Even at the risk of cancelation, White insisted that Arthur Duncan stay on and thus helped launch a successful career for him.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on January 3, 2022. It has since been updated.
Betty White was one of a kind, and no incident highlights that better than her refusing to give in to demands for a Black dancer to be removed from her show in the 50s. At a time when racial segregation was at boiling point, there were strong calls from different quarters to remove a tap dancer named Arthur Duncan from her show. She had helped secure his first television job on her variety show 'The Betty White Show' and wasn't going to give in to the mob even if there was considerable opposition to it. "I'm sorry, but he stays...Live with it!" she bluntly told those that brought the matter to her, reported PEOPLE. Betty White died on December 31, 2021, a few weeks shy of her 100th birthday.
Television was a relatively new medium, but White was a veteran of stage and radio. She had also featured in a sitcom and even co-hosted a Los Angeles daytime talk show. 'The Betty White Show' saw her perform songs and entertain viewers with skits and interviews with guests. She even had a regular children’s segment. Duncan recalled the furor and the actor backing him during those testing times. "I was on the show, and they had some letters out of Mississippi and elsewhere that some of the stations would not carry the show if I was permitted to stay on there," said Duncan during an episode of 'Steve Harvey's Little Big Shots: Forever Young' in 2017. "Well, Betty wrote back and said, 'Needless to say, we used Arthur Duncan every opportunity we could.'" Betty White was facing pressure from stations in the South but used Duncan even more until the show was canceled in 1954. It was also the year segregation in public schools was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Duncan went on to become the first Black regular on a variety show when he was hired on 'The Lawrence Welk Show' and he continued on that show for another 20 years. Steve Harvey also had Betty White come on to the show to reunite them. Duncan looked at White and joked that his life was now complete. "I'm ready to go now," he said. When Duncan told White, "I hope we have a chance to visit after this is over," she replied, "Oh, I hope so. You never call. You never ask me out." Duncan even tapped a routine in front of Betty White in a throwback to their time on her show from the 50s. Duncan reserved high praise for White during an appearance in a 2018 documentary about her titled 'Betty White: First Lady of Television.' He said it was White who gave him his break. "I credit Betty White for really getting me started in show business. People in the South, some of them resented me being on the show and wanted me thrown out. And it was never a question at all," he recalled.
In 1954 Betty White had a talk show and faced criticism for including a black tap dancer, Arthur Duncan, on her show.— AFRICAN & BLACK HISTORY (@AfricanArchives) December 6, 2021
Betty responded with “I’m sorry. Deal with it” and gave Duncan more airtime. Her show was cancelled afterwards. pic.twitter.com/toipvY9cyQ
White explained the controversy in the documentary, "All through the South there was this whole ruckus, they were going to take the show off the air if we didn't get rid of Arthur because he was Black," said White. "I said, 'I'm sorry, but he stays...Live with it!'" Duncan was featured on the show at least three times. Ignoring the racist calls, she interviewed a Black child during the children’s segment as well, reported The Washington Post. There's no knowing if her putting her foot down on Duncan staying on had any role in the show being repeatedly rescheduled for different time slots before eventually being taken off the air that same year.
Betty White broke barriers, defied expectations, served her country, and pushed us all to laugh. Barack and I join so many around the world who will miss the joy she brought to the world. I know our Bo is looking forward to seeing her up in heaven. pic.twitter.com/tVL7NUw2TT— Michelle Obama (@MichelleObama) January 1, 2022