TV In The Age Of Urban Rebellion
As a medium of communication, television both reflects and creates public consciousness. Public opinion is formed in great part through the images and information transmitted by video. There can be no doubt that scenes of protest against racial injustice communicated nationally through TV in the early 1960s did much to win popular support for meaningful reform. While Supreme Court rulings and the actions of black leaders would have occurred without television, the existence of the visual medium ensured that protests against bigotry would transcend race and religion. To a great degree, the awarding in 1964 of the Nobel Peace Prize to Martin Luther King, Jr. was a testimony to the global implications of the civil rights movement created via television.
During its first decade, the movement was tied firmly to a strategy of nonviolence and civil disobedience. Television showed African Americans and their sympathizers undertaking sit-ins, freedom rides, protest marches, and the like. The gospel singing which often accompanied such images revealed the strong attachment of the early movement to religious organizations, particularly the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) of Reverends King, Ralph David Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, and Hosea Williams.
During this first decade television focused overwhelmingly on the racial problem in the South. This is where the movement began. The first racial leaders were from the South. And with its brazen Jim Crow laws and public examples of segregation, racism was most obvious in that region. Although the Supreme Court case outlawing "separate but equal" schools grew from educational facilities in Topeka, Kansas, it was in the South that the first confrontations occurred on matters of resistance to mandated school integration.
But change was slow in coming. There were political promises, even new federal laws. But there were few fundamental social changes to end racism, open doors of opportunity, and render blacks politically, socially, and economically equal. Importantly, too, frustrations mounted and erupted precisely in those areas of the United States where racial problems were not frequently seen on television—the urban centers of the North, Midwest, and West. Following the climactic summer of 1963, however, TV began to reflect this new phase of the black social movement.
Certainly, there would be other civil rights triumphs for the movement in the South. Among these would be the registration of African-American voters during the Mississippi Summer of 1964, and the Selma-toMontgomery march in early 1965. But beginning with the riots in Harlem in the spring of 1964, the geographic focus and internal structure of the civil rights movement shifted. The urban centers outside the South now experienced violent reactions as impatient blacks demanded immediate rescue from second-class citizenship. As rage grew throughout the late 1960s, many major American cities exploded in racial rebellion.
The cities traumatized by race riots during this period constitute a list of the principal urban and industrial areas in the nation. In the search for jobs and a better way of life, millions of blacks had migrated to these centers for two decades. Leaving the poverty and segregation of the agrarian South, these migrants had come to cities like Chicago, New York City, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and Detroit to achieve their American Dream. What they encountered, however, was often more nightmarish than the conditions they had left.
Faced with unemployment, dilapidated ghettos, unfamiliar and subtle forms of discrimination, and handicapped by inadequate technical skills, by the mid-1960s many migrants abandoned established leadership and drifted into violence. Looting and burning often replaced passive resistance and religious principle. In 1967 alone, there were eight major disorders, thirty-three serious outbreaks, and 133 minor disorders. Only 16 percent of these outbreaks occurred in the South. The following list of major racial rebellions of the 1960s clearly places the riot phenomenon in the industrial North.
|New York City/Harlem--1964||Plainfield, NJ--1967|
As anger mounted, old leaders lost influence and were replaced by more bellicose younger spokespersons. By 1967, phrases like "black power," "burn, baby, burn," "freedom now," and "off the pig," replaced earlier appeals to black and white consciences. Now leaders like Stokely Carmichael, head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, spoke openly of blacks arming for purposes of self-defense. This was the time when Eldridge Cleaver, information minister of the Black Panther party, conducted his national campaign for the presidency of the United States under sponsorship of the duly registered Peace and Freedom political party.
During this period James Foreman of the Black Economic Development Council issued a controversial "black manifesto" and demanded—and received—large sums of money from American churches as atonement for centuries of white exploitation of African Americans. This was also a time when H. Rap Brown of SNCC justified urban rioting with the phrase, "violence is as American as cherry pie" and terrified many with the prediction that inner-city violence was only a "dress rehearsal for the revolution."
To many people revolution seemed at hand following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968. Anger spilled into the streets, and armed troops were needed in many localities to reestablish social order. The image of U.S. Army soldiers bearing rifles in front of the Capitol, while streams of smoke rose in the background from the ghetto of Washington, D.C., told most dramatically the depth of this racial rage. Such pictures also revealed how disenchanted urban blacks had become with the passive resistance tactics of the early civil rights movement.
TV not only covered the inner-city rebellions as they erupted, it occasionally predicted their occurrence. Six months before the Harlem riots, CBS Reports looked frankly at "The Harlem Temper." Aired on December 18, 1963, this documentary looked at the poverty and frustration in the New York City ghetto. It showed the recruiting under way for direct action groups like the Congress on Racial Equality, and for the nationalist Black Muslim religion. The program warned that as Harlem blacks became increasingly disenchanted with the pace of social progress, extremist solutions became more attractive.
In a similar vein, two and one-half years before San Francisco experienced racial rioting in its Fillmore District ghetto, author James Baldwin rocked the self-complacency of that liberal city when he attacked San Francisco's racism in a National Educational Television program, "Take This Hammer." In the broadcast, which aired in February 1964, Baldwin accused the city of racial hypocrisy. "In San Francisco it's all whitewashed," he commented, "it's under the rug. I suppose no one in San Francisco has any sense of what a dangerous area this is."' Rioting in San Francisco began in September 1966.
Televised coverage of domestic rebellions in the late 1960s ranged from pictures gathered safely behind police or national guard lines, to live "battle action" obtained in helicopter flights into the thick of the rioting. Independent station KTLA in Los Angeles won prestigious awards for its spectacular helicopter coverage of the Watts riots in 1965. Evading bullets aimed at the aircraft, KTLA personnel emerged with dramatic pictures of homes and commercial buildings in flames, of looters sacking department stores, and of social anarchy. Coverage by the station however, provoked criticism. To many, such pictures only encouraged further arson and looting. Others felt it also created widespread panic among the white population.
Similar praise and criticism were heard about the video coverage of the San Francisco rioting. During that violence, TV newsmen were so close to the action that several were attacked and beaten. Station automobiles and television equipment were destroyed by rioters. However, in addition to showing the riot in progress, San Francisco TV lent itself as a forum for the discussion of ideas and for pacifying communications from Mayor John F. Shelly. At the request of Governor Edmund G. Brown, a major league baseball game between the San Francisco Giants and the Atlanta Braves was televised from Atlanta, even though it was not scheduled to be seen in San Francisco. The fairness with which local TV handled the violence prompted Dick Gregory to remark that "compared to the bigotry and blindness of other riot cities, this honestly is something else."
Not all Americans shared Gregory's opinion of the effectiveness of the local media, particularly of television and its role in covering unrest. Many viewers, city officials, and even TV news personnel charged that the presence of video cameras in a riotous situation actually inflamed the situation. According to one network newsman, John Schubeck, "today a good many scenes have been created by the cameras." Of the later riots in Detroit and Newark, he contended that "the television cameras had a great deal to do with it."
Others assailed the sensationalistic nature of television pictures from a riot area. Still others attacked the distortions and misrepresentations competing newsmen perpetrated in their competition for TV visuals. The mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley, articulated the feelings of many in local government when in 1966 he told a conference of broadcast news directors:
Regardless of how objective radio or television news editors may wish to be, they cannot present a fair presentation, a fair evaluation, of an important and complex issue in two or three minutes. This, perhaps, is the crux of the "communications dilemma.". . . Coupled with this is conformity to the axiom of applying the standard: "Where is the action?" This has become nearly an obsession with some news editors.
Ironically, as the civil rights movement degenerated into urban rebellion, television's interest in black social problems diminished. One reason for this was the growing attack on the medium for popularizing the idea of rioting. TV also was clearly sensitive to the white backlash which materialized nationally. As many grew tired of civil rights issues and fearful of racial unrest, television became the target of those who felt that the medium was actually planting seeds of rebellion via its news stories and documentaries. Some felt the medium was too uncritical with black protesters. Others alleged that without the catalytic presence of TV cameras local disturbances would not have become full-fledged riots with national implications.
There were, furthermore, new social issues occupying the energies of Americans. In particular, white middle-class reformers who had been crucial to the civil rights movement in the early 1960s turned now to fresh crusades, among them ecological concerns, consumer issues, and the budding women's liberation movement. But most pressing was the matter of the war in Vietnam. Scarcely an issue when the black social movement was making its first gains, the Vietnam war became the nation's most divisive concern by the mid-1960s. For many years American troop commitments had been small in Southeast Asia. The bulk of early draftees had come from poor white, black, and Latino social elements. With the escalation of hostilities under President Johnson, and with the cancellation of college deferments and the conscription of middle-class, college-enrolled white males, critical attention was increasingly focused on the Vietnam war. Indicative of this new orientation, by 1967 ABC Scope—a distinguished prime-time documentary series notable for its coverage of the civil rights movement—was devoting each weekly program exclusively to developments in the war.
The decreasing TV interest in black social problems was also a reflection of the disintegration of the civil rights movement. Despite a decade of significant legal and moral victories, the movement was collapsing. By the last years of the decade, SCLC, CORE, SNCC, NAACP, and other black groups were weakened. The Black Muslim religion was split between advocates of Elijah Muhammad and those who still supported the slain Malcolm X. Many key members of the Black Panther party were dead, in exile, or in jail. And former firebrand leaders like Stokely Carmichael, Floyd McKissick, and James Farmer had either left politics or now worked for the white Establishment.
The degree to which leaderless blacks remained segregated within American society was powerfully summarized in the Kerner Commission report published in 1968. Responding to urban violence, President Johnson in July 1967, had appointed a Commission on Civil Disorders to analyze the causes of the rioting. Headed by former Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois, the commission discovered a society drifting headlong toward apartheid.
Importantly, it blamed white racism for the violence of black protest. "What white Americans have never fully understood—but what Negroes can never forget," the Commission reported, "is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto." The report continued, "White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it."
While there were fewer documentary considerations of black social problems after the early 1960s, nonfiction television did offer several significant reports. These broadcasts, moreover, reflected the directions and relevancy of the civil rights movement by this date. An NBC Special on June 11, 1967, "After Civil Rights ... Black Power," contrasted the views of radicals like McKissick and Carmichael with moderates like King and Charles Evers of the NAACP. The white backlash phenomenon was treated in two outstanding CBS Reports programs: "Ku Klux Klan" on September 21, 1965, and "Black Power—White Backlash" on September 27, 1966.
Riot cities were frequent topics immediately after violence exploded. Even months after such outbursts, their implications continued to be explained. Such was the case with the CBS Reports program, "Watts: Riot or Revolt?" aired on December 7, 1965, four months after racial rioting in the Los Angeles ghetto resulted in 35 dead and 947 wounded.
More comprehensive as a study of urban rebellion was the NBC documentary, "Summer '67: What We Learned," which was aired September 15, 1967, and told the story of the race riot in Detroit. Produced by Fred Freed and featuring newsmen Frank McGee and Bill Matney, this program sought to expose the conditions which caused such a devastating toll: 43 dead, 386 injured, and 477 buildings damaged or destroyed. With images of Detroit that resembled Germany in 1945, this documentary immediately tied this rebellion to uprisings throughout the nation that summer.
There is a great temptation to become shrill about what happened here in Detroit in July. That is a temptation we wish to avoid. Today, more than at any time any of us can remember, is a time for truth, and hysteria is no friend of truth. Some of what you will see may make you angry. But if it does no more than make you angry, we will have failed in our purpose. If it does not expose you to the desperation that breeds the outrageous and lawless things being said and done by some Negroes, if it does not impress you with the absolute urgency of relieving that desperation, we will not have communicated what Black America is trying to tell White America. For we believe that the greatest single need in America today is for communication between blacks and whites. But there can be no communication between minds closed by anger.
Urban poverty, increasingly seen as a root cause of violent demonstrations, was the subject of several documentaries in 1967. "The Tenement" was a disturbing CBS broadcast on February 28. Here producer Jay McMullen reported on his residence for nine months in a Chicago tenement and recorded how slum living conditions—large families, insufficient food, loneliness, and lack of relationship with the white society—trapped otherwise religious and hopeful African Americans who, nevertheless, still expressed dreams of a better life for their children. An NBC News Special on October 27 analyzed the attempt by the Office of Equal Opportunity to establish a legal services program. "Southern Accents, Northern Ghettos," an ABC Summer Focus documentary aired July 6, dealt with the plight of southern blacks who had migrated to the ghettos of the urban North where they were forced by circumstances to subsist on welfare payments.
Also of importance was "Same Mud, Same Blood," an NBC News Special aired December 1. It concerned the role of black soldiers in Vietnam. Focusing on the Army's 101st Airborne Division, its battle scenes made this more an antiwar program than a discussion of integration in the military. There were pictures of an integrated platoon being led by an African-American sergeant, but as Variety reported, "the blood and the mud—the plain inferno—which emerged in the pure graphics of the piece indeed swallowed the race theme."
Significant, too, were the many explorations of the race problem telecast in the last 1960s by National Educational Television, and its later incarnation, the Public Broadcasting Service. Although production budgets and audiences for ETV/PBS documentaries were small, public TV offered some of the frankest treatises on the subject. The limited run series NET Journal probed the sociology of domestic unrest in "Black Militancy—Color Us Black"; the dilemma of the African-American bourgeoisie on "Still a Brother—Inside the Black Middle Class;" the war on poverty in "The Cities and the Poor;" and the dysfunctional criminal justice system on "Justice and the Poor." On the controversial showcase Public Broadcasting Laboratory (PBL), public TV treated the problems of student busing in the suburbs of Chicago on "Hear Us, 0 Lord!," and the frustrations of poor black families in "Gordon Parks' Diary of a Harlem Family." And on America's Crises, the inferiority of education in slum schools was examined on "Marked for Failure."
In the midst of its considerations of African-American problems, network television occasionally treated the African connection. Nowhere was the newly recognized importance of Africa more fully explored than in an ABC four-hour special devoted to the political, social, and economic significance of the continent that was narrated by actor Gregory Peck. On September 10, 1967, the network devoted an entire Sunday evening to analyses of such matters as the historic depth of African civilization, tribal influences in modern politics, African arts, lingering white domination in several countries, the African role in the slave trade, and the American political stake in the international politics of the emergent continent.
As revealing as these documentaries were, they were among only a small number of nonfiction broadcasts devoted to black issues. For several reasons, however, commercial TV rediscovered African-American problems in 1968, when an unprecedented number of news documentaries poured from the networks. One reason for this reevaluation was the issuance of the Kerner Commission report. Government officials called in network executives for lengthy meetings on the report, urging them to devote more coverage to the nation’s racial unrest. This was also an election year, and the candidates—particularly Robert F. Kennedy—were particularly vocal regarding such problems.
Further, in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the national wave of urban violence it precipitated, civil rights surpassed Vietnam as the most pressing national concern. In this atmosphere, the three commercial networks focused public affairs programming on the African-American situation. At no time was this scrutiny more intensely noticeable than during the summer months. As figure 11.1 suggests, the interest of network television in black problems in the summer of 1968 was unprecedented.
Network Documentary Programming, Summer 1968
|6/24||The Cities I: |
"A City to Live In"
|6/25||The Cities II: |
"A Dilemma in Black and White"
|6/26||The Cities III: |
"To Build the Future"
|6/27||Time for Americans I: |
"Bias and the Media—Part I"
|7/2||Of Black America I: "Black History— |
Lost, Stolen, or Strayed? "
|7/9||Of Black America II: |
“The Black Soldier"
|7/11||Time for Americans II: |
Bias and the Media—Part II"
|7/12||What’s Happening to America? I||NBC|
|7/14||Time for Americans III: |
"Newark: Anatomy of a Riot"
|7/15||Time for Americans IV: |
"Prejudice and the Police"
|7/16||Of Black America III: |
|7/19||What’s Happening |
to America? II
|7/23||Of Black America I: |
|7/26||What’s Happening |
to America? III
|7/27||Time for Americans V: |
"Can White Suburbia Think Black?"
|7/28||Time for Americans VI: |
"White Racism and Black Education"
|7/30||Of Black America IV: |
"Body and Soul"
|8/9||"Justice for All?"||NBC|
|8/13||Of Black America V: |
"The Heritage of Slavery"
|8/16||What’s Happening |
to America? IV
|8/20||Of Black America VI: |
"In Search of a Past"
|9/2||Of Black America VII: |
"Portrait in Black and White"
During this period of what Variety termed "video's rush to black," each network produced at least one distinguished series surveying a wide variety of relevant topics. None was more striking than the seven-part CBS production, Of Black America!
This series had a two-fold purpose: to illustrate to white viewers the ramifications of chronic American racism, and to show African American their legitimate place in the United States and in the world. The first goal was accomplished most powerfully in the premier broadcast, "Black History: Lost, Stolen, or Strayed?" With Bill Cosby narrating in a tone of understated impatience, viewers encountered the distortions of black history so long accepted by the white majority. Cosby quoted historical inaccuracies from one of the most popular college textbooks. He raised to consciousness the names of black achievers that history books seldom mentioned. But most memorably, Cosby presented a lengthy procession of excerpts from Hollywood films illustrating the dehumanizing stereotypes of African Americans that Caucasian moviegoers had accepted for so long.
This montage of vintage film clips was an indictment of Hollywood motion pictures and American culture. Here was the white child actress, Shirley Temple, standing fearlessly in the face of danger and giving commands while a shuffling black man stood trembling and babbling nonsense. Here were the racist distortions of more than a century—the watermelon-eaters, chicken-stealers, razor-toters, dancin' and grinnin' darkies, coons, Uncle Toms, mammies, and pickaninnies. These offensive caricatures were usually portrayed by decent African-American actors. But since they were the only images acceptable in motion pictures produced for white audiences, they were the only roles open to black actors in Hollywood, and the principal self-images and role models black citizens were asked to accept in motion pictures.
However, juxtaposing these older film segments with scenes from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner—a recent motion picture in which Sidney Poitier played a young physician in love with the beautiful daughter of a liberal white couple—the program suggested that a new world was in the process of being born.
"Black History: Lost, Stolen, or Strayed?" hit a responsive chord with the American public. Its writers, Perry Wolff and Andy Rooney received Emmy awards. The episode was so well received that CBS reran it in prime time three weeks later. The program was later sold on 16 mm film to high school and college film libraries and is still seen by thousands of students yearly.
Other installments in the Of Black America series dealt with the accomplishments of African-American athletes, musicians, and soldiers. One featured a conversation between black leaders Floyd McKissick and Congressman John Conyers, and two African statesmen, Tom Mboya of Kenya and Dr. Alex Kwapong of Ghana. Another treated the history and legacy of slavery which, in its contemporary manifestations, ranged from a black militant declaring that "Mississippi is gonna either have to change or there can be no more Mississippi," to a white Chicagoan proudly describing himself as a "practicing bigot."
A unique dimension of the African-American question was probed in an episode entitled "In Search of a Past." Here CBS sought to prove that while American blacks had not been integrated into U.S. society, neither could they reaffiliate with Africa. The documentary suggested that, caught between worlds, blacks might appreciate their ancestral continent, but could not escape their struggle for equality and purpose in the United States. For this episode, the network selected three black high school students to spend several weeks in Ghana. In that West African nation the students soon realized that to the Africans they were simply black-skinned foreigners, welcome as visitors, but not as co-nationalists. In their closing remarks, the students and CBS correspondent Hal Walker made a telling point.
1st Student: You see, what we have to do is take care of what we've got, where we're at....
2nd Student: If you were born in America, and you work in America, and you fought for America, it'd be kinda hard to just get up and come to Africa. Everything you fought for is in America....
1st Student: We, as black men, are proud of being black men. We are not gonna run over here now, because the white racism is so strong up there. We're gonna get ourselves together and we're gonna change it.
Walker: On June 20th, Mattie, Gail, and Steve left for home—a home that still denied them equality with other Americans, but their home nevertheless.
Many spokespersons and issues were presented in the unprecedented coverage of the racial condition during the summer of 1968. In its four-part series, What's Happening to America, NBC invited a black leader, Dr. Harry Edwards, to discuss black politics in sports, in the wake of the "black power" clenched-fists raised by sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith during the awards ceremony at the Olympic Games in Mexico City. The noted psychologist Kenneth Clark in another installment argued that America's problems had finally caught up with the nation, and that as for the violence so spectacularly seen on television, "America has always been able to stomach large amounts of violence against minorities. The outrage juices flow easier when violence is directed at upper status folks."
Nonfiction TV examined the African-American condition from various angles: housing and employment discrimination, the decay of the American city, legal inequality, police brutality in the black community, and the future of blacks in the United States. No program was more compelling, however, than the discussion of "Bias and the Media" aired June 27 as part of ABC's six-part study of American racism, Time for Americans. At the request of Harry Belafonte, the guests were separated, allowing black speakers to make their charges on a first program. White defenders responded two weeks later on a second program.
In the first installment, a national audience heard a bitter complaint about the lack of opportunity in the entertainment field for minorities. The four black guests were Belafonte, Lena Horne, Harvard sociologist Dr. Alvin Poussaint, and poet-scholar Lawrence Neal. Belafonte attacked the lack of black input in network programming, the failure of TV to utilize black talent, and network preoccupation with profit margins instead of human concerns. Horne assailed the advertising industry for not selling black performance to advertisers. While Poussaint seemed more moderate in his perception that black achievers in entertainment were still the exceptions, Neal angrily noted that until blacks possessed their own stations and networks, the problem of bias would persist.
What had been billed as a discussion became a heated denunciation of the white-dominated mass media for their "viciousness and bestiality" toward African Americans. To critic Les Brown, "It was as though the stopper has been pulled on years of bottled-up resentment." And when six white representatives of the mass media—including two ABC executives, an official from an advertising agency, and three journalists —made their response on July 11, another reviewer concluded that "if their confused, naive rationalization of the status quo plus slow progress constitutes the sum of media corporate policies on the race question ... equality is not even on the American agenda."
It would be an overstatement to say that no gains by blacks occurred in TV's relative Golden Age in the late 1960s. Gradually, if grudgingly, stations and networks made moves to employ blacks before and behind the cameras. In local stations, black news reporters appeared, occasionally as anchors, more often as correspondents, community relations personalities, or sports reporters. On network TV, black reporters like Mal Goode, Hal Walker, Bob Teague, Bob Ried, Bill Matney, and George Foster were seen regularly reporting stories not only related to race. Interestingly, however, racial rioting throughout the decade compelled stations and networks to hire more black reporters and cameramen as white personnel often feared to enter racially explosive areas."
As well as the entertainment programs on which blacks increasingly were starred or co-starred in the late 1960s, a small number of African Americans were making important inroads as writers, directors, producers, and station executives. These were strategic first steps because they held forth the opportunity of sharing with all American viewers new artistic and informational insights into the minority experience.
Black spokespersons had long contended that African-America was different from white America. John Oliver Killens promoted that idea when he wrote in 1970 that "White writers, intentions notwithstanding, cannot write about the Black experience, cannot conjure up a true Black image, cannot evoke the wonderful—sometimes terrible—beauty of our Blackness.... only club members can sing the blues because we're the ones who paid the dues—of membership in the Brotherhood of Blackness."
Even earlier a white writer, Arnold Perl in his East Side/West Side episode "Who Do You Kill?," had George C. Scott speak similar words to James Earl Jones: "I don't know what any man would say who looks like I do. I don't think any white man knows what it's like, the life of a Negro—sympathize, project, understand, but know?"
As was suggested by George Norford—the first black producer and executive in network television when he joined NBC in the late 1950s, and later a general executive with Group W (Westinghouse Broadcasting Company)—by the end of the 1960s "the television picture had been changing, albeit not rapidly enough." And statistics from the three major networks in 1971 reveal important changes underway in minority employment in all aspects of the television industry.
Minority Employment in the TV Industry, 1971
If it would be too simple to dismiss this "rush to black" as insignificant, it would be naive to assume that it represented either fundamental changes in race relations, or the realization of the great promise of color-blind equality and opportunity that TV made to African Americans in its earliest years. In this Golden Age the seeds of bias-free participation in video were replanted. But, again, the seeds would fall on fallow ground.
At its height in the fall of 1968, this embracing of black America by white television meant that at least one African-American recurring character appeared in twenty-one of the fifty-six prime time dramatic series. As a black writer explained it at the time, "Black people are hot! You could almost go roller skating in the street and they'd put you on television."
But actress Ruby Dee understood the deeper truth. She knew well that this was only a marketing phase, not a fundamental reevaluation of racial prejudice in TV. "We're in the most commodity-conscious nation in the world," she explained to an interviewer that fall, "and the black man is the commodity this year. If black people sell, they'll be back. If they don't, they won’t."
As far as African Americans were concerned, the election of Richard M. Nixon to the presidency in 1968 signaled a basic change in American politics and social thought. During the administrations of John F. Kennedy and, especially, Lyndon B. Johnson, government responded to black grievances. Insufficient though they proved to be, the civil rights programs of JFK and LBJ marked the first concerted attempt by the federal government to address black problems since the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Further, there can be no doubt that much of the success of the civil rights movement in the 1960s resulted from sizable numbers of white supporters joining the nonviolent crusade. The appearance of blacks and whites protesting together held out the possibility of reform through racial harmony.
The election of Nixon, however, meant not only the elevation of a moderate politician, it suggested the ascendency of a new attitude among whites. "The Silent Majority" or "Middle America," as Nixon's political base was often called, in many cases was synonymous with anti-black backlash. When Nixon moved early in his tenure to dismantle much of the social services apparatus of President Johnson's War on Poverty, it was apparent that as the nation entered the 1970s, blacks were entering a new era, too.
Underscoring minority social protest in the 1960s had been a national economy that was generally prosperous. Money and career opportunities were abundant in wartime America. The affluence of the decade was also a powerful lure to African Americans seeking to improve their own lives. It was particularly important to middle-class white youths who, confident of their financial futures, expended energies on marches, sit-ins, voter registration drives, and similar activities. As inflation developed and the economy declined by the time of Nixon's election, however, the financial safety net that had assured white youth for so long disappeared. And as careers became increasingly more competitive, many protesters abandoned the streets in favor of the libraries.
By the end of the decade, moreover, the optimism of the demonstrators had dissipated. There had been so many crusades, but there were still racism, war, pollution, and exploitation. Little seemed to have been accomplished. Flower children abandoned their bouquets. Faith in changing the system underwent a metamorphosis and emerged as faith in cults, Eastern religions, and a new intensity in fundamentalist Protestant belief. In this new era, young people now struggled for positions in the corporate world. Hair was cut, faces shaved, values reevaluated, and self-centered attitudes gained new respectability. And as the United States entered the age of the "Me Generation," black reformers found themselves abandoned by idealistic white supporters.
There were gains made by African Americans in the 1960s. Television reflected changes in entertainment and nonfictional programming. It was clear by the next decade, however, that matters were falling apart. With black leadership already in disarray because of violence and factionalism, a new combination of political conservatism, a faltering economy, and a generalized sense of personal insecurity and social impotence robbed the black reform movement of most of its vitality. Nixon did not create this atmosphere. He was elected, in great part, because of it; and his policies would not disappoint his supporters. All of these developments would have a profound effect in the following decade on the history of blacks in television.