- Huck (Hound) and Jim (Crow): Syndicated Television Cartoons and Southern Segregation
In 1953, a Democratic Alabama state legislator named Sam Englehardt, Jr., was worried for the future of segregation. The US Supreme Court had just convened to hear arguments in Brown v. Board of Education, and the lawyers advocating for the plaintiffs were proposing that “separate but equal”—the legal principle that served as the foundation of Jim Crow—had no constitutionality in public schools. In addition, the opening remarks in the land’s highest court came just one month after the Republican Party had won national contests in the executive and legislative branches of government, victories achieved when the South was solidly a Democratic region. The country had even elected its first Republican president in two decades. President-Elect Dwight Eisenhower was noncommittal on civil rights, but his two most recent predecessors in the White House had approved desegregation of the defense industry and the US military. Meanwhile, the congressional elections had resulted in a Republican majority after four years of a Democratic Congress. The prospect of the demise of segregation in public schools thus added insult to these injuries for Englehardt and other southern, segregationist Democrats.1
Englehardt sought salvation in the new medium of television. In January 1953, he stood at the Alabama Capitol to deliver a proposal: establish a state-owned television system to broadcast public school curricula into the homes of schoolchildren (effectively, a mid-20th-century version of online education). If the Supreme Court were to ban segregation, all children (but particularly whites) could still receive an education without having to physically attend a desegregated public school. “There would be no problem of segregation if instruction were beamed directly into people’s homes,” he reasoned, with seeming magnanimity. He also called for “TV school reception centers” (akin to the “Internet Cafes” of the late 1990s and early 2000s) across the state for people who could not afford television sets, allowing for even the poorest of children to avoid integration.2
At the time, television stations throughout the country catered to children mainly by providing animated-film entertainment for them. Cartoons were among the earliest programs on the air in the late 1940s and early ’50s, and both black and white children in the segregated South saw them simultaneously, but of course separately. Motion-picture studios offered their animation libraries to television syndication companies, who then contracted with individual television stations for the broadcasting of the films. These programs usually aired on weekday afternoons, and children watched them at home after dismissed from their segregated schools. Most of the cartoons themselves belonged to pre-segregation television culture, filmed in black-and-white instead of [End Page 4] Technicolor—a decade older than the children viewing them on television.
The Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision in May 1954 became the context in which some people expressed concern for how southern television programming affected its white juvenile viewers, because many young white southerners, often not even in the Deep South, expressed intense hostility about the verdict’s outlawing of segregated public schools. When a new academic year began that fall, European American students of seven schools in southern Delaware boycotted the facilities over integration. Meanwhile, mobs protested and rioted in several cities in West Virginia. The film trade periodical Hollywood Reporter printed a rare political commentary in response, in November, and in doing so the newspaper was one of the few media journals to speak out against the violence. The Reporter warned that stereotyped films caused potential harm to European American children. Noticing a link between “the behavior of these teenage Americans” and “all the agencies contributing to their education,” the periodical asked, “Does the characterization of Negroes in movies and television shows aid or hinder the realization of the Supreme Court’s decision on segregation?” The Reporter specifically named animation as part of the problem. “Negro actors and entertainers…appear often, and in vicious stereotype, in the old movies, shorts, and cartoons that fill the bulk of TV time,” the journal complained, and the “so-called ‘children’s programs,’ which depend on ancient movie product, are the worst offenders...