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.
On June 15, 1920, residents of Duluth, Minnesota lynched three African-American circus workers: Isaac McGhie, Elias Clayton and Elmer Jackson. An 8-year-old child named Abraham Zimmerman lived in Duluth at the time. And he grew up to have a son named Robert, who would later become famous with the name Bob Dylan. So, the lynching that Zimmerman witnessed eventually played a role in what American Songwriter has called Dylan’s sixth greatest song of all time.
Abe Zimmerman taught his son about the lynching. The lesson was similar to the way Woody Guthrie’s father told him about a lynching he had witnessed (that similarly inspired Guthrie to write an excellent song). Zimmerman’s story of the lynching in Minnesota and its aftermath eventually provided the imagery for the opening of Dylan’s “Desolation Row.”
The Crime and Arrests
In 1920, McGhie, Clayton, and Jackson worked with the John Robinson Circus as cooks or laborers. On the morning of June 15, James Sullivan called the police. He told them that one night earlier his eighteen-year-old son and his son’s nineteen-year-old companion Irene Tusken had been held at gunpoint. Sullivan reported that his son told him that Tusken had been raped.
Reportedly, there was no physical evidence of the rape. But the Duluth police rounded up around 150 circus workers. Then, the police asked the teens to identify the attackers among the circus workers.
Six African-American men were arrested — including McGhie, Clayton, and Jackson. Then, tensions rose in the community. Newspapers reported on the arrests and rumors spread around town.
Eventually, a mob of 6,000-10,000 stormed into the jail. They met little or no resistance from the police. They broke into the cells where they could, and they took McGhie, Clayton, and Jackson.
First, the mob beat and hanged Isaac McGhie from a lamp post, despite the objections of a priest. Then, they similarly beat and hanged Elmer Jackson and Elias Clayton.
The Minnesota National Guard arrived the next day to protect the three remaining prisoners. But they were too late to help McGhie, Clayton, and Jackson.
Three men in the mob were convicted of rioting. Each served less than 15 months in prison. Nobody was convicted of murder.
Seven of the remaining circus laborers were indicted for rape, and one man was convicted. Further, eventually it came out that Sullivan’s teen-aged son had made up the story of the rape that had set everything in motion.
As was the case with many lynchings of African-Americans during the early twentieth century, photos of the lynching were taken and sent as postcards. The photo features Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie, both shirtless, hanging from the street light with Elias Clayton’s body on the sidewalk,. Members of the mob lean in to be part of the photo. Part of the photo is at the top of this post, but you may see the entire photo postcard here (warning: graphic image).
Bob Dylan was born only 21 years after the lynching, and so he may have seen the photo postcards that circulated in the area. Thus, he begins his epic song “Desolation Row” with a reference to these photographs.
They’re selling postcards of the hanging; They’re painting the passports brown; The beauty parlor is filled with sailors; The circus is in town.
The song continues, perhaps with “the blind commissioner” being a reference to the failures of the police to protect the three men. Of course, it is generally impossible to interpret every line of a Dylan song.
Yet, it is clear that the lynching is the jumping off point as Dylan delves into a number of themes. “Desolation Row” continues with references to the circus imagery that provided the setting for the Duluth lynching.
Here comes the blind commissioner, They’ve got him in a trance; One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, The other is in his pants; And the riot squad they’re restless, They need somewhere to go; As Lady and I look out tonight From Desolation Row.
“Desolation Row” features some of Dylan’s greatest images, including the opening about the postcards of the hanging. In the book Keys to the Rain: The Definitive Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Oliver Trager describes the song as “science fiction noir where mythology and history’s heroes and heels lurk in the shadows of every alleyway.” He concludes that the song “is perhaps the the most nightmarish vision in Dylan’s canon.”
It remains a mystery whether the three lynched men had committed any crime or whether the story was completely fabricated by the teen-aged boy. Race played a significant role in the lynching, and even today in typical criminal cases we know that eyewitness testimony is generally unreliable.
The 1920 lynching, either way, was certainly a tragedy. Mob mentality and racial animosity took the lives of the three men.
Historically, lynchings occurred most often in the South against African-American men. But it was not unusual for lynchings to take place in the North. There were at least 219 people lynched in northern states from 1889 to 1918. Although times have changed, we still see echoes of these acts of racial violence in the news today.
The Duluth lynching, in particular, has haunted those connected to it in various ways. The great-grandson of one of the Duluth lynchers wrote a book several years ago called The Lyncher In Me.
And Dylan’s “Desolation Row” is another kind of postcard of the hanging. In the song, the lynching image mingles with other pictures that continue to haunt old and new listeners.
Partial photo of lynching via public domain. Leave your two cents in the comments.
After a period of speculation about who might replace Alexander Hamilton on the ten-dollar bill, the U.S. Treasury listened to Americans. What they wanted was to keep the founding father and recent Broadway star on the ten-spot and instead dump Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill. And the person they wanted to replace Andrew Jackson, a populist president who supported pro-slavery policies and is associated with mistreatment of Native Americans, was Harriet Tubman, a former slave who used her freedom to help other slaves escape, help the Union win the Civil War, and help other good causes such as women’s suffrage.
Tubman was born Araminta “Minty” Ross to parents who were held as slaves around March 1822 in Dorchester County, Maryland. She grew to adulthood as a slave, eventually in her late 20’s escaping from slavery on her own following a failed attempt with her brothers. Tubman then spent more than a decade helping other slaves escape through the Underground Railroad, often at great risk to herself. Frederick Douglass once wrote in a letter that he knew of nobody except John Brown who had put themselves at more personal risk in the fight against slavery than Harriet Tubman.
When the Civil War broke out, Tubman gave her services to the Union, working in a variety of ways, including as a nurse and as a scout. Someone should make a super hero movie about her.
For a short 7-minute bio of Harriet Tubman, check out the following video. Such a short video does not come close to capturing the extent of her life, but it is a decent overview.
For a longer documentary about Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad, check out this History Channel documentary. Below is part one.
And here is part two of Harriet Tubman & the Underground Railroad.
The more you learn about Tubman, the more it makes sense to give her a national honor like putting her on the twenty-dollar bill. Looking back on her amazing life, though, it does raise one question. What took so long?
Leave your twenty dollars in the comments. Photo via public domain.
Those who remember The Merv Griffin Show, which ran on TV in various forms from 1962 to 1986, remember that Merv Griffin often had interesting conversations with guests from a number of fields, not just entertainment. In 1967, Griffin sat down with Martin Luther King Jr. to discuss the Civil Rights Movement.
In the segment, King joins Griffin and actor-activist Harry Belafonte in some discussion of King’s life, family, and the state of the world in 1967. We often hear King giving emotional speeches, but it is interesting to hear King laughing and talking in a relaxed conversation. Check it out.
Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Leave your two cents in the comments. Image via YouTube.
On April 14, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech at Stanford University. During this time, which was about one year before King’s death, Dr. King’s movement addressed a range of issues, including race, Vietnam, poverty, and economic justice. This speech at Stanford would become known as “The Other America” speech, and King would continue to give various speeches on the theme for the next year.
In the speech, King explained: “But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the ebulliency of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this America millions of work-starved men walk the streets daily in search for jobs that do not exist. In this America millions of people find themselves living in rat-infested, vermin-filled slums. In this America people are poor by the millions. They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
Yet, near the end of the speech, King still spoke of hope. “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward Justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right, “No lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right, “Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne — Yet that scaffold sways the future.” With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”