From The Root:
When Hattie McDaniel, the first African American ever nominated for an Academy Award, arrived at the Ambassador Hotel for the 1940 ceremony, she was seated at a table on the extreme periphery of the auditorium. McDaniel had been nominated for Best Supporting Actress based on her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind (1939). Though this seating assignment was quite insulting, such slights were not uncommon, as McDaniel had also been forced to miss the film’s Atlanta premiere due to southern Jim Crow laws. McDaniel would go on to win the Academy Award that evening in 1940, becoming the first African American to ever win the prestigious award. It would be 24 years before another African American would be declared an Oscar winner.
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In the 61-year time span from 1940-2001, only five other African Americans—Sidney Poitier, Lou Gossett, Denzel Washington, Whoopi Goldberg and Cuba Gooding (can we put an asterisk next to this one?)—won the distinct gold statuette in the prestigious acting categories. Of those six total awards, Sidney Poitier is the only one to have won in the Best Actor category for his role in Lilies of the Field (1963); all the others were for supporting roles.
So when Eddie Murphy stood up to present the award for Best Picture at the 1988 awards ceremony, the troubled racial history of Hollywood loomed large. Murphy, a comedian whose persona was generally apolitical, decided that the incongruity of his prominent presence at the 1988 ceremony, set against the lack of recognition for African Americans in Hollywood historically, was just too insulting to ignore. Murphy “went off,” chastising the gathered industry figures regarding Hollywood’s racism. He said that if one looked closely at the scattered history of African Americans receiving Oscars, that at the rate things were going, another African American probably would not be receiving an award until the year 2004.