American Bandstand, Rock & Roll and the Struggle for Civil Rights: An Interview with Matt Delmont (Part I)
Dick Clark's American Bandstand television program is iconic, but was it really an early promoter of racial integration? The question is one extensively delved into by Scripps College American Studies Professor Matt Delmont in his new book The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock 'n' Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950's Philadelphia. Released just last Friday, as Black History Month comes to a close, the research compiled by the author reveals a hidden history of racial segregation on the United States' first television program centered on the teenage population.
Sorting through interviews, newspaper articles, census data, countless photographs and more, Delmont concludes that the dance show was in fact actually a step behind and out of rhythm with the later claims of Clark as host. UC Santa Cruz Professor Herman Gray says of the book, "The Nicest Kids in Town shows how the nexus of sound, place, race, and space operated together to create and reinforce a myth of national memory and belonging. Just as importantly, this compelling cultural history demonstrates the importance of the youth market as a theater of struggle where brave young men and women--outraged by the discrimination and racism they faced for the simple act of enjoying music--refused to have their bodies, tastes, or desires policed."
The Weekly spoke with Professor Delmont about his provocative new book and brings you this first of two installments of the interview. (Read part two of the interview here.)
OC Weekly (Gabriel San Roman): Let's start with the claim that's at the heart of this book, that Dick Clark's program American Bandstand was racially integrated in the 1950's. Where did he make this claim and how did the question initially interest you?
When I started researching the book on American Bandstand I actually had thought that the show was racially integrated. The book started out as a project to talk about how Bandstand brought teenagers together across racial lines at the same time that I knew there was segregation in the schools and neighborhoods in Philadelphia. I really initially thought it was going to be a story about how Bandstand promoted racial integration. Dick Clark has made these claims as early as the 1970's, first in his autobiography, but then repeatedly from the 70's to as recently as a 2011 New York Times interview, using different wording, but always the same gist of it, that Bandstand, when he took it over in 1957, had reversed the policy that had been in place and that the show became racially integrated.
What did your research into the show spell out in terms of the validity of the claim?
As I did the research for the book, I found that it just wasn't true. All the available evidence that I was able to find points to the fact that black teenagers continued to be discriminated against by American Bandstand. I had interviews with white teenagers who danced on the show who were able to tell me cases of black teens being turned away at the door. I interviewed black folks who themselves tried to get on American Bandstand or had friends who couldn't get on the show. I was able to find a lot of evidence from the Philadelphia Tribune, which was the African-American newspaper in Philadelphia and still is, and they had over a dozen different instances where kids and their parents would write in to complain about the racial policies on American Bandstand. In addition to that, I was able to find all the available photographs from this time period of'57-'63, there's something like over a thousand different images that showed teens in the studio, and there's only one picture of two African-American teens in the studio. All the available evidence I was able to find contradicts Dick Clark and his claim about American Bandstand.
Before turning to Soul Train and its importance to this discussion, is the book talking just about teenagers dancing on the show or black musicians themselves?
Bandstand did open doors for a number of African-American music performers of the day, primarily because it had to. In the late 1950's, teenagers, white and black, demanded to see the real performers playing R&B and rock n' roll. Bandstand also popularized a lot of what were called the white teen idols in the late 1950's, folks like Frankie Avalon. In terms of musicians, black musicians did have a better reception. Black teenagers themselves, that's where they had a barrier in place. One of the major concerns there was with regard to interracial dancing, and of course dancing that they thought would lead to sex. They were concerned about the perception of sexual goings on between black and white teenagers that would scare away viewers and advertisers.
Let's talk about Georgie Woods and Mitch Thomas. Who where they and how were they influential to the issue at hand?
One of the really great things about doing this research is that I found out about these really influential black deejays and TV hosts who I had never known about when I went into the project. Georgie Woods was an extremely influential black deejay in Philadelphia. He really was the one who brought rock n' roll to Philadelphia. What was interesting about him was that he used rock n' roll as a way to raise money for civil rights as a number of different deejays did across the country. He would host shows and bring in some of the biggest names in R&B and rock n' roll, folks like James Brown. He would host these shows in the Uptown Theater in north Philadelphia and use the money raised from those to give to the NAACP in Philadelphia but also to send to the South to support civil rights causes in places like Alabama and Mississippi. It was a case where he used rock n' roll not just to better his professional career or make money for himself, but to really advance civil rights.
Mitch Thomas is fascinating because he hosted a teen dance show that was very much like Bandstand, but that was all black teenagers. He got his show on the air in 1955. It was on a local broadcast station out of Wilmington, Delaware from '55 to '58. What would happen is teens in that area would watch and see these new dances show up on the Mitch Thomas show and then you'd see them on Bandstand a week or two later. It was definitely a case where black teenagers were pioneering some of the new dance moves and they were making it to the national stage, but through white teenagers doing the dances on Bandstand. What's interesting about Mitch Thomas, though, is that his show comes on the air 15 years before Soul Train and to my research, it's the first teen dance show of that sort to feature black teens that gets on television.
Stay tuned for Part II of our interview as Professor Delmont and I discuss Dick Clark's rival show to Soul Train, the importance of media imaging of black youth at the time, and what he thinks reactions to his book might be!
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