Acting While Black in the Civil Rights Era
On the Challenges Facing Black TV Actors in the 1960s
I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.
–Hattie McDaniel, 1940
Although I was neither a hippie nor a New Age flower child in step with the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll counterculture of the times, I nevertheless consider the Age of Aquarius—the 1960s and 70s—my era. I came of age in the 60s and into my own in the 70s. And, in its way, so did television. By the end of the first of these two decades, my family was nothing like the tight-knit fivesome that had first gathered around the TV set in the early 1950s. My parents’ marriage had fizzled, Adrian had been drafted by the army but had joined the air force instead, and I had gone off to college, though not exactly away from home. But the changes wrought within the Sheetrock and knotty pine walls of our still unfinished homestead were nothing compared to what was happening across the country as the world we knew was turned upside down and inside out, into a new age at once a Great Society and a House Divided. Television helped the country turn the corner into this new age. More than merely an instrument of lighthearted family entertainment, TV became a social and political force that helped the nation develop both political consciousness and social conscience.
When Richard Nixon broke into a sweat facing off against a young, handsome, cool, calm, and collected John F. Kennedy in the first presidential debate ever televised on September 26th, 1960, it altered how the American public viewed the incumbent vice president and may have helped lose him the election. When Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor and the Birmingham Fire Department sicced police dogs on civil rights activists and turned fire hoses full-force on youthful, nonviolent protestors, the broadcast images of black children knocked off their feet and carried flying into the air by the water pressure sent shockwaves across the country and around the globe and generated sympathy and support for what television helped the world see was a movement whose cause was just and time was now.
TV news coverage of the chaos and calamities of the times, from civil rights sit-ins to Black Power protests and cataclysmic events like the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 and the Watts uprising of 1965, helped liberal Hollywood come alive to the existence and both the plight and the pocket books of black Americans. Negroes were a misused and abused people, but we were also audience, consumers, and market shares. Television, arguably for the first time, began to consider the tastes, interests, and spending power of black people as well as the talents and entertainment value the industry had drawn on since its inception, in the ways Ed Sullivan described in the 50s.
A variety of black actors began appearing as guests on many of the mainstream TV dramas and westerns my family and I watched in the 1960s and 70s. One of the most memorable was the “Goodnight Sweet Blues” episode of Route 66 (1961), guest-starring the incomparable Ethel Waters as Jennie Henderson, a dying jazz singer who convinces the white co-stars Tod Stiles (Martin Milner) and Buz Murdock (George Maharis) to round up her six former bandmates and bring them to her bedside to play together one last time. It’s a crazy, impossible mission, but unable to refuse such a sweet old lady’s dying wish, the guys set out crisscrossing the country on Jennie’s last dime, trying to round up her old gang. One of the members has died, they find, but his son, who remembers Jennie as the only person who ever really cared about him, is eager to fill in for his father. A second bandmate—a lawyer in the middle of trying a case—requests a continuance, while another has to lie his way out of prison on a furlough. No matter what the obstacles, the band members all show up just in time to play Jennie out, in one of the greatest tearjerkers of my childhood.
“Goodnight Sweet Blues” seemed rather corny when I screened it as a jaded adult (not that I wasn’t still moved), but I don’t think there was a dry eye in the den when we watched it together in 1961. Of course, just about any outing of a black actor that wasn’t some slapstick farce was a treat in those days, and this particular musical melodrama had and retains a certain mesmerizing charm, not only because of Waters in an Emmy-nominated role— the first such nomination for a black female performer—but also because the musicians playing her bandmates, including Coleman Hawkins on the saxophone, were some of the best jazz artists in the country. As Donald Bogle writes of the episode and its luminary star, “Ethel Waters was once again something of an all-knowing, all-hearing, all-seeing Black earth mother, who refuses to judge those who stand before her. It’s a very seductive, double-edged fantasy, both pleasurable and dangerous.” An article in the Saturday Evening Post by the white writer and TV critic Richard Lemon offers the unhappy footnote that while the main cast of this breakout episode was all black—save for the two series stars—the production crew was all white as usual, and Ethel Waters had to suffer the indignity of being told how to sing “Goodnight Sweet Blues” by one of the writers, amid an atmosphere that made it clear the show was taking a risk on her, so she “better be good”—an observation that definitely makes the memory less sweet.
A small band of black actors had recurring, supporting roles in other shows we watched: Cicely Tyson with George C. Scott in the short-lived series East Side/West Side (CBS, 1963–1964), Ivan Dixon in Hogan’s Heroes (CBS, 1965– 1970), Greg Morris in Mission Impossible (CBS, 1966–1973), Hari Rhodes in Daktari (CBS, 1966–1969), Robert Hooks in N.Y.P.D. (ABC, 1967–1969), Don Mitchell in Ironside, with Raymond Burr in the title role (NBC, 1967–1975), Clarence Williams III in The Mod Squad (ABC, 1968–1973), my particular favorite Gail Fisher as the title character’s Girl Friday in the private investigator (PI) drama Mannix (CBS, 1967–1975), and, of course, Nichelle Nichols as communications officer Lt. Uhura on Star Trek: The Original Series (NBC, 1966–1969), who in 1968, joined William Shatner in what’s touted as network TV’s first interracial kiss on the “Plato’s Stepchildren” episode.
From the beginning of their work in television, black actors faced a challenge virtually unknown to their white counterparts: the pressure to represent their race in a positive light. What perhaps hasn’t been given enough attention is the toll that this burden of representation took on earlier African American performers in particular. Lincoln Perry’s Stepin Fetchit persona may have made him Hollywood’s first black millionaire in the 1930s, but in later years his lazy-man, shucking-and-jiving routines—along with his own fight for parity with whites within the motion picture industry—also netted him the career-killing ire of both his people and his employers, reducing him to bankruptcy by the latter 1940s and derailing later attempted comebacks through the new medium of television. Some contemporary scholars, including his biographer Mel Watkins, have offered a compelling reappraisal of Stepin Fetchit as the consummate trickster figure, who put one over on Hollywood, and even Perry’s old nemesis the NAACP honored him with an Image Award in 1976. But at the height of the civil rights movement and Black Power militancy, Perry was so maligned by criticism not only of the stereotypical characters he played but also of him as an Uncle Tom, who had set back the race, that he sued CBS (unsuccessfully) for the televised documentary Black History: Lost, Stolen, or Strayed (1968), which he claimed defamed him personally—costing him a co-starring role with the comedian Flip Wilson in a new TV series—while also “slurring an entire generation of Negro Americans as inept.”
“More than merely an instrument of lighthearted family entertainment, TV became a social and political force that helped the nation develop both political consciousness and social conscience.”
Perry was hardly alone in facing intense criticism and even condemnation from the NAACP, the black press, and much of the black community for institutionalizing demeaning images of African Americans. There was a heart-tugging tremor in Hattie McDaniel’s voice, as well as tears in her eyes that February night in 1940 when she accepted the Academy Award for her controversial supporting role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind (1939). “I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry,” she said, swallowing the myriad indignities that followed her onto the stage at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in the segregated Ambassador Hotel (the same L.A. landmark where Bobby Kennedy would be assassinated 28 years later). The producer David O. Selznick had had to call in favors just to get McDaniel into the hotel, where she was seated not with him and her white costars Olivia de Havilland, Vivien Leigh, and Clark Gable, but at a booth in the back in a corner in the dark, as Flip Wilson used to say. She and the other black stars of Gone with the Wind had not been allowed to attend the Atlanta premiere at the segregated Loew’s Grand Theater two months earlier. (It’s widely claimed that Gable threatened to boycott the premiere because of McDaniel’s exclusion until she talked him out of it. I would think a lot more of Gable if he had boycotted the premiere or left the Gone with the Wind table to sit with his colored costar at the Academy Award ceremony, as his character Rhett Butler likely would have done.) Yet for McDaniel, who, like Lincoln Perry, was criticized by much of the black press and all but condemned by the NAACP for playing roles that furthered negative stereotypes, the biggest hurt was no doubt winning the enmity rather than the admiration of the community she wanted to count her as a credit.
One of three black actresses to play the title role of Beulah in the TV series, McDaniel fared no better in this new medium. The Beulah Show, as discussed in chapter 2, was driven off the air in 1953 in part by the efforts of the NAACP, which publicly challenged the demeaning representations of colored people the title character typified. Although not subjected to the same kind of formal protests, the 1960s comedy Julia (1968–1971), with a decidedly middle-class heroine about as far from Mammy or Beulah or Sapphire as one could get, nevertheless met with criticism of a different kind throughout its historic three-year run on NBC. The title character Julia Baker, played by Diahann Carroll, was a nurse rather than a maid or mammy, a fact that has led many to call Julia groundbreaking, because it “challenged stereotypes and changed perceptions,” but that didn’t save the series or its leading lady from censure. I was an all-knowing 19-year-old college sophomore when Julia first appeared. Perhaps it was my budding feminism coupled with the revolutionary spirit of the day, but I remember proclaiming to classmates that the show would be more groundbreaking and progressive if Julia were a doctor like the titular heroes of my favorite medical dramas Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare. I was blind to my own short-sightedness at the time, but it seems absurdly paradoxical to me now that I wanted a black female character to be more like the white men I had grown up watching and wanting to emulate just as I did Perry Mason. And while I was enough my mother’s daughter to appreciate the fictitious detail that Nurse Julia was an independent, self-supporting, middle-class African American woman, I was less enamored of the idea that she was a single mother—a Vietnam War widow—rearing a young son on her own (like Peggy Fair from Mannix). Her polished, poised persona and single parent status fed into the findings of the Moynihan Report, which we were deconstructing in my sociology courses, and seemed to sanction the reigning stereotypes of black women as ball-busting matriarchs and black men as ne’er-do-well, absentee sperm donors.
It’s somewhat mind-boggling to me today that Julia began its well-intentioned run in 1968 with a black female lead who was figured as a single mother, given the fallout from the Moynihan Report published just three years earlier and what many perceived as the report’s attack on both black women and the black family. Compiled by then Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, The Negro Family: A Case for National Action, as the report was officially titled, was a government sanctioned study of “the Negro problem” that attributed poverty, unemployment, crime, juvenile delinquency, illegitimacy, and everything else said to ail the black community to an alleged preponderance of female-headed households, which the report billed as a holdover from slavery that had forced the black community into a matriarchal structure dangerously out of line with the male-headed nuclear family model of white society. Even as a war widow presumably made single through no fault of her husband or her own, Julia symbolically fit the bill of black women who do better without the good-for-nothing black men who knock them up and then disappear.
“From the beginning of their work in television, black actors faced a challenge virtually unknown to their white counterparts: the pressure to represent their race in a positive light.”
If holding a fictional character accountable for furthering a stereotype seems silly, Julia had plenty of detractors on other grounds as well. Many of the show’s most severe critics maintained that with straightened hair instead of an afro (before she went natural with a short-cropped fro) and a bourgeois demeanor instead of an activist or Black Power persona, Carroll’s character was too tame, too apolitical, too far removed from the civil rights movement and what was happening in the real world. It was the 60s, after all, and the sitcom hit the airwaves just five months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. And although the show was set in Los Angeles, devastating life-and-death events like the Watts riots that rocked South Central L.A. in 1965 were outside the scope of its camera lens. I can’t say for certain how much of this criticism I indulged at the time, but I’m somewhat ashamed now that my youthful brand of Black Powerism kept me from fully appreciating what Diahann Carroll and the show brought to television at a time when nuanced roles for African American women were virtually nonexistent.
In How It Feels to Be Free: Black Women Entertainers and the Civil Rights Movement (2013), Ruth Feldstein, an associate professor of history at Rutgers University, offers a compelling reconsideration of the political contributions black women entertainers like Carroll, Lena Horne, and Nina Simone made to both the civil rights and women’s movements in the 1950s and 1960s. Carroll not only “lent her name, home, and money to SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] and other civil rights organizations,” Feldstein explains, but she also testified before Congress about racial discrimination within the entertainment industry. Christine Acham, who likewise offers an extended rereading of Julia in Revolution Televised: Prime Time and the Struggle for Black Power (2004), points out that Carroll’s critique of Hollywood racism included publicly taking exception to the racial politics of her own show, especially the absent father as a misrepresentation of black family life. She felt the writers created what she called “the white Negro” with “very little Negroness.”
It should also be noted that Carroll marched and protested and raised funds for the civil rights movement through concerts and benefit performances. But her contributions to the cause of equal rights and social justice were not limited to what we readily recognize as traditional modes of political activism. Rather, her persona itself functioned as a form of what Daphne Brooks, a specialist in black performance studies at Yale University, identifies as the “imaginative activism” of “artists who performed progressive representations of black womanhood.” Carroll as a public figure and Julia as a purveyor of wholesome, middle-class values and respectability performed the integrationist move that Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen, along with race women like my mother, envisioned for the medium in the earliest days of television. “To some extent,” Feldstein writes of Julia, “the series sought to integrate” the living rooms of middle-class whites “by bringing fictional middle-class blacks into them.” This was the good intention behind the show, according to its creator and producer Hal Kanter, who reportedly wanted to deploy comedy in the cause of civil rights through black characters whom white audiences would laugh with rather than at.
Comedy can certainly be political and transformative. Some of the most biting social commentary that has ever found its way to television has come from black comedians like Moms Mabley, Redd Foxx, Dick Gregory, Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle, and, more recently, Wanda Sykes, Issa Rae, Larry Wilmore, Trevor Noah, and Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele of Key and Peele, many appearing regularly on Comedy Central. Key and Peele’s satirical comedy sketches with the character Luther (played by Key) as Barack Obama’s (Peele) “anger translator” caught President Obama’s attention. He invited Key up on stage in character as Luther during his speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2015 for a skit featuring the two of them.
In general, however, the situation comedy—for some time, arguably the primary televisual medium for black entertainers—has not been the place for hardboiled black history or hardcore racial politics. In a perfect world, it wouldn’t matter what form black programming takes, because it’s all make believe anyway. Christine Acham reminds critics who would be hard on shows like Julia of the parodic power of characters and images too easily praised or panned as positive or negative. She suggests that it is often our own class pretensions and biases that underpin our views and reviews. Thinking of my mother and of my own race, gender, and class-conscious way of watching TV, I can hardly deny the claim. Yet and still, the problem of black television and blacks on television is a problem the medium shares with other African American expressive forms, especially literature: play-acting blackness is not just acting, not simply representing something out of the imaginary; rather, it’s taken to present something in the social real—the facts rather than the fictions of real black life.
From Technicolored: Reflections On Race In The Time of TV. Courtesy of Duke University Press. Copyright © 2018 by Ann duCille.