49 Years Ago, Harry Belafonte Hosted the Tonight Show—and It Was Amazing

49 Years Ago, Harry Belafonte Hosted the Tonight Show—and It Was Amazing

49 Years Ago, Harry Belafonte Hosted the Tonight Show—and It Was Amazing

He interviewed RFK and MLK months before their deaths. Fifteen of 25 guests were African American.

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Television made Donald Trump president. The master of The Apprentice created a character named “Donald Trump”—a tough but fair business genius—and sold him to the country. That character, so different from the man who declared six business bankruptcies and stiffed his contractors, then grabbed the microphone to opine about politics. As he spouted nonsense about President Obama’s birth certificate, television fell for him again, featuring him on cable shows well after his claim had been proven an early case of fake news. And this addiction continued throughout Trump’s long-shot presidential campaign, as he spewed hate—and pumped up network ratings. CBS’s Leslie Moonves will go down in history for admitting that “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS…. The money’s rolling in.” He continued: “It’s a terrible thing to say, but bring it on, Donald. Go ahead. Keep going.”

When the old folks say television used to be different from the profit-driven, ratings-obsessed, news-as-entertainment industry of today, they don’t always have good counterexamples. But a few years back, I came across a perfect one: the week in February 1968 when, at the height of the Vietnam War’s Tet offensive, as riots were wracking major American cities and the Democratic Party was coming apart, Johnny Carson handed The Tonight Show over to the legendary Harry Belafonte, who proceeded to use the platform to introduce white America to his world of art and activism.

The week featured Belafonte’s searing, in-depth interviews with Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., just months before both were assassinated. Even before their deaths, America had begun to unravel. Big, bold changes like the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts still left black Americans behind economically, while whites were convinced they’d done enough. The most innovative efforts in the War on Poverty were already winding down, a casualty of white backlash and ballooning spending on the Vietnam War. Richard Nixon loomed ominously on the horizon. In conversation with Belafonte, King and Kennedy come across as thoughtful, admirable, heroic—but also battered and shaken. They don’t have the answers.

But the show wasn’t all politics. The well-connected entertainer gave his audience an amazing high-low pop-culture-and-politics mix. The night Kennedy appeared, so did Bill Cosby, Lena Horne, and the Greek actress Melina Mercouri. A few days later, King kibitzed with comedian Nipsey Russell, the blacklisted African-American singer Leon Bibb, and actor Paul Newman, who played his trombone. Another episode featured basketball star Wilt Chamberlain and actor Zero Mostel, who stood on the couch to shake the giant NBA player’s hand. Other guests included singers Buffy Sainte-Marie, Petula Clark, Dionne Warwick, and Robert Goulet; comedians Tom and Dick Smothers; actor Sidney Poitier (Belafonte’s close friend); American poet laureate Marianne Moore; water-skier Ken White; and Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Hoving. Fifteen of the 25 guests that week were African-American. Only Belafonte could have pulled that off, says TV producer Norman Lear almost 50 years later. “He was an ambassador in both directions—to his own people and to the Caucasian community. There wasn’t anyone else like him. It is rare to this day.”

Belafonte’s Tonight Show stint certainly thrilled black viewers everywhere. The scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. recalls being a high-school junior in Piedmont, West Virginia, transfixed by seeing the entertainer on Carson’s throne. “Night after night, my father and I stayed up late to watch a black man host the highest-rated show in its time slot—history in the making,” Gates wrote in a 1996 New Yorker profile of Belafonte.

But for many Americans, that breakthrough week is lost history. I only found out about it myself four years ago when I read Belafonte’s beautiful memoir, My Song. As I learned more about that week, I felt as if I’d opened a magical wardrobe into a world where black and white people met as equals and enjoyed one another, for a few hours, anyway. It was like seeing a luminous parallel America where everything seemed possible, even if it wasn’t in the end. I became obsessed with writing about it; I made lists of people I wanted to interview (some of whom, like the late Julian Bond, I missed). Meanwhile, a presidential race emerged in which a farcical, racist TV star became the Republican front-runner and then got elected president. I became distracted from the Tonight Show story by the election, and demoralized by the political and media culture in which it took place.

It’s a mood that Belafonte himself might share. As he told The New York Times on the eve of the election, “I’ve never known this country to be so racist as it is at this moment. It’s amazing, after all that we’ve been through.” Still, as the legend celebrates his 90th birthday on March 1, now might be as good a time as any to retrieve a different past. Almost 50 years ago, with the country headed into an election as epochal and as disappointing as the one we just endured, with the world at least as broken as it is now, something wonderful and unexpected happened nonetheless.

In the fall of 2013, I approached Belafonte at an event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington to ask him more about his week as a Tonight Show host. The evening’s program rightly placed him in the firmament of the civil-rights movement, next to King’s lawyer Clarence Jones; a still-vibrant Julian Bond; and the siblings of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, the activists killed during Mississippi’s 1964 Freedom Summer. After those murders, Belafonte and his friend Sidney Poitier flew undercover to Mississippi with $70,000 stuffed in a black doctor’s bag to fund the movement into the fall. Chased by armed Klansmen while leaving the Greenwood airport, they almost didn’t make it out of the South alive. He and Poitier would later joke about the adventure when they met on air. “Don’t ever call me again,” Poitier quipped.

Gracious and kind, Belafonte seemed warmed by my curiosity about the long-lost Tonight Show week. It almost hadn’t happened, he recalled, since he’d turned down Carson’s first offer to sub for him. Despite his many successes, Belafonte had had some bad TV experiences in the years leading up to the invitation. He was the first African American to win an Emmy Award, for a 1959 CBS special, Tonight With Belafonte, which led to a contract for a multi-episode prime-time show. The first and only episode featured talented entertainers, black and white, singing and dancing together, but CBS quickly told the star to choose either an all-black or all-white cast, because the sponsor, Revlon, had gotten complaints about race-mixing. Belafonte refused, and though he was paid in full, the series was canceled.

But that wasn’t the reason he’d initially turned Carson down, Belafonte told me. “I felt totally inadequate to fill that chair. Johnny brought a Nebraska sense of the American mosaic that was unique to that slot and that time. I told him, ‘I can’t do what you do.’” But then the legendary Robert Sarnoff, head of NBC’s parent company RCA, personally lobbied him, promising him control of the guest list and pitching it as an important step for race relations. Belafonte accepted.

It’s hard to imagine this superstar feeling “inadequate,” but Belafonte has always had a shyness about him. His gentleness made him a good host, as he asked his guests about their feelings (and not just thoughts) about the troubles of the time. At least that’s the case in the interviews we can still see today. Of the Tonight Show episodes in an archive assembled by Carson Entertainment, only two of the interviews from Belafonte’s week survived. Through 1971, in order to save money, NBC taped over old episodes to film new ones. Either by coincidence or the intervention of persons unknown, the only interviews that remain are Belafonte’s half-hour talks with Kennedy and King.

It was the most fun we ever had!” Chiz Schultz tells me on the phone. An executive producer at Belafonte Entertainment, Schultz worked on that historic Tonight Show week. Belafonte had negotiated a good deal: He’d sing a song in place of Carson’s droll monologue, and he wouldn’t pitch products or do commercial lead-ins like Carson did; that would be the job of sidekick Ed McMahon. He would also have total control of the guest list, though he agreed to show it to NBC higher-ups.

Shortly after Belafonte turned in his list, “we got a visit from an NBC VP,” Schultz recalls. “He said, ‘That’s great—you’re having Dr. King. But he’s not gonna get into that civil-rights stuff, is he?’ Harry just deadpanned, ‘No, he’s going to talk about opera.’ That was really the end of it—Harry solved it with a joke, right there in the office.”

The singer and activist Buffy Sainte-Marie, who’d lost television engagements over her antiwar and pro-American-Indian activism, had previously been told by network shows, including Carson’s, that she couldn’t sing her protest songs. “Harry said, ‘Sing whatever you want,’” Sainte-Marie told me via e-mail, “and I sang ‘Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,’” which she says awakened people to the fact that “politicians and contractors are making a killing abusing Native American constitutional rights.” The Smothers Brothers were also controversial; CBS regularly censored, and eventually canceled, their variety show for its forays into liberal politics. But with Belafonte, Tommy Smothers joked: “I want to thank CBS for allowing us to come on NBC and do some of our distasteful material.”

“All of these people came with a social point of view,” Belafonte recalled. “That was my goal: to articulate a particular point of view. We were at the peak of social and political struggle in the country. America was awakened. The viewership was astounding.”

And astounded. His weeklong stint offered a panoramic view of a fractured America groping toward wholeness, featuring celebrity guests who were all, in their way, working to close the divides of race and class. But the affable Belafonte also bantered with McMahon and showed home videos of his family on vacation. A Newsweek feature profiling the wild week, “Belafonte Power,” seemed bewildered by the juxtaposition of family fun and politics:

One minute, he [Belafonte] would reminisce with Poitier about that time in Mississippi when the KKK chased them 10 miles into the next county. The next, he would show home movies of his wife (who is white) and children watching him and white companions water ski in Las Vegas. “In America, it’s very obvious that we are racially torn far apart,” he explains. “Now, I could go on the air and hack away and make the point every minute, politically. But this week people saw me with a bunch of guys flopping around in the water and relating to one another on a very friendly level.”

But amid the chitchat, comedy, and song, the conversation often turned dramatic, radical, and unfamiliar (a transcript of Kennedy’s interview shows the bewildered transcriber recording a reference to “black nationalists” as “black math students”). Given the times, how could it have been any other way? The week before the show, as chronicled by Taylor Branch in At Canaan’s Edge, King was wrangling with his closest allies, who opposed his plans for a massive Poor People’s Campaign in Washington that would feature nonviolent direct action, complete with a “shantytown” occupation. Bayard Rustin, the pacifist and socialist who’d planned the 1963 March on Washington, mocked the scheme, warning King that it “can only lead to further backlash and repression,” and telling him to drop the “mystical bullshit.”

The night before Belafonte’s week started, King preached his famous “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, a meditation on ambition, approbation, and social change. He then went to Chicago to meet with 30 mothers convened by the increasingly militant National Welfare Rights Organization, whose leader, George Wiley, had expressly designed an agenda to put the screws to King and ensure that the NWRO would be central to the Poor People’s Campaign. Viewing King as out of touch, the women “jumped on Martin like no one ever had before,” aide Andrew Young would recall later. The mothers won King’s pledge to join their fight, a subject he would discuss with Belafonte a few nights later.

King headed next to a Washington meeting of the venerable Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam to pitch the Poor People’s Campaign to them. “When I say ‘poor people,’ I am not only talking about black people,” he told the group; King planned to organize a multiracial movement of the dispossessed. This would get him in trouble with Black Power advocate Stokely Carmichael in his very next meeting. Carmichael backed the effort to target poverty, but criticized its “serious tactical error” in missing “a correct move toward black solidarity.” King convinced Carmichael to stay neutral on the march, but he couldn’t get him to avoid attacking its multiracial reach or overall thrust of nonviolence.

The next day, King evangelized about poverty to the Washington Chamber of Commerce, and stayed so long that he was late for his Tonight Show appearance. A few days later, sanitation workers in Memphis authorized the strike that would eventually draw King to the city where he’d be assassinated in less than two months.

If the King who showed up for The Tonight Show was exhausted, beset by attacks from allies in his own movement, the Bobby Kennedy who kicked off Belafonte’s first night likewise seemed tired and shaken by events. Just a few days earlier, he’d told reporters that he would not run for president. (Six weeks later, he would change his mind.) This is not a glib or confident Kennedy we see in conversation. He’s a man agonized about the fate of the country, someone who struggles for the words to describe what disturbs him. At times, it’s painful to watch. He talks several times about the plague of rats in urban slums, as though he hopes that might make vivid for the predominantly white audience the suffering they don’t see.

Mostly, Kennedy bears witness: “I visited an Indian reservation; the greatest source of death among teenagers is suicide,” he tells Belafonte. “I’ve seen children who are starving to death in the United States. Not ‘I read about children who are starving to death.’ I’ve seen children who are starving to death…. We have 70 million television sets…but we have a third of our children living at or under the poverty level in this country.”

You realize watching Kennedy how quickly the activist Great Society period in our history came to a close. Yes, its important large programs would remain—Medicare, Head Start, Title I education funding—but the smaller, visionary, urgent projects that grappled with systemic poverty, racism, and youth despair were already winding down. Tampa, Buffalo, Minneapolis, Newark, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Washington had all exploded in riots just the year before, and by February 1968, the Vietnam War was forcing Johnson to curtail domestic spending.

“People believe these programs are continuing,” Kennedy says indignantly, yet Health, Education, and Welfare Secretary John Gardner had announced earlier that week that there’d be 70,000 fewer summer youth jobs than the year before. “And considering the problems we had then because people didn’t—partially, at least—because people didn’t have jobs, didn’t have employment, didn’t have places to go…” Kennedy trails off.

This is a radical Kennedy, railing against the cigarette industry for killing 350,000 Americans, though that industry was a major Tonight Show sponsor. He jousts with Belafonte when the host suggests that Americans engaged in social change present “the best image” of the country to the world: “Well, not only our best ‘image’—that’s a Madison Avenue word. That is the United States, in my opinion.”

Belafonte parries: “Then why the great disillusionment?” Kennedy’s long, sometimes rambling answer touches on the Cold War, drug policy, and atomic weapons, but it is above all a blistering indictment of American hypocrisy, with a dollop of Kennedy optimism:

So there is this great wealth that I have talked about, and yet there is great poverty. There are speeches made about the fact that we’re going to treat people equally, yet we don’t treat everybody equally. If we weren’t so sanctimonious about it, if we weren’t hypocritical about it, if we didn’t tell untruths about ourselves and faced up to reality, then I think our country would be better off and our people would have much more confidence in those of us who are public officials and in our government as a whole.

Kennedy refuses to bite when asked whether the country will have “a real choice” in November. He sounds fatalistic about ending the war in Vietnam and defeating Johnson. “Being frank about it, I think it’s going to be very difficult,” he says. “The views that I represent, I don’t think are supported by anything other than a minority of people in the United States.” He pauses, then laughs. “Can we end on a happier note? Can we do a commercial or something?”

A soothing McMahon jumps in. “We’ll do a commercial. Why not escape this weekend for a weekend away at a Holiday Inn?” A black-and-white ad with a jingling soundtrack follows, inviting us to leave behind the troubles of poverty and war, “and pay for everything with your Gulf Travel Card!” Thus the painful interview ends in dystopic satire. Belafonte and Kennedy return and exchange pleasantries, and then the host bids a warm good night to his haunted guest.

Belafonte’s interview with King is similarly edged with gloom. He playfully asks his friend, “So what do you have in store for us this summer?” King answers, “That’s a good question. I don’t know about the summer. I guess I should begin with what we have in store for this spring.” Of course, King would not live to see the summer; he was assassinated on April 4.

King goes on to describe the reasons behind the Poor People’s Campaign. “The economic problem is probably the most serious problem confronting the Negro community,” he says to Belafonte, who’d already pledged his support. “I don’t want to be narrow about this and talk about only the black poor in our country. I must be concerned about Puerto Ricans that are poor, Mexican Americans, American Indians, and Appalachian whites. We are confronting a major depression in the poor community. The time has come to bring to bear the nonviolent direct-action movement to economic conditions we face in the country.”

The interview comes alive when Belafonte quietly asks, “Dr. King, do you fear for your life?” King’s answer foreshadows the famous speech about mortality that he delivered the night before he was assassinated:

Not really. We have lived with this a number of years now. If I moved around concerned about this, it would completely immobilize me and I couldn’t function. And so I’ve come to the point where I take this whole matter philosophically. I believe in my soul that unmerited suffering is redemptive, and if something happened to me, maybe something else would come of it. The other thing is that now, with what is ahead and what I have to do, I’m more concerned about the quality of my life than the quantity of my life. In other words, I’m more concerned about doing a good job and serving God. Ultimately, it isn’t so important how long you live—it’s how well you live.

The crowd erupts in loud applause. Watching this moment nearly 50 years later, the reaction strikes me as strange. What exactly are they applauding? The audience’s noisy approval reminds me of the aftermath to the 2015 Charleston massacre, when white America thrilled to stories about the victims’ families “forgiving” the white-supremacist killer, Dylann Roof. We white people are just a little too grateful for saintly black people who are willing to die and to forgive their murderers. Maybe it was time, even back in 1968, to stop applauding their generosity of spirit and start preventing their killing.

The ratings for Belafonte’s week were phenomenal: In New York, at least, they were higher than Carson’s usual numbers. But the Newsweek feature hinted at trouble: “The topic that hung heaviest all week was Vietnam. At every chance, Belafonte leaked his strong opposition.” And there were plenty of complaints, Belafonte told me. “Some people thought the week had been ideologically slanted, that it hadn’t been a level playing field. But for the other 51 weeks a year, it was very different.” In his memoir, Belafonte recalls saying goodbye to the Tonight Show audience this way: “I am fully aware of how many of you have been offended by the politics aired on this show this week. None of it was meant to offend. But all of this was consciously arranged by me to give you all a taste of what’s being said in rooms that many of you may not know or enter. Thank you for listening.”

Even today, I’m struck by Belafonte’s generosity in inviting Carson’s white audience to enter those rooms and hear those voices. According to Norman Lear, the week was a televised version of the kinds of parties and convenings that Belafonte regularly sponsored in his own home and in others’. “He brought together evenings of whites and blacks that would otherwise not exist anywhere,” Lear recalls. “All these years later, I still don’t see it that much.”

If much of white America rebuffed Belafonte’s invitation, his black audience was changed by his turn as Tonight Show host. “It made us feel so proud, so significant,” says Bobby Rivers, an actor and critic who has hosted shows on VH1 and the Food Network. Rivers, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles near Watts during the riots, recalls: “I was a kid in school, but I was allowed to stay up late to see Dr. King’s appearance…. And I chose broadcast as a career because of it, determined to do the kind of TV work that black people were not seen doing in my youth.”

Today, watching King and Kennedy come alive in flickering black and white, conversing with the gentle but probing Belafonte, reminds us of our great loss. It hurts. Yet these intimate conversations just months before their awful murders show that they didn’t have all the answers. I’ve always felt that in 1968, we lost the heroes who would have led us into the new country we were struggling to become. Yet on The Tonight Show, they looked as lost as we are. We’d like to think that Kennedy would have reassembled the old New Deal coalition, bringing working-class whites back to a party they were already beginning to abandon, along with African Americans, Latinos, and young people. But Kennedy might have lost the nomination to Hubert Humphrey, given his tensions with labor. At any rate, he probably couldn’t have prevented the Democratic civil war at the nominating convention in Chicago later that year. King was struggling too, beset by old allies who thought he was moving too fast into the issues of Vietnam and poverty, and young leaders who thought he was going way too slow. I don’t know that he could have warned a younger generation away from the lure of nihilism, or reassured anxious white people that civil rights wasn’t a zero-sum game. This is not to minimize the tragedy of their assassinations. It is just to say the country was headed for a reckoning—with racism, with poverty, with the limits of America’s global role—and that King and Kennedy might not have been able to make any of that less painful.

We still have Belafonte, who has devoted his later years to working with younger activists. “For a long time I said, ‘What has happened to the young?’” he told the Seattle news site Crosscut in October 2015. “What was all of that about, all my friends who were murdered: Bobby Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, Dr. King, etc., etc., etc.?” Then he went and found out for himself: They were helping to broker gang truces in the 1990s, or sitting in with Florida’s Dream Defenders to protest the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2013, or strategizing with young Baltimore leaders in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death at the hands of police in 2015. Belafonte also campaigned for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries and served as honorary co-chair for the Women’s March on Washington. “Those of us who have lived almost a century have no right to cynicism,” he told Crosscut. “There is always something in motion…always people out there making a difference.”

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