Hugh Hefner: Civil Rights Activist?

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

Getty Images
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.”