As they have related historically to black Americans, the popular arts in the United States have been marked by two discernible patterns of behavior: heavy reliance on negative racial stereotypes and chronic discrimination against participation by African Americans. In the various media—literature, motion pictures, music, radio, television—racist impediments against equitable black depiction and involvement led to gross physical distortions, persistent typologies that one media historian summarized as "toms, coons, mulattoes, mammies, and bucks,"' as well as gross underrepresentation of blacks in the creative and business aspects of the mass-culture industry.
This was the pop culture of a society tolerant of racial discrimination, a society that found in such imagery a justification for public and private manifestations of racism. This was also entertainment for profit, produced by an arts business that systematically barred blacks from participation, except within the bounds of those restrictive and demeaning stereotypes.
Of all the media, however, the pattern of derision and exclusion was most keenly felt in network radio during its so-called Golden Age from the early 1930s to the early 1950s. Where there were viable if small minority-oriented literary forums, musical productions, and motion picture companies, radio was dominated by three or four national broadcasting networks. Although television has been controlled largely by those same networks, TV has been more temperate because it matured and flourished in an era of profound challenges to traditional racist attitudes. There were no similar circumstances militating against the abuse of African Americans in network radio.
Certainly, there were black radio performers like Eddie Anderson, Lillian and Amanda Randolph, Eddie Green, Hattie McDaniel, Ruby Dandridge, and Juano Hernandez, but their roles were either stereotypically comedic or insubstantial. And there were so many areas where African Americans never participated: No black men or women reported the news; there were no black sportscasters, no black soap operas; and no substantial black roles appeared in romances or dramas or Westerns or detective shows. Further, there were no black network executives, producers, directors, or writers. Radio was a lily-white medium, an industry that in its years of optimal influence did little to alter the racial peculiarities of the United States.
In light of such traditions, the appearance in the late 1940s of the radio series Destination Freedom constitutes a striking incongruity. A local show that for more than two years appeared on WMAQ, the owned-and-operated station of the National Broadcasting Company in Chicago, Destination Freedom was a provocative half-hour Sunday feature that probed with remarkable candor the accomplishments of prominent African Americans. Through dramatic sketches culled from black history, this series maturely illustrated the methods by which black achievers, such as Benjamin Banneker, Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, Marian Anderson, Langston Hughes, and Joe Louis, managed to succeed despite confrontations with systemic racism. In contrast to the roles as maids, cooks, butlers, and buffoons in which radio usually cast blacks, the principals of Destination Freedom demonstrated personalities that were, in the words of the program's author, "rebellious, biting, scornful, angry, cocky, as the occasion calls for—not forever humble, meek, etc., as some would like to imagine it."'
Destination Freedom premiered on June 27, 1948, and until it was altered in format in August 1950, the ninety-one different scripts produced for the program were the product of one man, Richard Durham. He was born September 6, 1917, in Raymond, Mississippi; but he was raised in Chicago. He died April 24, 1984. Durham learned his radio craft during the Depression as a young dramatist with the Writers Project of the WPA. Before undertaking Destination Freedom, he had studied at Northwestern University and had been an editor at the prestigious African American newspaper, the Chicago Defender. His first major radio experience came in Chicago with the quarter-hour series, Democracy U.S.A., which he wrote from 1946 to 1948 for the local CBS station, WBBM. In that period he also wrote the radio series Here Comes Tomorrow, a black soap opera which was produced only in Chicago for station WJJD.
In Destination Freedom, Durham's writing skills and social philosophy blossomed. Complemented by young minority actors like Oscar Brown, Jr., Janice Kingslow, Wezlyn Tilden, and Fred Pinkard, he brought to the program a sense of crusade. According to him, "at that time you were running with the wind in your face [so] there was that thing of a crusading spirit—of a drive to get the story over. " More explicitly, Durham told an interviewer at the time that the goal of his program was to cut through the false images of black life propagated through the popular arts. With Destination Freedom he hoped to expose "the camouflage of crackpots and hypocrites—false liberals and false leaders—of radio's Beulahs and Amos and Andy's, and Hollywood Stepin Fetchit's and its masturbation with self-flattering dreams of passing for white such as Pinky and Imitation of Life."
The appearance of Destination Freedom in the late 1940s parallels the liberal portrayal of blacks that occurred in motion pictures at this time. This was part of an artistic reaction in the popular culture to postwar U.S. racism. After years of anti-Nazi propaganda proclaiming the United States to be a land of equality and freedom that contrasted with German notions of racial superiority and eradication of "inferior races," Hollywood films in the late 1940s assailed anti-Semitic and anti-black prejudice at home. In such movies as Gentleman's Agreement, Pinky, Crossfire, The Boy with Green Hair, Lost Boundaries, and No Way Out writers and directors suggested that racism in the United States was an unacceptable affront to national values.
The success of Destination Freedom was underscored in several ways. Although Durham was paid only $125 per script and the series was without an underwriter for most of its tenure on WMAQ—the Chicago Defender paid part of its costs for the first thirteen weeks, and in early 1950 the Urban League of' Chicago helped to sponsor several broadcasts—Destination Freedom was recognized for its singular contribution to public education and the enhancement of race relations. In 1949 it was cited by the South Central Association of Chicago as "one of the finest programs of its kind” and as “a splendid contribution…toward the achievement of democracy in our time.” The same year the series awarded a first-place commendation by the prestigious Institute for Education by Radio at Ohio State University for its "vital, compelling use of radio technique in presenting contributions of Negroes to the development of democratic traditions and the American way of life."
Appropriately, on the first anniversary broadcast of Destination Freedom, Governor Adlai Stevenson appeared by transcription to laud the series for its promotion of "understanding an tolerance among the American people" and for doing so much "to familiarize us with the many contributions which Negroes have made to American life."'
Reading the scripts forty years after they were written, the perceptive and powerful import of Destination Freedom remains apparent. A decade before the appearance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the black social movement he energized, Richard Durham's program enunciated
the social and political goals of the civil rights movement. All of Durham’s central characters were achievers. Heroes like Crispus Attucks, confident in the validity of their inner convictions, preferred to confront bigotry and live or perish by their values. Others like Henry Armstrong were forced by adversity to adapt, turning to an outstanding career in boxing when racist barriers prevented him from enrolling in a medical college in St. Louis. In the case of business executive William Nickerson, Jr., prejudice in the insurance industry led directly to his creation of the successful Golden State Life Insurance Company.
Despite their victories over discrimination, Durham's principals were never able to forget the fragile nature of their triumphs. Whether it was singer-actress Lena Horne being refused service in a southern restaurant, or world-renowned Mary Church Terrell being ejected from a public bus in Washington, D.C., because she would not sit in the rear, Durham poignantly illustrated that all blacks must be prepared to encounter racist challenges at any point in their lives.
In preparing the scripts for Destination Freedom, Durham worked usually in historical materials—monographs, encyclopedias, biographies, and autobiographies. Oscar Brown, Jr., recalled the long hours Durham spent in the local public library piecing together fragmented historical accounts to produce a final script. Black history was not widely researched in the late 1940s, yet Durham's vigorous fascination with the subject is obvious. Ranging from Aesop, the Ethiopian bard of fable to contemporary leaders of African American society, his heroes were strong actors who influenced their times. Writing in 1949 to Homer Heck, the first producer and director of Destination Freedom, Durham summarized his view of black men or women in history, and of their relationship to his radio series.
A good many white people have cushioned themselves into dreaming that Negroes are not self-assertive, confident, and never leave the realm of fear and subservience—to portray them as they are will give a greater education (to the audience) than a dozen lectures.... His role in society and history has been so distorted—so much based on illusion, chauvinism and conjecture—so much a part of the psychological need of a good many whites for some excuse to carry on untenable attitudes—that the first point in the series was to bring up some little known facts of history which would give the audience a new insight on people in general.
Durham was not an academic historian, and Destination Freedom never purported to be historiographical. However, the program offered stories drawn from historical reality but fictionalized in terms of conversation and dramatic pace. Durham was a student of history—particularly that which encompassed the black experience—and his series presented fiction crafted from careful research.
The relationship of history and African American reality was explored most fully in those programs dealing with historians W. E. B. DuBois and Carter G. Woodson. Through his characters, Durham declared that truth drawn from history could help to defeat debilitating racism for, as he had DuBois comment, "only in the light of truth and publicity can we begin to dissolve discrimination and race hatred."
History, then, for Durham was a weapon of enlightenment used to justify, indeed demand, the African-American's share in the American dream and black humanity's right to dignity in the world community. In what was a fitting description of his own labor, Durham had Woodson declare that "I am the historian who looked to uncover the treasure of Negro life, so that America's goal of equality and justice may be strengthened by the knowledge of their struggle for freedom in the past."
Richard Durham understood that as a radio dramatist he was composing a popularized form of history, sharing the story of blacks with a public for the most part familiar only with the pejorative stereotypes of his race that were propagated through the mass media. His was a cause he felt himself sharing with all those associated with Destination Freedom. In 1949 he explained his challenge: "To break through the stereotype—shatter the conventions and traditions which have prevented us from dramatizing the infinite store of material from the history and current struggles for freedom—is the job cut out for writers, actors and directors working with Negro material."
This man was an idealist who felt, as did many of his dramatic characters, that exposing the pernicious nature of racism did much to undermine its appeal. "I had the outlook at the time," he told a radio interviewer in 1983, "that racial animosity is essentially an artificial thing. It has to be artificially imposed and artificially maintained." He continued, "Unless it's constantly supplied, it can't last in a person's normal going-about.... There has to be a constant resupply of some motivation for the animosity, or for the separation, or for the isolation of a particular group or it will break down."
As suggested by the title of the series, the overriding theme of Richard Durham's writing was freedom. In explaining his feelings on the subject, he emphasized that for blacks "complete full-scale emancipation is inevitable. No amount of demands for abnormal subservience, segregations, or denials can stop it." Blacks, according to Durham, "take equality (which in some circles is still controversial) as a matter of fact—as most people take the fact that two times two equals four."
In his programs the theme of freedom was continually present in the words and deeds of his protagonists. Rolla Hard, a confidant of the former slave and rebellion leader, Denmark Vesey, would "rather be the poorest freeman than the richest slave." Durham quoted Frederick Douglass saying that there could be "no peace until all men are free in public opinion as well as the law. If you want peace—first free your brothers.” And through Senator Charles Caldwell, the Reconstruction era state senator in Mississippi, Durham reiterated Abraham Lincoln's warning that "Liberty is the heritage of all men. Destroy it and you plant the seeds of despotism at your own door."
Although freedom was the primary virtue, the series more than once intimated that its achievement might come only through armed struggle. Several programs focused positively on black revolutionaries such as the American rebels Attucks and Vesey, and the Haitian patriots Toussaint L'Ouvreture and Henri Christophe. Durham's bold figures asserted the necessity for combating racism, agreeing with Ida B. Wells "that resistance to tyranny—is obedience to God." This message was reiterated in the pronouncement of Harriet Tubman that "there are two things I've got a right to—liberty or death. One or the other I mean to have. I shall fight for my liberty and when the time comes for me to go—the Lord will let them kill me." Most dramatically, in telling Denmark Vesey's story Durham suggested that the struggle for freedom was more than rhetorical, as his Vesey declared at his trial for leading a slave rebellion, "I felt to be idle while other men fought to be free was a crime.... If my life is the price I pay to be free—take it. I'll pay it. Until all men are free, the revolution goes on!"
In view of the conservative nature of radio programming, the revolutionary message of Destination Freedom was striking. Except for wartime propagandizing, commercial broadcasting was unfamiliar with suggestions of revolt. Certainly, patriotic dramas utilized the utterances of colonial leaders like Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, but it was a major departure to broadcast the fiery appeals, even historical ones, of black radicals—and to declare that as far as people of color were concerned the American revolution remained incomplete.
Needless to say, the series received complaints from the public. Durham recalled civic groups such as the American Legion and the Knights of Columbus protesting specific programs . He encountered resistance from WMAQ—which had to approve all his scripts—when he proposed dramas based on the lives of black leaders, like Nat Turner and Paul Robeson, who were considered too controversial. And editing done at the studio occasionally toned down the anger in Durham's message. For example, in the script for "Segregation, Incorporated"—a stinging critique of racial segregation in Washington, D.C.—Durham asserted that such practices were promoting a "master race" philosophy in the United States. This allegation was deleted from the actual broadcast.
Nonetheless, references to Nat Turner appeared in several programs, and the bite of Destination Freedom was unmistakable, even with occasional edits. Moreover, the series was sustained by WMAQ until the summer of 1950 when pressures from the new war in Korea and the swelling tide of anticommunism did much to blunt all liberal creativity in the popular arts. At that juncture, Destination Freedom became a patriotic series hosted by "Paul Revere" and featuring dramas of traditional white heroes like Dwight D. Eisenhower, and "average people" whose stories offered lessons in Americanism.
Richard Durham's social and political concepts were singularly progressive. Although egalitarian ideals were advanced in film and literature in the late 1940s, Destination Freedom was the most consistent and prolonged protest against injustice in all the popular arts. In the two years of the program no one wrote more pointedly or more prolifically on the subject of racial prejudice than Richard Durham.
Importantly, as bold as he was in treating the denial of freedom inherent in U.S. racism, segregation, and discrimination, through the concept of "the universal people," Durham also projected his message toward that social and political area that would later be called the Third World. As he explained it in 1949, the experiences of "segregation and sharecropping" created in the African American a personality immediately recognizable to the remainder of the exploited, underdeveloped world. Facing and surmounting racism in the United States thereby made the story of black Americans a model for the Chinese imperialized for more than three centuries, and for the peoples of Africa, India, and Southeast Asia who because of unjust caste systems were aliens in their own lands. But Durham's was not a racist position. He also considered in the same category exploited white people, such as European Jews just then establishing the modern state of Israel, and the "millions of Europeans and white Americans who also want to uproot poverty and prejudice."
As a people for all people, therefore, Durham offered American blacks as a universal symbol of the destiny in freedom of the masses of the world. The essence of this argument appeared when—portraying the maiden speech of Congressman Oscar DePriest of Illinois—the first African American elected to Congress since Reconstruction—Durham quoted him as declaring that "freedom belongs not to a group of men, nor to a clan, nor to a single party, but to the black and white, Jew and Gentile who have earned it in wars and work."
If Durham's projection of his dramatic message toward the exploited Third World was ahead of its time, even more remarkable for its foresight was his posture regarding women's rights. He felt that in his black characterizations there were models for exploited women. "One half the population of the world," he told an interviewer, "the women of the world of all races and creeds in their upward swing toward a real emancipation, find it natural to identify their striving with the direction and emotional realism in Negro life today." In relating the stories of leading black women—among them Harriet Tubman, Mary McLeod Bethune, Dorothy Maynor, Hazel Scott, Katherine Dunham, Lena Horne, and Gwendolyn Brooks—he propounded an egalitarian theme well enunciated in the slow, sad words of Sojourner Truth.
I've heard men say women are not their equals. I've heard them laugh because they say women must be helped into carriages, lifted over ditches, and have the best of everything. Nobody ever helped me into carriages or over mud puddles or gave me any best (pause) and ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arms and hands! I have plowed and planted and gathered crops into barns—and no man could do it better (pause) and ain't I a woman? I have borne five children and seen most of 'em sold off into slavery, and when I called out for men to help me, there was none willin' to do it. I have been nurse to children, black and white, and bred them all from the cradle, seen 'em grow up to be slaves and a seller of slaves. And I have gotten out on the road alone to teach better. And I have felt a mother's grief and done a man's job—(pause) and ain't I a woman? In this world—few men have had a fair chance to live and grow—and almost no women. When men run the world alone, it runs into wars and slavery for men and women. It'll do no harm to have man and woman run it better together!
For the most part Richard Durham's women exhibited a strong, independent mentality in a society prejudiced against them by reasons of race and gender. They all demonstrated personalities similar to that of Ida B. Wells, described by one character as being "a stormy old woman. Restless like a river and a tongue like a flamin' sword." Durham's most impressive statement in favor of women's rights—and conversely, his most powerful appeal for women to resist the chronic domination of' male chauvinism, or as he termed it "masculinism"--came when he caused the noted humanitarian, Mary Church Terrell, to exclaim to a group of racist white women,
The only protecting women need is protection by equality under the law. Equality of opportunities and the right to share the benefits of this land, alongside men. Equality to choose their associates without fear of intimidation from bigots and the hissing of cowards. That is why I'm staying in the South and getting Negro and white women together to find their freedom together. In the right to vote and the right to work will freedom be found—for once a white woman bows down before white masculinism she is ready for slavery!
Although he clearly developed political and social principles in Destination Freedom, Durham failed to delineate a consistent economic interpretation. Occasionally, his characters touched on economic issues, declaring in such instances notions that might have generated greater elaboration. For example, more questions were raised than answered when he caused Ida B. Wells to explain racism as a function of economics.
I knew as no one else in Memphis seemed to know: that the real motive behind all lynching was not the "moral" issue pretended—but underneath it was a matter of murder for money and jobs. The base of all race terror pounded itself into my head as a weapon to enslave a people at the bottom of the economic scale—and the "moral" charges were just the envelope of the letter.
Durham also touched on economic factors when, in the episode on the founding of the Urban League, he suggested that the fear of losing jobs was the motive behind white intolerance of the migration of southern blacks into Chicago. And in his dramatization of Richard Wright's early life, Durham cited a white man explaining to the young Wright that "it's a white folks country," but only for "those that got there fastest with mostest gold. Those on the top gotta have somebody to hold 'em up there—that's what you and the po' white folks is for."
Durham, however, avoided radical responses to economic distortions, which as he intimated, might have been the root causes of the political and social discrimination he detested. Rather than attack the system, however, he criticized the people who manipulated it. As a reformer, he was a man who believed that the attainment and maintenance of freedom within a liberal democracy necessitated vigilance on the part of the citizenry. If there was injustice within a society dedicated to political and economic freedom, such a condition emanated not so much from the mechanical functions of its economic system, but from the personal culpability of those who operated the system and those who tolerated their inequities. This is not to say that he did not recognize the need for a degree of economic equality to accompany political freedom. This was the meaning of Ralph Bunche when Durham quoted him as asserting,
If ever there is to be peace in the world, the vast majority of mankind who produce the raw materials out of Asia and Africa must first be freed and given a proper share of the wealth of their labor. They will either become free and independent new nations through blood and strife, as did America, or through the cooperation of peaceful nations.
Richard Durham's Destination Freedom was canceled in August 1950. For the writer it meant an expanded career: work as national program director for the meat cutters trade union in the 1950s; editor of Muhammad Speaks during most of the 1960s; author in the early 1970s of the TV serial, Bird of the Iron Feather, which appeared on public television in Chicago; and author in 1977 of the best-selling The Greatest, the autobiography of boxing champion Muhammad Ali.
But for U.S. radio the cancellation of Destination Freedom meant the loss of one of its most significant programs. Although broadcast only in the Chicago area on Sunday mornings, the importance of the series cannot be diminished. The radio industry had always denied blacks an equal opportunity to compete in its medium of news and entertainment. Where radio did overcome its exclusionary traditions, it gave U.S. listeners silly, demeaning stereotyped characters like Rochester (The Jack Benny Program); Geranium (The Judy Canova Show); Birdie Lee Goggins (The Great Gildersleeve); Sapphire Stevens, her Mama, and her husband George "Kingfish" Stevens (Amos‘ n’ Andy); and Beulah and her friends Oriole and Bill (Beulah).
In comparison to this menagerie, Destination Freedom was an intelligent, distinguished series. And its author merits comparison to the best dramatists that radio produced--to Norman Corwin, Arch Oboler, Morton Wishengrad, Sandra Michael, and William N. Robson. At the time he wrote Destination Freedom, Durham could not have created it for network radio. His strident concern for the African American condition was beyond the bounds of what was permissible in national programming. Even a decade later when the CBS Radio Workshop produced two of his Destination Freedom scripts, "Denmark Vesey" was purged of its revolutionary bite, and "The Heart of George Cotton" ceased to be a tough rebuke of racism, becoming instead a love story.
That the series did appear for two years remains a tribute to WMAQ, to the National Broadcasting Company, and to Chicago audiences. In a time when students are considering in fuller perspective the contributions of black creativity to U.S. culture, Richard Durham and his Destination Freedom must be recognized for their singular importance. To the furtherance of this recognition, the present book of the best of Richard Durham scripts is directed.