Hugh Hefner’s Surprising Civil-Rights Legacy

The Playboy founder was a revolutionary when it came to promoting black artists and black women on television and the cover of his magazine.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

The death of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner is sure to draw strong reactions. Hefner’s most vocal critics have included high-profile feminists who despised how his Playboy empire celebrated women as sex objects.

But Hugh Hefner also played a far less known but still integral role in the quest for equality, using Playboy as a powerful weapon in our nation’s culture wars.

At a time when debate rages regarding the role celebrities—particularly white ones—should play in bridging our nation’s racial divide, Hefner’s surprising civil-rights legacy looms large.

Hefner opened his far-reaching media platform to black activists and entertainers long before other mainstream outlets did. He also opened his wallet to fund civil-rights causes.

Comedian Dick Gregory revealed in an interview that Hefner provided $25,000 toward a reward that Gregory later credited with helping break one of the civil-rights movement’s most notorious cases: the murder of three young civil-rights workers in Meridian, Mississippi.

Hefner was also an avid supporter of Martin Luther King Jr. and would go on to serve as a significant funder of the Rainbow PUSH coalition helmed by King acolyte Jesse Jackson. (Hefner donated to a number of progressive and legal causes throughout his life, including funding America’s very first rape kit, via his charitable foundation.)

Hefner’s representation of black Americans in popular culture was just as significant, if not more so than his philanthropic contributions.

Though many may hear the name Playboy and think of centerfolds (or, let’s be honest, breasts), those of us who are writers, particularly writers of color, think of names like Alex Haley. Long before Roots made Haley a literary superstar, he conducted the very first interview for Playboy magazine with musician Miles Davis.

In the interview, Davis discussed his thoughts on racial inequality, setting the tone for what would become a staple of the magazine: serious people giving serious interviews, on serious subjects, including many prominent people of color. Those people included everyone from athlete and activist Muhammad Ali to Sammy Davis Jr., and Dr. King, who granted the longest print interview of his career to Haley for Playboy. The extraordinary interview from January 1965—given shortly after King received the Nobel Peace Prize—was republished by The Daily Beast three years ago.

Hefner’s son, Cooper, even said the last article ever written by King was published in the magazine.

Haley also interviewed Malcolm X for Playboy in 1963, a precursor to ultimately ghostwriting the groundbreaking, bestselling The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

The platform Hefner provided black writers, leaders, and entertainers in print was indicative of his understanding that you can reach more people, and transform more minds, through culture than just about any other vehicle. There were plenty of white American males in the 1960s who might not pick up The Autobiography of Malcolm X, but who would pick up an issue of Playboy and open it, because they wanted to see what Miss January was (or rather was not) wearing.

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Hefner capitalized on this idea as his empire expanded. He put black artists front and center on his television programs, first on Playboy’s Penthouse in 1959, which would feature the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole, in a party setting with Hefner and his white (and often female) friends. This fact would scandalize the program and its host in the eyes of certain white viewers and the show was short-lived.

By 1969, the kids of some of those parents—who may have been scandalized at the sight of Cole serenading a room full of white women—had grown up.

Emboldened by the free-love message of the era, which was embodied by Playboy, they could now watch Sammy Davis Jr. serenade a room filled with white women on Hefner’s next show, Playboy After Dark, and not see it as threatening or scandalous. After all, Sammy, Tina Turner, and other Playboy After Dark guests were simply cool—and in the world of Playboy, cool had no color. (Keep in mind Hefner was featuring black guests in the ’60s, while MTV had to be pressured to air videos featuring black artists in the 1980s.)

Hefner strived to keep his real-life clubs as diverse as the parties on his show. He bought back some of his Playboy Clubs upon discovering they were attempting to discriminate against black Americans.

Many feminists fundamentally take issue with the fact that Hefner created an empire predicated on the idea that women should embody some feminine ideal defined by men. There is no disputing that this is the essence of Playboy. But there is also no disputing the fact that protecting a very narrow definition of American womanhood has been at the root of some of America’s most barbaric racism.

To be more specific, plenty of black men have been victimized throughout history because of a fear that they pose a threat to the girl next door. Specifically, the white girl next door. But plenty of black women have been victimized throughout history because we weren’t seen as worth protecting. After all, we were never seen as the girl next door (when we were seen at all).

Hefner upended this cultural motif altogether.

He showed that a white woman could be the girl next door, and could still enjoy sex—and that who she enjoyed that sex with was really no one’s business. But he also showed that the girl next door could be black and beautiful. Jennifer Jackson became the first black Playmate of the Month in 1965 and in what has since become an iconic image, in 1971, Darine Stern became the first black woman to appear on the cover of Playboy solo, sporting an afro and little else.

I’m not saying that taking your clothes off makes you a feminist (regardless of what any Kardashian might say), or that taking naked photos of someone else makes you an activist. I am saying that Hefner deftly used culture and his pocketbook to help transform the way underrepresented groups are viewed and, as we are seeing right now, culture is often the battlefield on which America’s ideological wars are fought. Hugh Hefner deserves credit for fighting the good fight, long before it was popular to do so.