restricted access 5 Our Mental Liberties: Banned Movies, Black-Appeal Radio, and the Struggle for a New Public Sphere
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142 7 7 7 7 7 7 In late September 1949, the LeMoyne naacp ran a story in the Beacon that excoriated the Memphis Board of Censors for its “mental processes .”1 The board’s notorious chairman, Lloyd T. Binford, according to the article, had once again exhibited his capricious logic by banning the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer motion picture Lost Boundaries, about a lightcomplexioned African American doctor who “passes” as white in order to avoid racial discrimination that would have prevented him from practicing . The Beacon writer predicted the board would next ban 20th Century Fox’s new release Pinky, about an African American nurse who had similarly opted to “pass” and was engaged to a white doctor. “We will not see [Pinky] unless we move into the free states and out of slavery territory ,” the article predicted. The writer’s anachronistic statement, which rhetorically linked a debate over motion pictures to the slavery era, established Memphis as a place that stood outside of progress and freedom. “We speak, of course, in respect to our mental liberties,” the author added, acknowledging the historical distinction but identifying independence of mind as a missing element in both contexts. The writer referred not to thought control in general, but to the literal evisceration of screen images of African Americans in roles outside those of household servant or menial laborer. Bitter as the author was, it would have come as little surprise in 1949 that the Memphis Board of Censors had banned a motion picture featuring a white actor (Mel Ferrer) playing a black character performing a so-called white role—in this case a doctor. The same year this commentary appeared in the Beacon, radio station wdia-Memphis converted its entire format from classical and country to black-appeal programming, becoming the first radio station in the United States to fully devote itself to African American listeners. This changeover 7 7 7 7 7 7 7 7 7 Our Mental Liberties Banned Movies, Black-Appeal Radio, and the Struggle for a New Public Sphere 5 Struggle for a New Public Sphere 143 had begun one week before the 1948 national elections, when the ironic laughter of Nat D. Williams spilling out from radios marked the debut of his new show, Tan Town Jamboree. Williams, a well-known journalist, high school history teacher, and emcee of the Palace Theater’s renowned “Midnight Rambles” variety show, boasted in the Memphis World that the show featured “the only Negro ‘disk jockey’ in Memphis and points North, South, East, and West, within a radius of several hundred miles of this town.” Overwhelming listener response to Nat D.’s show and subsequent pilot programs convinced the station’s white owners to commit themselves fully to a black-oriented format.2 Thus while the board of censors came under attack for attempting to impose on the silver screen a racial imaginary harking back to slavery, African Americans in and around Memphis seized upon black-appeal radio as a new public sphere where on-air personalities crafted by talented black djs contributed to a very different imaginary of black identities. In Memphis, site of one of the most notorious censorship boards in the nation, and home to the first all-black-oriented radio station, mass culture became a locus of racial struggle during the 1940s, energized by the wartime and postwar conflicts discussed in earlier chapters. Even as black Memphians criticized the racist stereotypes that undergirded their problems with job classifications, for example, they also contended with motion pictures in which black characters outside of “traditional” work roles had been spliced out of the films, leaving the stock, happy-go-lucky servant characters that moviegoers knew well. The postwar groundswell of black political mobilization in 1948, seen in outrage over police brutality and the Freedom Train cancellation, along with anti-Crump votes, was also culturally manifested in the embrace of black-oriented radio. In part, these responses to forms of entertainment involved concerns about equal rights; many young blacks, for example, resented being excluded from most first-run movie theaters or sent to the “buzzard’s roost” in those that admitted them. However, the postwar consumption of mass culture, especially movies and radio—although in different ways—became crucial to contestation over racial images themselves, which loomed larger-than-life as a result of specific media technologies. Going to the movies or listening to network radio could be simultaneously entertaining and humiliating , while tuning in to black...


Subject Headings

  • African Americans -- Civil rights -- Tennessee -- Memphis -- History -- 20th century
  • African Americans -- Segregation -- Tennessee -- Memphis -- History -- 20th century.
  • Civil rights movements -- Tennessee -- Memphis -- History -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Tennessee -- Memphis -- History -- 20th century.
  • Racism -- Tennessee -- Memphis -- History -- 20th century.
  • Memphis (Tenn.) -- Race relations -- History -- 20th century.
  • Memphis (Tenn.) -- History -- 20th century.
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