- The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock 'n' Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia by Matthew F. Delmont
More than fifty years have elapsed since the popular television program American Bandstand first appeared in homes across the United States, and still mere mention of the show continues to conjure images of teenagers, black and white, boppin' to the sounds of emerging musical talents from Jackie Wilson to Dusty Springfield. This very image, and the potent memory of a racially integrated youth demographic dancing together in harmony, Matthew F. D elmont argues in The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock 'n' Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia, is precisely the problem. Contrary to the recollections of Bandstand's celebrated host, Dick Clark, whose praise of the show as a powerful force resisting segregationist pressures is often cited in popular histories of the program, Delmont argues that the reality of 1950s Philadelphia was considerably more complex. As Delmont states, "Rather than being a fully integrated program that welcomed black youth, American Bandstand continued to discriminate against black teens throughout the show's Philadelphia years" (2). Simply, American Bandstand was hardly the bastion of racial integration Clark purported it to be.
This argument, Delmont admits early on in The Nicest Kids in Town, is not one he expected to make. Envisioning his work as contributing to the burgeoning scholarship on civil rights in the North by providing an exemplar of resistance in the face of entrenched segregation, Delmont instead found the cultural icon American Bandstand to be a battleground on which the struggle over civil rights was fought.1 Not only was Dick Clark incorrect in his [End Page 470] remembering of the Bandstand of the 1950s, he grossly overstated Bandstand's place within American civil rights history. That Dick Clark should offer an overly rosy picture of Bandstand as a racially progressive program is not particularly surprising. Not only the legacy of Bandstand but Clark's own legacy lay at stake. What is most interesting, and where Delmont places much of his focus, is in considering the alternatives. And, Delmont shows, there were alternatives. There was nothing "inevitable" about Bandstand's segregation.
Drawing upon an impressive array of sources that range from newspapers and meeting minutes to memorabilia and original oral histories, Delmont crafts an argument that engages interdisciplinary issues of race, policy, media, and memory. In so doing, Delmont positions Bandstand in conversation with its surroundings, compelling his readers to consider the program as a reflection of "defensive localism" (12) in the Philadelphia housing market (chapter 1), an outgrowth of the documented growing postwar consumerist ethos (chapter 2), and a site where the integrationist rhetoric of the school system, appropriated from the Philadelphia Fellowship Commission, hardly aligned with the realities confronted by Philadelphians (chapter 3). In sum, Delmont argues, "Bandstand helped to normalize the racist attitudes and policies that limited black access to housing, education, and public accommodations" (49). As such, Bandstand contributed to a Philadelphia that could distance itself from the racial problems confronting cities more visibly in the South.
Ultimately, Delmont argues, American Bandstand was no better than any other Philadelphia institution. Bandstand buckled under social and commercial pressures, reproducing what "sold"—or, more accurately, what wealthy, white male executives presumed would sell. They may have included black teens in their vision for the consuming demographic, but representationally black teens were excluded from Bandstand's regular programming. The Mitch Thomas Show, which receives attention in a fascinating chapter 5, was "the only television program that represented Philadelphia's black rock and roll fans" (134). Bandstand encouraged teens to imagine themselves as part of a cohesive national collective, a visual extension of Benedict Anderson's "imagined community," Delmont argues. However, that community, while a great boon to Italian American teenagers hailing from largely working-class homes in South Philadelphia who comprised a sizable contingent of the show's "regulars...