Before Colin Kaepernick, There Was Eartha Kitt
How the entertainer was blacklisted for standing up to the President
Before Colin Kaepernick, before the Philadelphia Eagles football franchise, before all the men who have taken a knee, and thrown up a fist in protest, there was Eartha Kitt. Eartha Kitt: entertainer, star of the stage and screen; fierce, feral, barely five foot four. Eartha the great, standing alone and tall against the White House when it mattered most. Before Adam came Eartha. Mighty, mighty little Eartha Kitt.
The day she took a stand, January 18, 1968, was the day after her 41st birthday, but Kitt didn’t know this at the time. She only found out her date of birth at age seventy-one when, during a campus Q & A, she challenged students at Benedict College in South Carolina to find her birth certificate, and they did. She cried when, a year later, she saw the certificate, saw her dad’s name had been blacked out.
Kitt was born into poverty and out of wedlock on a plantation in the small South Carolina town of North, to a mother who was African American and Cherokee. Her dad was white, that much she knew, but she would die never learning his identity. “They were still protecting the name of the father,” Kitt’s daughter told the Observer, years later. It was 1998 by then, but “they were still protecting the white man.”
When, in 1968, Lady Bird Johnson invited Kitt to a luncheon at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Kitt initially declined. “I thought it would be a lot of nonsense — flowers, champagne, a chance to show off,” Kitt wrote in her autobiography. “I felt a con coming on.”
But she changed her mind after the First Lady’s secretary called her up, asked her nicely to reconsider. At the time, people were heated about the Vietnam War and many had taken to the streets in protest. The year of the luncheon alone, 17,000 Americans had been killed in combat in Southeast Asia.
The theme for the luncheon was: “Why is there so much juvenile delinquency in the streets of America?” a topic Kitt was particularly suited to discuss, given her extensive work with youth groups across the country. So the White House flew her out to D.C., put her up at the Shoreham Hotel, sent a limo to collect her in the morning.
But when Kitt arrived at the luncheon, taking a seat at a table on the second floor, inside the Johnson’s private family dining room, she found no one was interested in talking about juvenile delinquency in the streets of America. They were more interested in the menu (chicken breasts, crab bisque), and whether or not the President would make a surprise appearance (he would).
After dessert, LBJ took to the podium and spoke briefly about how more police were needed on the streets, how there was “a great deal” that could be done to ensure “our youth are not seduced,” and that “the place to start is in the home.”
When the President was done speaking, Kitt stood up, physically stood, walked over to him and said: “Mr. President, what do you do about delinquent parents? Those who have to work and are too busy to look after their children?” The question took the President by surprise. He hemmed and hawed about a Social Security bill, about day-care centers, and then he quickly left the room.
Kitt sat back down, and remained sitting and quiet, as the lunching women spoke, mostly about the First Lady’s intention to “beautify America.” Finally, after Lady Bird asked for Kitt’s opinion, Kitt said: “I think we have missed the main point of the luncheon. We have forgotten the main reason we have juvenile delinquency.”
Then, Kitt brought up the war.
“You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed,” Kitt said. “They rebel in the street. They will take pot…and they will get high. They don’t want to go to school because they’re going to be snatched from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam.”
“Mrs. Johnson,” she continued, “you are a mother, too…I am a mother and I know the feeling of having a baby come out of my guts. I have a baby and then you send him off to war. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot. And, Mrs. Johnson, in case you don’t understand the lingo that’s marijuana.”
The New York Times ran the story the next day, front page, a picture of Kitt, mouth wide open, Lady Bird looking on, bewildered, slightly terrified. The headline: Eartha Kitt Denounces War Policy to Mrs. Johnson, and: EARTHA KITT HITS U.S. WAR POLICY.
“A pale Mrs. Johnson rose and looked directly at Miss Kitt who leaned against a podium in the yellow walled Family Dining Room,” the Times reported. With her “voice trembling,” and “tears welling in her eyes,” Lady Bird told the room that just because there was “a war going on,” she saw “no reason to be uncivilized.”
“I took it,” Kitt would later write in her autobiography, “she was referring to me.”
The press ran with the story coast-to-coast, blowing it up, turning it into a tale of an ‘angry black woman’ making the sweet, gentle, white Lady Bird Johnson cry.
“Eartha Kitt’s story didn’t get told by journalists as a form of activism,” Sarah Jackson, author of Black Celebrity, Racial Politics, and the Press, explains. “It got told as this sort of… interpersonal gendered conflict instead.”
Lost in the furore of Kitt’s “disrespect” of the White House was the larger, more important point of why there was a need for a luncheon to begin with; why you couldn’t talk about young people in America without talking about drugs and poverty and race and war.
That story, that luncheon, sounded the death knell on Kitt’s career. Her bookings dried up instantly. Dates were canceled without warning or explanation. “One club owner told me he was sorry,” Kitt said to the Washington Post in 1978, “sorry, but ‘You’re a problem’.”
When Kitt left the White House that afternoon, she was alone and it was freezing. She hailed a cab on the street. There was no limo waiting for her this time.
“It was really heart-breaking to her and very upsetting that her own government turned on her for something as simple as just giving an honest response to a question,” Kitt’s daughter, Kitt Shapiro, would tell reporters, years later. “And that was really something, I think, that she really never let go of, that disappointment.”
Eartha Kitt died on Christmas Day in 2008. She died knowing the CIA had, after being asked by the Secret Service back in 1968, produced an extensive report on her. No evidence of any wrongdoing had been found, but it didn’t matter. She had been blacklisted. The report came out one week after the luncheon.
Kitt was cremated per her wishes, her ashes interred, in a birdbath, at her home with little fanfare. She was survived by her daughter. She was beloved by so many. “I’m a dirt person,” Eartha Kitt once said to Ebony magazine, in 1993. “I trust the dirt. I don’t trust diamonds and gold.”