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Don Cornelius' legacy: 'Soul Train' said 'black is beautiful'

February 1, 2012 | 11:13 am

Don Cornelius was a pioneer. The "Soul Train" creator, who was found dead at his home Wednesday, caused a sensation the moment his groundbreaking musical variety show launched nationwide in 1971.

Each Saturday morning, "Soul Train" gave African Americans an opportunity to see themselves reflected on their TV screens. Proud black teens and young adults moving and grooving down the now-classic "Soul Train Line" instantly dictated hairstyles, dance moves and wardrobe choices in the weeks to come. 

The show also gave many white Americans their first glimpse of black culture.

PHOTOS: Don Cornelius | 1936 - 2012

For those too young to remember the music and dance show, or missed it the first time around, producer and "Roots" drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson explains on just why it was so groundbreaking:

"to say with a straight, dignified face that BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL was the RISKIEST radical life-changing move that america has seen. and amazingly enough for one hour for one saturday out the week, if you were watching soul train….it became contagious. next thing you know you are actually believing you have some sort of worth."

The outpouring of love, support and admiration was immediately evident online following the news that Cornelius had died in his Mulholland Drive home in Encino. The early evidence suggests he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, although authorities stress that the death remains under investigation.

Regardless of the circumstances of Cornelius' death, several fans noted that the timing was especially poignant:

"1st day of black history month. R.I.P Don Cornelius," tweeted rapper Young Jeezy.

Other celebrity tweets on Wednesday spoke to how much Cornelius meant to black culture:

--I never could get my Afro to work right, but I am among the legion who wanted a turn on that Soul Train line. #DonCornelius RIP," tweeted Gwen Ifill, senior correspondent for PBS' "NewsHour."

--"It meant more to me to perform on #SoulTrain than to win a Grammy...Loved U So Much Don.Thank U RIP," tweeted MC Hammer.

--My 89-year-old mom just nailed the critical importance of #DonCornelius. She called Soul Train a "rebuttal" to American Bandstand," tweeted sports writer and ESPN analyst Kevin Blackistone.

"If you were a new artist or an emerging artist, being on "Soul Train"…was a big thing," said TV historian Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. "But the other important element was the people who were on the dance floor. You have to remember, this was long before MTV. This was cutting edge, it was hipper than anything else that was on TV."


Remembering Don Cornelius: 'Soul Train' defined an era 

'Soul Train' creator Don Cornelius dead in apparent suicide

From the archives: Don Cornelius discusses 'South Train' and its influences

-- Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch