When Mississippi Banned Sesame StreetHistorians in the News
tags: segregation, Mississippi, television
In April 1970, members of Mississippi’s newly formed State Commission for Educational Television met to discuss Big Bird and Cookie Monster.
“Sesame Street” had debuted on public TV the previous November, and the earliest episodes would look familiar today: cartoons about the letter O, counting exercises with ice cream cones and Ernie singing in the bathtub.
But the all-White commission decided Mississippi was “not yet ready for it,” according to one member, because it showed Black and White kids playing together. In a 3-2 vote, the commission banned “Sesame Street” from broadcasting on the state-run ETV network.
“The state has enough problems to face up to without adding to them,” an anonymous member of the commission, which was appointed by segregationist Gov. John Bell Williams (D), told the Associated Press.
None of the board’s members would speak on the record about the ban. The commission worried about sinking its fledgling system just as it was launching. At the time, ETV operated only one channel near Jackson, but it had plans to expand statewide after securing hard-won funding. It was allegedly spooked by state lawmakers, who had objected to educational programs promoting integration and could meddle with the commission’s funding. Some had already objected to ETV’s $5.3 million appropriation in the state budget.
“I think it’s a tragedy for both the white and black children of Mississippi,” Joan Ganz Cooney, a television producer who co-created “Sesame Street,” told the AP.
“Sesame Street” had landed in a bleak landscape for children’s TV. Saturday morning cartoons were big business, thanks to ads for sugary breakfast cereals, but during the week, kids were mostly stuck with reruns of “a lot of junk,” as Ganz Cooney put it. Still, children were clearly drawn to television, and hungry for more. Lloyd Morrisett, one of the co-creators of “Sesame Street,” noticed that his young daughter watched test patterns on their television, waiting for something to come on.