Andy Griffith’s Mayberry
Like many people around the country when I heard the news of Andy Griffith’s passing, I immediately thought of his classic television program The Andy Griffith Show with its infectious whistle theme. It’s been years, decades even, since I’ve watched the show, but I remember it quite well. The main characters are all unforgettable. Barney Fife has become synonymous with incompetent law enforcement. Opie Taylor grew up to become Richie Cunningham and went into the movie making business. I remember Aunt Bea, Floyd the barber, Goober, Gomer, Thelma Lou, and Otis. I remember Mayberry and I remember the wholesome image of small town America that captured the hearts of many.
I remember the first time Sheriff Andy Taylor debuted on television with an appearance on The Danny Thomas Show when Danny Thomas is arrested by Sheriff Taylor for a traffic violation in downtown Mayberry, North Carolina. The episode started with the Sheriff and Mr. Thomas coming through the jail/courthouse doors and the entire episode took place in that single stage setting. The typical fine for traffic violations in Mayberry was about five dollars, but Andy set Danny Thomas’ fine at fifty dollars and he refused to pay what he thought was extortion. Danny spent time in jail where he was introduced to Aunt Bea who brought him a home cooked meal and Andy’s son Opie. By the end of the episode Danny apologizes for his behavior, pays his fine and America get a new television show that stayed on the air for eight years.
Mayberry is everything people think of when they think of small town America. It was the type of community where everybody knew everybody. It was slow paced and laid back. In most episodes the only crime the sheriff’s department had to deal with are moonshiners and the regular appearance of Otis the local drunk turning himself in to sleep off one of his frequent alcohol binges. Mayberry was always friendly to strangers and Andy always had an uncanny knack for settling most disputes with the town folk with common sense, charm, and a sense of humor. Who wouldn’t want to live in Mayberry, USA? The answer is easy, probably black people.
I can just imagine the Mayberry episode that starts with a black stranger driving into town and not understanding the dynamics between the white town folks and their black counterparts. Barney’s eyes would bulge as he endures a sudden adrenaline rush. His body would convulse almost uncontrollably in typical fashion when he’s excited or nervous. He’d reach into his breast pocket of his uniform shirt for his single bullet with one hand while the other hand went for his state issued revolver. Town drunkard Otis would be shocked out of his drunken stupor and start looking around for something to arm himself. Thelma Lou, Aunt Bea, and most of the other ladies of Mayberry would run away to while clutching their purses to their breast. Other ladies would do their best to draw attention to themselves looking to add a little excitement to their lives. Floyd the barber would reach for his largest, sharpest razor. And Opie would run to find his pa.
I can imagine the often genial and laidback Andy would show up in his black and white patrol car to question the new arrival and make sure the peace is upheld. As long as new black people understand the traditional social arrangements of the town there won’t be a problem. Otherwise, let’s just say there’s a reason there weren’t too many episodes with black people doing anything to get good ol’ Sheriff Taylor’s attention. In fact, I don’t remember any episodes where Andy, Barney, Opie, or anybody else interacting with any of the black town people. Looks like black people know their place.
There were a few black people in the old Mayberry episodes. You could sometimes see one or two walking by themselves in the background to white people’s foreground. Honestly that’s pretty remarkable considering the status of race relations back in the early sixties when the show was put on the air. It’s a small tribute to Andy Griffith and the show’s producers and creators that they didn’t simply white wash the entire town people like so many other shows did at the time. While other shows portrayed America as if black people didn’t exist, the Andy Griffith Show at least colored their background with a black face or two.
But still, the black people that appeared in the show had about as much impact or interaction on the show as the mailbox on the corner or the fire hydrant down the street. The way black people of Mayberry are depicted, you obviously knew your place and did your best to simply blend into the scenery. For a lot of people that surely sounds like wholesome happy days. It’s not that black people have to be gone. They have their place serving and entertaining their white counterparts. But life simply would be much better if black people did whatever they do with the same attention grabbing theatrics of a streetlamp. For a lot of people, as long as black people just blend in the background, know their place, life will be simpler indeed.