Recently I described how during a 35-minute drive while tuned in to National Public Radio, I learned more about the life of the late Bishop Desmond Tutu than I ever had. The late Betty White was mentioned in that piece along with John Madden, Hank Aaron, Colin Powell and others who passed away last year.
But little did I — and presumably others — know about her remarkable social activist career beyond The Mary Tyler Moore and The Golden Girls TV shows. That is until I came across a timely piece by Rod T. Faulkner, “Betty White Was a True Ally.”
Betty White? Ally? Humm, it never occurred to me to put the two together.
Here are excerpts from the article. After you’ve read it, reflect for a moment on it then think about how to become an ally for someone being bullied at school/ work, providing customer service, etc., or some other personal challenge.
“Betty was one an entertainer of unparalleled talent, grace and humility. In the days to come, there will be many tributes to the phenomenal life and career of this remarkable human. Her comedic and performing genius helped to usher in the age of television in the late 40s.
Retrospectives will highlight the multiple Emmys awards and other accolades she received for her brilliant performances. Her lifelong love of animals and passion for securing their well-being will undoubtedly be honored as well. But I want to talk about a dancer, Arthur Duncan — a member of the cast featured prominently in her show.
Shortly after the show began airing, Betty received a deluge of letters from viewers in Mississippi and other states expressing outrage over the inclusion of Duncan on the show. Many states vowed to discontinue airing it. Mind you, this was in 1954, the same year the Supreme Court banned segregated schools in the historic case Brown vs. Board of Education. As a prominent entertainer, Betty faced career ruin if she refused the racist demands for her to remove Duncan from her show.
Her response? A polite, though firm and resolute “Live with it.”
In the still halcyon days of television, Betty was already forging her position as a forward-thinking pioneer. In 1954, she created, executive produced, and hosted the first of several television talk and variety shows over the decades which would bear her name. The Betty White Show featured the entertainer interviewing guests, performing skits, and singing with a live orchestra. Duncan continued on as a cast member of The Betty White Show until it was canceled after only 21 episodes.
I’m thoroughly convinced Betty’s first talk show was canceled because of her refusal to kowtow to racists. In the 1950s, she could have been blacklisted from performing in entertainment again and even her life could have been placed in very real danger. Her refusal to acquiesce to racist pressure during the era of segregation is the epitome of courage — and was decades before the buzzword “ally” was coined to describe so-called white and non-Black supporters of the African American community.
When reflecting on Betty’s steadfast support, Duncan credits her with helping him continue to carve out a groundbreaking career in show business. He went on to become the first Black member of the dance troupe for The Lawrence Welk Show. Betty was a true ally. The real deal. She held firm to her beliefs despite the risk of enormous loss to her both personally and professionally Unlike the majority of so-called allies today, who only express solidarity with the Black community’s continual fight against racism when it doesn’t cost them anything.
It’s easy to proclaim being an ally when you feel all that is required of you is to wear a safety pin, post a black square on social media, or go buy antiracism books which go unread so you can boast about how your consciousness has been raised. In the end, modern allyship is all smoke and mirrors. Bombast and performative artifice with no substance.
Betty White, though? Yeah, she proved what true allyship looks like. She stood her ground despite fierce racist opposition to Duncan’s hiring. Then, she went on to build one of the most lauded and enduring careers in entertainment — all a testament to her undeniable brilliance, talent, integrity, and compassion.
Betty has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the most gracious and funny humans to share the planet with us. In addition to that, she also possessed a backbone of steel and was unafraid to champion causes she felt strongly about. While I will join the rest of the world in celebrating this amazing human’s life and the valuable gift of laughter she imparted to us, I will also remember when she refused to cave in to racism. Instead, she chose to use her privilege and position to uplift someone who had very little of both.”
A parting quote (source unknown): “There are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally.”
So, make a commitment to become that one ally to someone … and tell “outraged” others to live with it!
Terry Howard is an award-winning writer and storyteller, a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The Douglas County Sentinel, The BlackMarket.com, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers’ guild, and recipient of the Dr. Martin Luther King Leadership Award.