Ronald Reagan and the struggle for black dignity in cinema, 1937-1953.

Author:Vaughn, Stephen

Neo-fascism seemed to be on the rise in the United States during the summer of 1946, press reports about anti-black and anti-Semitic groups increased noticeably over the previous year, and the FBI stepped up its investigation of the Ku Klux Klan. In southern California, the state attorney general, Robert Kenny, received reports of violence: "Negroes have been beaten, fiery crosses have been burned, synagogues have been defaced, signs and symbols of the Klan have appeared in minority group neighborhoods." (1)

Troubled by the resurgence of the KKK, Ronald Reagan agreed to participate in a radio program called "Operation Terror," part of a series about the Klan called "It's Happening Here." It aired on KLAC in early September, 1946, and chronicled more than two dozen alleged incidents in southern California as well as the lynching of blacks in Georgia. Here was the unvarnished truth about Klan terrorism, "no guess-work, no if's, but's, or maybe's, but the plain facts, witnessed and recorded."

Reagan beheld a conspiracy. "Are these just isolated cases of mob hysteria? Not on your life. There is a plan behind all this," he declared, "a capably organized systematic campaign of fascist violence and intimidation and horror.... The mobs are being stirred up; hopped up by racial hatred that is deadlier than marijuana." The violence was the work of a lunatic-fringe, "the kind of crackpots that became Reich Fuehrer; the kind of crackpots that became El Duce; the kind of crack pots who know that 'divide' comes before 'conquer."' Terrorism had to be stopped. "I have to stand and speak," he said, "to lift my face and shout that this must end, to fill my lungs to bursting with clean air, and so cry out 'stop the flogging, stop the terror, stop the murder!"' (2)

The program, supported by Kenny and sponsored by the Mobilization for Democracy, proved controversial. The Communist Party, which called the Klan "the spear head of Nazism in America," and the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee for the Arts, Sciences, and Professions (HICCASP) applauded. Los Angeles authorities, however, claimed they found little evidence of KKK activity. The violence had been perpetrated by "juveniles ... the work of pranksters," according to Mayor Fletcher Bowron. Jack Tenney's California Committee on Un-American Activities condemned the program, proclaiming the Klan "dead" since 1941. Moreover, Tenney cast a "Red shadow" over the assault on racial bigotry by calling the Mobilization for Democracy a "vicious, potentially dangerous Communist front" made up of "leftwing motion picture figures" dedicated to "fomenting racial prejudice." (3)

During Reagan's first decade and a half as a motion picture actor, he associated with several organizations that attacked racial discrimination: Warner Brothers, the Army Air Force, the Hollywood-Beverly Christian Church, the American Veterans Committee, the Americans for Democratic Action, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). But "Operation Terror" marked the high point in his willingness to fight racism through such left-wing groups as Mobilization for Democracy and HICCASP. As Hollywood came under attack during the late 1940s for harboring communists, he pulled back from those groups that pushed aggressively for civil rights. He worked most actively for performers of color through the Screen Actors Guild, where he served five consecutive one-year terms as president between 1947 and 1952. Within the context of the Guild during that period he was a liberal on racial issues, to be sure. But in a broader sense his views underwent a transformation as he became increasingly anticommunist. He steered the Guild away fro m a course suggested by Walter White, the executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. By the time he stepped down as president of the Guild he had become much less willing to challenge authority over discrimination than the NAACP and many others in the civil rights movement.

Racism was deeply entrenched at the studios when Reagan began making pictures at Warner Brothers in 1937. Several of Reagan's early films--Hollywood Hotel (1938), Accidents Will Happen (1938), Sergeant Murphy (1938), Going Places (1939), Santa Fe Trail (1940), Juke Girl (1942)-stereotyped blacks as servants, Sambos, and musicians. In Hollywood Hotel they were the butt of blatant racial humor and associated with monkeys. Going Places also made a correlation between blacks and animals, comparing them to blackbirds and horses. In Santa Fe Trail, in which Reagan appeared with Errol Flynn, the actor Raymond Massey depicted the abolitionist John Brown as a deranged leader, hoping that his portrayal would remind audiences in 1940 of Adolf Hitler. Joseph Breen, who censored films for the Hays Office as the head of the Production Code Administration, warned Jack Warner that discussions about slavery would likely bring an "adverse reaction' from Southern audiences. (4)

The NAACP had long advocated better Hollywood jobs and more respectable screen images for African Americans. During the late 1920s Walter White challenged producers to use Negroes more intelligently. During World War II and after the NAACP stepped up its campaign to have blacks presented "as human beings instead of as clowns, heavies, moronic servants or as superstitious individuals scared of ghosts." In 1942 White urged producers to conquer "fears and taboos," and to abandon stereotypes so as to "lessen the load of misunderstanding from which the Negro is suffering." (5)

To all appearances the 1942 meeting made an impression. "I never thought of this," Darryl Zanuck reportedly told White, "until you presented the facts to me." The Warner brothers and other film leaders gave the impression their studios would improve. But White was perceptive enough to understand that Hollywood "acquired a new enthusiasm whenever a protagonist for a cause came to the film capital, only to lose it and acquire another as soon as a new protagonist arrived." Executives gave lip-service to racial relations but their actions suggested they were, at best, lukewarm. Zanuck and Harry Warner, for example, opposed having a black working in the Hays Office arguing that it "would savor of censorship or pressure." Carl Milliken, Will Hays' assistant, misled White by telling him that the Hays Office could do little to affect the content of films. (6)

But progress did come in the way the movies depicted black Americans and the Second World War proved a catalyst. The monopoly of Southern perspectives on Hollywood was broken. Improvement was noticeable in some films during the war. It was hardly possible for filmmakers to ignore the plight of African Americans, what with a million of them in the armed services (although segregated from other troops) and government propaganda defining the war as a struggle against a racist enemy. (7)

Jack Warner, a Polish Jew whose family had come to America at the turn of the century, cooperated with efforts to promote tolerance. After the war he had his staff compile a list of almost forty feature films made by Warner Brothers during the 1930s and early 1940s that contained "one or more powerful examples and pleas for tolerance among men." At a luncheon in 1944 for Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis, the army's first black general, he endorsed interracial understanding. In Hollywood Canteen (1944), a black quartet sang the following lyrics:

The General had a groovy crew, a million lads and I'm tellin' you there were white men, black men on the beam, a real, solid, All-American team. He had tall men, small men, fat and lean, the fightin'est crew you've ever seen. Every creed and color and every belief from an Eskimo to an Indian chief. (8)

One picture on Warner's list was Irving Berlin's This Is the Army (1943), Reagan's best-known World War II film, in which heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis played a small but prominent part. "I stopped worrin' the day I got into uniform," the Brown Bomber said. "All I know is that I'm in Uncle Sam's Army and we are on God's side." Another black in uniform followed Louis' remark by saying, "And we're right behind you, Joe." Then came a musical number, "That's What the Well-Dressed Man in Harlem Will Wear" (army khaki, of course), which featured Louis punching the speedbag, and at the end the champ marched to the front of the stage and saluted. But stereotypes died hard on the Warner Brothers lot. In the same film a minstrel number ("Mandy") featured whites in blackface. (9)

It was one thing for the government to decree that black images be improved and quite another for the directive to be executed. The problem lay in attitudes ingrained and were well-illustrated by a story involving Michael Curtiz, the Austrian-born, Hungarian-raised director. As he positioned singers and dancers in This Is the Army, he shouted: "Bring on the white soldiers!" After they had come on stage he roared: "Bring on the nigger troops!"

George Murphy approached the director. "Hold everything," he said.

"What's wrong?" Curtiz asked.

Murphy explained that "nigger" was offensive and suggested using "colored troops."

Denying he intended offense, Curtiz tried again. "Bring on the white soldiers," he instructed. Then in a bellow: "Bring on the colored niggers!" (10)

There is every reason to believe that the young Reagan, had he been listening to White's calls for better screen roles for blacks, would have been sympathetic. The racial prejudice that permeated Hollywood during the late 1930s and early 1940s contrasted sharply with Reagan's earlier home environment. His parents had opposed discrimination in an area and at a time when it was unpopular to do so. His mother, Nelle, talked about black disciples in her church and she had welcomed blacks from Reagan's college football team at Eureka into her home. No less than Nelle, Jack Reagan "believed literally that all men were created equal," his son recalled, "and...

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