You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Jesse Jackson: Hugh Hefner Was Ahead of His Time in Support of Racial Equality

The room was packed with heavy hitters and beautiful people — business executives, celebrities, civic leaders, journalists and the pipe-smoking host of the evening, Hugh Hefner. Hefner had invited me to his magical mansion on the Near North Side of Chicago that winter night in 1972 to talk, as a local reporter put it at the time, “politics, prejudice, and poverty.”

It was a conversation near and dear to his heart. A few months before, I had founded Operation PUSH — People United to Save Humanity (now the Rainbow PUSH Coalition). From the beginning, Hef was a strong supporter of PUSH. And long before it was fashionable for white liberals to get involved, Hefner opened the pages of his magazine to black writers and his checkbook to the civil rights movement. His commitment to racial justice is a story that should be much better known.

Alex Haley, who went on to write the international blockbuster “Roots,” first became a star in the pages of Playboy with a string of sweeping interviews of American giants, including Miles Davis, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Playboy also dispatched Haley to interview George Lincoln Rockwell, the leader of the American Nazi Party, who kept a pistol on his desk during the entire session. He could not believe Playboy would send a black man to interview him.

My first interview with the magazine appeared in 1969, about 19 months after Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis. It was a raw and painful time. Dr. King was dead. Bobby Kennedy was dead and youths in Vietnam were being slaughtered.

I told Playboy that I initially thought after the murder in Memphis that “Dr. King’s death ended America’s last chance to be redeemed.”

“But it is not for us to determine the chances of redemption,” I said. “There are still people being born with hope, still people fighting with hope. God has not yet damned this country, though one may wonder how long the wicked will prosper.”

The second time I was interviewed in Playboy was when I was running for president in 1984. In the days before social media, Playboy was a crucial platform that reached millions of readers and potential contributors to the freedom struggle.

Hefner identified with that struggle. When it came to civil rights, he was on the right side of history. He was a change agent and a risk taker for racial equality and justice. In the early 1960s, black folks were America’s untouchables in so many ways. We were segregated and shunned by law in the South and by custom in the North in cities such as Chicago, one of the nation’s most segregated big cities.

Hef reached across the color line of fear and indifference.

He helped Dr. King make payroll. He held fundraisers at the mansion for the Urban League, the NAACP and Operation Breadbasket, the economic arm of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Dr. King appointed me to lead Breadbasket in 1966, a position I held until I started PUSH in December of 1971. Every step of the way, Hef was there.

Very few whites associated with blacks publicly. But Hef opened his nightclubs to African-American performers and patrons. He featured black entertainers on his television shows at a time when the airways were as segregated as every other aspect of American life. We take it for granted now, but in those days such social interaction was a big deal — a very big deal. He helped move the country a little closer to racial healing. We aren’t there yet, but Hef did his part.

In 1961, Hef gave the career of comedian and activist Dick Gregory a tremendous push when he hired him to perform at the Chicago Playboy Club. Gregory was one of the first black comics to work a major white nightclub. The gig, the Chicago Daily Defender reported, “catapulted” him “to overnight success.”

When Hef learned that Playboy Club franchises in New Orleans and Miami refused to admit blacks, he bought back the clubs. “We are outspoken foes of segregation,” he wrote. “We are actively involved in the fight to see the end of all racial inequalities in our time.”

Three years later, Hef gave Dick Gregory $25,000 to use as reward money in the search for the bodies of slain civil rights workers, Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, buried in the soil and misery of Mississippi.

Beyond the Playboy narrative, Hugh Hefner was a serious man, who cared about the environment, marched against the Vietnam War, advocated for free speech and was a committed ally in the fight to tear down the walls of segregation and racial oppression.

His contributions to the civil rights movement cannot be denied. In so many ways, he was ahead of his time.

More Biz

  • 'Roxanne' Singer Arizona Zervas Signs With

    'Roxanne' Singer Arizona Zervas Signs With Columbia

    Hotly tipped singer-songwriter Arizona Zervas, whose viral hit “Roxanne” is in the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100,  has signed with Columbia, Variety has confirmed. Since the release of the track on Oct. 10, “Roxanne” has reached nearly 50 million streams on Spotify. The single topped Spotify U.S. top tracks chart for an uninterrupted [...]

  • Jax Media at Variety New Leaders

    Jax Media Accepts Variety's Creative Leadership Award at New Leaders Cocktail Party

    This year’s Variety New Leaders event, presented by City National Bank, honored innovative visionaries in entertainment. The cocktail party was hosted on a chilly Thursday night in Lower Manhattan’s Jimmy Rooftop Bar at the James Hotel. Patrick McCarthy, senior VP and head of marketing for City National Bank, kicked off the event highlighting the new [...]

  • taylor swift, scott borchetta and scooter

    Rage Against the Big Machine: What's Driving the Taylor Swift Showdown

    The latest Taylor Swift-Scooter Braun-Scott Borchetta kerfuffle involves the sort of music business minutiae that doesn’t commonly interest the general public — in fact, it’s probably safe to say that untold thousands if not millions of people are suddenly familiar with the concept of re-recording old masters. But in blasting Braun on social media and [...]

  • Redbox

    Redbox Settles Disney Suit, Agrees Not to Sell Download Codes

    Redbox has settled its litigation with Disney, agreeing not to resell codes that allow customers to download movies. Redbox has traditionally offered DVDs for rent through its distinctive kiosks. In October 2017, the company also began offering download codes at a considerable discount compared to the price on iTunes, Amazon or other services. Redbox did [...]

  • Shari Redstone: ViacomCBS 'Can Compete With

    Shari Redstone: ViacomCBS 'Can Compete With the Best of Them'

    Shari Redstone is emphatic: ViacomCBS has plenty of resources and the scale to compete in the new world order for media giants. “We absolutely have enough scale,” Redstone said Friday morning during her Q&A held as part of the Paley Center for Media’s International Council Summit in New York. “We have an incredible library. We [...]

  • Taylor Swift

    Taylor Swift Denies Big Machine's Claims Over Song Use, 'Millions' in Debt

    In the latest salvo in a rapidly evolving media battle that has evolved over the past 15 hours, Taylor Swift refuted Big Machine Records’ claim that the company did not try to block her from using material from her early albums, which are owned by the label, in forthcoming television specials. Swift had leveled those [...]

  • Taylor SwiftTeen Choice Awards, Arrivals, Los

    Big Machine Records Denies Taylor Swift's Claims of Blocking Music Use

    UPDATED: In a statement issued early Friday morning, Big Machine Records denied Taylor Swift’s claims that they are blocking the use of her music. Swift had said in social media posts late Thursday that her former record company, which is run by Scott Borchetta and his new partner Scooter Braun, are trying to nix her plans for [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content