The Danger of Speaking Truth to Power ► Monday Musical Appreciation

Forty-eight years ago today the blacklist of Eartha Kitt began.

It was the day after her birthday in 1968 when Kitt was invited to a luncheon at the White House. While there she was asked by the First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, about the ongoing war in Vietnam. According to The Music History Calendar:

At a White House luncheon to discuss the rise in urban crime, Eartha Kitt gets into a notorious spat with First Lady Claudia Taylor “Lady Bird” Johnson, declaring, “Vietnam is the main reason we are having trouble with the youth of America. It is a war without explanation or reason.” Although accounts of the entire argument differ, Kitt is subsequently blackballed in America.

Blackballed? The government did everything in its power to destroy her professionally and personally. As the WikiWackyWoo tells us:

Her remarks reportedly caused Mrs. Johnson to burst into tears and led to a derailment in Kitt’s career.[15]
The public reaction to Kitt’s statements was extreme, both pro and con.
Publicly ostracized in the US, she devoted her energies to performances
in Europe and Asia. It is said that Kitt’s career in the US was ended
following her comments about the Vietnam War, after which she was
branded “a sadistic nymphomaniac” by the CIA.[8]

Kitt had been riding high as Batman’s Catwoman, but disappeared from all ‘Merkin media after the cat fight with Lady Bird. She didn’t emerge for a decade, until she appeared on Broadway in the musical Timbuktu! in 1978.

While Catwoman was my introduction to Kitt, she had a long and vital career up to that point. As a singer she had a number of hits, such as “C’est Si Bon” and the very sexy seasonal song “Santa Baby.”

Kitt was not just a celebrity guest at that White House luncheon. She had been invited because of her decade-long activism. As we learn from the WikiWackyWoo:

Kitt was active in numerous social causes in the 1950s and 1960s. In
1966, she established the Kittsville Youth Foundation, a chartered and
non-profit organization for underprivileged youth in the Watts area of Los Angeles.[22] She was also involved with a group of youth in the area of Anacostia
in Washington, D.C., who called themselves, “Rebels with a Cause.” Kitt
supported the group’s efforts to clean up streets and establish
recreation areas in an effort to keep them out of trouble by testifying
with them before the House General Subcommittee on Education of the Committee on Education and Labor.
In her testimony, in May 1967, Kitt stated that the Rebels’
“achievements and accomplishments should certainly make the adult
‘do-gooders’ realize that these young men and women have performed in 1
short year – with limited finances – that which was not achieved by the
same people who might object to turning over some of the duties of
planning, rehabilitation, and prevention of juvenile delinquents and
juvenile delinquency to those who understand it and are living it”. She
added that “the Rebels could act as a model for all urban areas
throughout the United States with similar problems”.[23] “Rebels with a Cause” subsequently received the needed funding.[24]

I fell in love with Eartha Kitt as Catwoman. As a teenager with raging hormones, I thought she was one of the sexiest women on tee vee. I didn’t learn about her singing and acting career until later and it was years after that when I learned of her activism and subsequent blacklisting. For all these reasons, Eartha Kitt is one of my personal heroes. However, as I always say, It’s all about the music:

About Headly Westerfield

Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.

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