Transcript: Emilie Raymond on Black Celebrities and the Civil Rights Movement
Emilie Raymond is author of “Stars for Freedom: Hollywood, Black Celebrities, and the Civil Rights Movement.”
Jonathan Movroydis: Thank you for listening to the “Nixon Now” Podcast for the Nixon Foundation, I’m Jonathan Movroydis. Today, we’re going to take a look at Hollywood’s influence on the civil rights movement and the White House’s work in race relations. Here with us to talk about this subject is Dr. Emilie Raymond, Associate Professor of History at Virginia Commonwealth University. An accomplished author, she has written two books about celebrity influence in U.S. politics, “From My Cold, Dead Hands: Charlton Heston and American Politics” and her latest, “Stars for Freedom: Hollywood, Black Celebrities, and the Civil Rights Movement.” Emilie, thank you so much for joining us.
Emilie Raymond: My pleasure.
Jonathan Movroydis: Why did you decide to undertake this project, Stars for Freedom?
Emilie Raymond: Well, it actually started with my book on Charlton Heston. My inspiration for working on that came through another graduate student who’s doing work on the National Endowment for the Arts. He was researching just sort of how the NEA got started and he had a little snippet in there about Heston getting into a confrontation in the White House Rose Garden defending Lyndon Johnson, sending sort of the need to take politics out of the NEA given the controversy of the Vietnam War at the time. Anyway, that was surprising to me because I hadn’t thought of Heston as a liberal associated with Lyndon Johnson and so I looked into his background and realized that he had undertaken this very interesting political evolution from sort of a Cold War liberal Democrat to a National Rifle Association spokesperson. And in the course of that research, I learned that he had been involved in the civil rights movement in a variety of ways.
He had gone to Oklahoma City to participate in a desegregation picket for downtown Oklahoma City in 1961 and he was not the first celebrity to be involved in civil rights activity. But he was the first major white Hollywood celebrity to be out on the streets, you know, in that way. And then he also was involved in the March on Washington as one of the co-chairs that brought celebrities to Washington D.C. and then he also, as a producer, tried to have some influence on black employment and civil rights messages in his films. So my work on Heston, you know, I was looking for other books, other information about celebrities in the civil rights movement and I couldn’t really find any. So it was that experience that made me think, well, then I guess I need to write that book.
I started looking into the, especially the different civil rights organizations in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s through their materials to figure out which celebrities were most involved with them in terms of fundraising, raising awareness, helping them organize and make political connections. And that led me to my leading six who I focused on and stars for freedom which is Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dick Gregory.
Jonathan Movroydis: At the dawn of the civil rights movement, how influential were black celebrities like these especially in Hollywood? Were blacks pretty well represented?
Emilie Raymond: Pretty well represented where?
Jonathan Movroydis: At the dawn of the civil rights movement, were blacks pretty well represented in Hollywood?
Emilie Raymond: Oh, no, they were not. I think that you need to sort of look at it in two different ways. One was how many blacks were being employed in Hollywood and then secondly, how was their portrayal onscreen. How were they being characterized? Especially in the studio era, the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, things started to change a little bit during World War II. The employment numbers were okay for African-Americans in Hollywood, but there were no leading roles available to men or women, and for the most part, as supporting characters. They were there in servile positions or sort of as there for comic relief. Civil rights organizations like NAACP felt that Hollywood actors would actually not be very good spokespersons for the organization because they felt like their public persona was negative or demeaning or even outright embarrassing in some cases.
So there really wasn’t a collaboration between NAACP or other civil rights organizations and Black Hollywood prior to the 1950s. That started to change in the 1950s. There was a real effort to try to improve the image of blacks on screen that came through protest by the NAACP. It also came out of the experience of World War II and the studio system started to sort of deteriorate at the end of World War II. So the more independent filmmakers were coming into play and a number of them were messaging liberal racial themes in their farms and trying to make for a better image of African-Americans on screen. So it’s those kinds of films, those message films that Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte and Ossie Davis and Ruby Davis, they were coming into Hollywood right as that transition was happening, so they could then be the kind of spokesperson that the NAACP was sort of looking for.
Jonathan Movroydis: You know, you devote a whole chapter to entertainer, Sammy Davis Jr. on this point. Of all the African-American celebrities, Dr. Martin Luther King and the NAACP believe that Sammy Davis Jr. had great potential to help propel civil rights initiatives. How and why did Sammy Davis Jr. become engaged in politics and why did Martin Luther King have such confidence in him?
Emilie Raymond: His engagement was complicated just like he himself was a complicated individual. Sammy Davis Jr., he had grown…he grew up in show business. He’d sort of grown up almost as a vaudevillian by traveling with his father and a man named Willie Marston who he called his uncle that was more of a family friend and associate. So he was someone who wanted his entire life, you know, to be a star and he saw Hollywood as the place that that could really happen even as someone who had cut his teeth on vaudeville, then had gotten into nightclub entertainment, but then saw Hollywood both television but particularly film as the next step. Throughout that process, Davis generated a lot of controversy. There was the frequent sort of complaint about him, was that he was trying too hard to integrate, that it was coming across almost as if he was wanting to be white and not necessarily just simply wanting to integrate.
So the critique was that he, you know, tried too hard or that he sort of kowtowed to whites too much in his efforts to break in to show business. So Sammy Davis Jr. was very defensive, you know, about that critique and he tried to take steps to change that. And it wasn’t just that he was trying to be white, but also that he was, you know, kind of a self-absorbed partier who only cared about, you know, drinking and women and that sort of thing. So he tried to change his image to a certain degree to become more philanthropic and getting involved with civil rights organizations was a way of doing that. Now that said, that sounds like he did it solely out of self-interest which I don’t think is true. He seemed to really connect with individuals who were working hard and trying to change things and he felt very deeply about social injustice. But it does seem like he was driven in part by the critiques against him as well as just sort of frustration with social injustice.
And he began collaborating with the NAACP very early as far as, you know, the civil rights history goes. He started working with them in 1957 to do fundraising and to sell membership, in particular, those were the two things he was most focused on with that organization. And he also attended mass marches and rallies well before the March on Washington and then he also got involved with the Urban League to do fundraising for that organization pretty early. I mean, I think what he could bring…well, to go back a little bit. That doesn’t sound that early if you sort of put it against Brown vs. Board of Education decision or Montgomery bus boycott for example. But in terms of celebrity activism, 1957 is actually quite early. You know, the movement wasn’t fashionable by any stretch of the imagination.
Now anyway, so your question about King, why he saw potential in Davis. I think, for one, he was a really electrifying entertainer who had a really strong crossover audience. So African-Americans even though he’d suffered some critiques, they still were proud of him and his success and they would come out to see him and white Americans also really connected with Sammy Davis Jr. So he could pull an integrated audience in a pretty striking way, so I think that’s one reason King reached out to him. And also, he was an incredible fundraiser for civil rights organizations. He won NAACP dinner. He helped raise $60,000. That was in Detroit, in one dinner in the early 1960s. It’s just such an amazing amount of money and the civil rights movement took so much money to propel for it. If you think about lawsuits and bail bonds and staging demonstrations, those are all things that are very expensive. That he could do that kind of fundraising, I think is extremely important.
Jonathan Movroydis: The first important politician you write to take interest in Sammy Davis Jr. was the then Vice President Richard Nixon. Can you describe how the two met and how their relationship developed?
Emilie Raymond: Yeah. They met in the 1950s more…not in any sort of political or policy way, it was more Richard Nixon and his wife, Pat, had been at one of Davis’s shows and they thought it was great and they asked if they could meet him behind stage and they did. And it was fun and they got along and that was sort of the end of it. You know, there was no collaboration of any kind at that point. And Davis would go on to campaign pretty extensively along with the rest of the Rat Pack, Frank Sinatra and his pals for John F. Kennedy in 1960 and he became very friendly with Robert Kennedy and campaigned for him in 1968 until his death. So Davis had really been sort of affiliated with Democrat, the Democratic establishment, and Democratic candidates despite that one sort of fun meeting, you know, with Vice President, Nixon.
Jonathan Movroydis: Fast forward eight years later, Richard Nixon is elected president. President Nixon’s special assistant, Robert Brown, approached Sammy Davis Jr. about working with the administration. What did Nixon want Davis to do?
Emilie Raymond: Well, I think that as Dean Kotlowski talked about in a previous podcast, one real area of emphasis in the Nixon administration was economic power for African-Americans and his administration focused on enterprise and entrepreneurship, small businesses, money to black colleges, money to black banks as a way to reach out to minorities. But still in a conservative fashion, a fashion that sort of fit with Nixon philosophically on how to create change in the United States and how to create change for a minority and so the perspective there is that, you know, economics that now that the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act have been passed and were being implemented and Nixon’s via the next step was shoring up economically. So the plan with Davis was to bring him in sort of as a consultant to help publicize these efforts. I think also with the long-range goal that perhaps Davis could be involved in Nixon’s re-election campaign and bringing more African-Americans to vote for Nixon.
Jonathan Movroydis: Were they successful at all? I mean, were there…in addition to Sammy Davis Jr., were there any other African-American celebrities who lend their support to Nixon’s political campaigns?
Emilie Raymond: Yes, there were several professional athletes, but in terms of entertainment, I think one big one was James Brown, the singer and another one was the actress and singer, Pearl Bailey, amongst others. So Davis, yeah, he was not the only one. There are others, they tried to get in and failed. The big one that they really wanted Davis to kind of focus on was the comedian, Flip Wilson. Wilson had a really successful variety show on TV at that time like one of the, you know, top shows on TV. So the idea of getting him to campaign for Nixon, I think was really exciting, but Davis did not succeed on the run. I think Flip Wilson just didn’t wanna be involved in politics and he probably thought it’s something that would alienate audiences so that didn’t work out. But yeah, they ultimately succeeded.
Davis was reluctant at first even though he was involved in these economic initiatives and, you know, was going to the Nixon White House and hanging out with the president and that sort of thing. He was reluctant to do an outright endorsement. He explained it as one that he had historically endorsed Democrats, so he was afraid he would look opportunistic from that regard. I think there is also probably a concern that he would look like he was betraying the civil rights activism that he’d done in the past and is more affiliated with Democrats than liberal change. There was this sense in the Nixon administration that this is another way of addressing black power so Davis could feel connected to that. There were other civil rights activists like Floyd McKissick who were involved with the Nixon administration, so it’s not like Davis, you know, is the only one.
And then I think he just became comfortable with Nixon and saw him have a good relationship with Bob Brown, the person you mentioned earlier and felt like he was a friend, he was someone he could feel good about endorsing. And ultimately, he did and he was actually really involved in the Republican National Convention in 1972.
Jonathan Movroydis: Moving over to some other celebrities that feature prominently in your book, namely, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, how did they lend their celebrity status to the civil rights movement?
Emilie Raymond: Well, in countless ways. It’s really a lot of different ways. Belafonte came in probably a little earlier than Poitier but just a little bit. He had been interested in social activism since he was sort of a youngster and he…but at the same time, he was a little suspicious of Martin Luther King. He said he was kind of naturally suspicious of reverends and he didn’t necessarily wanna be involved with his organization. But then King asked to meet and so Belafonte sort of felt compelled and then once he met King, then he was, you know, really impressed and he was really compelled by King’s message of nonviolence and saw it as a way for himself, Belafonte, to channel his frustrations in the entertainment industry and the film industry that he had been experiencing.
So he became friends with King almost right away after that meeting and worked as an adviser for him, did a lot of fundraising for him. He was instrumental in helping connect John F. Kennedy and King. He sort of said to King, you know, “I’ve got John Kennedy, you need to meet him,” and then he sort of said the same thing to Kennedy in like, “If you wanna try to understand what this movement is all about, you have to meet Martin Luther King,” and eventually, they would meet. And then Belafonte was also involved in the Kennedy administration as a Peace Corps adviser. So he sort of had an inside seat due to that appointment and could comment to Kennedy about things like the Freedom Rides, for example, just to give Kennedy another perspective. Largely working as an adviser for King is how Belafonte got started. He also was an instrumental adviser to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee well known as SNCC. They have come to national prominence because of the Freedom Ride movement were they taking these buses, interstate buses and attempted to take them from Washington D.C. down through the south. The ultimate goal was New Orleans but they got derailed. There were violent attacks on the buses and on the riders.
While that was going on, the Kennedy administration was trying to pressure SNCC to focus more on voting rights. The Kennedy administration felt like that would be less confrontational and less controversial, but at the same time would be focusing on something really important. The SNCC activists actually met with Belafonte to get his take on that and he said, “If you’re gonna do this, then I think it would be a good idea then you don’t wanna have to take any money from the Kennedy administration, you need to be independent.” And he gave his own money to help them kind of stay independent of the Kennedy administration. So he worked as an adviser to them, gave personal money to them and then did fundraising effort for them in a variety of different ways. So a number of SNCC activists felt that Belafonte’s support was really, really important especially as they were kind of getting started.
You also asked about Poitier and he was not as close as an adviser, I wouldn’t say, as Belafonte was to King, although he was involved with the SNCC activists. But he often worked as a spokesperson for the organizations and was deeply involved in fundraising. He couldn’t perform, you know, Davis would do, sort of do his nightclub routine to help raise money and Poitier couldn’t really do that since he was an actor but he often worked as an MC or as an announcer for those benefits and was involved in kind of these like VIP intimate fundraising gatherings. His film career, too, that he was able to sort of articulate an integration, a kind of civil rights message in his films. You know, he was the most successful of the leading six in terms of being an aliased actor and so his films were also able to help spread their message.
Jonathan Movroydis: Right. You write about that in your book, the civil rights message sometimes subtle on the screen. Can you give some of the prominent examples of some of the films and some of the messages brought to screen?
Emilie Raymond: By Poitier or just by anybody?
Jonathan Movroydis: By Poitier and other black celebrities.
Emilie Raymond: In the 1950s, there were these kind of the message movies and films like “No Way Out,” for example, starring Poitier or “The Defiant Ones” also starring Poitier. They oftentimes showed African-American frustration at the restrictions on them. They often had an integrationist message showing blacks and whites working cooperatively and Poitier especially often played characters who were professionals, you know, who were not in servile positions like they had been in the past but were professionals, who were family, he was a family man. You know, he wasn’t just like the family made or the family butlers or something like that. So for example, in “No Way Out,” he played a doctor in a hospital, so it was position of authority, of respect, and those kinds of messages, I think, were really important.
Also in the 1950s, I talk especially in Davis’s…Sammy Davis Jr.’s case, that he was this kind of constant presence on television and he was very frustrated because he could never get any acting roles on TV until the 1960s. But the fact that he could go on and play himself and sort of be interacting and moving comfortably with the white host and white guests, I mean, oftentimes that he would be on a show he would be the only African-American on that show. So just that sense of friendliness and familiarity, I think were important to television viewing audiences. Now in the early ‘60s, Davis did do some guest-starring appearances on shows like “Lawman” for example, and there will be subtle civil rights messages in those. Were they revolutionary? No. You know, there was one episode of one show. But I think if you sort of take them cumulatively, they were important and they helped pave the way for other performers.
Jonathan Movroydis: Last question, how would you assess the overall effect of black celebrities in the civil rights movement?
Emilie Raymond: Overall, I think they had an extremely positive and important impact for similar reasons I already talked about. On one hand, they were fundraising and either raising money or donating their own money to help keep the civil rights movement going. They often work as spokespersons so helping get the message out. It was extremely difficult for the civil rights movement, especially in the early years, to get press, to get positive press to get their message out. And these celebrities by the fact that they were, you know, sort of well known and had a broad integrated audience helped them get out that message. They also worked as important strategists as you know, advisers and friends to civil right leaders.
And then another thing, and this is something that’s sort of hard to quantify. But in my interviews with civil rights activists, a number of them talked about the importance of morale that these celebrities had on their morale, that they knew that what they were doing, people were paying attention to and that Sidney Poitier was paying attention to it, like that was really incredible that someone famous like that knew who they were and knew what they were doing and supported it. So I think that that even though it’s kind of harder to measure, I think that morale element of it was extremely important, too. It’s really difficult to sustain nonviolent protest in the violent south in particular, but also, you know, coming up against political roadblocks, etc. It was hard to keep the work up. So knowing that there were people out there helping them and especially famous people with clout and pull and money was important.
Jonathan Movroydis: Dr. Emilie Raymond, thank you so much for your time.
Emilie Raymond: Thank you. I enjoyed talking with you.