The June 1967 issue of William Gaines’s popular humor magazine Mad was devoted to race, with images of Alfred E. Neuman on the cover in several different racial guises. The “Special Racial Issue,” as it was called, featured two comic-strip satires of the kind for which the magazine was famous. One was a sendup of the television series I Spy, whose co-star, Bill Cosby, was the first African-American actor to have a regular supporting role in a television drama. The other comic strip, “Stokely and Tess,” cleverly drawn from the Gershwin/DuBose opera Porgy and Bess, explored the internal division in the civil rights movement between advocates of nonviolent resistance in the Martin Luther King Jr. mold and the emerging Black Power movement.
Stokely was, of course, Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael, former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a longstanding voter-registration organizer in Lowndes County, Alabama. Carmichael had marched side by side with King as recently as 1966, but by the following year he had become, for whites, the nightmare symbol of radical, unruly blacks. In the satire Tess, a fictional character, represents the uncommitted or unsure black person, whom Stokely tries to woo with the rhetoric of Black Power and self-determination, while King competes for her loyalty with the blandishments of nonviolence and Christian love. There were cameos by Sammy Davis Jr., Harlem preacher and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, comedian Dick Gregory, James Baldwin, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, all celebrities associated with distinct factions of the civil rights movement or ideologies critical of it. Tess herself is a caricature of Diahann Carroll, the most famous black actress of the time, who had a major role in Otto Preminger’s 1959 film version of Porgy and Bess (Bess was played by Dorothy Dandridge). In fact, what drove the entire satire was precisely the interconnection between the civil rights movement and popular culture. Mad writers and artists could expect their white adolescent readers to know who these black people were and to have some familiarity with what they were arguing about. It was probably the first time in American history when the political divisions among blacks mattered to whites, thanks in large part to the 1965 race rebellion in Watts and subsequently in other parts of the country, especially the North. Before this, the civil rights struggle, and the race conflict generally, was seen as a Southern problem. By the mid-1960s it had become a national crisis. As a result, the conflicts between black “militants” and “moderates,” to use the lingo of the era, had even become a form of popular entertainment.
“Stokely and Tess” also marked the end of an era, in the sense that the assassination of King the following April made it virtually impossible for anyone to treat the movement or King with such gleeful irreverence. Since then, liberal white guilt and black pride have transformed him into a civic and racial saint, so transcendent that even conservatives, who had no love for him when he was alive, pay him homage. It is hard to say who has benefited from King’s embalming, but it’s not the American public, which hardly needs to have the jagged edges of its past smoothed over by the sentimentalization of a figure so central to the debate over the meaning of our democracy.