Civil Rights in Mad Men and Beyond

The only black character that has been on Mad Men for more than two episodes is Carla, the Draper housekeeper. That might change this season.

If you didn’t see the season premiere of Mad Men this week, you should know one thing: racism and civil rights have intruded upon Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. The show has referenced racism a few times, with Paul and Sheila going to the South to register voters, but it has never been a prominent theme like women’s role in the workplace has. It seems, however, that the fifth season could feature race quite a bit, especially if the office hires a person of color. As Tanner Colby points out, most seasons have included a major historical event (Kennedy’s election, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Kennedy’s assassination), and if this season spans about two years it could include Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

In this first episode of the season, race is treated as a problem that nobody wants to fix.  The opening scene of the premiere features a few executives at Young & Rubicam water bomb a Civil Rights protest going on outside their office,* which gets them in the papers. From there, the partners at SCDP decide to take the opportunity to rub salt on Y&R’s wounds by placing an ad in the paper declaring themselves “an equal-opportunity employer.” The boys at Y&R fire back, sending a resume and an African artifact through the door while a number of black applicants sit in the lobby.

While the premiere spends a lot of time showing how SCDP employees struggle with their home lives (with two new children, two new homes, and a new wife), the issue of race is tossed back and forth between SCDP and Y&R throughout the episode, with each agency trying to stick the other with the Civil Rights problem.

During the time in which Mad Men is set, the Civil Rights movement was often treated in the same way.  Politically, both Democrats and Republicans voted against civil rights reforms in Congress, despite Presidents of both parties putting forth piecemeal plans for reform.  Kennedy denounced the Freedom Riders for provoking violence and criticized SNCC for inciting harassment as well.  It would take James Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi and Bull Connor’s crackdown in Birmingham to force his hand.

The biggest victories for blacks, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, arguably only came about because Johnson realized that black votes were important. By and large, the rights of America’s blacks were hot potato’d until politicians realized that black votes, not black people, were something to attract and protect.  One of the boys at Y&R shouted for the protesters to get a job, then pranked SCDP into accepting resumes – neither agency actually wanted to address the problem, but in the end one had to. Most politicians during the time didn’t want to deal with the “problem” of civil rights, but were forced to. I’m definitely not an expert on civil rights history, but I think this was a recurring theme until the movement grew enough to demand attention.


* Fun fact: Young & Rubicam was actually the first ad agency to hire a black adman, Roy Eaton, and that was in 1955.

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