The Southern Factor
It would be incorrect to argue only that when the South with its overtly racist social patterns was integrated into the national television audience, the hopes of those seeking an equitable future for African Americans in the new medium were crushed. If the South were solely responsible, one could have expected racial equity in television before the mid-1950s. Such, however, was not the case.
Nonetheless, network executives, station owners, advertising agencies, and sponsors were sensitive to the programming with which they became associated. As was the case in the heyday of network radio, no one concerned with television broadcasting wanted to offend large segments of the audience by being linked with politically volatile causes. And because of the politics of the time, achieving social justice for minorities—which a few years earlier had been a legitimate liberal political goal—was a controversial, even unpatriotic posture by the mid-1950s.
The modern civil rights movement was nurtured in the postwar 1940s. It did not grow into a powerful national concern, how¬ever, until the United States Supreme Court decided in May 1954 that the notion of "separate but equal" in public education was inherently unequal. Following that decision the civil rights movement became increasingly visible and confrontational. Beginning with school segregation, agitators soon were demanding an end to all forms of American racism. And as often as Jim Crow laws were challenged by racial reformers, hostile whites organized to defy those demanding change.
This was especially true in the South. Here, where racial discrimination was most chronic and most obvious, were found the early points of conflict. In Montgomery, Alabama, the issue was the right of blacks to sit anywhere they wanted while riding public transportation. In Little Rock, Arkansas, the issue was court-ordered integration of public high schools; in New Orleans, Louisiana, it was segregated public facilities. In Nashville, Tennessee, it was the right of blacks to be served in restaurants.
In this atmosphere of racial explosiveness, it was threatening for a national network or advertiser to be associated with black performers, or with any program appearing to take sides. Oddly enough, one of the first national series to face this problem dealt not at all with civil rights issues.
The Gray Ghost was a syndicated series seen throughout the nation in the 1957-1958 TV season. Its sensitive feature was that it was the first fictional series in broadcasting history to focus on a military dimension of the Civil War. Centered on the exploits in Virginia of Confederate Colonel John Singleton Mosby and his band of cavalry raiders, it was essentially a Western set in the early 1860s. In a typical episode, a beautiful young woman, recruited by the Union to spy on the Confederates, was actually a double agent reporting directly to Colonel Mosby. When Union soldiers discovered her perfidy, she was tried and sentenced to death. Only a daring rescue by Mosby's mounted raiders saved the woman's life.
As romantic and formulaic as were the thirty-nine episodes of The Gray Ghost, it was a highly controversial series. Produced by CBS Films, it was originally intended as an early evening network series beginning in the fall of 1957. The reluctance of national advertisers to associate themselves with anything that might antagonize sectional tension, however, compelled CBS to abandon the series as a network project, and offer it for syndication on a market-by-market basis. Although it was distributed successfully, CBS Films abandoned the series after one season.
There is no doubt that The Gray Ghost was a casualty of the segregation issue. Although it never dealt with the slavery problem in the Civil War, the premier of the series in September 1957 coincided with the inflammatory confrontation at Central High School in Little Rock. Even local sponsors were fearful that mounting civil rights tensions might precipitate a misunder¬standing of their sponsorship of a series in which the white southern heroes seldom lost. Just as advertisers shunned association with black causes, they also avoided open affiliation with regional white intransigence.
The discontinuance of the series stemmed more from advertiser anxieties than from viewer complaints. Anticipating a new season of racial antagonism over school integration, local sponsors from throughout the nation advised against renewal of The Gray Ghost for the fall of 1958.
Viewers were less apprehensive. Variety reported in late 1958 that in the North the program had been accepted "without much excitement, even though the series leaves the implication that Federal troops never won a battle." Southern newspapers were dismayed at the cancellation. Harry Ashmore's Little Rock Gazette editorialized that "we are opposed to censorship as such.... It seems unlikely that we have come to pass where sectional shooting could be touched off by a TV show, no matter how stimulating to the old glands and juices." The Raleigh News and Observer was dismayed that this meant the end of a program which "proves weekly that one Reb is better than a regiment of Yankees. The old ratio of one to seven is gone. The South never lost except in 1865." And the Birmingham News warned that "TV should smarten up. With the coming of the one hundredth anniversary of those stirring times, interest is mounting to a new high."'
Despite the popularity in the South of The Gray Ghost, there were instances in the late 1950s and 1960s in which local broadcasters and viewers were less charitable, particularly toward network programming featuring African Americans. Motivation in these instances was often mixed. While there were examples of simple racial prejudice, many stations feared "northern" network series would inflame community tensions already near the kindling point. While some outlets were reluctant to offend white viewers by projecting black images not in conformity with dominant local standards, others were fearful that the black consumer market—a market which accounted for 40 to 60 percent of buying in the South—would be upset by programming offensive to blacks. And in local productions, especially in news coverage, station executives also were apprehensive that without an objective policy national advertisers might withdraw their sponsorship of local shows.
Such pressures by the late 1950s caused most southern stations to adopt a strict hands-off policy toward the ongoing civil rights issue. Typical of this studied neutrality was a declaration in 1958 from WAVY-TV (Portsmouth, Virginia) which announced that the station and its news personnel "will not editorialize, give an opinion, or predict any future development relative to the integration issue." Further, the station underscored that interviews with local school officials and members of local and state government, "will be handled so that no side or definite stand will appear to result from the questions asked by our newsmen."
Not all elements of Southern society followed the example set by local stations like WAVY-TV. Politicians, for example, often used the medium as a means to communicate segregationist positions popular with registered voters. Orval E. Faubus of Arkansas, George C. Wallace of Alabama, and J. Lindsay Almond, Jr. of Virginia were regional officials who appeared frequently on national, statewide, and local television to articulate segregationist positions.
Other governmental leaders found TV convenient, particularly in election times, for informing viewers of their positions opposing integration. Typical of these politicians was Mills E. Godwin, Jr. in his bid to be elected lieutenant governor of Virginia in 1961. Godwin, who eventually became governor of the state, told his constituents via TV:
I make no apology to the people of Virginia for my efforts in recent years to maintain segregation in the public schools ... because I am of the opinion that both races receive a better education in separate schools. Having stated this position is not to suggest that I favor now or have ever favored, the abandonment of public education in Virginia in order to keep our schools segregated.... It is my earnest opinion that the period of resistance to integration in our public schools served a most useful purpose in giving us time to prepare and adjust to an unwanted situation when mixed schools were to be forced upon us by the overriding power of the federal government.
Even more impassioned was W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel, who purchased statewide TV time in July 1956 to explain to fellow Texans why he should win the Democratic nomination for governor in a forthcoming primary election. O'Daniel was not victorious in his bid. But in campaign speeches he articulated the rage many white Southerners felt about local school desegregation that was mandated by the federal courts. According to this candidate—who served as governor of Texas from 1939 to 1941, and was twice elected to the U.S. Senate in the 1940s—"those nine old men" of the U.S. Supreme Court were guilty of consulting Communists instead of Texans before ordering integration. O'Daniel claimed that in opposing "that unlawful, that irreligious, that immoral" edict to integrate, he was leading the battle to save the purity of the races. As he explained it,
If we would follow that edict, it means that in fifty or seventy-five or a hundred years the pure-blood Negro race and the pure-blood white race would be extinct in Texas, and a new mongrelized race, looking altogether different and acting different, would spring up in Texas. And if that thing happened, our children would get out the old family album, you know, with our pictures on it, and they'd get their pictures and paste them in there, and see the difference, and would curse the day they were born. And they would want to go out and get rotten eggs and throw them at our tombstones for having permitted this edict to go into effect. So, we're not going to pay any attention to it. We're going ahead in Texas and continue to live under segregation just as we always have.
The simultaneous emergence of the civil rights movement and television was fortuitous for those advocating reform in race relations. While radio verbalized matters such as the U.S. Supreme Court decision on school segregation in 1954 and the African-American boycott of city buses in Montgomery in 1955-1956, the mixture of pictures and sound via TV was considerably more impressive. The mental images suggested by radio accounts could never match the dramatic impact of television. Images of chanting demonstrators being sprayed by fire hoses and attacked by police dogs, freedom riders being abused, sit-in participants being taunted or beaten, and small children requiring U.S. military escorts to enter public schools because they were black—these pictures made TV a powerful propaganda tool for those wanting progressive change and for those just learning about the realities of racism.
Still, there were numerous instances of traditionalists attempting to thwart the revolutionary influence of video. Many southern stations refused to accept syndicated and network movies because they felt such films would upset local social standards. Motion pictures such as Go, Man, Go, the story of the Harlem Globetrotters, and The Jackie Robinson Story, a biography of the first black man to play major league baseball, were accepted only hesitantly by many stations. The all-black musical, Cabin in the Sky—an MGM feature film made in 1943 that starred Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, and Eddie Anderson, and was directed by Vincente Minnelli—was rejected in many southern markets in 1957. Fearing a hostile reaction from its thirty southern affiliates, ABC refused for the 1962-1963 season to televise The Defiant Ones, starring Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in the thinly veiled morality tale about the need of cooperation between whites and blacks.
Even before they became available to TV, several movies encountered problems in the South. As reported in Variety, Dallas police in 1958 banned Brigitte Bardot's film And God Created Woman from black theaters. The police explained that the French film was "too exciting for colored folk."' One year earlier, the Alabama House of Representatives unanimously resolved to ask Alabama theater operators not to exhibit Island in the Sun, featuring Harry Belafonte and Joan Fontaine, because, in the words of one legislator, "the making of such films will be most pleasing to the Communists and other un-American organizations, and to all intents and purposes will amount to another tactic in their campaign to brainwash the American public into acceptance of race mongrelization."
Southern resistance to the images and messages communicated by national television ranged from preemption of controversial programs to organizing for regional autonomy. In the early 1960s, Monitor South was a Louisiana-based group which attempted to coordinate station rejection of provocative network shows. This group wrote southern stations questioning the advisability of showing network documentaries probing the civil rights problems. Where it could not effect preemptions, Monitor South attempted to obtain equal time "to rebut any false political propaganda which serves the Communist racial ideology."
Another example of sectional resistance was found in the incipient rebellion developing in the early 1960s among southern broadcasters within the National Association of Broadcasters. Feeling that too much network programming was unfriendly to the South, for several years southern stations spoke unsuccessfully of bolting from the national trade association and forming their own regional group. Speaking to a summer meeting in 1961 of the South Carolina Broadcasters Association, Walter J. Brown of WSPA-TV (Spartanburg) called for creation of a regional asso¬ciation to combat network news and programs "which are slated against the South." According to Brown, "our way of life is under attack." He felt that such an association would be able to use collective force to "convince the networks and news services that they should not be overly influenced by these minority blocs which are being pampered as they peddle their vendetta against the South."
There is no doubt that television by the early 1960s was challenging southern traditions. More powerfully than literature, more effectively than radio, television communicated a single, nationally acceptable message with regard to the civil rights issue. No amount of rhetoric or obscurantism could dull the meaning on the evening news, or in special documentary programming, of white bigots abusing black demonstrators. No amount of qualification or compromise could thwart ambitious blacks who saw "the good life" on their favorite TV shows and in the many materialistic commercials shown on the medium. And no distorted television dramas and sitcoms could undermine the validity of the authentic black heroes emerging on the nightly TV news—from Martin Luther King, Jr. leading the year-long boycott of city buses in Montgomery, Alabama to Thurgood Marshall arguing the case for school integration before the U.S. Supreme Court.
There were unintelligent acts of desperation which attempted to blunt the impact of TV. One of the more contrived came from a Georgia state legislator, who in 1959 requested a feasibility study on the prospect of completely educating Georgia high school and college students via television. Predicting that the schoolhouse would soon be a thing of the past, he called for TV education as a means of bypassing the issue of school integration. "God has given us the answer to our problem of how to educate our children in the face of the integration threat," he announced. "You may think I've lost my senses by introducing a resolution of this kind," he told his fellow legislators, "but within ten years' time you'll see I'm right."
But S.I. Hayakawa, the noted semanticist and later U.S. senator from California, was correct in his perceptive essay, "Television and the American Negro," published in 1963. According to Hayakawa, it was already too late for the South to reverse the influence of the medium. Its message was already registered in black and white minds.
In an age of mass production and mass communication, TV was the most powerful communicator ever known. And to maintain the southern caste system in the age of TV, segregation would have to be extended to television. According to Hayakawa, "members of different castes must not be permitted to communicate freely with each other, and they must also be separated from each other by receiving their communications from different channels." Since this was not possible, and since national television would continue to broadcast a single standard understood by all races, Hayakawa correctly concluded that "a powerful unifying force is at work to bring whites and Negroes together in their tastes and their aspirations, in spite of the best efforts of the White Citizens Councils and the Black Muslims."