Clark Aided Blacks on 'Bandstand'?

Not always. A historian on the complex racial legacy of the music show Dick Clark hosted.

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But Clark's recollections differ from archival materials, newspaper accounts, video and photographic evidence and the memories of people who were regulars on American Bandstand or who were excluded from the show.

Archived reports of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations show that Bandstand was initially segregated in the early 1950s, when it was a locally broadcast show hosted by Bob Horn. The show's producers implemented racially discriminatory admissions policies because they feared that racial tensions around the studio in West Philadelphia would alienate advertisers.

Rather than a strict whites-only policy (like at Baltimore's Buddy Deane Show, made famous in John Waters' Hairspray), Bandstand used other means to block black teens from the studio. In addition to a dress code, Clark's show required visitors to write in advance to request tickets, and these applications were screened by name and address. Black teenagers undermined this ticket plan on at least one occasion. "I engineered a plan to get membership applications," Walter Palmer told me, "and gave them Irish, Polish and Italian last names. They mailed the forms back to our homes, and once we had the cards, we were able to get in that day."

Despite this, Clark claimed for years that he integrated Bandstand by the late 1950s. He first commented on the program's integration in his 1976 autobiography, when American Bandstand's ratings were in decline and the show faced a challenge from Don Cornelius' Soul Train. When Clark initially referred to American Bandstand's "integration," he emphasized black musical artists performing on the show. From 1976 to 2011, however, Clark became progressively bolder, and less accurate, in his retelling of how he integrated the studio audience.

We often use the history of popular culture to talk about the history of race in America. We don't want to remember all-American American Bandstand as discriminating against black teenagers. And that says more about our desire to embrace a more comforting narrative of racial progress than it does about Clark's legacy.

The decision to maintain discriminatory admissions policies flowed logically from neighborhood and school segregation in Philadelphia, the commercial pressures of national television and deeply held beliefs about the dangers of racial mixing. Integrating American Bandstand's studio audience in the 1950s would have been a bold move and a powerful symbol. Broadcasting daily evidence of Philadelphia's vibrant interracial teenage culture would have offered viewers images of black and white teens interacting as peers at a time when such images were extremely rare.

Clark and American Bandstand did not choose this path. We don't need to exaggerate the integration of American Bandstand to appreciate all that Clark did to shape American popular culture.

This article will also be published in the Washington Post's Outlook section for Sunday, April 22, 2012.

Matthew F. Delmont is an assistant professor of American studies at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., and the author of The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock 'n' Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia.

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