Hugh Hefner: Civil Rights Activist?

A documentary about the Playboy patriarch makes a strong case for "yes."

Getty Images

With NBC's new series The Playboy Club premiering Sept. 19, 2011, The Root's editorial staff decided to revisit another side of the original Playboy Club nightclub-chain founder.

Hugh Hefner isn't one of the names you usually think of when you hear the words "civil rights pioneer." So I was more than a little dubious when I got invited to a screening of Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, the newly released documentary that, the publicist promised, would show how the founder of Playboy magazine had been in the vanguard of the struggle for racial equality in the 1960s.

And for the first few moments, I sat there rolling my eyes at what seemed to be no more than the expected hagiography, an attempt by a rich old guy to shape his legacy while he still could. (Despite his recent effort to take Playboy Enterprises private again, Hefner is 84.) But I came around as race men such as Jesse Jackson, Jim Brown and Dick Gregory popped up among the documentary's talking heads to testify about the many things Hefner had done to help advance the movement of African Americans into the U.S. mainstream.

Of course, Hefner first pushed himself into that mainstream in 1953 when he published the premiere issue of Playboy, an unabashed celebration of the male libido in all its manifestations. Men may have bought Playboy for the nude centerfolds and the naughty cartoons, but they also eagerly consumed the magazine's philosophy on such things as how to dress, what to drink, which music was cool and even how to think about controversial subjects.

The Playboy Interview became the primary vehicle for the latter, and the very first one, which appeared in the September 1962 issue, included a candid exchange about racism between the writer Alex Haley and jazz great Miles Davis. At a time when few black journalists were breaking into white publications, Hefner made Haley Playboy's chief interrogator, and he didn't restrict the writer to black subjects.

Haley did go on to interview icons such as Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. for Playboy, but his subjects for the magazine also included The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson and, memorably, George Lincoln Rockwell, the racist leader of the American Nazi Party. In a film clip shown in the documentary, Haley recalled how he told Rockwell, "I've been called nigger before, and this time I'm being well paid for it. So go ahead and tell us why you hate us."

But Haley's most significant assignment for Playboy was the interview he did with Malcolm X, which led to some 50 later conversations between the two men that eventually evolved into Haley's first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Hefner, however, had an even more direct effect on the way African Americans were perceived during the Mad Men era of the late '50s and early '60s. In 1959 he took the Playboy philosophy to TV with the syndicated variety show Playboy's Penthouse and, later, its successor, Playboy After Dark. Both shows were designed to look as though they were set in Hefner's swank apartment, with viewers dropping in to join the on-screen party filled with comely women and good-looking men. Excerpts from the documentary show that black couples were included in the festivities -- sometimes on the fringes of the action -- but nevertheless, at a time when such mingling was rare, they were there.

Black entertainers held center stage. Celebrated stars like Sammy Davis Jr. and Dizzy Gillespie performed on the shows. But so did less well-known interracial acts like the Gateway Singers, the folk group whose appearance on the popular The Ed Sullivan Show was reportedly canceled because CBS execs felt uncomfortable showing a racially mixed group; and the jazz vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, who brought a bebop sensibility to jazz singing. As the comedian and activist Dick Gregory comments in the documentary, "Many blacks folks had never even seen some of these black folks before."

Gregory credits Hefner with giving him his own big break in show business. The comedian had been playing small, predominantly black clubs until Hefner hired him to perform at the Chicago Playboy Club in 1961, and kept bringing him back even when Gregory's material became increasingly political.