On the surface, early television seemed to be almost color blind. Insatiable in its quest for talent in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the new industry frequently featured black celebrities. On local and network programs, blacks appeared in a wide variety of roles. Black dancers, singers, musicians, and comedians were an important part of the nascent medium.
Many felt that TV promised a new and prejudice-free era in popular entertainment. Ebony magazine epitomized this sentiment, when it reported in 1950 that television offered better roles for blacks than any other medium. The magazine contended that the appearance of numerous African Americans on TV was a "sure sign that television is free of racial barriers."
In the older electronic media—motion pictures and radio—black talent had long been confined to demeaning characterizations, such as comedic roles with their roots deep in the minstrel shows of the nineteenth century. Pliant Uncle Toms, rascally and indolent "coons," motherly maids, and shrewish mammies abounded in movies and broadcasting. To obtain steady employment, talented black actors like Mantan Moreland, Lincoln Perry (Stepin Fetchit), Lillian Randolph, and Eddie (Rochester) Anderson adopted distorted racial characteristics. They cultivated stereotyped Negro accents. They learned to walk with a shuffle, to pop and roll their eyeballs, and to emit high-pitched giggles. These were standard traits of the distinctive personalities which, for white audiences, made black characters so funny, lovable, and controllable.
There were several reasons to believe, however, that TV held a bright promise for African Americans. Some of the most influential people in TV openly proclaimed that blacks would be given a new deal now that the medium was becoming popularly accepted. Ed Sullivan argued in 1950 that television was playing a crucial part in assisting "the Negro in his fight to win what the Constitution of this country guarantees as his birthright." According to Sullivan, the respected host of the CBS variety show Toast of the Town, video was now taking the chronic struggle for minority civil rights directly "into the living rooms of America's homes where public opinion is formed, and the Negro is winning."
Five years later, Steve Allen reiterated the promise, suggesting that talent was the cutting edge of success in TV, and that "talent is color blind." Allen, then the host of the Tonight show on NBC, added that "television needs the Negro performer and benefits by his contributions to the medium." Allen tempered his remarks, however, by noting that "I consider it unfortunate that this idea is still not generally accepted by the television industry."
The National Broadcasting Company also testified to the new era television was bringing to African Americans. In 1951 it launched a public relations drive to improve its image with blacks. NBC also published guidelines for the equitable portrayal of minorities on TV. According to this revised declaration of standards and practices, henceforth all programs treating "aspects of race, creed, color and national origin" would do so "with dignity and objectivity." Inspired by the NBC move, the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters ratified a Television Code in 1951 in which members pledged: "Racial or nationality types shall not be shown on television in such manner as to ridicule the race or nationality."
Black entertainers had been an important part of television during its experimental years in the 1930s. Long before TV became popularly available, such performers as The Ink Spots, Eddie Green, Bill Robinson, Ethel Waters, and Clarence Muse had appeared on camera. There was reason to believe that such use of black talent would continue once video emerged commercially.
The politics of postwar America also encouraged many to envision a bright, bias-free future in television. The new medium emerged in the midst of a liberal, reform-minded period in history. In waging a costly war against fascism, Americans had confronted the horrendous results of institutionalized prejudice and theories of racial superiority. During and after the war a sensitized government and public began to combat domestic racism in the United States.
In the latter half of the 1940s President Harry S. Truman took important first steps toward addressing the modern racial problem. Truman in 1945 established a special Committee on Civil Rights, an organization of prominent citizens whose report two years later—published in book form under the title To Secure These Rights—outlined the ways in which state and federal legislation could effect "the elimination of segregation, based on race, color, creed, or national origin, from American life." An educational film from 1951, The Challenge, reiterated many of the conclusions found in the original report.
In 1948 Truman became the first modern American president to present a legislative plan for ending racism. Among the proposals Truman recommended were federal laws to protect against lynching, to prohibit discrimination in interstate transportation, to ensure voting rights, to create organizations protective of civil rights, and to establish a Fair Employment Practices Commission to guard against unfair discrimination in employment. Truman also urged the creation of committees in Congress and the Department of Justice whose functions would be to assure justice for all American blacks.
Truman made other bold, liberal gestures. By executive order he ended segregation in the United States armed forces. In another executive order he established fair-employment practices throughout the various branches of government, making merit and fitness the only qualifications for employment or advancement. And in November 1948, when the president was reelected in spite of defection from the Democratic party by southern politicians who rejected his civil rights record, further progress seemed inevitable.
Pressures for ending racial discrimination came also from private citizens. Church groups, such as the American Friends Race Relations Committee and the Department of Race Relations of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, were either newly established or rededicated to the struggle against racism. Membership reached new heights in older organizations like the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. And new groups, such as the American Council on Race Relations, were also organized to help the struggle toward "the achievement of full democracy in race relations."
Complementing these achievements was a new militancy and self-awareness among blacks. In many instances this mindset was articulated by African-American celebrities. Black artists such as Paul Robeson, Canada Lee, Katherine Dunham, and Lena Horne openly criticized the prejudice encountered in their professional and private activities. Other, less well-known, black leaders made important inroads into such segregated professions as law, academe, government, the arts, science, business, and industry. In this atmosphere of progressive change, one scholar wrote in 1949 that the "door of opportunity has never been closed tight. It is constantly opening wider. The outlook for the Negro in America is one of slow but steady advance toward democracy."
The struggle against prejudice also emerged in American popular culture in the late 1940s. After decades of negative stereotyping of minorities, Hollywood motion pictures became persuasive vehicles for disseminating ideas of racial equality and the end of discrimination. Feature films like Crossfire, Gentleman's Agreement, and The Boy with Green Hair dealt frankly with the effects of prejudice. Specifically focusing on anti-black bias, Pinky, No Way Out, The Well, Lost Boundaries, and Intruder in the Dust presented poignant insights into American intolerance and its consequences.
Radio, too, mirrored the new thinking of postwar America. Black entertainers such as Eddie Green, the Billy Williams Quartet, Ernestine Wade, and Lillian and Amanda Randolph became important regulars on network series. Several African-American stars had their own programs. Among them were Nat King Cole and Hattie McDaniel. In local broadcasting as well, important new strides toward freedom were being taken. In New York City, station WMCA launched New World a-Coming, an omnibus series inspired by Roi Ottley's influential book of the same title. The weekly series premiered in 1944 and was heard on that station until the late 1950s.
The most impressive black radio series in the history of the medium was Destination Freedom, heard on Chicago station WMAQ from 1948 to 1950. Written by Richard Durham, a former editor of the black newspaper Chicago Defender, this series in more than ninety dramatic scripts probed the heroes and movements in black history. From Sojourner Truth and Crispus Attucks, to Langston Hughes, Lena Horne, and Joe Louis, Durham showed black achievers contributing in the struggle for racial equality. Durham also awakened his listeners to the black cultural legacy, as he treated such topics as the John Henry and Stackolee tales, and the story of black spirituals. No black creative person until Alex Haley in the 1970s rivaled Durham's entertaining and informational contribution to the broadcast arts.
Conditions seemed to be improving for African Americans. By the early 1950s black entertainers were reporting that even in the South—the home of most American blacks and, traditionally, the most segregated section of the nation—racial barriers were being lowered. Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Billy Eckstine all testified to substantial improvement in southern attitudes. Although he said this change was proceeding at a "crawling" pace, Eckstine appeared optimistic in 1952 when he announced that "It's not the old South anymore."
Basic to all political, social, and cultural change for African Americans was the fact that postwar black society constituted a rapidly expanding consumer force. In the 1940s the average income of black families in the United States tripled, compared to a 100 percent increase for the general population. In the same decade, black enrollment in high schools reached record levels, and college attendance increased by 100 percent. In 1951 a survey termed the black consumer market of New York City a "billion dollar plus" entity. By 1953 the black population of the United States exceeded the population of Canada, and the national racial market had become an annual $15 billion enterprise. To Variety editor Robert J. Landry, African Americans at this time were "the most important, financially potent, and sales-and-advertising serenaded 'minority' in the land."
Despite the trend toward social improvement coincidental with the emergence of television, permanent change was slow to materialize. The corporations that controlled radio broadcasting continued to control network and local television. And since under the auspices of NBC, CBS, ABC, and the many independent stations, radio frequently cast blacks in minstrel roles, the persistence of this practice in TV was not surprising. In many ways, television simply became visualized radio: the enactment for viewers of story lines and stereotypes that had proven successful for decades in radio.
Television also emulated radio in the way it was financed. The selling of air time to advertisers meant that the financial pressures encountered in radio applied to television as well. TV programs were interrupted by commercials or audio-visual billboards, and program content had to be acceptable to an array of sponsors and their advertising agencies. Hence, TV, like radio, was subject to program decisions wherein commercial realities outweighed social ideas.
Importantly, this was the era of broadcasting, a time when three national networks held a virtual monopoly over television and offered similar programs for audiences of common tastes and prejudices. There was little room here for those with narrower sensibilities. Almost everything on TV was mainstream. And video was sold to the same mass audience that had accepted and even expected demeaning black images in the other popular arts. Postwar liberalism notwithstanding, race prejudice was still widespread and profitable in mass America. It would have been naive to expect the experiences of World War II to erase longstanding racial prejudices within a few years.
This lag was most apparent in the southern part of the United States. Despite the argument that the specter of the "white southern market" was actually a myth, to the entertainment industry it was reality. TV executives and advertisers feared alienating the white consumer in the South. They avoided programs that might be too flattering or egalitarian toward blacks. And there was evidence to support their trepidation. When the networks in 1957 moved to remove racially objectionable words like "massa," "darkey," and "old black Joe" from the songs of Stephen Foster, southern politicians reacted with hostility. Governor Marvin Griffin of Georgia became a spokesman for the protestors. It was his contention that blacks should strive to be more like George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington. As for the expurgation of the Foster lyrics, he chided the networks, "Have you ever heard of a bigger pack of foolishness?"
Even more threatening was the reaction in 1952 of Governor Herman Talmadge of Georgia (later a United States senator), who blasted network TV for racially integrated programming which, he felt, propagated a "complete abolition of segregation customs" in the South. In an editorial in his influential newspaper, The Statesman, Talmadge specifically objected to black entertainers dancing with "scantily clad white females," as well as black and white children shown dancing together and African Americans and whites shown talking together "on a purely equal social status." And Talmadge fired what to television executives was the ultimate weapon. In order "to clean up television now before the situation grows more offensive," the governor threatened a massive boycott by whites of products sponsoring such programming.
Television programming executives themselves were not immune to prejudice. Preconceived notions of appropriate roles for blacks in TV were shared by industry leaders in all regions of the United States. For example, when the executive vice president of WDSU-TV (New Orleans) spoke to TV officials in New York City as part of a series of television program clinics in 1952, he apparently received no criticism when he related his professional response to the sudden death of one of his stereotyped black TV personalities.
I mentioned this colored cook we have. The first one we used died one morning at five o'clock, just after we'd sold the show to a big salt company. I got into the office and there was the regional sales manager of the salt company with all of his characters in the next room, and thousands of dollars in pictures and everything of this girl who had unfortunately died that morning. So he said, "What are you going to do about this?" I said, "I don't know; I didn't kill her." That day we auditioned four other negro cooks. Any one of them could have had the job, and we got one beauty. We renamed her—we call her Mandy Lee. Mandy, conservatively, weights 375 pounds. We can hardly get her all in the camera at one time, but she's terrific....
To counter the inertia caused by racial prejudice in broadcasting, black actors and others organized several important special-interest pressure groups. As well as organizations such as the NAACP, black talent banded together in professional associations like the Television Authority Committee on Employment Opportunities for Negroes, the Committee for the Negro in the Arts, the Committee of Twelve, the Harlem Committee on Unemployment in Television, and the Coordinating Council for Negro Performers. With mixed results these groups interceded with network and local administrations for increased employment of African-American personnel and for more realistic depiction of blacks.
For example, as early as 1951 the Television Authority Committee conferred with officials of NBC, CBS, ABC, and the DuMont network. The goal of these meetings was "to secure representation of Negroes on television programs," and to make certain such representation matched "their role in everyday life." In an idealistic statement, the committee challenged writers, directors and producers to employ black specialty acts, integrate black singers and dancers into chorus groups, use black actors in the many dramatic roles reflecting their participation in everyday life, and create new programs appropriately utilizing black talent.
In a similar way, the Coordinating Council for Negro Performers acted throughout the 1950s as a persistent critic of prejudice and black underemployment in TV. In late 1954, in its first report on television, the CCNP censured the industry, advertising agencies, and sponsors for virtually eliminating blacks from video. One of the most glaring examples of discrimination cited in the report concerned the acclaimed NBC production of Amahl and the Night Visitors, the first opera commissioned for television. Written by Gian-Carlo Menotti and premiered in 1951, the opera, a Christmas story in which the Three Wise Men visit a crippled boy while on their way to Bethlehem, had become a regular seasonal offering on the network. The CCNP objected that no blacks appeared in the story, despite the fact that according to Biblical accounts, one of the Wise Men was an Ethiopian.