Luther Spoehr: Review of Matthew F. Delmont's “The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia” (University of California Press, 2012)


Luther Spoehr, an HNN Book Editor, is Senior Lecturer in the Education Department at Brown University.

“[I]n 1957, we were charting new territory,” said “American Bandstand” icon Dick Clark, forty years later. “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.” 

Unfortunately, there’s a problem with Clark’s apparently self-effacing claim to a place in civil rights history: it’s not true. Or, in the somewhat more diplomatic words of Scripps College historian Matthew Delmont, “Clark’s memory runs counter to the historical record.” Although Clark did indeed place black performers in the spotlight of his nationally-televised program, based in Philadelphia from 1957 to 1964, the show systematically avoided having black teenagers in the audience, much less as dancers, as it helped construct a media-based “national youth culture.” Perhaps daunted by the uproar that erupted when the black singer Frankie Lymon was shown dancing with a white girl on Alan Freed’s television show, Clark’s producers at WFIL (building a media empire as part of Walter Annenberg’s Triangle Publications, which included TV Guide) made sure that local black teens rarely made it into the studio and even more rarely made it on camera. And Clark went along amiably.

Although Delmont’s well-researched, tightly-written book may initially attract attention primarily because of its revelations about Clark, it is in fact most valuable for the way it shows how even a teenage dance show could become one of the sinews of segregation in what was arguably the most segregated city in the North. The Nicest Kids in Town is as much about real estate as rock ‘n’ roll, about how neighborhoods and schools were increasingly locked into systematic, discriminatory patterns, even as segregation imposed by law in the South was crumbling under pressures signaled by Brown v. Board of Education and federal troops enforcing desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas. Delmont delineates how “defensive localism,” exemplified by organizations such as the Angora Civic Association, worked to draw the color line more and more indelibly. “In Philadelphia’s private housing market,” he points out, “less than 1 percent of new construction was available to black home buyers in the 1950s.”

Delmont also shows how local civil rights leaders -- including activists such as Maurice Fagan and Floyd Logan, and radio deejays such as Mitch Thomas and Georgie Woods -- organized to protest segregation and build interracial understanding. Unfortunately, activities and programs -- such as a hopefully uplifting Sunday offering called “They Shall Be Heard,” which featured discussion by black and white teenagers about racism and other significant topics -- never really had a chance. “’Bandstand,’” says Delmont, “addressed its audience as consumers and asked them to buy products, while ‘They Shall Be Heard’ addressed its audience as citizens and asked them to reject prejudice.” Guess which one had staying power. Year after year, “Bandstand” invited students to dance every weekday afternoon as they arrived home from school. “They Shall Be Heard” lasted 27 episodes in 1952-1953.

High school “Fellowship Clubs” were similarly ineffective. As Philadelphia’s schools became more and more segregated, white students and black students increasingly lacked counterparts to talk to, even when they wanted to initiate conversation. The school board manipulated construction plans, curricula, and the like to reinforce the racial divide. Delmont’s most vivid example of how the races were pulled apart is the fate of Northeast High School, once “the second most prestigious public school for young men in Philadelphia.” As “the racial demographics of the neighborhood changed from majority white to a mix of white ethnic groups and black residents,” the school department made a dramatic change: in the middle of the 1956-1957 school year, “two-thirds of the teachers and a number of students left the school ... for a new Northeast High in the fast-growing suburban neighborhoods at the edge of the city. ... Almost overnight, the school’s name, most experienced teachers, and alumni network disappeared.” The trophies from Northeast’s trophy case were moved to the new school. Disillusioned students left behind at the old school, renamed Thomas Edison High School, selected “Hiatus” as the theme for their 1957 yearbook.

In sum, Delmont shows that modernizing trends -- the growth of national media, middle-class prosperity, and consumerism -- have not been unequivocal forces for social enlightenment. Given the environment in which he operated, Dick Clark would have been bold indeed to push for integrating his show’s audience. Racially unenlightened viewers bought his sponsors’ candy bars and soda pop, too, and the always-ambitious Clark was not about to sacrifice a burgeoning career for a cause, no matter how righteous, and end up like Georgie Woods, far away from the big time. Still, it was Woods, not Clark, who, at a 1967 convention of radio and television broadcasters, was hailed by Martin Luther King for “[paving] the way for social and political change by creating a powerful cultural bridge between black and white.”

Delmont speculates -- accurately, I think -- that Clark’s desire years later to be on the right side of history led him to exaggerate and misrepresent what he had done back in the day. Memory, as we all should know by now, is not history, but it’s often much stronger for being more consoling. Delmont analyzes the short-lived television series “American Dreams” (2002-2005), one of whose producers was (who else?) Dick Clark, and the several versions of the movie/musical Hairspray to show the dangers of history refracted through the warped lens of popular culture. (A song from the latter provides the book’s title.)

This chapter and his conclusion, which places his book alongside those by other historians such as Thomas Sugrue, Robert Avila, and others who have written about racism’s persistence and pervasiveness in the North, get a bit tendentious. Delmont uses his extended treatment of the two shows as a stick to whack the contention that America today has entered a “post-racial” era. But such a contention is something of a straw man -- no serious analyst that I am aware of insists that racism has entirely disappeared, and people of good will can disagree over exactly how influential it still is and what would be the best ways to combat it. And are we really surprised that its history gets more than a little warped when refracted through the lens of popular culture?

The main part of Delmont’s story, however, is grounded in a rich trove of evidence and reinforces -- sometimes eloquently -- the argument that racism indeed must be understood as more than a matter of individual attitudes. By bringing together “topics that, while closely related, are typically dealt with separately in urban history, civil rights history, media studies, and youth history,” Delmont paints an impressively bright, clear, and comprehensive picture of the institutional and structural factors that made segregation what it was in Philadelphia: a vast, tangled web of rules and habits, expectations and practices, threats and promises -- formal and informal, acknowledged and unacknowledged -- whose visible and invisible threads bound up the lives of thousands through the years.

*Delmont’s book evidently began as a Ph.D. dissertation in American Civilization at Brown University, but our paths have never crossed.

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