Amid the mounting unrest of the 1960s, Hef risked everything to take a stand for Civil Rights—shining a light on issues that are just as urgent today.
I first met the man called Hef in the 1960s in Chicago. I was a young civil rights organizer, assigned by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to head Operation Breadbasket, the economic empowerment arm of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The nation was just then slowly emerging from the deep darkness of segregation. But the meanness of racism wasn’t confined to the South. To this day, Chicago is one of the most segregated big cities in America.
Hefner was none of those things. He was outspoken, a proud liberal voice—and playboy was a megaphone that reached millions long before social media.
Hefner lent that powerful megaphone to the civil rights movement, environmentalists, anti-war activists and Latino and African American writers. Alex Haley, the author of Roots, first became a star writing for playboy.
And when we were being beaten in the streets by the police, Hefner fended off blows too in Chicago’s Grant Park during the Democratic National Convention in 1968. Those of us who know his tremendous contributions to justice and peace at home and abroad will be forever grateful.
In 1965, playboy published the longest print interview King ever granted. A few years later the magazine published his last essay, A Testament of Hope.
“Justice for black people will not flow into society merely from court decisions nor from fountains of political oratory,” King wrote. “Nor will a few token changes quell all the tempestuous yearnings of millions of disadvantaged black people. White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, the entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change in the status quo.”
Hefner’s playboy published those powerful, prescient words without fear or favor in 1969. A half century later, they still ring true. I would not be surprised if quarterback Colin Kaepernick read them before starting his courageous protest of police violence and racial injustice, a nonviolent act that has rattled the status quo from the stadiums of the NFL to the White House.
playboy has published two interviews with me. The first was the same year as King’s last testament; the second was when I was running for president in 1984. My 1969 interview appeared 19 months after King was assassinated in Memphis. Like so many others, I was still grieving, still angry and hurt, still feeling my way in a world without that magnificent man of love and peace.
King, as I said in that Playboy Interview, “taught us that even if the police—the law—say you can’t sit down, sit down anyway. In most communities until then, there weren’t five men who had that kind of courage. He challenged us to stand up to the police we used to run from. In Montgomery, Alabama, the cradle of the Confederacy, he rose up and declared that black men deserve their full rights of manhood. There wasn’t enough money to buy him, and there weren’t enough jails to hold him. Death itself isn’t enough to stop black men from being free, for crucifixion leads to resurrection.”
Hefner didn’t just open the pages of his magazine to the movement; he opened his home and his wallet. He hosted community activists and groups at his mansion on North State Street in Chicago. He helped King make payroll.
In the movie Mississippi Burning, two agents from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI are portrayed as the heroes responsible for finding the bodies of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney—the civil rights workers murdered by the Klan in 1964. In fact, when comedian Dick Gregory asked for Hefner’s help in finding the bodies of the men missing for many weeks, Hefner gave his friend Gregory $25,000 to establish a reward. Gregory and Hefner embarrassed the FBI, and a short time later the three men were found, buried in the blood-soaked soil of Mississippi.
Hefner brought people together from all walks of life to talk and to learn from each other. He did so much to illuminate the darkness. In that long season of turmoil and change, he was a bright light.
The Reverend Jesse L. Jackson Sr. is founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.