How Television Helped Propel the Civil Rights Movement


The African-American Civil Rights Movement was a social movement that occurred in the United States between the years of 1955 to 1968. The Civil Rights Movement sought to fight for the rights of African-Americans and to change race relations in the United States of America. Television was the most effective medium that helped the Civil Rights Movement progress quickly because it provided live footage of the violence, racism, and race relations between whites and blacks in the South. For the first time the rest of the country could see the injustice occurring in the South. The medium of television inspired and mobilized Americans to participate in the Civil Rights Movement because, for the first time, Americans could witness the injustices on the news.

According to Aniko Bodroghkozy, the author of Equal Time: Television and the Civil Rights Movement, middle-class Americans began buying television sets in huge numbers during the 1950’s. Prior to the 1950’s those who did not watch television or listen to the radio received much of their news from reading. If one did not read during this time period they would be uninformed about domestic affairs. About a decade after televisions became common amongst all, the Black Revolution became televised.

By no means was television a cheering section for the Civil Rights Movement, but it provided ample coverage and exposure of influential Civil Rights events. Aniko Bodroghkozy’s, notes that the most important sit-ins, freedom rides, and pray-ins, the integration of University of Mississippi, and the March on Washington occurred between 1960 and 1964. Michael Curtin, a television historian, noticed the fact that during the early 1960’s the news networks produced and aired the most documentaries during prime time. Even though these non-violent protests produced dramatic reactions fit for television, this is not a historical coincidence. The medium of television was used to bring the immoral ways of the South into every single home during prime time. Prime time is when the largest television audience is available. These documentaries full of violent images of immoral crimes informed the American audience all while simulating their need to support. This is significant, because the largest audience possible was able to see the images of the Civil Rights Movements, which depicted actions of undeniable racism.

The early sixties were a key time period for the Civil Rights Movement. In order to play on the emotions of the people television rebranded the Civil Rights Movement. Instead of the movement being a racial issue it became a moral issue. In December of 1955 the world was introduced to a man who is one of the most recognized figures in history, Martin Luther King Jr. Once the Montgomery Bus Boycott was one hundred percent successful, Martin Luther King was elected by a group of ministers to address the black community at a local church. According to Dr. King once he began speaking the television cameras began shooting from all sides. Those who saw Dr. King on television experienced a multi-sensory visual of how blacks felt about the injustices that they had been enduring in the South. Not only did television watchers around the country hear Martin Luther King articulately, sternly, and sincerely preach how blacks felt they heard the cries of many who deeply supported his message. People were able to see and hear an intelligent black man tell them how segregation is morally wrong. The American public was forced to acknowledge its hypocrisies and own the wrong doings of the South.

After initially being broadcasted to the world, that cameras followed Martin Luther King Junior everywhere. Three days after his television debut the television cameras captured Dr. King meet with the mayor, his council, and the bus officials. Here the country saw how the blacks were suffering when a white lawyer from the mayor’s council announced, “If we granted the Negroes these demands they would go about boasting of a victory that they had won over white people, and this we will not stand for.” Television was also on the scene when Martin Luther King’s house was bombed and when Dr. King got arrested at a non-violent protest. Television really latched on to the events surrounding Dr. King, because they were great for emotionally impacting the audience. News stations took advantage of the fact that Martin Luther King’s misfortunes made for great news stories all while characterizing him as the pioneer of the non-violent Civil Rights Movement.

In 1957 a CBS reporter Robert Schakne was sent to Arkansas to cover the desegregation of Little Rock Nine. When he missed the opportunity to capture the wrath of the raging crowd he ordered them to yell again so that he was able to capture their hatred on tape. The audience got a visual of an angry white mob yelling racist slurs at 15-year-old African-American Elizabeth Eckford as she tried to enter her new school, Central High. Viewers around the country saw how gracelessly the South acted out against their federal mandated order to desegregate their schools. The Governor of Arkansas went on television the day before Central High was supposed to admit their nine black students and threatened to have National Guardsmen maintain order. He declared that he would have National Guardsmen because of “evidence of disorder and threats of violence.” His final words to those all over the country were, “Blood will run in the streets if Negro people should attempt to enter Central High School.” The very next day, cameramen representing every news station found themselves broadcasting to the country the 250 National Guardsmen surrounding Central High.

Once again the country was exposed to the moral injustice that were taking place in the South, but now towards children. The racism that took place in the South was no longer strictly a “Southern issue.” When the television covered these historic stories accompanied with horrific images it mobilized whites and black to demand change. Television kept people morally outraged as they learned about the relationships between whites and blacks in the South.

Dwight Eisenhower was the first President to use television to support the Civil Rights Movement. President Eisenhower was quoted saying, “(I cannot) imagine any set of circumstances that would ever induce me to send federal troops…to enforce the orders of a federal court, because I believe the common sense of Americans will never require it.” President Eisenhower had an incredible amount of undeserved faith in the people of the South. The power of television forced President Eisenhower to take the exact action that he said would never be required.

Television forced black people around the country to acknowledge how white people felt about them. Even though black people were discovering the unconscious feelings they had toward their white oppressors, for the first time they knew they had the ability to change things. With the majority of the country on their side due to the medium of television black people knew that they could combat the injustices of the white man.

Sasha Torres, a historian, says, “Telejournalism, obviously, needed vivid pictures and clear cut stories; less obviously, it also sought political and cultural gravitas.”  In 1985 research done by Robert T. Bower, author of The Changing Television Audience in America, found that television news is the more informative than newspapers, radios, and magazines. It is common knowledge that American news stations are able to dictate what audiences think are important issues in America. If a news story focuses on how the injustices inflicted on African-Americans in the South are wrong, people will adopt the views of the news station. Framing is an essential tactic to understanding how an issue is presented and discussed in the media. Journalist and news stations are able to define how important and issue becomes and how an issue is defined. Framing forces American’s to focus on issue and can possibly control the public opinions towards an issue. Since this is true news stations will frame the story of the oppressed Southern African-American so that the audience will react.

News stations took the approach of highlighting sincere, well-educated, and well-spoken African-American’s who just wanted their rights. One man highlighted was David Robertson. He was a math teacher, college graduate, master’s student at Cornell University, member of the National Science Foundation, yet he was able to vote in the state of Mississippi. This method allowed the news stations to focus on individual black people and have America seriously ponder why these upstanding and educated citizen’s weren’t able to vote in their own country.

News stations did make an effort to show the audience both sides of the Civil Rights debate. Ed Murrow, a former CBS news reporter, had a racist white man named John Kasper feature in an episode titled “Clinton and the Law.” Kasper was broadcasted ranting about how giving rights to black people would be a threat to civilization. He called President Eisenhower a “hollow pumpkin” and suggested that he be impeached. So while this racist man was given a platform to speak to America about his absurd ideas he made people sympathize with the struggle of the black man even more.

Television helped the Civil Rights Movement accomplish many of its goals. Jim Crow laws were dead, every place had to legally treat whites and black alike, schools were integrated, laws were put in place to protect the black man socially and politically, and most importantly the black community was legally recognized as equal to the white community. The medium of Television made every single American questions their moral character during the Civil Rights Movement. With out the emotional impact caused by the combination of the images and sound, the television would have not been able to make an impression on the American citizen’s.  The Civil Rights Movement simple would have not been as successful if it weren’t for the television.

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2 thoughts on “How Television Helped Propel the Civil Rights Movement

  1. I worked with Robert Schakne at CBS News in the early 80’s, and talked with him about the Civil Rights Movement and the profound impact it had on him, not only as a reporter, but as a human being. He never told me the story you recount in your Blog.

    • I actually wrote this research paper last semester for my Mass Media: History & Development class. I pulled the excerpt about Robert Schakne from Aniko Bodroghkozy’s book entitled Equal Time: Television and the Civil Rights Movement. She is an associate professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. Here is the link to her book http://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/83agb8cf9780252036682.html . If you click on the link, click on the Google Preview button next to the book cover, and then search Robert Schakne name in the search box on the book it will take you to pages 43 and 44 which explain the story that I mentioned in my paper. I also emailed you screen shots of the pages of her book.

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