Ed Sullivan: Civil Rights Trailblazer

For more than 20 years, most Americans knew what they were doing on Sunday nights: watching The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS, eager to see which new talent or old favorite it's host would bring to the stage that week. Ed Sullivan, who died Oct. 13, 1974, 40 years ago, introduced more than 10,000 acts between 1948 and 1971. His eponymous show, the longest-running variety program of all time, highlighted musicians, comics, acrobats, even trained animals, all in the name of family entertainment. Elvis scandalized some of those families with his gyrating hips. The Beatles made their teenage daughters scream when they made their American debut on Sullivan's stage. He was a star-maker decades before programs like American Idol and Top Chef took on that role.

But another crucial part of Sullivan's legacy is his role in the fight for racial equality. He never hesitated to showcase African-American performers, including Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald and Richard Pryor. Some advertisers and viewers complained. Sullivan didn't back down. Legacy.com spoke to cultural historian, author and educator Maurice Berger about Sullivan's less-known legacy.

Critics sometimes poked fun at Sullivan's wooden delivery, stiff body, and tendency to stumble during his intros or to forget the names of the evening's performers. But that awkward facade belied the fact that he was actually very sophisticated.

"There were programs like The Lawrence Welk Show that were truly square, featuring 1930s and '40s music and almost exclusively white performers. Sullivan was anything but square. His version of the variety program was far more progressive and cutting edge. Of all television variety shows, his booked the broadest range of acts and performers. Even the show's graphic design and stagecraft was cutting edge for its time."

Sullivan had a relationship with Motown before it was a well-known record company. He showcased the label's acts, including the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5 and Marvin Gaye. Industry insiders said public approval from Sullivan — via a handshake, a hug or even a smiling nod — could jump-start careers.

"There's Sullivan on TV embracing black performers. He was bringing African-American entertainers — week after week — into the living rooms of millions of white Americans who had no black neighbors or friends. And the program continually showcased black performers alongside white performers as equals."

The Supremes were frequent guests on Sullivan's show, although the host once famously forgot the group's name and simply introduced them as "the girls." But even that showed his comfort and familiarity with the African-American performers.

"This was happening in a time of (entrenched) segregation and racism in the United States. Even in our present-day cultural environment, there is a tremendous amount of racial separation: White people tend to watch programs featuring white performers, for example. Fifty years ago, every Sunday night, everyone was watching the Sullivan Show. It was the most successful variety program in the history of television, with an enormous audience. And each week, Sullivan integrated that audience's cultural life. I can't begin to tell you how influential that was in helping to change social and cultural views of race in the U.S."

Of course, not everyone supported Sullivan's views. Sullivan did not waver and was also public off-camera about his support of civil rights.

"He was continually challenged by segregationists, and there was a tremendous amount of criticism and resistance from many in the South and in other parts of the country who believed black performers shouldn't be freely appearing on American television. When so much of the medium was the domain of white men — situation comedies and dramatic series and even some variety shows starred and were routinely produced by white people — Sullivan injected difference into the story of American culture and American entertainment."

In 1996, TV Guide ranked Sullivan ranked 50th on its list of "50 Greatest Television Stars of All Time."

"Ironically, Sullivan wasn't really a performer in the classical sense. He saw himself as a host, introducing his viewers to what he believed was interesting, brilliant or important. And, in the end, many of the entertainers and stars he found consequential were African-American, thus allowing him, in his own way, to dynamically alter the way Americans saw and understood race."

In his role as research professor at the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Berger served as curator and project director for a traveling exhibition called For All The World To See, dealing with how visual culture was crucial in the fight for civil rights. To accompany the show, Berger wrote an essay on Sullivan and his influence, calling Sullivan "a civil rights trailblazer."

"By showing black and white performers interacting as equals, and by bringing these entertainers into the homes of millions of Americans on a weekly basis, the program, as well as Sullivan himself, set an example of racial acceptance and integration, not just for the entertainment industry but for the nation at large. In the end, The Ed Sullivan Show advanced the cause of civil rights by enfranchising African-American performers, from its inception in 1948 to its last show in 1971."

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."