Anyone who grew up watching “Happy Days” knows that the 1950s are often painted with an optimistic, almost idyllic luster. And while not everyone’s recollections reflect this romanticized nostalgia, there is a reason for it. For many American families, this was an era of unprecedented prosperity.
The credit for this economic boom goes to the American workforce, which hummed throughout the decade to meet increased demand for home construction, as well as automobile, appliance and defense manufacturing following World War II. And supporting it along the way was the U.S. Department of Labor, of course.
The department started the decade with former Massachusetts Gov. Maurice Tobin at the helm, but when President Eisenhower was inaugurated in January 1953, he appointed Martin Durkin — the odd man out on the Cabinet dubbed by the media as “Nine Millionaires and a Plumber.” A former plumber’s apprentice who had risen to become president of his union, Durkin fought unsuccessfully to eliminate loyalty oath requirements in the Taft-Hartley Act and resigned in September 1953, after less than a year in office.
Durkin’s time in office was not without impact, though. In August 1953, Eisenhower created the President’s Committee on Government Contracts, which investigated complaints of discrimination by government contractors and recommended action to ensure equal opportunity requirements were being met. The Labor Department played a significant role.
In October 1953, James Paul Mitchell — the man who would largely shape the department’s role in the 1950s — was sworn in as secretary. Mitchell advocated for labor-management cooperation, helping set the stage for the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959, also known as the Landrum-Griffin Act, a federal law to prevent corruption and foster democracy within unions. He also fought against employment discrimination and worked to raise awareness about the plight of migrant workers.
It was during Mitchell’s tenure that the department also welcomed its first African-American assistant secretary. In 1954, J. Ernest Wilkins was appointed by Eisenhower as assistant secretary of labor for international labor affairs. Wilkins — who had served on the Committee on Government Contracts — was only the second African-American to reach that high of a position in the executive branch. And, in Mitchell’s absence, he became the first to attend a meeting of the president’s Cabinet.
That last achievement perhaps best hints at the decade’s most enduring legacy — the traction gained by the Civil Rights movement. In 1954 the Supreme Court declared “separate but equal” unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, and in 1955, Rosa Parks, with a single brave act of peaceful defiance, triggered the Montgomery Bus Boycott. These seminal events would have a massive impact on the department — and the nation — going forward. And I’d argue that therein lay the true optimism of the 1950s.
Carl Fillichio heads the Labor Department’s Office of Public Affairs and serves as the chair of the department’s centennial. This post is one in a series in which he explores the department’s impact over the past 100 years. To view a timeline of the department’s history, watch a special centennial video and learn more about its 100 years of service, visit dol.gov/100.