Was ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ Postracial?

Journal-isms: Some black columnists say that the absence of black people on the show wasn't an issue.

NBC/Getty Images
NBC/Getty Images

Was the absence of black people in Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, set in North Carolina and broadcast as the civil rights movement intensified during the 1960s, a problem?

Not really, according to African American columnists with ties to the state who weighed in on Tuesday’s death of the beloved Griffith at age 86. Television historians have seen it differently. They called it counter-programming to what was on the evening news.

Rochelle Riley of the Detroit Free Press didn’t see it that way. She grew up in Tarboro, N.C. “My family didn’t watch ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ to count black people,” Riley wrote,  reprising her declaration when Griffith sidekick Don Knotts died six years ago.

“We watched to see our way of life, one that included spending hours picking plums in the plum orchard, then sitting under a chinaberry tree eating them, or walking along ponds to collect cattails.”  “I lived in Mayberry,” she wrote.

Allen Johnson, writing for the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., wrote, “I came across a quote from an old Charlotte Observer interview in which Griffith regretted not casting more black people in the show (they rarely appeared, and when they did, it was mostly as occasional extras).

Even so, [the] show had universal appeal.”

Barry Saunders, columnist for the News & Observer in Raleigh, was an unabashed fan. “Can you believe it?” he wrote. “There is actually debate, among people with real — and, one assumes, functioning — brains over what is the greatest television show of all time.” In Saunders’ column, race did not even enter the picture.

Mary C. Curtis, writing from Charlotte, N.C., for the Washington Post’s “She the People” blog, did make a connection. In a piece titled, “Andy Griffith was a Democrat, and N.C. disapproved,” Curtis noted, “When ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ made its television debut in fall of 1960, of course, history-making change roiled the actor’s own North Carolina, with the image of Southern sheriff a ways off from Andy Taylor’s folksy friendliness.

“Earlier that same year, four students from North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro challenged segregation with the first sit-in, at a F.W. Woolworth lunch counter.