P. Jay Sidney: The Heroic Actor Who Fought to Integrate Early TV

Sidney Route 66

P. Jay Sidney, who was born as Sidney Parhm Jr. on April 8, 1916 in Virginia, was a groundbreaking actor who fought to help integrate television starting in the 1950s. He often was relegated to small walk-on parts such as doormen and waiters.  But the African-American actor also played some substantial parts as he struggled to both make a living and to fight against the racism of the times.

Sidney’s Acting Career

Sidney started out with a career on stage and on radio.  But then he began making a living in TV starting in 1951.  He garnered some substantial roles such as that of Private Palmer on The Phil Silvers Show.

Sidney continued to take what roles he could get.  He appeared in more than one-hundred and seventy shows. He also did voice-over work and took roles in advertisements, such as Waxin Jackson in Ajax commercials.

Sidney’s Battle Against Discrimination

Sidney’s activism was fueled by the discrimination he saw in the limited roles given to African-American actors. He marched. And he advocated for a boycott against Lever Brothers for only using black talent for commercials aimed at African-Americans. He testified before the U.S. House of Representatives in 1962. He picketed. And he spoke out when he saw discrimination and encouraged others to do the same.

A December 7, 2015 article in The New Yorker, “American Untouchable,” by Emily Nussbaum discusses some of the toll that the discrimination took on Sidney.  His story is also recounted in Donald Bogle’s book, Primetime Blues. As in the case of baseball player Jackie Robinson, one may see that standing up to racism is not easy.

But as in the case of Robinson, we need to remember P. Jay Sidney.  He was a dignified man who did a job while also standing up for something greater.

Below, Sidney plays a small role as a doctor in a 1961 episode of Route 66, “Goodnight Sweet Blues.” In this opening clip of the episode, you may see Sidney at around the 3:16 mark, as a family doctor getting some assistance from a white cardiologist.

Sidney never got to see equal representation of African-American actors on TV or in Hollywood.  But he helped us take an early step toward that destination. Moses never made it to the Promised Land, and Sidney’s final role in a movie was playing a bellman in A Kiss Before Dying (1991).

Yet, other actors, like Ossie Davis recognized that they were able to get jobs because of Sidney’s activism. Sidney passed away on September 30, 1996, and while an increase in television channels has created more opportunities for non-white actors, Sidney’s legacy can be seen in critiques like the recent Oscar So White campaign in Hollywood.

Sidney’s battle, which is a battle for all of us, continues.

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    The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and “We Shall Overcome”

    Civil Rights Act On July 2 in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The important act, which had survived heated discussion in the Senate and the House of Representatives, made racial segregation in public places illegal.

    The law had an even broader impact.  It also prohibited discrimination on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin in schools and in employment.

    The Signing

    President Johnson, who worked hard to push through the legislation after President John F. Kennedy’s death, used more than 75 pens to sign the legislation. He gave out the pens to many people who helped with the bill, including Martin Luther King, Jr. King later said the pen was one of his most cherished possessions.

    The video below features President Johnson giving the pen to King. It also includes some of Johnson’s speech before the signing.

    “We Shall Overcome”

    One of the songs that played a significant role in the civil rights movement was “We Shall Overcome.” The song developed from an African-American hymn first used as a protest song by striking tobacco workers in 1945.

    “We Shall Overcome” grew to help inspire changes that shook the world. Many continue to recognize its importance. In recognition of the song’s role in the civil rights movement, for the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, members of Congress joined hands and sang the song.

    The video below is from a recording by a number of artists — including John Legend, Joss Stone and The Blind Boys of Alabama — for Soundtrack for a Revolution (2011), an album of songs from the civil rights movement.

    One of the artists who helped popularize the song was folksinger Pete Seeger.  In this video, Seeger explains the history behind the song.

    Of course, the Civil Rights Act did not end racial discrimination.  But it was an important step in the ongoing process.

    One of the reasons “We Shall Overcome” is a great song is its timelessness. It is not a song of “we have overcome” about past accomplishments.  It is a song that reminds us that there are always more struggles ahead of us to overcome. And we shall.


    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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