Following his discharge from the Army, Bronze Star recipient Clyde Kennard returned to Hattiesburg, Miss., to help his mother run a small chicken farm he had purchased for her. Determined to complete his college education, Kennard applied to Mississippi Southern, whose segregated campus was a few miles from his home. Year after year, college administrators rejected him.

To make an example of this "uppity Negro," prosecutors framed Kennard for stealing five bags of chicken feed worth $25. Convicted by an all-white jury in 10 minutes, he was sentenced to seven years hard labor at the notorious Parchman Farm state penitentiary. Diagnosed with cancer, Kennard was carried to work in the fields by other inmates each day. Before he died, he declared his suffering would have been worthwhile if it "could show this country where racism finally leads, but they're not going to know, are they?"

In "The Fifties," James Gaines, former managing editor at Time magazine and author of "For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette, and Their Revolutions," tells Kennard's story — and those of other civil rights, gay rights, feminist and environmental activists who fought for change despite the conformity and repression that characterized the "long '50s" (1945-1963) in the U.S.

"The Fifties" adopts the now dominant view of historians that rather than "a sudden generational cleavage," the 1960s is best understood as a continuum that drew on dissent just below and, at times, at the surface of American culture, society and politics. The book isn't really "An Underground History": Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rachel Carson, Norbert Wiener and other individuals featured by Gaines were public figures in the '50s — and many 21st-century Americans are familiar with them.

Gaines maintains, not always persuasively, that in the 1950s Black women (like Pauli Murray) were "pioneers of a vigorous postwar feminism." And that Black World War II veterans (like Evers, Robert Williams and Kennard) believed "nonviolence without the support of armed resistance to racist violence amounted to surrender."

"The Fifties" is at its best when Gaines describes the courage of his heroes and the price they paid for standing up and speaking out in hostile environments. Frank Kameny, for example, was fired from his job as an astronomer for the Army Map Service for "immoral conduct" and banned from employment with the federal government or defense contractors. In characteristically blunt appeals, which went nowhere in the '50s, he blasted the U.S. Civil Service as "infamous, tyrannical, immoral and odious." The government would "dissolve into chaos," he noted, if all homosexuals were actually prevented from serving in it.

Kameny never stopped fighting. In time, he started winning. In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton issued an executive order prohibiting sexual orientation as a condition for a security clearance. A year before Kameny died, President Barack Obama gave him a pen he used to sign legislation extending federal employee benefits to same-sex partners.

Progress "is always a figment until it is not," Gaines reminds us, and those who help "make it happen, make history."

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

The Fifties: An Underground History

By: James R. Gaines.

Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 288 pages, $27. (In stores Feb. 8.)