The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock’n’Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia by Matthew F. Delmont. University of California Press (294 pp.)
- “I don’t think of myself as a hero or civil rights activist for integrating the show,” said the late American Bandstand host Dick Clark, “it was simply the right thing to do.” In this revealing account, Scripps College historian Delmont demonstrates that the historical record contradicts Clark’s memory of integration. While insisting that the popular dance show’s admissions policy was color-blind, the program’s producer’s “repeatedly denied admission to black teenagers” during its Philadelphia years, writes the author. The show’s wide success depended on “both the creative energies of black performers and the erasure of black teenagers.”
- Published before Clark’s recent death, the book points up the “vexed relationship” between history and memory. From the late 1970s, Clark claimed that he integrated the show’s studio audience when he became the host in 1957. In fact, black teenagers protested the show’s discriminatory policies, which reflected anti-black racism in Philadelphia and across the country. During the period, families living near American Bandstand’s Philadelphia studio fought to maintain all-white neighborhoods, and local school officials maintained a system of segregation. To be sure, Clark showcased a wide range of the latest music, including the work of black artists from the Coasters, the Drifters, and the Impressions, to James Brown and Aretha Franklin. But African American teens never appeared on the dance floor until the show left Philadelphia for Hollywood in 1964.
- Long after American Bandstand’s commercial peak, its alleged role as a player in the civil rights struggle continues to dominate popular thinking. Says a Life Books tribute to Clark published after his death in April 2012: “It has been said that Bandstand presented to many Baby Boomers on a daily basis the first look at what a racially integrated, hopeful, energetic United States of American could be.” Delmont’s book explores the complexities and realities of American Bandstand in the early Clark years and properly credits the smiling white-bread disk jockey with making the then-threatening driving beat of rock’n’roll music and its black performers palatable to mainstream America.