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Identity Television

Reflections on Black Image in Amos ‘n’ Andy

During childhood my favorite television shows were cartoons, The Cosby Show, and the black-and-white classic series I Love Lucy, Leave it to Beaver, and The Three Stooges, which I watched with my dad. One summer he introduced me to a series called Amos ‘n’ Andy. Unlike the other “classic” shows, Amos ‘n’ Andy reruns did not come on television. We had to rent videocassettes from Erol’s, a now defunct video rental store, to watch the episodes. I never asked my dad why the show was not on television. I just knew that this was one of the funniest shows that my young eyes had ever seen. Years later I learned that not everyone viewed one of my favorite childhood shows with the same enthusiasm. As it turned out Amos ‘n’ Andy was the most controversial series in television history. The Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) network cancelled Amos ‘n’ Andy after a national boycott led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Why did civil rights leaders believe that this series was harmful to African-Americans? Was this boycott a necessary endeavor during the Civil Rights Movement? Did this series become a scapegoat for a segment of the black middle class and elite more concerned with defining all pop cultural images of the African-American community by their imposed standards of respectability and blackness than the show’s actual impact on the black masses?

The Black Image in Popular Culture
White performers, Dan Emmett and Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice, introduced minstrelsy to American popular culture in the 19th century. These actors used burnt cork to darken their faces, dressed in tattered clothing, spoke in broken English, and performed Negro spirituals and jigs. All of this amounted to a less than flattering attempt to duplicate blackness through grotesque forms of cultural appropriation and racial cross dressing. Black performers like Bert Williams also blackened up for minstrel shows. Minstrel shows were the earliest form of American humor and set the stage for depictions of blackness in popular culture. The development of cinema would add a new dimension to the stereotyping of the African-American community. Black men were portrayed as chicken and watermelon thieves in early film shorts following Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The crisis of Southern white masculinity during Reconstruction (1865-1877) was at the center of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the first full length American feature film. In Griffith’s distorted adaptation of American history corrupt Northern white carpetbaggers, lazy black politicians and black rapists masquerading as soldiers had seized control of the South after the Civil War prompting the chivalrous, Christian white men of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to restore law and order.

Two White Dudes in Blackface
Amos ‘n’ Andy was the creation of two white men, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. Gosden, the son of a Civil War Confederate Army veteran, grew up in Richmond, Virginia. As a boy from an aristocratic family he was heavily influenced by Lost Cause propaganda, which depicted slavery as purely an economic system that provided happy-go lucky blacks with work, food, shelter, and loving paternal masters concerned with their well-being. Gosden met Charles Correll in 1921 working at the Joe Bren Producing Company in Durham, North Carolina. Correll was born and reared in Peoria, Illinois. His great grandmother was the first cousin of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. As a teenager he worked as an usher at the Main Street Theatre where he spent hours memorizing comic routines featuring white actors imitating southern black dialect and culture. Amos ‘n’ Andy began as a radio series on WMAQ, the Chicago Daily News station. The radio series was about Amos Jones and Andrew Brown, two farmers who left their land near Atlanta, Georgia, for Chicago with $24 and four ham-and-cheese sandwiches. They opened the Fresh Air Taxi Company and Amos married Ruby Taylor, the daughter of a middle class family. While Amos was portrayed as mature and hardworking, Andy was immature and often the victim of the foolish schemes devised by George “The Kingfish” Stevens, the lodge leader of the Mystic Knights of the Sea, a fictitious black fraternal organization. The radio series aired nightly from 1928 until 1955.

Amos ‘n’ Andy provided white listeners, the target audience, with an escape from the daily hardships of the Great Depression. Blacks tuning into the radio program found an opportunity to laugh in the midst of Jim Crow. Gosden and Correll provided the voices for the characters in the series until 1948 when they began integrating blacks into the cast. The two men also portrayed the black southern duo disguised in blackface in a 1930 full length (77 minutes) film based on the radio series called Check and Double Check distributed by RFO Radio Pictures. The film was a financial hit, earning $260,000 at the box office. Capitalizing on the success of the radio series and the film, CBS premiered a televised version of Amos ‘n’ Andy at 8:30 pm on June 28, 1951. Unlike the radio version, the new adaptation did not feature black actors and took place in New York City. Although films featuring all-black casts date back to the 1920s, Amos ‘n’ Andy was the first television series in American history to do so.

The Funniest Show on Television
Each week television viewers tuned in to see the outrageous and humorous adventures of the sitcom’s characters. The televised version focused heavily on the Kingfish (Tim Moore) and Andy (Spencer Williams). One of the outlandish episodes is “Cousin Effie’s Will.” The Kingfish’s deceased cousin Effie has left $2,000 to all the family members with a male son. Unfortunately Kingfish and Sapphire (Ernestine Wade) had never been able to have children. Kingfish tells Amos that they tried adopting in the past, but were denied because the adoption agency was concerned about the child having adequate support. “I don’t know what they worried about. I wouldn’t ask the kid to support me until he was ten years old,” says the Kingfish. Kingfish devises a scheme to collect the money by adopting his ole pal Andrew H. Brown. Kingfish tells Andy that he can come live with him. Sapphire will prepare his meals and they will play catch every day. Although he is forty-years old, the incurably gullible Andy is duped into thinking this asinine idea makes good sense. Sapphire is ecstatic upon learning that Kingfish has found a child for her to adopt. She tells him how much she looks forward to holding the boy in her lap and singing to him. Kingfish tells her that the good thing about this child is that he is big enough for her to sit in his lap. Kingfish and Andy go to court to file an application for adoption. What Kingfish fails to realize is that the money goes to the child not the parents. The episode concludes with Andy walking off with the $2,000.

Amos ‘n’ Andy may have been television’s first example of a post-racial American society. Viewers could walk away from watching an episode believing that Kingfish’s misfortunes were a matter of laziness rather than Jim Crow or inequality. Despite his lack of money he was devoid of the bitterness that was found in the character Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize winning play Fences. Troy blamed his lot in life on the white man’s hatred of the Negro. White people did exist in Amos ‘n’ Andy, but they were not seen as oppressors or rivals. Due to this lack of racism the characters lacked any sense of social responsibility or commitment to the civil rights struggles taking place across the nation. The show’s absences of racial discussions made it easy for the majority of whites to digest.

I often wonder if whites and blacks viewed Amos ‘n’ Andy through different lenses. Did white viewers find themselves laughing with or at these simple Negroes? Was Amos ‘n’ Andy little more than Laurel and Hardy in blackface for them? As for blacks, did they accept the series because it reflected the significance of humor in the African-American experience? “Comedy in the black community is almost always about struggle,” says Mary Pattillo, author of Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle Class. During the Civil Rights Movement trailblazing black comedians Dick Gregory, Redd Foxx, and Richard Pryor used their humor to express the frustrations of the black masses and for political protest. Harvard University professor Glenda Carpio, author of Laughing Fit To Kill, details Richard Pryor’s use of comedy to poke fun at slavery. “If we could not laugh during slavery and Jim Crow we would go nuts,” said the late NAACP chairman Julian Bond.

We Shall Overcome: The Boycott
In December 1930 Chicago’s Bishop W.J. Walls of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church published an article in Abbott’s Monthly criticizing what he labeled lower-class, crude behavior prevalent in the Amos ‘n’ Andy radio series. Walls did not find anything funny in two white men misappropriating black humor. Robert L. Vann, the editor of the prominent black-owned newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier, supported Walls by calling for a national day of protest, launching a six-month attack on the series, and acquiring 750,000 signatures on a petition to cancel the series. The Courier was particularly troubled by the characters’ frequent misuse of the English language. They believed that the series’ depiction of shady activity involving money in the fictional black fraternal lodge, the Mystic Knights of the Sea, cast a dark cloud over real organizations. Following the Civil War black mutual aid societies, insurance companies like Pilgrim Health and Life Insurance, and fraternal orders/lodges originated to help blacks from all social classes improve their lives. Fraternal organizations and secret societies played a significant role in preparing middle class black men to lead their communities. The Prince Hall Freemasons, an African-American branch of the Freemasons, functioned as male-only clubs that stressed traditional views of patriarchy, education, social uplift, class, and affluence. Masonic lodge members were encouraged to stay away from men with poor reputations such as numbers runners, pimps, and street hustlers.

The National Baptist Convention, the annual convention of black Elks, and the National Association of Colored Waiters and Hotel Employees all supported the boycott. However, the majority of blacks in the 1930s were too preoccupied with the depression and the scourge of Jim Crow and lynchings to worry about a radio program. Although some local branches of the NAACP joined the boycott, the national executive board chose to refrain. Twenty years later, however, the NAACP would sing a different tune. Why was the NAACP so adamant about getting the series cancelled in the fifties when it had remained quiet decades earlier? The organization argued that the television series was far more damaging and offensive than the radio version because the visual image had a bigger impact. Two white men imitating blacks on the radio (out of the public’s eye) did not have the same effect as seeing black men and women make buffoons of themselves on a weekly basis. When Kingfish duped Andy, were whites laughing in derision? Did they believe that Kingfish and Andy represented all black men? Would such representations serve as counterarguments for opponents of black equality during the Long Civil Rights Movement? These were the kinds of questions with which the NAACP wrestled in the 1950s.

The NAACP goes to Hollywood
In 1942 Walter White, the executive secretary of the NAACP, organized an ad hoc committee to monitor the black image in Hollywood. On July 7, 1951, Gloster B. Current, director of the NAACP Branch and Field Services, sent a memorandum to all members of the executive committee and advisory board notifying them that the annual convention had voted to condemn Amos ‘n’ Andy along with The Beulah Show (1950-1952), an integrated television sitcom about a maid featuring the first black woman in a lead role, for negatively depicting black men and women. CBS’s decision to premiere the series during the week of the NAACP’s 42nd national convention in Atlanta certainly did not help matters. The NAACP’s newly formed Metropolitan Youth Committee on the Amos ‘n’ Andy Show proposed the following plan to get the series off the air:

  1. Gain the support of clergy and businessmen.
  2. Distribute leaflets to the public outlining the pros and cons for keeping the series on the air.
  3. Circulate a petition calling for the cancellation of the series and the inclusion of blacks in all phases of television production.
  4. Send letters to the sponsors explaining the reasons for their position.
  5. Boycott the sponsors of the series.

On July 18, 1951, the president of the Spicer Furniture Company organization, a member of the NAACP’s executive board, sent letters to all of his stores ordering them to discontinue sponsorship of the series. The national office of the NAACP sent a letter to the Blatz Brewing Company, the series’ biggest sponsor, requesting their support of a boycott. The letter argued that Blatz would not support a similar series that distorted the image of Jews, Catholics, Irish, and other ethnic groups. The Milwaukee branch of the NAACP targeted WTMJ-TV and reached out to local bar and grill owners to support a boycott. Ironically, Milwaukee was the home of the Blatz Brewing Company. WTMJ-TV Milwaukee, cracking under the pressure, banned the series on July 27, 1951.

The NAACP’s national office published a bulletin on August 15th entitled “Why The Amos ‘n’ Andy TV Show Should Be Taken Off The Air.” The bulletin stated the following:

1. It tends to strengthen the conclusion among uninformed and prejudiced people that Negroes are inferior, lazy, dumb, and dishonest.
2. Every character in this one and only TV show with an all Negro cast is either a clown or a crook.
3. Negro doctors are shown as quacks and thieves.
4. Negro lawyers are shown as slippery cowards, ignorant of their profession and without ethics.
5. Negro women are shown as cackling, screaming shrews, in big mouthed close-ups, using street slang, just short of vulgarity.
6. All Negroes are shown as dodging work of any kind.
7. Millions of white Americans see this Amos ‘n’ Andy picture of Negroes and think the entire race is the same.

The black church, black GIs serving in Korea, college students, the YMCA, the League of Women Voters, the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO), the American Federation of Labor (AFL), United Hatters, Cap and Millinery Workers International Union, and the Improved Benevolent Protective Order of Elks of the World supported the boycott. The NAACP also reached out to the Interstate United Newspapers, Lever Brothers, and the Brooklyn Dodgers’ trailblazer Jackie Robinson. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), famous for orchestrating the Freedom Rides a decade later, began picketing CBS in February 1952. The boycott also gained support outside of the African American community. Edwin Lukas, the director of the American Jewish Committee Civil Rights Program, met with the Vice President of CBS in August 1951 to discuss solutions to making the series less offensive like past ethnic sitcoms such as The Goldbergs, a radio and television series about a Jewish family in the Bronx. Lukas proposed having the characters speak correct English at the end of each episode to remind the audience that they were just acting and being silly. The NAACP rejected his suggestions.

The series ended in 1953 after Blatz discontinued its sponsorship. Sixty-five episodes had been produced and shown at that point. CBS ordered to have thirteen additional episodes produced and shown in syndication, following the primetime cancellation. The additional episodes focused more on Kingfish and began airing in 1955. For a short period of time CBS flirted with the idea of launching a new spin-off series called The Adventures of the Kingfish. The new series was not created because of cost issues, but the original series remained in syndication until 1966. Amos ‘n’ Andy was not confined to domestic television. In 1954 the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) purchased the series. On April 7, 1954, the NAACP wrote a letter to the BBC urging them to refrain from showing the series. In spite of the NAACP’s disapproval the series became the first American sitcom to air in Britain. BBC ran the series from 1954 until 1957. The series was also shown in Australia, Bermuda, Kenya, and western Nigeria. The NAACP now had to fight to get the syndicated episodes taken off the air at home and abroad. The show’s primetime cancellation made it easier for the NAACP to gain support from groups like the Urban League and the Coordinating Council for Negro Performers now that the series was no longer responsible for providing black actors with work. Amos ‘n’ Andy was eventually removed from the air in 1966. With the exception of a 1983 documentary, the series was banned from television, home video, and eventually the internet from 1966 until 2004. In the years since the boycott the African-American community has remained engaged in an ongoing struggle for authentic depictions of their experience. Tyler Perry sitcoms and black programs on FOX, UPN, and WB networks have been treated with similar vitriol and labeled contemporary versions of the banned comedy.

The Dirty Laundry Theory
In spite of the various efforts to censor the series, the boycott did not receive universal support. An unauthorized poll taken of 244 blacks in New York and New Jersey in August 1951 reported that seventy-five percent of the interviewees enjoyed the show, while 11.1 percent said the show had a “good cast”. Only 18.8 percent of the interviewees expressed outright objection. Spencer Williams and other black actors defended the series and denied accusations that it was detrimental to the middle class. The Negro Actors’ Cooperative Guild charged the NAACP with precipitating the unemployment of black actors. According to Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson there is a “dirty-laundry theory of racial politics” that exists in the African-American community. Anything that makes the race look bad must remain hidden in the secrecy of individual black homes and institutions. The upper middle class black leaders at the forefront of the boycott publicly stated that the show hurt the entire race. Of course, they were the ones that were most offended. The Amos ‘n’ Andy series and the national boycott to ban it inadvertently exposed biases within the black middle class. For example, the Chicago Defender, a black-owned Chicago-based weekly newspaper, was pivotal in setting the Great Migration in motion. The newspaper published a list of weekly reminders for working class black southerners migrating to the North on how to behave:

DON’T HANG OUT THE WINDOWS.
DON’T SIT AROUND IN THE YARD AND ON THE PORCH BAREFOOT AND UNKEMPT.
DON’T WEAR HANDKERCHIEFS ON YOUR HEAD.
DON’T USE VILE LANGUAGE IN PUBLIC PLACES.
DON’T ALLOW CHILDREN TO BEG ON THE STREETS.
DON’T APPEAR ON THE STREET WITH OLD DUST CAPS, DIRTY APRONS, AND RAGGED CLOTHES.
DON’T THROW GARBAGE IN THE BACKYARD OR ALLEY OR KEEP DIRTY FRONT YARDS.

The list presents the elitist attitudes and fears that some northern blacks had of less educated, rural southerners coming to town embarrassing them. The fact that the major characters are migrants from Georgia may not have been a coincidence. Historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham theorized the concept of respectability politics in her 1993 book, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. Higginbotham says respectability is about carrying yourself in a manner which tells others that you are worthy of respect. According to Higginbotham respectability was not intended to be elitist. When poor black workers put on their Sunday best protest during the 1950s and 1960s they were demanding to be respected as human beings. Martin and Malcolm dressed and spoke well to denote the respect that they had for themselves. In an interview with For Harriet Higginbotham acknowledged that there is a conservative side of respectability politics which demands a clearly defined type of behavior in order to receive respect. Kevin Gaines’ Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics and Culture in the Twentieth Century (1996) finds that elite blacks believed that white racism could be defeated with material and moral progress. During the 19th century a racial uplift ideology evolved as part of a “liberation theology” centered on collective advancement of the race. However, by the dawn of the 20th century elites began focusing more on advancing themselves and drawing distinct divisions within the black community based on class and their own narrow standards of respectability.

In retrospect, it is interesting that the Kingfish and Andy lacked steady employment and education, yet they lived among the middle class. Occasionally, they found themselves rubbing shoulders with the elite. They were always dressed in suits as if they were preparing for business. Their attire was more aspirational than delusion. Perhaps this was another reason that some blacks enjoyed the television show. If two country bamas like Amos and Andy could make it in the Big Apple so could the show’s viewers. Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll recognized the importance of middle class values to blacks during the Great Migration and made this a common theme in Amos ‘n’ Andy. On the radio series Amos’ marriage to the middle class Ruby Taylor was a big deal. Here was a black man from humble southern beginnings marrying into a higher social status. In the television series Sapphire frequently complains that Kingfish is wasting time hanging around with uncouth lowlifes like Andrew H. Brown, who were unsophisticated and never accomplished anything of significance. The one accomplished friend he did have other than Amos was his lodge brother Henry Van Porter (played by Jester Hairston). Henry Van Porter is the complete antithesis of the Kingfish. Van Porter’s delivery is high toned and he is impeccably well mannered. Van Porter is perpetually overdressed; you may find him wearing white silk gloves, a top coat and hat, and round metal eyeglasses with a chain hanging from them. One could argue that his character was used to poke fun at the notion of middle class and elite black manhood. The same can also be said of the sitcom’s dim-witted lawyer Algonquin J. Calhoun (Johnny Lee), who was so inept that he accidentally fired off a gun during a courtroom hearing. The minstrels of the 19th and early 20th centuries were dominated by two stereotypes of black men: Sambo and Zip Coon. Sambo was the rural, stupid, slow talking, slow-walking, lazy black man from the southern plantation. He was happy go-lucky and content with his lot in life. He was nonthreatening to whites because he did not rock the boat. The sitcom’s Stepin Fetchit-like character Lightnin’ (Nick Stewart) fit this category. Zip Coon, or the urban dandy, was the black man who migrated to the North and attempted to assimilate into the mainstream. He wore fancy clothing and used sophisticated vocabulary to display his intelligence. Whites viewed him as being lazy, too. However, they feared Zip Coon because he believed that he could be just as good as the white man. Mr. Van Porter and Calhoun were zip coons.

Kingfish and his buddy Andy lack the ambition of the other hardworking men in their community, but they do share one of the flaws found in some middle class and elite black men of the time period. Kingfish and Andy would prefer to live the glamorous lifestyle portrayed in upscale black magazines like Ebony and Jet. Kingfish views his lack of money as his roadblock to achieving happiness and the American dream. He is not concerned with furthering his education, broadening his worldview, landing a death blow to Jim Crow, or just simply providing for his wife. He is solely motivated by financial consumption and enjoying the good life. In an episode called “Quo Vadis,” Kingfish pretends to be a millionaire when a newspaper editor from his hometown of Marietta, Georgia, traveled to New York to write an article about his successful life in the North. E. Franklin Frazier’s book Black Bourgeoisie (1957) criticized middle class men for being more preoccupied with their conspicuous consumption and leisure than they were with weightier social matters.

Amos ‘n’ Andy unknowingly exposed the issue of colorism within the black middle class and elite. Lawrence Otis Graham highlights the emphasis on complexion by some blacks in elite circles dating back to the nineteenth century. Brown paper bag parties, which originated with lighter-skinned free people of color in New Orleans in the nineteenth century, were popular during the first half of the twentieth century. Blacks lighter than the paper bag could gain entrance into elite fraternities, sororities, schools, and even some churches. Oscar Michaeux, the first great black film director, was known for portraying light-skinned blacks as dignified, educated, and successful while the dark-skinned blacks were often deviant or represented some negative stereotype. Michaeux’s films upheld middle class ideals of uplift which often placed color at the forefront. Amos ‘n’ Andy depicts the darker-skinned Andy Brown as a buffoon and the frequent butt of Kingfish’s pranks. The dimwitted janitor Lightnin’ and the bombastic, crooked lawyer Calhoun are among the darker characters in the series. The show does feature respectable dark-skinned actors, but they usually have minor guest roles. Amos (Alvin Childress) is the most dignified character in the series. He is married to a light-skinned, middle class woman named Ruby. Ruby is slender, attractive, well-educated, even-tempered, and soft-spoken. She is depicted as being more desirable than the darker Sapphire and her mother. Amos and Ruby have a daughter named Arbadella. The most celebrated episode of the series, the one that the NAACP could tolerate, was a Christmas edition featuring Amos reciting the Lord’s Prayer to Arbadella as the heavenly sounds of a choir play in the background.

In terms of gender roles, the series did something interesting with Kingfish’s wife Sapphire. She has been universally regarded as one of the earliest pop cultural examples of the angry black woman who emasculates her husband and kills his ambition. Often this type of woman has been wrongly blamed for the shortcomings of her spouse and children. Sapphire bitterly berated her husband: “What type of a man is you? You expect me to support you? You is lazy. You is shiftless,” she would say to him. The fact that she worked more than Kingfish may have been viewed as an example of her challenging her husband’s manhood, self-worth, and sense of empowerment. I would contend that her character was misunderstood. There was little difference between Sapphire and white housewives such as Alice Kramden, on The Honeymooners (1955-1956) or Lucy Ricardo on I Love Lucy (1951-1957) who were often quick to challenge their husbands’ authority. Considering the fact that the majority of boycott leaders were men makes this outrage over the depiction of women feel more like a patriarchal issue to me.

Was the Boycott Right? Or Did the Black Middle Class Lose Its Mind?
As a kid I grew up watching The Cosby Show (1984-1992). The NBC sitcom offered viewers an unprecedented celebration of black achievement in the form an affluent, wholesome family who unapologetically embraced African-American culture and history. The Cosby Show arrived at a time in the nation’s history that was characterized by the villainization of the black underclass as immoral and irresponsible by conservative politicians. Bill Cosby and the show’s creators went out of their way to be as far removed from those stereotypes and the past shameful images found in Amos ‘n’ Andy. Cosby once admitted in an interview that while shows like Amos ‘n’ Andy were fine for blacks to enjoy and laugh at amongst one another they were inappropriate to watch in the company of white people. Cosby’s statement hints at W.E.B. Du Bois’s argument of the double-consciousness of black folk always having to be mindful of the white gaze. In March 2015 I delivered a guest lecture on this topic for a well-educated interracial group of senior citizens at a Jewish American-owned senior living residence in Baltimore, Maryland. I went to the event expecting the majority of the people in the audience to be supporters of the boycott; however, I was surprised by their reactions. One black woman said that the characters on the show looked respectable and were always dressed in nice attire. She did not see their broken English as a reason to condemn the show. Another black woman who had been arrested in the 1960s for participating in the sit-ins said that she was happy just to see blacks get a chance to have their own television show. An older black man who was educated at Morgan State University and taught by African American film expert Thomas Cripps during the 1960s argued that the series was not intended to represent the members of the NAACP. It was intended to represent the millions of common blacks who may not have had the best jobs, a good education, or a lot of money. Some of the Jewish American senior citizens in the audience compared the series to other sitcoms of the decade like I Love Lucy which were just as silly.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson gave one of the best responses to the boycott. Jackson said these actors paid the dues for future generations to receive more dignified roles. They proved to Hollywood executives that blacks could not only act but draw large numbers of viewers. Jackson said, “I remember growing up as a kid watching this and Stepin Fetchit movies. Black people had enough sense to appreciate them as funny people playing out roles. Their roles were so limited we laughed at them and laughed at their roles… But at the same period all this was on TV out came Martin King, Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and Howard Thurman.” Henry Louis Gates Jr. once said in an interview that, while this series may have embarrassed some it brought pride to many more blacks who were happy just to see themselves on television. Gates admits that it was a sad day in his hometown of Piedmont, West Virginia, when Amos ‘n’ Andy was banned.

The purpose of this article is not to argue that Amos ‘n’ Andy was simply an innocent victim. The series had several flaws including its depictions of lesser educated black southerners. It promoted a stereotype of the southern migrants, which is refuted in Isabel Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Sons. Wilkerson proves that many of these migrants were better educated than the black northerners and the white immigrants already inhabiting cities like New York. The show’s emphasis on the Kingfish caused the black men in the cameo roles of doctors, judges, and journalists to be overlooked. Black women characters were universally devoid of agency.

But, I still disagree with the boycott. The middle class did not lose their mind, but their strategy was poorly conceived. Rather than focus attention on this one television show, civil rights leaders should have devoted time to demanding Hollywood develop more shows about blacks so that this was not the only representation. Furthermore, they should have been working with black writers and directors to develop proposals for diverse projects that could have been taken to television networks. Armed with a proactive strategy, they would not have just demanded better programming, they would have actually been able to present alternative pilots to white studio executives. Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, and Harry Belafonte were emerging as movie superstars. Dandridge would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1954. A decade later Poitier would become the first African-American to win an Academy Award for best actor. Belafonte starred alongside Dandridge in her seminal film, Carmen Jones (1954). The NAACP could have requested that they be attached to the new programs to give them a better chance of getting picked up by one of the television networks.

The actors on Amos ‘n’ Andy were not the villains and should not be blamed for racist attitudes towards blacks. Attitudinal transformations do not come quickly. Even though Sidney Poitier played Dr. John Prentice, a brilliant physician working with the World Health Organization who was engaged to a wealthy white woman in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), a year after the show’s banishment racists were still calling black men and women niggers. Sidney Poitier’s noteworthy performances on the big screen along with Bill Cosby’s and Diahann Carroll’s groundbreaking depictions in the television series, I Spy (1965-1968) and Julia (1968-1971), juxtaposed poignant images from Birmingham, Selma, and Memphis. I do not mean to minimize the impact Hollywood images have on the way whites and blacks view themselves and each other. Undeniably the entertainment industry is a reflection, although often broken, of the society at large. Until the other institutions that contribute to systemic racism are reformed, equality for all classes within the African-American community will never be achieved on or off camera.


Information on the NAACP was provided by the NAACP Records archived at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

By Joshua K. Wright, Ph.D

Joshua K. Wright, Ph.D. is an associate professor of History and coordinator for the Social Studies Teacher Education Program at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.