10/31/2011 03:44 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2011

What Supermodels Owe Martin Luther King

Supermodels have never had it so good, and that generally includes the black ones, from Naomi Campbell to Jourdan Dunn. But how did things come to be this way? Indeed, how many black supermodels realise that they owe much of their success to the terrifying events of April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King was shot dead in Memphis Tennessee.

This was one of the questions I pondered when working on the ebook version of my book, Black Beauty. Effectively, the history of black models may be divided into two areas -- before 1968, and after. Prior to this date, fashion operated an apartheid system that restricted early African Americans to the specialist black media, and magazines such as Ebony, Sepia, Hue and Jet. Attempts to crossover were met with firm rebuffs from the industry's white fashionistas. This applied not just to African American models, but photographers too. In 1944, Gordon Parks, who later directed Shaft, applied for work at Harper's Bazaar, only to be told point blank that the company did not hire blacks. Faced with fashion's exclusion zone, many early models such as Dorothey Towles, defected to Paris, where black models were received better, and where there was no institutionalised segregation.

Things began to change in America in the mid-1950s with the onset of the Civil Rights Movement. Its psychological impact ran deep across the country. It created an atmosphere in which whites were actively and inescapably engaged in thinking about the issue of racial discrimination. This connected with influential white liberals within fashion, who as a result were more open to the idea of granting concessions to black models than they had been in the past. Photographer Richard Avedon, Harper's Bazaar fashion editor Diana Vreeland, and designers such as Oleg Cassini, Pauline Trigère and Pierre Cardin were among those white heroes who stuck their necks out in promoting the first ethnic models, despite much opposition from those around them.

At the same time as the civil rights agenda intensified, with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X at its helm, things began to open up for African American models. The 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed segregation, and by January the following year -- a month before the assassination of Malcolm X -- an illustration of Detroit model Donyale Luna featured on the cover of Harper's Bazaar. A year later she would make the cover of British Vogue -- the first time it had featured a black model.

But the single event that would have the most profound impact on the future of black models was King's assassination. 'The death of King shook everybody a bit and woke them up to the fact that something had to be done,' said Gerry Ford, co-owner of Ford Models -- an agency once nicknamed 'The White House' due to its lack of black models. 'Negroes aren't temporary. We're all people,' declared Wilhemina Cooper of Wilhemina Models. 'We live in the same country. 'Black is beautiful.'" The fact that these flighty fashionistas -- traditionally short on moral crusades and long on discussions about skirt length -- were speaking up on behalf of black beauty was a revelation -- albeit one engendered by a cocktail of guilt, sympathy and fear.

The effect was immediate, galvanizing the industry into granting African American models a whole raft of concessions. Fashion now actively sought out black faces. White photographers scouted beautiful black women right off the streets of New York, while the agencies suddenly opened their doors to those they'd previously turned out of their waiting rooms. By April 1969 Ford reported a healthy ratio of a dozen black models on its books, out of a total of one hundred girls.

In the wake of King's death, the first non-white faces appeared across the covers of nearly all the major fashion titles. Katiti Kironde II made the cover of Glamour in August 1968, followed by Daphne Maxwell in 1969. Quincy Jones's daughter Jolie was first on the front of Mademoiselle in the same year, followed by Jany Tomba in 1970. Jane Hoffman appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitan in 1969, and in November that year law student Elizabeth, Princess of Toro became the first African woman on the cover of Harper's Bazaar.

The biggest African American model to emerge from the era was Pittsburgh college student Naomi Sims, who was discovered on a New York street by white photographer's agent Peter Henrick. She was soon summoned to see Diana Vreeland at Vogue, who took one look at her and declared, "She is fantastic. Send her to Penn. I want her in the next issue!" Sims went on to become the first black model on the cover of Life and Ladies Home Journal. By the end of her debut year she'd made $45,000.

It was Sims, with her dark skin, who supplied the aesthetic DNA for today's black supermodels, as this tone replaced light skin as the fashionable hue during these revisionist times. White media executives, in an attempt to make their concessions to civil rights and black beauty as obvious as possible, deliberately discriminated in favour of darker skin. A comment from an African American model reported in Women's Wear Daily said, 'Do you know how they're working it on TV? You've got to be dark enough to come across as a Negro to get a job,' she said. 'Since they're making the big gesture of using a Negro, they want to make it obvious.' Amongst the chief beneficiaries of the new look were Sidney Poitier in movies, and Sims in modelling. In one move her success re-calibrated the aesthetic order for black models, which remains in place to this day.

As a result of the 'new blackness', many light-skinned beauties couldn't get work. 'I tried to work in New York, but I couldn't make it,' said model Carol Le Brie. 'It was the Naomi Sims period when they wanted dark models.'

Nevertheless, despite civil rights and the death of King, not everyone responded to the tenor of the times. While models like Naomi Sims and Charlene Dash regularly graced the inside pages of Vogue, that was as far as they were permitted go. Fashion's premier bible failed to produce a single black cover during the era -- the only major fashion magazine to abstain. It would be six years after King's death before Beverly Johnson would grace its August 1974 edition. "Vogue put me on its cover to clear their name of racial bias," Johnson told The New York Times.

Inevitably perhaps, the industry's fervent enthusiasm for black models did not last. By 1970 the energy of change was already beginning to fade. "There is no boom in black modelling," said Jerry Ford. "There is a happy trickle. It's a happy trickle that wasn't there five years ago...But I wouldn't be overly optimistic to suggest that the problem is being solved." Nevertheless, King and civil rights had succeeded in sweeping away much of fashion's prejudices of the past, creating a radically different landscape than before 1968, when black models resided outside the mainstream. The last forty years of black supermodels, from Iman to Jourdan Dunn, would not have existed without the events of the late 60s. It was a rare moment in history in which politics and fashion combined to force change.