The Civil Rights Movement
Fueled with the speeches of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and with the deaths of several African-American activists, the civil rights movement was at its peak in 1955. Just the year before, the Supreme Court of the United States had struck down legal segregation in schools in a landmark decision. In 1955, Rosa Parks of Montgomery, Alabama, made her heroic and famous decision not to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. This single action engendered a widespread bus boycott which catapulted its organizer, Martin Luther King, Jr., to national attention. Georgia, where O’Connor lived and set the story, was filled with racial tension. The Grandmother’s attitudes toward African Americans typify the beliefs of many in the state at the time. When she tells June Star that “Little niggers in the country don’t have things like we do,” she was expressing a sentiment many people in white society in 1955 held.
The Era of the Automobile
The 1950s saw a significant increase in the number of cars on American roads, a result of post World War II economic prosperity. In 1955 motorcar sales passed the 7 million mark in the United States, Chevrolet introduced the V-8 engine, and President Eisenhower submitted a 10-year, $101 billion proposal to build a national highway system to Congress. Family vacations by car, like that in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” became common as Americans took to the highways and embraced the freedom and independence that automobiles provided. Although New York’s Long Island Expressway opened in 1955, it was unable to handle the volume of traffic passing over it. As American society became more mobile and independent, the culture changed. Drive-in restaurants and movie theaters proliferated in the 1950s, as did roadside motels and suburban shopping malls. Cars are important to O’Connor’s fiction as both an element of realism in her work and as a symbol for a shift in the way Americans think about themselves and their sense of place.
The Silver Screen, the Small Screen, and Rock’n’Roll
American popular culture shifted dramatically during the 1950s. The new prosperity allowed increasing numbers of families to buy television sets, and it became a central form of family entertainment. Shows like Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, and Father Knows Best presented an idealized and skewed picture of American life. Western movies, stories of good guys and bad guys like The Lone Ranger, reinforced the country’s moral belief that crime does not pay. Many famous movies or musicals also debuted in the 1950s: Oklahoma!, Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Rebel without a Cause, and Blackboard Jungle, many of which hinted at problems festering just under the surface of American life. Movies often showed a darker side of American life, and many of the movies of the 1950s dealt with the social unrest that would break loose in the next decade. A new form of music, rock’n’roll, debuted in the mid-1950s. Entertainers such as Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Bill Haley enjoyed tremendous popularity as they appealed to young people and often sang about issues that concerned them. Such overwhelming changes in many facets of American society prompt the Grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” to feel nostalgia for a lost past.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Flannery O’Connor, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.