I was pleased with, and impressed by, the number of white faces in the large crowd when I emceed the recent annual convention and awards night of the renowned Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
The Jan. 19 event which also commemorated the Jan. 15 birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., is always prestigious. Some of the most influential business and civic leaders in our country attend the celebration, which was especially meaningful this year because it occurred on the eve of the inauguration of America’s first black president, Barack Obama.
But I also was sensing unspoken questions among many of the attendees, who are so familiar with CORE, the third-oldest civil rights organization in America, junior to only the Urban League and the NAACP, and its long struggle on behalf of racial equality in this country: “What is Pat Boone doing here? Why has he been chosen to MC such an important — and sharply focused — event? Has he ever been involved in civil rights struggles?”
My invitation came from Roy Innis, CORE’s national chairman for more than 40 years, and his son Niger, the group’s national spokesman.
I felt compelled to answer those unasked questions that night. I told of some things Roy and Niger knew, and of some they didn’t.
They knew, and respected, what Jesse Jackson had said — to my repressed tears — more than a year ago: “When a white kid from down south named Pat Boone began to record his versions of black-written and recorded rhythm and blues songs, he did more to improve race relations than any other performer. He didn’t just popularize the songs, the music, but he approved the original artists — and he was saying to white America, ‘These songs, and these artists, are special, they’re good, and I like them.’ And white America decided that Pat Boone was right!”
Roy and Niger also knew, because they had invited me, that I had participated in a big news conference in Washington, D.C., in which CORE was calling on government and energy producers to use every drop of oil and other fuels we have to keep gas prices down. Why? Because CORE had the stats: The worst victims of high gas prices are minority individuals — black and Hispanic and others — who have to choose between even getting to their jobs, and food.
As national spokesman for the influential 60 Plus Organization, a very effective senior advocacy group, I sympathize with the plight of all minorities, including seniors, who are so ravaged by this problem. During the news conference, I added my personal conviction that we can safely use all our “fossil fuel” resources as quickly as needed, because programs are under way to develop other and highly promising fuel alternatives. I believe we’ll be using those alternatives across the board long before we exhaust our fossil resources.
But Roy and Niger had no idea of other stands I’ve taken through the years, based on long-held convictions about absolute equality of all human beings.
I was raised in Nashville, Tenn., by Christian parents who were colorblind on racial matters. Daddy, a building contractor, had several black employees, and I and my brother Nick worked as day laborers right alongside black guys our age. We competed as friends, each trying to outwork the other. (I rarely won!)
When my career took off, to my amazement I found myself hosting the No.1 TV show in America, from age 21 through 23, and singing with the biggest stars of the day, including Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Johnny Mathis, and even the incredible Ella Fitzgerald.
Did I harbor any illusions that I was in any way better than any of these giants? No way. I felt just like I’d felt trying to pour as much concrete or dig ditches with my black buddies in construction: lucky to earn their respect.
One day, during my third season on ABC, the biggest entertainer in the world then, Harry Belafonte, called and offered to come on my show and sing with me. I excitedly announced this in our next show planning session with our staff and reps from our sponsor, Chevrolet. I was dumbfounded when they soberly told me this couldn’t happen because Chevy already was taking heat from its Southern dealers at the time, precisely because of the number of black entertainers on the show, and they sensed that Harry would aggravate the dealers and customers even more. Incredible. But true.
Well, when I could speak, after thinking quietly for a few minutes, I said, “Fellas, I understand your problems. I can’t change that, though I wish I could. But the show is called “The Pat Boone Chevy Show,” and if I can’t accept Harry Belafonte’s gracious offer, it’s not the “Pat Boone Show.” You’ll have to get someone else to take over, immediately. I’m really sorry.”
As I said at the CORE event, I wish I could say Harry came on the show, but it was our last season and we never got our schedules to mesh. But the stand, and the conviction behind it, was real then, and still is.
I ran out of time before I could tell the attendees about the time, in 1960, when promoters in South Africa finally overcame my reluctance to do concerts there because of the policy of apartheid, by announcing the government would suspend the policy and allow anybody with money to buy a ticket, regardless of color or race, if I would come — and not make any public statements about it. So I went; I performed to sold-out mixed racial crowds, with no incidents, except a few death threats. And I’ve never talked about it, until now.
At the CORE event Jan. 19, I introduced a song I’d written in 1968, the day after Martin Luther King was assassinated, “I Had a Dream.” Some excellent black singers joined me in the song, and I meshed the music with archival footage of King as he pursued his dream, to form a music video. (See and hear at www.patboone.com.)
And the next day, Inauguration Day, his dream was largely realized. It’s fair to say it might not have come to be this way, on this day, without the faith and tirelessness of Roy Innis and CORE.
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