Many journalists have written stories that have made people cry. An article may inspire its reader to share it with others. A piece may even perk enough interest to motivate its reader to conduct further research on its subject matter. But every once in a while, a story comes along that demands a collective reaction. It enrages its readers, forcing them to crumple the story up in their sweaty, balled-up fists and do something. That’s what journalism should do, and in the case of the Civil Rights Movement, that’s what it did.
Otis Sanford of The Commercial Appeal, told the Newseum that, “Back then, yes indeed, the only way a black person would get into a newspaper was if it was for some criminal activity.”
The impact of journalists during the movement was so overwhelming that The Library of America devoted an anthology to the efforts of the press, complete with a timeline of compelling coverage from 1941 to 1973. And although the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education put race issues into the mainstream news, the following year was probably the most gripping in terms of the media’s influence over the public opinion of the movement.
Not only was 1955 the year that Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger—an act of civil disobedience that lead to the city bus boycott and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s activism—but it was also the year of Emmett Till’s death. While many of us are familiar with the story of Rosa Parks, the coverage of the Till Trial generated far more empathy.
Till was a fourteen-year-old black boy from Chicago who didn’t realize that he had “broken the unwritten laws of the Jim Crow South” when he whistled at a white shopkeeper while visiting Mississippi. As a result, he was brutally beaten and shot to death. Because the jury was made up entirely of white males, his murderers were acquitted.
His body—complete with barbwire around his neck—was taken from the Tallahatchie River and returned to his family in Chicago, where it was “displayed in an open coffin for four days, [where] more than a thousand blacks stood in line” to pay their respects. The black press took photos of his broken body and published them, resulting in an outcry of disapproval from the public. To see his “before” and “after” photos side-by-side remains one of the most disturbing images I have ever seen. (For this reason, I think it is sometimes necessary to show people pictures of these kinds of atrocities. Not to exploit them, but to provoke people enough to react. Reading a story can have an intense effect, but not like seeing an image like this one can have.)
Now that the country was paying attention, the movement began to use the press as a tool.
“We never staged anything for the sake of the media,” said Rep. John Lewis (D). “But if we were going to a sit-in, if we were going to go on a Freedom Ride, if we knew we were going to be arrested, we would inform the press to be there, to see it, to record it.”
“I covered the 1960 Greensboro, North Carolina, sit-in movement,” said Claude Sitton (New York Times, 1957-68). “That was the one that caught fire and spread across the whole South.”
But the more progress the movement made, the more resistance they encountered. On Mother’s Day in 1961, one of the Freedom Riders’ buses was firebombed near Anniston, Alabama. Another one was ambushed inside the Birmingham terminal, and there was yet another surprise attack in Montgomery, all within six days.
According to the Newseum, “The Freedom Riders were promised protection by the governor and then abandoned by local police and beaten by the Ku Klux Klan.”
“If you’re going to beat us,” Lewis said, “Let somebody see it. Don’t beat us in the dark of the night. Beat us while other people are watching, so they can see it.”
Eventually, police didn’t even rely on the KKK to conduct the beatings anymore. They were doing it themselves. Such was the case in March of 1965, when police attacked demonstrators in Selma, Alabama, where “once again, images from television news moved a president to take action.”
“What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement,” said President Johnson. “Their cause must be our cause, too…Really it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. We shall overcome.”
For USA Today, Herbert Caplow (ABC News) wrote a story in 1989 that explained the power of the press during this time. He covered civil rights for NBC for about ten years, beginning in 1954.
“Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders saw that if they could get their story out, and particularly on the new, emerging, powerful medium of television, that would be helpful,” he wrote. “The pictures of the hoses and the dogs being used against black people, women and children, had an enormous impact.”
Steven Kasher, author of The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, wrote that the Civil Rights Movement “flourished in the age of television”. In 1956, he points out that 83 percent of American households had televisions. The March on Washington of 1963, where Dr. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” Speech, was the first event to be broadcast live around the world.
Jack Nelson for Human Rights described that, “It was clear that King might become a catalyst for historic change, in part because he understood two things: First, the importance of the rule of law. Second, the importance of the news media in shaping the public opinion that shapes the law in our democracy.”
Nelson covered impeachment proceedings against two presidents and still says that in his fifty-plus years as a journalist, he has “never covered a story as important as the civil rights movement.”
The Voting Rights Act was finally signed on August 6, 1965.
PBS produced a film by Stanley Nelson called “Soldiers Without Swords” that highlights how the black press “helped to create and stabilize communities. They spoke forcefully to the political and economic interests of their readers while employing thousands. Black newspapers provided a forum for debate among African Americans and gave voice to a people who were voiceless. With a pen as their weapon, they were Soldiers without Swords.”
I chose to write about this topic because I believe that the exposure of the civil rights movement—of those who challenged the status quo nonviolently only to be met with the violence of the opposition—had the biggest influence on the most monumental human rights struggle of its century. I clearly agree that the coverage—at least on a national scale—was effective and instrumental.
“The media played a major role,” Lewis said. “Without the American press, the Civil Rights Movement would have been like a bird without wings.”
Baldwin, James, & Various Others. Reporting Civil Rights: The LOA Anthology. New York: Library of America, 2003. E-Book.
Kaplow, Herbert. “TV Coverage Spurred Civil Rights Law.” USA Today [McLean, Virginia] 16 Jan 1989, Final Edition. News Section, Page 9A. LexisNexis Academic Database. Web. 29 Jun. 2013.
Steven, Kasher. The Civil Rights Movement: A Photographic History, 1954-68. New York: Abbeville Press, 1996. 255. Print.
McCormack, Barbara, dir. The Press and The Civil Rights Movement. Newseum Production & Newseum Digital Classroom. Ford Foundation, 2011. Slide Program. Web. 29 Jun 2013.
Nelson, Jack. “The Civil Rights Movement: A Press Perspective.” Human Rights. Volume 28, Issue 4 (2001): Pages 3 – 6. ProQuest Documents Database. Web. 29 Jun. 2013.