When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

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Blubber Boom: Reliving the Disastrous Tale of Oregon's Exploding Whale—50 Years Later

Oregon came up with a combustible solution for their dead whale problem.
Oregon came up with a combustible solution for their dead whale problem.
Haliep/iStock via Getty Images (Whale) // revenaif/iStock via Getty Images (Explosion)

The 75 or so people who had gathered on the shore just south of Florence, Oregon, on November 12, 1970 stood at a safe distance and waited for the dynamite to go off. The explosives had been buried under the landward side of a 45-foot-long, 8-ton sperm whale. The mammal would feel nothing when it exploded; it had washed ashore several days before and was long dead.

Its status as a non-living organism was, in fact, the source of the problem. The whale had begun to emit a putrefying stench that repulsed beachgoers. It simply could not remain in place. Its fate was left up to the Oregon State Highway Department, which had no experience relocating whale carcasses and decided to treat it as they would a massive boulder that needed to be removed.

The issue was that this was no boulder. It was a whale. And no one was sure exactly how much dynamite it would take to reduce it to bite-sized pieces of blubber that seagulls and other scavengers would eat. To be on the safe side, 20 cases—or approximately one half-ton—of explosives were used. What happened next is something Florence locals still talk about nearly 50 years later.

 

It’s not always clear why whales strand themselves on land. Sometimes, an injury or illness weakens them to the point they can no longer swim, so they simply wash ashore. Orca whales might chase prey and then find themselves in shallow water—and unable to get back to the open ocean.

A beached sperm whale.Ablestock.com/iStock via Getty Images

However the whale near Florence found itself on the beach, it quickly began to make a posthumous impression. Visitors’ curiosity soon gave way to repulsion as the whale decomposed. Because the beach in Lane County was a public right of way, and nearby roads had a speed limit of 25 miles per hour to observe, the task of dealing with the whale was left up to George Thornton, the assistant district highway engineer of the Oregon State Highway Department, and his team.

It had been a while since a whale had washed ashore in the area, and no one knew exactly how best to deal with it—though various solutions were proposed. One idea was to simply bury the whale in the sand in an oceanside grave, but there were concerns the incoming tide might cause it to resurface. Another suggestion was to cut up the corpse, but there were no volunteers for what would amount to an incredibly unpleasant and time-consuming job hacking away at the blubber. Burning it was also impractical.

That left the seemingly rational option of blowing it up, which dead whales sometimes do naturally; the build-up of gases like ammonia, hydrogen, methane, and sulfide can result in a gory burst of guts spewing forth. But Thornton needed a more potent blast. He consulted with Navy munitions experts who theorized that, with an explosion, the whale would be reduced to chunks that would head toward the Pacific Ocean. Any lingering pieces could be retrieved by workers later.

Local news station KATU sent reporter Paul Linnman and photojournalist Doug Brazil to the scene via helicopter to cover the event. The two arrived and began filming a segment that included an interview with Thornton and a dispatch from Linnman with an enormous dead whale in the background.

 

At 3:30 p.m., spectators and the reporters were asked to move back roughly a quarter-mile away. At 3:45 p.m., Thornton ordered the explosives to be detonated. The scene was captured by the KATU team.

At first, locals cheered the spectacle, which resembled a building demolition. But cheers soon gave way to panic as it became apparent that the half-ton of dynamite had been insufficient to atomize the whale. Large chunks of blubber sailed over their heads and landed with a thud at their feet. Smaller pieces pelted their bodies. The smell of putrid whale oil engulfed the scene. In a spectacular denouement, a giant piece of whale at least 3 square feet in size landed directly on a brand-new Cadillac, smashing the top and blowing out the windows. The vehicle's owner, Walter F. Umenhofer, had wanted to meet a business partner at the detonation ceremony.

Incredibly, no one was injured. But as locals beat a retreat, it became obvious that further action would have to be taken. A large portion of the whale remained; it was eventually moved using a bulldozer and buried on the beach. Smaller bits of blubber were collected and either discarded or covered in sand. Seagulls that had been expected to feast on the remains were scared off by the explosion and remained wary of the area for some time.

For years, Thornton refused to discuss the incident, slightly bashful about the consequences of attempting to blow up a whale. Later, when the footage was circulated online, some people thought it was a hoax. Today, locals celebrate the anniversary by dressing as various whale parts and then running around that very same beach. Just this month, Florence unveiled a new park to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the incident: Exploding Whale Memorial Park.

When 41 sperm whales beached themselves near the same area in 1979, no dynamite was used; they were instead buried in the sand. As for the Cadillac: The state of Oregon reimbursed Umenhofer for the car. His son, Kelly, who was 14 at the time and went with his father to the beach, would later recall that the car had been bought at Old’s Dunham Cadillac, a dealership that promised buyers—prophetically, it turns out—that they would get “a whale of a deal.”