Dick Clark’s American Bandstand Didn’t Originally Allow Black Dancers

The famed Philly TV show is often touted as a standard of racially integrated programming, but a new book says just the opposite.

Dick Clark’s a fraud.

On the face of it, a harsh charge, particularly given that Clark, now 82, once omnipresent on our TV screens, is now seen only fleetingly (and maybe not fleetingly enough) only on New Year’s Eve, due to a massive stroke seven years ago.

Harsh though it may be, a new book, by California professor Matt Delmont—The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950’s Philadelphia—calls out Clark for being just that.

The book asserts that Clark, a multimillionaire, has continuously promoted Bandstand as racially pioneering, and himself as an early civil rights trailblazer, when in fact he was the host of a show that banned Philadelphia black kids from appearing on TV.

Clark was the host of American Bandstand in the late ‘50s through the mid-‘60s.  A daily dance show, Bandstand was the first national TV program directed at teenagers and starring teenagers. Because it emanated from here (the studios were at 46th and Market), the show put Philadelphia at the epicenter of national youth culture.

But like most things in the ‘50s, Bandstand’s gussied up happy days persona didn’t extend to people of color.

Delmont, a professor of Americans Studies at Scripps College, sorted through old interviews and clips, census data and looked at countless Bandstand photographs. He learned of Bandstand’s surroundings by conducting extensive research into the volatile and not very welcoming housing and civic policies of the West Philadelphia neighborhood where the TV show aired. He read what the Bandstand host had said over the years about the show in biographies and interviews. In the end he concluded that Clark had created an unchallenged myth that the show had promoted integration, when in fact it had done just the opposite.

For years, black teens had been reporting to the Philadelphia Tribune that Bandstand staffers were turning them away from the studio. “The show’s producers denied that they had a white-only policy, but the black teenagers who tried to get into the studio were always excluded for some reason,” Delmont writes. “Some were told that they lacked a membership card, others that they did not meet the dress code, and others that the studio was full.”

The evidence piles up. Thousands of pictures turned up only two photos of black kids. Delmont reports that between 1958 and 1963, the Philadelphia Tribune had published seven editorials or letters to the editor regarding Bandstand’s exclusion of black teens—including a December 1958 column that sent Christmas greetings to Dick Clark, wishing him a “new attitude toward Negro children which will permit them to be welcomed to his show.”

Delmont says Clark’s initial reference to the show’s “integration” came in 1976, when Bandstand was competing with Soul Train for performers, viewers and advertisers. Recalling Bandstand’s integration underscored the show’s support for black music and culture. Clark, he says, would also always present Bandstand within the context of the national civil rights movement, which evades the specific local history surrounding Bandstand’s years in Philadelphia—“as well as the anti-black racism in Philadelphia and nationally” that motivated the show’s discrimination.

American Bandstand is part of the civil rights story,” concludes Delmont, “but not in the way Clark suggests.