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Television and the Civil Rights Movement
By ANIKO BODROGHKOZY
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS
Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Introduction Montgomery, Alabama, March 17, 1965. The black voting rights campaign led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was into its third month of marches and protest fifty miles east in the small city of Selma. On this day a group of black and white college students accompanied by priests and rabbis had decided to bring the movement's demands to the state capitol. Perhaps because there were so many white youths in the demonstration, television news reporters were out in force.
Suddenly, the peaceful march filled with "freedom songs" turned ugly. Out of nowhere a sheriff 's posse on horseback and brandishing canes, whips, clubs, and lariats charged into the group of marchers, trampling students under horses' hooves, leaving marchers beaten, dazed, and bloody. On the TV news that night, audiences saw a poignant shot of a young black man in bib overalls and a rabbi cradling a limp young black woman. The man in the bib overalls pleaded, "Hey, can we get a doctor!"
The next day, King declared before marchers protesting the students' beating—and to the assembled crush of news media: "We are here to say to the white men that we no longer will let them use clubs on us in the dark corners. We're going to make them do it in the glaring light of television."
Television magazine, a broadcast industry journal, excerpted the speech, alongside a column by the New York Times' James Reston extolling the significance of modern communication such as television to the Selma story and to politics more generally. According to Reston, "We are told by our philosophers and sociologists that our machines are enslaving and debasing us, but in this historical battle over voting rights, these very machines are proving to be powerful instruments for equality and justice."
The journal and its industry readers must have been pleased to find voices like this acknowledging the important role the medium played in the ongoing movement for black enfranchisement, desegregation, and equality. Here was King, the man television and other media organs had long since anointed as the movement spokesman, openly crediting television's role. It was a rare admission. King and other civil rights organizers seldom acknowledged their own self-conscious use of the mass media, especially the new, highly visual medium of television, with its penchant for dramatic imagery of opposing forces and narratives of melodramatic good-versus-evil clarity.
Civil Rights in the "Glaring Light of Television"
What did it mean for the civil rights movement when its activities, goals, and concerns were captured in the "glaring light of television"? What did it mean for television, still a novel form of news and entertainment during key years of this social change struggle? How would this new form of broadcast journalism handle a largely unprecedented grassroots movement for black social and political empowerment? For television news, the civil rights issue was its first major ongoing domestic story, second only to the Cold War. For the entertainment part of the industry (certainly the most important aspect of the business), how would prime time handle questions of race relations in its comedies and dramas when those questions could no longer be ignored? In a business all about delivering up the larger share of national audiences to advertisers and offending as few as possible, how would prime-time entertainment represent a rapidly shifting consensus on what "blackness" and "whiteness" meant and how they now fit together—or did not? How to provide representations that acknowledged what was happening on the streets and in the halls of Congress without offending or angering audiences whose sensibilities might not be keeping up with all the change blowin' in the wind?
And what about those audiences? Television during the civil rights era was the "massest" of mass media; by the early 1960s, 92 percent of the U.S. households had at least one television set. Network television by the 1960s may have been a national medium that constructed audiences as undifferentiated bulk units, but perhaps not surprisingly, those audiences tended to respond with localized reactions based on social factors such as geographical place as well as race, class, gender, and age. News and entertainment programming in the 1960s on race issues encouraged audiences to engage self-reflexively with "Northern" and "Southern" categories of regional identity, as well as categories of "blackness" and "whiteness." For many Americans, television became a key site on which they grappled with the changes fomented by the civil rights movement. Television brought the nonviolent campaigns of the Jim Crow South to viewers in all parts of the country. Television challenged viewers on ideals of color-blindness. Television brought black people, imaginatively at least, into white people's living rooms. The people in those living rooms, whether they lived in the urban North or the more rural South, had to come to terms with these television images. And what about television executives, producers, and creative personnel? As decision makers and gatekeepers, how did they determine what their industry could and could not do in responding to the revolution in race relations?
Equal Time explores the crucial role American network television played during the civil rights revolution in reconfiguring a new "common sense" about race relations. Conventional wisdom has it that network television, at least in its news divisions, functioned as an "instrument of the revolution" wielded by civil rights activists to broadcast their messages, demands, and actions to a sympathetic, nationwide audience. Civil rights histories often note the crucial presence of television cameras with the assumption that the resulting news reports carried unmediated discourses and imagery serving the political goals of the movement. An accompanying assumption is that TV viewers received and decoded the televised material in the appropriate way, leading the American public to embrace those movement goals. Memoirs by television news personnel tend to amplify this conventional wisdom for all the obvious self-serving and aggrandizing reasons. A more nuanced argument along these lines suggests that the networks and the movement made "common cause" because both shared a desire for a national consensus on race, if not for the same reasons (the networks needed a more ideologically unified audience to efficiently sell those audiences to advertisers). In entertainment television, the assumption is that viewers had the choice of either no images at all of blacks or minstrelsy throwbacks or, for a short period during a "golden age" in the 1960s, a moment of non-stereotyped, respectable, middle-class blacks showing the networks' provisional alliance with the goals of the integrationist civil rights movement.
Equal Time does not set out to demolish these assumptions and pieces of conventional wisdom but rather to complicate the picture of the relationship among the civil rights movement, television, audiences, and partisans on either side of the black empowerment struggle. By closely examining key news and entertainment texts of the era that grappled with questions of race relations, their production contexts, and, crucially, their reception among various audience segments, we can begin to chart with more precision how television producers, audiences, and activists mediated and made sense of what was going on while that "glaring light" shone so intensely. What we find is a more ambivalent place for television in the civil rights revolution. Network television provisionally embraced integrationist civil rights, as long as whiteness and white people (at least non-Southern and nonrural) were neither marginalized nor discomforted, and as long as white political elites in Washington remained supportive.
Weaving through the stories told both by news coverage and prime time entertainment, Equal Time explores the recurring theme that America's racial story was one of color-blind equality grounded on a vision of "black and white together." African Americans may have been the key drivers of the revolution in race politics, but network television insisted on situating whites, if not at the very center of the narrative, then right alongside worthy black "civil rights subjects." Herman Gray coined this term to argue that television in the United States, in its cultural work of reconstructing and remembering the civil rights era, produced as a "necessary, cultural trope," a very particular representation of blackness—middle class, hard working, successful, willing to sacrifice, individualized—as the worthy beneficiary of the civil rights movement. This "civil rights subject" contrasted favorably in televisual discourse with the poor, disenfranchised segments of the black community who did not fit with the civil rights narrative of achieved equality. Gray developed this concept to make sense of post-1970s black representations on television, particularly within the context of the Reagan-Bush era, such as The Cosby Show's Huxtable family. However, this trope was very much in evidence on network television in the civil rights years as well. In envisioning equality, news and entertainment television gave viewers a representation of blackness that at one point went by the label "white Negro"—a particularly pointed trope signifying "black and white together." Network television premised equality on a largely white definition whereby African Americans were ready for equal time to the extent that their representations conformed to whitened standards of middleclass and professional respectability.
So, news documentaries gave viewers a black Mississippian deemed illiterate and thus ineligible to vote but who happened to be a member of the National Science Foundation and a master's candidate at Cornell University. Viewers met James Meredith as he attempted to integrate the University of Mississippi, himself a Korean War veteran who emphatically was not an activist with the NAACP or any other "militant" organization. More generally, TV viewers typically saw civil rights marchers as mute but dignified and orderly figures in crisp business attire as they petitioned for integration and voting rights. In entertainment programming, viewers saw the same respectable and middle-class figures effortlessly integrating into white milieus, held back only by residual white prejudice: a well-spoken and educated black family attempting to integrate an all-white Long Island suburb, an elegant black nurse and her precocious young son living a largely color-blind lifestyle in Los Angeles. Network television tried to make it as easy as possible to embrace these "civil rights subjects."
But while the proliferation of these representations on network television served the interests of a particular race politics around civil rights and voting rights legislation at the federal level, and while activists attempted to influence how their media images were broadcast to the nation, their ability to bend the medium to their needs was constrained by the medium's preoccupation with satisfying its predominant white audiences, affiliated stations, and national advertisers. Television's embrace of the civil rights movement was provisional. Even the most "moderate" and camera-ready black activist groups and individuals sometimes lost the battle over televisual representation.
And in the struggle over entertainment imagery, the situation became particularly fraught once the networks, by the mid-1960s, began to experiment with "integrating" prime time. Black and white advocates for black advancement clashed heatedly over the politics of black representation. Phillip Brian Harper maps out the conflict as one between "mimetic" versus "simulacral" realism: should popular-culture imagery of African Americans reflect the social realities that large numbers of black people experienced, thus providing seemingly "relevant" and "authentic" representations that may be devoid of uplift, or should such imagery emphasize more aspirational images of exemplary "Super Negroes" whose accomplishments and successes could serve to uplift the race? In an era of rapid change and social turbulence, these questions generated heated intensity.
Civil rights activists and supporters were not the only viewers passionately engaged with the politics of media representation; Southern white segregationists were also keenly aware of the glaring light of television. In fact, these Southerners were notably media-savvy about how television functioned when the medium trained its lenses on them and their communities. And although network television would never show outright sympathy to the segregationist cause, in the medium's perpetual attempt to place whiteness at the center, news programming would go out of its way to search for Southern white "moderates" to celebrate.
Both civil rights activists and Southern segregationists understood the political power of television, and both were interested in using this new instrument to speak to national (read: non-Southern) audiences. The former were clearly more successful in negotiating with the medium, but network television was not interested in doing the bidding of even the most moderate of civil rights groups, nor was television bent on always demonizing and dismissing the segregationist position. If a civil rights group could be labeled "militant"—and we will see NBC's Chet Huntley so label the NAACP in 1959—then that group could be delegitimated as a political player as segregationists cheered and welcomed Huntley in as potentially one of their own.
Ultimately, television news wanted to tell a story of progress through moderation and the legislative and legal process, even though a celebration of moderation deprived the medium of its very oxygen: images of conflict, violent clashes, dramatic narratives of opposing passions. In entertainment programming, prime time typically celebrated racial moderation achieved.
The civil rights movement, more often than not, managed to negotiate the "moderate" frame that network television news wanted to use in figuring its "civil rights subjects." Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), in particular, understood the semiotics of the medium. However, some segregationists did as well. Sheriff Laurie Pritchett managed to defeat King and the SCLC's attempt to desegregate his town of Albany, Georgia, by presenting himself to TV cameras as a nonviolent white moderate—which, in fact, he was not. More generally, however, white segregationists had a tough time occupying the position of "moderate," and over and over again they railed at television's representation of civil rights demonstrators and leaders, King in particular, as "moderate." Southern segregationists knew that King and the movement were not "moderates," and they distrusted television profoundly for what they saw as fundamental misrepresentations of the racial situation in the South: for the medium's lack of "equal time" for their side, for being little more than electronic modern carpetbaggers publicizing and propagandizing a second Reconstruction on a beleaguered and misunderstood region.
Conventional wisdom has it that the modern civil rights movement would have been impossible without the presence of network television and its ability to bring the images of Southern racial brutality almost instantly and with its vivid pictures to a nationwide—and almost as important—a worldwide audience. While this is undoubtedly true, mixed into this truism at times is a mystification of television as a medium that tends to reify the technology as technology: television as medium created social change.
For instance, in her exploration of how the "culture of segregation" evolved, historian Grace Hale explores the challenge to segregation in the 1950s, particularly with the Emmett Till lynching case, by arguing that television was "less mediated" than other forms of mass communication, such as film, in making "visible [the] civil rights activists' sense of the difference between the South and the rest of the nation." She suggests that "television shaped a new collective out of many of its viewers." This technological determinism separates the medium from the larger field of forces that shapes it, the professionals who work within it, the diversified audiences who engage with it, and the texts that are produced and received within specific social contexts. Television was, indeed, a significant player in the civil rights era, but exalting it as a unique instrument of truth and light, as do some observers of the civil rights era, does not really help us understand how television functioned as a meaning-making apparatus.
Excerpted from Equal Time by ANIKO BODROGHKOZY Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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