'All through the South, there was this whole ruckus. They were going to take our show off the air if we didn't get rid of Arthur, because he was Black.'
TV's perennial "Golden Girl," Betty White, left behind a legacy that far exceeds the iconic performances she gave Hollywood during her career that spanned more than eight decades in show business. The perpetually sweet—and occasionally foul-mouthed—grande dame of television had a significant impact on both the entertainment industry and American culture at large through her fearless advocacy for causes that matter and by breaking a number of social stigmas. One example of White's trailblazing presence in Hollywood is now being recalled and praised by social media users in the aftermath of her death at the age of 99 on December 31.
Let us not forget that in 1954 Betty White’s show was canceled shortly after receiving backlash for her refusal to cancel Black tap dancer, Arthur Duncan. She extended his airtime instead, and responded to racists with “I’m sorry. Live with it.” pic.twitter.com/Fi6pFqSdXx— Pen Griffey Jr. (@britttbanks) December 31, 2021
According to USA TODAY, this particular incident took place at a time when segregation was at the forefront of American life. White—who rose to become the star and producer of her own national talk and variety TV program, "The Betty White Show," invited a Black tap dancer named Arthur Duncan to perform on the program in 1954. The then-21-year-old California native had been performing in a dance quartet for years and was on the lookout for his big break when the golden chance fell onto his lap. However, the casting choice attracted a fair bit of backlash and controversy at the time.
Let me add 2 of my fave tidbits about Betty: 1) she as the first woman to produce a sitcom with “Life with Elizabeth” and 2) when stations in the South threatened to pull “The Betty White Show” due to Black tap dancer Arthur Duncan she never bowed, telling them to “Live with it.” pic.twitter.com/srxzaezOhk— Kayla (@kaydbug89) December 31, 2021
Duncan's inclusion in "The Betty White Show" did not sit well with a number of TV stations in the racially segregated American South and White was encouraged to take him off because of the color of his skin. "The first TV show I had ever been on, and I credit Betty White for really getting me started in show business, in television," Duncan recounted in the 2018 documentary "Betty White: First Lady of Television," reports The Washington Post. "And all through the South, there was this whole ruckus," White recalled in the documentary. "They were going to take our show off the air if we didn't get rid of Arthur, because he was Black."
#DidYouKnow— The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center (@TheKingCenter) December 31, 2021
In 1954, #BettyWhite was criticized after having Arthur Duncan, a Black tap dancer, on her show.
Her response: "I'm sorry. Live with it."
She then gave Duncan even more airtime. The show was canceled soon after.
Rest well, Betty. #ThankYouForBeingAFriend pic.twitter.com/3rQRTHOPe7
"People in the South resented me being on the show, and they wanted me thrown out," Duncan added. "But there was never a question at all." White responded to their demands with an unblinking, "Live with it" and proceeded to give him as much airtime as possible. "I said, 'I'm sorry, but, you know, he stays,'" the Hollywood icon revealed. Duncan appeared on the show at least three times and went on to have a lustrous career in show business. While it's unclear whether her decision to keep Duncan affected the short-lived show's fate, it was repeatedly rescheduled for different time slots before being quietly taken off the air that same year.
Second part of Arthur Duncan talking about how Betty White gave him his start in show business. pic.twitter.com/jBZEhFGd3I— Lacy Robinson (@welkappeal) August 22, 2018
"Betty was such a joy and inspiration in her later years, but what many people don't realize is what a pioneering, feminist badass she was in television's earliest days," author and pop culture expert Jennifer Keishin Armstrong said following White's death. "She produced, co-created, and starred in her own sitcom, hired female directors, and deliberately chose her career over marriage. She was TV's original trailblazing feminist."
Betty White hosted The Betty White Show in 1954. The daily talk-variety show on NBC allowed White to hire a female director as well as Arthur Duncan, a Black tap dancer, as a regular cast member. pic.twitter.com/PsAKMpdpoZ— Lmauricé Inc. (@VoLinxx) December 31, 2021
In February 1955, "The Betty White Show" became the shortest run program to ever receive an Emmy nomination for Best Daytime Program. According to Black Enterprise, following his stint on the show, Duncan became the first Black performer to join Bob Hope's USO troop and was later discovered by big band leader Lawrence Welk who invited him onto his ABC variety show. He was asked to remain on "The Lawrence Welk Show" after just one appearance, making him the first Black regular on a variety show. Duncan remained part of the cast from 1964 to 1982.