Sunday, December 21, 2008

The First Black Santa December 1963

Sonny Liston was perfect for the part. By now he was known by everyone as the meanest man in the world. He was a sullen and surly champion, a "street nigger." He had served time for armed robbery and didn't give a damn about his image. This newest heavyweight champion of the world flaunted his surly, menacing image at a time when rising racial fever dominated the headlines. The early '60s were the years of Freedom Rides, of Dr. martin Luther King, of black revolution, of rising racial tensions. I was looking into the eyes of a changing America. I explained the idea of a black Santa to Liston's
advisor and idol, Joe Louis. "That'll be the day," said Joe skeptically, but he went ahead and twisted Sonny's arm. For the shooting, Carl Fisher and I went to Las Vegas, a place Liston called home because he was a notorious dice freak. We got set up in a hotel room with Carl's photographic gear, ready to capture the Western world's newest Santa and snapped the first shot. But Sonny wouldn't stay put. He couldn't resist the crap tables in the lounge. We snitched to Joe Louis. He lumbered over to Liston's table, grabbed his ear, wrenched him around and led him back to the elevator. "Git," he whispered in Sonny's ear. "Git!" Bent over like a puppy on a leash, Liston returned to the room and we photographed the first black Santa to our hearts' content. All hell broke loose when the cover came out. Several advertisers took their money and ran. Subscribers demanded refunds. Angry letters flowed in. Harold Hayes said that Sonny Liston created more trouble than any cover since the invention of movable type. But it set the spirit of the magazine for years to come. Sports Illustrated said: "Four months after Liston won the title, Esquire thumbed its nose at its white readers with an unforgettable cover. On the front of its December 1963 issue, there was Liston glowering out from under a tasseled red-and-white Santa Claus hat, looking like the last man on earth America wanted to see coming down its chimney." And Time magazine described the cover as "one of the greatest social statements in the plastic arts since Picasso's Guernica." Ho, ho, ho. As Lois has declared again and again, "This wasn't just cover." Rather, it was a powerful political statement that transcended the medium. In the early 1960s, the times were definitely changing and Esquire, with its long history as a highly literary though somewhat racy men's magazine, wasn't keeping up. The writing was as good as ever, but sales were dropping; its covers were failing to do their job. "The statements inside (of a magazine) are useless unless there is a statement on the outside," Lois says. So, with an acute prescience, a hardheaded willingness to enter the political arena and a willing editor, every month Lois created statements that were difficult to ignore.

From the book "Covering the '60s: George Lois, The Esquire Era." George Lois, Monacelli Press, Inc. New York, NY 1996 p70

An interesting contrast in time, 1963 to 2008... from the first black santa to the first black president. Much has happened and not happened in the past 45 years. Does the election of Barack Obama signal the end of the civil rights movement or give it renewed momentum that will take it into an era of true inclusiveness. 45 years.... lets hope the answer to my question doesn't take as long to manifest.

Seasons Greetings to all my EN readers! ... will post my year end review in a few days... Thanks again for all the love and support.

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1 comment:

EpiphanyNoir said...

Note to the person who left the malicious comment here. You should know two things going forward. One I can reject your comments which is easy enough to do. But I also have complete preview to the IP Addresses which I can use to track you down and have you arrested under guidelines of the law. So you have made your thoughts known and I have heard you but do not test me. Hate speech and racism is not tolerated here.