By Dwight Hobbes
There is no more effective means of communicating than the media, particularly the visual media and especially television, since every home has at least one set. How far, after all, do you think the present celebration of Black History Month would’ve got without the media?
Its inception came back in 1926, founded by Carter G. Woodson as Negro History Week. It is undeniable the impact media communication has had, growing from the first celebration by Black United Students at Kent State University in 1970 to America acknowledging Black History Month in 1976, President Gerald Ford making it official.
All this is said to underscore that Art Cunningham, creator-host of The Art Cunningham Show for 23 years, put the issues-oriented program on the air as a means to get voices of the African American community expressed that otherwise went unheard.
“I saw that the same [mainstream] people were being heard from all the time. This was a chance to have others — whether they were business professionals, advocates for social change, or the man or woman on the street — speak their mind.” Clearly, since the show lasted nearly a quarter-century, his premise was sound.
The Art Cunningham Show has ceased broadcasting, and discerning viewers are scanning the community access cable stations for anything comparable. Cunningham reflects, “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and Negro History month were always special times for The Art Cunningham Show. Both occasions offered several teachable as well as challenging opportunities.” He further states, “As I reflect on the 85 years of my life and the two prior generations, I realize much is missing from our history.
“More [such] shows can help to speak to the missing pieces of…history. During January we [invited] guests who had a firsthand knowledge of Dr. King’s work. People who could stress the importance of facing the challenges after the [March on Washington] and celebrations were over. [They] helped drive home the fact that both young and old have a responsibility to help keep Dr. King’s dream and memory alive. [That no one] should retreat to their comfort zones and merely wait for the next celebration.”
Cunningham didn’t toss softballs to his guests. Nor was he confrontational. He did, however, face community concerns square on. He recalls, “I would ask the guests to consider has Dr. King’s dream been delayed or successfully experienced. Dr. King left a legacy of pride, dignity and hope. What have [we] given in return? What are you doing to make Dr. King’s dream a reality? I saw Negro or Black History Month as [an] opportunity to set the record straight by inviting guests who keep and know the record.
“I posed such questions as why was February designated Black History Month. And has the time come to forget about observing Black History Month.”
Importantly, he seized the opportunity to utilize his hour-long show as a means to engage and enlighten fledgling minds. “The Art Cunningham Show afforded the younger generation information on their history and reminded others who might have forgotten.”
He took on a subject that, while hardly entertaining, inarguably is an imperative for a community that all-to0-regularly sees mothers handing children barbeque chips and Kool-Aid for breakfast. “There were numerous times when I [hosted] different medical specialists from the U of M medical school to address health issues that affect Black people in particular. They would go into details that one could only get on our show.”
That’s it in a nutshell. He sums up, “Of course, I miss The Art Cunningham Show. But everything has an ending. During my 23 years, I hope I did some good for someone somewhere.”
Modesty becomes such a pioneering personage. Who, these days, is laying back in the warm Florida sun, basking in the glow of retirement from public life. Whether he’ll start another show remains to be seen. “I’m thinking about it,” he says.
Arguably, Art Cunningham might make a difference in Florida. Unquestionably, The Art Cunningham Show made a difference in Minnesota.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.