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The Nicest Kids in Town

Matt Delmont, Author

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Conclusion: Everybody Knows About American Bandstand

While Nina Simone never performed on American Bandstand, her song “Mississippi Goddam” offers a lens through which to examine the issues at the heart of this project. In her autobiography, Simone recalled that she wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in response to two tragic events that shocked the nation:
I was sitting there in my den…when news came over the radio that somebody had thrown dynamite into the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama while black children were attending a Bible study class. […] It was more than I could take, and I sat struck dumb in my den like St. Paul on the road to Damascus: all the truths that I had denied to myself for so long rose up and slapped my face. The bombing of the little girls in Alabama and the murder of Medgar Evers were like the final pieces of a jigsaw that made no sense until you had fitted the whole thing together. I suddenly realized what it was to be black in America in 1963.[i]
The lyrics of “Mississippi Goddam” express Simone’s indignation at the repeated acts of racial terror in the United States: “Alabama’s got me so upset / Tennessee made me lose my rest / And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.” With“everybody knows,” Simone captures the fact that, with national media coverage of the assassination of Medgar Evers and the Birmingham church bombing, it would have been difficult for anyone not to be aware of these events. Still, Simone makes it clear that this awareness does not equal a commitment or sense of urgency to fight for racial equality: “Why don't you see it? / Why don't you feel it? / I don't know / I don't know.”[ii] Simone described “Mississippi Goddam” as “my first civil rights song” and this work remains useful for thinking about the history of the civil rights movement more broadly.[iii]

Knowing about the nationally visible tragedies of 1963 was not the same as understanding these murders as part of a larger system of state-sanctioned violence that maintained the political disenfranchisement of blacks in the South and blocked the passage of meaningful civil rights legislation at the federal level. This gap between an awareness of bad things happening to individual black people and the systemic allocation of resources away from black communities is important because, as historian Thomas Sugrue argues, “the ways that we recount the history of racial inequality and civil rights—the narratives that we construct about our past—guide our public policy priorities and our lawmaking and, even more fundamentally, shape our national identity.”[iv] Absent an understanding of the civil rights movement’s ambitious economic, political, legal, and social goals, the legacy of the movement can be defined narrowly as a call to embrace racial colorblindness. This ideology of racial colorblindness focuses on overcoming individual racial prejudice and takes the decline in overt racism since the civil rights era as evidence of the end of racism. This view of civil rights ignores the histories of systematic discrimination, such as the public policies that maintained school and residential segregation, as well as how the long-term legacies of these policies disadvantaged black communities. To paraphrase Simone, everybody knows about the civil rights movement, but not everyone understands the movement as a decades-long fight to uproot structures of white supremacy.

Philadelphia was not Mississippi, and the history of American Bandstand is not equivalent to the racial violence that motivated “Mississippi Goddam.” Still, Simone’s song suggests an approach to history that has motivated this project. Everybody knows about American Bandstand, but like narrow views of civil rights, this awareness can obscure more than it reveals. The dominant memory of American Bandstand's effect on society is that it took a bold and progressive stance on racial integration. Rather than making clear how race influenced nearly every facet of life in the postwar era—where people lived and worked, where young people went to school, and what images viewers saw on television—this dominant memory suggests that the country, led by commercial media industries in the liberal North, was well on its way to overcoming racism by the late 1950s. This rhetoric of progress and innocence is not unique to American Bandstand, but as the show was one of the most popular television programs of all time, this memory offers a barometer of how far the nation has come with regard to race. To complicate this memory, this project shows how American Bandstand became a site of struggle over racial segregation and how the show influenced and was influenced by racial discrimination and civil rights activism in the city’s neighborhoods and schools. For those who watched American Bandstand during its heyday in the 1950s and early 1960s, this project provides stories that were not part of the show’s afternoon broadcasts. Understanding how the local Bandstand developed into a national phenomenon, how American Bandstand constructed a vision of national youth culture, and how American Bandstand drew from black popular culture while excluding black teenagers adds depth and nuance to popular memories of American Bandstand. For those who know the early years of the program only through vintage black-and-white clips, this project provides local and national context to make it clear that American Bandstand was more than the background images seen in 1950s-themed montages. Understanding how white homeowners organized to maintain segregation in the neighborhoods around American Bandstand’s studio, how American Bandstand’s producers opposed meaningful integration while claiming to hold colorblind policies, and how black teenagers protested racially discriminatory policies on American Bandstand shows that far from being a relic from a more innocent age of popular culture, American Bandstand was at the center of local and national struggles over segregation and representations of race.

Everybody knows about American Bandstand, but this awareness means little if it is not connected to the local and national contexts that made the show important, influential, and controversial. American Bandstand brought teenagers together everyday in the 1950s and early 1960s at an unprecedented national level. Several black musicians profited from exposure on television and surely broadened the outlooks of many viewers regarding race relations. To call American Bandstand a force for social good, however, obscures the ways the show reinforced, rather than challenged, segregationist attitudes locally and nationally. American Bandstand’s producers made choices with regard to the show’s segregation and racial representations that, while not unique in their historical context, fell far short of the social good for which the city’s civil rights advocates fought. Everybody knows about American Bandstand. My hope is that this project will connect this awareness to the historical, and still unfinished, struggles for racial equality in which American Bandstand was a highly visible site.

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