The Perimeters of Black Expression:
The Cases of Paul Robeson and Nat King Cole

The Case of Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson was a singular American. He was a brilliant student, graduating with honors from Rutgers University, and then earning a law degree at Columbia University. An outstanding athlete, he was named an All-American football player in 1917 and 1918. He was also a premier operatic bass, and a sensitive interpreter of folk music. He is well remembered as an impressive stage and screen actor. Yet, Robeson jeopardized his professional success by insisting that his first social priority was to speak for black Americans—that no matter what praise he received from the world of culture, he was still a part of an abused minority whose plight was dismal and whose champions were few.

Robeson used his international fame as a platform from which to denounce the hypocrisy of a society founded on personal liberty, yet tolerant of segregation, inequitable Jim Crow laws, and lynching. In stressing his point, Robeson publicly announced his approval of the Soviet Union as the highest arrangement of social equality in the world.

Although Robeson was not a member of the Communist party, his passion for the betterment of African Americans frequently led him parallel to Communist ideology. Throughout the 1930s, he was a familiar spokesman for the Soviet formula: a blend of socialism, pacifism, and egalitarian rhetoric.

While he was tolerated in the Depression years, during World War II—a time when the United States was a military ally of the Soviet Union—Robeson became a political asset. Ile often appeared on radio as a spokesman for the Allied cause. On several occasions his voice was beamed around the world via shortwave. In his speeches and concerts, and by his physical presence, Robeson suggested that the lot of the black American was improving. In the fervor of the war against a racist Fascist enemy, his crusade against American bigotry seemed also to be reaching fruition.

The postwar world, however, was different for Robeson. Personally, he found in the newly established Progressive party a legitimate political organization through which to channel his reformist energies. As did millions of citizens, he rallied behind the Progressive candidate in the presidential elections of 1948, former Vice-President Henry Wallace. He appeared in Wallace campaign films. Robeson seemed genuinely inspired when, in a campaign speech in Washington, D.C., he told an audience, "We have taken the offensive against fascism! We will take the power from their hands and through our representatives we will direct the future destiny of our nation."

The least of Robeson's postwar defeats was the dismal showing made by Wallace in the November elections. In a society now locked in a cold war with the Russian rival, Robeson's progressive politics were labeled "communistic" and "treasonable." He consistently suffered because of his outspoken political views. Speeches were abruptly canceled, concerts were called off, biographies of Robeson were banned from public libraries, and rioting often occurred during his appearances.

His pro-Russian views put Robeson in an untenable position. When Congress held hearings on legislation outlawing the Communist party, Robeson was asked to testify on the issue. When he proclaimed that it was "unthinkable" that American blacks would "go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations" and against the USSR, "a country which in one generation has raised our people to full human dignity of mankind," he was denounced by social leaders, black and white.

Robeson's alienation from American society reached its peak in 1950 when, in the midst of an anti-Communist hysteria aggravated by the outbreak of hostilities in Korea, the State Department revoked his passport. Until the Supreme Court ruled this action unconstitutional, Robeson was unable to perform at home or to travel abroad. This "imprisonment" lasted for eight years.

It was in this atmosphere that he was invited in 1950 to appear in New York City on Today with Mrs. Roosevelt, a Sunday afternoon discussion program on NBC hosted by Eleanor Roosevelt. Robeson was asked to represent the Progressive party in a discussion of "The Position of the Negro in American Political Life." The public affairs show was scheduled for March 19. Joining him and Roosevelt were to be Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, a liberal Democrat, and Perry Howard, a black Republican committeeman from Mississippi.

The program never took place. Instead of discussing black politics, Robeson became the first person officially banned from American television. Less than twenty-four hours after his appearance was announced, it was canceled. The decision was made by NBC, although neither Mrs. Roosevelt nor Elliott Roosevelt and Martin Jones, co-producers of the program, seemed to resent the network directive. The NBC decision was bluntly pronounced by a vice-president.

We are all agreed that Mr. Robeson's appearance would lead only to misunderstanding and confusion, and no good purpose would be served in having him speak on the issue of the Negro in politics. 'The announcement that Mr. Robeson would be a participant was premature and I cannot understand why it was made.

The banning of Robeson from Today with Mrs. Roosevelt was a reaction to an unprecedented barrage of public criticism which followed the March 12 announcement of his appearance. Most strident in its criticism of Robeson was the Hearst newspaper, the New York Journal-American. In the midst of the cold war, his newspaper specialized in sensationalism and innuendo. In glaring headlines and flamboyant stories, it "exposed" Communists in the government, Russian aggression around the world, and threats of an H-bomb and a biochemical World War III.

In its March 13 editions, the Journal-American placed on its front page the story of Robeson's scheduled appearance. Next to it was a story supportive of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who had just named two State Department aides "pro-Communist." In the Robeson report, the black celebrity was described as "pro Communist," "Moscow-admired," and "long a champion of things Russian." The paper quoted a black former Communist who had told congressional investigators that Robeson was secretly a member of the party with ambitions of becoming "the Black Stalin of America."

More effective in precipitating the cancellation of Robeson, however, were the hundreds of war veterans who phoned NBC about their displeasure. On September 12 and 13, the network offices in New York City received more than 300 hostile telephone calls. The protest was loosely organized by several veterans' organizations, and it was fueled by the sensational story printed in the Journal-American.

Following NBC's capitulation, veterans' leaders were anxious to trumpet their victory. And the Journal-American gave them news space in which to boast. The state commander of the New York American Legion alleged that Robeson's appearance "would have incited hatred and bigotry." He contended that the presence of Robeson "on any NBC program would have been an outrage to every decent American." The New York State commander of the Catholic War Veterans agreed. He declared that his organization "believes that the time has come for broadcasting systems to become conscious of their great responsibility to American citizens."

Other officials were also happy to state their case. Another leader of the Catholic War Veterans was pleased with NBC's decisiveness. "We commend NBC's prompt action in cancelling the appearance of Robeson," he declared. He clearly hoped that this action was precedent-setting. "We want programs," the official asserted, "that will not feature any individual whose affiliations are in conflict with American ideology."

The war veterans, however, were not alone in attacking Robeson. Rabbi Benjamin Schultz of the Joint Committee Against Communism wondered why "anyone would select Robeson, an avowed champion of Russia, to speak for any section of American Negroes!" And H. V. Kaltenborn, the venerable NBC commentator who once had championed the cause of the Scottsboro boys and had spoken for the Loyalist, anti-Franco side in the Spanish Civil War, now blasted Robeson. Contending that Communists "are not intellectually honest," and that "deceit and falsehood are part of their stock in trade," Kaltenborn concluded:

The issue of free speech for Communists would arise far less frequently and would be much easier to handle if we outlawed the Communist Party. It is an association of subversive agents of a foreign government. It is not a political party. There is no reason to grant freedom of speech to any member of a group which proposes to use it to destroy it.

Robeson had few supporters. Except for the Baltimore Afro-American which headlined "Air Not Free at NBC," the black press remained conspicuously silent. A few union members, mainly the Harlem Trade Union Council, picketed the NBC offices. The American Civil Liberties Union also backed Robeson's position. It formally protested the network action as "censorship by private pressure."

For her part, Eleanor Roosevelt was unrepentant. After first denying that she personally had asked Robeson to participate (the invitation was made to the Progressive party, and the party selected Robeson, its vice-president), Roosevelt told a delegation of angry Young Progressives that she would never share a program with Robeson "because it would give the impression that she endorsed his left-wing political views, with which she sharply differs."

Robeson, however, was not silent. He used the occasion to attack NBC. "It is not surprising to me," he asserted, "that a huge network which practically excludes colored persons from its large army of professional personnel should balk at a discussion of the colored group in American politics which professes to present all points of view."

According to Robeson, NBC "evidently does not want colored Americans reminded too forcibly of the fact which becomes increasingly evident ... that is, that there is no real hope for my people—American working men of the majority of the population—in the two old parties which are wedded to a program of Cold War abroad and privation and suppression of popular dissent at home.

The decision to ban Robeson from American television had political and racial dimensions. Politically, it was simply too controversial for a commercial network to air the views of an admitted leftist at a time when Cold War tensions were nationally unsettling. Further, a young network was not going to incur the wrath of government and the public at a time when its investment in the nascent industry was substantial and TV was still not entrenched as a mass medium. When Robeson was rebuked by people as diverse as the African-American baseball star Jackie Robinson and members of Congress, questions about free speech were academic to NBC.

Without being enunciated, there was a racial component to the Robeson affair. He was an outspoken political activist. A powerful man with deep convictions, he was not content with personal success gained while other African Americans remained deprived. And Robeson was unrelenting. The day before his NBC appearance was announced, he was quoted as saying that "Russia's program of raising the little people of all races to basic equality in their nation and in the world is the opposite of what our country and England and the Fascists stand for."

Because of his global prestige, Robeson was a political force. Because he was a black man, this force was inherently racial. Unlike other black spokesmen, Robeson was neither an academic like W. E. B. DuBois, nor narrowly focused like A. Philip Randolph—neither a reactive voice like those in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, nor tied to an unjust national system like those few blacks in Congress. From his cultural position, he brought humanistic criticism to bear upon the American conscience. In his rhetoric, moreover, he linked the African-American cause with decolonization in Africa and Asia and with the plight of oppressed people around the world.

Except for rare appearances by men like Ralph Bunche of the United Nations and Walter White of the NAACP, black political leaders were practically absent from early TV. It was unreal¬istic to expect network television to accommodate a racial threat such as Robeson. Magnified by his international reputation, whatever he had said about the condition of black Americans in 1950 would have had impact throughout the world. In censoring Robeson, network and program personnel were declaring that criticism of American racism was not permissible if that criticism was profound, uncompromising, and internationally provocative. The line of demarcation was clearly drawn: television would not tolerate militant African-American reformers.

That perimeter endured throughout the 1950s. Eight years after the incident with NBC, Robeson encountered the same situation when he was slated to appear on a local public affairs television program in Chicago. When in late March 1958, it was announced that Robeson would be a guest on V.I.P.—hosted on by Norman Ross on WBKB, the ABC station—popular reaction precipitated postponement and then cancellation of the appearance. Instead of a half-hour interview with Robeson, Chicago viewers saw a travelogue about India. Robeson was not only banned from V.I.P., he was never permitted to appear on American television to discuss his ideas.

The Case of Nat King Cole

At first glance Nat King Cole appears to have been the diametric opposite of Paul Robeson. Nonpolitical and noncontroversial, Cole was a jazz pianist and vocalist whose mellow King Cole Trio enjoyed wide acceptance throughout the 1940s. In the following decade, when he disbanded his Trio and pursued a solo career as a singer of popular ballads, Cole continued to receive approval from black and white listeners.

If any black performer seemed destined for his own network TV series, it was Cole. He had already hosted an NBC radio series, King Cole Trio Time, which in 1946 had been sponsored nationally by Wildroot hair tonic. At a time when most African-American singers imitated the group harmonies of gospel ensembles such as The Ink Spots, or the rhythm and blues sound whose roots lay in less sophisticated musical forms, Cole was a well-trained, disciplined vocal artist. Only Billy Daniels and Billy Eckstine rivaled him in vocal polish, and neither had the number of hit recordings produced by Cole.

Between 1944 and 1957, Cole had forty-five recordings which were listed in the competitive charts maintained by Billboard magazine. Several of these songs—"For Sentimental Reasons," "Nature Boy," "Mona Lisa," and "Too Young"—reached the number one position, and thirteen were listed in the top ten. In the period 1940-1955, Cole records were on the Billboard charts for a total of 274 weeks. This made him the ninth most popular recording personality in that fifteen-year period—ahead of such celebrities as Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Tommy Dorsey, and Dinah Shore.

Cole did well in early television. He appeared on network TV as early as June 1, 1948 when he was the principal guest on the CBS human interest series We, the People, when it debuted as the first regularly-scheduled program aired simultaneously on radio and television. Typical of his later appearances were his performances on Showtime U.S.A. in 1951 and Chance of a Lifetime the following year. Throughout the first half of the 1950s Cole was spotlighted on most top-rated variety programs for whenever he appeared with such personalities as Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, or Perry Como, his style elicited strong audience approval. In mid-1954 when he signed with CBS to make ten guest appearances, it was rumored that this was in preparation for his own forthcoming show.

Compared to Robeson and his social militancy, Cole was assimilated, unthreatening, and popularly accepted. While he was not the first black host of his own network series, as the top African American recording artist of his generation Cole had the best chance of success. The premier of The Nat King Cole Show on NBC on November 5, 1956 seemed to open a new era for black performers.

The program was a quarter-hour feature which aired on Mondays as a lead into the quarter-hour evening news with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley at 7:45 P.M. (EST). It was a spirited program with a mellow mixture of upbeat tunes and slower ballads. Cole was backed by first-rate orchestras—Gordon Jenkins when the show emanated from New York City, and Nelson Riddle when in Hollywood. An occasional guest bandleader, such as Count Basie, only enhanced Cole’s show.

Cole was aware of the significance of his program. He referred to himself as "the Jackie Robinson of television." In 1956, he defined his undertaking as a struggle against racism.

I have a fight right now in my own business in TV. I realize what 'TV is doing. I know they are freezing the Negro out. I know that no Negro has a TV show. I'm breaking that down. I'm fighting on the inside, without publicity."

That conviction stayed with Cole throughout his television career. In September 1957, he told TV Guide that his program was "a step in the right direction" toward allaying network fears about black shows being televised to prejudiced viewers.''

By any standard, The Nat King Cole Show was top-flight entertainment. Cole smoothly hosted this showcase for his musical talents. He sang his famous ballads and played piano in front of a first-rate orchestra. Sometimes, too, he exhibited the jazz dexterity that made him famous in the first place.

Unfortunately, however, the seeds of destruction were within the program from the beginning. First, the show was never popular with the mass audience. Opposite it on CBS was Robin Hood, one of the top-rated shows on TV, especially with youngsters still not ready for bed. This half-hour British import attracted over half the audience at 7:30 P.M. As Figure 5.1 attests, during the few times The Nat King Cole Show was rated by A. C. Nielsen, it failed to demonstrate a sizable following.

Table 5.1 Comparative Ratings of
The Nat King Cole Show and Robin Hood
Date of Rating% of Potential Audience% of Sets-in-Use Relative Ranking
Jan. 7, 1957
NKC Show12.7 19.7110
Robin Hood 31.651.1 23
Jan. 21, 1957
NKC Show11.318.1 116
Robin Hood31.6 50.3 23
Feb. 4, 1957
NKC Show13.0 20.9 106
Robin Hood30.6 48.6 24
Feb. 18, 1957
NKC Show11.5 18.0 107
Robin Hood30.9 50.0 22
March 4, 1957
NKC Show10.516.3 112
Robin Hood31.0 48.9 24
March 18, 1957
NKC Show 9.715.4 115
Robin Hood31.4 51.3 21

Coupled with poor ratings, the Nat King Cole Show suffered from lack of a consistent national sponsor. Occasionally the quarter-hour telecast was bankrolled by Arrid deodorant and/or Rise shaving cream. More often than not, the program was sustained by NBC. Cole seemed painfully aware of his tenuous predicament. The words with which he ended the program of February 11, 1957 were less than confident. With his theme song playing in the background, Cole told his viewers: "Well, I guess folks, that's about it for tonight. We expect to be around this same time next week—same station—same show, we hope. Until then, see you later."

Despite poor ratings and a sporadic pattern of sponsorship, NBC expanded The Nat King Cole Show to thirty minutes, raised its operating budget, and placed the program in prime time competition as a summer experiment. The revamped show premiered on Tuesday, July 2, at 10 P.M. (EST). It was suicidal scheduling. Opposite it was a formidable CBS rival, the formidable quiz show, The $64,000 Question—a glitzy give-away show and the fourth-ranking program during the 1956-57 season.

Cole and his friends seemed determined to save the series by showing its potential to win over viewers. More important, the show became a battlefield in the civil rights movement. To rescue this most dignified African American program in TV history, some of the biggest talents in show business volunteered to appear on Cole’s showcase for the union-approved minimum wage. Men and women whose energies commanded TV salaries in five figures now appeared with Cole for a few hundred dollars. Among them were Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Martin, Julius LaRosa, Peggy Lee, the King Sisters, Sammy Davis, Jr., Pearl Bailey, Robert Mitchum, Frankie Laine, and Mel Torme.

With a new time and an extended format, ratings of The Nat King Cole Show improved. When Harry Belafonte was a guest on the program of August 6, the show came within three Trendex rating points of its CBS rival. Cole later noted that his summer program was the top-rated show in New York City, and that it was eighth in the Los Angeles area."

The insurmountable problem for Cole, however, was his failure to attract a national sponsor. Despite improved popularity, with no advertiser willing to buy the series, NBC was compelled to sell the time slot to the Singer Sewing Machine Company for The Californians, an adult western which premiered in the fall.

In defense of NBC, the network tried to salvage the program. It had sustained the series throughout the summer, and beginning September 17, it carried the half-hour Nat King Cole Show on Tuesday evenings at 7:30 P.M. (EST). Now the show was offered as a cooperatively sponsored feature. By this arrangement a local business, or a national advertiser wanting only single-market exposure, could purchase the show in a given city. Thus, Regal beer sponsored the program in New Orleans; Coca-Cola paid for it in Houston; in San Francisco its underwriter was Italian Swiss Colony wine; Rheingold beer handled it in Hartford and New York City; and in Los Angeles it had two sponsors, Gallo wine and Colgate toothpaste. Still, the program attracted only thirty sponsors nationwide.

As far as the network was concerned, the cooperative arrangement was not as profitable as having a single national underwriter. During the summer NBC had sustained the series in seventy-six cities. With a low number of co-op advertisers in the fall, the network demanded that the show be rescheduled in January to a less expensive time slot—Saturdays at 7:00 P.M. This move, however, was unacceptable to Cole. Given the day and time (6:00 P.M. in the Midwest and 5:00 P.M. in some areas), a time when "most people are eating or shopping," Cole accepted the cancellation of his series. The last telecast of The Nat King Cole Show was on December 17, 1957.

Nat Cole’s was not a failure. For fifty-nine consecutive weeks it appeared on NBC. During that span, the network acted responsibly toward the singer. Unlike Robeson's assessment of the network, Cole praised NBC for maintaining "democratic and wise public relations" in backing his efforts. According to Cole, his cancellation by NBC was a function of TV reality: "They wanted me on the network; they wanted to keep me. But they had to shift me around because I didn't have a network sponsor and shows with single, network sponsors get preferential treatment."

Cole, however, did name a culprit in his television demise. The focus of his animosity was the advertising industry which, he claimed, never really tried to sell his program to a national account. For a man with a reputation for reserve and gentility, he was vitriolic when he wrote in Ebony that "Madison Avenue, the center of the advertising industry, and their big clients didn't want their products associated with Negroes." Cole asserted that he never found a sponsor because "Madison Avenue said I couldn't be sold, that no national advertiser would take a chance on offending Southerners."

Ironically, experience with television led him to a position remarkably similar to that of Robeson, the leftist activist who approved of the classless Soviet Union and its Marxian social and economic arrangement. "It's not the people in the South who create racial problems," Cole argued, "it's the people who govern the South." According to him, most Southerners "are fine people. But those who govern isolate the people by advocating a rigid policy of discrimination; whether the people want it or not, they are not allowed to participate in mixed audiences because of their laws."

As Cole saw it, bigotry was purposely nurtured by an influential minority, "those who govern and those who incite others through organizations such as the White Citizens Council. Significantly, he dismissed most white Southern bigots as small-minded people who worried about lesser matters such as "the mixing of the races." But he attacked "the big men" who exploited the situation.

In Cole's quasi-Marxian analysis, "the big men" were those "who control Wall Street, the men who run Madison Avenue." And they, in his view, "are worried about economics." In a statement worthy of Robeson, he wrote that "racial prejudice is more finance than romance."

Bitter, disappointed, and frustrated by his experience, Nat King Cole refused to blame his cancellation on Southern prejudice, for as he noted, "After all, Madison Avenue is in the North." In absolving the South, he alleged that "I think sometimes the South is used as a football to take some of the stain off us in the North." In a conclusion with which Robeson would have concurred, he called upon all African Americans to organize and assert their financial strength to offset "the big men." According to him, "We need to show the strength of the Negro market." He continued:

Negroes above all, must become financially independent. All things, as intelligent Negroes know, boil down to money. We must, before it is too late, solidify our positions. We must sup¬port organizations like the Urban League and the NAACP.... They are all working for racial betterment. Negroes, too, must invest more, not only in entertainment enterprises, but in all businesses. We should put our money to work because money is what the people working against us respect.

Emerging through the frustration in Cole's argument was an insightful description of the reluctance of the advertising industry to sell his series. Madison Avenue did not think the show would survive. Even with a new format and improved summer ratings, agency interest in selling the program to an advertiser was not kindled. At the base of this lack of enthusiasm was the sensitivity of Madison Avenue to the so-called Southern Market.

Ironically, five months before the Nat King Cole Show premiered, Variety reported that pressure from advertisers with southern markets was "setting back by many years the advancement made in television toward providing equal job opportunities regardless of race, creed, or color." With the civil rights movement swelling in the South, national advertisers and their agencies feared offending white consumers who were resisting the movement toward integration. Their answer was to keep blacks off national television as much as possible. "At one major agency," Variety noted, "the word has gone out: 'No Negro performers allowed.'"

After ten years of popularly accepted television, it was legitimate to wonder where by the late 1950s black Americans had gone. In a nation where more than ten percent of the population was African American, TV was nowhere near ten percent black. Several citizens openly expressed their bewilderment at this situation. Natalie Fuller Shean, a woman from New York City who described herself as "nobody, just a housewife," wondered in 1956 if there existed in television "a conscious ban against the use of Negro actors.... I see very few on TV, and I often see none at all being intelligently used on shows in situations where they logically belong."

Several months later Thurgood Marshall, then the special counsel for the NAACP, protested conditions in a letter to Variety. He wrote about "the spotty use of Negro actors and actresses on the legitimate stage as well as in television and films save in 'token' jobs or in stereotyped roles." As late as 1959, a reader of TV Guide questioned in that journal: "Why can't some of the detective and comedy series work Negroes into their scripts, making them an ordinary part of television life as they are an ordinary part of everyday life?"

The prejudice-free enterprise that Ebony magazine foresaw for TV in 1950 was nonexistent by 1957. Fewer and fewer blacks were finding significant employment in the television industry. The collapse of The Nat King Cole Show served only to reaffirm what many felt to be true: television was no place for African-American talents to seek success.

Nevertheless, in the next stage of the history of blacks in TV substantial changes would be effected. Not because of any great liberal change of heart at the networks, but as an outgrowth of the dynamics of the civil rights movement the posture of blacks in television would be substantially realigned and improved. In the late 1950s and throughout the next decade all social life in the United States would be touched by TV and its depiction of the African American minority. In many ways, too, a growing fairness in that video image became a barometer of the nation's progress toward realizing its professed democratic ideals.

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