Racism was an enduring part of American life before the modern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. This was especially true for the southern United States, where racism was rooted in all aspects of society. Southern blacks were severely exploited economically, where they were forced to toil at the bottom of the occupational structure. Blacks had no political power because they were excluded from the formal political process. Because blacks were believed to be racially inferior, they were segregated physically and made to live in the confines of resource-starved communities (Morris 1984). Southern racial oppression was designed to humiliate blacks daily so that both races understood their respective places in the racial hierarchy.
This all-encompassing racism was backed by state power, terrorist violence, customs, and a plethora of Jim Crow laws. These laws restricted the scope of interactions between the races, requiring that blacks attend separate schools and parks, ride at the back of buses, drink from different water fountains, and the like (Kluger 1976). Blacks who disobeyed Jim Crow laws faced the possibility of jail, beatings, and even death. Although racism was prevalent throughout America, the magnitude of its southern version was rarely known outside the south. This virulent racism usually operated beneath the radar of the larger society and was shielded from the world by democratic rhetoric proclaiming America as the land of liberty.
The relative obscurity of southern racism prevented if from direct attack by nonsoutherners and other nations. A major task confronting blacks was to discover avenues to expose southern racism so that it could be scrutinized and contrasted with democratic principles. The media, especially television and newspapers, proved to be the avenue through which the civil rights movement exposed the ugliness of southern racism. Indeed, this movement used the media to help achieve its victories against Jim Crow (Garrow 1986; Branch 1988; Roberts & Klibanoff 2006). It did so by generating media coverage that conveyed the brutality that blacks received from segregationists. Such coverage triggered outrage over such anti-democratic behavior, thus cultivating sympathetic attitudes toward African-Americans among audiences both domestically and internationally. The social disorder initiated by the civil rights movement, coupled with media coverage, eventually forced decision-makers to debate racial injustice and enact laws to overthrow the Jim Crow order. The movement achieved victories by staging public confrontations with segregationists that were so packed with human drama they could not be denied media coverage.
Rise Of Modern Media
The modern civil rights movement developed at the same time as television was emerging as a major institution. By the late 1950s the mass of American households had become television viewers. As early as 1958 over 83 percent of households owned television sets, in contrast to only about 45 percent in 1953. This rapid expansion was made possible because new technologies reduced cost, making television sets affordable for most households. Because the rapid spread of television coincided with the rise of the civil rights movement, it would provide a window through which millions could be jolted by the clashes between the oppressed and the segregationists in the comfort of their living rooms. This development changed black invisibility dramatically and permitted the whole world to witness the blatant racism practiced by whites.
Another crucial technological advance occurred in 1960, when television news and documentaries shifted from 35 mm equipment to the 16 mm camera. Erik Barnouw described the change: “In 1960 the umbilical cord between camera and recorder became obsolete with the invention of methods for synchronizing them without wire connection. The wire between microphone and recording equipment could likewise be abolished by use of the wireless microphone, which communicated its signals to the recording equipment via miniature transmitters . . . Now the performer with his microphone, the cameraman with his camera, the sound engineer with his recording equipment, could all be free agents” (Barnouw 1975).
These advances made it tremendously easier for photojournalists and camera men to capture volatile protest demonstrations quickly and up close, thereby providing startling images for both television and newspapers. Before these advances, camera men had to carry heavy equipment and mount cameras on tripods, which limited the speed and clarity of coverage. Prior to the smaller, more sophisticated equipment, the old cameras only allowed one picture at a time, but the new cameras enabled journalists to shoot in rapid succession. The difference was as great as that between a one-shot rifle and a machine gun.
Additional innovations made it easier for more in-depth coverage of racial issues. Television introduced the genre of documentaries in the early 1960s through which racial inequality received unprecedented attention (Roberts & Klibanoff 2006). The expansion of nightly network news from a 15to a 30-minute format in 1963 was even more far reaching because this made it possible for the civil rights movement to be covered extensively. Additionally, in 1962 the Telstar 1 communication satellite was launched, enabling television pictures to be relayed across the Atlantic and from continent to continent. These advances created the “whole world is watching phenomenon,” whereby civil rights struggles could be broadcast globally, thus insuring that people of color in third world countries were exposed to the movement (Morris 1990).
Media And The Cold War
The Cold War provided crucial leverage for the civil rights movement (Layton 2000; Dudziak 2002). Following World War II, America became involved in an intense struggle with the Soviet Union to determine which would emerge as the great superpower. America faced daunting challenges because communism was on the march. Over a billion people of color, and their newly independent nations, were deciding whether to align themselves with either combatant, thus determining which nation would achieve the balance of world power.
The Soviet Union courted the third world by providing its liberation struggles with resources to overthrow European colonialism. The United States countered by offering democracy, which it promised to all newcomers. But America had an undemocratic fly in its ointment: the oppressive treatment of African-Americans, who were being hung, denied enfranchisement, and relegated to economic servitude, did not fit its democratic rhetoric. Soviet leaders knew this nasty secret and its potential nightmare for American international aspirations. African leaders, many of whom had attended American universities and bonded with African-American leaders, knew the secret as well. And that generation of World War II black leaders, including W. E. B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, and A. Philip Randolph, were keenly aware of Cold War politics and took advantage of them by championing civil rights for blacks in the international arena. Through exposure to these leaders and their own knowledge of the international scene, the emerging leaders of the modern civil rights movement understood Cold War politics and the advantages they afforded the black struggle.
But nothing could dramatize the contradiction between racism and democracy like explosive public demonstrations targeting racial oppression in the glare of worldwide media. Martin Luther King, Jr, and other leaders, learned to skillfully use demonstrations and media coverage to interject black freedom aspirations into Cold War politics. The United States government, including the President, Senate, Congress, State Department, and the Supreme Court, were all vulnerable to charges of racism if they failed to act to overthrow racial segregation in the wake of civil rights demonstrations. Thus, these sectors of government had a profound interest in addressing racial inequality as it was exposed worldwide because they were the key actors seeking to realize America’s global aspiration to become the world’s superpower.
Civil Rights Victories And The Media
During the civil rights era, advances in media technology made it possible for a powerful social movement to expose southern racism to the nation and the world. Leaders of the civil rights movement came to increasingly understand how to generate coverage that dramatized racial inequality and to demonstrate why change was required if America was to continue promoting itself as the world’s greatest democracy that reached out globally, declaring “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
The civil rights movement framed the confrontations between itself and the segregationists as a battle between good and evil. Its nonviolent strategy lent itself to this framing because demonstrators dressed appropriately, often carried Bibles, and moved into the teeth of violence with a poised dignity – refusing to strike back, even when viciously attacked by white mobs. These actions made clear that black people were committed to obtaining freedom no matter the cost, even if it meant sacrificing limb and life.
The segregationists were equally committed to maintaining Jim Crow. The massive marches, jailings, boycotts, and other disruptive tactics rocked the foundations of Jim Crow because for decades its well-being depended on the acceptance of its inevitability. When the black masses responded with bold resistance, segregationists countered with state resources and the mob to crush the rebellions that mushroomed throughout the south. Attack dogs, fire hoses, billy clubs, mace, bombings, firings, jailings, and assassinations were used to crush the uprisings. When movement forces and segregationists met in dramatic confrontations, the media recorded the drama that exploded when “good” and “evil” clashed directly. Television reporters with their immensely improved equipment and photojournalists with their rapid-fire cameras relayed the confrontations through televisions and major newspapers. As television cameras recorded white troopers bashing the heads of dignified, peaceful demonstrators, many of whom were children marching for their democratic rights, a nation was shamed. As satellites and newspapers relayed the images globally, America was scrutinized by world opinion as the Cold War raged.
The relationship between movements and media coverage is always problematic. Tensions arise because media usually represent the interests of the status quo while movements represent marginalized groups (Molotch 1979; Gitlin 1980). Thus, southern media often refused to cover the movement. Even national coverage was often truncated because of the bias toward covering the movement only when violence occurred (Jackson 2007). Nevertheless, national media interested in drama, violence, and a struggle reshaping America provided extensive coverage. The charisma of Dr King enhanced coverage. As King’s lieutenant James Lawson put it, “any time King went to a movement, immediately the focus of the nation was on that community . . . He had the eyes of the world on where he went. It gave the black community an advantage it has never had” (Morris 1984).
As the world watched in horror while peaceful demonstrators were attacked, the American public began demanding racial change, as did leaders across the world. The President, Senate, Congress, State Department, and Supreme Court came under intense pressure to address Jim Crow or lose the battle to become the world’s superpower (Layton 2000; Dudziak 2002). The movement and the media coverage of its struggle ripped the curtains off southern racism and allowed the whole world to scrutinize its undemocratic nature. As a result, national legislation that overthrew formal Jim Crow became a reality. The powerful civil rights movement that utilized mass resistance and clever use of the media changed a nation and continues to inspire liberation struggles globally.
- Barnouw, E. (1975). Tube of plenty: The evolution of American television. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Branch, T. (1988). Parting the waters. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Dudziak, M. (2002). Cold War civil rights: Race and the image of American democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Garrow, D. (1986). Bearing the cross. New York: William Morrow.
- Gitlin, T. (1980). The whole world is watching. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Jackson, T. (2007). From civil rights to human rights. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Kluger, R. (1976). Simple justice. New York: Knopf.
- Layton, A. (2000). International politics and civil rights policies in the United States, 1941–1960. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Molotch, H. (1979). Media and movements. In M. Zald & J. McCarthy (eds.), The dynamics of social movements. Cambridge, MA: Winthrop, pp. 71– 93.
- Morris, A. (1984). The origins of the civil rights movement: Black communities organizing for change. New York: Free Press.
- Morris, A. (1990). A man prepared for the times: A sociological analysis of the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. In P. Albert & R. Hoffman (eds.), We shall overcome. New York: Pantheon.
- Roberts, G., & Klibanoff, H. (2006). The race beat. New York: Knopf.