With February being Black History Month, here is a look at how The Ed Sullivan Show helped break through the color barriers of network television and the entertainment industry.
One of the most important contributions Ed Sullivan will be remembered for is how he bucked the system and embraced African-American performers helping promote them to a national television audience. When faced with criticism by white viewers and advertisers, Ed Sullivan refused to back down. Ed never wavered when southern sponsors threatened to pull advertisements because he kissed Pearl Bailey on the cheek or shook hands with Nat King Cole. He refused to listen to bigoted critics who claimed that he booked too many African American artists or that African American musicians shouldn’t be backed by white bands. Ed Sullivan once responded to all these saying, “The most important thing is that we’ve put on everything but bigotry.”
Ed Sullivan supported talent with a passion, regardless of race, which allowed him to introduce his audiences to so many timeless legends over the show’s 23 year run. Many fans of the show recall the Motown acts like The Supremes and The Temptations, but The Ed Sullivan Show included African American artists and performers of every genre. From comedians Richard Pryor and Flip Wilson to athletes Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. From civil rights activists Coretta Scott King to Hollywood actress Dorothy Dandridge. From opera singer Marian Anderson to composer Count Basie. From jazz legends Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong to Broadway performers Pearl Bailey and Carol Channing. The list of talented African American artists that appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show goes on and on.
The Ed Sullivan Show defied the ignorant attitudes of the times and promoted diversity in living rooms throughout the country. Ed Sullivan, the man, upheld these same values of equality in his personal life. He formed close friendships with many of the African American artists who came on his show including lifetime bonds with Louis Armstrong (Ed was a pall bearer at Armstrong’s funeral), and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (Ed covered all the expenses for the legendary dancer’s Harlem funeral).