).

Though there was little violence in American theaters caused by rock films, American kids, instead, seemed to save their energy for rock concerts which had a string of violent events in 1956.  A Bill Halley concert in Washington, D.C. at the National Guard Armory broke into rioting; a riot in New Jersey's Asbury Park's Convention Hall sent twenty-five teens to the hospital; San Jose, California experienced a riot where eleven were injured, seventy-three police were needed, and $3,000 worth of damage was done.  The riots were few in number considering the overall number of rock concerts, but the media made every opportunity to report these few.

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Bill Halley

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Freed's Moondog Concert

By far the most damaging to rock music's image was the May 1958 Boston riot at an Alan Freed concert.  When kids began screaming and dancing in the aisles as they did at every concert, police turned on the lights in the middle of the concert and announced the show was over.  Freed took the microphone from the officers and is reported to have said, "Hey, kids, the cops don't want you to have a good time."  The audience exploded and seriously damaged the theater and carried the violence into the streets through muggings, robberies, and beatings.  Parents were horrified and Boston officials charged Freed with anarchy and incitement to riot.


Yet there was more to the violence than just riots.  Rock music didn't conform to 1950s standards.  It was loud and boisterous with singers who were wild men who wore outrageous clothes, jumped on pianos, and screamed their lyrics.  The pounding and excessive "beat" brought on actions by the audience that no one had ever seen before.  "It's that jungle strain that gets them all worked up," Armory manager Arthur Bergman said after the Washington, D.C. riot.

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