Just forty five years ago in the spring of 1968 English singer Petula Clark struck a blow for racial equality in the USA. PETER FROST tells the story.

Petula Clark

Today it is hard to believe that segregation in the USA was as bad as Apartheid in South Africa less than 50 years ago.

As late as 1963 Alabama State Governor George Wallace was calling for “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”. His speech became a rallying cry for racists and those opposed to integration and the Civil Rights movement.

All across the southern states of the USA Public toilets, swimming pools, lunch counters, buses and places of public entertainment all operated a strict segregation with black people often banned or excluded.

Amazingly it was a white English woman, singer Petula Clark, who struck a mighty blow in the media against the obscenity of institutionalised racism.

As late as 1968, English singer Petula Clark was a big star in America with a recent string of more than a dozen number one hits and her own US TV show.

She invited black singer Harry Belafonte to duet with her on the show and, at the end of an emotional performance of her own anti-war song On the Path of Glory she took his arm.

It was, amazingly, the first interracial touch ever on an American television screen.

It’s hard to believe today but the incident caused an enormous outcry.

Show sponsors Chrysler demanded the segment be removed. Petula Clark insisted the show went out as it was. She got her way but only after a hard fight. The British star had actually played a major role in dismantling the colour bar on American television.

In the southern states in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement prompted a revival in Ku Klux Klan activity.

In the Deep South considerable pressure was put on blacks not to vote.

In the state of Mississippi by 1960, 42 per cent of the population were black yet only two per cent were registered to vote. Lynching was still common as a method of terrorising the local black population to keep it in its place. Civil Rights activists regularly disappeared or were murdered.

Today racism is still all too common in the USA, much of it directed at the first black President Barack Obama.

Petula Clark, now aged over 80 is still performing and still releasing new music.

She started singing at the age of seven but in over seventy years on stage, screen and record her proudest moment must surely be that few seconds of TV that changed the way the USA saw itself forty five years ago.


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