Tens of thousands of people have signed an online petition demanding that a TV meteorologist in upstate New York get his job back after he was fired for using a racial epithet while trying to say Martin Luther King, Jr.’s name. Jeremy Kappell, who said “Martin Luther Coon Park” live on the air instead of using the iconic civil rights leader’s actual name, was fired from Rochester TV station WHEC on Sunday.
The entire episode harkened back to how other white TV broadcasters have been treated in the past following their own verbal blunders that fell along racial lines.
Two of the leading voices supporting the reinstatement of Kappell just happen to be Black. Legendary meteorologist Al Roker and King’s own daughter, Bernice King, have both condemned Kappell losing his job. Roker called it an “unfortunate flub” and TMZ wrote that Bernice King thought “the station should have cut him some slack. She agrees there needs to be repercussions — along with an apology — but suggests it doesn’t do anyone any good to just fire the guy.”
However, others have suggested that the use of the word “coon” in this particular instance was egregiously irresponsible and unforgivable. Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren was among those voices and cited Martin Luther King in a video she posted to social media on Thursday.
“Yes, I demanded that our local media address a racial slur,” Warren said in the video. “I will always stand up for the dignity and the worth of everyone in our community.”
In the age of a president whose own racist rhetoric has propelled the resurgence of certain white nationalist hate groups and the requisite surge of hate crimes that have come with it, some have suggested that Kappell should have known better whether his words were intentional or not. The fact that the annual Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday was fewer than two weeks away certainly didn’t help Kappell, who apologized “if” his words offended anyone.
Sadly, and not surprisingly, the “Martin Luther Coon” flub wasn’t a first for TV. An ESPN anchor said the same thing in 2010. Mike Greenberg shrugged it off as simply “talking too fast — and slurring my words.” He ended up keeping his job despite the public outcry.
As the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle reminded readers this week, the word “coon” has a deep-seated racist history in America. “Almost as soon as Martin Luther King Jr. came to national prominence as a pastor and civil rights leader, bigots and provocateurs capitalized on the phonetic proximity between his last name and the racial slur ‘coon,’ which itself derives from ‘raccoon’ and dates to at least 1862, according to the Oxford English Dictionary,” the news outlet wrote Tuesday.
Even James Earl Ray, who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, reportedly referred to the civil rights leader by that slur.
Beyond that particular choice of word, retired sportscaster Billy Packer called Allen Iverson a “tough monkey” during a Georgetown basketball game in 1996. Packer, after being labeled a racist because of it, was not fired from CBS.
Sports broadcaster Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder did get fired, however, after he said live on the air in 1988 that Black people were “bred to be the better athlete because … the slave owner would breed his big woman so that he would have a big black kid.”
Here is Kappell’s “flub” on live TV.
Considering all of the above and regardless of intent, should Kappell have been fired for his fateful words? Reactions across social media have been pointed and blunt, as shown below. Let us know what you think.