Television News and the Civil Rights Struggle: The Views in Virginia and Mississippi

In the American South, local television news coverage had immediate and significant effects on knowledge and perception in civil rights movement.

By Dr. William G. Thomas III / 11.03.2004
John and Catherine Angle Professor in the Humanities
University of Nebraska-Lincoln


It is often suggested that national television news coverage of the civil rights movement helped transform the United States by showing Americans the violence of segregation and the dignity of the African American quest for equal rights. In the American South, local television news coverage had immediate and significant effects. This essay argues that local television news broadcasts in Virginia in the fifties began to address the segregation issue in ways substantially more balanced and desegregated than the print media, while a major television station in Jackson, Mississippi, worked hard to defend segregation and deny access to opposing voices, both local and national.


Dedicated segregationists and committed civil rights proponents both recognized the potential of television news to upset the inertia of segregated society. From the early stages of the technology, television attracted the attention of politicians who saw what airtime might mean for their campaigns. When, for example, President Harry S. Truman issued the executive order to desegregate the armed services in 1948, the Richmond News Leader accused him of doing so solely to get the African American vote. The white-owned newspaper also suggested that Truman’s Democratic opponent, Henry Wallace, would probably try to trump him with a television appearance: “Mr. Wallace would have emulated old John Brown and would have kissed a Negro baby—if he could have done it before a television lens.” In the 1950s, politicians seemed to recognize the power of television, and they scrambled to understand the medium and how it worked in the context of political and social change after World War II. Southern governors tried to use television news to reach their constituents and to reinforce segregation in southern spaces and information. Governors George Wallace of Alabama, Ross Barnett of Georgia, Orval Faubus of Arkansas, and J. Lindsay Almond of Virginia all used television news interviews and statements to express their segregationist views.[1]

White Citizens Council recruitment flyer for Dallas County, Alabama, The Selma Times Journal, June 4, 1963. Image courtesy of Flickr user elycefeliz. Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Historians, commentators, and participants have suggested connections between the media, especially television news, and the course of the civil rights movement. Generally those who consider television news as a powerful force for change refer to the nationally broadcast images of police dogs and fire hoses turned on the demonstrators in Birmingham. They see this moment and other similar ones that followed, such as the violence at the Pettus Bridge in Selma, as key turning points when Americans witnessed violence, repression, and hatred directed at African Americans and began to change their minds about the U. S. South and segregation.

Recent histories have stressed a crucial difference between national and local television news and suggested that local television in the South helped perpetuate segregation. In some cases, especially in Mississippi, local television managers worked hand-in-glove with segregationist organizations such as the White Citizen’s Council. When southern stations failed to broadcast national documentaries on racial issues, Bill Monroe of NBC commented that:

with few exceptions Southern newspapers and Southern radio and TV stations carried very little news about Negroes and paid almost no attention to news involving racial issues . . . At twilight Negro families watched network news originating from Washington and New York—in most cases the only daily news source they trusted.[2]

We know very little about what was aired on the local television news across the South and have little notion of how these broadcasts were received and what differences they made. Yet, we do know that some of the reporters, commentators, and public officials understood the medium as especially powerful and useful in shaping public opinion. Television was so new in the 1950s that it developed just as the civil rights movement was getting underway. In a recent book of essays on the media and the civil rights movement, Julian Bond speculated that “until historians unravel the complex links between the southern freedom struggle and the mass media, their understanding of how the Movement functioned, why it succeeded, and when and where it failed, will be incomplete.”[3]

Television’s rise to prominence in American culture was startlingly fast, and all participants in the civil rights struggle understood that it had dramatic power. As politicians, demonstrators, news reporters, litigators, and others tried to shape and capture public opinion, they all worked to use the new medium to their advantage.

Logo for the US Federal Communications Commission. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Television became a subject of scrutiny within the politics of the movement. By 1963, one media observer argued that it was already too late for the South to reverse the influence of television and television news—segregation could not be extended to the new medium because the medium itself was not conducive to it. But television’s capacity to breakdown segregation was by no means a fait accompli; it could easily have worked to perpetuate and defend segregation. White businessmen owned and controlled the television stations across the South. They were often state and local power brokers, who owned life insurance companies, newspaper companies, and banks. The advertising revenue they hoped to bring in came largely from automobile dealers and local white businesses. Leading political figures in the South used television to try to pump life into segregation and maintain the status quo. That it did not was the result of a convergence of technological, governmental, social, and political forces at work as the medium developed. The FCC’s licensing process, the visual and dramatic effect of film, the linear narrative demands of television news, and the national programming affiliations of the local stations combined to make television a potentially powerful instrument for change.[4]

Across the US South in the mid-1950s, local television news had a wide effect on the shape of the struggle over civil rights, as both segregationists and civil rights advocates tried to use the new medium to their advantage. Local television news had the potential to eclipse the print media in terms of audience and to alter the historically segregated sources of information. Television news reporters and producers in Virginia presented multiple perspectives of the events in the 1950s and 1960s in a way that eluded the long tradition of print media and opened these local stories and personalities, black and white, to communities across the South. In Roanoke, Virginia WDBJ ran a weekly program in 1955 titled “Virginia’s Dilemma” as the state’s policy of “massive resistance” was taking shape. The station described the program as:

a weekly series designed to help Virginians understand the proposals of the Gray Commission on Public Education. The programs explore the effect of the Commission’s anti-integration recommendations through discussions between newsmen and persons who either support or oppose the measure.[5]

This program with its wide ranging interviews and opinions told Virginians about themselves. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the forces of segregation and desegregation battled to get their messages across in the new medium. Television in Virginia gave space for African American news, arguments, and opinions, as well as for moderate white opinions. In Virginia the media landscape differed significantly from Mississippi’s, where there was a virtual blackout on racial issues.

This film shows the drama and news coverage of this event as students, news reporters, police, and bystanders converged at the school. Over time and through television civil rights events would be viewed or interpreted and at the same time narratives of them would be constructed about the civil rights struggle by all participants and viewers. Local television news, then, not only reported events but also helped craft visual narratives for viewers.

This essay undertakes a close analysis of the news footage of two Virginia television stations and the ways both print and television media presented several of the major events of the Civil Rights Era.

Virginia boasted the first television station in the South, WTVR in Richmond. The Richmond station began broadcasting in 1949 and soon afterward another station, WTAR, was licensed in Norfolk. Within five years a handful of stations were up and running in Virginia after the FCC’s self-imposed moratorium on new channels for nearly three years. In April 1952 the FCC opened up channels nationwide and allotted channels for thirty-nine stations in Virginia, nine of which would be in the VFH category reserved for commercial entities.[6]

The programming and news footage of these stations as a whole might appear little different from the news as reported in newspapers. The same leading white politicians appeared regularly in both. Many stations excluded African American churches from their religious programming, African American schools from their scholastic programming, and African American farmers, business people, and professionals. It took stations years to open up to African American hiring and African American actors and anchors. But the television coverage of events in Virginia was decidedly different from the print media and offered viewers more perspectives. Whether it changed minds may never be known, but there is evidence television inspired some to act forcefully in the streets and others to try desperately to control the media.

Print Media and Segregation

The Connection, “Civil Rights and a Journalistic Wrong,” July 12, 2004. Visit this site of Boston’s National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate,, to listen to a 2004 show by host Dick Gordon which contains an apology from a southern newspaper, Kentucky’s Lexington Herald Leader, for its lack of coverage of the civil rights struggle during the 1960s.

In the 1950s in Virginia, a range of newspaper and periodicals dotted the media landscape. Nearly 250 news publications were printed in Virginia in 1950. Some were religious newspapers, such as the Presbyterian Outlook or the Virginia Churchman, while others were major city dailies, such as the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot or the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Two major African American weekly newspapers were published in Virginia—the Richmond Afro-American and the Norfolk Journal and Guide. In Roanoke and Charlottesville a small African American newspaper, the Tribune, rolled off the printing press each week as well. In 1950 the Times-Dispatch’s daily circulation was approximately 120,000 and the Richmond News Leader reached 96,000 households. Smaller papers, such as the Farmville Herald, had circulation of less than 5,000 homes. The leading African American papers, the Journal and Guide and the Afro-American, published 63,000 and 11,000 weekly newspapers respectively.

In the county seats and small towns, such as Farmville, Abingdon, Appomattox, Urbana, Danville, and Winchester, two and sometimes three newspapers competed. These papers identified themselves as either “Independent,” “Independent Democratic, ” or “Democratic” in their annual reports to the trade association. Most of the small town papers and the large city papers adopted a conservative editorial position, many offering outright support for the state’s Democratic political organization. US Senator Harry F. Byrd, for example, was the leader of Virginia’s Democratic organization, came up in business as a newspaper publisher, and owned and operated the Winchester Star and several other papers. Byrd’s son, Harry Byrd, Jr., continued in the family newspaper business and won election to the state senate after World War II.

A significant number of white papers stood independent from the Byrd Democrats. These papers, such as the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, the Roanoke World News and the Danville Commercial Appeal, provided alternative voices within the white news reporting and editorial circles in the state. Editor Louis Jaffe, and his successor, Lenoir Chambers, at the Norfolk Virginian Pilot maintained a consistently moderate voice for progressive change. The Virginian-Pilot opposed massive resistance from the start. The paper’s owners, Norfolk Newspapers, Inc., headed by Henry S. Lewis, also controlled WTAR television. In nearly every major city in Virginia, the print media did not self-identify as “Democratic” and in several places it was entirely independent. Byrd and his allies railed at the Washington Post as an engine of liberal ideas that polluted Virginia with its reach into Northern Virginia. In the middle of the hard-fought 1957 gubernatorial campaign, Senator Byrd attacked the Post as “the most rabid, and unreasoning integrationist paper that I know of.” He pounded on the table and shook his fist at the Post, but Byrd could do little about it. In some respects, his control over the major media channels in the heart of Virginia was just as distant and ineffective.[7]

Over time the circulation rates and affiliations of major papers in the state shifted and became more independent. By 1960 the number of non-partisan, independent, and independent-democratic papers significantly outnumbered those affiliated with the Democrats.

Table 1: Virginia Newspapers and Periodicals Affiliation, 1960. Data from N. W. Ayer and Sons Directory of Newspapers and Periodicals, 1960. Philadelphia: N. W. Ayer, 1930-1969.

Big cities, especially Richmond, Roanoke, and Norfolk, witnessed the largest jumps in circulation during the fifties while the smaller Virginia southside and rural areas experienced nearly flat circulation rates over time. In each of these places, such as Danville, Winchester, and Petersburg, television stations that were unaffiliated with the newspapers began broadcasting in these years.

Table 2: Virginia’s Major Cities Newspaper Circulation Rates, 1950-1960. Data from N. W. Ayer and Sons Directory of Newspapers and Periodicals, 1960. Philadelphia: N. W. Ayer, 1930-1969.

The Byrd Organization held the reins of political power in Virginia and dominated the state’s Democratic Party from the 1920s until its splintering in the 1960s. Republican opposition to the Byrd Democrats was so anemic in these years that it was barely able to field candidates until the 1950s. Whatever opposition to the machine’s conservative leadership there was came from maverick Democrats, most of them running as “anti-organization” candidates on platforms that tended to support the national Democratic Party. Senator Byrd and his political allies articulated a stringent set of policies, designed to keep state expenditures to a minimum, big businesses steadily growing, “racial disorder” in check, and “outside influences,” such as labor unions, at a distance. The organization’s success was more than a matter of electoral campaigning—it depended on structural advantages that kept it in power year after year. First, Byrd’s Democrats kept careful control over the state’s appointive offices, especially circuit court judges and clerks of the court. They controlled nearly every local courthouse and the electoral officers at the county level. Second, the poll tax and disenfranchisement provisions of the state’s Constitution were instrumental in keeping voter participation at an abysmally low level. Byrd Democrats could count on the fact that they only needed to persuade the eight to ten percent of the total eligible voters who actually voted.[8]

The Byrd organization’s source of power in the local courts was only partially mirrored in the local press and even further removed from television. As a result resistance to integration took the shape it did in Virginia because the legislature and local courts were the instruments of power that Byrd and conservative Democrats had the tightest control over. They concentrated on legal tactics, state court injunctions, and executive powers to slow down desegregation.

In fact, television remained a medium over which Byrd and his allies had little direct control. The conservative Richmond newspapers’ ownership, led by D. Tennant Bryan, was unable to gain a television station in 1955. Bryan’s company owned the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Richmond News Leader, as well as two radio stations in Richmond. When the Richmond Television Corporation, headed by Morton G. Thalhimer, a local realtor and theater operator, and Larus & Brothers, an old tobacco concern, teamed up to secure the Richmond area television license, the FCC approved the bid and rejected a competing one from Bryan’s newspaper company. Larus Brothers’ founder, William T. Reed, was an old political ally of Harry Byrd who funded Byrd’s campaigns and chaired his presidential campaign committee at one time. Reed, however, died in 1935, and his son, William T. Reed, Jr., managed Larus & Brothers with an eye strictly toward financial profit and rarely participated in political circles. Thalhimer eschewed political connections as well and concentrated on business operations. The FCC found that both groups “stand in approximate parity” in their control of the media in Richmond, but that Richmond Television Corporation was simply superior in every aspect of its operational affairs.[9]

The FCC examiner, furthermore, criticized the Richmond Newspaper’s bid for its lack of creativity and its weak commitment to independent news gathering. “It is a curious thing,” he pointed out, “that a company which throughout its history has published newspapers should have attached such seemingly little importance to the gathering and presentation of news by its own radio station.” The radio stations had no news staff and merely cribbed stories from the wires and the newspapers. The FCC found “qualitative differences” favoring Thalhimer’s Richmond Television in the areas of news and educational programming. It cited that group’s independent news team and applauded its operation as “a vigorous news gathering and editing unit.”[10]

Other parts of Virginia also experienced television ownership dedicated to independent news gathering and far removed from the Byrd organization’s direct influence. The newspaper groups in other areas of the state closest to Byrd, including Byrd’s own newspaper company, were unable to gain control of a television license. In Roanoke, the Fishburn family controlled the Roanoke World News and the CBS affiliate, WDBJ, and the Shenandoah Life Insurance Company principals owned WSLS, the NBC affiliate. Neither group was closely allied with the Byrd organization. In Newport, the Chisman family owned and managed WVEC. While Thomas Chisman was allied with various Democratic Party leaders, including Sidney Kellam, a state party chairman, and Thomas Downing, a Congressman, his views were independent-minded and placed a premium on regional economic growth as the primary concern. Chisman, Fishburn, and other television presidents in Virginia had in common their emphasis on progressive growth. They were conservatives and moderate Democrats who wanted to craft an appealing, stable, future-oriented set of policies for their regions. Few of these businessmen publicly supported massive resistance and its school closings because they feared the damage such policies would do to their region’s future growth.

If Byrd’s influence was blunted in the television media and limited in the white newspapers, it was directly challenged weekly by two major African American newspapers. A mix of editorials and hard-hitting news writing, the African American papers offered the only African American perspective on current events in the print media. Not all African American newspaper editors agreed on the best means to end discrimination and injustice. They disagreed, for example, on whether to support the NAACP’s campaign to move beyond equalization suits to attack segregation per se in the early 1950s, on the sit-in protests at department store lunch counters in 1960, and on the use of young students in street demonstrations and marches in the summer of 1963. All of the African American newspapers featured stories on civil rights and promoted African American newsmakers and events, some promoting protest, others a more managed approach to ending discrimination.

Front page of the Baltimore Afro-American, February 10, 1951. Scan courtesy of Flickr user Washington Area Spark. Creative Commons license CC BY-NC 2.0.

The Richmond Afro-American campaigned against segregation, discrimination, restrictions on African American voting, and injustice. Its first editor, John L. Mitchell, led a massive boycott of the Richmond streetcar company in 1904 to protest against segregated seating laws, and in 1921 he ran for governor as a “Lily-black Republican” to protest the lily-white movement in the Republican Party. In the 1950s the Afro was part of the Baltimore Afro-American papers, and the editor, Rufus Wells, carried on in Mitchell’s tradition. The Norfolk Journal and Guide, on the other hand, offered a more accommodation-oriented approach to race relations under segregation. Editor P. B. Young used the paper to encourage self-help, education, and improvement in the African American community, as well as to voice African American demands within the limits of segregation. He pressured for new schools, more funding, better parks, and equal facilities. By the 1920s the Journal and Guide was the largest African American weekly in Virginia, with national, local, and special Portsmouth editions. By the 1940s the paper ranked fourth in circulation among the African American papers in the country, behind the Pittsburgh Courier, Chicago Defender, and Baltimore Afro-American. Both Young and his counterpart at the Afro American had grown tired of the slow pace of change as early as the late 1930s and after World War II African American editors in Virginia voiced more strident protests against segregation and discrimination.

African American newspapers explicitly and consistently connected events of significance to black Americans in the civil rights struggle into the wider context of world affairs, particularly the Cold War. During the Korean War, in particular, African American newspapers covered the desegregating US forces and featured the heroic performances of African American troops in the field. They also explicitly linked the United States’ battle against totalitarianism to US world leadership in promoting freedom and democracy. At the same time they pointed to the glaring hypocrisy of segregation and discrimination at home. “Americans are aware that the Russian propaganda machine has tried to stir greater tension between the dark peoples of Asia and the white race,” one African American newspaper explained, “It was probably no accident that Negro troops were present in the first victory of the Korean struggle. This pulls a tooth from Russian propaganda.” Charlottesville Tribune editor, Thomas J. Sellers warned his readers, however, that the “war is in part a struggle of oppressed people to be free.” He considered the Korean War a fight against aggression and disdained any notion that Russian propaganda might convince African Americans that the “war in Korea is a white man’s war against a colored people.” Instead, he used the patriotism and success of the desegregated military to criticize the forces of segregation in the South. When Georgia Governor Herman Talmadge promised the “worst bloodshed since the Civil War” if schools were integrated, Sellers quipped, “The white and yellow and black and brown Americans who recently gave their lives for the cause of freedom might have appreciated the presence of these blood thirsty citizens of Georgia in the front line trenches of Korea.”[11]

Virginia Interposition Resolution, 1956 (pdf). Doctrine of Interposition, Its History and Application, Senate Joint Resolution No. 3, Virginia Senate, 1956. Virginia’s Interposition Resolution became a model for other southern legislatures. For all of its constitutional rhetoric, the report’s appendices were based entirely on white supremacy. They included tables on African American rates of illegitimate births and crime and an explanation that while an “individual Negro” might be intelligent and honest the “inferior” black race could not be mixed with the “superior” white race.

The connections that segregationists drew between civil rights demonstrators and communist agitators appear ridiculously off the mark in retrospect; however, white politicians used highly charged rhetoric in the print media that resonated with their supporters. In the midst of the massive resistance campaign, the Virginia legislature drew up and passed its Interposition Resolution in 1956, and its language resurrected the states’ rights ideas of Jefferson’s and Madison’s Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions. However, the Interposition Resolution relied for its strongest rhetorical punch on its analysis of the state of the country within the Cold War context. It pointed to the growing power of the federal authority “which contributes to the decline of the family as a unit of society, and the substitution of the state for the role once served by the family, the local community, and the governments of the States.” The crisis could be located squarely in the home, and every family’s liberty was at stake. “To the extent that the Federal government assumes obligations of the States and of the people,” the Virginia legislative report on interposition stated, “to that extent have we exchanged a responsible republican form of government, based upon old ideals of individual responsibility, for the phantom benefits of a collectivist society.”[12]

When Virginia’s Governor, J. Lindsay Almond, took office in January 1958, he made clear to the public the dangers he saw. In the second paragraph of his inaugural address, Almond described “global dangers that confront us” and asked Virginians to bring “to the defense of the Nation, without reservation, every ounce of loyalty, devotion, and courage that is within us.” He spoke about the “security of a Nation” and “the challenge that awaits our entire system of education in the light of the Russians’ ominous moon.” Almond quipped that he was concerned about “two revolving bodies: Sputnik and the Supreme Court of the United States.” The health and security of the American republic hung in the balance, according to Almond, and massive resistance to change was necessary because “the potential of this Republic to resist external aggression, and the capacity of our central government to preserve domestic tranquility, evolves from and depends upon the continuing capacity of its structural components.”[13]

“Integration anywhere means destruction everywhere,” Almond told Virginians who he said faced “an ever deepening constitutional crisis.” Almond was an excellent orator who used television interviews and speeches to make his case for continued segregation in schools. His inaugural speech, carried live on nearly all Virginia television stations, presented a narrative of the growing threats of central power and diminished individual liberties. It reached back into southern history and carried these themes forward into the southern present.

As governor, Almond led the fight in Virginia to resist integration in public schools, and at each stage he tied the campaign to the larger context of the Cold War struggle. Almond implemented the massive resistance laws in the fall of 1958 and ordered several white schools to close in three communities rather than allow them to move forward under federal court order to integrate. The school closings persisted into the winter of 1959 and reached a crisis point when federal and state courts struck down the massive resistance laws as unconstitutional. Almond reacted with even more determined speeches in which the Russian threat, the Supreme Court’s reckless expansion of federal authority, and agitation of civil rights protestors combined to endanger the republic and required the vigilance and resistance of citizens.

If the rhetoric of the Cold War dominated both black and white print media in the 1950s as each tried to orient their positions on desegregation, then the battle over desegregation in public schools only seemed to raise the stakes. For white editors and politicians, such as Lindsay Almond of Virginia, the schools were not only a place of social mixing that needed segregation to promote purity, but also a central battleground in the fight against communism. Schools were the means by which the nation would catch up to the Soviets’ Sputnik, and with math and science preparation at the forefront schools were the institutions that could equip Americans for the fight in the future. Schools were also the places that African American editors and leaders viewed as the clearest examples of discrimination of segregation and the anti-democratic nature of the South’s social system. Segregation in schools, African American editors charged, stood out as unequal and undemocratic in the wider context of the Cold War.

Prince Edward County, Virginia, School Closing. Courtesy of Flickr user elycefeliz. Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0

Within this context, white and black newspapers helped shape their readers’ understanding of schools and desegregation and, specifically, the information each city, town, and community received about its schools. Nowhere was the segregation of print information about schools and desegregation more complete than in Prince Edward County, Virginia, where the local board of supervisors closed the county schools for five years from 1959-1964 rather than allow them to be integrated. Prince Edward was exceptional in the South for its long school closings, but it was unexceptional in the way its white media excluded African American voices and segregated key information. “The school board was completely isolated from the sentiment of the Negro community,” one leading scholar of the crisis in Prince Edward wrote, “And the Negro community was more or less isolated from the thinking of the school board.” The local white paper did not cover any of the school board meetings; as a consequence, the only people in Prince Edward County with information about the board or the PTA were those whites who served on them. White leaders claimed that the media publicity of meeting times and dates would only inflame the situation or “unleash controversy,” so information about meeting times and places as well as news coverage about the decisions made at them remained unreported in the print media.

Throughout the South many white newspapers followed a similar pattern—they restricted information and encouraged white resistance to desegregation. In the late 1950s when school desegregation in Birmingham, Alabama, sparked bombings and vigilante violence, the local white newspapers, the Birmingham News and the Post-Herald, dismissed the violence as harmless and likely the handiwork of African Americans trying to discredit whites. When the New York Times came to Birmingham in 1960 to write a story on the sit-in movement, it suggested that “every channel of communication” was closed between the races and relations were ruled largely by white violence. The local Birmingham papers reprinted the story in the hopes of promoting a libel case against the New York Times. In Danville, Virginia, the city’s major newspapers blacked out news on civil rights. Only the city’s Commercial Appeal, edited by a white moderate, bothered to interview local African American civil rights leaders and publish news about their movement. “The news media in Danville,” one radio station editorial argued on June 6, 1963, “has made every effort to keep the stories about demonstrations from the people of Danville.”[14]

Birmingham and Danville, 1963

Few events underlined just how deeply segregated public opinion was in the South during the civil rights struggle more than those that took place in the spring and early summer of 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, and Danville, Virginia. In both places newspaper and television played important roles in shaping the protests and how the public understood them. In Birmingham Martin Luther King, Jr., pushed local African American leaders to use the television media to their advantage, so much so that some in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) grew disillusioned with the strategy and saw it as a corruption of the ideals and spiritual grounding of the movement. Local white papers, according to Fred Shuttlesworth, never “printed what it is that we are demanding.” The newspaper coverage shutout led to deep misunderstandings and misinformation among both races in Birmingham. Similarly, in Danville after six days of protests in June 1963, the white major newspapers had yet to cover the events, a remarkable silence that prompted the Associated Press to threaten to cut off its wire service if these papers would not provide the coverage. One reporter who investigated the Danville violence called the white newspapers “a hindrance to communication and understanding.”[15]

Group of African Americans viewing the bomb-damaged home of Arthur Shores, NAACP attorney, Birmingham, Alabama, September 5, 1963. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division,

In both Birmingham and Danville, local civil rights leaders organized protest marches and demonstrations to make progress in ending segregation in all areas, especially employment, voting, and public facilities. School desegregation had made little progress since Brown v. Board of Education, and local civil rights leaders turned to what they hoped would be less controversial places to begin desegregation: city jobs for blacks, employment at downtown retail stores, and desegregation of parks and public facilities. They planned demonstrations that would affect directly the white-owned downtown businesses whose owners were local power brokers and could readily bring about change if they demanded it. Protestors expected confrontations with police and city authorities, and they wanted to use the media to their advantage. Most of all, they wanted to gain a place at the negotiating table and to have ongoing conversations about the process of desegregation.[16]

Coverage of these events in Southern newspapers was starkly segregated, following years of practice. White editors used specific language and images to disparage the protests and encourage resistance. In Richmond, Virginia, white newspapers depicted the Birmingham demonstrations as deeply threatening to the nation’s law and order and as a near riot without clear goals or coherent reasons. These editors focused almost entirely on the white side of the story, especially the police, and hinted that a racial war was underway. The Richmond News Leader provided little coverage of the April court battles and barely mentioned Martin Luther King’s jailing for violation of the Birmingham city judge’s injunction against demonstrations, nor did the paper carry any mention of King’s “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail.” White papers emphasized the self-control of Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Conner and portrayed the young African American protesters as unruly truants. Most of all, these papers discussed the protests as near racial riots and characterized the whites in Birmingham as stoically trying to prevent impending racial violence. The police were “powerless” in the face of the protests and, the white paper explained, ten policemen were injured in the struggle. The Richmond News Leader portrayed the police response as necessary, even rational, to “prevent racial troubles from exploding into violence.” To support the point, the paper turned for comments to Alabama Governor George Wallace who was considering “murder prosecutions if the Negro demonstrations result in violence and death.” To highlight the restraint of the police in this tense situation, the white papers emphasized that the well-armed police were “struck by thrown rocks” while there were “no confirmed reports of any Negroes being injured.” The News Leader, for example, published a photograph of an African American woman with her back turned to the camera as the forceful stream from a fire hose hit her in the back. The photograph suggested that the protestors were nothing more than a directionless, faceless mob, and the caption made light of her predicament—”Negro woman gets wet down by a fireman’s hose as protest marches were broken up.”[17]

When the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran an editorial about Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” on June 5, 1963, the editors dismissed King as a self-anointed “judge of which laws he will obey.” King had “incited mobs of Negroes to turbulent street demonstrations in violation of local ordinances,” the Times-Dispatch maintained and now he wanted to require white obedience to the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision. In response to King’s argument that southern African Americans were disfranchised and therefore had no obligation to obey segregation laws, the paper’s editor addressed its white readers directly and reminded them that the Court’s decision was “based on an amendment adopted at a time when many of their forebears were disfranchised.”[18]

Dr. King Decides,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, June 5, 1963.

For the African American press of Virginia, Birmingham’s violence and protests were front page news for weeks. Right away these editors put Birmingham into an international context. “Shocked the World,” ran the Richmond Afro-American headline on May 11, 1963. African American papers covered the protests from beginning to well after their end, and they focused their stories on what the protests were about. Their stories quoted a wide range of observers: church leaders, US Senators, political party leaders, Urban League staff, and especially leaders outside of Birmingham. To make clear the disparity between American ideals and their distinctly uneven application, the Afro-American put side-by-side the coverage of the Birmingham demonstrations with an article on the loss at sea of the USS Thresher. The US military’s desegregation, the Afro-American pointed out, extended all the way to its elite nuclear submarine fleet and had been eminently successful.[19]

In a direct counter to the white press, African American newspaper editors depicted Birmingham’s police as savage and unrestrained while they described the demonstrators as “freedom fighters.” The Richmond Afro-American characterized the police action as “bestiality” and “ruthless savagery” and compared it to Hitler’s persecution of Jews and Khrushchev’s repression of Hungarian freedom fighters. The police were “torturing defenseless citizens,” imprisoning “tender-aged school children,” using dogs on “unarmed and helpless people,” and “having heavily-booted storm troopers grind their knees against the necks of handcuffed, prostrate women.”[20]


Left, Richmond Afro-American, June 22, 1963. Right, Richmond Afro-American, June 29, 1963.

Just a few weeks after the events in Birmingham, women and young people in Danville, Virginia, also faced violent police responses to their demonstrations for civil rights. From May 31st to June 5th, 1963 local civil rights leaders Rev. Lawrence Campbell and Rev. Alexander Isaiah Dunlap led their congregations and students to City Hall demanding equality in hiring practices in city government. They were arrested for “inciting to riot” and “inciting or encouraging a minor to commit a misdemeanor.” Eventually, the Danville leaders were indicted under an antebellum Virginia statute which prohibited the incitement “of the colored population to acts of violence and war against the white population.” The local judge issued a temporary injunction against the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a restraining order barring any form of singing, marching, or public demonstration without a parade permit. The civil rights struggles in Danville climaxed on the night of June 10, 1963, when over sixty demonstrators defied the injunction and gathered at the city jail to sing and protest the arrests and injunctions. Thirty-eight demonstrators were arrested and forty were beaten. As in Birmingham, police in Danville turned fire hoses on demonstrators and used nightsticks to beat anyone who refused to disperse. Danville’s police chief had deputized the garbage collectors and armed them with night sticks. African American demonstrators were washed under cars and thrown against walls from the force of the fire hoses. Many later recalled that they were swept off their feet and treated &quotlike trash.”[21]

From the earliest protests in Danville, the white papers in Virginia described the events in ways that highlighted white restraint and black disorder and violence. The Richmond Times-Dispatch‘s initial coverage described the African American demonstrators and their behavior as threatening a race war. The paper emphasized the group’s singing and shouting and the African American youth involved in the street protests, characterizing their behavior as unruly. The police chief, according to the Times-Dispatch, “said the demonstrators taunted policemen and sometimes spat at them.” When violence broke out on June 10th, the Richmond Times-Dispatch again depicted a restrained police force and an unpredictable African American population, firing on police, shouting, and defiant. Jack Hunter, the paper’s special correspondent in Danville, described the protestors as a “horde of singing, chanting Negro teen-agers” with “only a few adults among them.” The Richmond News Leader ran front page photographs a few days after the violence showing Danville Police Chief Eugene McCain in front of a table with weapons with the caption, “taken from Negro demonstrators.” The photograph showed ice picks, a baseball bat, and other weapons, and suggested to readers that the police were the victims of African American violence.[22]

Danville civil rights leaders in the Danville Christian Progressive Association organized and led the June 1963 protests. With some Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee training and support, the protests featured signing, clapping, mass marches, and loud chanting. This television footage captured both the nature and style of the protestors, as well as the uneasiness of the onlookers, and the edgy vigilance of the police. Police, city authorities, and white conservatives interpreted the marches as inspired and organized by outsiders, led by students playing hooky, and bordering on out-of-control. African American local leaders and participants saw them as orderly, reasonable, and legal. These competing narratives of the marches took root in white and black communities in Danville, respectively.

Bloody Monday historical marker, Danville, Virginia, erected 2007. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user ALongerbeam. Creative Commons license CC BY-NC 2.0.

In a lead editorial titled “Sworn Duty Well Done,” the white-owned Danville Bee praised the local police force for restraining and eventually dispersing the crowd of demonstrators. The paper called the struggle “a fight to contain a Communist front which has suddenly emerged within our city limits.”[23] Danville town councilmen and some officials firmly believed that the demonstrations were the work of the Communist Party and they fiercely resisted them as dangerous to American interests at home and abroad. Immediately after the Danville violence, Congressman Bill Tuck, a former governor and strong segregationist, introduced a bill in Congress that would have made it unlawful for any person to cross a state line “where the purpose of such travel was to incite a riot or engage in any violation of the law.” Tuck had served as governor in the late 1940s and was a top Byrd organization politician. Byrd, Tuck, and other conservative Democrats had organized and promoted “massive resistance” to desegregation in the 1950s and they considered the Supreme Court and federal forces responsible for the racial problems in the South. Tuck described the Warren Court as “the American counterpart to the Russian politburo” because it had tried “to usurp all of the authority of government, executive, legislative, administrative.” By 1963 successive court orders stalled massive resistance, but Tuck’s and Byrd’s opposition to desegregation of any kind continued to energize and direct conservative Virginians to resist change. Tuck explained that it was “perfectly obvious that the participants are responding to incitation from outsiders, people who are not Virginians, who do not know Virginia or her people and who do not have the welfare of Virginians, black or white, at heart.” The Richmond News Leader called the measure a bill “to abate racial strife.”[24]

By early November 1963 political talk among Danville’s local Democratic Party regulars focused on the prospects for President Kennedy’s civil rights bill. Local Democrats gathered to hear their Congressman’s views. They were treated to a barnburner speech against the Supreme Court, desegregation, and television. Tuck strongly opposed Kennedy’s civil rights bill. He said it was a danger to free speech on radio and television because, he warned, it would eventually be interpreted by the Supreme Court to disallow voicing any views against integration. Tuck predicted that the bill would be approved by the Supreme Court and Chief Justice Earl Warren, whom he called a “socialist and a student of Gunnar Myrdal.” Just before the speech, though, when the local party chairman’s introduction of Tuck was delayed a few moments because of radio and television broadcasting’s last minute adjustments, the local leader cracked for his audience, “I thought maybe they had to get Martin Luther King off the air before we could start.”[25]

As it turned out, Tuck should have been less concerned about Martin Luther King on the air and more about the Reverend Lawrence Campbell. King came to Danville in July 1963 and again in November. WDBJ covered King’s July luncheon speech in which he called the Danville police force one of the most “brutal and vicious” he had heard about in the South. In stately tones King offered his “full, personal support” to the movement in Danville. “Wherever injustice is alive,” King said, he wanted to take a stand, for “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King’s oratory was restrained, his visit short.

King visited Danville for the third time in nearly a month after the “Bloody Monday” violence. His speech in the High Street Baptist Church called the police in Danville the most vicious he had heard of in the South. The national news attention that accompanied King’s visit and King’s clear condemnation of the Danville police accentuated the growing disparity among white and black interpretations of these events.

But Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, gave the kind of visually dramatic speech that transcended local news and made for gripping television. “We don’t need guns,” Shuttlesworth called, “these are the weapons of a people who are afraid.” Shuttlesworth spoke through the television to those who believed that protestors carried bottles, sticks, and clubs to hurl at police, as well as reassured protestors that they were right to practice true non-violence. He provided a counter narrative of the events depicted in the white print media at the same time as he tied the Danville struggle to national events and concerns, such as Kennedy’s speech on civil rights and the Cold War fight in West Berlin.

Shuttlesworth spoke directly to those whites, especially Danville Mayor Julian Stinson and Police Chief Eugene McCain, who accused African American protestors of fomenting violence and disorder. Shuttlesworth also tied the civil rights struggle to the Cold War struggle for freedom.

Television’s visual power was clear from such inspiring scenes as Shuttlesworth’s “we don’t need guns” speech, but its dramatic force came also in more mundane interviews and the images that accompanied them. WDBJ cameras filmed the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) protest of segregated chain restaurants at a Howard Johnson’s on US Route 29 near Danville. White SNCC activist Robert Zellner stood outside the restaurant with James Forman and other African American demonstrators. “In order to explain our position,” Zellner carefully told the television audience, “in order to facilitate change . . . we have taken this peaceful sort of nonviolent direct action to give the people the opportunity to change.” As the demonstrators stood patiently outside, waiting, the camera lingered on the locked doors of the Howard Johnson restaurant, a stark, strong image of discrimination and exclusion.

White newspapers, such as the Danville Bee and Danville Register, characterized SNCC’s activities in Danville as detrimental to the otherwise harmonious relations between local blacks and whites. They also reinforced city officials’ views of the demonstrators as “criminals.” This televised interview with SNCC leader Robert Zellner, however, presented an image of reasonableness.

In the summer of 1963, as civil rights protests increasingly made for excellent television drama and news, authorities in places such as Danville tried to control the media, however unsuccessfully. Police Chief Eugene McCain, who had deputized garbage collectors and armed them with batons to enforce a local judge’s injunction against demonstrations, was on the scene the evening of June 10th. McCain recalled in court testimony later that he had ordered the protestors to disperse and given them what he considered was fair warning. McCain also recalled smashing SNCC organizer Robert Zellner’s camera on the ground when a flash, he said, went off in his face. McCain testified that “there was so much confusion” that he could not remember who was arrested that night, but he was especially concerned about Zellner’s camera and how information of the event might be used and twisted by the media. As protests continued after an outbreak of violence on June 10, 1963, arrests were made and national news organizations came to Danville. One day in July, McCain’s men picked up three NBC newsmen and held them for questioning for 45 minutes at police headquarters. They were filming a demonstration, but the police gave no reason for their detention. McCain told the news media by way of explanation, “We want to talk to them about our business and theirs.”[26]

Aerial view of Business Section, Danville, Virginia, looking north, showing Riverside Div. Dan River Mills center left, 1930–1945. Courtesy of The Tichnor Brothers Collection, Boston Public Library. Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0.

Television coverage not only revealed the reasoned appeals of those seeking change and the dramatic words and gestures of the struggle, it also spread news and exposed events in a way that put pressure on business leaders in these small towns. In Danville after the tension and violence in June 1963, the president of Dan River Mills, which employed over 6,000 people, sent the company’s public relations coordinator to become the “press officer” for the embattled Danville mayor. The New York Times was running articles that questioned Dan River Mills’ “corporate image” after television reports broadcast stories on the violence in the company’s home town. Danville civil rights demonstrators took their protests to the Dan River Mills corporate headquarters in New York City where Reverend Lawrence Campbell led the picket line protest. Dan River officials met with Campbell and, according to news reports, the company moved to seek resolutions to the racial problems in Danville.[27]

Local Television News and the Breakdown of Segregation

Television news began broadcasting political conventions, inaugurations, and other large political events in the early 1950s. The Kefauver organized crime hearings, the 1952 Republican Convention, Richard M. Nixon’s “Checkers” speech, and the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 featured dramatic coverage of political events, and millions of Americans tuned in. By the mid-1950s television news organizations at the local and national levels were experienced with the medium and on the lookout for news that made good television. When the networks covered the Democratic National Convention in 1956 however, the proceedings were so tedious that critics panned the coverage. One reporter pointed out that the picture of Sam Rayburn “pushing through not only the civil rights plank but the whole platform by the simple device of exhausting the delegates” made for good politics but bad television. “There have been great attempts by television to reconcile its medium to political reporting,” he noted, “and by politicians to reconcile themselves to television.” The convention was not one of them.[28]

Jack Gould, the television critic for the New York Times, considered the 1956 Democratic Convention coverage a “routine show.” He conceded that television offered the viewers an “excellent seat at the proceedings” but argued that the coverage “highlighted the inherent weaknesses that TV does have as a reportorial medium.” The convention, he wrote, “just wasn’t the type of story that lent itself to vivid visual treatment.” Television, Gould thought, had done a great deal to stimulate the nation’s “political consciousness,” but he voiced concern about what he called television’s “journalistic narcissism.” As the medium grew in popularity and power, Gould noted, the television producers were trying too much to come between the viewer and the event. TV, Gould wrote, should worry less about “making history” and more about reporting it.[29]

The connections between the civil rights struggle and television as a medium were too numerous and significant to ignore for either opponents or supporters of desegregation. The first televised debate for statewide office in New York took place on October 20, 1956 between New York City Mayor Robert Wagner and New York Attorney General Jacob Javits. The televised debate focused entirely on civil rights issues. Powerful images, from political debates and other events, might come across the screen, reveal different perspectives, and open discussion. In 1957 southern congressmen began taking measures to insure the “southern point of view” might make its way onto the nation’s airwaves. The passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Bill led some southern congressmen to put pressure on the big radio and television networks. One powerful congressman sent a letter to the broadcast companies urging that the “southern view” be given consideration. He wanted white conservative opinion defending state’s rights and segregation fully broadcast. The letter, printed on the letterhead of the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee, the committee that oversees the FCC, included the veiled threat that the networks might eventually be transformed into a public utility if they did not present the “southern” point of view.[30]

Photo of David Brinkley (on screen) and Chet Huntley from the news program The Huntley-Brinkley Report. Huntley was based in New York, while Brinkley was based in Washington. They shared the duties of the NBC Television Network evening news program from 1956 to 1970. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Image is in the public domain.

White conservatives took aim at television programming and news coverage that they claimed instigated African American protests and poisoned race relations in the South. Often, local white conservatives in small towns and cities in the South saw the national programming as especially offensive. In 1960, for example, Petersburg, Virginia, businessman Remmie Arnold, president of the Remmie Arnold Pen Co., Inc., objected to an NBC program aired on April 10th and hosted by Chet Huntley. Arnold called the program “terrifying” because “it was put over in such a way that” it gave “instructions to the dissenters of the colored race.” Arnold wrote directly to Robert Sarnoff, president of NBC, and invited Huntley and NBC newsmen to “come into the South and see what is happening.” He warned Sarnoff that “a campaign” was underway “through proper channels . . . to prohibit such broadcasts as these in the future.” Arnold forwarded a copy of his letter to NBC to Virginia Governor J. Lindsay Almond and asked the governor to “protest and prohibit the National Broadcasting Company, or any other television company, from sending in to the State of Virginia such distorted programs.”[31]

If some southern politicians were taking aim at television indirectly and some citizens were expressing privately their disdain for certain broadcasts, some southern sheriffs were more direct. When the FBI came to Dawson, Georgia, in 1958 to investigate allegations of police brutality and civil rights violations, the local county sheriff, Z. T. “Zeke” Matthews, blamed the situation on television news broadcasts originating in the North that stirred up local African Americans to protest. Television and the “communists,” he suggested, were the point of origin for all disorder and difficulty in the county. “There isn’t a nigger in Georgia who wouldn’t take over if he could,” Matthews stated plainly. “I’ve noticed things have gotten worse since television,” Matthews pointed out,

They all got television sets up there and hear the news over NBC and CBS, telling what the Supreme Court has done and what the Federal Courts say and all about civil rights, and they begin thinking.[32]

This small town Georgia sheriff was not far wrong about the increasing role of television in the lives of young southerners black and white. One of the most detailed descriptions of the widespread penetration of television into African American households was recorded in the criminal court records in Danville, Virginia, in 1963 when hundreds of young African American people were arrested for violating a local court injunction against street protests. The police took down information about their favorite shows and asked whether they owned a television. The large majority of the young African American students lived in a household with a television. Nearly 70 percent owned televisions in their homes, and only 5 percent lived in homes without access to either a television or a radio. These young people watched major league baseball, “Bandstand,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “western shows,” and “The Eleventh Hour.”[33]

Promotional still from The Beverly Hillbillies. Courtesy of Flickr user Northridge Alumni Bear Facts. Creative Commons license CC BY-ND 2.0.

In Virginia the first television stations went on the air in 1949 and by 1960 there were still only a handful of local stations broadcasting local news. Early in the fifties, some television news editors and station managers began to take avowedly neutral stands on the issues of segregation and discrimination. After 1961, the FCC’s 1949 Fairness Doctrine became a standard for licensing when Commission head Newton Minnow reinforced it. The doctrine required that television stations give equal time and access to diverse opinions on the air and barred them from editorializing in their news broadcasts. WAVY-TV (Portsmouth, Virginia), for example, declared that its news staff “will not editorialize, give an opinion, or predict any future development relative to the integration issue.” The station urged its reporters that all interviews with local school officials and state elected officials “will be handled so that no side or definite stand will appear to result from the questions by our newsmen.”[34]

In both its original application for a broadcast license in 1952 and its renewal application in 1960, WDBJ in Roanoke, Virginia, offered justifications for its programming in the public interest. The station noted the track record of its radio operation as an “important medium of cultural expression and as a source of unbiased and factual news dissemination.” WDBJ pointed out its work with religious organizations for the broadcast of local services and fundraising for the completion of “a new Negro hospital” in the city. In 1960 the station planned to continue “to provide an outlet for the Roanoke area for local self-expression, thus contributing to the vitalizing of our Democracy.” As examples of public-interest, unbiased news reporting, the station pointed to several controversial issues it covered, most prominently the “segregation-integration issue.”[35]

The doctrine originally was intended to secure balanced coverage in the public interest concerning controversial topics because the spectrum of channels was limited and the stations were in effect “trustees” of the public space. The doctrine did not require equal time for opposing sides of a controversy. Instead, it required broadcasters to meet two criteria for license renewal. First, the broadcasting company had a responsibility to air controversial subjects in the public interest. No television station in the American South, therefore, in theory would be allowed to blackout the desegregation or civil rights news. Second, the station had to provide reasonable balance in the coverage of these issues. The FCC required stations “to provide coverage of vitally important controversial issues of interest in the community served by the licensees” and “to provide a reasonable opportunity for the presentation of contrasting viewpoints on such issues.” The FCC gave stations wide latitude to interpret how best to achieve balance.

Local television stations, such as WDBJ, did report on controversial issues, and because they gave time and voice to multiple perspectives, these shows offered audiences something new—a desegregated news account. At the local level, some news organizations began putting together hour-long news specials on the civil rights struggle and on racial issues. One of the first to produce them in Virginia, WDBJ developed a special on school desegregation in 1955 titled “Virginia’s Dilemma” and another on the school closing crisis in 1958 titled “September Showdown.” These programs featured interviews with black and white participants in litigation and school desegregation, representatives of organizations, city government, and everyday passers-by on the street. Not all were willing to talk on television. The white school board officials in Norfolk, Virginia, were “unwilling to face television cameras” when WDBJ did its “September Showdown” piece at the height of the school closing crisis. Yet, they were willing to talk with “pencil and paper” reporters. African American civil rights leader Vivian Carter Mason in Norfolk did grant WDBJ reporters an interview after she escorted the first African American student on her first day at formerly all-white Granby High School in 1959. Carter, however, made clear that the students who desegregated Norfolk’s schools would not be interviewed extensively on television. She considered the “barrage of questioning and picture-taking detrimental” to the students and feared that television interviews might be misinterpreted as attention-getting.

Vivian Carter Mason presented a calm and reasoned account of the first day of integrated schools in Norfolk. She affirmed that both the viewers and the participants in this historic event were “on the road to first-class citizenship.” The interview took place in Mason’s home, opening the world of African American Virginians to white viewers. Mason’s dignified, articulate description of the event established a narrative of positive integration. WDBJ reporter John Patterson used the courtesy title “Mrs. Mason” and she responded in kind by referring to him as “Mr. Patterson.” Neither WDBJ nor WSLS adopted racial distinctions in titles or in any other ways that black and white subjects were referred to on the air.

These long-format news shows revealed powerful arguments for desegregation from articulate and compelling African American voices. NAACP lead attorney, Oliver Hill, appeared in numerous news films describing the plaintiff’s position in school desegregation litigation. Oliver Hill’s clear statement of the moral reasons segregation should end were delivered with drama and force in a WDBJ interview. To provide fairness Hill’s comments were paired with an interview of Robert Crawford, the founder of the segregationist Defenders of State Sovereignty and Individual Liberties, an all-white organization intended to preserve segregation in all aspects of southern life.

Crawford and the Defenders of State Sovereignty maintained that segregation was best for both races. They presented the ultimate paternalistic perspective, but Oliver Hill’s denunciation of the Interposition Resolution made clear the emptiness of white paternalism.

While WDBJ and other stations created their own news specials and aired them, these stations also carried the national news and the national networks’ specials. Some southern stations refused to broadcast national news reports on the civil rights movement, either because they did not want to cancel popular entertainment programming or because they did not want to air controversial shows. Others refused to air any national programming that dealt with racial matters. National and local news programs often strove, nevertheless, for fairness but southern politicians worried about the visual power of the medium to shape interpretations. CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow, for example, wrote to Governor J. Lindsay Almond in November 1958 to explain the special one-hour report he was preparing on the Norfolk school closings. Murrow claimed that all sides would be presented in a “full and fair hearing.” He viewed the situation in Virginia as “a dilemma which had decent people in all walks of life seeking a solution.” Calling himself “an old admirer of the Jefferson country,” Murrow indicated he would deal fairly with the “traditions of Virginia.”[36]

Murrow’s fairness, however, would not go unchallenged. The program was screened to a limited audience in January 1959 and one participant wrote Murrow to offer her objections. Para Lee Brock, an independent television producer and writer in Atlanta, considered the program on the whole a “reasonable attempt to present both sides of the controversy.” But one sequence in the program drew her criticism. It depicted a African American teacher calling roll in class asking those African American students who had applied to attend white schools to stand, and it featured Murrow’s voiceover, which, according to Brock, “with a hint of laughter in it, would say, ‘One pupil out of six thousand.'” Brock claimed it ridiculed Virginia, as if to say why should Virginia be so concerned about token integration. Brock went on in her letter to explain that the cause of massive resistance was not about a few black students in a few white schools but instead about total desegregation of southern life, something she considered serious, far-reaching, and not a matter to be taken lightly. Brock called on Murrow to correct the sequence: “No Virginian was given the opportunity to say that token integration would be merely the opening wedge.”

Cover of TV Guide magazine featuring a caricature of Edward R. Murrow, November 3–9, 1956. Illustration by Al Hirschfeld. Scan courtesy of Flickr user Jim Ellwanger. Creative Commons license CC BY-NC 2.0.

Brock’s letter to Murrow did not end there; she went on to ask Murrow to consider the visual power of the medium of television. She argued that “intelligent viewers” in the South and elsewhere would “refute the unbalanced sequence on their own and the network, rather than the South, would be the object of ridicule.” The combination of Murrow’s voice and the visual example of the roll call might influence “the masses.” Brock called this “propaganda” and was clearly worried that the American public would be led inexorably toward the conclusion, “how ridiculous can the South be?” Brock sent a copy of her letter to Governor Almond, who replied that he “read [it] with considerable interest.”[37]

There can be little doubt that the CBS national program aired in Virginia. Many of the stations in Virginia including those in Roanoke and in Bristol, carried all such national news programs. WCYB in Bristol stated clearly in its FCC license renewal application that “every documentary and public affairs program made available by NBC, whether sponsored or sustaining, has been carried by WCYB-TV.” The station carried all of the Kennedy-Nixon debates and all of Kennedy’s news conferences. In addition, it gave time for local editorial opinion and invited multiple perspectives on current issues.

Editorials were run outside of the local news broadcasts but not all stations broadcast them. When they did, editorials on television appeared little different from those in the print media. One WCYB editorial ran on June 12, 1963, just two days after the Danville violence. The editorial commented on Governor Albertis Harrison’s reactions to the events in Danville, repeating Harrison’s views. Harrison held that Danville’s violence was encouraged and perpetrated by “outsiders,” that Prince Edward County’s closed schools were deplorable, and that the only way to move forward for both races was through communication and education to attain equal treatment and opportunity for African Americans. The editorial applauded Harrison’s sensibility on the subject, stating that segregation laws should and would be stricken down, that the Prince Edward “tragic” situation needed quick resolution, and that “this country is not alone with the race problem.” At the same time, the editorial warned that zealous civil rights proponents were beginning to trample “upon constitutional guarantees” in calling for the proposed Civil Rights Bill.[38]

While editorial comments, then, often carried clear messages for viewers and did not often include corresponding opposing views, news programs and documentaries featured African American voices speaking eloquently and directly to the audience. It is impossible to tell whether any of the young people of Danville or anywhere in the South in the late 1950s ever saw the local news or some of the national special broadcasts aired by NBC or CBS news. They might have seen, for example, James Baldwin interviewed by Dr. Kenneth Clark in May 1963. If they had, they would have witnessed his opening statement. Baldwin looked directly into the camera and said, “I am not a nigger.” Baldwin stated plainly his humanity and his equality. The effect took hold of New York Times television critic Jack Gould, who called it “a television experience that seared the conscience of the white set owner.” All of the usual legalistic and moral equivocations on television about civil rights were, according to Gould, “shattered” in Baldwin’s remarkable performance. “Ever since the introduction of television,” Gould wrote, “it has been self-evident that the searching camera eye and the intimacy of the screen at home can reach into the mind’s inner recesses in a manner different from any other medium.” The television combined access to mass audiences with the kind of personal challenge that Baldwin issued, a statement whose clarity and power stretched across region and time. Gould thought that Baldwin’s connection to the audience would last well beyond the end of the show.[39]

Still of James Baldwin, interviewed by Dr. Kenneth Clark, KQED, May 1963. Courtesy of YouTube user Arthur Williams.

As the major networks developed and ran specials on the civil rights struggle, some southern politicians saw these as invasive and misguided. They singled out television and sometimes the media generally as a prime cause of racial conflict in the region. In NBC’s special “American Revolution of ’63” Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett lashed out at television as one of the chief catalysts of African American protest in the South. Barnett had tried to use television speeches in the crisis over James Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi at Oxford. He spoke of abusive federal power and the need to maintain southern segregation, but the events of September 1962 showed unrestrained violence at the campus and federal marshals struggling to bring order. A year later Barnett attacked television because it presented what he thought were inflammatory pictures, stirred African American protesters, and made local stories into national media events, all but inviting federal power into localities to resolve them.[40]

Barnett was wrong about many things, but he correctly understood that television as a medium operated in new and different ways. Television was not only an extraordinarily lucrative new venture, it was also radically different as an information medium. Unlike newspaper, television operated exclusively in a time-dependent fashion. Time governed the pacing of all programming on television and created a different set of structures and imperatives for the reporters and news directors. At first, as the new medium was taking shape, early television directors saw the advantages of presenting long live events to fill the hours and hours of open programming slots. Presidential campaigns and political conventions, as well as boxing matches and other sporting events, both filled time and offered viewers a built-in dramatic narrative. After the Army-McCarthy hearings were televised, news directors could see that the best use of the medium was to craft sequenced narratives. One television news historian, Paul Weaver, has argued against the conventional wisdom that television news was superficial while newspapers more analytical. Instead, he argues that television achieved integration and coherence where newspapers offered fragmentation and multiple layers. The newspaper story, he points out, was not meant to be read in its entirety yet still had to achieve intelligibility. The television news story, on the other hand, “is a whole that is designed to be fully intelligible only when viewed in its entirety.” To accomplish this, television news directors began to focus not so much on an event per se as on what Weaver calls “a process, mood, trend, condition, irony, relationship, or whatever else seems suitable to them.” While newspapers piled unrelated stories into an edition with little regard for how the whole newspaper for that day looked and read, television news directors developed the reverse strategy—the broadcast in its entirety was an arranged selection meant to appeal to the most viewers and over time not to lose viewers.[41]

In Roanoke, Virginia, WSLS (NBC) and WDBJ (CBS) covered key events in the late 1950s and early 1960s in ways that set them apart from the state’s leading white-owned newspapers. WDBJ was owned by the same corporation that published the Roanoke World News, and so the station was influenced by the moderate stance of the ownership. WSLS was owned by principals at Shenandoah Life Insurance, a company with strong ties to federal employee organizations in the District of Columbia and few links to conservative Virginia Democratic Party operatives. Of the surviving film footage from these two stations that covered civil rights issues, approximately forty-four percent of the films prominently featured or presented African American spokespeople.

WSLS’ coverage of the school closing crisis in 1958-1959 included both opposition voices to Virginia’s massive resistance program and those in favor of it. After federal and state courts ordered integration to proceed in Virginia and put an end to massive resistance laws, Virginia’s Governor Lindsay Almond considered taking a more drastic step to prevent integration in schools—repealing the provision in Virginia’s constitution that required the state to maintain free and public schools. After a few days, however, Almond relented and decided to scrap massive resistance and search for “other methods as effective as or better than those which have served until the hammer of federal intervention fell with devastating force.”[42]

Virginia’s Governor Almond, cover of TIME magazine, September 22, 1958.

Almond’s retreat from continuing massive resistance was big news, and the WSLS news script called it what it was: “a turning point in the fight against school integration.” The white-owned newspapers covered Almond’s speech not as a turning point but as a capitulation or at least as an admission of failure. The moderate papers, such as the Roanoke World News, considered Almond’s speech a positive sign telling the “people what they already knew but were loath to admit.” Defiance, these papers suggested, was “futile” and the state should “have learned a lesson” from the dismal failure of massive resistance both as a policy and a strategy. The more conservative white papers, such as the Richmond News Leader, emphasized that white leaders were “powerless” in the face of federal authority and yet still called for massive resistance to shift gears toward minimizing desegregation. The Richmond News Leader ran an angry editorial a few days after the speech. James J. Kilpatrick chastised the broadcasting stations for giving “equal time” to the NAACP spokesmen to respond to the Governor and rebuked NAACP attorney Oliver Hill for suggesting that the lack of communication between white and black Virginians could be corrected “once white people decided to work constructively.” Fulminating over the comment, the News Leader editor lashed out in an oddly accurate assessment: the white South, he wrote, has “been working constructively upon segregation problems for the past several generations and they have had mighty little help from the Negro people.” Only the African American-owned newspaper, the Richmond Afro American, used the same language as WSLS and called the speech a “turning point.” Its editorial reviewed it as “a masterpiece of agonized rhetoric.”[43]

WSLS gave considerable voice, time, and attention to the white leadership, but it also presented news stories covering the affairs of African American Virginians. The September 28, 1959, news broadcast featured a story on a meeting of the African American Roanoke Development Association. The anchor on the broadcast described a speech calling for desegregation by a retired African American judge from New York, H. T. Delaney, who “says if his race moved any slower towards this goal, they’d be going backwards.” The news director not only quoted from Delaney in the coverage but also showed film footage of the event and described the group’s plans to “quit doing business” with several downtown merchants who would not hire African Americans. WSLS went further, however, and also covered the speech of a little-known independent candidate challenging US Senator Harry F. Byrd, Virginia’s most powerful politician. The script read that the candidate was “claiming he [Byrd] was trying to keep Virginia small in every way.” Concluding the story, the script summarized, “Delaney told his audience that white people in the South had never learned the precept of love thy neighbor.” Neither Delaney’s speech nor the independent candidate’s were covered in the newspapers. WSLS’s news broadcast linked these stories and created a sequential narrative of black and white opposition to the Byrd-led conservative politics.

On the day of court-ordered integration in several localities in Virginia, WSLS’ news coverage explicitly linked the school desegregation issue with a wider one—the economic development and the future of Virginia. The script and film created a seamless narrative of consequences in the desegregation story, one that connected white and black students to the state’s future economic well-being. The station’s news script for February 20, 1959, led off with how integration proceeded at one of the closed schools, Warren County High School. As it turned out, the African American students arrived for classes only to find that no white students returned to the school. “In theory, classes began at Warren County high school today on an integrated basis,” the script read, “actually, however, the once all-white school is now an all-Negro school.” The story explained that the white students were staying put in the segregated private schools set up during the closing crisis and then went directly into a second story about a business leader’s speech to a gathering in Roanoke. The speaker, a vice president of the Norfolk and Western Railroad, argued that “a prompt and sound solution of the school segregation problem” was necessary to accelerate Virginia business growth. He called not only for lower taxes on businesses but also “a change in attitude by some Virginians, who apparently don’t want progress.” While the Roanoke newspaper covered the business meeting and mentioned the speaker’s points, the newspaper did not connect the event to the larger desegregation story.

In 1960 WSLS presented a radically different picture of the Democratic Party when it featured what it called a “Negro Democratic Rally” on its October 7th evening news. At the time both Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy and his Republican rival Richard Nixon were stumping in Virginia. National Democratic Party leaders considered Virginia in play despite Harry F. Byrd’s opposition to Kennedy. Several key Democrats in Virginia, including state party chair Sidney Kellam and Governor Lindsay Almond, backed Kennedy in the race. Desegregation had begun in some Virginia schools, but resistance to desegregation was by no means dead. When WSLS broadcast a African American Democratic Party rally, the political stakes were high for a changing party.

The news anchor reported as this footage was shown that three hundred people attended the rally and that Rev. Marshall L. Shephard spoke to the group. With white local and Democratic Party leaders in attendance, Shephard endorsed the Kennedy ticket and, the anchor’s script reported, called Richard M. Nixon “a smear artist.”

Meanwhile, television news reporters at WDBJ, the CBS affiliate, covered the events of desegregation in careful detail. The station’s reporters interviewed state legislators, political leaders, school board officials, and citizens. These interviews included extensive comments from African American lawyers and NAACP officials, as well as local ministers, organizers, and parents. The balance and engaging presence of these multiple voices represented a distinct difference between the television and the print medium. WDBJ’s interview with NAACP attorney Oliver Hill presented as direct and clear of a statement that Virginians were ever to hear about why segregation was wrong.

Later, in 1963, the WDBJ reporters interviewed a young African American student getting on the school bus in Prince Edward County after four long years out of school because white authorities closed schools rather than integrate them. The story’s captivating appeal came from both the long wait for the bus as it trundled down the lane and the enthusiasm of the youngster who seemed one moment closer to his lifelong goal—to be a physician. “You need a lot of education for that,” remarked the newsman. “I know that,” replied the youngster as he boarded the bus.

This remarkable sequence has tremendous visual power as African American students in Prince Edward County have been waiting for four years for this moment, to board the bus and go to school. Framed by the bus and the other students in line, this interview presented viewers with the courageous and refreshing ambitions of the young student whose lack of animosity toward white authorities and clear focus on the future stand in contrast to the whirlwind battles of politicians and litigants.

Television news not only gave African American leaders a channel of communication to white and black viewers, it also invited viewers into the movement behind the scenes. Television cameras went where many whites had never been: into African American churches, into African American homes, into non-violent training workshops, into African American meetings, and into the legal offices of African American lawyers and organizers. When WDBJ, for example, filmed a SNCC workshop on non-violent demonstration, it offered white viewers an opportunity to learn and see what was happening in their wider community. These images and the commentary that African American leaders provided often were the only sources for whites to hear from and see the African American community unfiltered through the white newspaper media. Only those who had read African American newspapers, such as the Richmond Afro-American, might have absorbed this perspective.

Local television news, it turned out, could reach far beyond a station’s broadcast territory. Stations across the networks picked up important stories and the effects of this coverage were sometimes surprising. CBS’s story on the June 1963 violence in Danville, for example, was broadcast nationally. A letter to the editor of the Richmond Afro American came from New Mexico, where the writer was “looking at the 8 p.m. news on television” when the Danville mayor appeared on screen to defend his refusal to free the jailed protestors. The writer argued that “our very nation was born and established in a revolt against injustice and tyranny” and that the mayor should start by negotiating with the African American leaders of Danville.[44]

Another television viewer saw the Danville coverage and reacted with direct, personal action—she went to Danville. Anne Karro, a 53 year-old wife of a Labor Department lawyer and mother of three, drove to Danville “after seeing a television show on the police brutality there.” Karro said she “wanted to see what it was all about” and she ended up marching, protesting, and spending eleven days in jail for violating court injunctions. Later, after the March on Washington, Karro organized a community road trip from her suburban Maryland neighborhood to Danville where they joined meetings and attended church.[45]

USPS postage stamp commemorating the 1963 March on Washington. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user John Flannery, August 28, 2013. Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 2.0.

Television news made up a small proportion of the broadcast day and of the station’s operations, but the news it aired was markedly different from what made it into the newspapers. The Roanoke stations estimated in 1952 that 10 percent of the broadcast time would be devoted to news. By 1960 the station reported that the number was optimistic, as just six percent of programming time went to news. Yet both local and national news broadcasts remained powerfully resonant. Local segregationists wanted a news blackout on the issues of civil rights, and in many places controlled or influenced the newspapers enough to achieve that goal for a time. In Roanoke, Portsmouth, and other Virginia areas, television, on the other hand, opened up new spaces, bringing whites into black places, broadcasting black voices, and showing dramatic scenes of confrontation, debate, prayer, and action.

The March on Washington and Television News

Few civil rights events reached the national television audience as did the March on Washington. Looking back on the summer’s action just before the March, Martin Luther King, Jr., in an ABC television interview, argued that the events of the spring and summer “brought all these issues out into the open and brought them to the surface where everybody could see them.” As the date for the March on Washington grew closer, the extent of television coverage became part of the story. Over five hundred cameramen, technicians, and correspondents from the major networks were set to cover the event. More cameras would be set up than had filmed the last Presidential inauguration. One camera was positioned high in the Washington Monument, to give dramatic vistas of the marchers.[46]

Television networks interviewed participants in the march, carried the speeches, offered news commentary on the events, and queried Congressmen. A. C. Nielson recorded huge jumps in television viewing for the March on Washington. Europeans saw it as well, in coverage “that rivaled that given astronaut landings.” The BBC devoted major evening programming to the march and broadcast live coverage as received from the Telestar satellite. Southern senators and representatives gave terse comments that the march would have no effect at all on voting in Congress and would not influence the Civil Rights Bill’s passage. Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina believed that the telecast to Europe was misleading to people there because they would be led to conclude that African Americans have no freedom.[47]

First five pages of the Final Plan for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,

The local news channels in Virginia, perhaps flooded with national programming and coverage of the march, focused on local stories. At the Southern Governor’s Conference held at the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs West Virginia, WDBJ television crews filmed press conferences and statements from the participants. With protestors outside the gates of the Greenbrier carrying signs denouncing Alabama Governor George Wallace and Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, the group’s chairman Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus wanted no grandstanding. In his opening remarks Faubus argued that consideration of controversial topics would only dampen the group’s effectiveness. While Faubus warned against “playing to the press,” Alabama Governor George Wallace puffed on a long cigar and prepared to introduce resolutions condemning the March on Washington.

But the southern governors were decidedly moderate in their views by August 1963. West Virginia Governor W. W. Barron went out to the gates of the Greenbrier to greet protestors and shake hands with them. Most of them were students at Marshall University and West Virginia State College. Wallace meanwhile scoffed that “they’re just practicing up for Washington.” Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett pushed his colleagues to champion a “relocation” plan to spread African Americans across the states to achieve a 90 percent white majority everywhere. Barnett’s fanciful scheme drew little support.[48]

Alabama Governor George Wallace condemned the March on Washington as communist-directed and disturbing the peace. Wallace cultivated an appearance of sympathy for southern African Americans and a paternalistic expression of concern that “our fine Negroes” are being “misled.” WDBJ probably broadcast this statement on its nightly news, though neither WSLS nor WDBJ records indicated coverage of the March on Washington.

All of the television stations in Roanoke broadcast their national network programming covering the March on Washington. WDBJ broadcast it from 10-10:30, 12-12:15, and 7:30-8:30, WSLS from 2-2:30, 4:30-5, and 11:15-11:30. This intense national coverage by the networks and broadcast over the local affiliates might explain why local news crews at WDBJ and WSLS might not have covered the event in great detail. The Roanoke newspapers were filled with the local story of two trapped coal miners in the days just before the march and their heroic rescue by crews working feverishly against long odds. This story captured the attention of the local press.[49]Summing up the march as a televised event, Jack Gould of the New York Times claimed it was “something that had to be seen to be felt.” The march was an “editorial in movement” whose “eloquence could not be the same in only frozen word or stilled picture.” Gould argued that television was “proving an indispensable force in the Negro’s pursuit of human rights.” Measuring the medium’s impact, Gould thought, was “hardly possible,” but it did have remarkable ability to “personalize the Negro appeal” and to reach into individual American homes. The problem, Gould wondered, was whether television was essentially escapist or whether news could stimulate Americans to act differently. Television was in some respects exactly what the civil rights leaders needed. They had talked to the converted and they had talked to the irreconcilable, but it was the vast mass of Americans who either had no opinion of the matter or did not yet care that they needed to reach. Gould called them “the throngs that attended the adventures of ‘the Beverly Hillbillies.'” Gould worried whether television news could sustain American interest in the spectacle of civil rights demonstrations and advocacy. Television viewers wanted fresh faces and new acts, and Gould thought that the political and protest scene might not be able to deliver them. If it could not, he feared viewers would tune out. That television news coverage would get Americans off of the couch and into the streets was unlikely, but it might reveal stories and perspectives most Americans had never before seen or heard.[50]

The March on Washington was something to be seen not read about. It barely registered in the Roanoke newspapers. A cartoon in the August 27th Roanoke World News depicted marchers with placards headed toward a big barrel labeled “Washington, D.C.” with the title “Powder Keg” above it. A handful of articles described the march in sketchy detail, and much of the commentary considered it ineffective because it “did not change a vote” in Congress on the Civil Rights Bill. Nearly all of the Virginia Congressional delegation told reporters that they did not see or watch the march, and they had little reaction to it. Democratic Congressman J. Vaughan Gary, however, watched the march on TV and “was astonished, certainly, by the size of the crowd.” Congressman Thomas N. Downing also watched it, saying “it was orderly, well done, and well coordinated. It gave those participating an excellent opportunity to voice their opinion.” Gary, in an attempt to dismiss the march, said it struck him “as a giant pep rally.” Gary and Downing, and all who had seen the march on television, were trying to categorize the visual experience. Only those who had seen it could even attempt to do so, and millions had watched this national event on local stations across the nation. What they saw and experienced as viewers contrasted sharply with what they read about it in their newspapers.[51]

WLBT and Pro-Segregation TV

WLBT-Jackson, Mississippi, c. 1955. Courtesy of Flickr user Mississippi Department of Archives and History. No known copyright restrictions.

While local broadcasters in Virginia strove for disinterested presentation of the news, a few stations used this new medium to continue the practice of the older media and in some places station managements tried to use television to perpetuate segregation. One station, WLBT in Jackson, Mississippi, proved exceptionally biased in its news coverage and commentary, so much so that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1969 revoked its license. This drastic action came after years of litigation and marked the only time in FCC history that it took a license because of racial bias in programming. Eleven years later, in 1980, the FCC awarded a new license to a group of African American owners who hired the first African American general manager for an NBC affiliate.[52]

The WLBT case deserves scrutiny since it has recently received the attention of historians and media scholars. Both have suggested that the South’s television stations perpetuated segregation and that WLBT was less than exceptional. “Most southern television stations,” one historian of the WLBT case summarized, “failed to provide balanced coverage of the civil rights movement.” Another recent study found that a “repressive media” throttled any information about the African American freedom struggle in Mississippi.

WLBT was owned by Lamar Life Broadcasting, a subsidiary of the large insurance company. The owners and managers, furthermore, were active participants in the White Citizens Council. In the same year that the company received its license and went on the air, 1955, the Citizen’s Council began producing its Citizen’s Council Forum syndicated TV program. WLBT featured these programs and clearly aimed its news and educational programming at maintaining the color line. Fred Beard, the station’s manager, was an outspoken and militant Citizen’s Council member.

In 1955 the Mississippi branch of the NAACP, led by Medgar Evers, filed a complaint with the FCC that WLBT presented the local news in a racially biased manner that did not serve the public interest. In its reply the station declared that it “has a policy not to sell or afford time locally for programming dealing with the issue of racial integration.” The NAACP complaint alleged that the station cut off a national news program on the NAACP and the Brown case to squelch any discussion on the air about desegregation and to prevent showing Thurgood Marshall. Station manager Fred Beard complained publicly that the national networks were “overloading the circuits with Negro propaganda.” The station fumbled about for an alternative program and after finding none available simply put a sign on the air “Sorry, Cable Trouble.” A few years later in 1958 the station reiterated its position “not to present local programs dealing with the issue.” In 1961, FCC chairman and Kennedy appointee Newton Minnow made clear to broadcasters that their license renewals every three years were about to become more rigorous and that the FCC would hold public hearings at the local level to determine whether the station was serving the public interest or not. As late as 1963 WLBT continued to maintain that it would not air any “inflammatory” programs and that any program dealing with civil rights, racial issues, or integration would not be aired.[53]


Left, Monument to James Meredith, University of Mississippi Campus, Oxford, Mississippi, May 18, 2012. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user Adam Jones. Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 2.0; Right, James Meredith in conversation with BBC World Service, September 23, 2008. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user BBC World Service. Creative Commons license CC BY-NC 2.0.

In September 1962, however, the station weighed in with segregationist appeals and editorials as James Meredith became the first African American to enroll at the University of Mississippi. WLBT and another station in Jackson, WJLT, were accused of helping to foster an atmosphere of violent resistance and encouraging the mob action that tormented the University campus and left two dead and dozens injured. WLBT broadcast an editorial at the key moment in the crisis over Meredith’s admission to the University of Mississippi that claimed “The word of the hour, the word of the day, the word of the year is: Never!” When the FCC investigated these allegations, it held that only segregationist editorials on the air were under scrutiny, not the news operations and newscasts.[54]

In 1964 the United Church of Christ’s Office of Communications began a study of WLBT’s programming and within a year initiated a lawsuit against the station, its owner, and the FCC to revoke the license. Local African American viewers in Jackson particularly objected to the news anchor, Bob Neblett, whose slippery pronunciation of “Negro” often was heard clearly as “nigra” or “nigger.” “By insinuation, innuendoes and even by his countenance this man expresses contempt for Negroes in his newscasts,” one African American pastor testified. The station’s general manager, Fred Beard, was a prominent participant in the local chapter of the White Citizen’s Council. African Americans made up 45 percent of the population in the station’s broadcast area, the Church of Christ investigation found, yet the station broadcast four hours of religious programming on Sundays without any from an African American church. For many African American witnesses in the suit, the television station was broadcasting in the same pattern of segregation and discrimination that characterized the newspapers owned by the same media companies. These African American men and women considered television an especially influential medium, “because of the type of appeal it makes, its visual impact,” and concluded that WLBT presents news items in the form of “editorial comments which are mostly biased and unfair to Negroes.”[55]

When the FCC voted to give WLBT a year probationary period to develop public interest programming, comply with the Fairness Doctrine, and end racially discriminatory news broadcasting, two of the six commissioners dissented, arguing for an immediate hearing on whether to revoke the license. They considered the case of “unusual importance” because it was one of the earliest legal tests of the Commission’s Fairness Doctrine. According to the two commissioners, the case was important because it was the first “consideration of a possible long continuing pattern of public deception as a means of censoring programs the licensee did not wish to present.”[56]

Witnesses in the case described a pattern of omission and segregation of information in WLBT’s programming and news coverage. Reporters failed to use courtesy titles, covered African American crime not African American schools and colleges, and generally presented the voices of the status quo. One witness, Reverend Edwin King, reported that the station would precede every broadcast of the NBC national news program “Today” with a lead-in that said: “What you are about to see is an example of biased, managed Northern news. Be sure to stay tuned at 7:25 to hear your local newscast.”[57]

Former family home of Medgar Evers and location of his assassination in Jackson, Mississippi, January 27, 2014. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user Tim Adams. Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0.

The WLBT six o’clock evening news broadcast on June 19, 1963, featured a story that African American witnesses probably found familiar and disheartening. The report covered the arrest of two African American men for “the assault and robbery of a white man.” The news anchor boasted on the air that the credit for the arrest belonged to a WLBT television reporter, who “recognized the car [they] were riding in . . . followed the car and called a Jackson policeman to make the arrest.” When the station’s reporters put together stories on major events, such as the Freedom Riders’ coming into Jackson, James Meredith enrolling at the University of Mississippi, or the assassination of Medgar Evers, they presented slanted coverage according to all of the witnesses for the United Church of Christ. “I saw many persons interviewed who were clearly race haters,” one recalled, “but I did not see any Negroes or whites interviewed who favored civil rights or equal treatment for all races.” One witness, Marian E. Musgrave, noting that all of the testimony referred to examples over many years, asked rhetorically, “If these channels had used Negro news as it came along, who would have such an accurate memory?” For African American Jackson residents the segregation they saw daily on the television screens was the same segregation they saw in their newspapers and in their parks, schools, and hospitals.[58]

The United Church of Christ’s statements and testimony pointed to a pattern of censorship, especially of canceling or failing to show national news programs that covered civil rights. What WLBT considered “inflammatory,” the United Church of Christ and African American residents considered educational and news programs in the public interest. A whole series of national programs in the late 1950s and early 1960s investigated the problem of segregation and discrimination in American society. The special programming in August and September 1963 offered the most intensive examination of any nationally significant issue in television’s history. NBC devoted three hours of prime time to its “American Revolution” program and ran it without commercial interruption. Despite these impressively documented and balanced news reports, some local affiliates did not air them, preferring to air more commercially successful programming. When they were shown on local stations, they were often up against other networks’ prime time entertainment and suffered from low ratings. The commercial difficulty of airing in-depth news coverage was widely noted–TV Guide, for example, reported that in the 1960-62 seasons, network television aired over fifteen-hundred hours of news programming but only thirty hours concerned racial issues or civil rights. With pressure from FCC Director Newton Minnow who called television a “vast wasteland” in 1961 and threatened to hold stations accountable for “public interest” programming at license renewal, national networks and local affiliates began to take their news organizations more seriously.[59]

By 1965 the Jackson television stations had begun to change under the pressure of the FCC’s warnings and probationary renewal of the license. WJLT, for example, broadcast live the complete hearings of the Civil Rights Commission for five days. In the gripping testimony before it, the Commission’s findings about the extent of terror, violence, discrimination, and evil practiced by whites against blacks in Mississippi shocked viewers and opened up a world of news. The New York Times ‘s Roy Reed saw the broadcast as a “crack in the racial wall” that business interests in Jackson had opened up. Businessmen wanted law and order, stability, and an end to the racial strife. The “wedge,” Reed argued, “was WJTV’s 90-mile signal.” Reed concluded that the hearings, which WLBT also broadcast as taped segments, opened white local citizens’ eyes. During the commission hearings, Reed reported, people remarked again and again, “the white people of Mississippi don’t know these things.” One African American man, Albert Whitly, told the Commission of his kidnapping and near execution at the hands of white men. Whitly, Reed pointed out, had “no face” to thousands of whites who might never have heard of the incident, but the television broadcast his personal story and in course of the hearings many more like it.[60]

WLBT moved to make a clear reversal from earlier programming and practices to meet FCC guidelines in 1965. Fred Beard, the station’s segregationist general manager, resigned. African Americans were addressed on screen as “Mr.” and “Mrs.” According to the New York Times, the news was “presented without the flagrant anti-Negro bias that once characterized it.” The Reverend Allen Jackson, a local African American civil rights leader, was added to the noontime devotional messages and made his first on-air appearance in this venue in November 1965. These steps could not erase the damage of the past. The Reverend Edwin King, chaplain at Tougaloo College, said “that Mississippi would have seen much less racial violence in the last three years if its leading television stations had fully and objectively informed the residents on racial news.”[61]


Segregation stood for many white southerners as “the way things are done” in the South. For many African American southerners segregation meant discrimination. Like slavery, segregation varied across the South and across time and was woven tightly into the daily experience of blacks and whites. Segregation found its places, indeed its affirmation and power, in social customs and everyday life, as well as in political, religious, legal, and economic practices and ideas. Although segregation was variable and inconsistent, always open to some degree of challenge and testing, it was also so pervasive that it was extraordinarily difficult to bring down.

The modern South’s history is largely the story of legal segregation’s rise and eclipse, how it was created, managed, protested, and eventually dismantled. We can understand segregation’s history as one of gradual accretion, ordinance by ordinance, law by law, followed by slow and uneven effacement, protest, legislation, and litigation. Segregation built up over time, becoming more and more complex, contradictory, and variable, layered with restrictive laws and well-preserved customs.

Taxi cabs with sign “White only, Beck’s cabs” on side, Albany, Georgia, August 18, 1962. Photograph by Warren K. Leffler. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division,

Segregation kept the races apart but also kept them from knowing about and understanding one another. African American southerners had always known more of the white world than their white counterparts knew of theirs. W. E. B. DuBois first explained the “double consciousness” of African Americans—their position seeing the ways whites saw them as well as the ways they saw themselves. DuBois wanted “to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American.” But he recognized that “there stand in the South two separate worlds; and separate not simply in the higher realms of social intercourse, but also in church and school, on railway and street-car, in hotels and theatres, in streets and city sections, in books and newspapers, in asylums and jails, in hospitals and graveyards.”[62]

The African American newspapers that developed in segregation explained the world in ways distinct and separate from their white counterparts. Both black and white papers selected their stories and editorialized in ways that drew on the separation of experience and information. Audiences for both presses read news with visual and rhetorical cues that resonated with their histories, experiences, and knowledge. Even when the African American press’s stories paralleled those in the white press, they diverged significantly in presentation, emphasis, and meaning.

Nowhere but on television would DuBois’ “double consciousness” become more apparent. Nor would it be more effectively demonstrated that African Americans could be both black and American. While some stations used their broadcast privileges to maintain segregation, others followed and felt pressure to follow an approach based on best practices and fairness in news reporting. Wherever they appeared on television, African American leaders and everyday citizens spoke directly to black and white homes, and the television news format itself encouraged inclusion, a form of intimacy and integration that put African American people in white people’s consciousness on a daily basis.

In 1966 several television stations in Virginia carried an interview with James J. Kilpatrick and Roy Wilkins. Kilpatrick was the determined segregationist editor of the Richmond News Leader, the originator of the Interposition strategy for stopping desegregation and the voice of conservative whites. Wilkins, the executive secretary of the NAACP, presented a gradualist, careful voice for integration. After a public address at the Virginia Tech YMCA on March 31st, the two men sat down for a joint interview before the television cameras to discuss among other things the Voting Rights Act. Kilpatrick and Wilkins sat side-by-side and a remarkable sequence of comments burst forth from each. While Kilpatrick denounced what he called “the whole Katzenbach numbers game” as a “travesty” and considered the act a “trespass on the power of the states,” Wilkins stated plainly for the audience his view that election officials in the South have not been “honest” and so needed oversight. While Kilpatrick objected to the act’s pre-clearance provisions that required “running up to Washington” to change election boundaries and rules, Wilkins said a formula of some sort was necessary given the region’s history of voting discrimination.

Wilkins and Kilpatrick spoke at the Virginia Tech YMCA as part of a series on “Conflict in the Great Society.” Both Roanoke television stations used official titles for black and white speakers and attempted to present balanced opinions. As early as the 1950s both stations reported on African American events, businesses, and activities in ways that set them apart from the separate information worlds of black and white newspapers.

The interview, like many others conducted by WSLS and WDBJ reporters, brought reasoned African American voices and arguments into Virginia homes, opening up channels of communication that for decades had been closed. Kilpatrick and Wilkins were in the same room and the WSLS news anchor introduced the film by saying so. The film, however, captured only separate images of the two men. Kilpatrick’s cigarette smoke drifted across the room and into the film of Wilkins, and Wilkins’ presence was audible in the film of Kilpatrick. Despite these separate films, the television station broadcast both men’s voices and arguments.

By the 1960s African American commentators, such as Whitney M. Young of the National Urban League, began to criticize television companies for discrimination and segregation. The WLBT case gained attention and widespread African American dissatisfaction with the network’s programming and their failure to hire African American actors and news reporters made the electronic media seem as segregated as anyplace in America. Conservatives were glad to have the tables turned on television and to find broadcasters on the defensive. The story shifted in the late sixties from conservatives’ crying foul over accusations that television was to blame for exacerbating the South’s racial problems to liberals’ accusing the television networks of bias and foot-dragging on civil rights.

Sorting out the ways television affected the civil rights struggle will require considerably more study of television broadcasters in a variety of locations. The federal government played a role through the FCC guidelines. The demands of the television news format as narrative and as spectacle played an equally significant role. Ownership, of course, affected the television production—in Jackson, Mississippi, it turned the medium toward segregation yet in Roanoke, Virginia, it directed it toward openness. Both civil rights advocates and those resisting changes understood the television’s power as a broadcast medium. They battled to get their messages out to those they had not yet energized and to deflect the powerful images and arguments of one another. Whether the openness that television brought with it had a measurable effect on the minds of Americans remains for debate, but it did change the landscape of segregation at the local level in many places across the South, inaugurating a more direct, more intimate, and more integrated form of communication about the civil rights struggle.



  1. Richmond News Leader, July 27, 1948.
  2. Mary Ann Watson, The Expanding Vista: American Television in the Kennedy Years (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990),: 97. The subject of television and the civil rights struggle has received recent attention in Sasha Torres, Black, White, and in Color: Television and Black Civil Rights (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), and Sasha Torres, ed., Living Color: Race and Television in the United States (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998). In addition, two new books have focused on the WLBT case in Mississippi: Steven D. Classen, Watching Jim Crow: The Struggles Over Mississippi TV, 1955-1969 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004) and Kay Mills, Changing Channels: The Civil Rights Case that Transformed Television (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004).
  3. Brian Ward, ed., Media, Culture, and the Modern African American Freedom Struggle, (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001). See also Beverly Keever et. al., eds. U.S. News Coverage of Racial Minorities: A Sourcebook, 1934-1996 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1997); Carolyn Martindale, The White Press and Black America (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1986); Sharon Bramlett-Solomon, “Southern vs. Northern Newspaper Coverage of the Dime Store Demonstration Movement: A Study of News Play and News Source Diversity,” Mass Communications Review 15, no. 1 (1998); Paul L. Fisher and Ralph L. Lowenstein, eds. Race and the News Media (New York: Praeger, 1967); Allison Graham,”Remapping Dogpatch: Northern Media on the Southern Circuit,” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 56, no. 3 (Autumn 1997): 334-340; Allison Graham, Framing the South: Hollywood, Television, and Race during the Civil Rights Struggle (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).
  4. Some media historians question whether television was so powerful, whether it helped shape public opinion at all. In a recent essay on television’s role on decision-making in 1968 during the Vietnam War, one historian reexamined the widely accepted idea that opposition to Vietnam grew because the American public watched the first “living room war.” The impact of television has been overrated, he argued, and the “living room war” a cliché. Some military historians of the war also downplay the impact of television and media because revisionist critics have tried to pin American withdrawal on intense (and they argue slanted) media coverage. Media historians, too, have reviewed hundreds of hours of television news film and found it visually uninteresting. Television, some argue, mainly followed elite opinion; it did not lead. See David Culbert, “Television’s Visual Impact on Decision-Making in the U.S.A., 1968: The Tet Offensive and Chicago’s Democratic National Convention,” Journal of Contemporary History, 33, no. 3 (July 1998): 419-449. The search for a direct link between television news and the civil rights movement has often been too literal. When former television journalists discuss the subject, they make claims about the power of the medium to change minds and humanize subjects. One prominent television journalist summarized the effect of the medium on the civil rights movement as “showing the red neck of the white south” to the rest of the country. Brian Ward, ed., Media Culture, and the Modern African American Freedom Struggle, (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001). For a view of television as a desegregating force, see S. I. Hayakawa, “Television and the American Negro,” in David Manning White and Richard Averson, eds., Sight, Sound and Society: Motion Pictures and Television in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968). The FCC and the Fairness Doctrine critics, including some television station managers, argued that the effect was “chilling” and that stations tended to avoid controversial subjects, exactly the opposite outcome from the Doctrine’s intent. The Supreme Court of the United States upheld the doctrine in 1967 in Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC 395 US 367 (1967), but in 1984 the Court ruled that the basis for the doctrine no longer applied to the broadcasting business FCC v. League of Women Voters, 468 US 364 (1984). The Court held that the number of cable and network stations had so proliferated that concerns about the scarcity of media outlets could not justify the Fairness Doctrine and its potential restriction of free speech. The FCC set aside the doctrine in 1987 after the Court’s decision. Since 1987 proponents of the Fairness Doctrine have attempted to enact statutory provisions to define and reinstate it. For analysis of the Fairness Doctrine, see Adrian Cronaeur, “The Fairness Doctrine: A Solution in Search of a Problem,” (Symposium: The Transformation of Television News).Federal Communications Law Journal, 47 (October 1994): 51-77. Henry Geller, The Fairness Doctrine in Broadcasting: Problems and Suggested Courses of Action (Santa Monica: Rand, December 1973). Timothy A. Brennan, “The Fairness Doctrine as Public Policy.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 33, no. 4 (Fall, 1989): 419-440. Broadcasters and the Fairness Doctrine: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance of the Committee. (House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance.) 101st Cong., 1st sess., 1989, February 9, 1989. Ford Rowan, Broadcast Fairness: Doctrine, Practice, Prospects: A Reappraisal of the Fairness Doctrine and Equal Time Rule (New York: Longmans, 1984). On television managers views, see Peter M. Sandman, David Rubin, David Sachsman, Media: An Introductory Analysis of American Mass Communications (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1972). The most recent work to look at civil rights and television is Sasha Torres, Black White and in Color, although Torres presents only two chapters on events in the 1950s and 1960s. Torres considers the “visuality” the key ingredient for linking the events of the African American freedom struggle to the emergent business and technical demands of television. (see pp. 16 and 23 for the best analysis of this linkage).
  5. Caption to “Virginia’s Dilemma.” From the 1955 Peabody Digest. (WDBJ-TV, Roanoke, Va., Peabody Collection.)
  6. Washington Post, April 15, 1952.
  7. Washington Post, October 8, 1957. See also Wall Street Journal, March 9, 1956 for an analysis of examples of white segregationist attempts to use the media under their control to put pressure on big national corporations that had exhibited liberal leanings, especially Philip Morris, Ford, Falstaff Beer, and others. For an important article on print culture, see Robert Darnton, “An Early Information Society: News and Media in Eighteenth-Century Paris,” American Historical Review, Vol. 105 no 1, For an excellent overview of the approaches to print culture in American history, see Jennifer Tebbe, “Print and American Culture,” American Quarterly, 32, 3 (1980): 259-279. Tebbe’s analysis explores the two dominant models of social scientific research on mass media and print: content/ analysis and “production of culture” models. The content/ analysis research proceeds from the view that communication is delivered “with purpose of control” and that its main aims are to socialize, persuade, and change attitudes through the transmission of information. The second model emphasizes communication as a cultural process “through which shared culture is created.”
  8. On the Byrd Organization and its role in Virginia, see J. Harvie Wilkinson III, Harry Byrd and the Changing Face of Virginia Politics, 1945-1966 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1968); Ronald L. Heinemann, Harry Byrd of Virginia (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996); Matthew Lassiter and Andrew Lewis, The Moderates’ Dilemma: Massive Resistance to School Desegregation in Virginia (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998). On the media and editorial practices in Virginia, see John T. Kneebone, Southern Liberal Journalists and the Issue of Race, 1920-1944 (The Fred W. Morrison Series in Southern Studies, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985); J. Douglas Smith, Managing White Supremacy: Race Politics and Citizenship in Jim Crow Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Henry Lewis Suggs, ed., The Black Press in the South, 1865-1979 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1983); Henry Lewis Suggs, P. B. Young, Newspaperman: Race, Politics, and Journalism in the New South, 1910-1962 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988).
  9. Washington Post, February 22, 1955.
  10. Richmond Times Dispatch, February 22, 1955.
  11. Charlottesville Tribune, August 18, 1950 and October 13, 1950. The literature on the civil rights struggle’s connection to the Cold War has been received a high level of attention from scholars recently. See especially, Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000); Thomas Borstelmann, The Cold War and the Color Line: American Race Relations in the Global Arena (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001); Nancy E. Bernhard, U. S. Television News and Cold War Propaganda, 1947-1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Timothy B. Tyson, Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999); Barbara Dianne Savage, Broadcasting Freedom: Radio, War, and the Politics of Race, 1938-1948 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999); and Jeff Woods, Black Struggle Red Scare: Segregation and Anti-Communism in the South, 1948-1968 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004).
  12. The Doctrine of Interposition: Its History and Applications, A Report on Senate Joint Resolution 3, General Assembly of Virginia, 1958, Senate Document No. 21.
  13.  Inaugural Address of J. Lindsay Almond, Jr., Senate Document No. 3, January 11, 1958.
  14. See Mary Catherine Wellons, in “‘Mediated’ Communication: Mass Media and the Civil Rights Movement in Danville, Virginia in 1963,” (unpublished undergraduate thesis, University of Virginia, 2004), 67. Also, Len Holt, An Act of Conscience (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965). Holt described what happened during the trials when he asked the local newspaper reporters for information and photographs from the June 10 confrontation. Holt claimed he was “not given cooperation” and subpoenaed all of the reporters at all newspapers in Danville. Washington Post, August 6, 1963. Recently, the Lexington Herald Leader in Kentucky has issued an apology for its blackout of civil rights news in the 1950s and 1960s, see New York Times, July 13, 2004, “40 Years Later Civil Rights Makes Page One.” See also especially, Bob Smith, They Closed Their Schools (Farmville: Martha Forrester, 1996), 23-5. For other accounts of the Prince Edward County school closing, see Amy Murrell, “The Impossible Prince Edward Case,” in Matt Lassiter and Andrew Lewis, ed., The Moderates’ Dilemma: Massive Resistance to School Desegregation in Virginia (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999). On Prince Edward County, see The Saturday Evening Post, April 29, 1961, the Christian Science Monitor, April 5, 1962, and The Nation, November 14, 1966. On Birmingham see New York Times, April 12 and May 4, 1960. See especially Glenn T. Eskew’s analysis of the Birmingham press and its relationship to the national press in But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 142 and 150, and 363 n. 69.
  15. For an account of King’s concern over the national media and John Thomas Porter’s objections to King’s pragmatism, see especially, David Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), 247. Glenn T. Eskew, But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle, 252. Peggy Bobie Thomson, “A Visit to Danville,” The Progressive (November 1963). Sasha Torres, Black White and in Color, argues that “local television played a crucial and unusual role by breaking the local newspapers’ monopoly on information.” (p. 27)
  16. See J. Mills Thornton III, Dividing Lines: Municipal Politics and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002) and Glenn T. Eskew, But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997). There are no book-length treatments of the Danville protests. For an account of the legal issues at stake in Danville, see James W. Ely, Jr., “Negro Demonstrations and the Law: Danville as a Test Case,” 27 Vanderbilt Law Review 927 (October 1974). Ely’s assessment of the Danville legal action was dismissive of the protestors. “One of the most unhappy legacies of the 1960s,” Ely concluded, “was the widespread notion that questions of public policy should be determined by mobs in the street.” Ely considered the Danville protests a “failure” and “that white citizens of Danville paid no attention to such activities.” He found that “Virginians correctly insisted upon obedience to the law and established procedure. Illegal practices in Danville or errors by Judge Aiken could be corrected on appeal and did not furnish an excuse for street mobs.” Ely’s characterization of the protestors as a “mob” and the protests as unnecessary and counterproductive takes up a conservative, paternalistic line that evolved out of the events themselves. See also Dorothy Miller, Danville, Virginia (Atlanta: Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, 1963). For a complete examination of Danville and media role in the events of 1963, see Mary Catherine Wellons, “‘Mediated’ Communication: Mass Media and the Civil Rights Movement in Danville, Virginia in 1963,” (unpublished undergraduate thesis, University of Virginia, 2004).
  17. Richmond News Leader, May 8, 1963, May 6, 1963, and May 4, 1963.
  18. Richmond Times-Dispatch, June 5, 1963.
  19. Richmond Afro-American, April 20, 1963, see also April 27, 1963, May 4, 1963, and May 11, 1963.
  20. Richmond Afro-American, May 18, 1963.
  21. Dorothy Miller, Pamphlet on Danville, Virginia, published by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee of Atlanta, Georgia, Undated, Sarah Patton Boyle Papers, Box 12, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia. See also Len Holt, An Act of Conscience (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965). On the “John Brown law” see also Richmond Afro-American, July 6, 1963. The exact events of the June 10, 1963 remain in some dispute in Danville. Because garbage collectors and others were deputized during the tense standoff and had little formal training in handling protests, some police maintain that the beatings and violence were the natural and unfortunate result. T. Neal Morris, who recently retired as Danville’s police chief, was a on duty as a young officer on June 10, 1963, and recalled that the members of the police force committed none of the violent beatings. He also believes that the media “made us out to be barbaric, a brutal police force.” Danville Register and Bee, June 8, 2003.
  22. Richmond Times-Dispatch, June 11, 1963. Richmond News Leader, June 14, 1963.
  23. Danville Bee, June 11, 1963. Danville Bee, June 12, 1963.
  24. Roanoke World News, September 30, 1958. Richmond News Leader, June 27, 1963.
  25. Danville Bee, November 16, 1963.
  26. “Dr. King to Lead New Danville Drive,” Washington Post, July 13, 1963. For McCain’s announcement that he would use cameras to photograph protestors to go after those not arrested on the scene, see “Jailed Rights Protestors Stage Balk in Danville,” Washington Post, July 27, 1963. For McCain’s later testimony, see Danville, Virginia, Corporation Court, 1963 Civil Rights Case Files, 1963-1973, Local Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia. McCain’s testimony is on Dictabelt 2K204-003. The data on television was compiled from the case files by Mary Catherine Wellons, in “‘Mediated’ Communication: Mass Media and the Civil Rights Movement in Danville, Virginia in 1963,” (unpublished undergraduate thesis, University of Virginia, 2004).
  27. New York Times, June 23, 1963.
  28. Washington Post, August 20, 1956.
  29. New York Times, August 19, 1956.
  30. New York Times, July 31, 1957.
  31. Remmie Arnold to J. Lindsay Almond, Jr., April 13, 1960. Governor J. Lindsay Almond, Jr., Executive Department Papers, Record Group 3, Library of Virginia.
  32. Washington Post, June 8, 1958.
  33. The data on television was compiled from the case files by Mary Catherine Wellons, in “‘Mediated’ Communication: Mass Media and the Civil Rights Movement in Danville, Virginia in 1963,” (unpublished undergraduate thesis, University of Virginia, 2004).
  34. Federal Communications Commission, Report on Editorializing by Broadcast Licensees, 13 FCC 1946 (1949). Portsmouth station quoted in J. Fred MacDonald, Blacks and White TV: Afro-Americans in Television Since 1948 (Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1983), 70-1. Whether all stations in the South adopted this editorial position on civil rights issues remains unclear. The most recent reference to the WAVY statement is in Classen, Watching Jim Crow, 49. Classen considers the WAVY statement a thinly veiled “studied neutrality.” Because we do not know whether WAVY broadcast anything related racial issues, we cannot determine the effective outcome of this policy. The policy, it should be noted, simply stated that the station would not “editorialize” and, in fact, contemplated ongoing coverage and broadcasts. It required those broadcasts to present both sides. This set of guidelines seems quite different from those followed in Mississippi where “hands-off” meant a news black-out.
  35. Federal Communication Commission, License Files, National Archives II, College Park, Maryland, Record Group 173 69A, WDBJ Proposed Typical Week, June 30, 1952 Exhibit # 4. See also MacDonald, Blacks on White TV, 96.
  36. Edward R. Murrow to J. Lindsay Almond, December 22, 1958, Governor J. Lindsay Almond, Jr., Executive Department Papers, Record Group 3, Library of Virginia.
  37. Para Lee Brock to Edward R. Murrow, January 16, 1959, Governor J. Lindsay Almond, Jr., Executive Department Papers, Record Group 3, Library of Virginia.
  38. Federal Communication Commission, License Files, National Archives II, College Park, Maryland, Record Group 173 69A, WCYB Certificate of Renewal of License, and Application for Renewal of License, July 9, 1963.
  39. New York Times, May 30, 1963.
  40. See “Long Race Special Worth Time, Cost,” Washington Post, September 4, 1963. Barnett in NBC’s “The American Revolution of 1963,” charged that “information media, including the TV networks, have publicized and dramatized the race issue far beyond its relative importance in today’s world.” Barnett particularly objected to the coverage of the March on Washington which he found excessive and “propagandized.”
  41. Paul Weaver, “Newspaper News and Television News,” in Television as a Social Force: New Approaches to TV Criticism, ed. Douglass Cater and Richard Adler (New York: Praeger, 1975), 85. African American newspapers might be an exception to Weaver’s general characterization. These weekly newspapers might be considered more integrated and coherent than the white dailies. See Samuel R. Winch, Mapping the Cultural Space of Journalism: How Journalists Distinguish News from Entertainment (Westport: Praeger, 1997), 30.
  42. WSLS Collection, February 20, 1959, News Scripts, Roberston Media Center, University of Virginia Library, and Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia. Roanoke World News, February 20, 1959.
  43. WSLS Collection, September 28, 1958, News Scripts, Roberston Media Center, University of Virginia Library, and Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia. The Roanoke paper did not print on Sunday and the meeting was held on a Saturday.
  44. Richmond Afro-American, June 29, 1963.
  45. The Washington Post, September 5, 1963.
  46. The New York Times, August 29, 1963.
  47. The New York Times, August 29, 1963.
  48. Washington Post, August 20, 1963, Roanoke World News, August 20, 1963.
  49. see Roanoke World News, August 27, 1963.
  50. New York Times, September 8, 1963.
  51. Roanoke World News, August 29, 1963.
  52. Jackson Clarion-Ledger, February 1, 1980, in United Church of Christ Office of Communication Collection, Folder 14, Mississippi State Archives.
  53. “Dissenting Statement of Chairman E. William Henry in which Commissioner Kenneth A. Cox Joins,” United Church of Christ Office of Communications Collection, Folder 11, Mississippi State Archives. MacDonald, Blacks and White TV, 84. Federal Communication Commission, License Files, National Archives II, College Park, Maryland, Record Group 173 69A, Box 315, Vol. 1 and 1A, Mary Jane Morris to Washington Bureau of the NAACP, July 1, 1959.
  54. New York Times, November 11, 1965 and December 13, 1962.
  55. Wendell P. Taylor to Federal Communications Commission, June 5, 1964, and Jacquelyne J. Jackson to Federal Communications Commission, June 15, 1964, United Church of Christ Office of Communications Collection, Box 1, Folder 11, Mississippi State Archives.
  56. “Dissenting Statement of Chairman E. William Henry in which Commissioner Kenneth A. Cox Joins,” United Church of Christ Office of Communications Collection, Box 1, Folder 11, Mississippi State Archives.
  57. Washington Post June 11, 1965.
  58. Marian E. Musgrave to Federal Communications Commission, June 15, 1964, United Church of Christ Office of Communications Collection, Box 1, Folder 11, Mississippi State Archives. News Scripts, Box 1, June 19, 1963, WLBT Newsfilm Collection, 1954-1971, Mississippi State Archives.
  59. MacDonald, Blacks and White TV, 90-2. Programs included for example, “Clinton Law: A Study in Desegregation,” See It Now, January 6, 1957, “The Lost Class of ’59,” See It Now, January 21, 1959, “The Second Agony of Atlanta,” NBC, February 1, 1959, “Sit In,” NBC White Paper, December 20, 1960, “Cast the First Stone,” Closeup, September 27, 1960, “The Freedom Explosion,” CBS Reports, February 15, 1960, “Who Speaks for the South?” CBS Reports, May 27, 1960, “Harvest of Shame,” CBS Reports, November 25, 1960, “Crucial Summer,” ABC, August 11, 1963 to September 8, 1963, “The American Revolution of ’63,” NBC Special, September 2, 1963.
  60. New York Times, February 21, 1965.
  61. New York Times, November 14, 1965.
  62. W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903): 3. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia.


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Originally published by Southern Spaces, an open-access journal free to the public, republished for educational, non-commercial purposes.