Singular events can have profound impacts on the course of history: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 proved as much. After the Second World War, the United States underwent tremendous economic and social transformations. Many of the changes that took place in American culture during the latter half of the twentieth century can be traced directly to one political, social, or fiscal event such as a scientific invention or a declaration of war. Events that serve as historical turning points are usually both causes and effects. Turning points in history represent the culmination of what transpired before and their repercussions reverberate throughout succeeding generations.
The 1950s: The End of Legal Segregation
The 1950s was characterized most by the aftermath of the Second World War and the American involvement in it. The Cold War and the communist scare in particular helped define American values and culture. However, the one single event that had the most dramatic impact on the course of American history was a landmark case settled by the American Supreme Court in 1954: Brown v. Board of Education of Tokeka. Not only did the case end legal segregation by overturning the "separate but equal" claim of Plessy v. Ferguson but the event kick-started the decades-long and still ongoing struggle for Civil Rights in America ("About the Case" 2004).
Prior to Brown v. Board of Education, American public schools were racially segregated. Much of the country was, in fact, segregated with separate drinking fountains and washrooms for Black and white citizens. Especially in the South, racial segregation was viewed as a correct, desirable social order that would preserve prevailing hierarchies based on the notion of white supremacy (Cozzens 1995). In glaring opposition to the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution affirming equal protection of the law for all American citizens regardless of race, gender or ethnicity, cases like Plessy v. Ferguson showed how deep the thread of racism ran in American society and how centuries of slavery continued to plague persons of African descent in the Untied States. The abolition of slavery nearly a century earlier did little to uplift the African-American community. Even in the more socially liberal northern states, blacks were regularly discriminated against and segregated in public institutions including schools. Blacks and whites did not have equal access to the same social, political, and economic resources. Brown v. Board of Education changed the way American social institutions operated by making racial segregation illegitimate and illegal. Not since the Fifteenth Amendment ensuring voting rights for African-Americans had any legislation so openly affirmed the rights of America's non-white citizens.
The Brown v. Board of Education case was a class action lawsuit initiated on a grassroots level by the parents of Topeka, Kansas school children, but the case was supported by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP had since its inception in 1909 struggled to make Civil Rights a reality in America. Brown v. Board of Education was one of the greatest successes of the NAACP and the Supreme Court victory paved the way for future Civil Rights struggles such as those led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King's roots as a political activist can be traced to the 1950s, when he helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, one year after the Brown v. Board of Education decision was released. King's involvement in the Civil Rights movement flourished in the 1960s, and the NAACP's efforts became increasingly successful in the decades following Brown. As a result, the 1960s were characterized by even greater social upheavals in the United States related to Civil Rights activism. Final hypothesis: Brown v. Board of Education initiated the Civil Rights movement and helped end centuries of racial oppression in America.
The 1960s: Man on the Moon
The 1960s bore witness to several momentous events that changed the course of American history. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one, and occurred five years after President John F. Kennedy was shot. America had also become embroiled in the Vietnam War. The Bay of Pigs invasion likewise showed how severe the Cold War had become. The Cold War was fought on several fronts simultaneously, though, and one arena the battle between Russia and the Untied States manifested most was in the so-called Space Race. Russia won several rounds, beginning with the successful launch of Sputnik in 1957. The United States government responded fast, first with the creation of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958. Investment in the space race meant boosting America's military prowess, as the space race symbolized the Cold War battle toward military supremacy and world domination ("The Space Race"). The Space Race culminated in January 1969 with the first moon landing. The moon landing was a major historical turning point for two reasons: it marked a celebration of America's technological advancement and it also lent the appearance of American military and cultural supremacy.
NASA, an American government administration, was the main group responsible for the successful moon landing. Because of what the moon landing meant for American public morale, the government invested heavily in NASA and its Space Race. Prior to the moon landing, several Space Race successes proved that technology would become one of the most important features of the Cold War. The moon landing was like a science fiction story made real: broadcast on American televisions, images of the event transformed the consciousness of the nation and indeed of the world. The event was a major success in the Cold War for the United States, symbolizing with surreal intensity that America was the most technologically advanced civilization on the planet and perhaps in history.
After the moon landing, technology became one of the themes that characterized American society (Garber 2007). Communications satellites, computers, and the Internet affected the daily lives of Americans and changed the way businesses and financial institutions ran. The military, though, was the intended and actual beneficiary of the spoils of the Space Race. Therefore, the moon landing accomplished NASA's goals with aplomb. Final Hypothesis: The 1969 moon landing proved American military and technological prowess and ushered in a new era of military and scientific advancements.
The 1970s: Female Sexual Liberation
The 1970s started off on a mixed note. On the one hand, the moon landing and Civil Rights successes of the 1960s offered optimism; on the other hand, the Vietnam War raged on and Americans became increasingly dissatisfied with and cynical about politics. American social values and cultural norms were changing, in large part due to the Civil Rights movement but also to the hippie culture that sprouted during the 1960s. The hippie movement coincided with the Civil Rights movement, as both signified an age of peaceful protest and nonviolent dissent. One of the legacies of both the hippie movement and of the Civil Rights era was feminism. Feminism dominated the American social and political scene in the 1970s, culminating in a landmark Supreme Court case: Roe v. Wade. Prior to Roe v. Wade, abortion was a thorny topic, taboo in many socially conservative parts of the nation like Texas ("Roe v. Wade"). Contraceptives were relatively new, and women were just beginning to extricate themselves from the tyranny of patriarchy. Feminism became a key theme in 1970s political and public discourse, and Roe v. Wade symbolizes how far women had progressed in American society ("Roe v. Wade: Legalizing Abortion").
The Supreme Court had wrestled with the abortion issue since the 1960s. In 1970, a woman named Norma L. McCorvey (dubbed Jane Roe for the purposes of the trial) fought the Texan government for the right to obtain an abortion after being raped. Her victory and its subsequent appeal heard by the Supreme Court of the United States helped strike down restrictive, conservative Texan laws barring women from having abortions under any circumstances. The decision was heralded as a victory for women's rights in America. Although no single group was responsible for bringing the case to trial, Roe v. Wade reverberated as a major turning point for the social lives of Americans. The case also signaled the deep rift in American society between religious conservatives who oppose abortion and socially liberal Americans who view abortion, especially in cases where rape is suspected, as an essential human right. That women have the right to decide whether or not to bear children was a revolutionary concept. The effects of Roe v. Wade can still be felt today, as the decision remains one of the most controversial in American history. Final hypothesis: Roe v. Wade enhanced women's rights, allowing all American women to choose whether or not to become mothers.
The 1980s: AIDS
In 1981, the first AIDS cases were reported by the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The disease had already spread in Africa but before the 1980s little if anything was known about the disease or its effect on the human population. Moreover, AIDS surfaced in America's gay communities. The link between…