One of the most significant moments in the history of the American press was its response to the civil rights movement that culminated in the 1950s and 60s. Despite a few exceptions in Virginia and the deep South, mainstream news and editorial comment about Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement was strongly supportive.
However, the mainstream white press only became supportive in the 1950s and 60s. African Americans had their own press, and argued their own cause, for a century and a half beforehand. The crusading African American press was the true mainstay of the long movement for equality, said Gunnar Myrdal in his landmark 1944 study. (Myrdal, 1944).
African American newspapers and magazines employed writers like Langston Hughes and Ida B. Wells; they campaigned for integration; they organized boycotts of racist films like the 1915 “Birth of a Nation”; they advocated migration from the South to the industrial North during the 1910 – 1930s era; they covered race riots and investigated lynchings; they debated tactics and helped clarify the goals of the civil rights movement. And, all too frequently, the black press became a target for censorship or savagely prejudiced mobs.
Altogether some 2,700 African American newspapers came to life during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, mostly after the US Civil War, but they tended to survive for only about nine years on average. Despite a lack of financial power, the African American press became “the greatest single power in the Negro race,” said Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff in their Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Race Beat (Vintage, 2007).
Origins of the African-American Press
The African American press emerged as part of the abolitionist movement when white editors did not plead the cause as well as black writers wished. For example, the Emancipator, first published in 1819 in Baltimore, Md., and Benjamin Lundy’s Genius of Universal Emancipation newspaper in the 1820s, advocated gradual emancipation. Despite his moderate position, Lundy was nearly beaten to death on the streets of Baltimore by a notorious slave trader, Andrew Woolfolk, in 1827. (The courts convicted Woolfolk but levied the lightest possible fine of one dollar, saying that Lundy provoked it by criticizing Woolfolk’s lawful job).
African Americans decided they had to plead their own cause, and John Brown Russwurm began publishing Freedom’s Journal in New York on March 17, 1827. The Journal was a reaction to “routine vilification” in the mainstream white press, and the editorial policy was to fight slavery and prejudice with low budgets and high expectations. With typical eloquence, Russwurm wrote:
“Christianity enforces this dictate of sound reason: ‘Thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself,’ (which) is as much the law between master and slave as between any other members of the human family. This is so obvious as to appear almost like a truism. And yet this is the very thing that has always been lost sight of, among slave-holders.”
Unlike his publishing partner Rev. Samuel Cornish, Russwurm was convinced that African Americans would never be treated as equals, and shortly after Freedom’s Journal stopped publication, moved to what is now Liberia, on the west coast of Africa, to edit the Liberia Herald and serve as an agent for freed American slaves who returned to Africa.
The abolitionist cause was taken up by Lundy associate William Lloyd Garrison in The Liberator, published from 1831 until 1865. Garrison said in the first issue:
“Assenting to the self-evident truth maintained in the American Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I shall strenuously contend for the immediate enfranchisement of our slave population.” Garrison faced criminal charges in North Carolina for advocating the abolition of slavery, and a South Carolina ‘vigilance’ association offered a reward of $1,500 for information about distributors of the paper.
One of Garrison’s printer’s devils was Philip Alexander Bell who in 1837 began publishing the Colored American (1837-1841) with the help of Samuel Cornish. The newspaper provided the best day-to-day coverage of the trial of the slaves mutiny on the Amistad ship in 1839. Bell was also active in the “Underground Railroad” before the Civil War, but in 1860 he moved to San Francisco and began editing the Pacific Appeal, one of the first major black newspapers in California. By 1865, Bell established his own weekly newspaper, The Elevator, under the slogan, “Equality Before the Law,” and especially advocating voting rights for African Americans.
Around 1847, Willis A. Hodges, a Virginia freeman who had to flee the state for New York after the Nat Turner rebellion, approached the editors of the New York Sun and asked for support for a political referendum on state voting rights in New York. The editors refused, saying “The Sun shines for all white men, and not for colored men.” As a result, Hodges and several others created the Ram’s Horn in 1847. The paper was very outspoken in opposing slavery, for example, saying that failure of Northern Blacks to strongly oppose slavery was a “Sambo mistake.” Hodges was also a friend of John Brown, the famed abolitionist who led the raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859.
Perhaps the best-known of the African American and abolitionist newspapers before the US Civil War was the North Star, published fromDecember 3, 1847 through the mid-1860s by former slave Frederick Douglass. A fiery orator and passionate writer, Douglass wrote:
“The white man’s happiness cannot be purchased by the black man’s misery. Virtue cannot prevail among the white people, by its destruction among the black people, who form a part of the whole community. It is evident that the white and black must fall or flourish together.”
Censorship by mob, 19th century style
Following the 1822 Denmark Vesey rebellion in Charleston, SC and the 1831 Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia, amendments to the “Slave Codes” made the possession or distribution of abolitionist literature illegal. In Virginia, anyone who “by speaking or writing maintains that owners have no right of property in slaves” could be sentenced to a year in prison. Similar laws were passed across the South.
In 1835, an abolitionist group began mailing anti-slavery literature to people in South Carolina in what may have been one of the first direct mail political campaigns. Incensed at being exposed to ideas they found dangerous, a Charleston a mob stole bags of antislavery publications out of the post office and burned them on the street, despite attempts by the Charleston postmaster to hold the mob off with a shotgun.
Tensions kept rising despite efforts of some moderates, such as white Baltimore editor Hezekiah Niles, to avert an anticipated Civil War. But the tensions could not be stemmed. Southerners often professed outright hatred of Niles and other opponents of slavery. In fact, it could be very dangerous to publish editorials against slavery. On Nov. 7, 1837, a pro-slavery mob killed abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy of the Alton, Illinois, Observer. Lovejoy is often considered the first US martyr to freedom of the press, and his name leads a monument to slain journalists.
The Black Press in the Civil War
Large northern cities had at least one African American newspaper by 1860. These included the National Era of Washington DC, the Christian Recorder of Philadelphia and the Angl0-African of New York.
As war broke out, one of the largest controversies involved the use of black troops to fight Southern armies. Although blacks would not be allowed to join the army for several years, the Christian Recorder asked whether black soldiers should risk their lives or liberty, given that the Supreme Court had recently held (in the 1857 Dred Scott decision) that African Americans were not citizens, even if they were technically free. On the other hand, the Anglo-African endorsed the idea in an editorial headlined “The Reserve Guard:”
Colored men whose fingers tingle to pull the trigger, or clutch the knife aimed at the slaveholders in arms, will not have to wait much longer. Whether the fools attack Washington and succeed or whether they attempt Maryland and fail, there is equal need for calling out the nation’s ‘Reserve Guard.’
Another controversy involved the consequences of emancipation. There were fears that formerly enslaved would “overrun the entire North as the frogs did the Egyptians in the days of Moses,” and that if emancipated “they will refuse to work, and will engage in robbery and murder.” (McGruder 2014). However, using data from the British experience abolishing slavery in the Caribbean in 1830, the Christian Recorder in a Jan. 4, 1862 article showed that none of these fears were realistic. The newspaper concluded that emancipation was in the national interest, “for it will not only crush rebellion, but increase our prosperity, decrease crime in our midst, and prevent insurrections with their fearful horrors.” These controversies became moot, of course, with the Emancipation Proclamation (Jan. 1, 1863) and the creation regiments of “Colored Troops” in the Union Army (May 22, 1863).
As the Union Army began sending regiments of black soldiers into battle, one black correspondent, Thomas Morris Chester, became a correspondent for the Philadelphia Press. He followed regiments of black soldiers into battle, sharing their triumphs and hardships, and always portraying their efforts as heroic — even when they were working as laborers.
He had a contempt for Confederates, often calling them “barbaric.” One story is that in April of 1865, when Richmond fell, Chester went to the statehouse and was writing his story on the desk of the Speaker of the House when he was interrupted. A paroled Confederate officer tried to throw him out of the statehouse. Chester stopped writing and the former Confederate officer “found himself tumbling over chairs and benches, knocked down by one well-planted blow between his eyes.” (Huets, 2015)
- Kevin McGruder, “The Black Press During the Civil War,” NY Times, March 13, 2014
- Jean Huets, “A Black Correspondent at the Front,” NY Times Feb 8, 2015.
Reconstruction era South
After the Civil War, racial and political tensions created widespread violence in the South. A majority of newly freed African Americans strongly supported the Republican Party, angering prominent southern Democrats. The Ku Klux Klan, the White Camelia, the Red Shirts, and other supremacist / terrorist organizations worked to silence African Americans through beatings, assassinations and lynchings.
Aaron Bradley a black Georgia lawyer and politician in the 1860s and 70s, was repeatedly arrested for using “insurrectionary language,” which was no more than asking for reparations and telling former slaves to stay on the land and claim it for themselves. He was sentenced by federal reconstruction authorities in 1865 to a year of hard labor for his speeches, but authorities allowed him to leave instead. He returned to Georgia and helped organize Georgia’s Constitutional Convention of 1867, where he championed civil and political rights for African Americans, according to an article by Kerri Lee Merritt. He was also known for filing a lawsuit against B&O railroad because the company insisted that he sit in the “colored” section of the train. But eventually, Bradley left the South and settled in the Midwest, unwilling to endure the constant denial of civil rights and risk death at the hands of angry former Confederates.
Memphis and New Orleans Riots of 1866 — A year after the war’s end, a community of about 20,000 freed African Americans was attacked by whites in Memphis, Tenn., leaving 46 dead and 75 injured, and also leaving 91 homes, 4 churches and 8 schools burned to the ground. A similar riot left 44 dead in New Orleans in July of 1866. The outrage over the riots led to a national electoral victory for Republicans, which led to the establishment of military districts and also to the passage of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution.
The Fourteenth Amendment — Passed July 9, 1868, the 14th Amendment said that all citizens would have equal protection of the laws and that no state had the power to deny rights to any citizen. This rather clear-cut Constitutional amendment would be undermined only a few months later, following the Opelousas massacre of 1868 At least 200 African Americans and 20 whites were killed in Opelousas, Louisiana on September 28, 1868 following a series of editorials in the “The Landry Progress,” a Republican newspaper, urging African Americans to vote for (then liberal) Republicans since the (then conservative) Democrats were oppressing them. Progress editor Emerson Bentley was badly beaten, and his newspaper was destroyed. It would also be undermined by a court case several years later, when the Supreme Court ruled that states were not required to provide their citizens with all the rights of national citizenship in the “Slaughterhouse Case” of 1873.
The Colfax Massacre of April, 1873 was another an instance of violent repression of legitimately elected Colfax, Louisiana. At least 150 black men were killed, many after they had surrendered to whites. In 1875, the US Supreme Court ruled, in US v Cruickshank, that whites who participated in the massacre could not be convicted under the 14th amendment.
The Danville Riots of November, 1883, led to the deaths of four black men and pushed the bi-racial reconstruction “Readjuster” party out of office. Like similar riots throughout the South, the point was to curtail black economic and political power. Two years later, a civic booster wrote that the riot produced a change in the behavior of black citizens: “Those who had formerly been most insolent in their conduct now became polite and respectful, ready to yield all reasonable deference to their natural superiors, and to resume, contentedly, their own legitimate position in the social scale.” (Brendan Wolff, 2017) It also pushed moderate legislators like William Mahone, a former Confederate general, out of office in Virginia.
Expansion of the black press in the 1880s
The black press expanded quickly between 1880 and 1890, from 31 newspapers to 154, according to a very optimistic 1891 book, The Afro-American Press and its Editors, by Irvine Garland Penn, a leading black writer and educator.
One successful editor was John Mitchell, Jr., who took the helm of the Richmond Planet in 1884 and used it to investigate lynchings, build the African American business community, and run for office.
But Mitchell was an exception, and the success of most of the black press was short-lived for several reasons. First, the Slaughterhouse and Cruickshank civil rights cases laid the groundwork for state-by-state “Jim Crow” laws denying African Americans equal protection and civil rights in dozens of areas, from seating on busses and trains to service at lunch counters and even to the way people walked down the street.
These repressive state laws were upheld in Plessy v Furgeson, 1896, which allowed supposedly “separate but equal” facilities for whites on the one hand and people of color on the other. These cases are the backdrop against which freedom of the press, along with other rights, would be denied for the African-Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries. ( Note: “Separate but equal” remained the law of the land until Plessy was overturned in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education.)
With white communities free to turn away from gross violations of the law, black communities came under vicious attack by white mobs intent on holding down the rising economic and political power. These attacks often focused on the newspaper as the center of the community, as was the case in Memphis Tennessee and Wilmington North Carolina in the 1890s.
In 1892, for example a black journalist who investigated a lynch mob was forced to flee Memphis, Tenn, and her newspaper, The Free Speech, was burned to the ground. Much of this was described in “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All its Phases, by journalist Ida B . Wells (July 16, 1862 – March 25, 1931)
“The dailies and associated press reports heralded these [lynched African Americans] … as “toughs,” and “Negro desperadoes who kept a low dive.” … Not content with misrepresenting the race, the mob-spirit was not to be satisfied until the [African American Free Speech newspaper] …, which was doing all it could to counteract this impression, was silenced. The colored people were resenting their bad treatment in a way to make itself felt, yet gave the mob no excuse for further murder, until the appearance of the editorial which is construed as a reflection on the “honor” of the Southern white women. It is not half so libelous as that of the [Memphis] Commercial [newspaper] which appeared four days before, and which has been given in these pages.
They would have lynched the manager of the Free Speech for exercising the right of free speech if they had found him as quickly as they would have hung a rapist, and glad of the excuse to do so. The owners were ordered not to return, the Free Speech was suspended with as little compunction as the business of the “People’s Grocery” broken up and the proprietors murdered.
Wells moved to New York City, where she helped found the NAACP, wrote for The Crisis, and was active in politics for the rest of her life.
Following the election of a pro-tolerance (Fusion) city government, made up of progressive whites and African Americans, a mob of 2,000 white men staged a coup, displacing the city government and destroying the only African American newspaper in North Carolina, the Wilmington Daily Record. State and federal troops — originally sent to quell rioting — ended up joining the rioters and firing on unarmed African Americans. Rioting continued for several days, unhindered (and sometimes encouraged) by local law enforcement. At least 60 were killed, and thousands of African Americans — including employees of the Daily Record — left North Carolina to escape oppression. The riots were seen as a major national affirmation of the principle of white supremacy.
Impunity in the era of lynch mobs
To give an idea of the absolute impunity with which race haters operated, consider the case of the first Hispanic American journalist to be killed in the line of duty. Narciso Gonzales was headed home from his job at The State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina on Jan. 15, 1903, when he was shot by then-Lt. Gov. James Tillman. Gonzales had opposed Tillman’s unsuccessful candidacy for governor and had called him a “debaucher,” “blackguard” and a “proved liar.” Tillman was tried for the murder and acquitted, although he was carrying two loaded weapons, and the victim was unarmed.
As repression followed repression, the lynchings that Ida B. Wells reported on became increasingly common. According to James Allen in Without Sanctuary (Twin Palms, 2000), the Tuskegee Institute recorded the lynching of 4,742 blacks between 1882 and 1968. “This is probably a small percentage of these murders, which were seldom reported, and led to the creation of the NAACP in 1909,” Allen said. “Through all this terror and carnage, someone – many times a professional photographer – carried a camera and took pictures of the events… These images are some of photography’s most brutal, surviving to this day so that we may now look back upon the carnage and perhaps know our history and ourselves better.”
Often enough, black reporters working for the black press had the heartbreaking job of bearing witness to lynchings, said Roger Witherspoon, a black editor and author of Martin Luther King, Jr.: To The Mountaintop (Doubleday, 1985). “The hard part was staying long enough to record most of the horrors and bear witness to the atrocities, and leaving before the crowd’s blood lust added the reporters to the flames. Leaving was difficult. They could only hope that the victim was too far gone or blinded (gouging the eyes out or burning them out was a favorite) to notice that they were, truly, alone.”
Progressive era (1900-WWI) and the black press
Not surprisingly, with all the repression in the South, millions of African Americans migrated to northern states.
“Millions heeded (the) call to leave the Klan terror and pseudo-slavery of the South behind for freedom and opportunity up North,” said Larry Muhammad in a 2003 Nieman Reports article.
This “great migration” led was jump started, in part, by the Chicago Defender, first published in 1905 by Robert S. Abbott, and the Pittsburgh Courier, founded in 1910 Edward Nathaniel Harleston. Also in 1910, W.E.B. Du Bois became the founding editor of the NAACP magazine, The Crisis.
It was a time of a remarkable transformation in the black press, Fred Carroll wrote in his book Race News: Black Journalists and the Fight for Racial Justice in the 20th Century (University of Illinois, 2017). “A skeletal national communications network of news by, about and for African Americans solidified in the early 1900s… Upstart editors competed for readers pennies and nickels by adopting modern journalism practices and emboldening their demands for justice. These editors condemned lynching, denounced segregation, and defended citizenship rights with an audacious militancy.”
The most important controversy within the black press at this time involved the ideas of Booker T. Washington on the one hand, who advocated education, gradual equality and accommodation with white supremacists, and W.E.B. Du Bois and members of the Niagara Movement on the other hand, who took a much stronger stand against discrimination and segregation.
World War I and the Roaring Twenties
Growing tensions between white and black Americans accelerated after the US entered World War I in April, 1917. The East St. Louis riots in July, followed by the Houston riot in November, alarmed government officials who were preoccupied with the war in Europe.
The East St. Louis riots involved attacks on the black community after black workers replaced white workers in local factories. At least 40 African Americans were killed and 6,000 homes destroyed. Investigative reporter Ida B. Wells found that community leaders had been asking the governor for protection months beforehand], and that city police and state militia participated in the riots. When her report was published as a pamphlet, the military censored it. When a St. Louis editor linked draft resistance to President Woodrow Wilson’s silence about the riots, the newspaper was banned by the US Post Office.
The Houston riots were a reaction to what has been called “rampant and prolonged” abuse of black soldiers by white citizens. On Nov. 1, a group of 156 black soldiers from the 24th Infantry Regiment marched on Houston, Texas to fight with police. The led to the deaths of four soldiers and 16 civilians. Within a few months, 19 of the rioters were hung and 41 were sentenced to life in jail. Defending the rioters in the press was also a crime: G. W. Bouldin, editor of the San Antonio Inquirer, was convicted of attempting to cause mutiny and sentenced to two years in jail. (Carroll, 2017).
The growing power of the African American press, coupled with increasing criticism of discrimination and brutality, alarmed government officials during World War I. At a meeting with a group of 30 African American publishers in Washington in June, 1918, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D Roosevelt and other officials asked the publishers for loyalty. The publishers said loyalty was not a problem — lynchings, segregation and discrimination were the issues.
The head of military intelligence sent a memo after the meeting: “The leaders of the race are intensely loyal, but feel keenly their inability to carry the great mass of their race with them in active support of the war unless certain grievances receive immediate attention.” (Carroll, 2017). Around this time Du Bois called for a temporary halt to racial agitation, saying: “If this is OUR country, then this is OUR war.”
Later that summer of 1918, small concessions were evident. Ralph Waldo Tyler, editor of the Cleveland Advocate, was accredited to report about black American troops from France. Death sentences for ten soldiers who participated in the Houston riots were commuted to life in prison. Black nurses were welcomed into the Red Cross by order of the army. And in July of 1918, Wilson finally broke his silence on lynching, comparing the victimization of the innocent to activities of the Germans.
These compromises “allowed black editors to claim their efforts had gained a measure of recognition for black concerns unseen at the federal level since Reconstruction ended,” Carroll wrote. (Carroll, 2017, p. 39).
Partly as a result, circulation grew in the 1920s. By 1929, The Pittsburg Courier had a circulation of 300,000 weekly with 15 editions published around the country. The Chicago Defender’s circulation reached 230,000 a week. It was this newly empowered press that threw its weight behind the Democratic Party in the 1932 election, breaking traditional ties to the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln and helping to elect Franklin D. Roosevelt to the presidency.
Stereotypes and cartoonish caricatures were the only ways that white audiences saw black Americans in the movies until the 1940s and 50s. “Early depictions of African American men and women were confined to demeaning stereotypical images of people of color. During the first decades of the 20th century, many films depicted a nostalgic and idealized vision of life in the antebellum South,” said historians at the Duke University Libraries. Until the 1980s, the true artistic spirit of African American cinema was found only in black films.
One ugly episode was an early case of outright film censorship. When the first African- American heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson, won a well-publicized July 1910 match against James Jeffries (a white boxer who had been styled as the “great white hope”), rioting broke out in 50 US cities and an estimated 20 people were killed. The film’s ideological significance alarmed racists in Congress who passed a federal ban on interstate sales of all boxing films in 1912. The ban was later lifted, and the 1938 fight between Joe Lewis of the US and Max Schmeling of Germany was broadcast by radio and widely shown in newsreels as a point of pride for Americans.
Outright racism was a common feature of film in its early years. The most controversial film of the silent era was D. W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation, a film that told the story of families torn apart by the US Civil War. The movie was based on The Clansmen, a book that romanticized slavery-era antebellum South and the American terrorist group, the Ku Klux Klan. It depicted Reconstruction-era African Americans in the worst possible light as drunkards, rapists and murderers. Critics were outraged, some saying the film was “unfair and vicious.” Riots broke out at theaters in major cities, and performances were shut down in eight states. Many other performances were picketed by the National Association for Colored People.
To counterbalance the lurid stereotypes in Birth of a Nation, African-American entrepreneurs ventured into filmmaking to serve some 400 black movie theaters. Filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux who made The Homesteader (1919), and Noble Johnson, who made The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition (1916), were among those who worked in the “separate cinema” until the 1930s, when Depression era economics put most of them out of business.
Another part of the story is told in the documentary “Small Steps, Big Strides: The Black Experience in Hollywood.” Great entertainers in the 1930s, like Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers, often performed only for white audiences in the American North, and not the South. Their dance and musical numbers were considered ‘cut out’ segments by movie chains serving theaters in the South. Even so, efforts to truthfully depict the humanity of African Americans eventually took root in Hollywood, and could be found in films like Island in the Sun (1957), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), Lilies of the Field (1963), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), Blazing Saddles (1974) among others.
Even Jack Johnson’s story finally came to cinema in 1970 in The Great White Hope, starring James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander.
WWII era censorship
African American soldiers in the US armed forces needed information from home, and black newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender found large audiences on military bases throughout the war.
Around 1943, according to Patrick S. Washburn in The African American Newspaper: Voice of Freedom (Northwestern University Press, 2006), Army bases began confiscating and suppressing black newspapers as “prejudicial to military discipline.” The decision was greeted with anger. The policy was reversed by the Navy late in the war, with this explanation in a 1945 memo:
“It is true that Negro publications are vigorous and sometimes unfair in their protests against discrimination, but it is also true that they eagerly print all they can get about the successful participation of the Negro in the war… Censorship and repression of such interests is not in the American tradition. It cannot be made effective, and has the reverse effect of increasing tension and lowering morale.”
Although the Army was segregated in WWII, black American soldiers made significant contributions. For instance, although General George Patton could be disparaging in his treatment of black soldiers, it was the Third Army’s 761st all-black tank unit that took a 50 percent casualty rate and fought through to liberate the Buchenwald and Dachau death camps. But very little recognition came their way. “The U.S. Army forgot to remember,” said Bill Alexander of BET.com.
Alexander also noted: “The recollections are still vivid – [b]lack soldiers of the Third Army, tall and strong, crying like babies, carrying the emaciated bodies of the liberated prisoners,” wrote Benjamen Bender, a Buchenwald survivor. Another Holocaust survivor, David Yeager of Poland, said of the 761st, “I thought they had come down from heaven.”
Yet it was only decades later that the public learned of these and other heroic instances, even though many were covered in the black press.
In the post-war years, the American press expanded, and an important milestone for the African American press was the establishment of Ebony magazine in 1945 by John H. Johnson. Designed to look like other glossy magazines, Ebony emphasized entertainment and the success of African Americans, but also covered difficult issues of racism and segregation. The success of these and other publications gave a voice to millions of people who were not usually heard in the mainstream media.
An American Dilemma, Brown v Board of Education, Emmett Till
In 1944, Swedish journalist Gunnar Myrdal toured the American South and wrote that if the press ever did tell the story, the rest of the nation would be “shocked and shaken” and would demand sweeping changes. Myrdal’s report can be read here at the Internet Archive. A decade later, Myrdal’s prophecy came true.
One event that brought civil rights into the national spotlight was the May 17, 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision by the US Supreme Court. The court unanimously decided that racially segregated schools were “inherently unequal” and that African American students had been “deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.”
Public opinion was strongly galvanized the next year with the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago resident visiting relatives in Mississippi. Till was brutally beaten, shot and dumped in a river in apparent retaliation for supposedly talking in a sassy way to a white woman.
His mother demanded that his body be sent home for burial in Chicago. When the coffin arrived, she had it opened “to show the world what they did to my baby.” Photos of Till’s horrifically beaten face were first printed on the front page of the Chicago Defender, and in Ebony and other magazines. “It gave a real picture to the brutality and terrorism against African Americans,” said Roland Martin, editor of the Chicago Defender, in 2005 (Goodman, 2005). Reporters from around the world attended the trial of his accused white murderers. Despite considerable evidence of guilt, the men were quickly acquitted by the racially prejudiced southern judicial system. The slaying brought “strong criticism of (Mississippi’s) white supremacy practices from other sections of the country,” a New York Times reporter wrote (Roberts and Klibanoff, 2007).
As African Americans pressed for equality with bus boycotts, lawsuits, lunch counter sit-ins and other nonviolent tactics, the mainstream press debated how to cover rapidly unfolding events.
At first the media settled into what seemed at first to be a gentlemanly debate over schools and desegregation. But by misreading the sentiments of political extremists in 1955, the Times “failed to see that the extremes would soon be in control,” said Gene Patterson and Hank Klibanoff in The Race Beat, a 2006 Pulitzer-Prize winning history of civil rights news coverage.
Freedom summer 1964
Mainstream news coverage of the civil rights movement increased in 1964 following the disappearance of three men (two white and one black) on the evening of June 21, 1964. The three were in Mississippi for the Freedom Summer voter registration drive organized by the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), and had been held in a Neshoba County jail before disappearing.
Assuming the three men might have been murdered, searchers began combing the swamps and byways looking for their bodies, and in the process, found eight more bodies of eight more people who had been murdered. One body had a CORE t-shirt. But the mainstream news media at the time, and subsequent media (such as the movie Mississippi Burning) focused on the hunt for the white victims, not the many other black victims.
New York Times advertising libel lawsuit
The issue emerged when, as part of a fund-raising effort, a group of Southern ministers ran a full page advertisement in the Times under the headline: “Heed their Rising Voices.” The ad included a descriptions of events that had minor inaccuracies. Louis B. Sullivan, police commissioner of Birmingham, AL, sued the Times and won at the state court level. However, the US Supreme Court reversed the state court decision, and cleared the way for media coverage not only of the civil rights issue but of government in general.
“We consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials,” the Supreme Court said in its 1964 opinion in New York Times v. Sullivan. (The suit is also discussed in Chapter Six.)
Mainstream press deeply divided on civil rights
The mainstream press, like the country, was divided on the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. Editors James J. Kilpatrick of the Richmond, Virginia, Times and Thomas Waring of the Charleston, South Carolina, Courier advocated “massive resistance” to integration and encouraged Southerners to fight for “states rights.” Their racism helped to hold the cities of Richmond and Charleston back when other cities, especially Atlanta, moved forward.
More temperate Southerner editors advised gradual change. These included Atlanta Journal editor Ralph McGill, Greenville, Mississippi, editor Hodding Carter, and Little Rock editor Harry Ashmore.
Ralph McGill was especially known for crafting carefully balanced editorials to depict the civil rights movement as a sometimes uncomfortable but necessary and even inevitable process—a process that would help build a South that would be, he said, too busy and too generous to hate. After an Atlanta bombing, McGill wrote in a 1959 Pulitzer prize winning editorial: “This . . . is a harvest of defiance of the courts and the encouragement of citizens to defy law on the part of many Southern politicians.” McGill also urged journalists to cover the rising demands for equality as a struggle for “civil rights” — a term we take for granted today, but which at the time struck journalists as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Still, it was far better than the alternative term and self-fulfilling prophecy: “race war.”
McGill’s protege, Gene Patterson, wrote a front page editorial after Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 in the Atlanta Journal. He called on white Americans to cease “the poisonous politics of hatred that turns sick minds to murder. Let the white man say, ‘No more of this ever,’ and put an end to it—if not for the Negro, for the sake of his own immortal soul.”
Between the 1950s and 1980s, ultra-conservative southern editors resisted any coverage civil rights rallies or demonstrations. For example, the 1963 “Children’s Crusade” in Birmingham, Alabama, was only marginally covered by the Birmingham News. (See APA 2013 interview with Klibanoff).
In some Southern newspapers, reporters would be told to attend a civil rights rally but “report only on the violence.” If a news reporter turned in a civil rights story, it would often be killed. When that happened, Southern reporters knew that they could circumvent their editors and send their stories to the New York Times, and a glance through the Times during the civil rights era shows a large number of stories without bylines. (This is one reason why the Times was a target in the NY Times v Sullivan libel case).
Racist editors had their own circumventing tactics. If a racist speaker such as William Shockley had a minor speaking engagement somewhere, racist editors would insist on Associated Press “complementary coverage.” When speeches on the same topic kept getting covered, it gave the impression that speakers like Shockley were far more important than they really were.
Newspapers and broadcast stations, as a business, often used discriminatory employment practices and excluded black reporters. Although northern newspapers covered the violent suppression of civil rights in the South, most ignored the quieter but more pervasive discrimination and racism of the north, according to Roger Witherspoon, a black journalist and editor who worked for newspapers during the civil rights era.
After widespread rioting in 1968, triggered in part by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., newspaper editors realized that they did not have the resources to cover the views of the black community. At the Detroit Free Press, for example, editors and reporters began reflecting that after all their reporting efforts, in 1968 and during the Detroit riots the year before, “still nobody knew who the rioters were and why they had rioted.” (Phillip E. Meyer, “A Newspaper’s Role Between the Riots,” Nieman Reports, 1969) One response, Meyer said, was to initiate polling, a tactic that became known as precision journalism. Another was to broaden the diversity of newsrooms and increase hiring — a long, slow process. (See Poynter’s 2016 article on newsroom diversity).
Southern TV and the WLBT case
Television and radio deliberately blocked civil rights coverage in the US, especially in the South. The inevitable confrontation led to the 1969 Supreme Court case, Office of Comm. of United Church of Christ v. FCC., in which civil rights groups challenged the FCC’s licensing practices in Mississippi — and won. It’s an interesting story:
In 1954, a group of civil rights activists began studying the pattern of racially biased news and public affairs programming. The Jackson, Miss. Chapter of the NAACP filed repeated complaints with the FCC about one particularly racist television station, WLBT in Jackson. Requests for a public hearing when the station license came up over the years were consistently turned down by the FCC.
When WLBT applied for what it thought would be a routine renewal of its broadcasting license in 1964, the church and a coalition of civil rights leaders formally challenged the license. Headed by Rev. Everett Parker, the group charged that the station blacked out nationally-produced civil rights news about nearby events; had promoted race-hating points of view without balance or regard for the Fairness Doctrine; and refused to feature African American speakers in any context, even on Sunday morning church service broadcasts.
The WLBT response was typical for stations whose licenses were challenged: It ginned up a list of all its public service activities from its log books, including service to the African American community. Usually complaints would stop at this point, and in effect be buried in red tape. But the coalition had an ace up its sleeve– it responded that the station’s log books were highly inaccurate, and presented evidence from a detailed content analysis, which had been kept secret up until that point. When the FCC approved the WLBT license, The church appealed the decision to a federal court, but the attorneys did not really expect to win both the case and the much larger battle over FCC’s regulatory procedure. Yet in 1966, the appeals court ruled that the FCC would conduct public hearings on the license and that the citizens would have standing before the FCC.
The court decision, written by Judge Warren Burger (who would later become the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court) eloquently restated the longstanding tradition of broadcast regulation:
“A broadcaster is not a public utility … but neither is it a purely private enterprise like a newspaper or an automobile agency. A broadcaster has much in common with a newspaper publisher, but he is not in the same category in terms of public obligations imposed by law. A broadcaster seeks and is granted the free and exclusive use of a limited and valuable part of the public domain; when he accepts that franchise it is burdened by enforceable public obligations. A newspaper can be operated at the whim or caprice of its owners; a broadcast station cannot. After nearly five decades of operation the broadcast industry does not seem to have grasped the simple fact that a broadcast license is a public trust subject to termination for breach of duty… Under our system, the interests of the public are dominant. The commercial needs of licensed broadcasters and advertisers must be integrated into those of the public. Hence, individual citizens and the communities they compose owe a duty to themselves and their peers to take an active interest in the scope and quality of the television service which stations and networks provide and which, undoubtedly, has a vast impact on their lives and the lives of their children… The 1964 renewal application (for WLBT) might well have been routinely granted except for the determined and sustained efforts of Appellants (the church coalition) at no small expense to themselves. Such beneficial contribution as these Appellants, or some of them, can make must not be left to the grace of the (Federal Communications) Commission.” (United Church of Christ v FCC, 1966). For more on the Civil Rights WLBT story, see this National Archives publication.
The role of the broadcast media, simply as a witness, made a difference. For example, film of the 1965 Selma march, showing police beating helpless non-violent demonstrators, had an enormous impact on US and world opinion. So, too, did entertainment TV, and stars like Nichelle Nichols in the 1960s series “Star Trek” had a positive impact.
In the end, the success of the nonviolent civil rights movement was closely connected with the media’s ability to witness events and share them. “If it hadn’t been for the media—the print media and the television—the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings, a choir without a song,” said civil rights leader John Lewis in 2005 (Roberts and Klibanoff, 2007). Eventually, even conservative editors like Kilpatrick admitted that they had been wrong about civil rights, and the South changed.
In witnessing the suffering of American civil rights demonstrators, the press came to be regarded as a vital element in the long and difficult process of national reconciliation.
By Bill Kovarik, extended from an original subchapter of Revolutions in Communication: Media History from Gutenberg to the Digital Age (Bloomsbury, 2015).
- James Allen, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Twin Palms, 2000).
- Fred Carroll, Race News: Black Journalists and the Fight for Racial Justice in the Twentieth Century. (University of Illinois, 2017).
- Kay Mills, Changing Channels: The Civil Rights Case that Transformed Television (University Press of Mississippi, 2004), reviewed in Nieman Reports 2004.
- Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. (Harper Bros., 1944).
- Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation (Knopf, 2006). (And a Nieman Reports book review).
- Mary Ellen Snodgrass, The Underground Railroad: An Encyclopedia of People, Places, and Operations (Routledge, 2008)=
- Patrick S. Washburn, The African American Newspaper: Voice of Freedom (Northwestern University Press, 2006).
- Roger Witherspoon, Martin Luther King, Jr. To the Mountaintop, (Doubleday, 1985).
Web resources for Civil Rights in the U.S. media
- History of the Black Press, In 1827 a group of prominent free African American citizens from states along the Eastern seaboard met in the New York City. It was the beginning of Freedom’s Journal, the first newspaper published by black Americans.
- Afro-American Press, by Irvine Garland Penn, 1891, Wiley & Co., Springfield, MA. This is the original summary of the ‘golden age’ of the African American press. Shortly after this book was published, black newspapers were burned out in Memphis, TN, Wilmington NC, Tulsa OK, and Detroit MI.
- African American Newspapers in Virginia, Library of Virginia archive
- Accessible Archives, African American newspapers, exemplary archive by a non-profit group
- Reporting Civil Rights – a book and web site
- Following the Color Line, Ray Stannard Baker, 1908 — A famous book about race relations in America in the early 20th century. Much of the difficult content has been played down, for example, that A. L. Manley, editor of the Wilmington NC Daily Record, a daily black newspaper burned down in the city’s race riots in 1898, was interviewed by Baker ten years later while working as a janitor in Philadelphia. Baker never discussed why Manley had to leave Wilmington.
- Civil Rights and the Press video, produced by the Newseum, Washington DC. This is the typically heroic version of the press, not inaccurate on its face, but certainly incomplete.
- Civil Rights media history and early figures in the movement
- John Russwurm and Freedom’s Journal profiled here. Also interesting is this biographical sketch by Jonathan Wilfred Wilson.
- Frederick Douglass (1818 – 1895) Editor of North Star, charismatic pro-Northern anti-slavery lecturer See Writings
- William Lloyd Garrisson (1805 – 1879) — Editor of The Liberator, led the radical end of the abolitionist spectrum. He denounced churches, political parties, even voting because the system supported slavery. He believed in the dissolution (break up) of the Union. See Writings
- Booker T. Washington (1865 – 1915) — Eductor from the “accomodationist” perspective, founder of Tuskegee Institute See Writings
- Marcus Garvey (1887 – 1940) — Afrocentric separatist. See Writings
- WEB DuBois (1868 – 1963) A harbinger of black nationalism and civil rights. See Writings
- John H. Johnstone, (1914-2008) publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines, winner of 1996 Presidential Medal of Freedom, Ambassador to Kenya and Ivory Coast.
- Henry Grady (1850 – 1889) — Atlanta Constitution editor , predecessor of McGill, advocated “New South” but downplayed racial turmoil in the 1870s and 80s.
- Ralph McGill (1898 – 1969) — Publisher of the Altanta Constitution won the Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for his editorials, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964 for courageous stand. See the documentary film: Dawns Early Light: Ralph McGill and the segregated South (Center for Contemporary Media, Inc., c1988) McGill wrote about meeting WEB DuBois in a 1965 Atlantic magazine article.
- Virginius Dabney (1901 – 1995) — Editor of the Richmond Times Dispatch in the 1950s who stood by while his newspaper advocated massive resistance to integration and equal rights.
- The Greensboro NC Sit Ins – 1960 and recent accounts of the first lunch counter sit-ins
- In 1959, a white American journalist, John Howard Griffin dyed his skin black and traveled for six weeks in the South. His stories about the day-to-day prejudice and hardships facing black people were turned into one of the great books of all time, Black Like Me.ho
- Son of the Rough South – Karl Fleming’s book about racial violence in Los Angeles.
- Dan Rather, Covering the Civil Rights Movement (1998 remarks)
- David R. Davies, The Press and Race (Mississippi and the 1950s civil rights movement)
- Let Us Praise Famous Writers: Reese Cleghorn by Dallas Lee.
- John Beecher – Audio recordings of Civil Rights leaders UT Austin.
- Hank Klibanoff, interview with Alabama Public Radio, 2013.
Civil rights worldwide
- Mahatma Gandhi, South Africa, India, 1869 – 1948; also see George Orwell’s Reflections on Gandhi, 1949.
- Ken Saro-Wiwa, Nigeria, 1948 – 1995
- Gerry Ortega, Philippines, 1963 – 2011
- Muhammed Syaifulla, Ardiansyah Matra’is, Indonesia, 2011
- In the land of slavery, Rolling Stone, Sept 8 2005, Osha Grey Davison, about slavery on Brazilian ranches.
- The moral obligation of India’s media, by Manu Joseph, July 4, 2013. “The Indian news media, especially the mainstream English-language publications whose consumers are largely the privileged and the fortunate, is not as interested as it should be in the nation’s bewildering social issues.”
- The role of the news media in the Apartheid Era in South Africa, Edward Bird and Zureida Garda, an excellent example of content analysis.
- Video: A force more powerful, a film tracing the history of non-violent movements, including the US Civil Rights movement and India’s satyagraha movement, along with Nelson Mandala’s South African movement and others. This may be the most important video a young person could see to understand the significance of the role of non-violent advocacy and media in positive social change.