About the National Archives

Welcome Remarks for The Fifties: An Underground History

Greetings from the National Archives’ flagship building in Washington, DC, which sits on the ancestral lands of the Nacotchtank peoples. I’m David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, and it's my pleasure to welcome you to today’s conversation with James R. Gaines about his new book, The Fifties, which looks at the 1950s not as a decade of conformity but as a time when motivated individuals pressed for change. Joining the author in conversation is journalist Margaret Carlson.

Before we begin, I’d like to tell you about two programs coming up next month on our YouTube channel.

On Tuesday, April 12, at 1 p.m., Kostya Kennedy brings us his biography of Jackie Robinson, titled True, which focuses on four transformative years in Robinson’s life. A letter Robinson wrote after an incident on a bus while he was in the Army in Texas is on display online and in the National Archives in Washington, DC, through April 20.

And on Thursday, April 14, at 1 p.m., Michael Meyer will discuss the story of Benjamin Franklin’s parting gift to the working-class people of Boston and Philadelphia—a deathbed bequest of 2,000 pounds to be lent out to tradesmen over the next two centuries to jump‑start their careers.

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Four days ago, on Friday, April 1, the 1950 population census records were made public. At a minute past midnight, the National Archives activated a website where anyone, anywhere can freely view, search, and download the census schedules filled out 72 years ago.

We may associate census records with genealogy and family history, but taken as a whole, the census gives us a snapshot of America on the cusp of a new decade—the 1950s.

James R. Gaines takes us further into the Fifties in his new book and brings us face to face with individuals who had the courage to ask questions and call for change. They lay the groundwork for advances in gay rights, feminism, civil rights, and environmentalism.

As Gaines states in his book’s introduction, these solitary figures, “[t]hough isolated by their personal histories, idiosyncrasies, flaws, and gifts, . . . have in common the courage, the vision, and the profoundly motivating need to fight for change in their time and the future.”

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James R. Gaines is the former managing editor of Time magazine and the author of several books, including Evening in the Palace of Reason, a study of Johann Sebastian Bach and the early Enlightenment, and For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette, and Their Revolutions.

Margaret Carlson is a columnist for the Daily Beast. She was formerly the first woman columnist at Time magazine, a columnist at Bloomberg View, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang,” and managing editor at the New Republic.

Now let’s hear from James R. Gaines and Margaret Carlson. Thank you for joining us today.