The passing of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner on Wednesday rocked fans of the magazine and cultural mainstay. While Hef will be remembered for his silk robes, lavish parties, and beautiful women, his little known legacy as a supporter of civil and equal rights should also be highlighted.
One of Hefner’s most notable acts was giving the late Dick Gregory his first big break. In 1961, Hefner hired Gregory as a running act in the Playboy Club in Chicago at a time when Black comedians struggled to find gigs in mainstream establishments. Hefner also supported Gregory’s activism and gave him $25,000 to fund the investigation of the murder of civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner in Mississippi during Freedom Summer.
The famous “Playboy Interview” gave a national platform to some of the boldest voices in Black America. The magazine’s first interview was published in September 1962, with Roots author Alex Haley commanding the segment and Miles Davis as the subject. Haley interviewed several notable figures such Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Malcolm X. That interview led to Haley helping the civil rights leader pen his autobiography.
Hefner supported King, and gave financial assistance to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition among other groups. Further, Hefner gave influential Black fashion designer Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes the opportunity to design the iconic Playboy bunny costume which made its formal debut in 1960.
In March 1965, Jennifer Jackson became the first Black playmate and in 1971, Darine Stern posed solo for a now iconic cover in an era where Black women on magazine covers were few and far between.
Black women on the cover of Playboy. RIP Hugh Hefner 🙏🏿 pic.twitter.com/jCBkn12vAU
— Ᏸecca💅🏿 (@MJStarLover) September 28, 2017
Hefner practiced equality at his iconic Playboy Clubs as well.
“Playboy was the first mainstream club, non-black club that actually put on stage black comedians,” Hefner told CBS Los Angeles. “Even in Las Vegas Black performers that performed on, including Sammy Davis, who was a very close friend of mine, would appear on stage, but they couldn’t walk through the casino. They had to walk through the back entrance.”
“When we started franchising, when they refused our members, the black members, entrance, I said, ‘you can’t do that, these are members of our club.’ And we literally bought back the franchised clubs,” he said.
By way of his foundation, Hefner, who believed strongly in the causes he backed, gave to several organizations and was a champion of LGBT rights. In the early days of Essence Magazine, publisher and co-founder Edward Lewis said that Hefner invested $250,000 to help save the publication from folding.
Hefner’s political views were often overshadowed by his playboy image, but several who have benefited from his generosity have come forth to praise him in the wake of his passing.
Hugh Hefner was 91.
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