Everyone loves sitcoms (situation comedies): the artful portrayal of life that teaches us to not take the world so seriously and that every rain has its eventual rainbow.
But every now and then a show takes us on a rollercoaster ride that hits a downward slope of such candor that we quickly forget the series genre. Such was the case in the show, “The Jeffersons”, a 10-year sitcom lasting 253 episodes about a Black entrepreneur that achieves financial success through his Jefferson Cleaners laundry franchise and “moves on up” to a high-rise east side apartment building.
Known for his short temper and insulting approach to most everything, the show’s main character, George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley), was never to be found lacking something to say about his position in the matter at hand.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
In the Season 7 episode: “Sorry, Wrong Meeting” (first airing February 15, 1981), neighbor Tom Willis invites George to a tenant meeting about the “rising trouble” in the apartment building. George innocently, yet faithfully, attends, fully armed to speak out against the so-called escalating problem.
Unbeknownst to either of them and 3rd friend and neighbor, Harry Bentley, the meeting is actually an Interest/Recruiting meeting for the Ku Klux Klan, who are addressing the “growing problem”, which to them, is the African American presence, among other minorities.
The episode reaches its comedic peak with the arrival of George, who in his naivete, sits proudly in the front row.
The leader/speaker and organizers (which includes the Klan leader’s devout and impressionable son), try to convince George that his presence is a mistake, ergo not welcome, despite George’s outspoken support. This continues until the KKK leader clarifies to George that he is the problem of which they speak.
An near-violent argument ensues, escalating until the Klan leader clutches his heart and collapses, suffering a heart attack. Ironically, the only person trained in 1st Aid & CPR is George, who begrudgingly saves his unconscious adversary in the presence of all.
The shocking twist to the moment occurs when the paramedics arrive to transport the Klansman to the hospital. As he leaves, his son, suspended in disbelief, informs his revived father that George (a Black man) is the man who saved his life. Looking over at George, his father turns his gaze back upon his son and weakly reprimands, “You should have let me die.”
Think on that for a moment before I continue.
The attendees leave, having seen George’s selfless act, despite the character of the man he saved. Confused, yet enlightened, his son also abandons his lifelong beliefs and walks away while another Klansman failingly attempts to pass out fliers to the uninterested attendees who continue their departure en masse.
My family sat in stunned silence for the entire 3rd act of that episode, mostly in response to the Klan leader’s position after knowing he had been saved by a “n-word”; something he’d have to carry with him for the rest of his days.
Although the lessons were powerful and easy to extract from that episode, it didn’t prevent my family from discussing it in great detail for the better part of two hours (something I’ll always love about my family that carried over into the post-movie discussions I lead with my own family to this very day).
Here are the main takeaways from this widely talked about episode:
1. Racism is taught. One of the first things my father expressed to me. Children respect and believe heavily in the teachings of their parents. Although we are born to instinctively NOT see color, it doesn’t take much to pervert that innocence and change a child’s life-trajectory.
To me, there is nothing more dangerous than a parent who instills such malicious and psychically damaging beliefs and values in their young.
I have a co-worker who was raised to be racist and I love her dearly. Why? She blatantly defied her father’s teachings and readily accepts any and everyone for the content of their character. She is one of my best friends to this day.
2. You can’t judge a book by its cover. Give people more credit despite their background/appearance/race. In that episode, despite the positions and careers of the “all but one” white audience, the only person trained to save someone’s life was the African American attendee. Speaking from experience, I’ve been present during medical emergencies and I was the last person people looked to or expected to see respond when that famous phrase rang out, “Is there a doctor in the house?”
As a side point, there have been many cases in history where African American, plain-clothed doctors and nurses have been delayed in providing medical assistance because people didn’t believe their claim to be trained professionals. Or worse, trust them. For those who can recall, in the mini-series “Roots: The Next Generation”, an elderly white man died because the townsfolk refused to allow a black doctor to give him the treatment he urgently needed. They lost him, attempting to transport him to a distant medical center, of sorts.
I was particularly proud to see that he (George) stood out in that instance. That episode alone was one of the reasons I jumped at the chance to receive medical training when the opportunity later presented itself.
3. Compassion Prevails. One of more subtle points occurred in the aftermath of the climax that goes undiscussed, no doubt. It was the effort of the #2 leader to pass out literature, hoping to maintain the interest of the remaining attendees as they vacated. The “White Power” rhetoric struggled to maintain its position, which made things even worse for their reputation (at least at that particular meeting). Just moments prior, a (Black) man exhibited his willingness to look past the creed of this group and save its leader. His display of compassion in the midst of persecution overshadowed anything anyone could hope to say in their recruiting efforts, particularly about “colored folk”.
He taught EVERYONE that day that love (of and for your fellow man) does indeed conquer all.
4. People don’t change. On the heals of my previous point, I’ll make this point brief: You’ve got to have some seriously deep-seeded evil enveloping your soul to hate someone who just saved your life. So much so, that you would rather die than know your survival came about by someone you would just as soon hang by a noose, if you could get away with it. I especially love knowing that mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was used during the process. If I were George, I would have made CERTAIN he knew that MY “black” lips were on him before he left. You be sure to share THAT one during your next barbershop talk with the good ol’ boys.
5. People DO change. It took a lot to overshadow that final expression of hatred, but they managed to do so. It meant so much to me to see that the Klan leader’s son, terrified at the thought of losing his father, watched powerlessly as Jefferson saved him. In a matter of minutes, much of what he had been taught as a child came into question: Black people being labeled lazy, selfish, unintelligent, “no account”, etc. A random act of kindness from an unlikely and unwelcomed source taught him the true value of one man in another’s eyes…
I’m sure there was a great more that the teen had to consider after this startling revelation. He would have to return to his household and friends who shared his beliefs. But make no mistake, his moral foundation was shaken severely, and I seriously doubt that his childhood programming would ultimately prevail. I believe he had taken his first steps in a very long journey towards diversity; one that hopefully ended with him living a bold, egalitarian lifestyle.
One that he could pass on to HIS children and undo what was likely generations of racial bigotry and hatred in his bloodline.
Yeah, racism is incredibly strong and widespread. To be frank, it can’t die soon ENOUGH for me. I sincerely doubt that we will see its end in my generation, or subsequent one, or the next. But I DO believe that given enough time (and enough mixing of the racial Kool-aid, creating all these new flavors) we’ll get there someday. If nothing else, by default, because there will BE no distinct races to hate.
In the meantime, let’s work together to face these things.
Take them head-on, bravely and unashamedly.
Not just relying on a casual sitcom as a reminder.
Let’s acknowledge the existence of our ugly truths to create a more beautiful future…
In the meantime, Bravo George Jefferson. Bravo.
Thanks for reading.
Happy National Day Of Racial Healing
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Powerful episode! Definitely one of my fave episodes. I still remember how I stopped breathing for a few seconds after that bigot said, “You should have let me die.” And I still gasp every time I see it via reruns, even 40 years later. I like many others, love this show and the thing about it that has always amazed me is “George” using the term “honky”, and it didn’t get cancelled. lol… As always, I enjoyed your thoughtful analysis and reflective insight. ~Sarah Lynn
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Well, they didn’t cancel Sanford And Son for his use of the n-word. I guess they felt change on the horizon…
Thanks for the great feedback and as always, for reading!
Amen brother Kenny!!
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Glad you got something out of it. Thanks for reading!