Television loved Martin Luther King Jr.
“The civil-rights revolution in the South began when a man and the eye of the television film camera came together, giving the camera a focal point for events breaking from state to state, and the man, Martin Luther King Jr., high exposure on television sets from coast to coast,” wrote the journalists Robert Donovan and Ray Scherer in their history of television news, Unsilent Revolution.
Why did the TV news networks become “the chosen instrument of the revolution,” as NBC News’ Washington bureau chief, Bill Monroe, put it?
In most popular discussions, the answer is cinematic and comforting: Brave white Northern journalists charged into the South, making common cause with black activists to expose the racial injustice of Jim Crow simply because that was the right thing to do.
In this story, the invention of television was all it took to tear down the walls of segregation, another inevitable point in that arc that bends to justice; Americans merely needed to see what was really going on and the country came to a moral reckoning. In this story, the South was a place apart, different from the rest of the country in the virulence of its white supremacy. In this story, Martin Luther King Jr. is a beloved figure whom the majority of white Americans both believed and revered.
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.
Julian Bond, reflecting on the era in which he’d helped run press relations for the SCLC, was unflinching in his assessment of media’s structural imperatives. “What the media craved was a steady diet of bold mass action campaigns in the streets, ideally faced by violent white resistance, which could dramatize the issues at stake and make good print or electronic copy,” Bond wrote.
“Indeed it was Little Rock [Arkansas]—even more than Montgomery—that established the key conventions for successful Movement coverage during the southern campaign,” Bond wrote. The school-desegregation campaign in the city centered on nine brave black children who enrolled in Little Rock Central High School. This precipitated an armed showdown between different parts of the government, eventually forcing President Dwight Eisenhower to send in federal troops to secure the students’ rights.
“The Little Rock crisis was made for television. It had drama, tension, and the ever-present whiff of real and threatened violence, all concentrated into a manageable geographic area and relatively brief time frame,” Bond wrote. “The other classic set-piece confrontations of the southern Movement—Ole Miss, Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and Selma—would all follow much the same pattern.”
King himself was rarely so direct in public. Privately was another matter. In the Birmingham jail cell, he wrote a different letter from the famous one republished in this magazine. This one was to Andrew Young, a key SCLC organizer in Birmingham, giving him specific directions on how to create what the media scholar Sasha Torres calls “movement-generated content for the press” through a series of actions designed to hold the media’s attention. King closed his note saying, “In a crisis, we must have a sense of drama.”
Only in the aftermath of a sheriff’s posse’s brutal repression of Selma marchers in March of 1965 did King lay out the strategy that underlay the moral dramas he’d been creating in America. “We are here to say to the white men that we no longer will let them use clubs on us in the dark corners,” King said. “We’re going to make them do it in the glaring light of television.”
The TV news industry King encountered was nothing like the one we know today. Most obviously, there were only three networks—CBS, NBC, and ABC. We call them networks for a reason. Their nodes were local, semi-independent affiliates in cities across the country. In the early days of television, from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s, television was not spread evenly across the nation; there were no broadcast towers in Mississippi, Arkansas, or South Carolina until 1953. But as King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference prepared to boycott buses in Montgomery in 1955, the phenomenon of TV was nationalizing. Less than 1 percent of households had a TV in 1946. By 1962, 90 percent did. As America’s living rooms rapidly filled with the glowing screens, the industry’s profits followed a similarly incredible growth trajectory. TV stations and networks generated $2 million in revenue in 1947. By 1962, they made $1.3 billion in profit.
The key to the profitability was that the networks could plausibly claim to reach, roughly, the whole country. As Facebook and Google now control audiences at scale, leading to massive profits, back then, it was the television networks who commanded the attention of the nation.
To maximize profits, they had to maintain that national audience, and the emerging national battle over the civil-rights movement threatened the cohesiveness of the networks. Most prominently, southern audiences often reacted negatively to news coverage about the civil-rights movement. A Louisiana group called Monitor South was organizing local stations in the South to reject race-focused documentaries and news coverage of the civil-rights movement. The group also demanded equal time “to rebut any false political propaganda that serves the communist racial ideology.”
If the big networks began to regularly lose the southern stations during their evening broadcasts, they would fracture their audience and special claims to national importance.
On the other hand, there were forces working for activists on the ground. For one, television newsrooms wanted to be taken seriously as news-gathering operations, as detailed in Christine Acham’s book, Revolution Televised. They didn’t just tell you what someone else reported, but were out there bringing you the news on the scene. Acham quotes a New York Times reporter who covered television saying that “for television [civil rights] was a story that finally proved the value of TV news gathering as opposed to mere news dissemination.”
To gather news for TV required journalists to be on the ground, with cameras and glaring lights. This served to protect, to a limited degree, the civil-rights protesters, which was another reason that the SCLC had courted TV coverage.
“Nationally broadcast television news served the movement in two crucial if contradictory ways: On one hand, it needed to modulate segregationist violence against civil-rights workers in the field,” writes Sasha Torres in her book, Black, White, and in Color: Television and Black Civil Rights. “On the other, it captured and amplified the violence that movement demonstrations occasionally sought, replacing it within a national, rather than regional, context, in which it carried very different meanings.”
For southern segregationists, the violence was a way to keep the status quo, the white-supremacist order. People outside the region saw paramilitary cruelty. “The official agents of the state charged with maintaining segregation had, since Reconstruction, been closely allied with white racial terrorists of the unofficial kind; many were themselves Klan members,” Torres continues. “The quite reliable tendency of southern police to privilege local custom over federal law both fascinated and appalled northern news workers; their film became visible evidence for the movement in its case against the South.”
The reporters out in the field also became subject to violence by the same forces that were attacking civil-rights demonstrators. When Dan Rather was covering the attempted enrollment of a black student at the University of Mississippi in 1962, he reported seeing a sign at a motel that read, “No dogs, niggers, or reporters allowed.” Rather described the tactics that were required to report on the violent white mobs, who wanted the TV cameras’ lights off, so they could do the dirty work of black suppression off the record and in the dark. “Whenever anyone turned on a light—which meant every time we needed to film—one or more bullets would attempt to knock it out. We had to film and move. Film and move,” Rather recalled.
Torres cites a journalist recalling that the networks were given nicknames by segregationists: “the Nigger Broadcasting Company (NBC), the Communist Broadcasting System (CBS), or the Asshole Broadcasting Company (ABC).”
John Lewis describes arriving into town on a bus during a Freedom Ride and encountering an angry mob, who chose as their first victims the press. “They had baseball bats, lead pipes, chains, bricks, sticks—every conceivable weapon or instrument that could be used as a weapon. I thought it was my last demonstration, really. I’d never seen anything like that. They were looking for blood,” Lewis recalled. “First they jumped on the press. If you had a pencil and a pad, or camera, you were in real trouble ... then ... they turned on us.”
Segregationists even attacked the television infrastructure. In one incident, when an NBC news show had come to Montgomery to film an interview with King, local saboteurs knocked the local TV affiliate offline for the duration of the program with a carefully planned attack on a transmitter.
Thus, the reporters had to make common cause with civil-rights protesters. The enemies of their enemy became their friends.
Back in New York, the corporate chiefs of the big networks were faced with some stark choices. They had news-gathering operations that were earning credibility and accolades for the networks, but they also had the potential for breakaway southern stations and the milquetoast requirements of their program sponsors. They needed a national consensus on race in America.
Television executives had their own reasons for letting the journalists go deep into the South to cover King and his colleagues, especially after the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960.
Despite their new economic clout, the networks faced President John F. Kennedy’s tough Federal Communications Commission chair, Newton Minow, who had described their offerings as a “vast wasteland.” As Minow recalled in 2011, broadcasters were required to “serve the public interest in return for their free and exclusive use of the publicly owned airwaves.” The networks were also rocked (sort of hilariously) by scandals centered on the wrestling-like choreography of quiz shows and payola on teen music programs.
Not unlike tech-industry executives after being flogged in Congress, television-network bigwigs felt the need to show that they did have the public interest in their hearts. “For news workers, civil-rights reporting promised—and delivered—precisely the cultural capital the new medium needed ... Coverage of the movement allowed network news not only to report, but also to intervene in, national culture and political discourse,” Torres wrote.
The power of television was not just in New York reporters producing reports for white northern audiences. Local southern TV reporters could end up on national TV, if they found a good civil-rights story. So, they did cover the movement, unlike most local newspapers. That coverage then boomeranged back via national broadcasts to black people across the South. “The capacity to see themselves—both figuratively and literally—as political actors was something long denied black activists in the South, where local papers generally refused to cover black protest,” Torres wrote.
And so it was that, in the words of the historian J. Fred MacDonald in his book, Blacks and White TV, “More powerfully than literature, more effectively than radio, television communicated a single, nationally acceptable message with regard to the civil-rights issue.”
But what was that “single, nationally acceptable message”?
In his 1997 essay, “Remembering Civil Rights: Television, Memory, and the ’60s,” the media scholar Herman Gray lays out his theory of what was acceptable to show on network news. “Black people portrayed in news coverage of the civil-rights and Black Power movements appeared either as decent but aggrieved blacks who simply wanted to become a part of the American dream, or as threats to the very notion of citizenship and nation.”
Think about the canonical moving pictures of the civil-rights movement. Black people being dragged in the streets. Black people being hit by police fire hoses. Black people chased by white men on horseback. Martin Luther King Jr. saying, “I have a dream.” Black people pulled from lunch counters. Black people walking bravely through mobs of screaming white people. White people watching these things in their living rooms. It would be an understatement to say that there was a limited range to what network news was willing to show about the conditions that obtained for black Americans. This became especially clear as leaders outside the SCLC began to agitate for freedom in other ways as the Black Power movement grew.
Television created a new idealized figure, the “civil-rights subject,” whom Gray called “an exemplar of citizenship and responsibility—success, mobility, hard work, sacrifice, individualism.” This was the only person who was, according to the media scholar Aniko Bodroghkozy, “the worthy beneficiary of the civil-rights movement.”
“Within the the American discourse of race, the civil-rights subject performs important cultural work since it helps construct the mythic terms through which many Americans can believe that our nation has now transcended racism,” Gray wrote. Enlightened white people hand out justice. Worthy black people receive it gratefully.
Bodroghkozy’s book, Equal Time, explores how television news strained to always show black and white people together. “African Americans may have been the key drivers of the revolution in race politics,” she writes, “but network television insisted on situating whites, if not at the very center of the narrative, then right alongside worthy black ‘civil-rights subjects.’”
Network TV searched exhaustively for “moderate” white southerners whom they could pair with footage of aggrieved and abused black people. No civil-rights group that was labeled “militant” could appear in a positive light, and even a group like the NAACP could find itself under such a cloud of suspicion of radicalism. “Network news tended to prefer representations of southern blacks as either paragons of respectability and potential and of demonstrable achievement or as silenced objects of mistreatment whose cause needed to be championed by enlightened whites,” wrote Bodroghkozy.
The TV press, as the scholar Jenny Walker argues, got it wrong twice, beatifying the early civil-rights leaders while vilifying the later ones. That has led to a false discontinuity in the broader view of black freedom struggles. In her essay “A Media-Made Movement?” she shows that in the early years of the southern civil-rights movement, news reporters ignored violence or potential for violence by black people as well. The television networks wanted saints, not people who might react in self-defense to the brutalization of their friends and families. Popular history has labeled the eras of King and the Panthers as two totally separate domains, but Walker argues that’s just what people saw on TV.
In part, that’s because many of the goals of the networks’ coverage of the civil-rights movement had been accomplished by the mid-’60s. They had used the struggle to gain respectability for their news departments, and solidify their national audiences. And, their own needs met, they did not continue, en masse, supporting those protesting for full citizenship and equality. It wasn’t the medium of television that supported the goals of King and the SCLC, but a particular set of journalists and executives at a particular time with their own narratives about what was enough justice for black Americans.
“Network television provisionally embraced integrationist civil rights, as long as whiteness and white people (at least non-southern and non-rural) were neither marginalized nor discomforted, and as long as white political elites in Washington remained supportive,” concluded Bodroghkozy.
The “nationally acceptable message” about civil rights was that the suffering of black people made for good television if it was violent enough. The “nationally acceptable message” was that white people would choose when to grant a little freedom to benighted black people. What was not acceptable was black people demanding power by any means necessary.
Less has changed than my generation might like to think. The arc was supposed to be bending. Now, far-right Republicans praise King and our cities are still segregated. The most popular movie in the world is about black power and our schools are still segregated. Our president was black and black family wealth has fallen to about 10 percent of white family wealth.
Our media environment might be more complicated, but the desire to create two buckets out of black protesters remains: the “good” peaceful ones and the “bad” radical ones. Simply scan the news coverage of the Black Lives Matter actions in any city or at the national level. The tropes that were established by television reporters in Little Rock and Watts are alive and well.
For all network news did for the civil-rights movement, there is a reason, after all, that the great poet Gil Scott-Heron exclaimed, over and over, “The revolution will not be televised.”
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