How Feel-Good Show “The Facts of Life” Tackled a KKK Problem, 35 Years Before Summer 2017

first published on MEDIUM, October 3, 2017, LINK

The Facts of Life, similar to a lot of 1980s television, conjures warm-hearted memories of adolescent shenanigans and those same characters learning life lessons after an impassioned sit-down with an elder. Unlike a lot of sitcoms of the decade, The Facts of Life’s cast was pre-teen and teen girls, who were guided by affable matriarch Mrs. Edna Garrett (played by underrated national treasure, Charlotte Rae).

Through the growing pains of Lip Quenchers-wearing rich snob Blair Warner; I’m from the Bronx and don’t you forget about it Jo Polniaczek; innocent appearing but opinionated at a moment’s notice Natalie Green; and the sole representative of Black girl youth Dorothy Ramsey (though we know her as Tootie), during the series’ nine-year run that began 1979, topics such as body image, lesbianism (“Rough Housing”), abortion (“The Source”), sexual assault (“Fear Strikes Back”), the dynamics of what it means or entails to be “Black” (“Who Am I?”), American assimilation, idolatry gone haywire (“Starstruck”), teenage marriage, prostitution (“The Runaway”)and first heartbreak (“Sweet Sorrow”) were all reinvestigated from the teenage perspective. What the oft viewed as blithe Facts of Life also tackled — and their contemporaries did not — was the conundrum of a friend being related to a Ku Klux Klan affiliate, in 1982.

Facts of Life cast, the early 1980s

After an awkward season 1 and on the precipice of cancellation, NBC gave the series one last chance to be great. A new team of writers, a downsizing of the cast, as well as the introduction of Jo, in 1980, improved the auspices of the show targeted towards young women. Scripts were more comically sharp and the formerly underutilized wit of the young actresses was stirred to memorable effect. Season three began September 1981 and on January 6, 1982, “Legacy” aired with its KKK storyline.

Facts of Life ad for the 1979 series premiere

When it comes to incontestably hot topics of the ’80s, the KKK acronym doesn’t spring to mind as quickly as New Coke or Cabbage Patch Kids. (On the more dire ends of things, the crack cocaine pandemic as well). Yet, they were still around as United States membership yo-yo’ed during the time frame of the 1970s to 1982.

OnAugust 25, 2017, Jacobin Magazine published “Fighting the Klan in Reagan’s America”, by Branko Marcetic, and it is an extremely informative report that was released two weeks after White Nationalists and the deservedly dubbed “Neo-Nazi” shockingly swarmed the University of Virginia campus, and the next day in Charlottesville, violence ensued between them and counter-protesters, and Heather Heyer died as a result of “Alt-Right” James Fields, Jr. roaming his Dodge Challenger through a crowd of anti-racist demonstrators. As we know, the crux of these incidents was the continued conversation of possibly removing a Robert E. Lee statue from Justice Park, a clear iconography of the Confederacy, the onetime union within the United States, and analogous to the Ku Klux Klan.

Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, VA. Photo courtesy of The Virginia Flaggers blog, 2016

Marcetic researched that the Klan went from a count as “low of 1,500 in 1974” to a “membership [that] ballooned to between ten and twelve [thousand] by 1981.” (Who the hell was trying to ingratiate themselves with the KKK before tuning into Hill Street Blues?) Also important to note is that Michael Donald, a 20-year-old Black male, and technical college student, was murdered by the KKK in Mobile, Alabama in March 1981. In 2008, his death was recognized as the last recorded lynching on American soil. Again, this is rather disconcerting in retrospect. This is the ’80s we’re talking about.

MTV.

Smurfs.

MJ’s glittery glove.

The Goonies.

Not 1916 or 1930s. (Oddly, as included via Jacobin, “In 1978, a Klansman was quoted in saying “We’re into politics now. You can’t get anywhere with violence anymore.” However, in 1979, multiple Klansmen violently clashed with members of the Community Workers’ Party, in Greensboro, NC, since historically referred to as the Greensboro massacre).

The year before in 1980, KKK Imperial “Wizard” Bill Wilkinson boldly endorsed Ronald Reagan, the Republican nominee for the presidency, and the politician and former actor renounced the association.

With such racially-charged developments and such harrowing news up until the fall of 1981, stateside, it was possible that The Facts of Lifewriters were all too aware of this and going into season three, decided that one of the taboo subjects to tackle would be racism. And not just casual, common micro-aggressions (e.g. “Can I touch your hair?”), but when racism hits home (minus the violence.) “Legacy” explored the past haunting the present, and how a new generation could respond to such challenging transgressions. Depending on who you ask, it was not surprising not the writers chose White, blonde, rich, and youthful Blair to be the example of when self-respect, knowledge, and altruism are at stake in the matter of race.

THE FACTS OF LIFE — “Legacy” Episode 11 — Pictured: Lisa Whelchel as Blair Warner — Photo by: Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Legacy” has about five bullet points that all take place on Life’s familiar ground of (fictional) Eastland School: Blair’s smug excitement over the new library being funded by her grandfather’s estate and plans to name it after him; utter discomposure over the discovery that her grandfather was a willing benefactor of the KKK in the 1960s (in “Fighting the Klan”, Marcetic included a disclosure from undercover reporter J.W. Thompson. He “confirmed that the KKK, in the ’80s, enjoyed financial gains and support from wealthy individuals.”); slight panicking, such as offering Tootie an assortment of nice sweaters as atonement; Mrs. Garrett consoling her that the grandfather of her childhood and the man who was a segregationist were mutually exclusive and (spoiler alert!) Blair allowing Eastland to use the estate money but the library must have a different name.

 

Tootie, played by Kim Fields from 1979–1988, wearing one of the sweaters Blair gave her.

Laughs were not omitted in the episode, but like earlier ones that had taken on suggestive or thorny content, it was sensitive to the character in the hot seat. Her friends were supportive and knew she wasn’t “prejudiced”, but Blair was confounded. And not so much by the library anymore, but because she was unsure of which grandfather to believe in.

Prior to Natalie delivering the hard news, Blair remembered her grandfather as “always being there” as her father and stepfathers were in and out of her life. Take the sitcom aspect out of it and it is heartbreaking. For all of Blair’s easy to repudiate attributes (essentially, she was the Chuck Bass of Eastland), she was a good person with her head on straight, amidst the Giorgio Armani parfum. She firmly knew right from wrong. After Mrs. Garrett warmly stated: “Blair, you can’t change the way he was. But you can give him a chance now to do something good.

You know, from a man who spent a lifetime promoting ignorance, maybe a library…is a fitting gift?” Blair’s solution is for the betterment of the future hopefully not repeating particular aspects of the past. “Legacy” didn’t make it seem it would be easy to move forward, just how to do so as smart as possible versus as unrealistically seamless as possible.

Whelchel and Edna Garrett, played by Charlotte Rae from 1979 to 1986

The episode has striking parallels to the American summer of 2017. Or, as a New York Times sub-headlined in its August 23 Sunday edition, “A Supremacist Summer.” Surprisingly, neither retro or pop culture media outlets have referenced “Legacy” post-Charlottesville. (Then again, this could be because The Facts of Life, while adored by multi-generational female viewers, isn’t heralded the same way as other ’80s sitcoms, for both its serious and funny content, are.)

August alone was ablaze. After Charlottesville, in which ’90s kids and teens had witnessed the pages of their childhood history textbooks scarily come alive, the great-great grandsons of Stonewall Jackson, another Confederate figure, wrote an open letter, posted on Slate, advocating the removal of Confederate statues. (Council votes in Charlottesville agreed to rid of the Jackson statue in Justice Park, while other U.S. cities had already washed their hands clean, such as Baltimore). Nationwide, there was the discussion on whether it was beneficial to eradicate visual acknowledgment of the Confederacy through monuments, busts, plaques, and establishments. VICE News aired its five-million viewed and counting, “Charlottesville: Race and Terror” shortly after the city became infamous. At the August 27th MTV Video Music Awards, pastor Robert Wright Lee IV, a descendant/distant nephew of Robert E. Lee spoke out against White supremacy and fascism, stating “We can find inspiration in the Black Lives Matter movement, the women who marched in the Women’s March in January, and, especially, Heather Heyer, who died fighting for her beliefs.” Lee has since resigned from the North Carolina church he was servicing but reassured on Twitter, and later The View, that he hadn’t backed down from what he said at the VMAs. (There’s also been buzz, with historical records near, that alludes Lee was not inherently racist).

By September, white noise lessened on Confederate monuments and this segment of what was old is racist again became another intangible cloud looming over 2017 or, the era of Trump, many of whom have unabashedly labeled a White Supremacist himself.

Those opposed to removing statues and renaming buildings cry it coddling. To do would be to act if these events and people never existed, but that is not true. Present-day cannot exterminate history’s most embarrassingly and alarmingly racist chapters and individuals. What present-day can do is acknowledge, accordingly, by accuracy. As many thoughtful commentators recommended on social media, maybe statues of Lee, Stonewall and the like can be placed in museums, where their context is purely historical, not elusively heroic. It’ll, however, take a long time to achieve this. As VICE pointed out on August 15, 2017, there are Confederate memorials in states that weren’t even in the Confederacy.

Togo back in time, one last time, in reference to The Facts of Life’s “Legacy”, later in 1982, CNN, still in its nascent stages of programming, aired an uncomfortable interview with Wilkinson on November 4. (Though it is not as blood boiling as when Univision reporter Ilia Calderon was disrespected while talking to a 2017 Klansman and his wife. Of course, post-Charlottesville).

Towards the end, the infuriated interviewer folded his arms and after calling Wilkinson a disgrace, defiantly proclaimed: “I don’t know what we’re doing in 1982, talking to you.” In Jacobin, Marcetic found that the KKK experienced a decline in the “middle of the 1980s”, largely due to costly lawsuits filed by anti-Klan and anti-racist groups that joined forces against such cohorts of hate. (30 years ago, in 1987, Michael Donald’s mother, Beulah Mae Donald, received $7 million in damages, for the murder of her son). By 1984 and into 1985, 6,500 KKK members remained.

Attempts to understand hate groups and the KKK, as composed as possible, came more into focus in the late ’80s, as talk shows were very popular and hosts like Oprah Winfrey conducted one-on-ones in 1988. Geraldo Rivera tried to oversee a civil conversation on his show on November 3rd, and tensions flared between the racist skinheads and activists so badly, the Geraldo set wound up a miasma. One of the chairs that went swinging hit Rivera right square in the nose. 29 years later, the clip remains outrageous to watch. (And the KKK would evolve into comedic bait for talk shows in the 1990s such as The Jerry Springer Show, along with general racist lunatics).

The Facts of Life, a series that spotlighted teenage girl voices, was generally sedative, and 35 years later, its episode “Legacy” is impressively relevant. (A lot of their episodes are, truthfully speaking.)It presaged 2017’s problematic dog days of hate and a new generation continuing the daunting task of counteracting it. But dealing with racism cannot be left up to people of color, millennialism alone, or not regarding how those before in the Civil Rights Movement, the social movements of the 1970s overcame before. Viewing “Legacy” shows that we’ve sadly been here before, KKK involvement or not, but racism and discrimination nonetheless. When it comes to educating or representing the worst of American history, how can we do better?

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