They Broke Their Backs Lifting Moloch to Heaven

In comments from our earlier thread, Tanner Colby sends this along. Colby is working on a history of racial integration humorously titled, Some of My Best Friends Are Black. Here are his thoughts on race and Mad Men:


As someone writing a book on the subject currently, I can say that the show's representation is dead on. The first black man to work on Madison avenue was Clarence Holte at BBDO in the early fifties, but he was hired only to work on 'the negro markets' (i.e., funneling mainstream advertising into black newspapers, etc.) The first black man hired to work on general-market advertising (i.e., 'white' advertising) was Roy Eaton who started at Young & Rubicam in 1955. For a looooong time, he was the only one, the Jackie Robinson, so to speak.

The NAACP and CORE made some faltering attempts to get black hires on Madison Avenue in April of 1963 in the wake of the Birmingham marches, but it went nowhere. It wasn't until 1968, in the wake of the riots over MLK's assassination and the threat of a lawsuit from the New York City Commission on Human Rights that the industry finally even acknowledged that the Civil-Rights movement had come to its doorstep.


What happened then was that the industry literally went out canvassing at colleges and high schools and hired as many black employees as they could find. some agencies hired upwards of 100 black employees in the space of nine months, just to satisfy the legal demands. The problem then became that the industry had hired hundreds of employees and didn't know what to do with them. There was no upward mobility for them because all the Peggys and Don Drapers weren't giving up any of their turf. 

So many of the new black hires formed their own advocacy group (GAP, the Group for Advertising Progress) to lobby for greater respect/promotion/opportunity. And once that happened the industry froze them out, because as someone noted above, business is business. The don drapers had no need for politicking in their midst, and most of the blacks who spoke up got frozen out. 

My guess is that we'll see race blow up in a big way in 68-69, and it'll be on a slow burn until then--as is historically accurate.

It strikes me that what may be making a lot of us uncomfortable is that, for the first time, we are confronted with invisibility of black people to a certain class of Americans. White Southerners, whatever their racial problems, never had the luxury of rendering black people invisible--at least not in the same way.

Moreover, we are used to stock characters presented when we talk about the 60s and Civil Rights--hate-filled bigots and angelic, suffering Negroes. Mad Men confronts us with a broad apathetic middle, people who, at best, vaguely sympathize with black people, and at worse just don't much care, and at all events, resent being forced to make a choice on such issues. There's something very human about that to me, about the desire for most people to just "make it go away." 

At the same time, it must be uncomfortable to be confronted with the fact that this country was basically undergoing a second revolution, and characters whom we've come to care about didn't much care. I don't say to condemn. I don't see any reason why they'd be any different. My Dad often quotes a friend who says "The African's right to be wrong is sacred." Indeed. And so it is with all people. Very few of us are Lester Maddox. Fewer still are Martin Luther King. Mostly, we're just trying to live.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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