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'Nat King Cole Show' Challenged TV's Race Line

The Nat King Cole Show debuted in 1956, making singer and jazz pianist Nat "King" Cole the first black man to host a nationally televised variety program.

The crooner's singing and television career is the subject of an American Masters documentary debuting on PBS Wednesday night. The show details how Cole reluctantly challenged segregation on television and in American society, but decide after a little more than one year later on the air to end the show for lack of a corporate sponsor.

The show featured some of the era's biggest stars sharing the stage with Cole, who was himself one of the top talents of his day. But television executives, wary of a backlash from an America still deeply divided along racial lines, took pains to put distance between Cole and his white female guests.

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Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.
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