Hugh Hefner’s Little-Known History as Civil Rights Activist

Legendary publishers John H. Johnson and Hugh Hefner.

by Jessica Bennett, September 28, 2017

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Playboy founder Hugh “Hef” Hefner may be best known as an early advocate of the sexual revolution, but the Casanova was also a powerful ally in the fight for civil rights.

The 91-year-old icon died at his home yesterday, leaving behind an often-overlooked legacy of supporting the movement.

White celebrities of the 1950s and ’60s were often unsure of how to handle race relations, but Hef made it a point for Playboy to be inclusive, often providing Black artists, entertainers and activists with a platform long before other mainstream outlets would fathom doing so.

The Queen of Blues Dinah Washington introduces her husband Dick "Night Train" Lane to Chicago society at a party thrown by Hugh Hefner, publisher of Playboy. (Isaac Sutton/Johnson Publishing Archive)
The Queen of Blues Dinah Washington introduces her husband Dick “Night Train” Lane to Chicago society at a party thrown by Hugh Hefner, publisher of Playboy. (Isaac Sutton/Johnson Publishing Archive)

Dick Gregory had a very special bond with Hef, who is credited with helping launch his comedic career with a performance at the Chicago Playboy Club in 1961.

During 2001 Comedy Central’s 2001 N.Y. Friars Club Roast of Hugh Hefner, Gregory spoke to his good friend’s character and how much of a difference he made some 40 years prior.

“You had a courage when no one was bringing in Blacks and minorities, and let you stand flat-footed in America and just talk, you brought me in” the comic revealed during the roast. “You didn’t give me a lecture. You gave me no instructions.”

He went on, “I come here tonight not to roast you, but to say that had you not had the guts back then, we Black comics that the world has been able to look at and understand our genius, we would be in some pot, roasting in debt, knowing we were never going to make it. We thank you. God bless you, my brother.”

Gregory also credited the Playboy founder for financing his mission to locate the bodies of three slain Civil Rights workers in 1964 in Mississippi.

Roots author Alex Haley made a mark on pop culture through Playboy as well, conducting the first-ever Playboy Interview with jazz legend Miles Davis. Haley later interviewed Malcolm X for the publication, resulting in the author writing the 1965 best-seller The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. granted the longest print interview of his career to Haley for the magazine.

The television shows Playboy Penthouse and Playboy After Dark, which Hef hosted, also featured prominent acts of color, including Tina Turner and Redd Foxx. These aired in the 1950s and ’60s, decades before MTV was pressured into featuring Black artists’ videos on the network, beginning with Michael Jackson’s 1983 hit “Billie Jean.”

The diversity proponent was also known to buy back certain Playboy franchise locations upon discovering they discriminated against Black customers, Hef said in a 2011 interview with CBS.

In addition to providing an outlet for Black voices at a time when many were stifled, he was also good friends with stars such as Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Sammy Davis Jr. and EBONY/ JET publisher, John H. Johnson.

A favorite guest in Chicago radio-TV circles, entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., takes over the hour-long Fran Allison Show. He is presented a pup, "Playboy", by Playboy magazine publisher Hugh Hefner during an appearance on Playboy Penthouse. (Isaac Sutton/Johnson Publishing Archive)
A favorite guest in Chicago radio-TV circles, entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., takes over the hour-long Fran Allison Show. He is presented a pup, “Playboy,” by Playboy magazine publisher Hugh Hefner during an appearance on Playboy Penthouse. (Isaac Sutton/Johnson Publishing Archive)

Rest in peace, Hef.

 
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