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The Nicest Kids in Town

Matt Delmont, Author

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Remembering American Bandstand

More than fifty years after the show first broadcast, American Bandstand’s representations of youth culture remain closely linked both to the show’s legacy and to larger questions about popular culture, race, and civil rights. Since the late 1970s, Dick Clark has claimed that he integrated the show’s studio audience when he became the host in 1957. The problem is, Clark’s memory runs counter to the historical record. Black teenagers contested American Bandstand’s racially discriminatory admissions policies on several occasions, inspired both by the everyday discrimination they faced in Philadelphia and by national civil rights events like the Little Rock school integration crisis. Although they were not able to change the show’s policies, their efforts make it clear that American Bandstand’s studio remained a site of struggle over segregation through the early 1960s. The disjuncture between the evidence of American Bandstand’s segregation and Clark’s claims that he integrated the show underscore the vexed relationship between history and memory. Clark’s memories of American Bandstand’s integration differ from archival materials, newspaper accounts, video and photographic evidence, and remembrances of people who were excluded from the show or witnessed this exclusion. This section uses this cluster of sources to evaluate the veracity of Clark’s memories and to examine when and why Clark developed an alternative history of the show, and what this alternative history obscures.

Clark’s popular history of American Bandstand, articulated in books and interviews, suggests two explanations. First, Clark initially made reference to the show’s integration in 1976, when American Bandstand was competing for performers, viewers, and advertisers with Soul Train, which featured a predominately African American studio audience. Recalling Bandstand’s integration in this context, this memory sought to establish American Bandstand’s history of support for black music and culture. Second, Clark frequently presents American Bandstand within the context of the popular national history of the 1950s (e.g., the development of the national civil rights movement, the growth of television and rock and roll, and suburbanization). Framed in this way, the supposed integration of American Bandstand becomes part of the national civil rights narrative. This approach evades the specific local history surrounding American Bandstand’s years in Philadelphia, as well as the antiblack racism in Philadelphia and nationally, that motivated the show’s discrimination. American Bandstand is part of the civil rights story, but not in the way Clark suggests. This section starts by examining the black teenagers whose protests made the show’s admission policies a civil rights issue, and then explores how Clark developed a popular history of American Bandstand that erased these stories.
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