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1959: Sex, Jazz, and Datsuns

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‘Sick’ Comedy

On the night of April 9, Steve Allen, host of his own prime-time variety show on NBC-TV, introduced his first guest of the evening: “Ladies and gentlemen, here is the very shocking comedian, the most shocking comedian of our time … Lenny Bruce!” The very appearance of this “sick comic” on national television was a sign that something in the air was changing. Where most of the era’s comedians told jokes about wives, kids, and mothers-in-law, Bruce uncorked elaborate monologues about sex, drugs, politics, and the hypocrisy of organized religion—topics nobody was supposed to mention in “mixed company,” much less on a public stage.


The Birth of Racial Politics

In July, Mike Wallace hosted a two-and-a-half-hour nationally syndicated documentary called The Hate That Hate Produced—the first mass-media report about, as Wallace put it, “a call for black supremacy among a small but growing segment of the American Negro population,” led by Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam and especially the charismatic minister of its New York chapter, Malcolm X. Their words, about the coming race war between the “divine” black man and the “evil” white man, terrified millions of white viewers but delighted a large number of black ones. Malcolm X emerged as a national leader, offering a radical alternative to the mainstream civil-rights figures of the day, including Martin Luther King Jr., who a few months earlier had traveled to India, where he embraced the tactics of civil disobedience. The tension between these two strands—militant separatism versus nonviolent protest for integration—would define racial politics in late-twentieth-century America.


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