Mad Men and race: Why Season 5 may finally put the civil rights movement front and center.

Why Sterling Cooper was particularly afraid of black America—and why Season 5 may finally put race front and center.

Don Draper
Don Draper trying to share a cigarette and a little conversation with a black bus boy in Mad Men’s pilot episode

Photograph courtesy © AMC 2012.

In everything from their pop-culture references to their meticulous production design, the creators of Mad Men are famously obsessive about the show’s historical accuracy. So it hardly seems possible they would be faithful in their use of period-appropriate underwear yet flub the entire history of race in advertising. In truth, the show is not only accurate in depicting the racial history of the industry, it is spot on in depicting that history as it relates to a place like Sterling Cooper, which is fundamental to the basic premise of the show.

In the early 1950s, BBDO hired Clarence Holte, making him the first black man ever to work at a major New York ad agency. But Holte was retained to serve as a liaison to black newspapers and radio. The color line for blacks to work on “white” advertising wasn’t broken until 1955, when Young & Rubicam hired musician Roy Eaton as a copywriter and composer. In 1960, BBDO also hired graphic designer Georg Olden, a pioneering black creative who’d designed the logo for CBS television and who would go on to be a vice president at McCann-Erickson. A handful of other Jackie Robinson-type figures were making inroads here and there, but for several years that was about it.

Evidence of this would come to light on April 22, 1963. Just weeks after Martin Luther King was arrested in Birmingham, Ala., Advertising Age published the results of a survey by the Urban League that covered minority employment at Madison Avenue’s 10 largest agencies. “Urban League Hits N.Y. Agencies on Racial Discrimination in Employment,” ran the trade paper’s headline. Out of over 20,000 employees, the report identified only 25 blacks working in any kind of professional or creative capacity, i.e., nonclerical or custodial. (To put this in the context of Mad Men’s calendar: The Urban League’s dismal report would have been issued exactly two weeks before the events depicted in the third episode of the show’s third season—that being the episode wherein Roger Sterling dons blackface and sings, “Tis summer, and the darkies are gay” at his country club’s Derby Day Party. This was also the episode in which Sally Draper and grandpa Gene read aloud from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Do we need any further proof that Matthew Weiner knows exactly what he’s doing?)

From that point forward, a handful of agencies saw the direction society was moving and took concrete steps to evolve with it. Between 1963 and 1967, for example, J.Walter Thompson’s New York office grew from 0.5 percent black to 4.9 percent black, the result of a forward-leaning partnership between management and civil-rights groups. So it is accurate to say that over the course of Mad Men’s third and fourth seasons a handful of agencies were conscientiously grappling with matters of race. Sterling Cooper was not one of those agencies. Given that one of its principal partners still liked to sing in blackface, why would it be?

Mad Men is a show about lies, the lies we tell about who we are and what our country is, and what happens when those lies fall apart. The whole idea of the 1950s, picket-fence, Ozzie and Harriet American Dream was a lie, a well-told tale conjured up by Madison Avenue to sell vacuum cleaners and automobiles. And the single biggest lie at the core of that American Dream was the myth of white supremacy, the delusion that allowed a nation of immigrants, outcasts, and orphans to galvanize their standing in a new social order where status and self-worth were rooted in the accident of not being born black. Who is Don Draper but a white man pretending to be a sort of white person he’s not, and who suffers a complete breakdown when that lie is exposed? And what could better symbolize the story of white America in the 1960s?

The brilliance of Sterling Cooper as a narrative vehicle is that the agency embodies a certain kind of whiteness, the desperate kind. Partners Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper—a lackadaisical princeling and an aging eccentric—are clearly second-tier WASPs, comically rendered as such. They are part of the establishment but live on its periphery. They need Don Draper’s creative brilliance to make up for their agency’s shabby mediocrity. They need Pete Campbell’s family pedigree to gain access to the real Old Boys’ Club, which exists even above them. Campbell himself, finding his inheritance squandered, is impoverished gentry, rapidly falling behind his Dartmouth brethren and hungry to keep up. Sterling Cooper’s junior ranks are swollen with the likes of Harry Crane and Paul Kinsey—Ivy Leaguers, yes, but backbenchers desperate for their status and achievements to be recognized, an insecurity unknown to real children of privilege. Don Draper’s energies are consumed in protecting the false identity he’s built; no way he’s going out of his way to be a friend of the Negro. And as the woman at the bottom of the pecking order, Peggy Olson can’t carry the weight of anyone’s crusade but her own. The success of the agency and everyone in it depends on pretending they belong to a social class that they don’t, a class that in the 1960s did not include black people. That is why there are no black people on Mad Men.

In the civil-rights era, agencies like Y&R or JWT, true bastions of the East Coast elite, could afford to field a few Jackie Robinsons without losing their establishment credentials. A hip, trendsetting shop like Doyle Dane Bernbach could afford to pass off racial progressiveness with a stylish, ironic pose, as it did with its “You Don’t Have to be Jewish to Love Levy’s” campaign showing a young black kid enjoying a rye bread sandwich—an ad endorsed by none other than Malcolm X. A show about one of those agencies might deal with race quite differently than this one. But the principals of Mad Men sit squarely in that stratum of white America whose social standing is the most precarious. Sterling Cooper is Richard Nixon’s silent, suburban majority: not hip enough for the Kennedys, too sophisticated for the fear-mongering of George Wallace, yet too insecure for the racial pragmatism of a blue blood like Nelson Rockefeller. They are the people most desperate to cling to the racial fictions that underpin the nation’s status quo, and therefore the people in the greatest denial about the changes of the civil-rights era. Hence the denial of racial reality we see depicted at Sterling Cooper, which is not only true to the period but accurate in a very specific and mindful way.

For the past four seasons, Mad Men’s writers have been slowly, deliberately peeling back the facade of lies that papers over America’s personal and societal sins. It makes sense that they would leave the biggest lie for last. The opening scene of the very first episode of the entire series—the grabber that Matthew Weiner used in the pilot to sell his opus—was Don Draper sitting in a bar, trying and failing to share a cigarette and a little conversation with a black bus boy. Don, the man who can bullshit his way into connecting with anyone, hits a wall that even he can’t talk his way through. Why start there if not to come back to it? A few years from now, when we can look back on Mad Men from start to finish, it may well turn out that the whole thing was about race all along.

Matthew Weiner is notoriously secretive about pending developments in the show. But thanks to his fetish for historical accuracy, one need only to crack open a few library books to see where he might be headed when Season 5 starts on March 25. In part to accommodate the natural aging of Kiernan Shipka, the young actress who plays Sally Draper (the actor playing Bobby Draper has been replaced so many times he doesn’t seem to matter), the real-time hiatuses in Mad Men’s production schedule have always manifested as gaps in the show’s fictional chronology, and the arc of each season has typically taken place over the course of nine months to a year. Since it’s been 18 months since the end of Season 4, which ended in October of 1965, it’s reasonable to guess that Season 5 will open sometime in the spring or early summer of 1967.

In the short time we’ve been gone, America’s real-world racial landscape has changed more radically than it did in the entire decade prior. Stokely Carmichael and Huey Newton’s calls for Black Power have begun to drown out the moderate voices of the older civil-rights establishment. The urban riots that started in Watts have spread to Cleveland and Omaha. In the media, Bill Cosby and Nichelle Nichols have become the first black male and female actors in starring television roles on I Spy and Star Trek, respectively. And if this upcoming season unfolds over the long, hot summer of ’67, that real-world landscape will see bigger and more destructive riots breaking out in Detroit and Newark, N.J., the Supreme Court will outlaw bans on interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia, and Martin Luther King will become a more polarizing, radical figure, openly denouncing the Vietnam War and the exploitation of the poor.

In the real-world history of Madison Avenue, 1967 was the year in which the industry’s racist past started coming home to roost. In the fall of that year, data was released by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission showing that minority employment in advertising had barely changed since 1963. And come January and March of 1968, the EEOC and the New York City Commission on Human Rights dragged executives from every major agency in front of the cameras for weeks of public hearings, exposing the shameful discrimination practices of the industry, filing lawsuits against several of them. And then, very soon after those hearings, Madison Avenue finally, finally, began to grasp what had been going on all around them.

Thus far, Matthew Weiner has shown a fondness for marrying each season’s climactic moments with landmark events of the era. At the end of Season 1, Korean War flashbacks show Dick Whitman stealing the identity of Don Draper at the same time America is picking John F. Kennedy over Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. America wants to be Camelot, and Dick Whitman wants desperately to be part of it. At the end of Season 2, the facade of Don and Betty’s storybook marriage has rotted away, their dueling infidelities complicated by news of her pregnancy, all neatly overshadowed by the existential dread of the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the end of Season 3, the dissolution of Sterling Cooper, the exposure of Don’s lies about his identity, and the end of the Drapers’ marriage all coincide with JFK’s assassination. (The exception thus far is Season 4, which ended with Don’s surprise engagement to his secretary, Megan. It wasn’t tied to a historical event but rather couched in the bright and sunny promise of Walt Disney’s “Tomorrowland.”) If Mad Men’s real-time hiatus is carried over into the show’s universe, and if Season 5 covers anywhere near the span of a calendar year, these next 13 episodes would almost have to reach their climax on or about April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.

This is only a guess, of course. It may soon be proven wrong. But whether King’s death caps this next season or kicks off the one after that, it’s coming, and revolutionary change will come with it. In the wake of Memphis, with over a hundred cities torn asunder by riots, corporate America will panic and scramble to try and fix the economic injustice at the root of the unrest. Millions of dollars will be thrown at ad hoc affirmative action plans to get blacks off the streets and sitting peacefully behind desks, and Madison Avenue will be no exception. Between 1968 and 1969 (Seasons 6 and 7?), the number of blacks in advertising will well more than double—dozens of new black faces at nearly every major agency in New York. The doors will finally be open, and that’s when the drama will really begin. Over the following decade, blacks will begin forming their own industry trade groups. More than a dozen black entrepreneurs will found their own agencies. A black account exec will oversee the national product launch for Miller Lite. A black female copywriter will give us the phrase “Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman.” Bill Cosby and O.J. Simpson will become the public faces of Jell-O pudding and Hertz rental cars. Black agencies and white agencies will begin clashing over multi-million dollar accounts. And the white agencies that were still scared of “nigger Coke” in 1965? Pretty soon those same agencies will want to buy the world a Coke and teach it how to sing.

Black Mad Men viewers have every right to want a TV show that depicts the experiences of blacks in advertising—that show takes place in the 1970s.