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How TV Sabotaged Racism

SOURCE: Published: 2013-12-19
Radio's greatest achievement in the late 1940s and early 1950s may have been its ability to narrow America's racial divide. As independent radio stations flourished after World War II and the wattage of radio towers grew more powerful, young listeners had access to all types of music. Favorite records weren't chosen based on the race of musicians but whether or not the music knocked them out. With the rise of R&B during these years—an offshoot of jazz that filled the dance vacuum that bebop, cool and hard bop left unfilled—teens found an exciting form that suited their energy levels and drove their parents nuts. [Pictured above: Johnny Maestro and the Crests]

In the 1950s, television picked up where radio had left off, subversively educating a national audience on the extraordinary gifts of black and Latino musicians and further erasing the lines between blacks and whites. TV didn't set out to liberate American minds but over time, TV did play a significant roll in loosening the country's racial knot. The more Americans saw blacks, Latinos and whites interacting on TV—laughing, performing and acting together—the more likely they were to challenge segregation's place in society and oppose racial injustice.

While TV didn't operate in this capacity with a plan or a manifesto, white musicians along with white actors, writers and producers did begin a conscious effort to accelerate the frustratingly slow pace of desegregation by creating opportunities for black performers and exposing audiences to what they already believed—that all artists should be judged by the quality of their contributions, not their race.

I was thinking about TV's role the other day while riding a crosstown bus in New York. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered whether it was possible to create a list of TV shows and performers who did the most to chip away at America's way of racial thinking in the 1950s and '60s. These would be '50s shows I had heard about as a kid and the shows I actually watched in the 1960s that influence my own thinking as I grew up. 

Let me give it a shot...

The Beulah Show (1950-1952)—This ABC comedy was the first to star a black actress. While many of the laughs relied on Beulah's folksy way of putting things, the housekeeper was the person all members of the white family turned to for common sense solutions, casting her in a smart, leadership role. Here's the show in 1952 with Hattie McDaniel at Beulah...



I Love Lucy (1951-1957)—The show hardly seems remarkable today but at the time, it featured an interracial couple, one of whom spoke with a thick Cuban accent. Here's a segment that says it all...



The Nat King Cole Show (1956-1957)— This national NBC variety show was the first to be hosted by a black entertainer. The show caused plenty of controversy and fear at the time among the show's advertising sponsors, which didn't want to alienate Southern consumer markets. But Cole, the country's smoothest pop singer and one of its most talented jazz pianists, showed how sheer charm, a cool demeanor and great songs could win hearts. Here's Cole on his final show in December 1957, singing The Party's Over with Nelson Riddle conducting...



What's My Line (1950-1967)—This popular game show featured many black entertainers, from Duke Ellington and Sammy Davis Jr. to Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong. While the blindfolded panelists seem to have known in advance who was appearing given the speed with which they were able to identify the guests, viewers had an opportunity to see popular black artists and hear strong audience reactions to their appearance. Here's Eartha Kitt in 1959...



American Bandstand (1952-1989)—Dozens of black R&B and rock and roll artists and groups were featured on this TV show, before Dick Clark began hosting it and after in 1956. Here's Chuck Berry in 1955...



I Spy (1965-1968)—This secret-agent adventure series starred Robert Culp and Bill Cosby and was the first to cast white and black stars as partners on equal footing. Such shows were possible after 1961 when TV networks abandoned the single-sponsor system and shows were supported financially through multiple advertisers and commercial breaks. Here's Culp and Cosby and the show's fabulous theme...



Louie Bellson and Pearl Bailey—The white drummer and black singer were married in 1952 and remained together until 1990, when Bailey died. Though they didn't host a TV show or go out of their way to flaunt their marriage, their union was well known and brazen for the time (they married in London). I couldn't find any clips of Bellson and Bailey together on TV in the 1950s or '60s, but here's Bailey and Dinah Shore in 1960, which provides a wonderful sense of unity and fun...



Nancy Wilson and Andy Williams (1966)—On the Andy Williams Show in 1966, Nancy and Williams teamed to sing On a Clear Day, exuding powerful chemistry. The song ended with Williams putting his hand around Nancy's hip, which at the time was a huge no-no but proved that art transcends ignorance. Here they are singing On a Clear Day (go here to view).

Petula Clark and Harry Belafonte (1968)—From the YouTube write up: “During a taping of When Harry Met Petula, while singing a duet with Belafonte titled On the Path of Glory, an anti-war song that Clark had composed, Petula Clark innocently and naturally touched Belafonte's arm toward the end of the song... Doyle Lott, a vice president at Chrysler, the show's sponsor, objected... Clark, who had ownership of the special, told NBC that the performance would be shown intact or she would not allow the special to be aired at all. At Chrysler, Lott was relieved of his responsibilities." Here's the segment...



Sesame Street (1969-present)—No show was more artful at teaching tolerance and diversity to children than this show. Here's guest Dizzy Gillespie in the 1980s (move the bar to 5:27)...



Julia (1968-1971)—Starring Diahann Carroll, this show cast a black actress in a non-stereotypical role—a widowed mother who was a nurse in a doctor's office. Though critics took the show to task for whitening her black character, the show provided white viewers with a sympathetic character who was strong and just like everyone else. Here are the show's opening themes in Seasons #2 and #3...



Mission Impossible (1966-1973)—This action show featured Greg Morris as one of five IMF agents who must pull off an elaborate ruse to get rid of international bad guys or expose a Cold War spy. Again, a show in which a black actor was cast on equal footing with the rest of the cast and was an integral part of plot line. Here's the show's opening theme by Lalo Schifrin...



Mannix (1967-1975)—Mike Connors as Joe Mannix was a hip private detective. His secretary, Peggy (Gail Fisher), was pretty hip herself. Here's the Mannix theme, also by Lalo Schifrin...



Room 222 (1969-1974)—This comedy-drama aired on ABC and centered on an American history class at a fictitious Los Angeles high school. The class was taught in Room 222 by Pete Dixon (played by Lloyd Haynes), a black schoolteacher. Here's the theme...


View the original article...

This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.
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