The Most Influential White Americans in Black America
A look at the White Americans who have had the greatest impact Black American lives
While there have already been tongue in cheek lists featuring the white Americans perceived as the most “down” with black folks, Loop21.com has decided to put together a list of the white Americans who have genuinely had the greatest impact on the lives of black Americans in the last century. Some played key roles in altering America’s laws to end legalized racial inequality, while others have helped increase the cultural influence of black Americans through the arts and entertainment, but all have made significant contributions to the black experience in America, whether they know it or not. (And in some cases, whether we want to admit it or not.)
ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT
1) Grace Mirabella (1930-the present) and Anna Wintour, (1949-the present) Fashion Editors
In 1974 Grace Mirabella became the first editor at American VOGUE to break the cover color barrier when African-American model Beverly Johnson graced the fashion bible’s cover. Mirabella’s successor Anna Wintour, one of the most powerful women in fashion in the world, has since overseen a number of covers featuring a diverse array of black women, among them Oprah Winfrey and First Lady Michelle Obama. Wintour also made history by featuring black women on the cover of the magazine’s September issue, first placing supermodel Naomi Campbell on the cover in 1988 (which Wintour has admitted sparked controversy) and later placing Halle Berry on the cover in 2010. Wintour is also credited with helping to establish black editors Andre Leon Talley and Edward Enninful as two of the most influential people in an industry not known for its diversity.
2) Rick Rubin, (1963- the present) Music producer and Executive
Though the name Russell Simmons is practically synonymous with Def Jam, Rubin originally conceptualized the label. After meeting Simmons during his college years, the two embarked upon one of music’s most successful partnerships and one of hip-hop’s most important. Rubin is credited with taking hip-hop mainstream, thanks to a friend suggesting the collaboration between Run D.M.C. and Aerosmith which became the classic “Walk this Way,” a defining moment in hip hop and music. Rubin has since become one of the most influential producers in the history of music working with artists as diverse as Johnny Cash and the Beastie Boys, landing him a spot on TIME’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” list.
3) Brandon Tartikoff, Television Executive (1949-1997)
During his tenure as head of Entertainment at NBC in the 1980’s, Tartikoff spearheaded such landmark programming as “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World,” programs that to this day are credited with forever changing the image of black Americans in mainstream culture. “The Cosby Show” is even credited with laying the groundwork for the eventual election of President Obama.
4) The Rolling Stones, rock band (Active: 1962-the present)
Like many white artists of that era, (including their contemporaries, the Beatles), the Rolling Stones’ early work consisted primarily of songs originally recorded by black artists which they subsequently introduced to mainstream white audiences. The band’s first single was a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Come on,” while the group’s first hit was a cover of “It’s all over now,” by Bobby and Shirley Womack. But unlike some of the other non-black artists of that era, the Stones have remained loyal and vocal champions of the black artists that influenced their work and success, among them Muddy Waters and Little Walter.
5) Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton, Founders of STAX Records (Founded: 1957) AND Leonard and Phil Chess, Executives at Chess Records (Active: 1950-1975)
Unbeknownst to many in the early days of Rock N’ Roll the primary competitors to MOTOWN (the legendary record label that gave us the Supremes and the Temptations) were record labels run by white Americans. Stax Records is credited with making stars out of such black music legends as Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes while Chess Records was responsible for providing platforms for some of the most influential artists in the history of music, among them Etta James and Chuck Berry.
6) Hugh Hefner, Playboy (1926-present)
Though now best known to younger Americans for dating women young enough to be his granddaughters, and for inspiring the failed “Playboy Club” television series, Hefner was a civil rights pioneer. In addition to giving generously to civil rights causes in the 1960’s and befriending many civil rights activists along the way (including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jesse Jackson) Hefner published black writers including Dr. King (whose final piece was published posthumously in Playboy), and Alex Haley, whose interview with Malcolm X for Playboy became part of the basis for his bestselling autobiography. But Hefner’s greatest contribution to diversity may be “Playboy’s Penthouse,” a groundbreaking variety show airing from 1959-1961 featuring his entertainment friends — black and white — in an integrated setting, something that didn’t sit well with Southern viewers at the time. The show was canceled.
7) Jerry Heller, (1940-the present) Music Executive
As the former manager of one of gangsta raps most influential groups, NWA, and co-founder of Ruthless Records, Heller is undoubtedly one of the most influential figures in the history of hip-hop, but also one of the most controversial. He is credited with precipitating the breakup of NWA and sparking one of gangsta raps ugliest feuds, between former members Dr. Dre and Eazy E. He is also accused of embodying one of the music industry’s ugliest stereotypes: the calculating white executive attempting to take advantage of black artists.
POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT
8) Richard Nixon, 37th President of the United States (1913-1994)
A largely forgotten but important historical fact in the legal battle for civil rights: Richard Nixon’s administration was the first to implement a significant federal affirmative action program, the so-called Philadelphia Plan requiring government contractors to hire minority workers. The Republican president’s administration also oversaw the greatest school desegregation in American history.
9) Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) First Lady
A vocal supporter of civil rights, she was instrumental in insuring that her close friend, Mary Mcleod Bethune was appointed Head of the Division of Negro Affairs, making Bethune the first African-American to head a federal agency. She also inserted herself into one of the greatest civil rights controversies of her era when she defended Marian Anderson after the opera star was denied the right to perform at Constitution Hall by the Daughters of the American Revolution, because of her race. Roosevelt subsequently secured the Lincoln Memorial for Anderson’s performance instead. The performance was filmed and became a defining cultural moment.
10) David Axelrod, (1955-the present) Political Consultant
David Axelrod had previously worked on behalf of five of the Democratic candidates running for president in 2008, but chose the youngest, and in the eyes of some, longest shot among them during the last presidential race. That candidate was then Sen. Barack Obama. Axelrod was the architect of Obama’s surprising election to the Senate and the Chief Strategist of his successful presidential campaign four years later. According to the Washington Post he said of his motivation to work on behalf of Obama as opposed to more experienced and potentially electable candidates, "I thought that if I could help Barack Obama get to Washington, then I would have accomplished something great in my life."
11) President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Sen. Robert Kennedy (1925-1968)
President John F. Kennedy made civil rights a cornerstone of his presidency (referencing the importance of civil rights legislation in a 1963 speech) but was assassinated before seeing many of the goals he pursued come to fruition. As the Kennedy administration’s Attorney General, his brother Bobby Kennedy played a crucial role in shepherding his brother’s civil rights agenda, using his power as the nation’s highest ranking law officer to dispatch U.S. Marshals to protect Freedom Riders and working with his brother and his successor, President Johnson on the creation and passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
12) President Lyndon Johnson, 36th President of the United States (1908-1973)
Johnson executed much of the civil rights agenda that his predecessor, President Kennedy, was unable to before his death, overseeing the most sweeping civil rights transformation in American history. Prior to being selected as Kennedy’s Vice-president Johnson also played a key role in the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act during his tenure as House Majority leader. He is also the president responsible for the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, programs that have benefited countless low-income and other Americans, including black Americans.
13) Michael Schwerner (1939-1964) and Andrew Goodman (1943-1964), Civil rights activists
The murder of two young, white Civil Rights workers, killed at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan (alongside a black civil rights worker) in Philadelphia, Mississippi cast a national spotlight on the brutality of the Jim Crow south and transformed the issue of civil rights from a philosophical debate viewed primarily as a “Southern problem” into a human rights issue viewed as an American problem. In 2005 Edgar Ray Killen was convicted in their deaths and in 2009, Philadelphia, Mississippi elected its first black mayor.
14) President Eisenhower, 34th president of the United States (1890-1969)
Though he doesn’t receive nearly as much credit as some other presidents, Eisenhower was the first modern day Civil Rights president, signing the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 into law and dispatching federal marshals to aid the Little Rock Nine in their efforts to integrate Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas, in a landmark case.
15) Earl Warren, 14th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (1891-1974)
Warren presided over the Supreme Court’s most significant Civil Rights cases, among them Brown v. Board of Education, which ended legalized segregation in American public schools. He is credited with insuring that the nation’s highest court presented a united front, reaching unanimous decisions on the most important civil rights cases of that era.
16) Bill Clinton, (1946-the present), 42nd president
Though his legacy has lost a bit of its polish in the years since he went from being best known as America’s honorary first black president, to the husband of the senator who almost prevented the election of the first real black president, Clinton’s contributions to Black America must not be forgotten. His cabinet included the first African-American Secretary of Labor, first African-American Secretary of Energy and first African-American Secretary of Agriculture, first black Secretary of Commerce, not to mention a diverse senior staff in the White House.
17) Ambassador Dan Rooney, (1932-the present) NFL executive
Though currently serving as Ambassador to Ireland in the Obama administration, Dan Rooney may have made his greatest contribution as a leader during his career as an NFL executive. In 2003, during his tenure as head of the league’s diversity committee, Rooney, whose family owns the Pittsburgh Steelers, implemented the “Rooney Rule,” requiring NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head coach openings and other senior management positions. Since its inception the Rooney Rule is credited with increasing the presence of African-American coaches in the league by 16%.
18) Tinker Hatfield, (1955?-the present) Designer
Hatfield may just be the most influential designer in the history of Black America. Since joining Nike in 1981 Hatfield has designed 15 pairs of the iconic Air Jordan line. It’s been reported that when Hatfield first presented his original Air Jordan design to Michael Jordan, it brought a tear to the basketball legend’s eye. The Air Jordan line is at least partly responsible for elevating the role of high-end sneakers in fashion. For his contributions Hatfield was designated one of the most influential designers of the century by Fortune magazine.
19) Branch Rickey, Baseball Executive (1881-1965)
In 1947 Rickey broke Major League baseball’s longstanding color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson to a contract with the then Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey spent years strategically searching for the right candidate to integrate the league, a longtime personal goal of his, before signing Robinson. He also played a role in drafting the first documented league player from Latin America, Roberto Clemente.
20) Lee Corso, (1935- the present) Sports broadcaster and former college coach
Though best known today for his on air analysis, and occasionally spotty game-day predictions, in 1962, Corso helped make history by breaking one of the last remaining color barriers in college sports. As an employee of the University of Maryland football team, he recruited Daryl Hill who upon transferring from the U.S. Naval Academy became the first ever African-American football player to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). College football has never been the same.