I cannot recall when I first heard the name Ed Sullivan, but it certainly had to have been when I was a ghetto youth coming of age in the 1970s and 1980s. I initially connected his name with music superstars Elvis Presley and The Beatles, and their now legendary appearances on his variety show. I was intrigued by how he introduced musical guests, his mightily distinctive diction, his genuinely low-key demeanor. But I had no clue, truly, who the man was, why he was such a major force in entertainment, and why for so long, until after I reached adulthood.
That recognition likely began when I studied Black history and Black culture while in college, and in the years that followed when I became a journalist, particularly as a documentarian of music and other art forms. And by the time I was hired to be a senior writer at Quincy Jones’ Vibe magazine in the 1990s, I found myself perpetually scanning “The Ed Sullivan Show” for footage after footage of Black performers like The Jackson 5, like Mahalia Jackson, like the legit who’s who of Black genius in song, dance, film, theater, and comedy. It was almost as if Ed Sullivan had been intentionally curating Black history on television, knowing that Black lives not only mattered then, but would matter to those to come, like me.
Indeed, it was somewhere between my Vibe years and the past decade or so that I learned how invested Mr. Sullivan was in equality. Perhaps it was because, as a young man, he was a serious and great athlete, and had encountered Black folks on the sporting field as gifted as he, and it left an impression – one that taught him not to view any people as inferior, as was commonly believed in Jim Crow America, just because of the color of their skin. Perhaps it was because he was Irish and knew there was a time in this nation where there were loud proclamations that the Irish were considered the absolute bottom of the immigrant barrel. Perhaps it was because the love of his life, his wife Sylvia, was Jewish, and he saw first-hand the anti-Semitism those like her endured.
These and other factors are likely why The Ed Sullivan Show was converted into the performance arm of the Civil Rights Movement. Because he was such an icon and such an influencer, he was able to have Black artists in that theater when they were often not welcomed nor wanted elsewhere.
How else would you explain The Temptations and The Supremes doing their massive pop hits in that hallowed circle, accorded the same treatment as White musical innovators? And, yes, how else could Motown have become “the sound of young America” without allies and accomplices like Ed Sullivan?
How else do you explain Mr. Sullivan, a close friend of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the tap dancer who was once the biggest Black star in Hollywood, arranging the funeral service for a Black man who had the sad misfortune of dying broke, and doing so in a manner that suggested, strongly, this Black man was worthy of a grand send-off?
How else would you explain Mr. Sullivan, a White man, walking matter-of-factly into the yellowed and hateful teeth of racism by kissing Pearl Bailey on the cheek, or shaking the hand of Nat “King” Cole, on his TV show, knowing such gestures would savagely anger many White viewers, especially those in the American South who believed, without apology, in “For Whites Only” and “For Coloreds Only” in every way conceivable?
For sure, we know that The Ed Sullivan Show was the longest-running variety program in American TV history. We know that Mr. Sullivan became a star as big as the biggest stars he had on that program. But we also know that the Civil Rights era, roughly 1955 to 1968 – from the murder of Emmett Till and the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the assassination of Dr. King – means that Ed Sullivan had a front-row seat to the most dramatic upheavals sweeping America.
Here he was, someone who had spent considerable time digesting the Black talent in Harlem and via the “chitlin’ circuit,” with this gargantuan platform before there was social media, before there was cable or streaming, before there were all-music outlets like MTV, quite literally broadcasting Black history into the living rooms of everyday Americans year after year, from the World War II generation to the Baby Boomers, from nonviolent sit-ins and freedom rides to city after city burning in rebellion.
This is why I believe Mr. Sullivan did two things of great significance near the end of his remarkable television run. When he learned that Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the jazz multi-instrumentalist, was challenging the power structure to have more jazz on the airwaves, Mr. Sullivan did not do what others were doing: shucking and jiving and avoiding. He gave Mr. Kirk a slot with his makeshift band that included jazz giant Charles Mingus, and it remains one of the most searing and surreal mini-concerts ever seen on TV.
But history is not history if it does not also acknowledge the traumatic that happened in real-time. Two years after the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. was tragically gunned down in Memphis, America remained a divided and burning house. Yet there was a regal and soft-spoken Coretta Scott King, MLK’s widow, in that Sullivan moment, introducing clips from two of her late husband’s most famous speeches, and declaring the kind of America it needed to be. An emotionally raw Ed Sullivan greets Mrs. King at the end, kisses her on the cheek and grabs her hand, a fearless middle finger to anyone who believed, and still believes, that White people and Black people should not even touch each other, that our histories are not intertwined, when they are.
Without question, Ed Sullivan could have lived a life awash in White male privilege and power and ignored what was happening around him. Instead, he chose a path of purpose, of substance, not knowing that there would be, say, an African American like me, in a completely different century, who would religiously watch his show on YouTube and elsewhere, and see not just my people and our whole selves, with great pride and dignity, but also see what is possible if history is inextricably linked to a sense of humanity, to a great love for all.
Kevin Powell is a poet, journalist, human and civil rights activist, filmmaker, and the author of 15 books, including the poetry collection Grocery Shopping with My Mother. He is also the writer of a forthcoming biography of Tupac Shakur. Kevin lives and thrives in Brooklyn, New York.