Magazine article Variety

Playboy Founder Stood Up for Civil Rights Movement

Magazine article Variety

Playboy Founder Stood Up for Civil Rights Movement

Article excerpt

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. …

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