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When the obituary of Betty White was announced on 31 December 2021, the world stood still for a television icon and renowned actress.
The television pioneer enjoyed an illustrious career spanning over eight decades was laden with success. To date, she is recognized as one of the first women to work in the entertainment industry – and was undoubtedly the longest-serving.
White passed on just a few days to what would have been her 100th birthday celebration, and social media was flooded with eulogies and gratitude. Fans and entertainment enthusiasts around the world showered accolades and recalled the many successes the icon achieved during her time on earth.
However, one section of society that perhaps did not too enough to appreciate the icon in the Black community – and sadly so.
Betty White deserved a proper induction as an African activist for her decision to feature a Black dancer, Arthur Duncan, in her show in 1954 when segregation against Blacks was in full force. The television star would later be kicked off the show for refusing to keep Duncan out of the show. If this isn’t a great act of activism and support for Black integration, what is?
White’s decision to damn the odds and retain Arthur Duncan on her show despite the possibility of losing the golden opportunity of having a show deserves commendation.
Reacting to the situation, a critic accused Black Civil Rights groups and Blacks alike for what he called a ‘stereotyped-kind of thinking’, saying Blacks were accustomed to African activists being African.
What Truly Transpired in 1954?
In the 1950s, Betty White hosted a popular show called the “The Betty White Show.” It was a top-rated show on television as entertainment lovers all over the globe were glued.
However, it was a time when segregation against people of colour was at the forefront of the social fabric in the American society. Yet, Betty White went ahead to feature Arthur Duncan, a Black dancer on her show – and resisted attempts and threats from the high and mighty to get him off the show.
White was in her usual coming, and witty nature politely declined to get Duncan off the show, saying, “I’m sorry, but, you know, he stays,” as quoted in a PBS biography.
Despite the pressure and threats from television stations and stakeholders, White continued to use Duncan in her shows until the show was canceled in 1954.
In a 2017 interview with Steve Harvey, Duncan himself acknowledged that Betty gave him his first job on television at a time when no one would hire him due to the colour of his skin.
“I was on the show, and they had some letters out of Mississippi and elsewhere that some of the stations would not carry the show if I was permitted to stay on there,” the then-83-year-old said.
“Well, Betty wrote back and said, ‘Needless to say, we used Arthur Duncan every opportunity we could.”
Why Does Betty White Deserve an Apology?
Betty White is many things and a woman with many feathers on her cap, but that cap misses the feather that recognizes her as an activist against racism – and rightly so.
The white supremacists could not phantom how a White American – by the name ‘White’, would feature a ‘negro’ on a show that was watched by millions of people across America.
White denied her obvious roots and refused to bow to the pressure of racism despite the apparent consequences. What else does the Black community need as a yardstick to induct and celebrate her as an activist against racism?
Many critics believe that it is not too late for the Black community to apologize to White and officially recognize her as an icon who stood against racism despite the odds.
We Should All Be Like Arthur Duncan
In 2017, Steve Harvey reunited Duncan and White after 60 years in the premier of his show – “Little Big Shots: Forever Young” to Duncan’s surprise.
It was clear for all to see that Duncan held White in very high esteem and remained grateful to her. When Harvey asked what Duncan thought about seeing White again, he joked, “God, I think I am ready to go now.”
In one singular decision made in the 1950s, Betty White did not only give Duncan a break; she stood for the global Black community – against all odds. What are your thoughts?