American television coverage of the Civil Rights Movement ultimately contributed to a redefinition of the country's political as well as its televisual landscape. From the 1955 Montgomery bus boycotts to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, technological inno- vations in portable cameras and electronic news gathering (ENG) equipment increasingly enabled television to bring the non-violent civil disobedience campaign of the Civil Rights Movement and the violent reprisals of Southern law enforcement agents to a new mass audience.
The NAACP's 1954 landmark Supreme Court case, Brotvn v. Board ofeducation, along with the brutal murder of 15-year-old Emmet Till in Mississippi and the subse- quent acquittal of the two white men accused of his murder marked the beginning of America's modern Civil Rights Movement. The unprecedented media coverage of the Till case rendered it a cause celebre that helped to swell the membership ranks of civil rights organizations nation- wide. As civil rights workers organized mass boycotts and civil disobedience campaigns to end legal segregation and white supremacist terror in the South, white segregationists mounted a counter-offensive that was swift and too often violent. Medgar Evers and other civil rights activists were assassinated. Black churches, businesses and residences with ties to the movement were bombed. Although this escalation of terror was intended to thwart the Civil Rights Movement, it had the effect of broadening support for civil rights.
These events were unfolding at the same time that the percentage of American homes equipped with television sets jumped from 56 to 92%. This was 1955 and television was securing its place in American society. Network news shows were also beginning to expand from the conventional fifteen to thirty minutes format, splitting the time between local and national issues. From the mid to late 1950s, these social, political, technological and cultural events began to con- verge. The ascendancy of television as the new arbiter of public opinion became increasingly apparent at this time to civil rights leaders and television news directors alike. Thus television's coverage of the Civil Rights Movement changed considerably, especially as the "anti-establishment politics" of the 1960s erupted. When television covered the consumer boycotts and the school desegregation battles in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, it was usually in a detached manner with a particular focus on the most dramatic and sensational occurrences. As well, the coverage in the late 1950s was intermittent, with a field reporter con- ducting a stand-up report from a volatile scene. Alternatively, an in-studio anchorman would narrate the unfolding events captured on film. Rarely, if ever, did black participants speak for themselves or address directly America's newly constituted mass television audience. Nevertheless, civil rights leaders understood how central television exposure was becoming to the success of the movement.
The desire to bring the struggle for civil rights into American living rooms was not limited to civil rights work- ers, however. The drama and sensationalism of peaceful civil rights protesters in violent confrontation with brutal agents of Southern segregation was not lost on news producers. News programmers needed to fill their expanded news programs with live telecasts of newsworthy events, and the public clashes around the Civil Rights Movement were too violent and too important to ignore.
For example, among the most enduring images telecast from this period were: 1955-shots of numerous boycotted busses driving down deserted Alabama streets; 1957-angry white mobs of segregationists squaring-off against black students escorted by a phalanx of Federal Troops in front of Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi; 1965-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., leads a mass of black protesters across a bridge in Selma, Alabama. Most memorable, perhaps, of all these dramatic video images is the 1963 attack on young civil rights protesters by the Birmingham, Alabama, police and their dogs, and the fire department's decision to turn on fire hydrants to disperse the young black demonstrators, most of whom were children. Television cameras captured the water's force pushing young, black protesters down flooding streets like rubbish during a street cleaning. Unquestionably, this was compelling and revolutionary television.
By the early to mid 1960s, television was covering the explosive Civil Rights Movement regularly and forcefully. It was at this time that the young, articulate and telegenic Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., had emerged from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as the Movement's chief spokesman. Commenting on King's oratorical skills, one reporter noted that his "message and eloquence were met with raptattention and enthusiastic support." He was the perfect visual symbol for a new era of American race relations. During this period television made it possible for civil rights workers to be seen and heard on an international scale.
Fanny Lou Hamer's televised speech at the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City signaled a pivotal moment in the history of television's relationship to the civil rights campaign. Hamer's now famous "Is this America?" speech infuriated President Johnson, emboldened the networks, and riveted the nation. Even though Johnson directed the networks to kill the live feed carrying her speech on voting rights on behalf of theAfrican American Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), the networks recognized the speech's powerful appeal and aired Hamer's address in its entirety later that night. Thus Hamer, a black woman and a sharecropper, became one of the first black civil rights activists to address the nation directly and on her own terms(see also Doing Justice: The Life and Trials of Albert Kinoy, the lawyer that defended the MFDP).
King's historic "I Have a Dream" speech was delivered on 28 August 1963, at the March on Washington rally. King's speech not only reached the 300,000 people from civil rights organizations, church adults from across the country into the deep South during the so-called "Freedom Summer" of 1964.
Civil rights organizers encouraged the participation of white liberals in the movement because organizers understood that the presence of whites would attract the television cameras and, by extension, the nation. No one was prepared for the tragic events that followed. As it turns out, television's incessant probing into the murders and subsequent month-long search for the bodies of two white, Northern civil rights workers, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, and black, Southerner James Chaney did have a chilling effect on the nation. With the death of innocent white volunteers, television was convincing its suburban viewers around the country that the Civil Rights Movement did concern them as well.
For it was difficult to turn on the television without news of the Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman search. From late June to 4 August 1964, television regularly and consistently transmitted news of the tragedy to the entire nation. Television ultimately legitimated and lent new urgency to the decade- long struggle for basic human and civil rights that the Civil Rights Movement had difficulty achieving prior to the television age. The incessant gaze of the television cameras on the murders and disappearance of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, following on the heels of the Evers and Kennedy assassinations, resulted in mobilizing national support for the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, it was television's coverage of the Civil Rights Movement's crises and catastrophes that became a prelude to the medium's subsequent involvement with and handling of the later social and political chaos surrounding the Black Power, Anti-War, Free Speech and Feminist Movements. As veteran civil rights reporters went on to cover the assassinations of Malcom X, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, as well as the ghetto uprisings thereafter, a whole new visual and aural lexicon of crisis-television developed, one that in many ways still defines how television news is communicated.
By 1968, it was clear that television's powerful and visceral images of the civil rights struggle had permeated many levels of American social and political reality. These images had helped garner support for such liberal legislation as the 1964 Voting Rights Act and President Lyndon B. Johnson's 'Great Society" and "War on Poverty" pro- grams, all of which are legatees of the Civil Rights Movement. As volatile pictures of Watts, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and other cities going up in smoke hit the television airwaves, they provoked a strong reaction by the end of the decade, marked by the presidential campaign slogans calling for law and order. Consequently, many of the very images that supported the movement simultaneously helped to fuel the national backlash against it. This anti- civil rights backlash contributed to the 1968 presidential election of conservative Republican Richard M. Nixon. While television news programs strove to cover the historic events of the day, entertainment shows responded to the Civil Rights Movement in their own fashion. With their concern over advertising revenues and corporate sponsorship, television's entertainment divisions decided on a turn to social relevance that did not tackle the controversy and social conflict of the Civil Rights Movement directly. Instead, it took the cautious route of slowly integrating (in racial terms) fictional programming by casting black characters in roles other than the usual domestic and comedic stereotypes. Beloved characterizations of domesticated blacks in such popular television shows as Beulah, Amos 'n' Andy, The Jack Benny Show, and The Danny Thomas Show, for example, slowly gave way to integrated cast programs depicting the network's accommodationist position on the "new frontier" ideology of Kennedy liberalism wherein black characters were integrated into American society as long as they supported American law and order. Among these shows were East Side/West Side (I 963-64), The Defenders (I 96 1 - 65), Naked City (1958-63), The Nurses (1962-65), 1 Spy (1965-68), Peyton Place (1964-69), Star Trek (1966-69), Mission: Impossible- (I 966-73), Daktai (I 966-69), NYPD (I 967-69) and Mod Squad (I 968-73), to name but a few. Rather than reflect the intense racial conflicts of bombed-out churches, blacks being beaten by Southern cops and massive demonstrations, these dramatic programs portrayed interracial cooperation and peaceful coexistence between black and white characters. For the first time on network television, many of the black characters in these shows were depicted as intelligent and heroic. While some of these shows were criticized for their tone black characters who staunchly up- held the status quo, these shows, nevertheless, did mark a significant transformation of the televisual universe. And for mass audiences accustomed to traditional white and black shows, the Civil Rights Movement brought a little more color to the television spectrum.
Doing Justice: The Life and Trials of Arthur Kinoy a film by Abby Ginzberg and narrated by Congressman Ron Dellums run time 50 minutes. The Museum of Broadcast Communications would like to thank Abby Ginzberg for permission to stream this dynamic documentary about a defender of Civil Rights in America.
Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh, editors. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows: 1946-Present. New York: Ballentine, 1979; 5th edition, 1992.
Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. New York: Pantheon, 1985.
Hampton, Henry. Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s. New York: Bantam, 1990.
Hill, George, with others. Black Women in Television. New York and London: Garland, 1990.
Hine, Darlene Clark, with others, editors. Black Women in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
Kellner, Douglas. Television and the Crisis of Democracy. Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 1990.
MacDonald, J. Fred. Blacks and White TV- Afro-Americans in Television Since 1948. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1992. -----. One Nation Under Television: The Rise and Decline of network 7V. New York: Pantheon, 1990.
McNeil, Alex. Total Television, Including Cable: A Comprehensive Guide to Programming from 1948 to the Present. New York: Penguin, 1980; 3rd edition, 1991.
Mills, Kay. This Little Light of mine.- The Life of Annie Lou Hamer. New York: Penguin, 1993.
Newcomb, Horace, editor. Television: The Critical View. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976; 4th edition, 1987.
See also Racism, Ethnicity, and Television
To view an MBC Lesson Plan about Civil Rights produced by our Education Department, click here.