The great American Experiment in Democracy can be seen as a demonstration of the rise and importance of Civil Rights. The Founding Fathers saw their new nation as a place where all men had the inalienable rights to "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness", and designed a form of government which would do as little as possible to keep individuals from exercising those rights.
As noble as those sentiments seem, there were and always will be factors which do keep people from exercising those rights, notably ignorance, poverty, and intolerance. One of the great contradictions of the age was that many of the figures who were doing the most to create an environment where Liberty could grow were also deeply involved with the "peculiar institution" of Slavery. The peculiar institution is based on the notion that a certain race or class of people is inherently better and deserves greater privilege to the point of "owning" lesser peoples. This notion is, of course, absolutely contrary to the foundations of the American Experiment.
The original Thirteen Colonies nearly failed to unite because attitudes toward the peculiar institution, our bloodiest conflict, the War between the States was fought over it. America has a long way to go in the struggle for Civil Rights, but there can be no denying that considerable progress has been made. Radio not only recorded that progress as it was happening, it was a tool for bringing that progress about.
Today, an entertainer who makes a joke based on race can expect swift, even career-threatening condemnation. During the period of Radio's Golden Age, such humor was not only tolerated, it was almost expected. The examples of racial jokes in this collection from The Judy Canova Showand he was far from being mean spirited. In fact, some of the jokes on It's Time to Smile are pulled by African American actress Hattie McDaniels.
The fight for Civil Rights in America predates even the Revolutionary War. The signing of the Mayflower Compact on the deck of the ship which brought the Pilgrims to the New World is considered the first Human Rights Charter in North America. The story of the Compact is related in the radio play "The Stepping Stones" on Cavalcade of America. The script is presented again on American Portraits.
One of the most insidious relics of the "peculiar institution" is the institutionalized practice of segregation. After the Civil War and the abolishment of slavery, so-called "Jim Crow" laws were enacted mandating a strict separation of the White and African-American races. Not only were the races not allowed to mix, but the facilities provided for the African American population were vastly inferior to those used by Whites. Although Washington DC is the nation's capital, since it is located on the border of Virginia and Maryland it is very much a Southern city and "Jim Crow" was a constant presence. Destination Freedom did an expose of segregation practices in the capital city and the reaction of foreign dignitaries who work and visit there.
New World A' Comin'was produced by New York's Citywide Citizens Committee On Harlem. During Harlem Week in 1944, the program featured "Life in a Black Ghetto", exposing the indifferent attitudes of white merchants in Harlem, unfair housing practices, the predatory practices of pawnshop operators (the only place where Harlem residents can turn for credit) and other injustices. In another episode, "The Story of Negro Nurses" profiles the brave contributions of a woman who almost decided not to join because of the Army's discriminatory policies.
On Lest We Forget The American Dream, Helen Hayes plays a teacher who puts her career on the line to fight prejudice when she confronts a wealthy father who accidentally inculcates his son with a hateful attitude. In the episode "One Small Voice", Paul Lukas plays an immigrant grocer who leads a boycott against Dunn's Bread, the largest bakery in town which he discovers practices discriminatory hiring practices.
One of the most controversial figures in Old Time Radio was Father Joseph Coughlin. The Canadian Catholic priest emigrated to Detroit in 1923 where he became one of the first to discover the power of radio to spread a religious message. Coughlin's earliest broadcasts were mostly catechistic but soon began to reflect the Father's political views. Coughlin saw the international spread of Communism as a threat to religion and the American way of life, but he also staunchly believed that Communism was being controlled by a coalition of "atheistic Jews". In Coughlin's view, these same "atheistic Jews" were responsible for the evils of capitalism which ultimately caused the economic collapse that led to the Great Depression. When Franklin Roosevelt first ran for the Presidency, Coughlin was an ardent supporter, going so far as to describe Roosevelt's New Deal as "God's Deal". As the administration's economic reforms continued, Coughlin came to view Roosevelt as a "tool of Wall Street" and further condemned any involvement in foreign wars. This attitude was eventually seen as being pro-Nazi (Coughlin was also a Holocaust denier) which resulted in the priest losing his popular support and radio audience, although he continued to spread his message of anti-Communism and anti-Semitism.
A shameful example of intolerance was the displacement of the Native North American peoples during the settlement of the West. That story is related through allegory on the X Minus One episode "The Martian Death March". The story loosely reflects the flight of the Nez Perce under Chief Joseph from the reservation where they were interred after their lands in Northeast Oregon were stolen nearly to the Canadian border and freedom.