TV Legends Revealed | Did Mississippi Really Once Ban ‘Sesame Street’?
TV URBAN LEGEND: Mississippi once banned Sesame Street.
Mississippi has a unique place in the history of Sesame Street: Most importantly, Greenville is the birthplace of Sesame Street creator Jim Henson, who lived in nearby Stoneville during his childhood. In fact, another nearby city, Leland, claims to be the “birthplace of Kermit the Frog,” as Henson spent so much time there when he was young, a claim Henson never challenged. In fact, in 2002, Jim Henson Productions filmed Kermit: The Swamp Years in Mississippi, effectively confirming that the swamp Kermit grew up in was in that state. 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 more difficult to believe that for a time in the early 1970s, the state actually banned the airing of Sesame Street, and yet, that’s exactly what happened.
Following 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 Sesame Workshop). Their goal was to create an educational and entertaining children’s program, which resulted in Sesame Street, starring Jim Henson’s Muppet characters. The show debuted on public television in fall 1969 and became in immediate pop-culture phenomenon. By the end of 1970, Sesame Street 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 its multicultural setting. After serving 20 years as mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, Allen Cavett Thompson retired in 1969 and formed FOCUS, a group that he touted as a supporter of the freedom of choice in America. Using that “freedom of choice,” Thompson’s organization protested taxpayer dollars being spent to air Sesame Street. In response to the outcry a state commission was formed in April 1970 to address whether Sesame Street should be permitted to be broadcast on public television.
The five-person panel eventually ruled that the children’s show should be banned. One of the members of the commission, likely upset by the decision, leaked the results to The New York Times, in which it became a major news story. A commission member, 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’s important to note that there was no official explanation of why the commission ruled the way it did, and we can only rely on the comments of an anonymous member, one almost certainly against the decision. That said, however the panel arrived at its decision, it seems foolish. Cooney released a response to the ruling, stating that it was “a tragedy for both the white and black children of Mississippi.”
Twenty-two days after its original decision, the commission reversed itself and Sesame Street was approved in Mississippi, where it has remained ever since. However, for 22 days, the show was, indeed, banned by Mississippi, so the legend is …
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