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If the 1950s were a time of simmering conflict about the values that defined American life, the ‘60s saw that conflict boil over and threaten to extinguish the flame of American exceptionalism. Though home to the Summer of Love, the hippie movement, and the Beatles, the era had its own darkness. The Vietnam War was killing and traumatizing a generation of American youth; racism enthusiast Bull Connor, Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, battled the civil rights movement with brutal tactics that included dogs and water hoses; and Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy were both assassinated.
This episode starts with the magazine’s fortunes tied up after dealing with a corrupt liquor board in New York, the far more important story is the role playboy played in elevating prominent voices in the Civil Rights movement. Early in its history, Hugh Hefner had promised to make playboy entertainment-centric, providing an escape from the occasionally-grim realities of day-to-day life. But he certainly wasn’t about to shy away from the most important issues that had faced the country.
To wit: Throughout the '60s, Hef consistently published Black voices delivering a revolutionary message about what needed to happen to improve American society. The episode touches on these, but here we’re going to highlight three key interviews from the era, which sum up both the issues of the day and the forthrightness with which playboy and the men interviewed tackled them. First is Miles Davis, who spoke with playboy in September, 1962.
“White people have certain things they expect from Negro musicians-just like they’ve got labels for the whole Negro race,” he said. “It goes clear back to the slavery days. That was when Uncle Tomming got started because white people demanded it. Every little black child grew up seeing that getting along with white people meant grinning and acting clowns. It helped white people to feel easy about what they had done, and were doing, to Negroes, and that’s carried right on over to now. You bring it down to musicians, they want you to not only play your instrument, but to entertain them, too, with grinning and dancing.”
Davis also said that the problem was largely with identity politics.
“But prejudiced white people can’t see any of the other races as just individual people,” he said. “If a white man robs a bank, it’s just a man robbed a bank. But if a Negro or a Puerto Rican does it, it’s them awful Negroes or Puerto Ricans. Hardly anybody not white hasn’t suffered from some of white people’s labels. It used to be said that all Negroes were shiftless and happy-go-lucky and lazy. But that’s been proved a lie so much that now the label is that what Negroes want integration for is so they can sleep in the bed with white people. It’s another damn lie. All Negroes want is to be free to do in this country just like anybody else.”
The May '63 interview with Malcolm X made Miles Davis look like a naive optimist. Malcolm was unapologetic in his revolutionary rhetoric, and Hef wasn’t about to censor his words—or anything. Even today, his Playboy Interview is still revolutionary and incredibly stirring. The shifting sands of time has done little to blunt the blade of Malcolm’s knife-sharp invective.
“We must learn to become our own producers, manufacturers and traders; we must have industry of our own, to employ our own,” Malcolm said of African-Americans. “The white man resists this because he wants to keep the black man under his thumb and jurisdiction in white society. He wants to keep the black man always dependent and begging–for jobs, food, clothes, shelter, education. The white man doesn’t want to lose somebody to be supreme over. He wants to keep the black man where he can be watched and retarded. Mr. Muhammad teaches that as soon as we separate from the white man, we will learn that we can do without the white man just as he can do without us. The white man knows that once black men get off to themselves and learn they can do for themselves, the black man’s full potential will explode and he will surpass the white man.”
Check out this intense summation:
“Sir, I’m going to tell you a secret: the black man is a whole lot smarter than white people think he is. The black man has survived in this country by fooling the white man. He’s been dancing and grinning and white men never guessed what he was thinking. Now you’ll hear the bourgeois Negroes pretending to be alienated, but they’re just making the white man think they don’t go for what Mr. Muhammad is saying. This Negro that will tell you he’s so against us, he’s just protecting the crumbs he gets from the white man’s table. This kind of Negro is so busy trying to be like the white man that he doesn’t know what the real masses of his own people are thinking. A fine car and house and clothes and liquor have made a lot think themselves different from their poor black brothers.”
If possible, the article “A Dialog in Black and White” surpasses the Malcolm X interview. Writers Budd Schulberg and James Baldwin were friends but pulled no punches in their conversation about race in America. The December 1966 piece is the definition of an intense but productive conversation between friends. And playboy welcomed its readers into the conversation.
“From where you sit, maybe you think we’re making encouraging progress,” Baldwin told Schulberg. “But from where I sit, and from where my brothers are huddling tonight in their black ghettos from Boston to San Diego, we can’t wait for laws that take so long to pass and then so much longer—it seems forever—to enforce. We’re ready now. We’ve been ready for generations. And if white America isn’t ready with us, then Elijah has a point—history will swallow you up as it has swallowed other arrogant civilizations that seemed invincible but that carried along in them some cancer, some fatal flaw.”
This next bit could have just as easily come last summer, when Black Lives Matter protesters clashed with police as violence against the Black community reached unprecedented levels of exposure.
“Our children are being murdered,” Baldwin told Schulberg inside the pages. “This has been very much on my mind, I didn’t realize how much. And some of us have been trying—despairingly—to figure out what to do to save at least a remnant on that day when we are forced to realize that there is no hope for us here, no hope at all. As far as I am concerned, when my countrymen can set dogs on children and blow children up in Sunday school, the holocaust is not far off. And, more than that—if I’m to be honest—one can’t but feel, no matter how deeply one distrusts the feeling, that the holocaust, the total leveling, salvation by fire, ‘no remission of sins save by the shedding of blood,’ may be the only hope.”
Baldwin’s words cut and burn. And Hef made sure that his magazine played host to the most vital voices of his generation. Perhaps because of this, or because of the naked women that still featured prominently in his pages, Hef then faced obscenity charges that might have crippled a lesser magazine.
Check out iPlayboy for access to playboy magazine’s complete archives.