Watching Jim Crow: The Struggles over Mississippi TV, 1955-1969

Watching Jim Crow: The Struggles over Mississippi TV, 1955-1969

by Steven D. Classen

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A critical examination of racial discrimination in television broadcasting during the civil rights era.See more details below


A critical examination of racial discrimination in television broadcasting during the civil rights era.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Watching Jim Crow is a highly original, sophisticated, and important piece of scholarship that will undoubtedly influence a variety of fields ranging from legal theory to cultural studies. One of the most striking things about this work is the compelling way it crosses barriers that have blinkered both scholarly and commonsense thinking about law, media, and culture.”—Thomas Streeter, author of Selling the Air: A Critique of the Policy of Commercial Broadcasting in the United States

“Watching Jim Crow is a powerful blend of memory, history, and careful analysis. For those who lived through the days and years chronicled here, especially those of us who lived in the places Steven D. Classen studies, the memories are painful, the history is precise, the analysis essential. Classen’s strong recognition that television is something people do is a challenge not only for scholars, but for policymakers and citizens who recognize how much remains to be done.”—Horace Newcomb, director of the George Foster Peabody Awards at the University of Georgia

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Duke University Press
Publication date:
Console-ing Passions
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2 MB

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Watching Jim Crow

The Struggles over Mississippi TV, 1955-1969
By Steven D. Classen

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3341-4

Chapter One

Broadcast Foundations

During the mid-fifties as the black freedom fight prodded some institutions, cities, and states toward progressive change, Mississippi, in the words of one activist, "stood still." In the wake of the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which made de jure school segregation illegal, the strident proponents of the segregationist status quo retrenched, white-on-black violence escalated, and efforts were redoubled to establish the state as a virtually unassailable bastion of white supremacy.

In response to the Brown decision, Mississippi's segregationist Citizens' Council quickly formed. The council rapidly grew in size as well as in political, social, and economic power to become one of white segregation's most important social formations. According to Charles Marsh, it "rallied around the notion that the South had again become a victim of ravenous federal expansion." The trope of "invasion" was regularly and passionately invoked, referring to incursions by the federal government, northerners, and others outside Mississippi, soliciting memories of a devastated southern culture and landscape scarred by the Civil War. By March 1955, 167 local Citizens' Councils were reported in Mississippi, loosely affiliated into a state organization. Within twoyears the group boasted a membership of eighty thousand and was publishing a newspaper, the Citizens' Council, and after 1961, a journal, the Citizen, which "offered a wide range of pro-segregationist opinion, from Paul Harvey reprints to quasi-scientific accounts of black inferiority to biblical defenses of white supremacy." Federal Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover, certainly no friend to civil rights activists, described local Citizens' Councils as new organizations that "could control the rising tension or become a medium through which tensions might manifest themselves." If by "controlling the rising tension" Hoover meant that the use of intimidation and coercion might silence some rights activism, he was prescient on both counts-the council worked to both "control" and inflame racial tensions.

In Jackson the council quickly grew in power and prominence, and enjoyed having some of its most vocal and powerful supporters in positions of media management. Frederick Sullens, editor of the Jackson Daily News, spoke for many angry Mississippians when, in response to the Brown decree, he said, "Mississippi will not obey the decision. If an effort is made to send Negroes to school with white children, there will be bloodshed. The stains of that bloodshed will be on the Supreme Court steps." As many Mississippians, including some whites, celebrated the Court's statement, viewing it as, according to Myrlie Evers, a "voice of change, of impending liberation, of challenge to the central fact of any Negro's life," white supremacists "developed a siege mentality so pervasive it encompassed virtually every citizen and institution." In Mississippi in the mid-to-late fifties a "racial orthodoxy" and "homegrown McCarthyism" flourished, consistently reinvigorated by media managers such as Sullens.

In response to systemic repression and escalating violence within the state, efforts at "winning the franchise" stalled. The number of registered black voters shrank. Several prominent black leaders were forced out of Mississippi after finding themselves repeatedly targeted by financial institutions and/or violent thugs. As Sam Bailey, one of Medgar Evers's closest friends and an early NAACP activist, explained to me early in this project: "All the segregated laws that you had, and anytime when a white man killed a Negro, he got more time for killing a rabbit. All seasons were for killing a Negro in Mississippi." Facing such terror, NAACP branches around the state began to disintegrate. The Reverend George Lee, Lamar Smith, and Emmett Till were killed, and Till's case drew widespread, even international, press attention. Still, none of these men's killers were convicted of their crimes. Reflecting on the murder of fourteen-year-old Till, Anne Moody wrote in her 1971 autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi, that "before Emmett Till's murder, I had known the fear of hunger, hell and the Devil. But now there was a new fear known to me-the fear of being killed just because I was black. This was the worst of my fears.... I didn't know what one had to do or not to do as a Negro not to be killed. Probably you just being a Negro period was enough, I thought."

Even in the midst of such fearful times the hard-fought gains and spirit of empowerment founded in the earlier years of rights struggle could not be quickly snuffed out. As historian Charles Payne has observed, a focus on the decimation of Mississippi's activist leadership during these years is misleading, "obscuring the fact that the return on racist violence was actually diminishing.... Blacks could still be intimidated but not as easily or as completely as had been the case."

Contrary to the impression left by many sixties civil rights histories, the Brown decision, cheered as it was by many African Americans, was often viewed as a less important catalyst for black activism than the 1955 murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till and its mediated treatments. Amzie Moore, perhaps the most highly regarded and enduring leader of rights activism in the Mississippi delta, dated the beginning of the modern movement in the state from the time of the Till trial, and many younger black activists identified themselves as the Till generation. Graphic pictures and descriptions of the Till murder and trial circulated in popular magazines like Jet and Look, as well as in large daily newspapers, prompting readers to further involvement in the struggle. Joyce Ladner, a student worker active with the Hattiesburg NAACP during the fifties, remembers looking at the Jet photos and that "we asked each other, 'How could they do that to him? He's only a boy.'" Press coverage of the tragedy and injustice cast Mississippi's segregation in a new light, and to a larger, more diverse audience. Journalist David Halberstam has called the Till murder "the first great media event of the civil rights movement."

Certainly as early as the Till trial, prominent white supremacists recognized such popular media coverage as problematic and, in turn, learned the value of informational and representational control. Key segregationist groups, such as the Citizens' Council, understood representations of Mississippi outside of Mississippi as vital to in-state operations. Thus, for example, when press accounts announced that CBSTV planned to air a Rod Serling-authored Playhouse 90 loosely fictionalizing the Till tragedy, the program's sponsor, U.S. Steel, was quickly targeted by nearly three thousand letters of segregationist complaint. According to the Pittsburgh Courier, Serling's script was subsequently "cut, revised, and twisted because of U.S. Steel's fear of economic pressure." Serling complained that his script had been chopped up in an environment that was "like a room full of butchers with a steer." Branches of the Citizens' Council responded enthusiastically, editorializing that "all objectionable TV shows could be eliminated if more people would write their protests to the sponsors of these shows ... [We] wish to thank ... members and friends who helped in protesting against this proposed anti-South, pro-Negro propaganda show."

Complementing such national and network-targeted efforts, a network of Mississippi radio stations, along with Jackson's two highest circulation dailies, formed a crucial part of what University of Mississippi professor James Silver termed the "vigilant guard over the racial, economic, political, and religious orthodoxy of the closed society." Bolstering this guard, two new Jackson television stations, WJTV and WLBT, came on air, playing a major part in the campaign for "massive white resistance."

Both stations were licensed and began service in 1953, following the 1948-1952 federal freeze on licensing new stations by the FCC. Because of the freeze, it was not until this relatively late date that the southern states of Mississippi, Arkansas, and South Carolina enjoyed operative television transmitters,=8 and Jackson residents, particularly business leaders, publicly expressed excitement regarding the potentials of local TV. As early as 1951, Wiley Harris, manager of Jackson's first radio stations, WJDX and WJDX-FM, met with P. K. Lutken Sr., president of Lamar Life Insurance Company, to consider a TV station for Jackson and to begin readying for the postfreeze licensing process. Having made such preparations, in the three years following the FCC freeze Mississipians rapidly built six television stations, the first of which were WJTV and WLBT in Jackson and WCOC in Meridian. On 22 October 1952 the Jackson Clarion-Ledger proclaimed that "WJTV will alter the patterns in Jackson life," and the station's first general manager, John Rossitor, anticipating the outlet's inaugural broadcast, told city leaders and educators that television would "bring the world into your home and accent friendliness among neighbors in this city and state." In January 1953, WJTV began broadcasting on UHF channel 25 (later moving to vhf channel 12) as the state's first television station. On 28 December of the same year, WLBT-TV began local service on channel three.

The CBS-affiliated WJTV was built and owned by newspaper money-namely, the Hederman family's Mississippi Publishers Association, owner of the Jackson Daily News, the Clarion-Ledger, and the Hattiesburg American. Thomas and Robert Hederman were powerful businessmen, not only by overseeing the state's wide-circulation dailies but also by serving as presidents of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce and as members of multiple corporate and educational boards. The owner of WLBT, which ran primarily NBC network fare, was Lamar Life Insurance and Lamar Life Broadcasting-two local corporate entities owned, quietly and at a distance, by the Murchison brothers of Dallas, Texas. Closer to home, the station included among its prominent and politically connected board members Robert Hearin, chairman of the First National Bank of Jackson. As television operations began at channel three, Fred L. Beard succeeded a retiring Wiley Harris as the general manager of WJDX radio and WLBT-TV.

The local managers of WLBT and WJTV were definitely competitors, and not always on the friendliest of terms as broadcast operations began. Early on in their contest for television dominance, the Hedermans were angrily accused of censoring programming information submitted to the Jackson dailies by the staff of WLBT. The easy access of WJTV to, and use of, the state's most prominent dailies was a point of contention. However, on the topic of the overriding concern of racial segregation and preservation of the southern "way of life," the two media corporations were steadfast allies. Dominant racial politics were even inscribed in the new station architectures. A Jackson Daily News article announcing the new WLBT studios reported "the new building is one of the finest television-radio installations in the South.... In the center of the building is a large studio for audience programs which can seat 100 persons on the ground floor and 150 more in a special viewing balcony enclosed with glass.... Another unique feature of the station is private dressing rooms and viewing platform for Negro performers so that they may visit the station and take a dignified part in its activities."

The Citizens' Council was thoroughly ensconced throughout local media management. The Hederman family continually highlighted and worked to naturalize council positions via the airwaves and print. At WLBT, General Manager Beard, a particularly outspoken council member, was often perceived as exceptionally militant in his beliefs and expressions, but held a position of leadership in the Jackson branch of the council. Some of Beard's braggadocio ultimately undermined his passionate cause.

This is not to say that there were not significant political and ideological differences among white Mississippians. Some, for example, distanced themselves from public firebrands such as Beard, but felt powerless to resist the racial and cultural orthodoxy of the time. Class position, political affiliations, and religious alliances separated whites in significant ways. Ku Klux Klan members and other radical segregationists were routinely considered less than respectable and lawful by the primarily middle-class supporters of the Citizens' Council. And there were also divides between conservative segregationists and self-identified "moderates" who believed that segregation was unjust or just economically unsound, but who were uncomfortable with a full embrace of integration. Thus, even while such differences existed their practical manifestation remained widespread white support for the segregationist status quo.

With widespread white support, and their handpicked men at the helm of local media, the Citizens' Council attempted both to guard powerful communication outlets and to reproduce "respectability" for its race-based politics. The council's strategy was to thwart integration by using the legitimated institutions of traditional party politics, law, and journalism. Citizens' Council director W. J. Simmons maintained regular communications with Fred Beard and other media managers. Years after leaving WLBT, Beard testified that council leaders would frequently call the station to complain about NBC or other network programming and ask for airtime to present opposing views. In response to such "respectable" racist activism, black activists such as Medgar Evers, Mississippi's NAACP field secretary, sometimes remarked that the council was "the Klan in suits."

In 1955, the state council organization started producing fifteen-minute films under the moniker of Citizens' Council Forum Films. The films were made in a talk-format series titled Citizens' Council Forum, and were distributed as a syndicated TV program throughout the United States. The program, which was obsessed with the combined "threats" of racial integration and communism, had direct ties to Mississippi state government and was allocated tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars during its first years of existence, including, of course, tax dollars from black taxpayers. By 1961 council director Simmons issued unconfirmed reports that the Forum, in radio or television format, was shown or heard on more than three hundred stations in forty-one states.

Forum, which used "Dixie" as its musical theme and nominated itself as "America's number-one public affairs program," usually featured interviews with politicians, segregationist leaders, and authors. Its televised version began with a graphic logo of American and Confederate flags criss-crossed and encircled by the words "state's rights, racial integrity." One of its standard ending segments announced: "We Americans are threatened with the loss of many of our hard won freedoms: The historic right of each sovereign state to govern itself without interference from political courts; the right of the individual to choose his associates without the prodding of federal bayonets; and the right of each citizen to make up his mind in the American way, free from propaganda." Given Mississippi's "closed society," this last statement was rich with irony. But the reproduction of such themes did reiterate a sense of federal invasion and national disrespect sincerely perceived.

The program worked to bring high-status defenders of Mississippi's "state's rights" before the camera and microphone. Clearly, the show's agenda was not only focused on the distribution of white supremacist information but also on the provision of credibility and respectability to such arguments. Forum used an aesthetically simple interview format in which producer Dick Morphew would appear with one or more noted conservative spokespersons. Although structured in a fashion similar to network news panels or public affairs offerings, the program was very narrow in topical scope and consistently offered discussions of integration and communism veiled within the language of "state's rights" concerns. The program also offered a frequent critical focus on northern or federal "threats," as well as the problem of northern "news management." The guest list included personalities such as scientist Carleton Putnam, author of a treatise on black inferiority; the U.S. Senate's anti-civil rights point men, Strom Thurmond and John Stennis; and Edward Hunter, chairman of the Anti-Communist Liaison, who made an appearance to discuss "news management by communist sympathizers."


Excerpted from Watching Jim Crow by Steven D. Classen Excerpted by permission.
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