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The Nicest Kids in Town

Matt Delmont, Author

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Dick Clark's Memory of Integrating American Bandstand

How then do we understand Dick Clark’s claim that he integrated American Bandstand by the late 1950s? His first chronicle of the show’s history, the 1973 “Dick Clark 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll Yearbook,” makes no mention of integration.[i] Clark first commented on the program’s integration in his 1976 autobiography, Rock, Roll, and Remember. Clark recalled:
"Bandstand" was a segregated show for years. It became integrated in 1957 because I elected to make it so…I was aware of [the Freed controversy]. I was also aware that rock ‘n’ roll and "Bandstand" owed their existences to black music and the black artists who sang it. By the time I had the show a year I knew it had to be integrated. Tony [Mammarella] and I made sure we had black representation which increased as the years went by.[ii]
Here, Clark refers to American Bandstand’s “integration” and the increase in “black representation,” emphasizing black musical artists rather than the presence of black teenagers in the studio audience. By calling attention to the visibility American Bandstand provided to black artists twenty years earlier, Clark sought to absolve the show and himself of charges of appropriating black music. Clark’s memory of integrating the show responded to music historians and critics who, writing in the wake of the civil rights movement, raised awareness of the frequent exploitation of black music artists by white producers.[iii]

By the mid-1970s, moreover, American Bandstand ratings were in decline and faced a challenge from Soul Train. Created by black deejay Don Cornelius as a black dance show, Soul Train started in Chicago in 1970 before being picked up by stations across the country the following year. By 1973, the show drew many of the top R&B performers and competed with American Bandstand for viewers on Saturday afternoons. To compete with Soul Train, Clark developed Soul Unlimited, hosted by black Los Angeles deejay Buster Jones that broadcast in place of American Bandstand every fourth Saturday on ABC. Cornelius felt that Soul Unlimited was a blatant attempt to push Soul Train off the air and with the help of the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH, took his case to the vice president of ABC. For his part, Clark felt that Soul Train was encroaching on his turf, telling Rolling Stone reporter Ben Fong-Torres, “that’s my time period” and if ABC “wants to put a black Bandstand on, then I’ll do it.”[iv] ABC, however, persuaded Clark to drop Soul Unlimited before summer 1973.[v] American Bandstand and Soul Train, however, remained rival shows throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Aiming to shore up American Bandstand’s reputation, Clark’s 1976 memory of integrating American Bandstand emphasized the show’s role as a champion of black performers but did not extend to the exclusion of black teenagers from the studio audience.

Clark first addressed the integration of the studio audience in his 1978 record collection celebrating the show’s twenty-fifth anniversary. The enclosed booklet includes an entry for each year from 1952 to 1975, featuring tidbits on American Bandstand and current events. The entry for 1960 includes a reference to the show’s integration:
The civil rights movement captured the conscience of America as the first wave of "sit-ins" spread throughout the South while sympathetic boycotts were organized in the North. I’m proud to say "Bandstand" was already by then one of the first integrated shows on national television. After all, there would’ve been no rock ‘n’ roll without black music. And despite the fears of sponsors, we never received a single protest over the appearance of black couples on the show.[vi]
The themes seen here—the reference to the national civil rights context and the American Bandstand’s place as a groundbreaking television show—would continue to inform Clark's memory of the show. Clark returned to the topic of integration in a 1990 Rolling Stone interview. Clark told journalist Henry Schipper the first time he ever spoke to a black teenager on the air in 1957 he was “terrified” because he “didn’t know what the reaction was going to be” among southern viewers. Since there was no outpouring of protest from southern affiliates, Clark continued, “From that day forward, nobody ever called, and it just happened.”[vii] In a 1994 interview with historian John Jackson, Clark offered a history of the integration of the show’s audience, while downplaying the nobleness of his intentions. Producer Tony Mammarella and “[I] alone decided that we had to get more [blacks] on the air,” Clark told Jackson, “because we knew as we went on with the show and it got to be seen nationally, [segregation] couldn’t be. It wasn’t anything that we did as do-gooders or [that] we were politically inclined, or anything other than the fact, ‘this made sense.’” When asked about the timing of this decision, Clark told Jackson that after the show went national in 1957, “there was never a rule not to show blacks on American Bandstand,” and “as the years went by—’58, ’59—more black kids attended. They didn’t turn up in great numbers because they hadn’t been welcome for so many years.”[viii]

Clark offered a more detailed version of this memory in the introductory essay to his 1997 book, Dick Clark’s American Bandstand (a similar version of this story appears in Dick Clark’s American Bandstand 50th Anniversary, published in 2007). After retelling the story of the first time he spoke to a black teen on the air, Clark describes American Bandstand’s integration in the context of television history:
There was one important change that [Producer] Tony [Mammarella] and I made in 1957. Up until that time, the dancers on Bandstand had one thing in common—they were all white. You didn’t see a lot of black people on TV in the fifties, or other minorities either. This was eight years before Bill Cosby starred with Robert Culp in I Spy, nine years before Nichelle Nichols was cast as Lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek, and eleven years before Diahann Carroll played Julia, all pioneering roles for black actors. Even in 1968, when Petula Clark kissed Harry Belafonte on the cheek, there was an uproar among advertisers and stations in the South. So in 1957, we were charting new territory. I don’t think of myself as a hero or civil rights activist for integrating the show; it was simply the right thing to do.[ix]
Here, Clark situates American Bandstand as a pioneering show in terms of racial representations and brings civil rights into the discussion of the show’s history. Clark elaborated on the integration of American Bandstand as a television breakthrough in a 2003 magazine for fans of the show:
[W]hen we integrated the studio audience in the early days, we were truly going where no television show had gone before. Black kids and white kids would not only be sitting together in the bleachers, but out on the same floor dancing. We weren’t even sure what the reaction would be in our conservative hometown, Philadelphia, much less on ABC affiliates through the Deep South. Perhaps because we didn’t boast about what we were doing, or announce it, or talk about it in any way—we just did it—it went virtually unnoticed.[x]
Finally, when asked about the show’s racial policies in a New York Times interview in 2011, Clark answered simply: “As soon as I became the host, we integrated.”[xi] In these interviews and popular histories from 1978 to 2011, Clark became progressively bolder in his retelling of how he integrated American Bandstand’s studio audience. In this memory, Clark took the initial risk of upsetting viewers, affiliates and sponsors by integrating the show. When no backlash emerged, Clark expanded the show’s integration. In the process, American Bandstand made television history and contributed to civil rights. As outlined earlier, however, these memories run counter to the historical record. American Bandstand continued to discriminate against black teenagers, and black teenagers continued to protest this discrimination during the show’s tenure in Philadelphia.

Part of the problem with the memories in these popular histories of American Bandstand is that Clark fails to address the antiblack racism, both locally and nationally, that motivated the show’s exclusion of black teens. The introductory essay in Dick Clark’s American Bandstand (1997) is illustrative in this regard. Here, Clark’s memories of American Bandstand are nested in an overview of important events in U.S. history from the 1950s and 1960s. The first page of the essay, for example, features a full-page picture of black protestors in 1962 in Times Square carrying signs reading “End Segregation in Birmingham, Ala.” and “End Segregation Across the Nation.”[xii] Subsequent pages offer pictures and captions related to other events and development from the 1950s: Brown v. Board of Education, Little Rock, the red scare, the increase in television set sales, the postwar demographic boom, and the expansion of suburbia.[xiii] Aligning American Bandstand with this checklist of important national events encourages readers to see the program as an important part of U.S. history. At the same time, this approach makes it difficult to address the topic of American Bandstand’s segregation in a way that is not simplistic and uplifting.

As the proceeding sections have demonstrated, American Bandstand’s racially discriminatory admission policies need to be understood in the context of local struggles over housing, public space, and media, as well as national developments in music, radio, television, and civil rights. While American Bandstand did not “chart new territory” in integration as Clark remembers, the racial policies of other institutions in Philadelphia in this era were not much better. Black workers seeking jobs in the city’s retail, banking, food production, and unionized construction industries confronted employment discrimination.[xiv] Racially exclusionary housing policies in the suburbs restricted the housing choices of black families, and white homeowners' groups in neighborhoods across the city met the prospect of integration with threats of violence and mob intimidation.[xv] In youth spaces, managers of roller skating rinks and swimming pools held separate “white” and “sepia” days or excluded black teens altogether through membership policies.[xvi] In sports, the Philadelphia Phillies were the last National League baseball team to integrate and their first black star, Dick “Richie” Allen, was openly taunted by their fans and ridiculed in the press in the mid-1960s.[xvii] The city’s public schools grew more racially segregated due to the school board’s construction and zoning policies, while at the same time the school board adopted the rhetoric of intercultural education to deflect charges of discrimination.[xviii] Civil rights advocates worked to uproot racial discrimination in the city, but they faced vocal opposition from the many white Philadelphians who mobilized to support segregation, as well as a city government that lacked the political will and resources to take on discrimination in employment, housing, education, or public facilities. Moreover, recent postwar histories of Charlotte, Atlanta, Detroit, Oakland, Chicago, and New York show many similarities to Philadelphia. While the local details differ, cities across the country witnessed vocal opposition to civil rights and integration, abetted by local and federal officials who actively and tacitly supported this opposition. In short, there was not widespread support, either locally or nationally, for the racial integration of a youth space like American Bandstand.

On television, commercial broadcasters strove to reach large numbers of consumers without offending anyone. By the late 1950s, historian James Baughman notes, television programming “narrowed largely to whatever (morally mainstream) productions appeared likely to reach the largest number of viewers.”[xix] Most relevant for American Bandstand was the question of showing interracial dancing on television. Alan Freed’s television show served as a warning on this front. As noted earlier, an ABC executive told the New York Post that the network’s decision not to feature black teenagers on American Bandstand was influenced by the controversy that erupted over deejay Alan Freed’s television program showing black teenage R&B singer Frankie Lymon dancing with a white teenage girl a year earlier.[xx] Freed’s program, which started broadcasting nationally on ABC in July 1957, was canceled shortly after the controversy. Like integrated schools and other forms of cross-racial association, interracial dancing violated the deeply held orthodoxy against interracial sex.

During American Bandstand’s years in Philadelphia, more than twenty states had laws prohibiting interracial marriage, including the neighboring states of Delaware and Maryland.[xxi] Historians Peggy Pascoe, Fay Botham, and Jane Dailey have shown how these prohibitions were frequently rooted in religious ideas about racial separation and served as a pillar of white supremacy.[xxii] This was far from being a view held only by extremists; Dailey’s study of southern fears of race mixing in the wake of the Brown decision shows that the “argument that God was against sexual integration was articulated across a broad spectrum of education and respectability, by senators and Ku Klux Klansmen, by housewives, sorority sisters, and Rotarians, and, not least of all, by mainstream Protestant clergymen.”[xxiii] The fears of integration and interracial dancing influenced the admission policies of teen dance shows. For example, the studio audiences of Baltimore’s Buddy Deane Show and Washington, D.C.’s Milt Grant Show were completely segregated, with black teenagers welcome only for a specific day each month. Among the dozens of Bandstand-era televised teen dance shows, I have found no evidence that any were regularly integrated before 1964.[xxiv] This widespread and deeply rooted animus to interracial coupling fueled much of the opposition to rock and roll and would have been impossible for the producers of American Bandstand to ignore.

Viewing American Bandstand in these local and national contexts does not let Dick Clark off the hook. Rather, it makes clear that the decision to maintain racially discriminatory admission policies flowed logically from neighborhood and school segregation, the commercial pressures of national television, and the deeply held beliefs about the dangers of racial mixing. Absent this local and national context, Clark’s memory takes the presence of black musical entertainers and the very infrequent entry of black teenagers on American Bandstand as evidence of consistent integration of the show’s studio audience, and then takes this “integration” as evidence of the program’s historical importance. Clark’s claims of integrating the show not only overstate American Bandstand’s role as a force for social good; they also obscure the very reasons why integrating the show would have been noteworthy.

In the context of local and national mobilization in favor of segregation, underscored by widespread antiblack racism, integrating American Bandstand would have been a bold move and a powerful symbol. Broadcasting daily evidence of Philadelphia’s vibrant interracial teenage culture would have offered viewers images of black and white teens interacting as peers at a time when such images were extremely rare. Clark and American Bandstand did not choose this path. One of Clark’s contemporaries, Johnny Otis, noted this missed opportunity in a 1960 article: “As a result of the tremendous impression he made on the youth of American, Dick Clark had a golden opportunity to advance the cause of democracy in a wonderful way. But, instead, he and/or the TV network he works with chose to travel the lily-white Jim Crow route!”[xxv]

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