Saturday, March 17, 2012

Matthew F. Delmont's "The Nicest Kids in Town"

Matthew F. Delmont is Assistant Professor of American Studies at Scripps College.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock 'n' Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia, and reported the following:
I love the Page 99 Test for The Nicest Kids in Town because it highlights an important part of the book that I fear most readers and reviewers will overlook. The “struggle for civil rights” mentioned in the subtitle is not just a struggle over the segregation on American Bandstand, it is also about the fights over housing discrimination and, as noted on page 99, school segregation. The epigraph for the third chapter, “The de Facto Dilemma: Fighting Segregation in Philadelphia Public Schools,” is a quote from Allen Wetter, Superintendent of Philadelphia Schools, that reappears on page 99: “What has been called by certain groups ‘de facto segregation’ in some schools has not been the result of policy by The Board of Public Education. [T]he record of the progress of the Philadelphia Public Schools in the integration movement is among the best, if not the best of those of the great cities of the Nation.” When the Philadelphia School Board published Wetter’s “For Every Child: The Story of Integration in the Philadelphia Public Schools” in 1960, it was the latest and most public rejoinder to the civil rights advocates who criticized the board for failing to address school segregation through the 1950s. While everyone in Philadelphia could see that public schools were becoming more racial segregated, the school board refused to back down from the de facto rationale that school segregation was the result of private housing decisions for which the board had no power or responsibility.

Page 99 also mentions Jewish civil rights leader Maurice Fagan and black educational activist Floyd Logan who, along with black deejay and civil rights activist Georgie Woods, worked to make civil rights a front page issue in Philadelphia.

This fight over school segregation in crucial to my analysis of American Bandstand, because the show influenced and was influenced by racial discrimination and civil rights activism in the city’s neighborhoods and schools. Like American Bandstand’s producers, the Philadelphia school board opposed meaningful integration while claiming to hold color-blind, non discriminatory policies. And like Allen Wetter, American Bandstand’s host Dick Clark later claimed that “in 1957, we were charting new territory” by integrating American Bandstand (189). By looking at schools and television together, then, The Nicest Kids in Town highlights how difficult it was to uproot de facto segregation and how difficult it remains for some people to acknowledge this history.
Learn more about the book and author at The Nicest Kids in Town website.

--Marshal Zeringue