Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.
TV URBAN LEGEND: The state of Mississippi once banned Sesame Street.
Mississippi has a unique place in the history of Sesame Street. Most importantly, Greenville, Mississippi was the birth place of Jim Henson, creator of Sesame Street and he lived in nearby Stoneville, MS during his childhood. In fact, another nearby city, Leland, MS claims to be the “birth place of Kermit the Frog,” since Henson spent so much time there as a child.
Henson never challenged the claim and in fact, in 2002, Jim Henson Productions filmed Kermit’s Swamp Years in Mississippi, effectively confirming that the swamp that Kermit grew up in WAS in Mississippi.
Kermit is an honorary board member of the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Center (along with Morgan Freeman, Jimmy Buffett and a few others). So all of these great connections between Henson’s Muppets and Mississippi make it even harder to believe that for a time in the early 1970s, the state actually banned Sesame Street airing in Mississippi, and yet, that’s exactly what happened.
After two years of research, in 1968 TV producer Joan Ganz Cooney and education expert Lloyd Morrisett, formed the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) (now called the Sesame Workshop). Their goal was to create an educational and entertaining children’s program. Their end result was Sesame Street, starring Jim Henson’s Muppet characters. The show debuted on public television in the fall of 1969 and was an instant pop culture phenomenon. By the end of 1970, the show was doing well in the ratings, the song “Rubber Duckie” was a surprise hit on the Billboard charts, and the show had garnered a Peabody Award to go with three Emmy Awards. President Nixon even wrote a congratulatory letter to Cooney!
However, not everyone was a fan of the show, specifically the multi-cultural setting of Sesame Street. Allen Cavett Thompson was the Mayor of Jackson, MS for twenty years. When he retired in 1969 he formed a group called FOCUS, which he touted as a supporter of the freedom of choice in America. Using this “freedom of choice,” he and the group protested public dollars being spent on the airing of Sesame Street. Eventually, a Commission was formed in response to this outcry. The Commission on Educational Television dealt with whether Sesame Street should be allowed to air on public television in April of 1970.
Ultimately, the five person commission ruled that Sesame Street should be banned. One of the members of the group, likely irate over the decision, leaked the results to the New York Times where it became a major news story at the time. One of the members of the commission, speaking anonymously, stated that “Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because ‘it uses a highly integrated cast of children'” and furthermore, that the main objection was “mainly that we’re not ready for it yet.”
It is important to note that there was no official statement on WHY the Commission ruled the way that they did, and we only have an anonymous member of the group, one almost certainly against the ruling, to rely on for that being the basis of the decision. That said, however the decision was arrived at, it seems like a foolish decision on the face of the matter, whether it was specifically due to the integration issue or not. Cooney released a statement on the decision, stating that it was “a tragedy for both the white and black children of Mississippi.”
Twenty-two days after their original decision, the Commission reversed themselves and Sesame Street was approved in Mississippi, where it has remained ever since. However, for twenty-two days, the show was, indeed, banned by Mississippi, so the legend is…
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