The Day the Supremes Colored Television

Posted: October 28, 2010 in Inspiring

I have always maintained that I was born and am living in the wrong decade. The 60’s is where I really belong. The spirit of revolution was in the air and “Freedom” was the mantra of the masses. Indeed, the entire world from Africa to North America was experiencing the resurgence of love – following decades of war, destruction, subjugation and violence. In Lyndon Johnson’s United States, a critical debate was brewing: that of color and integration. No longer were segregationist norms considered acceptable: informed individuals were in a rush to bring in black folks to platforms they had never been permitted to before. What would be a better forum for doing this than on national television? On December 27 1964 the Supremes were chosen to do just that.

The “Ed Sullivan Show” was a cultural centerpiece in those days – the premier showcase for upcoming talent in the United States. Murmurs of this new girl band from Motown, The Supremes, being on television started making phones ring and hasty letters written in the media industry around the country. Colored girls on national television in a glamorous image was an unprecedented event.

Up to that point in history, the black population of the United States had witnessed themselves in some very narrow (and primarily subservient) roles on television. One does not need an active imagination to picture the apron-clad fat black mammy saying “Yes’M!” or the token black chauffeur grinning in the background. To be portrayed in a positive light with beauty and grace was unimaginable. Ed Sullivan, however, was a huge proponent of integration – and put up a thorough fight in bringing the Supremes to the platform they rightly deserved. Indeed, by this time, they had released three number-one hits that were widely received by music audiences around the country.

In the South, friends and families ran over to each others homes in their parts of town to share the news and excitedly awaited the evening “their girls” would appear on television. Racist folk vowed to boycott the show, the station and even television as a whole after that.

Motown spent a fortune prepping The Supremes for this occasion. They were sent to charm school, made-up, thousands were spent on glittering dresses, make-up, jewellery, wigs. In fact, it was also the first time that a colored person was seen on television wearing diamonds: real diamonds! The cultural impact can only be imagined. Motown’s investment paid off: The Supremes were a national sensation – they performed a total of fourteen times on the Ed Sullivan show between 1964 and 1969 – and opened the doors, once and for all, for fellow colored performers.

On the evening of their debut, among the thousands of black children watching The Supremes dazzle to the tune “Come See About Me,” were a 6 year old boy and a 10 year old girl who were so taken by the lithe lead singer (Diana Ross), that their sole mission in life was to become her someday. They emulated her to the highest degree – and one even ended up looking like her eventually. The boy was Michael Jackson and the girl Oprah Gail Winfrey.

I have always loved The Supremes and admire their work immensely: watching white dancers twisting around the only three black girls in the “Baby Love” video, for instance, struck a chord with me the very first time I watched it. There was, without doubt, something powerful about the moment and a music video was capturing that thrilling history! I was to learn later that even the studio applause that was to follow their on-air appearances shook black people to the core: they could not believe that white folk were actually applauding one of their own!

The following is a link to the “Come See About Me” video that changed the face of television forever. When you watch it, keep in mind that you are witnessing a critical moment in history. Picture the thousands cluttered around their neighbor’s television sets ushering in a new era of equality. Enjoy!



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