The Wonderful World Tomorrow—What It WON’T Be Like!”: Part 9
The Dark Side of Vegas
This post is the ninth in a series. Each entry in the series will be building on information and commentary in the earlier entries. So it would be best to start reading with the Introduction to the series.
This series is addressing in particular the time period of the 1960s,
and thus at times uses the common term at the time, “Negro,”
as well as “black” and “African-American.”
Please note: Any bolding in quotations in this entry has been added
to call particular attention to some wording.
ALL CAPS or italics within quotations were present in the original quotations.
The previous blog entry in this series chronicled some of the painful and humiliating challenges faced by even the most famous African-American celebrities under Jim Crow laws and ordinances in America prior to the federal laws put in place in the mid-1960s to guarantee Civil Rights to all US citizens. Even celebrities like Harry Belafonte or Nat King Cole or Sammy Davis Jr. were denied access to public accommodations in segregated communities—and not just in the Deep South. For instance, black performers such as Belafonte and Cole and Davis Jr. could earn big salaries for performing on stages at Las Vegas casinos.
“Never before in the history of show business have so many working black entertainers congregated in one city at the same time. During one week this winter, the above performers were appearing in Las Vegas with still additional stars starting the next week. Pictured 1st row, left to right, George Kirby, Harry Belafonte, Nancy Wilson, Sammy Davis Jr., Ella Fitzgerald (half hidden), Billy Eckstine and Joe Williams; 2nd row, Redd Foxx, Billy Daniels, conductor George Rhodes, Herb Mills, and Donald Mills of the Mills Brothers, Jimmy Randolph and 3rd row, Harry Mills, Sonny Charles, music conductors Bobby Tucker, Paul Curry, and Tommy Flannigan.” [Source]
—but before the early-1960s, when “the show was over” they would have to exit out the back door, and go find a “boarding house” to stay at in the shabby, segregated Las Vegas ghetto area known as the Westside, with its dirt streets and outhouses.
By 1955, with Las Vegas’ resort industry and the number of associated jobs expanding exponentially, the city became home to more than 15,000 African Americans. These 15,000 African Americans, 10 percent of the city’s general population, were forced to live in a segregated section of the city called the “Westside.” [which]… lay behind a “cement curtain” barrier across the railroad tracks from Fremont Street. In the late 1950s…the ten square block area stood in stark contrast to the glamorous resorts of the Strip. The Westside had neither running water, nor working sewage lines, nor paved streets.
…As Sammy Davis Jr. once recalled, “In Vegas for 20 minutes, our skin had no color. Then the second we stepped off the stage, we were colored again…the other acts could gamble or sit in the lounge and have a drink, but we had to leave through the kitchen with the garbage.” [PBS]
They weren’t allowed “out front” in the venues where they performed, couldn’t order a meal, couldn’t use the restrooms used by Whites, couldn’t even gamble at the gambling tables. (You’d think that the casinos would have welcomed their money!) And they most certainly couldn’t make reservations for a hotel room, or use the hotel pool, even if they were with famous white friends. As noted in the earlier blog entry, the one time that Sammy Davis unexpectedly jumped into the pool at the Sands resort while with Frank Sinatra and other Rat Pack members, after Davis and the Pack left, the manager had the pool emptied, cleaned, and refilled. The photo below is from 1960…the incident described was likely not all that long before this pic was taken!
And although the one exception to the hotel room situation, Lena Horne, was eventually allowed to rent a room in Vegas, the management instructed the chambermaids to burn the sheets and towels after her departure. This photo of Lena performing at the Sands with her hubby Lenny Hayton… and her puggy (no name given)…is from 1957, likely around the time of that incident.
Many such celebrities have noted over the intervening years how utterly confusing and humiliating this reality was. And while I don’t doubt that such celebrities were grateful for their financial blessings and the reality that they did, indeed, have many things in life that their fellow Negroes of the time could never have…that very thought could be extremely troubling too. As black Baseball Hall of Fame honoree Jackie Robinson put it in his autobiography I Never Had It Made, that came out shortly before he died of a heart attack at 53 in 1972 …
… “I cannot possibly believe that I have it made while so many black brothers and sisters are hungry, inadequately housed, insufficiently clothed, denied their dignity as they live in slums or barely exist on welfare.”
Robinson had earned fame as the first black baseball player to play in the American Major Leagues. He had, as it was termed, “broken the color line” as a player for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. But his fame came with an extensive price too.
In early 1945, while Robinson was at Sam Huston College, the Kansas City Monarchs sent him a written offer to play professional baseball in the Negro leagues. Robinson accepted a contract for $400 per month. Although he played well for the Monarchs, Robinson was frustrated with the experience. He had grown used to a structured playing environment in college, and the Negro leagues’ disorganization and embrace of gambling interests appalled him….
During the season, Robinson pursued potential major-league interests. The Boston Red Sox held a tryout at Fenway Park for Robinson and other black players on April 16. The tryout, however, was a farce chiefly designed to assuage the desegregationist sensibilities of powerful Boston City Councilman Isadore Muchnick. Even with the stands limited to management, Robinson was subjected to racial epithets. Robinson left the tryout humiliated, and more than fourteen years later, in July 1959, the Red Sox became the last major league team to integrate its roster.
Other teams, however, had more serious interest in signing a black ballplayer. In the mid-1940s, Branch Rickey, club president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, began to scout the Negro leagues for a possible addition to the Dodgers’ roster. Rickey selected Robinson from a list of promising black players and interviewed him for possible assignment to Brooklyn’s International League farm club, the Montreal Royals. [Wiki: Robinson]
But of course Rickey was not oblivious to the kind of humiliation that the first black player would have to endure.
Rickey was especially interested in making sure his eventual signee could withstand the inevitable racial abuse that would be directed at him. In a famous three-hour exchange on August 28, 1945, Rickey asked Robinson if he could face the racial animus [“hostility”] without taking the bait and reacting angrily… Robinson was aghast: “Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey replied that he needed a Negro player “with guts enough not to fight back.” After obtaining a commitment from Robinson to “turn the other cheek” to racial antagonism, Rickey agreed to sign him to a contract for $600 a month, equal to $7,860 today. [ibid]
But this did not mean that Robinson would play Major League baseball right away. Like most rookies, he would need to start out playing with a farm club, in this case the Royals.
…In 1946, Robinson arrived at Daytona Beach, Florida, for spring training with the Montreal Royals of the Class AAA International League… Robinson’s presence was controversial in racially charged Florida.
As he was not allowed to stay with his teammates at the team hotel, he lodged instead at the home of a local black politician. Since the Dodgers organization did not own a spring training facility (the Dodger-controlled spring training compound in Vero Beach known as “Dodgertown” did not open until spring 1948), scheduling was subject to the whim of area localities, several of which turned down any event involving Robinson or Johnny Wright, another black player whom Rickey had signed to the Dodgers’ organization in January. In Sanford, Florida, the police chief threatened to cancel games if Robinson and Wright did not cease training activities there; as a result, Robinson was sent back to Daytona Beach. In Jacksonville, the stadium was padlocked shut without warning on game day, by order of the city’s Parks and Public Property director. [ibid]
Indeed it was, as you can see from this excerpt of an article in the Jacksonville, Florida, newspaper related to that situation.
When the local community leaders wouldn’t come right out and say the issue was race, they could invent the goofiest of excuses, like this one…
In DeLand, a scheduled day game was called off, ostensibly because of faulty electrical lighting.
But Robinson stuck it out, and was eventually considered ready to start his Major League career.
… The following year, six days before the start of the 1947 season, the Dodgers called Robinson up to the major leagues. … On April 15, 1947, Robinson made his major league debut at the relatively advanced age of 28 at Ebbets Field before a crowd of 26,623 spectators, including more than 14,000 black patrons. Although he failed to get a base hit, he walked and scored a run in the Dodgers’ 5-3 victory. Robinson became the first player since 1880 to openly break the major league baseball color line. [ibid]
Yes, surprisingly there was a time in American baseball after the Civil War and before the 1940s when there was no color line. But as you can see from the clipping below from 9/11/1887, it was a very short time.
And the line had held for 60 years since that stand had been taken by the St. Louis team. (How ironic that the team was the “Browns”!) Of course acceptance of change after so long was not immediate from many quarters, inside and outside Robinson’s team.
Black fans began flocking to see the Dodgers when they came to town, abandoning their Negro league teams.
Robinson’s promotion met a generally positive, although mixed, reception among newspapers and white major league players. However, racial tension existed in the Dodger clubhouse. Some Dodger players insinuated they would sit out rather than play alongside Robinson. The brewing mutiny ended when Dodgers management took a stand for Robinson. Manager Leo Durocher informed the team, “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a f–n’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded.”
Robinson was also derided by opposing teams. Some, notably the St. Louis Cardinals, threatened to strike if Robinson played. After the threat, National League President Ford Frick and Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler let it be known that any striking players would be suspended. Robinson nonetheless became the target of rough physical play by opponents (particularly the Cardinals). At one time, he received a seven-inch gash in his leg from Enos Slaughter. On April 22, 1947, during a game between the Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies, Phillies players and manager Ben Chapman called Robinson a “nigger” from their dugout and yelled that he should “go back to the cotton fields”. [ibid]
There was one bright spot in that time period. Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese, greatly admired by Dodger fans, made a special effort to be supportive to Robinson’s presence on the team, befriending him and encouraging him, even as other team members initially wanted him to sign a petition to get rid of Robinson.
At some point early on in Robinson’s career, Jackie was being attacked with hateful slurs from opposing team members and fans in the bleachers behind them at a Stadium during the warm up before a game. Reese walked over and stood close to Jackie (by some accounts he even put his arm around Robinson’s shoulder), chatting with him, and turning to glare at the hecklers. They shut up. Accounts of this incident vary, as it was so long ago and memories of details dimmed over the years. It’s not clear exactly where or when it happened, and whether Kentuckian Reese just stood close by the black man from Georgia in a gesture of support, or actually put his arm around him. Pee Wee Reese’s son Mark, anyway, claims it happened at Crosley Field, home of the Cincinnati Reds, and that indeed his dad did “drape his arm around” Jackie. But in any event, everyone agrees that it was at a point when Reese got fed up with the harassment, and realized that Jackie was bearing a terrible burden. And Robinson expressed over the years how extremely grateful he was for the gesture and the kindness shown by Reese.
Whether Pee Wee actually put his arm around Jackie that specific day or not, the two did become close friends throughout Robinson’s decade with the Dodgers. And there were times when Pee Wee did have his arm around his buddy, as you can see in this 1952 photo.
The story of the gesture became so iconic that a statue of the two men in this stance was commissioned, and has been standing outside a minor league ballpark in Brooklyn/Coney Island for some time.
It is kind of disheartening that such a heartwarming moment can still, in the 21st century, be a target of hate. Just a few days before the 2013 bio-pic about Jackie, titled 42, debuted in theaters on April 12, the statue of Reese and Robinson was defaced. A New York Daily News writer, speaking of the movie (he must have seen a pre-debut screening for the press), tells what happened, and laments the implications.
One of the scenes in that movie recalls the day in Crosley Field in Cincinnati when the white Dodgers shortstop from Kentucky, Pee Wee Reese, put his arm around Robinson’s shoulders in front of all the white players on both teams and really in front of the world.
Now there is a statue honoring that moment outside the Brooklyn Cyclones ballpark in Coney Island, MCU Park, for all who walk into that gem of a minor-league ballpark to see.
Beautiful ballpark, beautiful memory, beautiful statue, now the object of a dark and senseless hate crime. On Wednesday morning, a worker from MCU Park first saw a swastika painted on the statue and the phrases: “Jackie Robinson was nothing but a n—-r” and “Kill n—–s.”
And this: “Die n—–s.”
So 66 years after Robinson ran out to first base at Ebbets Field and integrated Major League Baseball and began to make the country a better place, all this time after Robinson had to face the most hateful and constant racism on and off the field, he is still facing hate and racism in this terrible and symbolic way in Coney Island.
Somehow on this dark night for the city, some bum — or bums — decided to make it 1947 all over again in Coney Island with this attack on the statue of Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese.
“It took years to get that (statue) done,” Mets owner Fred Wilpon was saying in the late afternoon from Citi Field. “You think about Pee Wee and Jackie and what that moment said and what it meant. And now for this to happen?”
There was a pause at the end of the phone and then Fred Wilpon said, “Jackie Robinson is a giant of baseball and a giant of our country and an American icon. How many people can you say that about? You honor the memory of Jackie Robinson, something we’ve done at both of our ballparks, not dishonor him like this.” Wilpon paused again and then said in a quiet voice, “Wasn’t he insulted enough when he was alive?”
Once, the insults came at Robinson from the other dugout, from opposing managers like Ben Chapman of the Philadelphia Phillies. Once they came from those behind the desks at hotels and fans hiding behind other fans at National League ballparks, and from anonymous letters telling Jackie Robinson to do exactly what the paint on the statue in Coney Island said until it was removed:
One of the volunteers at Cyclones games went and got spray graffiti remover on Wednesday and wanted to clean the statue himself, but was told to wait for someone from the Parks Department to come do the job. The volunteer, Patrick Gabour, in that moment stood for everyone in the city who wants to know who could do something like this in a baseball summer that feels like 100 years from Jackie Robinson’s first summer at Ebbets Field.
“He didn’t just integrate baseball,” my friend Pete Hamill, who kept going back to Ebbets Field in 1947 as a teenager to watch Robinson play baseball, has always said. “He integrated the stands.”
But of course the stands weren’t integrated right away in many places across the country during Jackie’s career. Which is why Jackie Robinson did a lot more than play ball between 1947 and his death in 1972.
During his first two years with the Dodgers, Robinson kept his word to Rickey and endured astonishing abuse amid national scrutiny without fighting back. His dignified courage in the face of virulent racism–from jeers and insults to beanballs, hate mail, and death threats–commanded the admiration of whites as well as blacks and foreshadowed the tactics that the 1960s civil rights movement would develop into the theory and practice of nonviolence.
Death threats? Yes, Jackie endured much more than just being jeered at games, and called names. There were indeed death threats. Including one from Cincinnati baseball fans. Crosley Field, mentioned in the scrawled note below, was the home of the Cincinnati Reds from 1912 through 1970.
Here’s a newspaper article from the New York Times of May 10, 1947, reporting more death threats.
Keeping his promise to Rickey, Jackie Robinson was exceptionally circumspect about responding publicly to racial problems, his own and others, for his first two years as a Major League player. But as he became more confident of his position as a public figure, he eventually decided to use that position to begin to speak out.
Robinson, however, finally broke his emotional and political silence in 1949, becoming an outspoken and controversial opponent of racial discrimination. He criticized the slow pace of baseball integration and objected to the Jim Crow practices in the southern states where most clubs conducted spring training. Robinson led other ballplayers in urging baseball to use its economic power to desegregate southern towns, hotels, and ballparks. Because most baseball teams integrated relatively calmly, the “Jackie Robinson experiment” provided an important example of successful desegregation to ambivalent white southern political and business leaders.
Having watched baseball integrate through a combination of individual black achievements, white goodwill, economic persuasion, and public outspokenness, Robinson, when he retired from baseball in 1957, sought to bring the same tactics to bear on increasing African-American employment opportunities. [History.com]
Yes, after his retirement, Jackie Robinson spent much of his time in his remaining years working in the Civil Rights movement, showing up at rallies, picket lines, and fundraisers. And using the recognition of his fame to write letters to the Office of several Presidents of the US to lobby for those things that he cared desperately about. Such as this telegram below to Fred Morrow, (first African American to hold an executive position in the White House) White House Administrative Officer for Special Projects under President Eisenhower, in 1957. (All documents in this blog entry are from the US Archives.)
Am opposed to Civil Rights Bill in its present form. Have been in touch with a number of my friends. We disagree that half loaf better than none. Have waited this long for bill with meaning. Can wait a little longer. Unless House amends bill hope the president will veto it. We sincerely appreciate the many true Americans who insist on equal rights for all. Jackie Robinson
In the following 1958 letter, he wrote directly to Eisenhower himself.
My dear Mr. President
I was sitting in the audience at the Summit Meeting of Negro Leaders yesterday when you said we must have patience. On hearing you say this, I felt like standing up and saying, “Oh, no! Not again.”
I respectfully remind you sir, that we have been the most patient of all people. When you said we must have self-respect, I wondered how we could have self-respect and remain patient considering the treatment accorded to us through the years.
17 million Negroes cannot do as you suggest and wait for the hearts of men to change. We want to enjoy now the rights that we feel we are entitled to as Americans. This we cannot do unless we pursue aggressively goals which all other Americans achieved over 150 years ago.
As the chief executive of our nation, I respectfully suggest that you unwittingly crush the spirit of freedom in Negroes by constantly urging forbearance and give hope to those pro-segregation leaders like Goverbor Faubus who would take from us even those freedoms we now enjoy. Your own experience with Governor Faubus is proof enough that forbearance and not eventual integration is the goal the pro-segregation leaders seek.
In my view, an unequivocal statement backed up by action such as you demonstrated you could take last fall in dealing with Governor Faubus if it became necessary, would let it be known that America is determined to provide—in the near future—for Negroes—the freedoms we are entitled to under the constitution. Respectfully yours, Jackie Robinson.
Orval Faubus of Arkansas had attempted to interfere with the Supreme Court-ordered integration of all-white Little Rock, Arkansas, High School in September 1957.
He sent Arkansas National Guardsmen in to block the entrance of nine black students, including Elizabeth Eckford shown below (mentioned in an earlier entry in this series) who were ready to enroll under a ruling by a federal judge.
President Eisenhower finally “federalized” the Arkansas National Guard troops, and sent almost 1000 federal troops—the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army—to Little Rock to take command over the Guard. Under Eisenhower’s orders, the two military groups escorted the black students to school and protected them from the mobs for the rest of the year.
Although the students enrolled, Faubus continued to resist for the whole school year, even after the showdown with Eisenhower. And for the next year…on September 12, 1958, he unilaterally closed all Little Rock High Schools, with a plan to turn them into private schools. That plan failed, but the 1958/59 school year became known as the “The Lost Year” with both black and white students unable to attend school. You might say everyone was a homeschooler that year in Little Rock.
Including this young African American being taught via TV in her own living room.
But back to Jackie Robinson’s mail. On March 9, 1965, he wrote a telegram to President Johnson about the situation in Selma, Alabama—the results of “Bloody Sunday.” You may remember that there was a fiftieth anniversary memorial of this incident just this past spring. And a movie about it… Selma…released December 25, 2014. A peaceful, non-violent long march of several days had been planned by black leaders to go from Selma to the state capital in Birmingham, about 90 miles away, to protest in support of voting rights.
The images of that day in 1965 were quickly seared into the American consciousness: helmeted Alabama state troopers and mounted sheriff’s possemen beating peaceful civil rights marchers in Selma, Ala., as clouds of tear gas wafted around the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
On March 7, 1965 — a day that would become known as “Bloody Sunday” — 600 marchers heading east out of Selma topped the graceful, arched span over the Alabama River, only to see a phalanx of state and local lawmen blocking their way on U.S. Highway 80.
The police stopped the marchers, led by Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and ordered them to disperse. Then they attacked.
Lewis, one of 58 people injured, suffered a skull fracture. Amelia Boynton Robinson, then 53, was beaten unconscious and left for dead, her face doused with tear gas.
Photos of that terrible day were seen around the world. Historians credit the beatings, and the public outrage that followed, as a catalyst for the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
“The marchers thought they would only be arrested,” says Gary May, a history professor at the University of Delaware and author of Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy. “They thought there would be no major trouble. That night, the film of what happened reached New York, and ABC broke it at 9 p.m.
“People across the nation were shocked at what they saw. LBJ called it a turning point in American history. He compared Bloody Sunday to Gettysburg and Lexington and Concord.” [USA Today]
So right after those horrific pictures showed up in newspapers and on the TV news, Jackie’s urgent telegram to Johnson read:
The White House
Important you take immediate action in Alabama. One more day of savage treatment by legalized hatchet men could lead to open warfare by aroused Negroes. America cannot afford this in 1965. Jackie Robinson
By the way, Amelia Boynton Robinson beat all the odds. Not only did she survive Bloody Sunday…she led a full life right up until this year! She died August 26, 2015, at the age of 104!
Here she is then and in 2015.
And here she is, earlier this year at the 50th anniversary of that Bloody Sunday, crossing that Edmund Pettus Bridge one more time.
This blog series has been “juxtaposing” Civil Rights Era events of the 1950s and 60s with the publications and broadcasts during the same time period of the ministry of Herbert W Armstrong. Armstrong was the founder of the widely-read Plain Truth magazine and widely-heard World Tomorrow radio program.
Armstrong died in 1986 and his ministry fell apart, and almost thirty years later, the average person on the street, especially those younger than 55 or so, would draw a total blank if you mentioned his name or the names of his magazine and broadcast. But in the early 1960s, he and his outreaches were household names in many circles. When the Plain Truth magazines of the 1960s spoke on racial issues, many people listened.
And the message they heard was one of anti-integration, and of urging American Negroes to stop agitating for change in American society. Particularly regarding school integration. Armstrong insisted that they should, instead, “count their blessings” and quit trying to demand equal treatment, and trying to “compete” with Whites for jobs. For God Himself had ordained segregation in the Bible.
As he put it in an editorial in the October 1963 issue of his Plain Truth magazine (just weeks after the March on Washington that year…) that addressed the current “Racial Crisis” of the time…
Of course there is another side of the picture. The Negroes in the United States are the recipients also of fabulous BLESSINGS which their brothers in Africa could, and should, but do not enjoy. But the crusaders put emphasis ONLY on the dark side. They never remind American Negroes that, as a whole, they have more and larger refrigerators, electric washing machines, radio and television sets, automobiles and even homes, than the average WHITE person is able to afford in England, France, Spain or ltaly.
Jackie Robinson obviously did not agree with Armstrong’s evaluation of the situation of much of the Negro population of the US. Unfortunately, Armstrong did have a wide audience for his pontifications, and no doubt affected the opinions of many readers and listeners regarding the race problems in America. No doubt many whites…particularly in the South…nodded their heads in approval when he made claims such as that above—which equated “the good life” with…owning lots of home appliances. And which strongly implied that the average American Negro “had it good” since he had a big fridge.
Plenty of Southerners, as well as folks all over the country, were in Armstrong’s audiences. His radio program was heard, often in prime evening hours as well as late-night, seven nights a week on many, many stations. And eventually, a regular TV version of the show was added. I can’t pin down records of estimates of listeners, but I do not doubt that the audience eventually was in the millions. The World Tomorrow had featured the voice of Herbert Armstrong himself from its beginnings in 1934 up through the 1950s. But by 1963 it regularly featured the dynamic, charismatic voice of Armstrong’s son Garner Ted Armstrong.
Garner Ted Armstrong’s rapid-fire delivery style and mellow voice were often compared by commentators to Paul Harvey’s broadcasts. The December 1969 issue of the Plain Truth magazine included listings for the World Tomorrow broadcast on the following:
- 42 major regional U.S. radio stations heard over wide areas of the country (included such 50,000 watt stations as WRVA Richmond, WCKY Cincinnati, KXEL Waterloo, and WOAI San Antonio )
- 182 local US radio stations
- 42 Canadian radio stations, including four in the French language and two in Italian
- 4 European radio stations, including MANX radio in English and three Spanish language stations
- 1 radio station in Okinawa
- 1 radio station in Guam
- 21 radio stations in the Caribbean and Latin America, including 17 in English and 4 in French
- 17 US television stations
- 21 Canadian television stations
The program, most often a potpourri of incisive, bombastic commentary on the latest current events with a smattering of Bible thrown in, was known, by the late 1960s and on into the early 1970s, to be widely popular among people in many walks of life…including the halls of Congress and the circles of Country and Western singers. That included Merle Haggard, whose popular 1970 song “Jesus Take a Hold” was obviously inspired by a World Tomorrow and Plain Truth magazine series from 1969 titled “The Modern Romans.”
The magazine series, and accompanying radio programs, focused on a comparison of the conditions in the ancient Roman Empire just before it fell, with the conditions in the US and Great Britain in the late 1960s. Merle’s song succinctly summed up the theme of the series in its opening lyrics: “Like the ancient Roman Empire, this world is doomed to fall.” Merle’s “prophetic” song actually hit the #3 spot on the US and Canadian Country Music Pop Charts in 1970!
When Garner Ted Armstrong died September 15, 2003, Merle was reported to have commented, “After Johnny [Cash] died, I lost a real close friend in Garner Ted Armstrong. [Armstrong died just three days after Cash.] He was like a professor to me. What education I have, I owe to him.’”
In recent decades, the sign that some celebrity is well-known among the public is seeing them show up as the host on Saturday Night Live, or as a guest on one of the late night TV Talk Shows. In the mid-70s, it would have been similarly a sign you’d “arrived” if you were a featured guest on the popular Hee Haw TV show. So when, in 1976, Garner Ted Armstrong was a guest on Hee Haw, which starred Buck Owens and Roy Clark, it was obvious that he had to be a “household name.” He popped up out of the Hee Haw “corn patch” on the show to say “Sa-loot” to his hometown of Eugene, Oregon. He sang a country western song he had written titled “Working Man’s Name,” and he joined “the whole Hee Haw gang” to sing the popular Gospel song “Put Your Hand in the Hand.”
Another sign that you’ve “arrived” as a celebrity has always been when well-known comedians parody your persona! Popular Grand Ole Opry comedy and musical performer, star of Hee Haw, and Country Music Association “1969 Comedian of the Year” Archie Campbell was a master at parody.
And at some point, Archie did a spoof recording of a World Tomorrow program, starring his Armstrong alter-ego, “Gagner Fred Hamstrung.” He did a great job of imitating Armstrong’s fast-talking, bombastic style. Again, I’m just noting this because it indicates how widely-known across the country the World Tomorrow program was at the time.
In addition to almost blanket coverage of the country’s airwaves by the World Tomorrow program, by 1972 Armstrong’s Plain Truth magazine had grown to a circulation of over 2 million. Since most magazines are read in families by more than one person, and not infrequently loaned out or passed on to friends, or left in dentists’ waiting rooms and such, that could easily mean a readership of several million.
Yes, unfortunately the bigoted views on race relations in America of Herbert Armstrong, Garner Ted Armstrong, and their associates had a wide audience in the 1960s and 70s. So while there was indeed a great cacophony at the time of voices on the airwaves and in publications promoting a wide variety of views of America’s “Race Problem,” Armstrong’s influence would have been more than a mere drop in the bucket at the time of the main Civil Rights Era events such as the March on Washington.
Of course, Jackie Robinson was an even more widely-known name back then! Unfortunately, his input on the issues related to the Civil Rights movement was sporadic, not extensively reported, and no doubt ignored by most of Armstrong’s audience. But Jackie never gave up. Just a few months before his death in 1972, he wrote to the Office of President Nixon about his ongoing concerns.
April 20, 1972
The Honorable Roland L. Elliot
Deputy Special Assistant to the President
The White House
Dear Mr. Elliott:
Thanks for your letter of the 14th. I am sorry the President does not understand my concern. Black America, it seems, comes up short as Presidents study or give time to fashion standards that are designed to help all Americans when in reality it is a smoke screen.
Black America has asked so little, but if you can’t see the anger that comes from rejection, you are treading a dangerous course. We older blacks, unfortunately, were willing to wait. Today’s young blacks are ready to explode! We had better take some definitive action or I am afraid the consequences could be nation shattering.
I hope you will listen to the cries of the black youth. We cannot afford additional conflict.
It would seem that Jackie Robinson was never satisfied with just getting big kitchen appliances for himself…
And many other African-American celebrities were not satisfied with just FINALLY, in the early 1960s, seeing the Vegas venues such as the Sands and Caesar’s Palace integrated, so that they no longer had to personally stay on the Dark Side of Vegas after their performances. After all, the permanent black residents in Las Vegas at the time were still relegated, as they were in much of the nation, to “behind the scenes” menial jobs in kitchens or laundries or as maids. No black waitresses, black bellhops, not even black valets to park cars. And most still could only afford to live on the Westside…where, as late as 1970, there was no library, no medical center, utterly inadequate housing, and segregated, dilapidated schools. [reference]
Yes, Jackie Robinson and many other black entertainers were unwilling to just bask in their own sunshine and good fortune in this dark days.
Unfortunately, many white folks back at that time had little or no concept of just how dark it was. We’ll explore that reality in the next entry in this series…