Some of the biggest sitcoms in history have paid homage to the iconic civil rights leader such as “The Jeffersons”, “Cosby Show”, and “A Different World.”
CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT ON TELEVISION EARLY DAYS
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a well respected figure in the black community due to his fighting for civil rights during the 1960’s and was a driving force that helped change attitudes in the United States in terms of race. It was jut a few years later after his murder, that Hollywood would have its own civil rights movement by having more blacks appearing on television on shows like “All In The Family,” which was the spinoff for the first ever, wealthy black family, on the small screen with “The Jeffersons.”
We would also see veteran comedians getting their time in the sun such as Redd Foxx with the ratings juggernaut “Sanford & Son.” Redd Foxx would get into contractual disputes with the television company about his pay. The legend believed he was getting short-changed in comparison to Carroll ‘Connor who played “Archie Bunker.” Foxx believed “Fred Sanford” was just as popular as ‘”Archie Bunker” as the ratings showed and thought he was not getting the same pay because he was black. The show turned 50 years this month as it first hit the airwaves on NBC on Jan. 14, 1972. Legendary music producer, Quincy Jones, did the now classic show opener theme of “The Streetbeater.”
THE FIRST STORE
As the decades moved along after the murder of King in the 1960’s, his memory and legend only grew in the hearts and minds of the people in Hollywood. It became apparent that his work helped to open doors that he never got to see come to fruition. The men and women who were now the product of his dream felt it was necessary to pay homage to the legendary figure.
The Jeffersons remain a popular television show till this day in re-runs and on April 6th in 1980, there was episode entitled “The First Store,” that was dedicated to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The episode is crafted as a flashback to when George Jefferson had his first store in Harlem on April 4, 1968. His opening coincides with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and when news of his death circulates, chaos erupts in the Jeffersons’ neighborhood.
Meanwhile, Lionel (who is approximately eighteen years old) is becoming increasingly militant, and Louise and George worry that his future is headed in the wrong direction. “Black Power”, and Malcom X’s “By Any Means Necessary”, is now the mantra of some of the youth in the Harlem streets. Other teen take up the cause of the Black Panthers of “Burn Baby Burn!” when the news is learned of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis, TN on the evening of the 4th of April.
VANESSA’S BAD GRADE
Many people believe that The Jeffersons paved the way for wealthy black families to be accepted on television shows. Ironically, as the antics of George Jefferson was ended by CBS in 1985, The Cosby Show was just starting its historic run on television. Unlike the first black family of The Evans, The Huxtables were a middle class family in New York living the “American Dream” in the 1980’s.
This classic show would also pay tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr with an episode entitled “Vanessa’s Bad Grade,” which aired on NBC on January 16, 1986. The show sees Vanessa stealing a sweater from her older sister Denise. The two soon begin to fight. In the end, Rudy’s choice of television viewing, the “I Have a Dream” speech, reminds the whole family of what a real problem is. The historic aspect of the episode is that it originally aired four days before the first observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a U.S. federal holiday.
As the the 1990’s approached, the legend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had reached to a whole new generation that never saw him alive. It was the first generation of college students from the hip hop era learning about his contributions for the advancement of black people in the United States.
It was only fitting that the first ever black college show would make a study case on the man’s life. A Different World was the spin-off of the Cosby Show of a fictional college called Hillman. However, when the show wanted more a real feel of what college life was like, Cosby hired Debbie Allen (the sister of Phylicia Rashad who played Claire Huxtable) to encapsulate college life in the 90’s.
On July 9th in 1993, “A Different World” aired “Great X-Pectations” on NBC. We see Hillman students, Terrell and Charmaine, getting harassed by a street gang, and Terrell is ashamed of being unable to defend himself. Terrell’s solution is to start carrying a gun. The gun is discovered in class and Dean Davenport is forced to expel Terrel.
Terrell refuses to give school up. He asks the Dean to allow him to finish his class assignment, a Malcolm X vs. Martin Luther King debate on hate and hope. When Terrell eloquently debates the issue that hate and guns do not solve problems the Dean reconsiders and reinstates him with restrictions. The debate between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King is from a one and only meeting between the two icons on March 26, 1964 in Washington, D.C. Less than a year later, Malcolm was dead, the victim of an assassin’s bullet, this put a halt to two of America’s most influential Black leaders having any king of union to help the civil rights movement.
So which episode do you believe was the greatest of all-time? Which episode was the “G.O.A.T.” tribute? Let us know below. Once again, Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Click link below to vote.