No piece of the popular narrative escapes close scrutiny fully intact. King has been (rightly) lionized in the decades since his death, but he was a polarizing figure to the white audiences who encountered him in the years after the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. By 1966, 63 percent of the country had a negative view of King, according to Gallup polling at the time.
Racism was not only present in the former Confederacy. Yes, in the South, oppression was written into law and deepened by local violent traditions. But when black migrants went north and west, what they found was all too familiar. Black people were forced into cramped, run-down residential districts by restrictive covenants, “steering” by realtors, mobs of angry white people, and the impossibility of securing mortgages at the same cost as white people. State-sponsored violence against black people took different forms, but it did not stop at the Mason-Dixon Line. Urban police departments inspired fear and anger in all the cities where large numbers of migrants settled. It was not only backward white folks in Selma who saw racial hierarchy as a key component of American culture.
And yet, there is no doubt that television news did help the civil-rights cause, helping activists and politicians push key legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. More recent (and honest) research about how this really happened reveals the genius of King, the institutional imperatives and racial tropes that guided coverage, and the enduring limits to racial equality in every part of the nation.
Martin Luther King Jr. was an excellent television producer. He had a keen sense of drama, the use of celebrity, and television’s desire for villains and heroes. The organization he cofounded, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, became the most successful civil-rights organization of the era by combining mass protests and media savvy.
In 1955, as black citizens in Montgomery, Alabama, prepared themselves for the bus boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech to a huge crowd of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the umbrella group for their organizing efforts that preceded the SCLC. A local white cameraman, Laurens Pierce, who would go on to a celebrated career, filmed the speech. Then, Ralph Abernathy went on stage to read the boycott resolution, and it appears Pierce, or the other journalists, tried to slip out.
“I’m sorry that some members of the press have dismissed themselves, because there are some things in here I’d really want them to have,” Abernathy said to applause. “I certainly hope, I certainly hope that the television man will come back. You know, it isn’t fair to get part of it. I want you to get all of it.”
Abernathy and King understood the medium and the role that the press could play, if they chose to highlight the injustices of Jim Crow. But they were not naïve: They knew that the country had never taken black people’s word for the horrors that they had endured. It would not be enough to talk about the black experience of America. White Americans, through their televisions, would have to see, with their own eyes, some of those horrors enacted.