Black Celebrities of the Civil Rights Movement
The postwar years were the era of the integration of America’s professional sports. Jackie Robinson, Althea Gibson, Bill Willis and others became household names. Beyond sports, black movie stars made had significant cultural milestones during the decade, while television appearances remained typed and relatively rare. Music, particularly rock and roll, had a unifying influence on the youth culture of America. The postwar era coincided with congressional anti-Communism investigations, and black writers and performers were investigated for having expressed sympathy for communism, an ideology that claimed it eschewed racism.
Black Athletes in the Civil Rights Era
Football: The sport was integrated in 1946. That year, 4 black athletes took to the professional gridiron. Bill Willis, playing for the Cleveland Browns, is considered to be the first black starter in football. Marion Motley played for the Browns that year, while Kenny Washington and Woody Strode played for the Los Angeles Rams. Strode would go on to a career in film.
Baseball: In 1946 Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and played with their farm team in Montreal. The following year, six days before the start of the 1947 season, the Dodgers called Robinson up to the major leagues, where he played initially as a first baseman. Robinson made his debut at Ebbets Field in front of 26,623 spectators, including 14,000 African Americans. Robinson’s presence caused some racial tension amongst his teammates, until Dodgers management sent a clear message. Manager Leo Durocher told the team, “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded.” The Baseball Commissioner and the National League President squelched a potential strike by racist players by threatening to suspend them. Nevertheless, Robinson endured racial abuse from both fans and players. On April 22, 1947, during a game between the Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies.
Phillies players called Robinson a “nigger” from their dugout and yelled that he should “go back to the cotton fields”. On May 14, on the Dodgers’ first visit of the season to Cincinnati, Robinson was subjected to a torrent of racial abuse from fans. They also hurled insults at teammate Pee Wee Reece, because Reece was a Southerner, born just across the river from Cincinnati in Kentucky, and here he was “playing ball with a nigger,” Robinson later recalled. During the episode, Pee Wee left his position and walked over to Robinson at second base. He put his arm around his shoulder and stood talking until the jeering stopped. Robinson recounted these episodes in a later interview.
Robinson endured the taunts and death threats stoically, however, and his flawless fielding at first base, timely hitting, and 29 stolen bases helped the Dodgers capture the National League pennant and won him the title Rookie of the Year. Two years later, in 1949, he won the batting championship with a .342 average and was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player.
Golf: In 1948, Ted Rhodes became the first African American to compete in the U.S. Open golf championships since John Shippen prior to WWI. Charlie Sifford was the first black American to receive tour playing privileges, in 1961.
Basketball: Chuck Cooper was the first black player drafted in NBA history in 1950. Cooper was picked in the second round of the draft by the Boston Celtics. In the eighth round, Earl Lloyd was picked by Washington. Later, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton was signed by the New York Knicks. Lloyd made his debut first, on October 31, 1950.
Tennis: In 1950, Althea Gibson became the first black American to compete at any of tennis’ “majors,” at the U.S. Championships. On August 28, Gibson beat Barbara Knapp 6-2, 6-2 in the first round. She was escorted off the court by former champion Alice Marble, and a mixed crowd of smiling fans. The following year Gibson also competed at Wimbledon. She became the first African American, man or woman, to win a major at the 1956 French Open. By the end of the 1958 season she had added two Wimbledon and two U.S. Championships in singles competition, as well as 6 major doubles titles.
Hockey: In 1958, Willie O’Ree became the first back to play in professional hockey, with the Boston Bruins. O’Ree was not an African American, however, as he held Canadian citizenship. O’Ree noted that “racist remarks were much worse in the U.S. cities than in Toronto and Montreal,” the two Canadian cities hosting NHL teams at the time, and that “Fans would yell, ‘Go back to the South’ and ‘How come you’re not picking cotton?’ Things like that. It didn’t bother me. I just wanted to be a hockey player, and if they couldn’t accept that fact, that was their problem, not mine.” He would remain the only black to have played professional hockey for 15 years.
Although many stereotypes of African Americans were still prevalent during this time period, some gains were made. An example of the former is the Walt Disney postwar film, Song of the South, in which a Civil War era Uncle Tom character named Uncle Remus regales the cute master’s children with Brer Rabbit and Tar Baby stories, and one famous song of slave hyper-contentedness called “Zip A Dee Doo Dah”. On the other hand, James Baskett was the first black male actor to receive an Oscar, an Honorary Academy Award, for his performance as Uncle Remus. Following that film, however, Hollywood began to examine race issues, including tensions between African Americans and whites, and the issues of race and self-identity. 1949 alone saw 3 such movies: Intruder in the Dust, Lost Boundaries, and Pinky. In 1950, Sidney Poitier starred in No Way Out, a racial thriller about a black doctor who operates on two white racists, setting off a violent chain reaction of events. In 1954, Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge starred in Carmen Jones, directed by Otto Preminger. This update of the Georges Bizet opera Carmen featured an all black cast, with rousing musical performances. Additionally, the two co-stars were perhaps the first on-screen black couple whose sex appeal clearly cut across the color line. Dandridge was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Actress category, but lost to Grace Kelly.
Dandridge and Belafonte also were paired together in Island in the Sun (1957), a film that explored interracial romance in the Caribbean. The film, however, was fraught with compromises. The onscreen romance between Dandridge and actor John Justin, who played a white British diplomat , was not allowed to progress beyond dancing and a brief physical embrace. At one emotional moment they move in for the kiss, but end up just rubbing cheeks. A handshake between Harry Belafonte and white actress Joan Fontaine was the only on-screen physical contact they were allowed. One wonders why director producer Darryl F. Zanuck even took on this subject if he was going to cave in to political pressure. Despite the compromises made, the miscegenation theme was enough for the South Carolina legislature to introduce a bill to fine any movie house $5,000 for showing it. The bill failed, but many Southern theater owners rejected the film anyway. Yet the Dandridge-Justin scene was the first one in which a black woman was held in the arms of a white man in an American movie, making the film culturally significant. Dandridge, under contract to 20th Century Fox, was a star that they didn’t know what to do with. She was continually frustrated by a lack of roles, and her career declined. Harry Belafonte also participated in the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, held in Washington, DC on May 17, 1957, appearing with Mahalia Jackson and Martin Luther King, Jr.
McCarthyism put a chill on Hollywood’s penchant for examining social issues, and no more films about race relations in America were released until 1958’s The Defiant Ones, a groundbreaking film with a plot centering on two escaped convicts, one white and one black, who are chained together. Although they despise each other, their circumstances force them to rely in each other for survival. By the end of the film the two have gotten to know each other as human beings, and have even forged a friendship. For his role, Sidney Poitier became the first African American male actor to be nominated for an Academy Award. He would go on to a successful and culturally significant career in the 1960s.
The Defiant Ones was followed by Imitation of Life and I Passed For White, two films that explored race and self-identity. In 1960, Sergeant Rutledge was released, about an African-American “buffalo soldier” accused of rape and murder, starring former football player Woody Strode. Rutledge is successfully defended in his 1881 all-white jury trial by a white officer. Witnesses give testimony relived in flashbacks, revealing the sergeant’s gallantry and eventually the shocking truth–that a white man raped the girl.
The 1950s was something of a transitional decade for African Americans in film. Although stereotypes continue to crop up to this day (especially the coon & the brute), their prevalence in Hollywood was largely coming to an end the 50s. Sidney Poitier, in particular, would forge new ground in the coming decade.
The 1950s was the decade in which television transfixed Americans. A luxury item that many African American families, largely left out the the burgeoning middle class consumerism, couldn’t afford. 1950s television programming, paid for by advertising dollars, largely reflected the sponsor’s target demographic. Black characters were rare and mostly in the background. The first television show to star a black actor was Beulah, which ran for 3 seasons on ABC from 1950-1952. Beulah had evolved from radio, where Hattie McDaniel of Gone With the Wind fame played the title character beginning in 1947, also a first for radio. In the television show the main character was first played by Ethel Waters, and then by Louise Beavers. Beulah, the so-called “queen of the kitchen,” was a mammy caricature, the loyal domestic servant of legend that originated during the days of slavery. In the modern setting, she toiled for the white Henderson family. Part of the show revolved around her never-ending efforts at getting her boyfriend Bill to marry her, who always found some coonish way out of the agreement. Although it was significant that a television show named after and featuring a black character existed as early as 1950, Beulah’s main role was the self-sacrificing problem-solver for the Hendersons, and she essentially served to modernize the mammy caricature to white, middle class viewers.
Over on the CBS network, a television version of the long-running radio staple, The Amos ‘n Andy Show was produced from June 1951 to April 1953. Although the radio show had been done by white actors applying voice talents they learned from the minstrel show genre of entertainment, the visual aspect of television forced CBS to cast black actors in the series. In an ironic twist, these black actors were told to sound as close as possible like the white actors who played black characters on the radio. Although the radio show had sponsored some criticism, those protests paled in comparison to the critical response to the television show. The NAACP mounted a formal protest over the show’s coon caricatures, saying that the show “tends to strengthen the conclusion among uninformed or prejudiced peoples that Negroes and other minorities are inferior, lazy, dumb and dishonest.” They called for a boycott of the sponsor’s product, Blatz beer. The show lasted only 3 seasons, but was shown in syndication until 1966, when pressure from the civil rights movement finally forced it off the air.
Rock and Roll
As one documentary on the history of African American caricatures put it, “black song and dance has long been held in mythical esteem by whites.” In the 1920s and 1930s, Black blues, jazz, and big band artists achieved mainstream commercial success. Count Basie and Duke Ellington were legends, as were black singers like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole.
In the 1950s a new genre of popular music evolved out of a combination of blues, country, jazz, and gospel music. This new sound, which came to be called rock and roll, was adopted by the youth culture of the 1950s. This phenomenon represented a new level of cultural fusion in the United Sates. Although the genre’s biggest stars would be white musicians who sounded like the black “race music” artists (and often recorded covers of songs written and recorded by black artists), several black rock and roll stars emerged during this era. The artist credited with fusing blues into rock and roll is Bo Diddley, whose guitar work was also influential on artists such as Jimmy Hendrix in later years. In 1955 Diddley appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, where he infuriated the host by playing a song that was not one that Sullivan had requested.
Fats Dominoe sold a million copies of “The Fat Man” in 1949, but he really achieved pop mainstream success with “Ain’t That a Shame” in 1955, and he achieved his biggest hit the following year with “Blueberry Hill.” Dominoe eventually had 37 top 40 singles. Little Richard produced amazing, explosive performances on such classics as “Tutti Frutti,” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly,” and when audiences went to see him, they typically started out segregated, but ended up all mixed together in a shared cultural experience. Lloyd Price had a string of hits in the late 1950s, although he is best remembered for an earlier rocker, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” from 1952. Southern racists created PSAs to warn the public that “Rock n Roll is part of a test to undermine the morals of the youth of our nation. It is sexualistic, unmoralistic and … brings people of both races together.”
Much of the late 50s belonged to Chuck Berry, whose top ten hits from that era include “School Days,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and “Johnny B. Goode.” In 1959, the Motown record label was founded, destined to take black mainstream music to a new level, and black R&B artists like Ray Charles and Sam Cooke also enjoyed mainstream success in the late 1950s. In 1956, Nat King Cole hosted the first show of The Nat King Cole Show. The show went off the air after only 13 months because no national sponsor could be found. However, Black rock and roll artists did enter the homes of millions of American teenagers through the medium of television, appearing and performing on such pioneering shows as Alan Freed, Ed Sullivan, and Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. The success of both white and black rock and roll artists and the appropriation of the genre by the youth culture encouraged racial cooperation and shared experience.
Anti-Communism Actions & Black Americans
In 1949, Jackie Robinson was called to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. At issue were public statements by singer/actor Paul Robeson, that Black Americans would be sympathetic to a communist form of government because the ideology was incongruous with racism. The baseball player acknowledged that minorities suffered greatly in America, but denied that the Black mainstream would ever consider propagating communism in the United States. Critics, citing Paul Robeson as an example, disagreed.
Paul Robeson was one of the most celebrated Americans of his generation. He went to Rutgers University on a scholarship, where he earned 15 varsity letters, was an All-American in football, was one of only 3 classmates accepted into Phi Beta Kappa, and graduated as class valedictorian. He then earned a law degree at Columbia in New York. He was said to be conversant in 20 languages. Robeson was widely recognized as one of the country’s most talented baritones, and a fine actor, but Hollywood tended to cast him in demeaning stereotyped slave and servant roles, virtually the only roles available for black actors at the time. Robeson spoke openly about the endemic racism of American society, and he was an activist against lynching. Robeson found solidarity with the anti-racist ideology of communism. He joined the Communist Party of America, traveled frequently to the Soviet Union, and was under surveillance by the FBI for much of his life. In 1948 he was investigated by HUAC, which attempted to cite him for refusal to sign a non-communist declaration. On May 31, 1948, Robeson testified before the U.S. Senate against the Mundt-Nixon Bill, which had passed the House ten days earlier. Mundt-Nixon would require all members of the Communist Party of the United States to register with the government. The bill died, but was taken up a few years later and parts of it were incorporated into the McCarran Act.
In 1949, a riot broke out at a Robeson concert at Peekskill, New York. The concert was to benefit the Civil Rights Congress, and it was opposed by anti-Communist and anti-civil rights members of local Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion chapters and by local residents. The concert had originally been scheduled for August 27, but was postponed until September 4 after a white mob attacked concert-goers with baseball bats and rocks. On
the 4th, the concert went on without trouble, but as patrons were exiting the event they were attacked by a white mob who chanted “Go back to Russia you white Niggers” and “Dirty Kikes,” while throwing rocks through the windshields of cars and buses. Some were reportedly dragged from their cars and beaten. Police and New York state troopers were caught on film joining in the beatings of concert goers, including WWI decorated aviator Eugene Bullard.
By 1950, the U.S. government believed that a blacklisted existence inside the United States borders would offer Robeson less freedom of expression than his presence internationally would, and so the State Department denied Robeson a passport, effectively confining him to the United States until the Supreme Court banned such practices in 1958. During this time Robeson gave several symbolic concerts. One was at the International Peace Arch on the border between Washington state and British Columbia on May 18, 1952. Robeson performed on the back of a flat bed truck on the U.S. side of the border to a crowd of around 30,000 on the Canadian side. He repeated the concert the following year. In 1957 Robeson sang over the telephone to 5,000 at the annual Eisteddfod Music Festival in Wales, where he had been invited to perform by Welsh miners.
In 1956, Robeson again appeared before HUAC. He pleaded Constitutional immunity when queried about alleged affiliations and associations and then denounced America and the congressional Committee, accusing the latter of being unpatriotic and Un-American. He told them, “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” In 1957, Robeson and his wife appeared with Harry Belafonte and Martin Luther King Jr. at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, held in Washington, DC, but by this time he was seen as a liability to the civil rights cause and was largely ignored. Robeson’s popularity among black Americans re-emerged with the 1958 publication of his autobiography, Here I Stand. He was honored as a civil rights pioneer on the occasions of his 70th and 75th birthdays, and when he died in 1976, 2,500 attended his funeral. Surprisingly little media of Robeson exists. This is because he was actively purged from the historical record during the 50s and 60s because of his political views.
Josephine Baker was an African American entertainer who grew up on the 1920s vaudeville circuit and, after moving to Paris in 1925, gradually became a glamorous European star. Although she was American, she was often cast in the role of the French colonial African, and many of her European fans came to see her that way. During WWII she earned high honors through her work with Charles de Gaulle’s Free French. After the war she developed into a masterful night club performer. When Baker returned to the U.S. for a 1951 tour, she used her status to force the integration of the clubs where she performed. She also spoke at a rally in defense of Willie McGee, a Southern black who was executed for allegedly raping a white woman. In July, she staged a citizen’s arrest of a Dallas salesman who publicly refused to patron a Los Angeles hotel that accepted blacks. Baker was harassed by the U.S. government, but remained politically active until her death in 1975.
Another Black American impacted by the anti-communism politics of the postwar years was writer and poet Langston Hughes. Like Robeson, Hughes was drawn to the anti-racism ideology of communism. In 1932, at one of the worst moments in the history of capitalism, he was part of a group of African Americans who traveled to the Soviet Union. Hughes was also active in promoting the injustice surrounding the case of the Scottsboro Boys. He was politically active during the rest of the decade promoting causes that were supported by communist organizations. Hughes was against American involvement in WWII because of the hypocrisy of fighting for injustices perpetrated by Fascism. He ultimately changed his mind and came to support the war effort as an opportunity for Black American to promote their own civil rights at home. When considered as a whole, Hughes seems to have been more of a Communist sympathizer than an activist. Unlike Robeson, he did not join the Communist Party of the United States. After the war, Hughes denied that he was a Communist. In 1950 he was listed in the right-wing anti-Communist publication, Red Channels. In 1953 he was called before Joe McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
Subsequently, he distanced himself from Communism. Also in 1953, Hughes participated in an interracial intergroup educational conference held at the Downtown Community School in Manhattan. In this clip, he discusses the creation of his character Simple, Hughes’ main vehicle for political thought and observations about American society