Communication The Civil Rights Movement and the Media
by
Sage Goodwin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0231

Introduction

The media has played a fundamental role in American race relations since the days of slavery. The black press has been a source of protest against racial inequality and a disseminator of news and information for and about the black community from the time of its emergence in the early 19th century. However, for much of this history, black America remained largely invisible in mainstream journalism with only criminal activity ever reported on in the white press. It was not until the 1950s and 1960s that the media spotlight began to shine on America’s black citizens, illuminating the inequities they faced to a national and worldwide audience. The way in which the white press covered the struggle for black freedom defined its nature, chronology, and achievements in popular understanding and memory. For decades, this first draft of history influenced how scholars interpreted the civil rights movement. Despite a long history of individual and organized resistance to oppression, the movement is often conceived of beginning when the Montgomery Bus Boycott prompted reporters to make household names of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the male ministers who led the principal civil rights organizations in the following years. Yet in Montgomery and throughout the next decade, the community organizing of mostly women workers remained unseen. Imagery of police dogs and firehoses being used against peaceful demonstrators sparked outrage at the same time as ensuring that racism became associated with Southern bigotry rather than socioeconomic inequality. In recent years, new scholarship has sought to correct this distorted narrative and shed light on the media’s part in its creation. Scholars have also shown how an appreciation of the value of publicity in gaining support for the struggle for black freedom shaped the organizing of the civil rights movement. At the same time, coverage of the race issue determined the evolution of modern journalism, nowhere more so than in the development of its newest electronic iteration: television news. Furthermore, reporters played a large part in painting the Black Power era as a tragic coda to the civil rights story, where Martin Luther King’s integrationist dream was lost to militancy, madness, and mayhem. Twenty-first-century scholarship has highlighted the continuities and shared roots between the two movements, refuting the line in the sand drawn by the media between two mutually exclusive strategies of resistance. While Black Power activists decried their negative portrayals in the press, at the same time press coverage was fundamental to the creation of their image and the dissemination of their message. As such, any study of the struggle for black freedom and the media would be incomplete without considering how this relationship changed in the Black Power era. Moreover, entertainment is an important facet of any discussion of the media and civil rights. The black image in popular culture, one that was often portrayed by negative stereotypes with long histories, defined African Americans in the minds of many white Americans, intensifying racial disharmony. African Americans had little input toward or control over this imagery, as segregation within the entertainment industry barred them from writing or production roles. Representation in Hollywood and entertainment television, both onscreen and within the industry, formed a core plank of civil rights campaigning. This article’s review of scholarship will consider both entertainment and the news media in its discussion of civil rights and the media.

General Overviews

There are few general overviews that introduce the reader to African American representation in both news and entertainment media in its print as well as its electronic form. Sumner 1998 is a concise overview. In terms of the press, Fisher and Lowenstein 1967 provides a broad survey of the main issues related to coverage of the civil rights movement from the perspective of the journalists themselves, with a record of the 1965 conference in which newsmen from around the country met to discuss “The Racial Crisis and the News Media.” From the vantage point of the 21st century, Roberts and Klibanoff 2007 puts forward an epic and excellent narrative of the role of these and many other newsmen in the story of the black freedom struggle. This, the most comprehensive existing treatment of the topic, reveals how coverage of the unfolding race story simultaneously shaped the development of both the civil rights movement and the press. For a longer history of this development, Gonzalez and Torres 2011 is a survey of the American news media, beginning with the first colonial newspaper and extending into the modern Internet communications age. Their focus is less on the positive effects of civil rights coverage and more on the press’s implication in the perpetuation of prejudice in America. Morgan 2010 is also concerned with how press interpretations of black activism shaped popular perceptions and memory of the movement. This volume of essays discusses interpretations of mass media discourse surrounding the 1960s. The contributors in Ward 2001 widen the discussion of how a distorted popular dominant narrative was created by focusing on popular culture as well as the news media. A chronicle of the struggles surrounding African American representation can be found in Dates and Barlow 1990, and Dawkins 2015 puts forward a brief overview of when these battles were won within the journalism industry by chronicling the first black journalists to desegregate various newsrooms.

  • Dawkins, Wayne. 2015. Journalism, print and broadcast. In Encyclopedia of African American history, 1896 to the present: From the age of segregation to the twenty-first century. Edited by Paul Finkelman. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Provides a succinct overview of the history of the first African American journalists to desegregate the mainstream mass communications media from the late 19th century to the present.

  • Dates, Janette L., and William Barlow. 1990. Split image: African Americans in the mass media. Washington, DC: Howard Univ. Press.

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    This collection of essays delivers the first successful attempt to chronicle and compare struggles over African American representation across different 20th-century news and entertainment media industries. Employing the theoretical insights of Antonio Gramsci, Stuart Hall, and W. E. B. DuBois relating to race, stereotype, and hegemony they reveal how control over the black image was a continuous contest between institutionalized racism and the resistance of African Americans against cultural domination.

  • Fisher, Paul, and Ralph Lowenstein, eds. 1967. Race and the news media. New York: Praeger.

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    An edited collection that puts forward the speeches and summaries of discussion sessions that took place when seventy-five news reporters from across America gathered to reflect upon “The Racial Crisis and the News Media” in 1965. Providing perspectives from across the print and broadcast press, this is an invaluable source for assessing how journalists viewed the profession’s role in the civil rights struggle.

  • Gonzalez, Juan, and Joseph Torres. 2011. News for all the people: The epic story of race and the American media. New York: Verso.

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    This wide-ranging historical survey is an account of the origin and development of American news media and how it came to define the country’s national self-narrative. The central theme is how the press’s distorted depictions of race have been responsible for perpetuating and inflaming prejudiced views among the general population from the first colonial newspaper to the age of the Internet. With considerable discussion of the civil rights era.

  • Morgan, Edward P. 2010. Race, class, and gender: The boundaries of legitimate media discourse. In What really happened to the 1960s: How mass media culture failed American democracy. Wichita: Univ. Press of Kansas.

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    Set within the context of a wider critical interpretation of the mass media discourse surrounding the 1960s, this chapter provides a detailed exploration of media coverage of the civil rights movement. Extending into the black power era, it provides a study of how the press (including television but focusing on print journalism) interpreted black activism and how this has contributed to popular memory of these struggles.

  • Roberts, Gene, and Hank Klibanoff. 2007. The race beat: The press, The civil rights struggle and the awakening of a nation. New York: Vintage.

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    Former journalists Roberts and Klibanoff provide the field’s most comprehensive treatment of the role of the press in the civil rights movement. Based on exhaustive primary and secondary research, this Pulitzer Prize–winning narrative gives a play-by-play account of how civil rights coverage evolved as reporters on the ground discovered a beat that would change the industry, and civil rights organizers learned to use the press to their advantage.

  • Sumner, David E. 1998. Mass media and the civil rights movement. In History of the mass media in the United States: An encyclopedia. Edited by Margaret Blanchard, 373–376. London: Fitzroy Dearborn.

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    A brief introduction to how the communications media affected the civil rights movement.

  • Ward, Brian. 2001. Media, culture, and the modern African American freedom struggle. Gainesville: Univ. Press of Florida.

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    This interdisciplinary collection of essays ranges in focus from the press to cinema and entertainment television. Whether directly or indirectly, the article addresses the theme of how a bowdlerized, King-centered “master narrative” of the freedom struggle was constructed and has contributed to the distortion of the movement in popular memory. Due to their reliance on media reports, the movement is depicted in such a way in much of the subsequent histories and literature.

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