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The Nicest Kids in Town

Matt Delmont, Author

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Introduction

In August 1957, teenagers across the country started watching teenagers in Philadelphia dance on television. Thanks to American Bandstand, the first national daily television program directed at teenagers, Philadelphia emerged as the epicenter of the national youth culture. The show broadcast nationally from Philadelphia every afternoon from 1957 to early 1964 and featured performances by the biggest names in rock and roll. In addition to these musicians, the local Philadelphia teenagers who danced on the show became stars. For the millions of young people across the country who watched the program every day on television, these Philadelphia youth helped to shape the image of what teenagers looked like.

More than fifty years after the show first broadcast, American Bandstand’s representations of youth culture remain closely linked both to the show’s legacy and to larger questions about popular culture, race, segregation, and civil rights. Billboard magazine journalist Fred Bronson, for example, argues that American Bandstand was a “force for social good.” [i] Bronson bases this claim on Dick Clark’s memory that he integrated the show’s studio audience when he became the host in 1957. “I don’t think of myself as a hero or civil rights activist for integrating the show,” Clark contends, “it was simply the right thing to do.”[ii] In the context of local and national mobilization in favor of segregation, underscored by widespread antiblack racism, integrating American Bandstand would have been a bold move and a powerful symbol. Broadcasting daily evidence of Philadelphia’s vibrant interracial teenage culture would have offered viewers images of black and white teens interacting as peers at a time when such images were extremely rare. Clark and American Bandstand, however, did not choose this path and the historical record contradicts Clark’s memory of integration. 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.

The real story of American Bandstand and Philadelphia in the postwar era is much more complicated than Clark suggests. It requires understanding not only how American Bandstand became racially segregated, but also how the show influenced and was influenced by racial discrimination and civil rights activism in the city’s neighborhoods and schools.

When viewed in the appropriate local and national contexts, this history of American Bandstand and postwar Philadelphia provides new insights on the immense resistance to civil rights and racial integration in the North, on the early use of color-blind rhetoric to maintain racially discriminatory policies, on the ways popular culture serves as a barometer of racial progress, and on the persistence of myths of white innocence that deny, disavow, or distort the history of racism in the civil rights era. Dick Clark’s claims about the integration of American Bandstand, for example, exhibit the selective memory that historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall has identified in the dominant narratives of the civil rights era. Against the distortions in many of these narratives, Hall suggests making civil rights “[h]arder to celebrate as a natural progression of American values. Harder to cast as a satisfying morality tale. Most of all, harder to simplify, appropriate, and contain” [iii]. Like the stories that Hall critiques, Clark’s popular histories of the American Bandstand present segregation as a simple moral question of right or wrong, rather than as a deeply entrenched system of policies and customs with material consequences. Clark’s claims of integrating the show not only overstate American Bandstand’s role as a force for social good: they also obscure the very reasons why integrating the show would have been noteworthy. Clark presents himself as the brave individual who broke down American Bandstand’s racial barriers, rather than describing the immense economic and social pressures that made segregation the safe course of action. While Clark’s investment in the rhetoric of racial innocence is widely shared, Clark is unique because became an extraordinarily wealthy media personality by hosting one of the most popular television programs of all time and his self-mythologizing popular histories of American Bandstand have circulated widely.

As Dick Clark’s claims about integrating the show suggest, something is at stake in how we remember the history of American Bandstand. When I started research on this project I believed, as Clark has claimed, that American Bandstand was fully integrated in the 1950s. I expected to contrast the show’s integration with the segregation of Philadelphia’s public schools and neighborhoods and explore how popular culture fostered interracial attitudes that challenged the existing racial order. The historical evidence ultimately led me to see how American Bandstand emerged from strong desires to protect racial segregation, both in both Philadelphia’s neighborhoods and schools and also in local and national youth consumer culture.

Rather than a mythical history in which American Bandstand made a major contribution to desegregation, this project investigates how television, neighborhoods, and schools became segregation battlegrounds in postwar Philadelphia and how these sites produced racial difference within the burgeoning national youth culture. I tell this story by drawing on a range of textual, visual, and aural evidence both inside and outside of the archives, including letters, meeting minutes, speech transcripts, handbills, city government reports, census data, maps, newspapers, magazines, editorial cartoons, high school yearbooks, photographs, television programs, songs, popular histories of American Bandstand, American Bandstand memorabilia, and twenty-one original oral histories with people who grew up in Philadelphia and attended, watched, and/or protested American Bandstand. Through these sources I explore the choices American Bandstand’s producers made in their specific contexts, the choices other Philadelphians made under similar circumstances, and the ongoing struggle over how this history of racial discrimination and antidiscrimination activism is remembered. All of the people who make up this history understood the daily lives of teenagers and the representations of these lives as important sites in the struggle for racial equality in postwar Philadelphia. Thanks to American Bandstand, images of Philadelphia teenagers became meaningful for young people across the country. This project reveals how American Bandstand reinforced, rather than challenged, segregationist attitudes, and how this discrimination has been repeatedly disavowed over the past half century.

This digital project includes three sections.  You can view them in order or jump to a specific section:

1) Bandstand's Local Years: 1952-1957

2) America's Bandstand: 1957-1964

3) Remembering American Bandstand
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