In April 1970, members of Mississippi’s newly formed State Commission for Educational Television met to discuss Big Bird and Cookie Monster.
But the all-White commission decided Mississippi was “not yet ready for it,” according to one member, because it showed Black and White kids playing together. In a 3-2 vote, the commission banned “Sesame Street” from broadcasting on the state-run ETV network.
“The state has enough problems to face up to without adding to them,” an anonymous member of the commission, which was appointed by segregationist Gov. John Bell Williams (D), told the Associated Press.
None of the board’s members would speak on the record about the ban. The commission worried about sinking its fledgling system just as it was launching. At the time, ETV operated only one channel near Jackson, but it had plans to expand statewide after securing hard-won funding. It was allegedly spooked by state lawmakers, who had objected to educational programs promoting integration and could meddle with the commission’s funding. Some had already objected to ETV’s $5.3 million appropriation in the state budget.
“I think it’s a tragedy for both the white and black children of Mississippi,” Joan Ganz Cooney, a television producer who co-created “Sesame Street,” told the AP.
“Sesame Street” had landed in a bleak landscape for children’s TV. Saturday morning cartoons were big business, thanks to ads for sugary breakfast cereals, but during the week, kids were mostly stuck with reruns of “a lot of junk,” as Ganz Cooney put it. Still, children were clearly drawn to television, and hungry for more. Lloyd Morrisett, one of the co-creators of “Sesame Street,” noticed that his young daughter watched test patterns on their television, waiting for something to come on.
“When kids’ TV first started out, it was mostly old cartoons with hosts,” said Linda Simensky, a visiting professor of media studies at the University of Pennsylvania and former head of content for PBS Kids. “And these hosts, in the middle of their hosting duties, would start selling bread.”
She said that among TV executives, “there was sort of this general feeling that kids would watch anything that looks like it’s for kids, and they didn’t want to spend a lot of money.”
In the 1960s, these shows rarely had diverse casts of Black, Brown and White kids. There were exceptions at the local level: Ron Simon, head curator at the Paley Center for Media, points to New York’s “Wonderama” as an example of a show making a “conscious effort of integrating.” But nationally, the landscape was mostly White. It was still so rare to see Black actors of any age on television that Jet magazine published a page of radio and TV appearances by Black entertainers each week, from Eartha Kitt on “Mission: Impossible” to Sammy Davis Jr. on “The Hollywood Palace.”
“Sesame Street” not only wanted to teach children through educational programming they’d actually enjoy — it wanted to specifically target kids from low-income families, who were entering school at a disadvantage. The show was designed with this audience in mind, from the research and writing to the casting.
In addition to many of Jim Henson’s Muppets, “Sesame Street” featured human characters like Bob and Mr. Hooper, both White men, and Gordon and Susan, a married Black couple. Children of all races roamed Sesame Street (which was modeled largely on real-life blocks in New York’s Harlem, Upper West Side and the Bronx), a choice the creators hoped would impart positive images of integration — and give each child watching a chance to see people who looked like them on-screen.
But first they had to hear about it. Ganz Cooney stationed outreach coordinators in different parts of the country to make sure the show was recognizable and accessible to as many children as possible.
That outreach, combined with $4 million in funding from the Lyndon B. Johnson administration and another $4 million in private grants, meant there was “a lot of goodwill surrounding the show” when it began hitting local affiliates in November 1969, said David Kamp, author of “Sunny Days: The Children’s Television Revolution That Changed America.”
“Sesame Street” received rave reviews from public luminaries like Jesse Jackson and Orson Welles, as well as many parents who wrote to newspapers to heap praise on the show.
“My 2-year-old, who can hardly talk, is running around the house identifying letters like H and W and numbers like 9 and 3 since he’s been watching ‘Sesame Street,’” wrote a Los Angeles Times reader from Glendale, Ariz.
And then there was Mississippi.
In fairness, the state was likely not alone in its reluctance to broadcast interracial friendships. When KTAL in Shreveport dropped “Sesame Street” in its second season, claiming it didn’t have the money to air it, a fan wrote to Time, “The ostensible reason was that the show was too expensive. Actually it was too black.”
In the aftermath of the Mississippi decision, letters poured into ETV, protesting the ban. “There will always be people in Mississippi and across the nation who will find an integrated television cast offensive,” read one letter printed by United Press International. “But there are probably more conscientious parents who will put the education of their children ahead of their personal prejudices, and these people should not be denied a choice.” WDAM, a local station based in Laurel, Miss., urged the commission to reverse the vote and offered to air “Sesame Street” itself if ETV wouldn’t.
The board was doubtless embarrassed by the attention, not expecting its “postponement” of the show, as members characterized it, to make news across the country. (The Albuquerque Journal, for example, called the decision a “crying shame,” swiping at Mississippi’s “education levels,” which lagged behind other states.)
“That was kind of a spasm of the old ethos,” Kamp said. “I think most of the country, even in the South, was trending in the other direction.”
ETV scrambled to lift the ban, promising viewers on May 23 that “Sesame Street” would air in a matter of weeks. The show appeared on local TV listings by June 8, and that fall, the board sponsored a special episode.
As part of a 14-city national tour, the cast of “Sesame Street” stopped by Jackson for a free live show on Sept. 6, presented in cooperation with the State Commission for Educational Television. Over the course of an hour, Big Bird and his friends Bob, Susan, Gordon and Mr. Hooper entertained families with songs, jokes and questions, encouraging audience participation.
It was not quite an apology, but a display of an uneasy alliance between a progressive show and a conservative board, all in front of an integrated crowd of ecstatic children.
Kristin Hunt is a freelance reporter specializing in history and pop culture. Follow her on Twitter.