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.