Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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Mississippi Bans Sesame Street – Podcast #200

One thing that I am certain that I have mentioned on the podcast before is that I was born in Brooklyn, New York.  At the age of seven, my father made the decision to leave the city behind. He sold our house and his electrical business, and we relocated to my parent’s summer home in the Catskill Mountains. This move not only marked our departure from urban life, but also signaled the end of our access to much in the way of TV.  At best, on a clear day, we could receive three stations: Channels 2, 4, and 5 out of New York City.  Even with a giant antenna on the roof, that was all we could get.

One station that we couldn’t get was Channel 13, WNET, which was the PBS—Public Broadcasting Service—station broadcasting out of the city. That basically meant that I saw very little in the way of educational television while growing up.  And that included Sesame Street.

I do recall watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood while we were still living in New York City, but I was a bit too old for Sesame Street’s target audience when it premiered on November 10, 1969. I do remember watching a few episodes, but by that point, I was more into watching the Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, and reruns of old shows like I Love Lucy.

The reality was that little of what I was watching did much in the way of educating.  My favorites included Speed Racer, The Jetsons, The Flintstones, and Magilla Gorilla. Clearly, these shows were made to entertain children, but their underlying purpose was to make money by selling ads for toys and sugary cereals.   

I was their prime audience, and those commercials really did work on me. Not only did I want the latest and greatest Hot Wheels race car set, but I also consumed massive quantities of cereals like Sugar Smacks, Sugar Crisp, and Sugar Pops.  As unhealthy as they were, I never found them sweet enough and added even more sugar to every single bowl.

1960s commercial for Post Sugar Crisp cereal.

While watching those cartoons and eating those sugary cereals made for an enjoyable childhood, looking back at it through my adult eyes, it is clear that children’s television programming wasn’t very good back then, at least from an educational perspective.  Kids are like sponges at that age: everything is new to them, and they love learning.  Yet, with a few exceptions, television was doing little to capitalize upon this. 

One person who did notice the bleak children’s television landscape in the mid-1960s was Joan Ganz Cooney, who was working as an Emmy award-winning documentary producer for the non-profit WNDT Channel 13 (NDT=New Dimensions in Television) in the New York City area, a non-profit channel that would later morph into WNET-13.

The story goes that one night during the winter of 1966, Joan and her husband Timothy were having a dinner party in their apartment near Gramercy Park in Manhattan.  In attendance were her boss at WNDT, Lewis Freedman, and Lloyd and Mary Morrisett.  Lloyd was a mid-level executive (and later CEO) at the Carnegie Corporation and posed the question, “Do you think television could be used to teach young children?” To which Cooney replied, “I don’t know, but I’d like to talk about it.” 

Next thing you know, Cooney took a leave of absence from her job at WNDT. With generous support from the Carnegie Corporation, she embarked on a journey across the United States and Canada to engage with specialists in child development, education, and television. Compiling her discoveries into a comprehensive document titled “The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education,” Cooney envisioned the development of a groundbreaking new children’s show, one that would not only entertain but also educate and prepare young children for school.

In 1968, Carnegie joined up with the Ford Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the United States government to form the Children’s Television Workshop.  Their combined initial investment was $8 million (nearly $70 million today) and, under Cooney’s and Morrisett’s leadership, they set out to create a show that would be equally accessible to children of all socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds.

The name of the show remained undecided until the very last moment.  The working title was the “Preschool Educational Television Show,” but everyone involved knew that they needed to find something better, but none seemed right.  In the end, they opted for the name Sesame Street, one that they disliked least, although there was concern that little children would have difficulty with its pronunciation.

The new show had a budget of $28,000 per episode (approximately $232,000 today), and the producers set out to make Cooney’s vision a reality. This was all unchartered television territory, so five one-hour episodes were produced to test not only their appeal to young children but also how much of what was taught was retained afterward.

None of these test episodes would ever be broadcast, but they did exactly what they were intended to do. First, it was noticed that the children were very attentive during the scenes with Jim Henson’s Muppets, but their minds tended to wander during the street scenes. In addition, the producers had selected actor Garrett Saunders to play lead human character Gordon, but it was clear that he had been miscast. He would be replaced by one of the show’s producers, Matt Robinson, who was perfect for the role.

One of the original five Sesame Street pilot episodes with Garrett Saunders playing the role of Gordon.

Having the Muppets scenes separate from the Street scenes had been done on purpose.  Specialists in child psychology expressed concern that the children would be confused if both the humans and the Muppets appeared on screen at the same time. The producers had a gut feeling that children wouldn’t be confused and asked Jim Henson to create Muppets that could interact with the humans during the Street scenes. And that’s how Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird, two of the series’ most enduring characters, came to be.

At the end of that first episode, it is mentioned that Sesame Street was brought to you by two numbers and three letters, which were repeated throughout the program.  Do you know what they were?  Here’s a hint: the three letters are all directions on a compass and the two numbers are less than five.  Hang around for a bit and I’ll let you know the answer at the end of this story.

As I mentioned earlier, Sesame Street premiered on November 10, 1969. It was both a runaway and a critical success.  Within months, its audience had grown to 6 million viewers on an estimated 190 different educational television channels across the United States.

One place that Sesame Street was definitely not playing was in the state of Mississippi. And there was a good reason for that: Mississippi didn’t have a licensed educational television station in 1969.  While a few fortunate residents managed to catch the signal from public television stations in neighboring states, the majority of Mississippians were unable to watch the show.

Mississippi was undeniably lagging behind, but the state legislature had taken a crucial step by allocating $390,000 (equivalent to around $3.2 million today) to establish an educational television channel. Thanks to this funding, WMAA, Channel 29, commenced broadcasting on Sunday, February 1, 1970. Operating one channel located near Jackson, Mississippi, the station had an estimated range of 65 miles (105 km).

Eight days later, the station found itself in hot water.  On February 9, 1970, the station ran a 90-minute documentary titled “Hospital,” which was filmed entirely at Metropolitan Hospital in New York City. It was a no-holds-barred film that showed what really went on inside the emergency room of a large hospital. The show was part of the public television’s NET Journal program, a hard-hitting documentary series that explored the many social issues of the time, including poverty and racism.  Critically acclaimed, NET Journal and the show’s underwriter, the Ford Foundation, were heavily criticized by conservatives for their extreme liberal slant.

Almost immediately, two officials at the Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (ETV) offered an apology. William R. Smith and Bob Rowland jointly issued a statement that read, in part, “This is not the kind of ETV that we’ve been working towards for the past four years. We want to assure the people of Mississippi that programming of this type will not be broadcast again.  We were as shocked as the home viewers.” (I was unable to locate a copy of Hospital, but my hunch is what they considered to be shocking in 1970 would be mild by today’s standards.)

Around the same time that they had promised not to broadcast another program like this, that same commission was pleading with the legislature to increase their funding.  Such financial support would enable them to extend the station’s broadcast hours (currently limited to 5 to 11 PM from Sunday through Friday), acquire additional programming rights, and construct transmitters across the state to reach a wider audience.

To accomplish all of this, ETV requested $7.2 million (approximately $56.4 million today) from the state. The state’s House Appropriations Committee discussed it and recommended that the station receive the same $390,000 in funding that it had received in the preceding year. This caused an uproar on the House floor between those in favor of fully funding the station and those opposed to it. 

Senator Nap Cassibry stated, “It’s an investment in the future of our children.”

Yet, Representative Malcolm Mabry was opposed, warning that “we should approach this with great caution because ETV can be one of the most dangerous programs we ever face.” He added, “Could be a monster. When the Department of Health, Education and Welfare comes into any area, then we can expect Washington to tell us what we can put on the air.”

State Senator Fred Wicker felt, “It’s a frill, a fad, a way of keeping up with the Joneses.”

Lastly, one legislator, who opted to remain anonymous, commented, “It’s the biggest boondoggle the state has ever entered into.”

A vote was taken on Thursday, March 5, 1970, and to everyone’s surprise, the bill to fund the entire $7.2 million passed by a vote of 76 to 35.

Statewide educational television was now a go in Mississippi. Their viewing audience was still limited to the Jackson area, but the plan was to have transmitters installed elsewhere.

However, a conspicuous void existed in their daily broadcast lineup – Sesame Street, perhaps the most critically acclaimed educational show at the time, was missing. Initially, the programming gap went unnoticed, but on May 1, 1970, news broke that the Mississippi ETV commission had made the decision to prohibit the show from airing. It later emerged that two separate votes had been conducted regarding the inclusion of Sesame Street. The first vote took place in January, followed by a second vote on April 17. The outcome of the April vote reportedly stood at 3 to 2 against the program.

The very first episode of Sesame Street.

None of the commission members, all of whom were white, would speak on record about the ban. Yet, they did offer up the following comments:

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children.”

There was the feeling by one of the commissioners that some on the board were “a little timid about the thing,” and added that there was a fear that the broadcast of Sesame Street “would offend someone and therefore endanger the possibility of ETV getting off the ground.” He added, “The people of Mississippi are ready for it—for the educational value if nothing else. I consider the program one of the most wonderful series for three-to-five year olds because it teaches numbers, letters and words and does it in a very unusual way—the kids don’t realize they are learning.”

Furthermore, there’s the committee member who believed he wasn’t being offensive, but still managed to exhibit an unmistakable and glaring prejudice in his statement: “Some of the educators on the commission were a little timid. You know, they have a colored man and a colored woman—who, by the way, speak excellent English—and they have all these little children around them, some black, some white.” He further explained that it was the fear of legislative disapproval of African Americans playing significant roles on the show that “was the primary reason we decided to look at it a little longer.”

The national spotlight on this decision was clearly not good for the future of educational television in Mississippi, so the committee’s official stance was that they had not banned Sesame Street. Instead, it had simply been “postponed.”

One member told the press, “The ETV commission isn’t against Sesame Street.  There’s no question in my mind that it will be on ETV in Mississippi. But right now I don’t think one program is worth risking what we’re trying to build in this ETV system. By not showing this program now, the only people we are depriving are the ones around Jackson. We won’t have the statewide system set up until at least the fall of next year. We haven’t banned Sesame Street—we just decided this isn’t the proper time to put it on the air.”

Stevie Wonder singing 1 2 3 Sesame Street in April 1973, which he wrote for the show.

Needless to say, the decision to keep Sesame Street off the air was a controversial one.

Joan Ganz Cooney, creator of the show, commented, “I think it’s a tragedy for both the white and black children of Mississippi.”

Mississippi governor John Bell Williams pleaded ignorance in the banning of Sesame Street because “I don’t know what it is.”

The decision to ban Sesame Street also produced a large volume of mail from people living both in and out of Mississippi.

The text of one letter to the ETV commission read, “There will always be people in Mississippi and across the nation who will find an integrated television cast offensive. 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.”

An editorial in the May 5, 1970, edition of the Delta Democrat-Times reads, in part, “The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.

“It doesn’t matter that integration in the schools is now a reality in Mississippi, and segregation is against the law of the land in virtually every field, including housing. Commercial television may portray this fact, but educational television, a state-controlled venture, may not. Thus we are penalized again, and our children more than adults, by the official determination to pretend that reality doesn’t exist.

“There is no state which more desperately needs every educational tool it can find than Mississippi. There is no educational show on the market today better prepared than ‘Sesame Street’ to teach pre-school children what many cannot or do not learn in their homes.”

The editorial concludes, “As is the case of the ETV decision not to show the award-winning documentary ‘Hospital,’ deciding against running ‘Sesame Street seems to indicate that Mississippi ETV will settle for mediocrity every time. If that proves to be the case, there are strong reasons to ask whether the tax money which is being appropriated for educational television would not better be rediverted to the public schools. There, at least, the realities of 1970 cannot be avoided and the needs are immense.”

Stan R. Houston of Dallas, Texas, wrote to the following to the Hattiesburg American: “It is indeed tragic that the children of your state will be deprived of the privilege of viewing this extraordinary program because of the ignorance and bigotry of your so-called ‘adult’ leaders. It is unfortunate, and ironic, that the children seem to suffer the most from the decisions and actions of ‘adults.’ I sincerely hope that the intelligent parents of your state will voice their disapproval of this laughable decision and return this worthwhile program to their television screens.

He concludes, “When will Mississippi grow up and realize that we are living in the 20th Century and that the Civil War has been over for 100 years?”

Not everyone was in support of having the station broadcast Sesame Street, and their arguments conveniently sidestepped the issue of race. Instead, they directed their criticisms toward one of the backers of the program: the Ford Foundation, which they perceived to have an extremely liberal bias.

Jim True of Long Beach, Mississippi wrote, in part, “The very best reason for our ETV Review Board to reject Sesame Street is the fact that the Ford Foundation is one of its sponsors.”

JoAnn Gibson of Hattiesburg, who admitted that she had never seen Sesame Street, shared in those sentiments: “The Ford Foundation has financed many radical groups, including the National Council of Churches, the National Urban League, UNESCO, the National Committee on US–China Relations, the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP, the Southern Educational Conference, and the sexperts at SIECUS.” (SIECUS = Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.)

“It has encouraged and financed leaders of the race war which is filling American cities with murder, arson and lawlessness. It has openly subsidized identified Communist revolutionaries while waging war on anti-communists.

“In July, 1968, with the radical National Student Assn. neck deep in promoting revolutionary activities on the nation’s campuses, Ford provided NASA with a grant for $315,000 to ‘finance the increasing power of college students in educational reform.”

Dale M. Titler of Gulfport, Mississippi, wrote a lengthy letter that was published in the June 8, 1970, edition of the Sun Herald.  Here is just a snippet of what he said: “Which brings us back to Sesame Street. Simply because something, ETV included, is labeled with the magic word Education, does not mean the contents are educational. Put this yardstick against so-called educational programs: Does it indoctrinate, rather than educate? If it indoctrinates, unsuspecting students will allow their mental development to be arrested by instructors who cannot believe pupils are capable of rational, lucid thought and intelligent decisions.”

Stevie Wonder performing the song Superstition live on Sesame Street in April 1973. The guitarist with the white shirt and light blue hat is Ray Parker, Jr., who is best remembered for his smash hit Ghostbusters.

WDAM-TV, channel 7 in Hattiesburg, a commercial NBC affiliate, extended an offer to do what the officials of Mississippi ETV lacked the guts to do. They offered to broadcast Sesame Street if the state ETV committee didn’t reverse its decision. “We have heard much about the right of freedom of choice. If the program offends some viewers, they will exercise their freedom of choice by tuning to another channel.”

The commissioners found themselves in a precarious situation, facing immense pressure to reach a decision. If they persisted in keeping the show off the air, their detractors would perceive it as an unmistakably racial-based choice. On the other hand, if they chose to broadcast the show, they ran the risk of jeopardizing state funding for the channel, which could abruptly halt the realization of their vision for statewide ETV.

The commission did not exhibit a sense of urgency in making a decision. It wasn’t until their next regularly scheduled meeting on Friday, May 22, 1970, that they finally revisited and reevaluated the Sesame Street situation.

And just what did they decide?

The commission finally agreed to place Sesame Street into their programming schedule. They would commence airing the show as soon as they acquired the tapes.

Executive Director William R. Smith, the same guy who penned the apology letter for the station’s decision to broadcast “Hospital,” told the press that he was “very pleased” with the committee’s decision.

The Sunday, June 7, 1970 edition of the Clarion Ledger shows that the series was to begin broadcasting the following day. “4:00—(29)—Sesame Street: the much lauded children’s show, based on the idea that learning can be fun. The program will run on weekdays from 4 to 5 p.m.”

I guess we will never know if the show was truly banned or simply postponed, as the ETV committee claimed.

Earlier in the podcast, I had asked you what two numbers and three letters sponsored the very first episode of Sesame Street, which was mostly not seen in the state of Mississippi.  Did you know?  Well, here’s a snippet of the very end of the show:

[Answer: Letters W, S, & E and Numbers 2 & 3.]

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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