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  • Kalyn McCall

From Funtown to Main Street, USA: Recreation and Segregation

Song of the South, 1946 [Photograph: Photo 12/Alamy Stock Photo]

Why does this matter? What do representations of black Americans have to do with Disneyland?

Having spent most of his youth in Missouri, Walt Disney grew up not just in the Midwest, but in the Border South. Whereas Walter Knott, despite his family’s Tennessee and Virginia heritage, could ignore his family’s history in the American South, Walt Disney could not, though it is often overlooked and made irrelevant. In representing America through Disneyland, Walt Disney could not ignore the prevalence and importance of the South. Much of his theme park was constructed from imagination, yet much of the railing and cresting “seen in Frontierland and Main Street come from old plantations in Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee.” Just as Knott imported buildings from around the nation to authenticate his representation of the West, Disney imported architecture and features to bolster his mythologies of the South. In his representation, slavery did not exist despite the existence of plantations. If slavery was acknowledged, it was in a kind and gentle way, as depicted in his 1946 film The Song of the South, where Uncle Remus regales children with his timeless stories. First represented in a Dixie-themed section of Frontierland and later a distinct New Orleans Square-themed area, Disney’s South evoked a sense of warmth, home, nostalgia, and security.

Facing national protest and fights for equality centered in the real landscape of the South, Walt Disney memorialized the old order in his family fun park, reluctantly moving forward when pressured. In April of 1963, Reverend Martin Luther King and about fifty other civil rights activists had been arrested after leading a Good Friday demonstration in the city of Birmingham. King and his allies had hoped to bring attention to the realities of one of the most segregated cities in America, but King was subsequently arrested and thrown into solitary confinement. While there, an ally smuggled him a paper that contained a letter written by eight local Christian and Jewish leaders condemning King and his allies as demagogues and agitators. In response, using the newspaper to take his notes, King penned a missive that not only responded to the charges but evolved into a criticism of the nation’s leaders and citizens who refused to see the necessity for change. His letter condemned the extremists, like the Ku Klux Klan, and the moderates, those who said that activists were asking for too much too soon. But King also turned his eyes to amusement parks and sites of leisure as guilty for enacting segregation, impacting black children who must learn they are unequal. He wrote:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky⁠.

In one of King’s most important missives, the civil rights leader took a moment to pause and reflect on the effects of segregated leisure and recreation. For King, all his examples - of lynching, police brutality, poverty, and even theme parks - worked together to enforce a segregated and unequal existence for black Americans from childhood well into adulthood. As trivial as the concern might seem, King was not alone. Civil Rights leaders and grassroots activists targeted sites of leisure and recreation - from swimming pools to piers, to local fields and amusements parks - as sites of contested citizenship and equality. That same year, across the nation in the city of Anaheim, California, members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) took their fight to the birthplace of the modern amusement theme park and prototype for all theme parks to follow, Walt Disney’s Disneyland in Orange County. As much as Walt Disney tried to keep out the world and memorialize his understanding of America, he could not fully stop change although he tried to stifle it.

Martin Luther King Jr. in Jefferson County Jail, Birmingham, Alabama, November 3, 1967

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