The civil rights context in 1958 was marked by sharp division and the beginnings of a greater activism. I summarize some of the important events in the preceding few years.
The modern era of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States began with the Supreme Court's 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, requiring desegregation in public schools. Most of the events in the following years resulted from attempts to achieve desegregation in other realms or to resist it.
In 1955, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman. News coverage sparked national outrage, but two men accused of the crime were acquitted.
The Montgomery Bus boycott of 1955–1956 began when Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat to a white passenger. The boycott lasted just over a year until a court ordered the desegregation of the buses in Montgomery. The boycott was organized by the Montgomery Improvement Association, under the leader ship of Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 1957, a crisis occurred when the governor of Arkansas called out the National Guard to prevent the admission of nine black students to Little Rock Central High School. It was resolved when President Eisenhower took control of the National Guard in Arkansas and ordered them to return to barracks and used troops from the 101st Airborne Division to protect the students. In 1958, at the end of the school year, Little Rock and other school systems in the south closed their schools completely rather than continue with integration.
The first "sit-ins" had occurred as early as 1939, but in 1958, their use expanded greatly. During the year, sit-ins at lunch counters in Kansas and Oklahoma led two the successful integration of two chains of drug stores.
Despite the presence of a sympathetic African-American scientist in the film, it has received little critical appreciation for how it addresses racial issues. Even a comparatively favorable examination finds that it essentially calls for a "separate but equal" solution to race issues; others accuse it of avoiding the issue or of simply being racist.