Jimmy Stewart Was Not Racist. Here's Why.

Was Jimmy Stewart Racist
A rumor casts a shadow on the legacy of Jimmy Stewart. Was Jimmy Stewart Racist? The answer is no. Here's why.
Listen to my Classic Hollywood podcast, Vanguard of Hollywood, available everywhere you listen to podcasts. Episode 60 is all about why Jimmy Stewart was not racist.

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A recently posed question casts a shadow on the otherwise pristine legacy of Jimmy Stewart.

Was Jimmy Stewart racist?

The answer is no.

Jimmy Stewart and Duke Ellington
Jimmy Stewart and jazz legend Duke Ellington jam together in Anatomy of a Murder (1959).

Jimmy Stewart Was Not Racist

Let’s go behind the origin of the rumor that Jimmy Stewart was racist, and the evidence that refutes it.

Hal Kanter and The Jimmy Stewart Show
Writer Hal Kanter (left), pictured with George Gobel, produced The Jimmy Stewart Show (1971-1972).

Hal Kanter, Hal Williams, & The Jimmy Stewart Show

It was Donald Dewey’s 1997 biography of Jimmy Stewart [aff. link] that first sparked rumors about the beloved star’s beliefs. For his book, Dewey interviewed the producer of Jimmy’s 1971 television show, writer Hal Kanter.  Kanter’s interview includes his overwhelmingly positive insights on both Jim and working on The Jimmy Stewart Show (1971-1972).  

But one anecdote Kanter shared has since been used as evidence that Jimmy Stewart was racist.

Hal Williams
Hal Williams, best remembered as Police Officer Smith on Sanford & Son (1972-1977), never called Jimmy Stewart a racist.

A Casting Mixup

According to Kanter, Jim erroneously believed that black actor Hal Williams had been cast as a police officer in an episode where there would be “a cop lashing into the professor [Jimmy’s] character.”

As Kanter recalled, Jim didn’t like the idea of a black police officer “lecturing him” on television, and threatened to use his casting approval to get Hal Williams “out” of the show.

But Kanter says that Jimmy mixed up the roles: he explained to Jim that Hal Williams had not been cast as a police officer, but as an FBI agent in a different episode.  According to Kanter, Jim was “chagrined” by his mixup.

Jimmy Stewart Not Racist

A Flawed Source

Hal Kanter is our only primary source on the alleged conversation.  His recollection of several details that are easily checked is inaccurate.  Despite these flaws, Kanter’s anecdote is cited as evidence that Jimmy Stewart was racist.

Before judging Jimmy Stewart’s character by the recollections of one man 25 years after an alleged conversation occurred, consider the facts that can be confirmed:

Jimmy Stewart Not Racist
  • There is no FBI agent in the 24 episodes of The Jimmy Stewart Show.
  • There are two confrontations in The Jimmy Stewart Show  between Jim’s character and (white) police officers.  In episode 8, Jim’s character haggles with an officer over the justice of a parking ticket he’s just received.  In episode 20, Jim’s character argues with an officer after being arrested for playing his accordion at a bachelor party.  Neither confrontation includes a “cop lashing into the professor character.”
  • Hal Williams was not fired from The Jimmy Stewart Show.
Hal Kanter
Hal Kanter never called Jimmy Stewart a racist.
  • Hal Williams did play a police officer on The Jimmy Stewart Show.  You can watch Hal Williams as Lieutenant Quigley in episode 6.  It’s worth noting that Williams plays the officer in charge of investigating and arresting another character (Caesar Romero) for fraud.
  • In the dozens of interviews Hal Kanter gave about The Jimmy Stewart Show over the years, he never once called Jim a racist.  Nor does Kanter call Jim a racist in his 1996 autobiography, So Far, So Funny.
  • Hal Williams also never called Jimmy Stewart a racist, or said that Jim mistreated him on The Jimmy Stewart Show.
Hal Williams
Hal Williams, pictured here in Sanford and Son, never called Jimmy Stewart a racist, or spoke poorly of his time on The Jimmy Stewart Show.

Based on the facts that can be confirmed, Hal Kanter’s anecdote cannot be used as evidence that Jimmy Stewart was racist.

Michael Munn
Biographer Michael Munn has arguably done the most harm in spreading the rumor that Jimmy Stewart was racist.

Michael Munn Spreads the "Racist" Rumor

Michael Munn’s 2005 biography, Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend [aff. link], repeats The Jimmy Stewart Show casting misunderstanding, citing it as evidence of, in Munn’s own words, Jim’s “racist spirit.”  Munn also claims that a 1976 interview he conducted with black actor Woody Strode, Jim’s co-star in 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, further proves that Jimmy Stewart was a racist.

But it’s possible the interview never occurred.  

Michael Munn’s integrity as a biographer has been questioned.  Munn insists that he was the confidant of nearly every great Classic Hollywood Star, a declaration he made only after all of these stars passed.  Munn is the author of over 25 books, most of which are built on the intimate and often shocking revelations that, according to Munn, these stars were all anxious to share with him.

Woody Strode
Biographer Michael Munn claims Woody Strode (pictured) called Jimmy Stewart a racist.

Michael Munn is an Unreliable Source

Among other dubious claims, Munn insists that at age 17, he and Ava Gardner became lovers, not long after George Raft ran Munn over with his Rolls Royce, at which point they became close.  Munn claims that he and Laurence Olivier were great friends, and that Olivier nicknamed him “Eminem” decades before rapper Marshall Mathers adopted the moniker.  Munn says Frank Sinatra made him an honorary member of the Rat Pack after the two sang duets together “for a laugh.”  Munn says he regrets turning down a marriage proposal from the beautiful Lynne Frederick, the tortured widow of Peter Sellers, and that Steve McQueen opened up to him on a secret four day motorcycle off-roading excursion.  It’s a trip McQueen’s wife insists never happened, but nonetheless forms the basis of Munn’s biography on McQueen, which critics have called “preposterous.”  And when David Niven’s son asked for the tapes that Munn swears he recorded of Niven’s deathbed confessions, Munn ultimately admitted that his tape recorder had, conveniently, “chewed them up” years ago.

Even Munn’s publisher, Jeromy Robson of JR Books, admits to having seen only a few of Munn’s interview “reference materials,” and that for the most part, he must trust Munn’s “good memory for dialogue” as the only proof that any of these alleged interviews occurred.

Woody Strode and Jimmy Stewart
Woody Strode and Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

The Alleged Woody Strode Interview

Michael Munn’s dangerous habit of mixing truth with exaggeration and fallacy calls his alleged interview with Woody Strode into question.  If the interview did in fact occur, Munn quotes Strode as saying that, on the set of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Jimmy Stewart was “too decent a person” to be “a hard-case racist,” but that Strode believed Jim was “uncomfortable” around him.  According to Strode:

“Stewart was never rude to me—he was never rude to anyone.  But I could tell he preferred to be around Lee Marvin or [John] Wayne than me.”

Also in the Munn interview, Strode relates an incident in which Liberty Valance director, John Ford, asked Jim what he thought of Woody’s costume, which consisted of old overalls an equally old hat.  Jim replied that he thought the costume made Strode “look a bit too much like Uncle Remus.”

John Ford, John Wayne, and Jimmy Stewart
Director John Ford (center) routinely created tension on his film sets.

According to Strode, John Ford then called the whole cast and crew over, and twisted the comment into something Jimmy Stewart never said.  Ford proceeded to announce to the entire company that:

“One of the actors here doesn’t like Uncle Remus.  In fact I don’t think he even likes Negroes.”

According to the Munn interview, it took Woody Strode years to realize that it was John Ford’s cruel maneuverings, not anything Jimmy Stewart actually said, that created the tension Strode felt on the Liberty Valance set:

Jimmy Stewart and Woody Strode
Filming of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962. Jimmy Stewart and Woody Strode are on the ground.

“I was too young at the time to realize Ford was using me to get at Stewart.  All I heard was Ford saying that Stewart didn’t like Negroes, and that made me mad at Stewart, and Stewart was just even more uncomfortable around me.”

Unfortunately, anger at Jimmy Stewart is also the takeaway of less engaged readers of Michael Munn’s book.

For Jim’s take on working with John Ford and the Uncle Remus incident, listen to his 1969 account below.  The sheer fact that he shares the anecdote is evidence that Jim did not have any racist behavior to hide.

Woody Strode Never Called Jimmy Stewart Racist

Terrible rumors about Jimmy Stewart’s beliefs have sprung from an interview that possibly never occurred.  If Michael Munn’s interview with Woody Strode did take place, it’s craftily presented, with Munn’s own words inserted in key places to suggest that Jimmy Stewart was a racist.  In the alleged interview, Woody Strode never uses the word “racist” to describe Jimmy Stewart.  It’s further worth noting that in his 1990 autobiography [ aff. link], Goal Dust—a book that accurately presents Strode’s words and thoughts—he never calls Jimmy Stewart a racist, neither does he relate any of the incidents about Jim described in Munn’s book.

Another reliable source for Woody Strode’s feelings towards Jimmy Stewart is a 1994 interview with Lee Marvin biographer, Dwayne Epstein.  In this, the last interview Strode ever gave, he expresses only respect for Jimmy Stewart, calling Jim one of  the screen’s “greatest actors.” 

Lee Marvin and Jimmy Stewart
Lee Marvin starred alongside Jimmy Stewart and Woody Strode in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).

Lee Marvin on Jimmy Stewart

If we are to take Michael Munn’s 1976 interview with Woody Strode as fact, then Munn’s alleged interview with Lee Marvin, another Liberty Valance star, should also be considered.

In the interview, Marvin relates an incident where Jimmy Stewart actively opposed the racist behavior of another actor on set.  This unnamed actor used the “n” word to refer to Woody Strode.

Afterwards, Lee Marvin remembered seeing both John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart lunge for the offending actor.

But Jimmy got there first. 

Jimmy Stewart Was Not Racist

Jim was “boiling” mad as he grabbed the actor by the shirt and threatened to beat him to an unrecognizable pulp if he ever used the word around Jim again.

Lee Marvin was impressed by Jimmy’s impassioned response:

“I liked Jimmy before that incident, but after it, I liked him a whole lot more.”

Jimmy Stewart Not Racist

Refuting the Rumor

We’ve dissected the fallacies behind the rumor that Jimmy Stewart was a racist.  

Here’s more evidence that refutes it:

it's a wonderful life
Hank and Jim in 1947.

According to Peter Fonda, the sheer fact that Jimmy Stewart was best friends with Peter’s father, Henry Fonda, proves that Jim was not racist. 

As Peter shared:

“Dad would never have abided a racist.”

Jim’s daughter, Kelly Stewart Harcourt, also knew her father was not racist: 

“There were not a lot of black people in Dad’s life, but he was not a racist.”

Producer Julian Blaustein, who produced Jim’s 1950 film, Broken Arrow, also knew that Jimmy Stewart was not racist: 

“I never knew Jimmy to do or say anything that was racist.”

Jimmy Stewart and Sammy Davis Jr.
Jim always maintained that Sammy Davis Jr. did the best Jimmy Stewart impression. L-R: Milton Berle, Sammy Davis Jr., Jimmy Stewart, Angie Dickinson, and Jack Lemmon in 1980.

The Words and Actions of Jimmy Stewart

In addition to the testaments of people who knew him, Jimmy Stewart’s own words and actions prove he was not racist.

Was Jimmy Stewart Racist

Jim spoke of his Hollywood career in a series of interviews with journalist James Bawden between 1971 and 1983 [aff. link].  At one point in their conversations, Jim shared that his 1934 arrival in Los Angeles was marred only by the obvious mistreatment of the black community.  According to Jimmy Stewart, Los Angeles in 1934 was:

“Magical!  No freeways.  Electric streetcars went everywhere.  You could smell the orange blossoms.  No smog because few people could afford cars in those days.  But I gradually learned L.A. was heavily segregated.  Blacks usually sat at the back of the bus.  You’d never see them in the big department stores.  At MGM there was a separate entrance and lunchroom for the black laborers and maids.  It was the dark side of the American dream.”

These are not the words of a racist man. 

Jimmy Stewart and Louis Armstrong
Jimmy Stewart with Louis Armstrong in The Glenn Miller Story (1954).

Jimmy Stewart worked with several black actors and entertainers throughout his career, including Hal Williams, Woody Strode, Lillian Randolph, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington.

Jimmy Stewart and Duke Ellington
Jimmy Stewart and jazz legend Duke Ellington jam together in Anatomy of a Murder (1959).

Jim hit it off particularly well with Duke Ellington during filming of 1959’s Anatomy of a Murder, for which Ellington made history as the first black musician to compose the score for a major Hollywood production.  Jim and Duke got to know each other during filming in Marquette County, Michigan, where the entire company stayed at the same hotel and shared meals.  For Jimmy Stewart, Duke Ellington was responsible for the best part of each evening:

Jimmy Stewart and Duke Ellington

“[Duke] played for us in the dining room at night, until ten, eleven, which was great fun for us.”

Jim and Duke upset distributors of the film for a scene in which the two are seated next to each other on a piano bench, jamming at the piano of a bar filled with dancers.  Thanks to the passionate insistence of director Otto Preminger, the controversial scene stayed in the film [aff. link]. 

Watch Jim and Duke at the piano in the scene below:

Sharing hotel, meals, and a piano jam session on and off film with Duke Ellington.  Jimmy Stewart was not racist.

Was Jimmy Stewart Racist

Jimmy Stewart & American Brotherhood Week

In 1946, Jimmy Stewart led a small group of stars who vocalized their support for brotherhood among all Americans.  American Brotherhood Week, sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, was meant to encourage not just religious tolerance, but acceptance and equality for all races and nationalities. 

To promote Brotherhood Week, Jimmy Stewart opened and closed a 3 minute trailer that played before feature films at theaters across the United States.  In the trailer, Jim, Van Johnson, Shirley Temple, Eddie Cantor, Jennifer Jones, Ingrid Bergman, Walter Pidgeon, Katharine Hepburn, and Edward G. Robinson encouraged Americans to stand together in support of freedom for all, a message particularly relevant in the wake of World War II.

Watch the video below to hear what Jim and the other stars had to say about brotherhood:

Jimmy Stewart & American Brotherhood Week, 1947

Freedom, brotherhood, and equality were issues Jimmy Stewart clearly felt strongly about, for he returned to headline American Brotherhood Week the following year.  The stated primary focus of the 1947 campaign was: 

“to enroll as many people as possible in the fight against racial intolerance, bigotry, and discrimination.”

Jimmy Stewart voiced his support for this goal in a 16 second radio campaign that played the week of February 16-23, 1947.  Jim’s plea underscores his belief in peace, freedom, and equality for all:

Jimmy Stewart

“This is Jimmy Stewart reminding you that this is Brotherhood week; a week reminding us all that the world of the future must be built on the recognition of the rights of each individual, whatever his color, creed, or national background.  So this week, let’s resolve to live in harmony with our fellow man.”

Jimmy Stewart Was Not Racist

Jimmy Stewart was not racist.  His words, actions, and moral code prove the fallacy of any rumor to the contrary.

Let’s not allow an unsubstantiated rumor to tarnish the reputation of one of the few Hollywood stars worthy of our complete respect and admiration.

This Post Has 21 Comments

  1. David

    Jimmy Stewart has deserved an article like this for a long time. Well researched! Thank you for bringing the evidence together. Every old Hollywood fan should read this.

    1. Shannon

      Thanks for reading David! It needed to be done.

      1. Damon

        from the bottom of my heart, thank you so much. as a Black American, years ago, I read that Jimmy was racist. but i had also read the story of him sticking up for Strode, so I didn’t know what to believe. you have laid my thoughts about him to rest, and that he truly was a good, good man. God bless.

        1. Shannon

          Thanks for your kind words, and for reading Damon! Jim was a good man through and through. I’m delighted to put the rumors about him to rest.

  2. Brice

    Thank you thank you thank you dear for this story, I am so so grateful for this. I read an article a few weeks ago about him being racist and I couldn’t believe it. I really cried for days because he’s one of my favorite actors and I am African-American. So thank you for this I really really appreciate it. It changed my outlook on many other things and renewed my faith in mankind, thank you.

    1. Shannon

      Thanks for reading Brice! It’s such a disheartening rumor that’s unfortunately made its way across the internet. I wanted to set the record straight, for Jim and all of us who admire his remarkable work and life. Thanks again for reading Brice, and for your kind comment!

    2. MPM

      Perhaps, Henry Fonda’s daughter
      Ms Jane Fonda would be perfect to obtain a definitive comment.

      1. Shannon

        Thanks for reading! It would be interesting to hear Jane’s thoughts. Her brother Peter said that Jimmy Stewart was not racist.

  3. Brian

    I read that Stewart was a racist a few weeks ago and fell for it hook line and sinker. As a black man I should know better by now, and am glad that I decided to look further into the matter. Thanks for setting me straight

    1. Shannon

      Thanks for reading Brian! It’s such a demoralizing rumor. I’m so glad that you decided to do your own research, and that you came across my article.

  4. Greta

    So, Stewart didn’t ask that the part be re-written. Or taken out of the script altogether. He had not a problem with a white guy playing the police officer giving Jimmy’s character a tongue-lashing. He had a problem with a black guy doing that. Sounds pretty racist to me.

    1. Shannon

      Hi Greta,

      Thanks for commenting. I refer you back to the section in my article about The Jimmy Stewart Show for the facts behind the casting of Hal Williams on the show.

      I encourage you to read my full article for further insights into the character of Jimmy Stewart. His own words and actions, and the words of those who knew him, prove that Jimmy Stewart was not racist.

  5. Pete

    Racism comes in different shapes and forms, as does the label “racist.” Your article doesn’t refute Kanter’s supposed claim that Stewart’s character, even though he may have confused roles, was nonetheless uncomfortable about being lectured by a black character. Also, his agent Bill Frye, in “Jimmy Stewart: A Biography,” says that Stewart turned down the role of Atticus Finch in “Mockingbird” because he was uncomfortable with the “liberal” racial tone (though without using those words). Stewart was a political conservative and product of his time and had issues with racial advancement and equality. That’s my take. Whether that labels him a “racist” or not is irrelevant.

    1. Shannon

      Hi Pete, thanks for your comment. I refer you back to my section on The Jimmy Stewart Show for the facts behind the casting of Hal Williams. I’ve updated the section to include more facts specific to the show.

      Bill Frye’s exact words to biographer Marc Elliot about Jim turning down Mockingbird were: “He turned down To Kill a Mockingbird because he felt the racial thing was too controversial—too liberal really, but he would never say it that way.”

      If Jim would “never say it that way,” then Bill Frye should not “say it that way” for him. We don’t know why Jimmy turned down Mockingbird. Frye admits as much at the end of the quote.

      While Bill Frye’s comment cannot be used as evidence that Jimmy Stewart was uncomfortable with racial advancement and equality, there’s abundant evidence that Jim was not racist.

  6. Mike

    Interesting to see that there are actually people out there who are hell-bent on believing that Jimmy was racist. He was not racist, and your essay more than demonstrates this. Well written, thank you.

  7. Dennis Wong

    I’m glad that it clears up that rumor about him. Though he was a conservative unlike his friend Henry Fonda who was a liberal and despised racism, I doubt if their life long friendship would’ve lasted if Fonda discovered he had racist views. Also Stewart even stayed up late much to director Preminger’s chagrin during ” Anatomy Of A Murder” to play with Duke Ellington. That doesn’t sound like a racist!

    1. Shannon

      Excellent points Dennis, thanks for commenting! Jimmy’s words and actions prove that he was not racist. Thank you for reading!

  8. Tracy

    I almost fell for that rumor , but to just listen to Mr. Stewart’s interview i know in my heart that he was not a racist. I do believe he love life and all God’s creations. I am a black American who was heartbroken when I heard this aweful rumor. But i am so glad to find out it was not true. May Mr. Stewart Rest In Peace.

    1. Shannon

      Thanks for reading Tracy! It is such a terrible rumor. You’re so right, Jim’s own words and actions prove that he was not racist. Thanks for commenting!

  9. Rich J

    As a 70 year old black man who grew up watching and loving Jimmy Stewart i can only hope he wasn’t a racist like so many Americans of his era !

    1. Shannon

      Thanks for commenting Rich! The evidence proves that Jim was not racist. He was a good man deserving of the love and admiration that so many of us have for him. Thank you for reading!

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