You are on page 1of 21

U

ni

ve
rs

ity

of

as
h

in
g

to
n

Pr

es

STARS FOR FREEDOM

4.Raymond, Stars.indd 1

1/28/15 2:34 PM

EMILIE RAYMOND

U
ni

ve
rs

ity

of

as
h

in
g

to
n

Pr

es

Stars for

4.Raymond, Stars.indd 2

1/28/15 2:34 PM

as
h

in
g

to
n

Pr

es

Freedom
U
ni

ve
rs

ity

of

HOLLYWOOD,
BLACK CELEBRITIES,
AND THE
CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT

A Capell Family Book


A V Ethel Willis White Book
University of Washington Press
Seattle and London

4.Raymond, Stars.indd 3

1/28/15 2:34 PM

Publication of Stars for Freedom was made possible in part by grants from the
VEthel Willis White Endowment, which supports the publ ication of books on
A frican American history and culture, and the Capell Family Endowed Book
Fund, which supports the publication of books that deepen the understanding
of social justice through historical, cultural, and environmental studies.

es

2015 by the University of Washington Press


Printed and bound in the United States of America
Design by Thomas Eykemans
Composed in Chapparal, typeface designed by Carol Twombly

to
n

Pr

20 19 18 17 16 15 14 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

of

University of Washington Press


www.washington.edu/uwpress

as
h

in
g

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form
or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information
storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

U
ni

ve
rs

ity

Libr ary of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data


Raymond, Emilie, 1973
Stars for freedom : Hollywood, Black celebrities, and the civil rights movement /
Emilie Raymond.
pages cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-295-99480-2 (hardcover : alk. paper)
1. African American political activistsHistory20th century. 2. African American
entertainersPolitical activityHistory20th century. 3. Politics and cultureUnited
StatesHistory20th century. 4. African AmericansCivil rightsHistory20th
century. 5. United StatesRace relationsHistory20th century. I. Title.
E185.615.R36 2015
323.1196'073dc23
2014046332
The paper used in this publication is acid-free and meets the minimum requirements
of American National Standard for Information SciencesPermanence of Paper for
Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.481984.

4.Raymond, Stars.indd 4

1/28/15 2:34 PM

U
ni

ve
rs

ity

of

as
h

in
g

to
n

Pr

es

For my parents

4.Raymond, Stars.indd 5

1/28/15 2:34 PM

s
es
Pr
to
n
in
g
as
h
W
of
ity
ve
rs
U
ni
4.Raymond, Stars.indd 6

1/28/15 2:34 PM

CONTENTS

Pr

es

Preface . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ix
Acknowledgments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xvii
Cleaning Up Catfish Row: Black Celebrity
and the Making of Porgy and Bess . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3

TWO

Sammy Davis, Jr.: Daring, Deferential, and Money . . . . . 40

THREE

Harry Belafonte and the Northern Liberal Network . . . . . . 75

FOUR

The Arts Group and the March on Washington . . . . . . . . . 113

FIVE

Dick Gregory and Celebrity Grassroots Activism . . . . . . . . 143

SIX

Stars for Selma . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 175

SEVEN

Celebrities and Black Power . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 208

U
ni

ve
rs

ity

of

as
h

in
g

to
n

ONE

Epilogue . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 243
Notes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 249
Bibliography . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 295
Index . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 305

4.Raymond, Stars.indd 7

1/28/15 2:34 PM

s
es
Pr
to
n
in
g
as
h
W
of
ity
ve
rs
U
ni
4.Raymond, Stars.indd 8

1/28/15 2:34 PM

PREFACE

U
ni

ve
rs

ity

of

as
h

in
g

to
n

Pr

es

Speaking at the event on the fiftieth anniversary of the


March on Washington, the actor Jamie Foxx recognized the singer, actor,
and activist Harry Belafonte for his commitment to the civil rights movement. He marched, said Foxx, and he bailed Martin Luther King, Jr.,
out of jail so he could march. Urging a new wave of celebrity civil rights
activism, Foxx beckoned to such contemporaries as the actors Will Smith
and Kerry Washington and the musicians Jay Z, Alicia Keys, and Kanye
West to pick it up now, so when were eighty-seven years old, talking to
other young folks, we can say it was me.1 Such a call is not a fantastical
goal; it is rooted in past alliances. A strong celebrity contingent participated in the 1963 March on Washington, including Belafonte; the actors
Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Sidney Poitier; the comedian Dick Gregory;
and the consummate entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. And this was only
one of these celebrities many civil rights activities. This groupwhom I
refer to as the Leading Sixwould prove to be the movements most outspoken, effective, and consistent celebrity activists, seemingly unafraid
of the potential consequences to their careers. The Leading Six received
help from a small interracial coalition in Hollywood that included such
stars as Theodore Bikel, Marlon Brando, Diahann Carroll, Dorothy Dandridge, Charlton Heston, Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt, Burt Lancaster, Paul
Newman, and Frank Sinatra, among others. These Stars for Freedom, as
King would call them, contributed to the civil rights movement by developing its financial infrastructure and mobilizing constituents in its
support.2 While small in numbers, these stars changed the racial climate
in Hollywood and helped establish a blueprint for celebrity politics that
has only become more significant in contemporary political culture.
ix

4.Raymond, Stars.indd 9

1/28/15 2:34 PM

U
ni

ve
rs

ity

of

as
h

in
g

to
n

Pr

es

That Hollywood celebrities were engaged in the civil rights movement


is generally well-known, but few historians have appreciated the degree
to which they were involved or the effect they had. In Just My Soul
Responding, Brian Ward focuses on R&B artists involvement in the movement and describes the commitment of Hollywood actors and personalities, while in Freedom Sounds, Ingrid Monson highlights the activism of
jazz singers and musicians.3 Both Ward and Monson note that fear of
economic or physical reprisals led many celebrities and artists to avoid
overt and consistent activism. This book aims to show how the Stars for
Freedom, responding to the constraining political and racial environment of Hollywood, contributed to the success of the civil rights movement. It also aligns with those scholars who have emphasized the role of
Northerners in civil rights histories.
The Stars for Freedom, as residents of Los Angeles, Chicago, and New
Yorkfar removed from the Deep Southdo not fulfill the standard trope
of Southern, workaday activists that is emphasized in traditional narratives. Such works highlight dramatic confrontations in the South between
nonviolent demonstrators and Southern authorities, such as the Freedom
Rides and the Selma campaign, and massive demonstrations such as the
March on Washington, in the effort to stop Jim Crow segregation and win
voting rights for African Americans. Celebrities assisted at these events,
using their gifts as dramatists. However, as the historians Thomas Sugrue
and Martha Biondi have pointed out, a Northern network of financial,
legal, and spiritual support was just as crucial to the success of the movement, and the Stars for Freedom played a major role in shaping this network.4 Additionally, their efforts in desegregating Northern entertainment
venues, promoting better cultural images of African Americans, opening
up economic opportunities for them in the film industry, and agitating for
open housing in California adds to the growing body of literature about
national discriminatory patterns.5 Fighting such widespread racism
required a broad civil rights agenda and many different types of activists.
The Stars for Freedom did not define the civil rights movement so much as
fill an important niche as well-connected spokespersons and fund-raisers.
None of them saw their participation as being more important than that
of the everyday activists who devoted their lives to the cause. Poitier points
out that celebrities werent leading the charge. We werent at the forefront,
getting our heads cracked open.6 Nevertheless, due to their visibility and
influence, they fulfilled important functions that few others could.
x

4.Raymond, Stars.indd 10

PREFACE

1/28/15 2:34 PM

U
ni

ve
rs

ity

of

as
h

in
g

to
n

Pr

es

The Stars for Freedom served first and foremost as patrons of the
movement, raising or contributing from their own pockets hundreds of
thousands of dollars. They spearheaded and participated in a creative
array of benefit programsfrom film screenings and concerts to comedic
acts and house partiesthat generated substantial profits for a number
of civil rights organizations. The philosophy behind a benefit was simple:
stars drew crowds to a performance, entertaining the spectators while
generating profit and publicity for the civil rights organizations sponsoring the program. Further funds could be raised through VIP parties,
in which, for an additional fee, program attendees could mingle with the
stars before or after the show. Stars also raised money through direct mail
campaigns, signing their names to Dear Friend letters that appealed
directly to the recipients. Finally, stars frequently wrote sizable personal
checks to their favorite civil rights organizations. Sammy Davis, Jr., conventionally and mistakenly regarded as an Uncle Tom, raised the most
of any star, establishing his role as the benefactor of the movement.
This money was crucial in sustaining the civil rights movement. The costs
associated with lawsuits and demonstrations, as well as maintaining
administrative offices, were enormous, and most civil rights organizations struggled to balance their accounts and pay their administrative
staffs. For activists in the Deep South, an infusion of cash could literally
mean the difference between life and death.
Stars also played a significant strategic role in the civil rights movement. Several meetings took place in stars homes, most frequently in the
New York apartment of Belafonte, who had a close relationship with King
and was the chief strategist of the Leading Six. Celebrities deliberated
with activists about where, when, and how demonstrations should proceed,
and discussed how they, as stars, could participate. Most commonly, their
role was to raise a substantial sum of money before an event, both underwriting an otherwise improbable march, demonstration, or campaign and
helping to stage it. Sometimes celebrities used their clout to pull strings
with the politically powerful, as both Sammy Davis, Jr., and Belafonte did
with John and Robert Kennedy, or to bring together disparate individuals
within the movement. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee acted as important intermediaries between mainstream organizations and the radicals Malcolm X
and the Black Panthers, serving as important facilitators in the movement. Stars could also play a valuable role in attracting the sympathies and
financial contributions of white Americans. King considered white support
PREFACE

4.Raymond, Stars.indd 11

xi

1/28/15 2:34 PM

U
ni

ve
rs

ity

of

as
h

in
g

to
n

Pr

es

crucial to the success of the movement, and in instances in which he felt


that sentiments might be tenuous, he counted on stars who had already
been successful in winning over white audiences for assistance.
Celebrities also drew publicity to issues and events. By virtue of their
star stature, celebrities could attract the media to stories that they might
not have found interesting otherwise. For example, Gregory drew attention to school desegregation efforts and voter registration campaigns
by purposefully getting arrested and going to jail. Such activities made
him a virtual field secretary for the movement. Not only could stars
attract attention, but it was generally favorable, a factor that should
not be overlooked. Civil rights organizations continually struggled to
publicize their messages and all too often found themselves at the mercy
of the media, being pummeled by negative and inaccurate journalism,
particularly in the South. The media gave stars a wide berth. They could
directly attack racism using language that would have created ire if
delivered by a workaday activist. One leading activist said of Gregory,
We usually asked him to come in when things were getting too much out
of control, because he could say the same things that everybody else was
saying, but it kind of lessened the tension in terms of his performance
and his political jokes.7
Celebrities also affected the civil rights movement by providing moral
support to activists who worked for the cause. Full-scale activism could
be psychologically difficult to sustain, as demonstrators dealt with indifference at one extreme and violent hostility on the other. A celebritys
support showed not only that a famous and successful person agreed
with them but also cared about them. Stars also provided entertainment
during rallies and marches. These song, dance, and comedic routines kept
demonstrators focused and optimistic. They also had the added benefit
of easing tension among crowds that had the potential to grow restless.
The civil rights movement counted a disciplined, nonviolent crowd as one
of its strongest weapons, and stars helped foster such an atmosphere. Of
course, morale is difficult to quantify, but it was important enough to
the activist Stokely Carmichael that he stated that the value of support
from figures such as Poitier was beyond measure, especially because
they were the kind of folk you respected greatly but never really imagined youd ever get a chance to meet.8 As the most successful Hollywood
actor of the Leading Six, Poitier served as the movements icon and was
a resolute and elegant spokesman.
xii

4.Raymond, Stars.indd 12

PREFACE

1/28/15 2:34 PM

U
ni

ve
rs

ity

of

as
h

in
g

to
n

Pr

es

Hollywood restrictions had impeded civil rights activism among the


previous generation of black actors. Before World War II, the six major
studios that monopolized the film industry had promoted a star system
that demeaned African Americans. The studios portrayed white stars as
glamorous and captivating personalities in fan magazines and gossip
columns (indeed, extensions of their onscreen characters) out of the
belief that audiences idolized the actors more than the films. Corporations and politicians, recognizing that white stars could mobilize public
desires for consumer products or ideological causes, recruited film stars
for their advertising and political campaigns, particularly during World
War II.9 However, black actors did not have an equal place in the star
system. The film historian Donald Bogle identifies the five typical characters played by African Americans: the loyal Tom, the foolish coon, the
tragic mulatto, the asexual (and often obese) mammy, and the brutal
buck.10 Often relegated to menial roles, such as maids, porters, butlers,
and the like, black actors often served as comic relief by using improper
dialects and engaging in exaggerated mannerisms and outright foolishness. Their roles reflected the second-class position of blacks in Hollywood. Their pay was substantially less than that of their white costars,
and the studios employed no black crew members, producers, or directors.11 When the publicists for Gone with the Wind (1939) ignored the actor
Hattie McDaniels protests of their promoting her as a real-life maid playing a mammy, they were simply following industry norms.12 African
American actors struggled to build public images that they could be proud
of, while advertisers and political figures did not value the public personas they projected.13
In fact, civil rights organizations often considered black actors to be
impediments. In 1942, the National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People (NAACP) executive secretary Walter White began pressuring Hollywood studios to improve their portrayal of African Americans, but did so at the expense of such familiar character actors as Hattie
McDaniel, Clarence Muse, Bill Robinson, Louise Beavers, and Lincoln
Perry (known by his stage name Stepin Fetchit). White rarely included
these actors when meeting with the studio chiefs and went so far as to
blame them for the dismal state of affairs in Hollywood, declaring, One
of the most important elements in [achieving] progress will be the behavior of Negro actors themselves in playing their roles with sincerity and
dignity instead of mugging and playing the clown before the camera.14
PREFACE

4.Raymond, Stars.indd 13

xiii

1/28/15 2:34 PM

U
ni

ve
rs

ity

of

as
h

in
g

to
n

Pr

es

In Whites view, the willingness of these performers to play stereotypes


compromised the civil rights cause, and the black press tended to follow
his lead. White began promoting the sophisticated nightclub performer
Lena Horne as the proper model of an African American screen persona.15 In an unsuccessful attempt to force White out of the film debate,
preserve their livelihoods, and forge better roles for themselves, McDaniel, Muse, and other old guard actors formed the Hollywood Fair Play
Committee.16 Such squabbling did little to promote constructive change
in Hollywood. The studios became wary of hiring African Americans at
all, which further reduced their opportunities to use the cult of celebrity
for civil rights gains.
Although changes in the film industry after World War II (especially
the breakdown of the studio system and the advent of television) would
give rise to improved roles and more alluring public images for black
actors, epitomized by Dandridge and Poitier, many of the old stereotypes
and attitudes remained. Thus, this book will open with the story of the
making of the film Porgy and Bess (1959), which illustrates the complexities of black celebrity and the need to apply movement pressure to Holly
wood. The next five chapters are devoted to individuals and events that
particularly exemplify the influence of the Stars for Freedom on the civil
rights movement and the guidance provided by the Leading Six: Sammy
Davis, Jr.s fund-raising efforts; Harry Belafontes strategic work with
Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; the Arts Group that brought a celebrity delegation to the March
on Washington; Dick Gregorys grassroots work; and the Stars engaged in
the Selma campaign and its aftermath. The final chapter discusses celebrity activism and ongoing developments in the film and television industries during the Black Power era. The book ends with the story of the
making of the film Buck and the Preacher (1972), which illustrates how
Hollywood was important in the pursuit of the economic opportunities
and cultural goals of the broader civil rights agenda. To start with Porgy
and Bess and end with Buck and the Preacher, both of which starred Poitier,
highlights the new opportunities and ongoing challenges in Hollywood.
The Stars for Freedom proved serious in their intent and effective in
their execution, undermining the generally negative way that scholars
have portrayed the effects of celebrity culture on American society. Their
assumption is that celebrities, and the entertainment industry from
which they hail, have trivialized America in a sad effort to amuse ourxiv

4.Raymond, Stars.indd 14

PREFACE

1/28/15 2:34 PM

U
ni

ve
rs

ity

of

as
h

in
g

to
n

Pr

es

selves to death.17 However, the sociologists Robert D. Benford and Scott


A. Hunt show how social movements often rely on dramatic strategies
such as scripting, staging, and performing to succeed. The historians
Steven J. Ross, Donald T. Critchlow, and Kathryn Cramer Brownell demonstrate the contributions that stars have made to the national political
debate on conservative and liberal issues alike. As the sociologist Chris
Rojek asserts, Celebrity culture is the expression of social form.18 In
other words, celebrities can become symbols of meaning shaping the
broader political discoursea possibility fulfilled by celebrities in the
civil rights movement.
Celebrities careers rely on public opinion, and their involvement in
the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, which was neither a
politically nor a publicly popular cause, should not be underestimated.
The Stars for Freedom helped provide mainstream legitimacy to the
movement, and in doing so opened new channels of star activism for
other controversial issues, such as the Vietnam War, gun rights, and
global warming. Without the involvement of the Stars for Freedom, the
civil rights movement would have had been far more isolated, insolvent,
and persecuted, and the struggle to achieve its political, economic, and
cultural goals would have been far more protracted.

PREFACE

4.Raymond, Stars.indd 15

xv

1/28/15 2:34 PM

s
es
Pr
to
n
in
g
as
h
W
of
ity
ve
rs
U
ni
4.Raymond, Stars.indd 16

1/28/15 2:34 PM

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

U
ni

ve
rs

ity

of

as
h

in
g

to
n

Pr

es

Support for this project came from a tremendous network


of institutions, colleagues, and friends.
The College of Arts and Sciences and the Faculty Research Council at
Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) provided research funding,
as did the American Philosophical Society. That VCU also granted me
leave time proved extremely helpful. Robert Holsworth and Catherine
Ingrassia were two early champions of my work at crucial times.
Many archivists at research institutions across the country helped me
track down important documents, and I am truly in debt to Barbara Hall,
formerly with the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion
Picture Arts and Sciences.
Readers for journals and on conference panels provided insightful
feedback that helped me develop this project in even its roughest stages.
Thank you to Greg Schneider, Lary May, Randal Maurice Jelks, Aram
Goudsouzian, and the late Richard Iton.
That numerous civil rights veterans gave their valuable time to talk
with me was simply humbling, and I am thankful to have engaged in
these consultations.
I am grateful to have colleagues who are genuinely enthusiastic about
my work, and I particularly want to thank my VCU colleagues Lisa Abrams,
Ryan Smith, Norreece Jones, Brooke Newman, Gregory Smithers, Carolyn
Eastman, John Herman, Ted Tunnell, Joe Bendersky, Karen Rader, Tim
Thurber, Antonio Espinoza, and John Kneebone; Katie Brownell Cramer
and Donald T. Critchlow, two scholars also engaged in the conflation of
Hollywood and politics; Joshua Farrington, a young scholar kind enough

xvii

4.Raymond, Stars.indd 17

1/28/15 2:34 PM

U
ni

ve
rs

ity

of

as
h

in
g

to
n

Pr

es

to share documents with me; and Robert M. Collins, whose position as my


graduate school advisor has evolved into a lifetime role.
My editor Ranjit Arab has been a superb champion of this project from
the beginning and has offered thoughtful feedback and given great attention to detail through every draft.
I am lucky to have so many terrific people in my life, who are supportive in various ways. My parents Gary and Judi Raymond have given me
strength and assurance. My husband Craig Dober is a terrific sounding
board on myriad issues and a wonderful partner. My young daughter
Rebeccas schedule required me to be remarkably productive at odd hours
of the day, and she inspired me to keep plugging away. And finally, my
friends Kim Baker, Laura Cavender, Kathleen Gacek, Jill Gasper, Kristin
Swensonyou are my heroes!

xviii

4.Raymond, Stars.indd 18

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

1/28/15 2:34 PM

U
ni

ve
rs

ity

of

as
h

in
g

to
n

Pr

es

STARS FOR FREEDOM

4.Raymond, Stars.indd 1

1/28/15 2:34 PM

s
es
Pr
to
n
in
g
as
h
W
of
ity
ve
rs
U
ni
4.Raymond, Stars.indd 2

1/28/15 2:34 PM