Legislating morality has long been the objective of statist puritans. Such policymakers believe passing laws will suddenly eradicate a problem that plagues society and culture, from the alcohol prohibition of the 1920s to the war on drugs in the 1970s to the racism of today. Through a myriad of legislative blitzkriegs, the tale goes, lawmakers will remove the stain on society and impose goodwill on all mankind. But, as history has shown, the government is usually late to the improve-society party and often has the audacity to take credit for hosting the shindig.
Perhaps no better example of this is the arc of race relations in the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. While the government was busy segregating and treating 10% of the population as second-class citizens, the marketplace was breaking down color barriers and creating opportunities for blacks.
The Jazz Age of the 1920s doesn’t get enough credit for surmounting the black-white divide that afflicted much of America. Indeed, just about everyone remembers Louis Armstrong’s sound, Miles Davis’ innovations, and Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher.” But most are completely unaware of how black musicians made history by playing and appearing on stage with white swing bands.
The 1930s turned out to be a monumental decade for race relations in America. Legendary clarinetist Benny Goodman hired Teddy Wilson to play the piano, Lionel Hampton to play the vibraphone, and Charlie Christian to play the electric guitar. Not only did these men perform in front of swinging cats inside the Hotel Pennsylvania and radio audiences for the Camel Caravan but also they entertained the serious audiences at Carnegie Hall.
As Wilson told the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies in 1979, racial mixing turned out to be “an asset”:
“As a matter of fact, it was an asset, the racial mixing. The interest in the United States was just tremendous. And the public was so for the thing. Not one negative voice in any audience that we ever heard — just tremendous enthusiasm. The jazz fans were like — they were just hungry for this sort of thing.”
Goodman appreciated black music, and he wanted to spread it around – making a handsome sum in the process.
Black musicians weren’t just band members; they led groups to stardom as well. Duke Ellington is synonymous with jazz, and it was always that way, even in the genre’s infancy. Others were recognized and revered for their instrumental abilities — such as Jelly Roll Morton, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Coleman Hawkins, Fats Waller — and the list goes on.
Of course, who could forget about the history made by singers Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald? Lady Day got her first big break by providing vocals for Benny Goodman, while the First Lady of Song was acclaimed for her incredible singing as part of the Chick Webb Orchestra. When he died, she took over the band, renamed it Ella and Her Famous Orchestra, and produced dozens of hits. Both women were integral to the pop music of the 1950s when they were at Verve.
The motion picture industry was another aspect of society that proved instrumental for blacks.
Hollywood afforded black thespians and filmmakers innumerable prospects, beginning in the silent era and throughout the early years of the talkie generation. While the entertainment industry did embrace the minstrel variety, the studios also gave the green light to all-black projects, and actors got serious or prominent parts in major films that featured the likes of Clark Gable, Jack Benny, Humphrey Bogart, and Claudette Colbert.
During the Golden Age of cinema, the silver screen produced such pioneering stars as director Oscar Micheaux, singer Dorothy Dandridge, comedian Eddie Anderson, and actor James Edwards. Hattie McDaniel made history for being the first black Oscar winner for her role in Gone With the Wind. Through their body of work, these men and women were able to break away from the over-the-top characters famously played by Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best.
The same trends were found on the stage, with Orson Welles directing all-black productions of Shakespeare plays, including Macbeth. Many cast members, such as Canada Lee, would go on to find success in Hollywood and always credited Welles for helping their careers.
“I never would have amounted to anything in the theatre if it hadn’t been for Orson Welles. The way I looked at acting, it was interesting and it was certainly better than going hungry. But I didn’t have a serious approach to it until … I bumped into Orson Welles. He was putting on a Federal Theatre production of Macbeth with Negro players and, somehow, I won the part of Banquo. He rehearsed us for six solid months, but when the play finally went on before an audience, it was right — and it was a wonderful sensation, knowing it was right. Suddenly, the theatre became important to me. I had a respect for it, for what it could say. I had the ambition — I caught it from Orson Welles — to work like mad and be a convincing actor.”
All these laid the groundwork for today’s acting legends like Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington.
Was Hollywood being philanthropic? No, it tried to generate publicity, cater to a certain segment of the market, and find talent of the present and future to boost audience numbers. This was all done to make a buck, but the indirect benefit was connecting white moviegoers with black talents.
Many conservatives and libertarians correctly contend that there is no greater system for minorities than free market capitalism. Why? This system cares only about one color: green. Even the biggest white supremacist in the world who drapes himself in white cloth and calls himself a grand wizard is subject to the laws of economics. Entrepreneurs J. Dallas Bowser and Philip Payton Jr. exploited this fact in the early 20th century.
This system cares only about one color: green.
When blacks were left to their own devices, whether in education or in entertainment, they survived and thrived in a society still steeped in racial prejudice. Yet, whenever the government intervened – either against or on behalf of minorities – any gains made were pared by the state. Affirmative action, school busing, and other “pet projects of middle-class liberals,” as the great Thomas Sowell wrote, were instances of one step forward and two steps back.
As is always the case, the free market was ahead of the government, including on race. Although there was still plenty of backward thinking in pockets of the country, it was evident that the marketplace was ready, willing, and able to move beyond the subservience of “yes, boss” to the jazzy Cotton Club, the bouncy boogie-woogie, and the Micheaux film The Exile.
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