Hollywood celebrities’ unsung role in the civil rights movement

History professor Emilie Raymond, Ph.D., discusses her new book, "Stars for Freedom: Hollywood, Black Celebrities, and the Civil Rights Movement"

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A new book by Virginia Commonwealth University history professor Emilie Raymond, Ph.D., reveals the little-known story of how black actors and entertainers in Hollywood worked both behind the scenes and in front of the footlights to contribute their money, connections and fame to the civil rights movement.

Raymond, an associate professor in the Department of History of the College of Humanities and Sciences, recently discussed her new book, "Stars for Freedom: Hollywood, Black Celebrities, and the Civil Rights Movement" (University of Washington Press), which explains how a handful of celebrities, both black and white, risked their careers by fighting for racial equality. The book will be published May 1.

Your new book focuses on African-American celebrities and a handful of other Hollywood stars who played an important – yet largely unknown – role in the civil rights movement. Who were these celebrities, and in what ways did they contribute?

Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Sammy Davis Jr., Dick Gregory and Sidney Poitier — whom I have nicknamed the Leading Six — were the earliest, most consistent and most influential Hollywood stars engaged in the movement. They had the increasing support of a small group of interracial stars, such as Marlon Brando, Theodore Bikel, Diahann Caroll, Dorothy Dandridge, Charlton Heston, Burt Lancaster, Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt, Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor and others, throughout the 1960s. These celebrities provided visibility and financial, strategic and emotional support to movement organizations and activists.

How would you describe your book's central thesis?

The Stars for Freedom played a crucial role in the success of the civil rights movement as spokespersons, fundraisers and strategists, and by boosting the morale of workaday activists. The Leading Six paved the way for celebrity activism, which had largely retreated in the wake of the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations of the film industry and McCarthyism in the late 1940s and ’50s, by attending and planning rallies and marches, performing and organizing fundraising benefits shows, tapping their show business and political contacts to shore up membership and organizational support, and even engaging in direct action campaigns. By 1963, the civil rights movement began to "catch on" amongst Hollywood celebrities, and they became increasingly important to the Northern liberal network of support vital to the movement’s success. At the same time, the Stars for Freedom applied the gains of the movement to Hollywood by working to improve the portrayal of African-Americans in films and open up economic opportunities behind the cameras.

Do you think your book is relevant to current events? If so, in what ways?

It certainly is relevant. Celebrities remain engaged in an array of political causes, and racial issues continue to be important to American political culture, as evidenced by the controversies over law enforcement seen in Ferguson, Missouri, and over fraternity culture seen in recent scandals. As 50th commemoration celebrations for various civil rights victories, such as the Selma campaign, take forth, the role of celebrities in the movement deserves recognition.

Were you surprised by anything you found as you researched this book?

Two things particularly surprised me. One was how the all-black cast impacted the making of the film "Porgy and Bess" (1959). I had originally planned on opening the book with the making of this film to illustrate the lack of control African-American actors had in Hollywood, especially as the studios employed no black writers, directors, producers, or even crew members at this time. However, I realized that while the Hollywood climate certainly was constrained, African-American actors such as Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge had gained enough clout through their work in independent pictures to alter the dialect, dialogue, costuming and character development in ways that improved the portrayal of African-Americans in the film to no longer be as stereotypical and demeaning. Unfortunately, these alterations also opened the film to the criticism that it was "unrealistic." Therefore, this chapter resulted in a more complex discussion of the the changing and complex nature of black celebrity in the 1950s.

Second, I was surprised by Sammy Davis Jr.’s important role in the movement, and especially his success as a fundraiser, given his controversial reputation as a "mascot" to the Rat Pack led by Frank Sinatra. It is exactly that controversy that allowed Davis to raise as much money as he did: approximately $750,000 (equivalent to $5.6 million in today’s dollars). Indeed, Davis constructed a daring and deferential public persona that allowed him to push racial boundaries even while seeming relatively nonthreatening to white audiences.

How did you get interested in this topic?

I became interested in this topic when I was doing research for my book on Charlton Heston. When I learned that Heston had participated in some civil rights events, including the March on Washington, I looked for books on celebrities and the civil rights movement. Finding none, I decided to write one myself!

What went into the research behind this book? How did you uncover these stories?

Primary source research is the basis of this book. I looked at the organizational papers of groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to measure the impact of the stars’ support on their organizations. Several individuals, such as the civil rights activists James Foreman, A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, as well as Hollywood stars and filmmakers like Charlton Heston, Gregory Peck, Samuel Goldwyn and George Stevens, have donated their papers to research libraries. Several civil rights movement veterans, including Rep. John Lewis and Julian Bond, graciously agreed to interviews. Actor and activist memoirs also proved vital, as did a number of excellent histories written by such scholars as Donald Bogle, Taylor Branch, Clayborne Carson, Adam Fairlough and Thomas Sugrue.

Why do you think these celebrities’ contributions to the civil rights movement haven't been fully recognized before now?

It is ironic! Celebrities often get more than their share of attention. In this case, I think activists and scholars have always recognized that celebrities were involved in the movement. However, no one has systematically considered why, how and to what extent they were involved and, thus, no one has measured their impact on civil rights, at least no more than as symbols. This is largely a result of the nature of historical scholarship. It was more important to document the organizational histories and the work of everyday activists — without whom the celebrities would have had no cause to support — first. Indeed, the Stars for Freedom were unconventional activists whose role, compared to those involved in the daily political struggle, was quite small, but nevertheless extremely significant due to their fame.

Your previous book, "From My Cold, Dead Hands: Charlton Heston and American Politics," explored Charlton Heston's role in politics. How does this new book fit into your larger body of scholarship and what will you be working on next?

I am interested in the intersection between Hollywood and politics, a growing realm of historical scholarship. Although Hollywood (including its inhabitants) is often considered superficial, in reality it is the third largest news source in the country and has had an incredible impact on American political culture — from censorship and war propaganda to social movements and electoral politics. This in part reflects a democratization of American culture and the rise of social movements in the 20th century. I am exploring both themes in my next book on the Richmonders Paul and Phyllis Galanti. Paul was a naval pilot shot down over North Vietnam and held as a POW for six years; meanwhile, Phyllis transformed from a self-described "shy housewife" to an activist lobbying on behalf of the POWs to local and national media, as well as state legislatures and the Nixon White House. They are an incredibly inspirational couple for what they endured and overcame.