Actualities and Blacks in TV:
The Early 1960s
If dramatic roles were minimal for black actors in the early 1960s, the one dimension of television in which there was increasing visibility for African Americans was in news coverage—not because of the employment of TV reporters or anchors, but because of contemporary politics. The events of the time compelled TV to cover happenings in black society. Specifically, because of two developments—the policies of the new presidential administration of John F. Kennedy and the politics of the civil rights movement and its leadership—blacks became familiar to American viewers in the early 1960s.
In contrast to the ideas of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who conceived of the presidency as a benign secretariat for the enhancement of American business and hence the American people, the youthful President Kennedy envisioned a vigorous role for the presidency in improving the quality of life for all citizens. In his liberal view, any element of society that inhibited harmonious growth—be it big business, recalcitrant state officials, or chronic exploiters of social misery—was fair target for an assertive federal government to take rectifying action.
The Kennedy administration soon made its priorities known to broadcasters on two crucial issues: the state of American television and the condition of the African-American social movement. When Newton Minow, JFK's appointee as head of the Federal Communications Commission, spoke bluntly in May 1961 to the National Association of Broadcasters, his words were interpreted by broadcasters as the thoughts of the administration. In that speech Minow gained greatest notoriety for his assessment of contemporary TV as "a vast wasteland" filled with violence, boredom, and banality. But he spoke of other issues. He talked of TV serving the public interest, rather than corporate profits. "It is not enough to cater to the nation's whims," he chided his audience, "you must also serve the nation's needs."
Minow also spoke of his concern over the increasing power being exercised by the networks over their affiliate stations. He called for programming that was imaginative, creative, experimental, and excellent. To underscore his call for responsible TV, Minow even quoted the words of the NAB's own Code of Television Practices, a noble declaration of principles drafted a decade earlier, but often forgotten in the business of running the television industry.
While such exhortation might be dismissed as the easy rhetoric of a new political regime, the new FCC chairman raised an issue which added deadly seriousness to his words. Mentioning the practice of renewing station licenses every three years, he suggested that such renewals would no longer be pro forma. Instead, Minow declared, "there is nothing permanent or sacred about a broadcast license." To add further weight to his threat, he promised during renewal considerations to hold "well-advertised public hearings right in the communities you have promised to serve."
Such admonitions from a governmental leader were especially foreboding to broadcasting executives in the early 1960s. In the last years of the previous decade, the television and radio industries had been shaken seriously by two national scandals. The first concerned the fixing of quiz shows. Stories of rigged questions, contestants told when to lose, and confessions by participants who had been either coached or given the correct answers ahead of time, all helped to precipitate governmental intervention. In October and November 1959, the House of Representatives, through its Special Committee on Legislative Oversight, conducted highly publicized hearings into quiz show fraud. Surrounding the investigation, moreover, were frequent demands for greater regulation and control of TV by the federal government.
If quiz programs were not enough, a "payola" scandal also emerged in 1959. Although the bribing of disk jockeys to play certain records concerned radio more than television, the scandal touched several hosts of teenage rock-and-roll TV shows. Further, because of the structure of broadcasting in the United States, many station and network executives had ties to the radio industry. Thus, when Minow warned American broadcasting leaders, he was speaking to a vulnerable group.
If Newton Minow's new prescription for broadcasters was confusing and unnerving, President Kennedy's political priorities offered television executives a direction in which to exert their energies and placate the new administration: the civil rights movement. Although through boycotts, demonstrations, and court decisions the movement had gained important early victories over segregation, not until the inauguration of Kennedy did the federal government begin to take an active role in assisting African Americans to overcome the heritage of centuries of racism.
Whether from motives which were crassly political or morally courageous, the activist president directed federal efforts to ensure for blacks a more equitable role in American life. The administration used its Department of Justice to help desegregate southern schools. Kennedy supported legislation to use federal power to ensure African Americans in southern states the right to register and to vote. The president was seen prominently in the company of civil rights leaders, and his deputies were photographed occasionally marching with civil rights protestors.
In several instances, particularly when racist state laws were used to prevent the integration of public universities in the South, Kennedy appeared on television threatening to nationalize the state militias or dispatch federal troops to ensure the right of academically qualified African Americans to attend these public educational facilities. Still, the President personally remained a hesitant champion. As TV historian Mary Ann Watson has noted, by mid-1963 even Martin Luther King, Jr. openly criticized Kennedy's efforts as "inadequate." Appearing on David Susskind's Open End discussion show on June 9, King urged JFK to exert personal leadership in the civil rights movement, to revive the Fireside Chat format popularized by Franklin D. Roosevelt on radio, but to speak now to the nation via television. According to King, JFK needed to discuss civil rights as a political matter and as a moral concern.
Significantly, the following day President Kennedy requested and received a quarter-hour of network prime time to address the American people on the racial question. His speech was a masterful statement of moral principle, hailed by historian Herbert Parmet, who wrote, "No other Chief Executive had ever talked that way about human rights in America." The president was frank: "The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities." And he linked the civil rights movement to the U.S. posture in global politics.
We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it. And we cherish our freedom at home. But are we to say to the world—and more importantly to each other—that this is the land of the free, except for the Negroes? Now the time has come for this nation to fulfill its promise.... It is time to act in Congress, in your state and local legislative body, and, above all, in our daily lives.
Although sometimes needing to be pushed into action, New Frontier support for civil rights was important in encouraging and popularizing the movement. No doubt, too, it played a role in precipitating assessments within the TV networks of the performance of television in this crusade for racial justice.
While a decreasing number of blacks were used in increasingly stereotyped entertainment roles, TV was not guilty of overlooking black activism in the news of the day. In its current events programming, television began early to cover the exigencies of the civil rights movement. Talk show hosts like Mike Wallace on Newsbeat and David Susskind on Open End welcomed black leaders to their programs. Moderate spokespersons like Martin Luther King, Jr., Roy Wilkins, and A. Philip Randolph were engaged in insightful conversations intended to present their ideas to a broad audience.
Although network TV was usually respectful of moderate black leaders, they were not always sheltered from racist confrontation. In his insightful biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., historian Stephen B. Oates has described a verbal clash between King and the archconservative editor of the Richmond News-Leader, James J. Kilpatrick. Appearing on an NBC discussion program, The Nation's Future, broadcast November 26, 1960, the narrow-minded Virginia news commentator attacked King's defense of sit-ins and support for integration. Kilpatrick defended the right of store owners to refuse service to blacks, and he belittled student-led sit-ins at southern restaurants, claiming "the question of who eats integrated hot dogs seems to me greatly exaggerated." As for racial integration, Kilpatrick suggested that the logical result of King's integrationist politics would be to create in the United States "the coffee-colored compromise, a society in which every distinction of race has been blotted out by this principle of togetherness."
Although he answered with precision and rectitude, King was stung by Kilpatrick's forceful prejudice—his ridicule of the African-American leader's claim that disobedience of immoral laws represented obedience to the moral law of the universe, and his rude rhetorical wondering about why blacks "by and large seem to take so little pride" in their race. According to Oates, when the televised debate ended, "King left the studio feeling that he had not done very well."
Still, assimilationists like King had an access to national television that escaped black leaders espousing more confrontational responses to white racism. The sensitivities that had banned Paul Robeson in an earlier time were still operative. Truly radical views were not permitted on network television. In July 1958, for example, Mike Wallace presented a five-part series on what was termed "Negro racism." Dealing with the Black Muslim religion, Wallace called it "the hate that hate produced," and dismissed the black nationalist phenomenon as an aberration of the times. Several years later Malcolm X recalled the program as "a kaleidoscope of 'shocker' images.... Every phase was edited to increase the shock mood." And he described the hostile reaction toward the Muslims precipitated by the program.
In a way, the public reaction was like what happened back in the 1930s when Orson Welles frightened America with a radio program describing, as though it were actually happening, an invasion by "men from Mars."... Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, black and white, were exclaiming "Did you hear it? Did you see it? Preaching hate of white people!" Here was one of the white man's most characteristic behavior patterns—where black men are concerned. He loves himself so much that he is startled if he discovers that his victims don't share his vainglorious self-opinion.... First came the white newspapers—feature writers and columnists: "Alarming"..."hate messengers"..."threat to the good relations between the races"..."black segregationists"..."black supremacists," and the like. And the newspapers' ink wasn't dry before the big national weekly news magazines started: "Hate-teachers"..."black racists"..."black fascists"…"anti-Christian"..." possibly Communist-inspired."
TV coverage of the daily news by the early 1960s dealt perforce with protests for racial desegregation. For a nation grown used to lily-white communities set apart from pockets of black people, television transcended residential boundaries and brought the civil rights movement directly into the living rooms of white America. Because of TV, nonviolent demonstrators, brutal police responses, heckling bigots, and white officials exploiting ignorance and intolerance to gain election became commonplace images on the evening news. Perhaps better than any fictionalized drama, these actualities brought home the necessity for, and intensity of, the black social movement.
The most fully developed presentations of the civil rights issues were to be found in network documentaries. One of the most memorable productions in this period was "Walk in My Shoes," aired September 19, 1961, on the Closeup series. With input from the noted black journalist Louis E. Lomax, this hour long documentary was a stark look at the world of impoverished African Americans. A. William Bluem has captured most impressively the artistic and moral power of the program:
We begin to share the noise, the anger, and the dark corners of the Negro world. Then we are in a cab, where the driver is talking to us over his shoulder. He is an angry man of simple, blunt speech—committed to the belief that the "white man" has too long dominated him. We move next to a filthy apartment in a crowded tenement, where a woman answers a question about her future with ... sad resignation.... But the free camera is always in focus and carefully deployed as it explores the darkness of tenement life.
Now there is a departure in technique. In the tenement a young man arises and makes ready for the routine labor of his day. Narration over this action describes his work and his hopes—but as he goes into the streets, the narration becomes his—his own thoughts in first person, voice-over narration.... The young man is our point of involvement, but it will not be his drama. Instead, the balance of this program becomes a vehicle by which the Negroes of America tell, not live, their stories. In a series of semi-interview situations recorded in Los Angeles, Chicago, and other places, we see a number of intense discussions of Negroes' problems and dreams. We see the wealthy and the middle class, as well as the poor. We listen to Martin Luther King as he talks directly to us, and hear Percy Sutton—in what must remain the singly most revealing interview ever recorded for TV—describing his feelings during his earlier "freedom ride." . . . The people are made important and they are presented to us in reflection upon crisis rather than in the frenzy of it.'
Even before Kennedy became president, the three networks were increasing their commitment to airing documentaries in prime time. During the 1959-1960 TV season (October through April), there had been thirty-two such programs accounting for sixteen sponsored hours. The next season that figure was 62 sponsored programs totaling 39 hours. And by 1963-1964, it reached 112 programs covering 97 hours. Thus, at the moment the civil rights movement was emerging and a sympathetic chief executive entered the White House, network television was experiencing what TV Guide termed a "war" between documentary makers.
The race question was an occasional topic of pre-Kennedy TV documentaries. For example, an NBC special, "The Second Agony of Atlanta"—aired February 1, 1959—probed the quandary in which citizens of Atlanta found themselves—faced with the prospect of court-ordered integration of public schools in a city where state law threatened to close all city schools if one were integrated.
In 1960 black issues continued to be treated by the networks. "Sit In" was an NBC White Paper telecast December 20. It dealt with one of the first nonviolent sit-ins, in a Nashville, Tennessee restaurant the previous February. It was a powerful portrait of white prejudice confronted by brave young black students one of whom, John Lewis, later became an influential member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
"Cast the First Stone" was broadcast on Closeup on September 27. It examined bias against minorities from a unique perspective. In a harbinger of problems to come, this documentary bypassed the South and focused instead on racial discrimination in the North.
With most African colonies moving toward national independence by 1960, CBS Reports treated black freedom in Africa. "The Freedom Explosion," on February 15, dealt with Nigeria, scheduled to become an independent country following the withdrawal of British rule in the Fall. "The Dark and the Light" was an ABC special on January 31, which surveyed the struggle for independence in Kenya and Tanganyika—which would both eventually attain their independence—and in the Union of South Africa, where racial apartheid still treated the nonwhite majority as second-class citizens.
Two of the most poignant racial documentaries of 1960 came from the production team of Edward R. Murrow and Fred W. Friendly. "Who Speaks for the South?"—aired May 27 on CBS Reports—concerned the swelling crisis over school integration in Atlanta. It presented a wide spectrum of southern whites speaking of the problem, offering solutions ranging from the intolerance of the Ku Klux Klan to pleas for toleration and understanding.
In "Harvest of Shame," telecast on November 25 on CBS Reports, Murrow and Friendly exposed the exploitation of migrant farm workers in the United States. The majority of those shown on the farms in Florida and along the East Coast were African Americans. The picture of low wages, squalid living conditions, and resignation to drudgery and abject poverty was powerful. Even more striking was the plight of the children of these workers. With educations disrupted by continuous migration and forced into debilitating stoop labor at early ages, the children seemed more like victims of poverty in an earlier century than like American youth in the middle of the twentieth century. "Harvest of Shame" made for reflective viewing, televised as it was on Thanksgiving weekend.
Even before these programs, however, the CBS team of Murrow and Friendly had probed civil rights matters. "Clinton and the Law: A Study in Desegregation" was a significant See It Now episode on January 6, 1957. It was one of the first documentaries to consider the motivations of violent racial confrontation—this one involving the integration of public schools the previous fall in rural Clinton, Tennessee. In "The Lost Class of '59,'' telecast on January 21, 1959, the focus was on mounting social tension in Norfolk, Virginia, caused by the governor's order to close six public schools rather than see the city's high schools integrated.
As was the case with most Murrow-Friendly documentaries, the strength of these reports was Murrow's refusal to take sides openly, while his cameras permitted spokespersons from all sides to tell the nation of the sincerity of their convictions. And although in the case of "The Lost Class of '59" they were speaking of problems in Virginia, the speakers could have come from any southern locale facing federal court orders to end segregation practices, and thereby take the first steps toward reevaluating patterns of white racial superiority. Here was a dismayed high school teacher telling the nation that "to say we are disheartened, to say that we feel insecure, is the understatement of the evening." Here also was a white mother who felt integration was wrong and that "if we have to sacrifice our public schools to overcome this, then I think that's the thing to do."
Murrow spoke, too, with white school children. There was the high school student who rationalized racism, arguing:
I don't dislike Negroes that much. I just don't care to associate with them. I am for the Negro race. I'd like to see them advance, but among themselves. And I don't believe that they have to mingle with the white people to make themselves equal.
In moderating contrast, another student wondered aloud:
Don't you think that if we could start integrating, slowly and calmly without running around in circles—that all we'd be teaching the children in the lower grades would be tolerance? Not that they have to go out and marry the first Negro boy that goes to school with them, just like that.
If these common people spoke for average whites in the South, then Governor J. Lindsay Almond articulated the position of all southern governors who, faced with legal pressure from Washington, offered intransigence instead of leadership, assertions of local prerogative instead of adherence to the law of the republic. Rallying behind the segregationist opinion of white voters, Almond told Murrow that "after all, the people elect the governor and the members of the General Assembly, and they have repeatedly spoken in no uncertain terms that we cannot maintain public education on a racially mixed basis."
While programs such as those produced by Murrow and Friendly were impressive analyses, they were seen by an insufficient number of viewers; this in part because they were not aired on all stations in the network. Broadcast documentaries never were overwhelmingly supported by viewers. For that reason, networks often scheduled them for unpopular hours or opposite unbeatably popular programs on other networks. Two important series, See It Now and The Twentieth Century, were CBS features on Sunday afternoons, telecast in what was cynically called "the cultural ghetto." On ABC in prime time, such nonfiction programs as ABC News Reports, Editor's Choice, ABC Scope, Howard K. Smith with News and Comment, and CCloseup were scheduled opposite hit programs like What's My Line?, The Garry Moore Show, Mannix, Gunsmoke, The Danny Kaye Show, and the NBC Wednesday Night Movie.
Documentaries often were not seen in many areas of the nation. Since affiliated stations were not obliged to accept every show the networks transmitted, lowly-rated or controversial documentaries were expendable. Murrow's biographer has pointed out that the award-winning See It Now series was not carried by all CBS stations. When it reported on civil rights matters, moreover, only 57 CBS stations aired See It Now.
Although they were placed in poor time periods and attracted audiences that were relatively small, these news and documentary reports on the black social movement were necessary to American TV. Such programming added a fragment of reality and credibility to a medium that specialized in fantasy and escape. Amid the comedic, cowboy, detective, and musical sameness that typified television in the early 1960s, these periodic network adventures into actuality were often the only opportunities viewers had to see and evaluate events happening in the real world.
Among others, Murrow was not pleased with the job TV was doing in informing viewers. He spoke in October 1958 of the generally unsatisfactory record television had compiled in reporting on reality. "If there are any historians ... a hundred years from now and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks," he told his audience, "they will find recorded in black-and-white or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities in which we live." He spoke also of the failures of television when he appeared on The Press and the Public series produced on public television in 1959 for the liberal Fund for the Republic.
While the interest of television in reporting the vicissitudes of the civil rights movement increased by the early 1960s, this did not translate into plentiful coverage of the minority situation. According to TV Guide, during 1960-1962 network TV aired 1,580 news and public affairs programs. Of that number, only 695 were concerned with domestic matters, and only thirty of these were concerned directly with the racial conflict within American society. That figure represented 4.3 percent of all domestically oriented programs, and less than two percent of the total news and public affairs shows during the three-year period.
The intensification of the civil rights movement, however, increased the interest of programmers and viewers. One of the first priorities for the networks was to break decades of discrimination and hire the first black correspondents in national broadcasting history. In September 1962, Mal Goode, formerly a journalist with the black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, was employed by ABC News as the first African American correspondent on national TV. A few weeks later CBS announced the hiring of Ben Holman, a former newsman with the Chicago Daily News. In March 1963, NBC followed suit and signed Bob Teague, with experience at the New York Times and the Milwaukee Journal, as a news writer for TV and radio.
By 1963, the civil rights movement had blossomed into an unprecedented national crusade for minority rights. With articulate leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and with just goals which were widely supported, an amalgam of black and white activists was challenging ways of life rooted in centuries of bigotry. The fact that 1963 was also the centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation added an aura of legitimacy and immediacy to this powerful grassroots uprising.
Fundamental to this demand for reform was television and its function as a mass communicator. Never in history had so many Americans seen the effects of chronic racism as on TV in the summer of 1963. Unlike the anti-slavery movement of the mid-nineteenth century, television presented the issues of this new abolitionist cause in unbiased, reasonable terms. No passionate rhetoric here. Viewers were able to decide for themselves as they encountered on TV the consequences of Jim Crow laws, bigotry, and race hatred. As Professor Molefe Kete Asante summarized it, the civil rights movement on TV was compelling theater.
Television found this confrontation with guns, whips, electric cattle prods on one side and love and non-violence on the other as the classic drama of black and white, good and evil. By structuring the discourse around traditional dichotomies, television was able to present instantaneous conflict and, therefore, interest.
The coincidence of TV and the black social revolution was advantageous for the reformers. According to William B. Monroe, Jr., a news director from New Orleans and later head of the NBC News Bureau in Washington, "television is their chosen instrument." In Monroe's view, TV was the most effective medium for relating the civil rights movement for several reasons. First, by the early 1960s, video was "coming of age as a journalistic medium;" it covered the movement "not because television set out to integrate the nation or even to improve the South," but because the civil rights movement was taking shape and TV was there to cover it. Further, Monroe suggested, TV was a national medium possessing "the courage—in most cases, a courage drawn from the old tradition of the American press—" to face the issues squarely and report the brutal encounters which often faced marching and protesting blacks. Moreover, because of the aesthetic realities of television, it conveyed the emotions of the movement more dramatically than radio or print. To Monroe, the black social revolution was "a basically emotional contest," and television conveyed the values of that contest "with a richness and fidelity never before achieved in mass communications."
Many times that centennial summer of 1963 the focus was on the negative effects of racism in specific cities or locales. New York Illustrated on WNBC-TV reported on "Trouble in Harlem" (June 24); a two-part documentary on "Washington—A City in Trouble" aired on WRC-TV (July 4 and 5). Local manifestations of the Black Muslim religion were treated on "My Name Is Mr. X" on Dallas station KRLD-TV (August 18). The impoverished all-black town of Bayou Mound, Mississippi was the focus of a national report on David Brinkley's Journal on NBC (July 15). And the plantation politics that kept blacks subjugated in Plaquemines parish, Louisiana, were given network exposure on CBS Reports (September 18).
During that summer, network TV also treated varying dimensions of the civil rights issue. National Educational Television pursued the plight of African Americans on nonfiction series like Heritage, Decision, Perspectives, and Desegregation. The situation was touched indirectly, too, in the scholarly NET series, Anatomy of a Revolution, a program utilizing leading American historians to discuss the dynamics of historic social revolutions.
Coverage by the commercial networks was intense. CBS presented a self-appraisal of the role played in the movement by journalism, "The Press and the Race Issue" (August 21). Spokesmen on all sides were examined. Issues and Answers on ABC brought together liberal Senator Jacob Javits of New York and archconservative Senator Allen J. Ellender of Louisiana to argue the merits of the civil rights legislation urged by President Kennedy (June 16). Senator Richard Russell of Georgia appeared on Meet the Press to attack the president's proposed legislation (August 11). James Meredith, the first black student to be enrolled at the University of Mississippi, appeared on Meet the Press (May 26). One week later Governor George C. Wallace of Alabama, was a guest on the same NBC interview program (June 2).
Two network initiatives, however, stand out for their comprehensiveness and commitment to public enlightenment: the five-part ABC series Crucial Summer (August 11 to September 8), and the NBC special The American Revolution of '63, for which the network preempted three hours of prime time on September 2. No doubt, these documentary presentations, occupying five and one-half evening hours within a period of five weeks, constituted one of the most intensive examinations of a national issue ever presented by television.
ABC News attempted to be balanced and national in its five-part study of the civil rights struggle in America. It offered black spokesmen for change like Roy Wilkins and Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as white advocates of segregation such as Senators Sam Ervin of North Carolina and J. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Governors Wallace and Orval E. Faubus. But more than as a regional problem, Crucial Summer analyzed racism throughout the country. In a penetrating fashion, viewers saw northern expressions of bias in employment, segregation in public accommodations, racial discrimination in housing, and problems with black voting rights.
Most importantly, Crucial Summer showed black Americans struggling to overcome prejudice and exclusion. In contrast to the "lovable" stereotypes on TV in the 1950s, the message of Willie Best, George "Kingfish" Stevens, and Beulah crumbled before authentic African American articulators. Typical of the men and women who appeared on Crucial Summer was Lucius Pitts, president of all-black Miles College in Birmingham, who spoke of the future for blacks.
I'm a preacher, so I would say I see a new heaven and a new earth, on the basis of demonstrations and of negotiations. I don't think it's going to come within a year, but I'm positive that Negroes are not going to wait for years again. You see, if we move at the rate that we've moved in the past fifty years, it will be around 2053 before we get a like amount of progress. Negroes are not going to wait that long. I hope white people—moderates, whatever they are in the North or South—will not be fooled by thinking that a dribble of this or that is going to stop the Negro march, nor to satisfy a small group. This isn't going to stop it. It has to move. And Negroes are willing for it to move with a certain amount of patience. But they're not willing for it to drag. Even an old man like me: you see, I got four children. I can't wait for Alabama, 25 or 30 years from now, to offer my children an opportunity for freedom in education and freedom of movement. This I can't do. My manhood just won't stand it.
NBC's massive undertaking on Labor Day, The American Revolution of '63, fully exploited the network's news facilities to present a well-rounded picture of the civil rights problem in the United States. News correspondents moved from Montgomery and Little Rock to Los Angeles and Englewood, New Jersey—from the ghettos of Chicago and New York City, to the rural environs of Greensboro, North Carolina, and Albany, Georgia. The program included reports on seventy-five different areas of the country.
In addition to geographical comprehensiveness, The American Revolution of '63 offered a broad range of thematic approaches to the civil rights issue. It probed matters by now familiar in television, considerations of civil rights that included housing, employment, public accommodations, voting rights, and education. But the report moved in newer directions, exploring such fresh topics as the stereotyping of blacks in Hollywood productions, the paucity of black influence in the critical advertising industry, and the contemporary applicability of Henry David Thoreau's nineteenth-century philosophy of civil disobedience.
And the NBC report allowed all sides of the social issues to be heard. As Variety reported on The American Revolution of'63, "the bigot had his say; and so did the champions of integration; the politician, the labor leader, the educator, the civic leader, the minister, even the critic of the 'frightened little people on Madison Ave.'"
One of the most passionate critics of the civil right movement to emerge from The American Revolution of ’63 was Ross Barnett, the governor of Mississippi. He issued a scathing attack blaming television as the real culprit in creating the ground swell of black protest. Barnett blasted TV for presenting inflammatory pictures and lending itself to the designs of President Kennedy to create a strong role for the federal government in resolving racial matters.
If in his critique Governor Barnett meant that what TV did most effectively was to communicate through its pictures, this NBC special illustrated the power of the medium he feared. Especially in recounting the preceding decade of civil rights confrontations, the report allowed viewers to comprehend the brutality and inhumanity that plagued the movement. Here were images of incensed white mobs battling with federal troops because nine black children were being enrolled in a Little Rock high school in the fall of 1957. And while the tense situation called for enlightened leadership, here was Governor Faubus of Arkansas on TV, showing provocative photographs of bayonets aimed at white protestors and proclaiming:
We are now an occupied territory. Evidence of the naked force of the federal government is here apparent in these unsheathed bayonets in the backs of school girls. And in the bloody face of this railroad worker who was bayoneted and then felled by the butt of a rifle in the hands of a sergeant of the United States 101st Airborne Division.
Here, too, were protests on the campuses of the universities of Mississippi and Alabama as a few black students sought entry. At the former, there were clashes between white supremacists and law enforcement agencies. At the latter, Governor Wallace stood ceremoniously in the doorway of a university building and defiantly informed federal officers:
I stand here today as Governor of this sovereign state and refuse to willingly submit to illegal usurpation of power by the central government. I claim today for all the people of the state of Alabama those rights reserved to them under the Constitution of the United States. Among those powers so reserved in claim is the right of State authority in the operation of the public schools, colleges, and universities.
At a time when Americans sought answers to civil rights problems, NBC cameras showed southern leaders proffering solutions that distorted the realities of time. For Senator James O. Eastland of Mississippi the movement was neither popular nor authentic, but the product of activists, since "the whole thing is stirred up by a group of agitators." In his view, this was especially pernicious because "the Negro in the South has economic equality and is well-treated." Governor Wallace went one step further, claiming that "local agitators" were tied to international Communism, since "the Communist movement is behind all the racial demonstrations in this country." And Leander Perez, a reactionary political leader in Louisiana, offered his prescription for withstanding the civil rights movement. Speaking of the integration of Roman Catholic schools in New Orleans, he told applauding white parents what to do.
It's the simplest thing in the world. It'll give us some trouble, but it'll give them a whole lot more. All you have to do is shut their water off. And the moment a Negro child walks into the school, every decent, self-respecting, and loving parent should take his white child out of that parochial school.
As powerful as such pronouncements were, the most brutalizing images came from Birmingham when city officials in May 1963 turned high-powered fire hoses on protesting blacks. Then, directed by Police Chief "Bull" Connor, law enforcement officers used leashed German shepherd dogs to disperse the crowds.
Juxtaposed to such dehumanizing pictures was a quietly ironic interview conducted with Martin Luther King, Jr. Speaking from Birmingham during this brutality, King explained his continued leadership of such demonstrations, even though his own residence had just been bombed.
And I go on with the feeling that this is a righteous cause, and that we will have to suffer in this cause, and that if physical death is the price that some must pay—if it's the price that I must pay—to free my children and the children of my brothers and sisters and my white brothers from a permanent psychological death, then nothing can be more redemptive. I have always believed that unearned suffering is redemptive. And if a man has not discovered something so dear and so precious that he will die for it, then he doesn't have much to live for.
With no breaks for commercials, NBC had dedicated its entire evening schedule to a consideration of the crisis facing the United States in mid-1963. It was an unprecedented act of programming. "It isn't likely that television will see a more definitive portrayal of the momentous civil rights issues," Variety concluded, "or a more skillful and professional exposition of the events attendant to 1963's history-in-the-making as that which NBC-TV undertook."
While productions such as The American Revolution of '63 and Crucial Summer were outstanding journalistic creations, the climax of civil rights developments in the summer of 1963 was the massive rally held in Washington, D.C., on August 28—the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." It was a historic gathering rendered all the more significant because television made it a national manifestation. Sharing equipment and personnel, the networks showed more than 200,000 marchers crowded into the national capital to make known their sympathy with the cause of minority rights.
What viewers also saw here was apparent consensus among the generations of black leaders, all lending support to social change through nonviolent protest and moral witness. The venerable A. Philip Randolph—the union activist who had been organizing black protest for half a century, and whose creation in 1941 of a March on Washington Movement was an important first step toward this day twenty-two years later—now led thousands of marchers in an oath to return home and carry on "the revolution." The youth generation was represented by John Lewis, national chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who declared impatiently that "we don't want our freedom gradually, but we want our freedom now."
But this day was the crowning triumph for the philosophy and leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. The man who first organized the boycott of city buses in Montgomery eight years earlier used this present occasion to tell of his dream of racial harmony in the United States. With compelling cadence King implored the nation to "rise up and live out the meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal." He foretold a day when children of slaves and slaveholders could "sit down together at the table of brotherhood." And using Mississippi as a microcosm for all states in which racial injustice was rampant, he envisioned a time when it would "be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice." In his final phrases King, the political leader and Baptist minister, tied the nonviolent protest movement to the plight of all Americans inhibited by racial discrimination:
From every mountain side, let freedom ring. And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all God's children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics—will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we're free at last!