In 1968, a white woman made a friendly gesture to a black man on prime time TV and it became a scandal

Anita Durairaj

On April 2, 1968, a scandal was created when a white British singer, Petula Clark, touched the arm of legendary American actor, singer, and civil rights advocate, Harry Belafonte.

It would not have been a real issue except that Belafonte was black.

Clark who was a Grammy-winning singer invited Belafonte to the prime-time TV special because he was also a Grammy-winning singer and a great artist.

The invitation of Belafonte on stage was unique because there was hardly any TV special showcasing integrated entertainers. The invitation required the approval of the program sponsor which was the Chrysler Corporation.

An executive did approve Belafonte's appearance on stage. However, another Chrylser executive strongly objected to a black man appearing on their special. Regardless, the show proceeded.

Belafonte and Clark sang on stage and the lyrics and the emotion caught up to Clark so that she fleetingly put her hand on Belafonte's forearm.

However, this touch was enough to create a commotion. Immediately, one of the advertising managers went into the control area to ensure that the touching incident would not be seen on TV. There were a lot of discussions in the control room but NBC finally decided to keep the scene.

According to Clark, the incident created a "rumpus" although it shouldn't have because it was such an innocent and friendly gesture.

The incident received media attention and Belafonte ended up writing an article in the New York Times about the status of black entertainers on TV in the 60s.

Both Belafonte and Clark are still living as of December 2022 but they are a reminder of how times have changed since then.

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Trained with a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Cincinnati, I write unique and interesting articles focused on science, history, and current events.


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