Blacks and Network TV:
The Early 1960s
That network television was inhospitable to substantial black involvement was evident in the collapse of The Nat King Cole Show in December 1957. Given the acrimony surrounding the cancellation, and the regional and national sensibilities being antagonized by the emergent civil rights movement, it would not be until the middle of the next decade that significant programming featuring black stars would occur.
With several notable exceptions, African Americans continued in TV as infrequent guest stars on variety shows, or as occasional stars in filmed or live dramas, still cast in traditional roles. Certainly Ed Sullivan continued to bring familiar and newly popular black entertainers to his Sunday evening program. In 1959, for example, his black celebrities included Eartha Kitt, Lionel Hampton, Dorothy Dandridge, Johnny Mathis, Della Reese, and The Platters. Although less numerously, blacks the same year also appeared on the Steve Allen Show, among them Sarah Vaughan, Roy Hamilton, Earl "Fatha" Hines, and Sammy Davis, Jr.
American TV in the late 1950s and early 1960s was dominated by Westerns. They came in all shapes and formats with dozens of gimmicks to set them apart. There were ex-Confederates (The Rebel) and ex-Yankees (The Loner) as heroes, there were gamblers (Maverick), newspapermen (Jefferson Drum), lawyers (Black Saddle), and even a bounty hunter (Wanted: Dead or Alive). As well as sheriffs, marshals, and detectives, the Westerns also featured as heroes a mercenary (Have Gun/Will Travel), a rancher (The Rifleman), a gun salesman (Colt .45), a former gunfighter (Johnny Ringo), a woman sharpshooter (Annie Oakley), and twin brothers (Two Faces West), even a fast gun-for-hire handicapped by having only one hand (Tate). As for ethnicity, there was an overwhelming predominance of white champions, but there was a successful Hispanic (The Cisco Kid), and for one season an Apache with a Harvard law degree (Law of the Plainsman).
In this plethora of frontier heroes, however, no central character was African American. In fact, except for Raymond St. Jacques in the final season of Rawhide and Otis Young in The Outcasts, black actors were virtually absent from the Western genre. Although African Americans played a crucial part in the history of the actual West, only rarely did they appear in the video West created by Hollywood. Sammy Davis, Jr. was a featured star in several dramas, including Zane Grey Theater in 1959, Lawman in 1961, and The Rifleman and Frontier Circus in 1962. Rex Ingram appeared in one episode of Black Saddle in 1959, and Frank Silvera was a guest star in a single episode of Johnny Ringo in 1960. Considering that the genre dominated television for several years, and that in the fall of 1959 there were twenty-eight different Western series aired weekly on network TV, black representation in the Western was minuscule.
Detective series were also popular in TV in the early 1960s. Set as they usually were in modern urban surroundings, one might have expected substantial utilization of African-American actors. While blacks did appear more often in detective dramas than in Westerns, this did not signify a breakthrough for minority talent. Instead, blacks appeared only occasionally as local color characters, or in supporting roles in individual episodes of series such as Peter Gunn (James Edwards and Diahann Carroll in 1960), Naked City (Diahann Carroll in 1962; Juano Hernandez and Cicely Tyson in 1963), The Law and Mr. Jones (Bernie Hamilton in 1961 and Rex Ingram in 1963) and Cain's 100 (Dorothy Dandridge in 1962). The only detective series to employ blacks in recurring roles was the comedic program Car 54, Where Are You? which between 1961 and 1963 occasionally featured Nipsey Russell and Frederick O'Neal as humorous policemen.
To complement this racial exclusion, the color line remained operative in network television. Whenever black actors did star in dramatic productions, invariably they appeared in roles written specifically for a black actor. Typical of this pattern was the drama, "Good Night, Sweet Blues," an episode of Route 66 telecast October 6, 1961. The central characters of the series, played by Martin Milner and George Maharis, weekly traveled U.S. Highway 66 and other thoroughfares, stopping somewhere to play a dramatic part in the lives of people they happened to meet. In "Good Night, Sweet Blues," they encountered a dying blues singer played by Ethel Waters. Her last wish, that before expiring she could be reunited with her old band, became their command.
Before the program ended, viewers saw an array of black actors and jazz musicians—from Juano Hernandez and Frederick O'Neal to Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge—portraying members of her "Memphis Naturals" jazz group. Waters' character, now among old friends and singing the blues once more, slowly expired as the program ended.
Many African-American performers voiced their discontent with bias in the entertainment industry. Hilda Simms, star of the hit Broadway play of the 1940s, Anna Lucasta, denounced the color line and the so-called Negro plays. Testifying in 1962 before the House Committee on Education and Labor headed by Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Simms declared, "Of course, there are Negro plays. Well, damn Negro plays." She continued, "I am not asking for romantic parts, a blending of blood, but just a chance.... I say it's immoral when we see casting notices and know bloody well it's no use applying because there are no Negro parts."
At the same congressional hearing, others protested the prejudices which inhibited their careers. Comedian Dick Gregory quipped that "the only TV show that hires Negroes regularly is Saturday night boxing." Ossie Davis noted that while he was probably the most employed black actor on Broadway—having had thirteen parts in sixteen years—it had been still a touch-and-go existence. Sidney Poitier attacked racism in the movie world. According to the Academy Award winner, "I'm probably the only Negro actor who makes a living in the motion picture industry which employs 13,000 performers.... It's no joy to me to be a symbol." And Hilda Simms recalled her anger when, because of her light complexion, more than two hundred letters of complaint were received by NBC after she appeared on a network drama as the wife of an obviously black doctor.
P. Jay Sidney, a black actor with considerable experience in minor parts in radio and TV, was critical also of the absence of African Americans in television. Speaking of the Players' Guide for 1960, Sidney attacked this talent catalogue as inadequate for finding black actors since it listed only a handful of minority professionals. This Guide, so crucial for casting directors and producers seeking performers, listed about fifty African-American men, women and children, while it contained several thousand white actors and actresses. Sidney urged producers and networks to be more imaginative in their search for black talent.
Interestingly, when producers did break the color line and employ African-American actors in untypical black roles, they frequently received criticism from affronted white viewers. Such was the case in 1963 in an episode of Perry Mason in which a black man was cast as the judge before whom Mason pleaded. Despite protests from throughout the country, the producer of the series explained that her action was reflective of the judiciary in California, and that was the setting for the series.
Fear of similar reactions, however, prompted General Motors, sponsors in 1964 of the Western series Bonanza, to threaten withdrawal from the program should an episode starring black actors William Marshall, Fria Hartman, and Ken Renard be aired. After confrontations with NBC and the NAACP, as well as considerable negative publicity, General Motors reversed its position. The episode, "Enter Thomas Bowers," was telecast on April 26 as scheduled.
There were other instances of major advertisers withdrawing sponsorship from single broadcasts when a series focused on blacks. This was especially true for corporations like Gulf Oil and Metropolitan Life Insurance, which were fearful of becoming associated with programs showing film of the racial struggle. According to Variety, "dramatic footage of the actual strife gets people riled up, in the core of their stomach, and such an experience might alienate customers and outlets of national advertisers, especially in the South."
There were few advertisers like Bell and Howell who, at this time, were willing unequivocally to sponsor documentary shows treating the civil rights movement. Their underwriting of ABC's prime-time documentary series Closeup, from November 1961 to June 1963, was an uncommon gesture of social responsibility.
But sponsor interference was limited neither to the early 1960s nor to nonfiction television. As late as 1968, the Chrysler Corporation and the advertising agency handling its account, Young & Rubicam, complained openly about a show which they had sponsored for Plymouth automobiles. Petula was an NBC special featuring the popular British singer, Petula Clark. Her principal guest star was Harry Belafonte. Chrysler may have approved of Clark's singing skills, but when she held Belafonte's arm during their appearance together, it was considered too intimate for a white woman to be seen on camera in such a pose with a black man. Ironically, Petula was aired April 2, 1968—two days before Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Chrysler's complaint was forgotten in the aftermath of King's murder.
One of the few programs to spotlight black talent regularly was American Bandstand. Hosted by Dick Clark, this was a teen-oriented afternoon and weekend program designed to show young people the latest dances and rock-and-roll performers in action. The use of black artists not only served to popularize their recordings, it also reminded viewers of the link between rock-and-roll music and African-American culture. In a similar vein, other network rock-and-roll shows—including Shindig, Hullabaloo, Shivaree, Alan Freed's short-lived The Big Beat, and the Saturday evening feature, The Dick Clark Show—consistently highlighted black singers and musicians.
But for every American Bandstand there were dozens of programs like Riverboat. Between September 1959 and January 1961, this series concerned the adventures encountered by the crew of a riverboat paddling up and down the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio rivers in the 1840s. Although the vessel often entered the slave states, the program never mentioned the racial question. Further, Darren McGavin, who starred in the show, complained that despite his protests, Riverboat failed to show a single black person in forty consecutive weeks.
Even more striking in their avoidance of African-American characters were the popular comedy shows set in the South in the 1960s. Foremost among them was the immensely popular Andy Griffith Show. Sheriff Andy Taylor and the denizens of Mayberry, North Carolina operated in a blanched world where humor, respect, and occasional pathos were brilliantly merged. But there were no racial minorities in town, despite the facts that the civil rights movement preoccupied southern politics and one-quarter of the population of North Carolina in 1960 was African American. The same exclusionary rule operated in other country comedies, among them Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, Hee Haw, and Mayberry, R.F.D.
As well as excluding blacks from television dramas and comedies, the industry was slow to counteract the racism in televised college sports. This was particularly true in the case of college football, a mainstay of fall programming since the early 1950s. Adhering to segregationist state laws and customs, network television did little until the mid-1960s to correct discrimination in intercollegiate sports in the South. The Sugar Bowl, for example, was an annual New Year's Day football game held in New Orleans and regularly televised in the 1950s and 1960s by NBC. Because most competitors in the Sugar Bowl since its founding in 1935 were from all-white southern universities, there was no challenge to the segregation existing in Louisiana sports competition. When the University of Pittsburgh fielded several black players on its 1956 Sugar Bowl team, however, the Louisiana state legislature soon passed legislation formally forbidding sports competition between blacks and whites. The law was so effective that the University of Pittsburgh, again with blacks on its football team, was prevented from appearing in the Sugar Bowl in 1964.
Only after considerable adverse publicity did NBC meet with bowl officials to change this discriminatory situation. The state law was reversed, and in 1965 Syracuse University with eight varsity blacks was permitted to play Louisiana State University in the Sugar Bowl. Similarly, only after the segregated Blue-Gray game from Montgomery and the Senior Bowl from Mobile had been televised for years did critical publicity and the threat of continued loss of TV revenues compel officials of these Alabama contests to permit blacks to participate beginning in 1965. This was because NBC canceled its telecast of the game in 1963 when advertisers, threatened with a national boycott, withdrew their sponsorship. And in 1964 the controversial Blue-Gray contest was shown only regionally on six southern stations.
While network TV slowly rectified chronic discriminatory practices, corporate officials by the early 1960s were outspoken in their advocacy of justice in the TV industry for blacks. In the spring of 1962, declarations of network principles were delivered by CBS vice-president, Hubbell Robinson, and NBC vice president, Mort Werner, both announcing the continued adherence of their corporations to policies of "no discrimination because of race, creed, religion, or national origin." That same year officers from the three national networks told congressional investigators that their companies continued to adhere to long-standing policies of non-bias—the oldest being an NBC policy that could be traced to a code of nondiscrimination developed in 1919 by the network's parent company, the Radio Corporation of America. In September 1963, even the small Metromedia network added its voice to the anti-bias chorus. According to John H. Kluge, Metromedia president, "the time has passed for mere lip service to a policy on nondiscrimination in business in general and the broadcast industry in particular."
The need to testify publicly against racism affected more than network TV officers. In July 1963, the Writers Guild of America West declared its support for demands being made by the NAACP and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) for the employment of more blacks in all phases of the entertainment industry. The same month the New York chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences issued its credo which stated that "all Americans must be afforded the opportunity to make their contributions in front of and behind the cameras, as well as in other areas of television, solely upon the basis of ability."
One of the most broadly based declarations of non-bias came in June 1963, from a coalition headed by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), the entertainers' union. Included in this coalition were organizations representing employers, networks, stations, advertising agencies, packagers, transcription companies, record manufacturers, agents, managers, and impresarios.
But the gap between liberal industry rhetoric and the reality of persistent racial discrimination created doubt in many minds about the sincerity of new policy statements. During this period, the NAACP was especially active in lobbying TV and film producers and trade unions for the acceptance of more blacks. The most heartening statement it could make in mid-1963, however, was that this was still "a period of appraisal." The Chicago Defender newspaper articulated much of the frustration and cynicism felt by African Americans when it editorialized in June, 1963, that "much as we like non-bias declarations, we would prefer some non-bias action." The prominent black publication continued:
While the good intentions of AFTRA are admirable, the TV industry as a whole is still perpetuating a picture of lily-white America on video in keeping with the "boob tube" concept. No doubt, the TV industry, from sponsors to networks, from producers to actors, is trying to mend its ways, as the newest declaration indicates. But no one seems to be trying very hard. The Negro does not ask a quota system to judge TV's performance—one-tenth of TV's time for one-tenth of the population that is Negro. Rather, it seeks a common sense, realistic portrait of America as it is, not the make-believe fluff of TV, where Negroes never seem to get into the picture.
The degree to which African Americans were excluded from the nation's most popular medium of information and entertainment was most graphically presented in October 1962 by the Committee on Integration of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. According to a study completed by this nonsectarian humanist group, during a two-week period on TV in New York City, blacks were scarcely visible. Of 393 half-hour units of viewing, blacks appeared in only 89 of them—the bulk of these being irregular appearances as singers, dancers, or musicians, or as the subjects in hard news and documentary programming. Such limited and stereotyped exposure, concluded the Society, was "psychologically damaging" to the image of African Americans.