Blacks In News Programming
If controversial series such as Amos ‘n’ Andy and Beulah relied heavily on distorted stereotypes, and if non-stereotyped black entertainers were usually dancers, singers, and musicians, the most realistic image of blacks emerged in news and news documentary programming. It was not that there were news programs meant specifically for black audiences, or that network or local outlets conscientiously sought to cover minority affairs. Instead, the increasing concern of television with African Americans reflected the growing importance of blacks at home and abroad.
Internationally, the European empires were crumbling. The powerful European nations—Great Britain, France, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, and the Netherlands—had been crippled by the loss of life and treasure during two world wars. Increasingly, native leaders—often schooled in European and American universities—demanded independence for their homelands. Spurred by the successful struggle for self-determination and statehood in India, Asian and African colonies since the late 1940s moved inexorably toward independence. By the television era it was obvious that third world nations would play an increasingly powerful role in global affairs.
In the postwar United States, blacks exerted unprecedented influence in domestic politics. The integration of the armed services made black servicemen more influential in military affairs. Black economic, educational, and demographic advances affected national priorities. Longtime black leaders and new spokespersons enunciated the need for better racial conditions.
Coalescing these forces was the decision by the Supreme Court in 1954 that segregation in the public school system was unconstitutional. The ruling in the case of Brown v. Board of Education set into law the fact that "separate but equal" was inherently unequal. It effectively began the civil rights movement and propelled black politics into unprecedented activism and reform.
That decolonization in the third world and the renewal of the civil rights movement in the United States became realities at the same time was not coincidental. The social myths and the political-economic-military realities supporting white global supremacy had been shattered by the two world wars. By the late 1940s, with Europe militarily and morally exhausted and the United States locked in a Cold War, it was inevitable that those suppressed by Western imperialists would demand fundamental changes.
Nobody better comprehended the linkage between African independence and the African-American struggle than the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. On March 6, 1957, the day that the British colony of the Gold Coast became the independent nation of Ghana, he shared his thoughts in an interview with Etta Moten Barnett in Accra, capital city of the new country. Barnett, a star of stage and screen in the 1930s and 1940s, was in Ghana with her husband Claude A. Barnett, the founder of the Associated Negro Press news service, as part of the official U.S. delegation headed by Vice President Richard M. Nixon. She was also taping feature reports for her own Chicago radio program.
Her conversation with King captured the civil rights leader at a moment of high optimism. Fresh from his victorious struggle against Jim Crow laws affecting bus transportation in Montgomery, Alabama, King had come to Ghana in no official capacity—he sought only to experience this celebration of black independence in West Africa. "Well, the minute I knew I was coming to Ghana, I had a very deep emotional feeling, I'm sure," he told Barnett, "thinking of the fact that a new nation was being born symbolized something of the fact that a new order is coming into being, and an old order is passing away, so that I was deeply concerned about it. And I wanted to be involved in it, and be a part of it, and notice the birth of this new nation with my own eyes." That King understood the historical fullness of the times, that the American civil rights movement was part of the global wave of decolonialization, was obvious in this exchange with his interviewer.
Barnett: Reverend King, do you have any feelings about the far-reaching influence of this particular occasion in the history of mankind, in the history of peoples of color all over the world? How far do you think this will reach? How much do you think it will influence the affairs of men that we're interested in?
King: I think this event, the birth of this new nation, will give impetus to oppressed peoples all over the world. I think it will have worldwide implications and repercussions—not only for Asia and Africa, but also for America. As you well know, we have a problem in the Southland in America, and I think this freedom—the freedom in the birth of a new nation—will influence the situation there. This will become a sort of symbol for oppressed people all over the world.
Just as in 1776 when America received its independence, the harbor of New York became sort of a beacon of hope for thousands of oppressed people of Europe; and just as, when after the French Revolution, Paris became a beacon of hope for hundreds and thousands of common people; now Ghana will become a symbol of hope for hundreds and thousands of oppressed peoples all over the world—Africa and in Asia, and also oppressed people in other sections of the world as they struggle for freedom as I confront it. Barnett: Yes, that is so very, very true. And when you stop to contemplate this, doesn't it give you more hope for the situation in which you find yourself—well, ourselves—in America? King: Yes, it does. It certainly does. It renews my conviction in the ultimate triumph of justice. And it seems to me, this is fit testimony to the fact that eventually the forces of justice triumph in the universe, and somehow the universe itself is on the side of freedom and justice. So that this gives new hope to me in the struggle for freedom.
American print and radio journalism covered these developments. But television brought filmed actualities into the homes of mass America. Visual images of the black and brown world in revolt emphasized the importance of the human reevaluation taking place. It was one thing to read or hear of unrest among American blacks; it was another to see men and women protesting against segregation and discrimination.
No network TV journalist treated blacks more fairly and frequently than Edward R. Murrow, a highly-respected CBS newsman because of his radio coverage of the British role in World War II. Murrow's achievements in television were equally impressive, particularly through his weekly news-analysis program, See It Now, and his weekly TV visit to the homes of celebrities, Person to Person.
On See It Now, Murrow showed Americans a realistic image of blacks. Nowhere was he more poignant in such presentation than in the numerous segments of the program he devoted to the Korean War, the first war in which African-American soldiers fought in integrated units. Murrow and his reportorial crew—including Robert Pierpoint, Lou Cioffi, Bill Downs, and Larry LeSueur—vividly illustrated this new aspect of American democracy.
Particularly striking were the two programs devoted to "Christmas in Korea." In 1952 and in 1953, Murrow and See It Now traveled to South Korea to report on the conditions facing United Nations troops. Filmed in the trenches and foxholes of the battle front, these hour-long reports showed many black GI's among the American troops. Most of the black soldiers extended Christmas greetings to loved ones at home, and told Murrow and his crew they longed for a military victory and a return to the United States. To illustrate that the Korean war was an allied venture, Murrow also focused on troops of other nations. Among them were Ethiopian solders celebrating the Christmas holiday.
Except in showing black Americans as equals with white soldiers, there was nothing radical about the "Christmas in Korea" broadcasts. Except in presenting African troops among the United Nations forces supposedly fighting to stop the spread of Communism, there was nothing different about the programs. But for Americans, these were radically different images. Unlike the distorted images of George "Kingfish" Stevens and Willie Best's characterizations, here were real black men expressing real human emotions. Here, too, were dark-skinned Africans, not of the savage primitiveness seen in old travelogues and Tarzan films, but men dressed in military fatigues and observing a Christian holiday, while thousands of miles from home fighting alongside Americans against a common enemy. The lessons in brotherhood and internationalism were obvious.
Murrow occasionally analyzed race relations in the United States. Eight days after the Supreme Court decision on segregation in public schools, he treated domestic racism in a memorable See It Now program. Telecast on May 25, 1954, "A Study of Two Cities" compared racial attitudes in two small southern towns. In typical Murrow fashion, he used filmed interviews with white and black residents of the two towns to document the various positions being taken in the wake of the Supreme Court decision. And although the focus was upon southern reactions, Murrow was careful to suggest that the race problem in America was a national crisis.
Our greatest need at the moment is level-headedness. Whites of the South should not panic. Negroes should not whet their impatience.... In a day when many nations and races are looking to us for leadership to peace and to freedom, we need to reflect in our own country the traditional American virtues of justice and fair play. All parts of the country, not only the South, should do some real soul-searching in this respect.
Morrow gained renewed national respect on March 9, 1954 when he used See It Now to expose the demagogic and unfair political tactics of the fiercely anti-Communist Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. McCarthy had gained enormous influence in the Cold War politics as chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations. He claimed that there were Communists working in the U.S. government, actual Communist Party members who were scheming against U.S. interests—and he was out to uncover them. McCarthy bullied people and distorted facts to the point of destroying careers. Many in government were frightened, reluctant to confront the right-wing senator for fear of jeopardizing their political futures. Murrow burst this bubble of fear. He did it simply by showing McCarthy’s destructive methodology in action.
One week after that broadcast, Murrow returned to McCarthy’s misrepresentations. This time he focused on the plight of one African-American woman employed as a low-level communications clerk in the Pentagon. Her name was Annie Lee Moss and she was charged by McCarthy's committee with being a member of the Communist Party. The middle-aged Mrs. Moss was befuddled but honest when facing the tough questioning of McCarthy and his lawyer Roy Cohn. Still she suggested that this might all be a case of mistaken identity since there were several people in Washington with the same name as hers—and besides, she did not even know what Communism was until 1948 and she still did not recognize the name Karl Marx.
Murrow’s argument on See It Now was not whether this Pentagon worker was a Communist, which her responses showed she was not. Instead, Murrow demonstrated that because she was never able to confront the unnamed accusers McCarthy and Cohn cited against her, Mrs. Moss’ Constitutional right to due process of the law—a right shared by all Americans—was violated.
Not all See It Now programs focusing on blacks concerned political matters. On December 13, 1955, Murrow presented highlights of Louis Armstrong's musical tour of Europe. In a program aired on December 30, 1957, Murrow showed film of soprano Marian Anderson's successful tour of the Far East.
The Murrow series that introduced Americans most intimately to black personalities, however, was Person to Person. This half-hour CBS feature took TV cameras into the homes of celebrities. With Murrow sitting in his New York studio asking questions of his hosts, viewers in the mid-1950s encountered sports figures like Althea Gibson, Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, and Don Newcombe; musical talents such as Eartha Kitt, Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, W. C. Handy, and Ethel Waters; and statesmen like Ralph Bunche and Walter White. The importance Murrow placed on African-Americans was suggested in the premier of Person to Person in October 1953, when CBS cameras visited the home of Brooklyn Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella.
Edward R. Murrow and CBS also recognized the increasing importance of African politics. In the midst of the decolonization movement, See It Now produced frank analyses of the unrest among black Africans. In December 1954, Murrow presented a two-part "Report on South Africa" that exposed the racial explosion inherent in that peculiarly discriminatory policy, apartheid. Less than two years later, in the spring of 1956, See It Now produced another two-part study, "Report from Africa." Traveling throughout the continent, CBS cameramen revealed the turmoil of decolonization. Viewers encountered rigid laws of racial separation in Rhodesia and the Union of South Africa and violent social unrest in French Algeria, British Kenya, and the Belgian Congo. But they also saw stability in newly-independent Ghana and in long-independent Ethiopia and Liberia.
Such African realities were revealed again in December 1956, when See It Now telecast highlights of a 50,000-mile trip by comedian Danny Kaye on behalf of the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund. Part of the program showed Kaye as a UNICEF representative and entertainer visiting Nigerian children in a leper colony, and Moroccan children suffering from trachoma. Such programming certainly belied the stereotyped image of Africa and Africans contained in Ramar of the Jungle and the films of Martin and Osa Johnson.
Yet for all of its early exploration of the black condition at home and abroad, American television was never more meaningful than it was on November 23, 1953, when ABC, CBS, and NBC televised an hour special from the dinner honoring the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith on its fortieth anniversary. It was one of those innocent events which with time must now be understood as a seminal to U.S. history—recognized for its integral relationship to momentous developments about to materialize.
What viewers saw was a liberal Jewish organization dedicated to civil rights and civil liberties presenting its America's Democratic Legacy medallion to President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The ADL was honoring the new President for his civil rights record in the military and afterward. In the audience were two important U.S. senators—Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota and Republican Irving M. Ives of New York—who were lauded for their concern with civil rights matters, too.
But most significantly, viewers and at the event and at home were introduced to five members of the United States Supreme Court who were attending the dinner and watching the festivities being televised. They were Justices Felix Frankfurter, Robert Jackson, William O. Douglas, Tom Clarke, and the newly-appointed Chief Justice, Earl Warren.
What made this gathering of profound importance was that it occurred at exactly the same time the Supreme Court was assessing legal briefs in the Brown vs. Board of Education case—and only two weeks before Thurgood Marshall and other lawyers from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) presented the Court with oral arguments in favor of equal educational opportunity.
At this point the Court was strongly divided on the issue of school desegregation. Its unanimous decision would not be rendered for another six months. Yet, what unfolded on television here in late November was essentially a national seminar on civil rights, and the President and the Supreme Court of the United States sat as the principal students.
As well as humor and songs from Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Perry Como, Ethel Merman, and the African-American operatic baritone, William Warfield, there was considerable reference to the moral and legal necessity for establishing racial justice. There was an archival film of President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing Executive Order 8802 that banned racial discrimination in hiring for defense industries and government—and footage of Eleanor Roosevelt addressing the United Nations. Actress Lilli Palmer read from the Declaration of Human Rights, a document fundamental to the United Nations, declaring, "It is essential that human rights should be protected by the rule of law."
More specifically, narrator Martin Gabel praised the historic role of the Supreme Court in championing social justice—as he phrased it, in handing down "decision after decision which have been milestones in our ceaseless struggle for human rights." Gabel added, "We still have a long way to go. But we know that the journey will be undertaken with due respect for the law, as interpreted by the highest court in our land." After introducing the Supreme Court justices in the audience, Gabel returned to his liberal theme, noting suggestively, "What future questions of civil liberties and civil rights these men must decide, no one knows. But every American must feel reassured that on these issues so vital to him, he is guaranteed his day in court."
Embellishing on this televised lesson in civil rights, British actor Rex Harrison recalled that the National Theater in Washington, D.C., was once closed for four years when actors refused to work in that playhouse because it banned African Americans from the audience. And in explaining why they had assembled this salute to the Anti-Defamation League, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II underscored the libertarian tenor of the evening. According to Rodgers, "We thought it was a pretty good chance to put the American theater to work directly in the interest of democracy. I think the theater has a better right than almost any other influence in America to speak for democracy." Hammerstein responded, "We have no intolerance on our American stage, and so we can plead for tolerance everywhere else." And Rodgers added, "We're never at a loss in the theater for blistering names to call each other, but they're never based on color or religion."
One of the most emotional segments of the program was a scene from the final act of the Broadway drama, Harriet. Here the celebrated actress Helen Hayes delivered a moving soliloquy as Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Describing her experience in a recent meeting with President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, Stowe explained to her family and friends,
He has made me see that this war, which seems so final to us now, is but one small pattern in a vast tapestry of struggle. Since the dawn of history there have always been tyrants, great and small, who have seized upon and enslaved their fellow men. But equally, always, there have been noble souls who have bravely and gladly given their lives for the eternal right of man to liberty. The hope of today lies in this: that we as a people are no longer willing to accept these tyrants and the world they make without question. We are beginning to understand that a world that holds happiness for some, but misery for others, cannot endure. Oh, yes, that is our hope.
Others, too, contributed to the appeal for equal justice. Philip M. Klutznick, the president of B'nai B'rith, explained why "the dignity of the individual is precious to us, however humble his origin or station in life. For we believe with the great philosopher Spinoza, that the state has, for its end, so to act that its citizens shall in security develop soul and body and make free use of their reason, for the true end of the state is liberty."
Henry Edward Schultz, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, cited the reasons why his organization that evening was presenting President Eisenhower with its America's Democratic Legacy award. "We honor you for your leadership in the great crusade to bring about the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed people of Europe—for your vigorous campaign to eliminate racial segregation in the armed forces—for your efforts to end undemocratic patterns of discrimination here in Washington, our capital city," Schultz said. "But most of all, we honor you for your continued leadership of the free world ... in grateful recognition of a life devoted to the furtherance of freedom."
The highlight of this momentous event, however, was Eisenhower's nine-minute acceptance speech. Delivered without a prepared text, it was one of this President's most passionate public statements. This was no superficial presentation of thanks. Here was a serious recipient, a man touched by the events of the evening, a President who was close to tears at one point during his remarks. And here, too, was an influential broadcast for an audience of hundreds of thousands of viewers at home, and for a majority of the Supreme Court presently considering what course to take on the monumental legal case.
What Eisenhower said was his fullest public utterance on the matter of civil rights. After reiterating several of the individual liberties guaranteed under American law, he recalled wistfully the Fourth of July orators he had heard as a boy growing up in Abeline, Kansas. As he remembered it, they were usually long-winded speakers whose patriotic discourses could be narrowed down to one important consideration: why Americans should be proud of their citizenship.
The root of this pride, Eisenhower declared, rested not in material wealth, natural resources, or any physical or esthetic sense of accomplishment. Instead, he argued, pride in being an American rested in humanitarian intangibles for "the deep things that are American are of the soul and of the spirit. The Statue of Liberty is not tired, and not because it is made of bronze. It's because no matter what happens here, the individual is dignified because he is created in the image of his God. Let's not forget it." Somberly, the President concluded, "I am proud to be an American. But if I could leave you with one thought, you not only will repeat it every day of your lives, but you'll say, ‘And I'll do my part to make it always true for my children and my grandchildren.’"
The representations black life presented by Edward R. Murrow and CBS, and the testimonies to racial equality and fairness as pronounced by President Eisenhower and the B’nai B’rith were exceptions. The most common expression of black realities on TV in the 1950s was either seen in the conflicts of an emerging civil rights movement or there were no realistic representations at all.
What a medium of mass education might early television have been. It could have offered a consistent image of middle-class African-Americans as it did for white Americans. It could have been interested in the authenticity of black life, displaying its qualities and achievements. Typical of what it might have been was the engaging interview by host John Mangan with the international stage star Josephine Baker on the syndicated and obscure Ship’s Reporter program in 1951. The interview, however, was an anomaly. American TV did not treat black people the way Mangan treated Josephine Baker.
Ironically, what might have been a respectful norm did appear in occasional newsreel films made for black movie theaters. This may be seen in the Negro in America series produced in the mid-1950s by All American Newsreel. The short films in this production on African-American achievers in general and in specific fields of endeavor—sports, the arts, religion, farming, science, entertainment, journalism, education. An effective model of black representation is also noticeable in By-Line Newsreel, a theatrical produced by filmmaker William Alexander in the 1950s.