Television and the Civil Rights Movement: An Interview with Aniko Bodroghkozy (Part Three)

Today’s civil rights movements, such as the struggles over the DREAM act, are more likely to play out in digital media than through broadcast media, and once again, the debates seem to want to focus on digital media as technology, rather than as a set of social, cultural, and political practices. What lessons might we take from your work on 1960s television to help us understand the role of new media in contemporary political resistance movements?  

Let’s remember that television news in the early 1960s was the era’s “new media,” as digital media like Twitter and Facebook are today.  Any successful social change movement is going to want to exploit and make use of the newest communication tools of its era.  Today it’s social media.

These forms of media obviously do somewhat different things than “old media” like television – the form of communication and contact is different, appeal to audiences is different.  I hear the term “Twitter Revolution” and it puts my teeth on edge.  Twitter no more caused the Arab Spring or the Occupy movement than television caused the civil rights movement or the anti-Vietnam war movement.  In both cases, social change movements used the communication tools of the day and certainly the tools have an impact on how one can communicate, who one can reach, how quickly we can organize, and all the rest.

What concerns me is the centering on the technology as technology and the utopian discourses that surround it all.  As far as digital media, I think Morozov’s The Net Delusion is a useful corrective to the notion that new social media are inherently liberatory.  Social change movements create the impetus for social change – and that requires the hard work of organizing.  Television coverage and social media tools help, but they don’t substitute for organizing and getting lots of people together in real time and space pressing a change agenda and dialoguing with others and confronting others about it.  Some of this can occur in virtual spaces (I think Facebook and Twitter can be great organizing tools – mostly because they are fast and efficient), but I still would argue that social change activists do have to get into the streets and into public spaces as Occupy did – and as the civil rights movement did. 

One of the most important contributions of your book is your focus on reception, specifically the ways that different groups (not simply black vs. white or north vs. south, but different groups of white southerners, say) used television content to stage debates about what forms of social change were or were not acceptable. Too often, we end up with pretty univocal accounts of how southerners responded to the civil rights movement. What were some of the core points of difference that surface when you look at audience response to these broadcasts?

It’s pretty easy to stereotype white Southerners in the civil rights era: either benighted, evil or buffoonish racists or latter-day Atticus Finches taking on the good fight for victimized blacks.  I was interested in really trying to understand how white Southerners responded to the fundamental challenge to their segregationist world view when national media, network television in particular, throws a nationwide spotlight onto race relations in their locales, in particular Birmingham and Selma.

Working with the very large number of letters to the editor I found in Alabama newspapers, along with editorials and commentary that directly addressed media coverage I wanted to analyze and provide interpretive readings of these responses.  One thing I found was a significant degree of media awareness and savvy among white Southerners – they were far more aware of the workings of the media than were non-Southerners or African American commentary in the black press.

In fact, during the key civil rights years (early-mid 1960s) I was struck by how little discussion of the media I found in the black press.  It was like, since the media wasn’t a “problem” for the black empowerment movement, the medium as medium tended to disappear.  The media was telling the truth, “reflecting” what was really happening in the South, so there wasn’t the felt need to interrogate how the media was operating.  At least, that’s my attempt to hypothesize about the dearth of discourse about media in the black press during this period.

The situation is very different in the Alabama press.  Lots of attention to the role played by national media and particularly the “new media”: television.   And since most of these Southerners didn’t want to believe that what they were seeing on their TVs was true, they had to explain what was going on.  There were a lot of accusations that King and the movement merely wanted “publicity.”  Publicity for what?  Well, King was power mad or wanted to curry influence in Washington.  The movement’s stated reasons for the publicity campaigns couldn’t be grappled with.

These Southerners were, of course, correct that King and the movement staged marches and demonstrations to get media attention: they needed publicity on a national scale.  The movement, on the other hand, could never admit that they were staging “media events.”  White Southerners could see this, but for the most part had to stop right there.  To engage the next question: why do these marchers want this national attention, what are they marching for and against, would lead to scary answers.

If the Southern white worldview is founded, as it was, on the premise that segregation works for everyone and that blacks are just as content with the situation as whites, then to really engage the fundamental question profoundly threatens that worldview.  So many white Southerners had to evade and look for other things to focus on: the “Northern-ness” of network television, for instance.  Or media bias: why the focus on bad race relations in Selma when blacks and whites are killing each other in New York subways?  Why doesn’t the media focus on racism in the North?  Valid questions, but they do help to evade the big issue about Jim Crow and voter disenfranchisement.

Occasionally with some letter writers and editorialists, the media images broke through: especially during the 1965 Selma voting rights campaign, particularly when white volunteers got murdered.  In a number of cases, there were anguished concerns about the “image” of Alabama that the rest of the country is getting: what does this say about Alabama?  Who are we?  How are we going to have to change?  I see these as cracks in the hegemonic segregationist armour and clues to how a previously naturalized worldview starts slowly to disintegrate.

As a historian of reception practices, the one thing I wanted to try to do was avoid taking a condescending attitude to these segregationist discourses and the people who were producing this discourse.  It’s easy to feel superior and know that these folks were on the wrong side of history.  They didn’t know that.  I

n some ways I found Northerners, particularly those who responded to the East Side/West Side episodes that explored race relations topics in Northern locales, as equally blinkered.  Even though these episodes were clearly marked as occurring in New York City and its environs, numerous letter writers would discursively locate the problem back to the South.  The real race problem was there; Southerners were the ones who should be watching these shows to learn about the plight of black people.   “Dumb” white Southerners were the problem, no matter where blacks faced oppression and discrimination.

One of the surprising discoveries you made was that while the networks did cover aspects of the March on Washington “live,” they cut away from what we now see as the key moments in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. What do you think motivated that decision?

All three networks carried significant amounts of live coverage of the March on Washington which occurred, by the way, on a Wednesday.  Nowadays it’s no spectacular feat to get masses of people to Washington for a march, but they always happen on the weekend.  Try to get a quarter of a million people to the national Mall on a weekday!

Along with the live coverage during the day, CBS that evening provided a prime time news programme that both recapped the events of the day and provided background about the March.  For people interested in the March, CBS’s prime time coverage is probably where they first got their sense of what happened.  Now this is the pre-sound bite era.  The news special provided long excerpts for quite a number of the speeches that preceded King’s.

Finally we get to King who provided the final speech of the day.  King’s speech can be divided into two halves: the first part provides some rationale for why people are massed at the Mall and why blacks are not satisfied with the racial status quo or the pace of change.  The second part of the speech is the one we all know: the soaring oratory of “I have a dream” and King’s vision of an America redeemed.  So, when CBS news personnel make their decision of what to excerpt from the speech, what do they go with?

Believe it or not, they cut away just as King launches into “I have a dream.”  When I first saw this news programme at the CBS News Archive, my jaw just about hit the floor when I realized that the most important words of the most important speech of the 20th century ended up on the cutting room floor.  It’s a pretty major journalistic gaffe.  But why?

I suggest that in 1963, reporters and news personnel didn’t know what to do with “I have a dream.”  King isn’t speaking politically any more; he isn’t given a list of grievances.  He is preaching.  Drew Hansen in his book about the speech really helped me to understand what the journalistic decision-making must have been.  King was no longer a political leader, he was now a visionary prophet, akin to Isaiah in the Bible.  This wasn’t a King that journalists were familiar with – outside of black churches, no one had really heard King speaking like this.

Aniko Bodroghkozy  is Associate Professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. Prof. Bodroghkozy received her PhD in 1994 from the University of Wisconsin/Madison’s Department of Communication Arts where she worked with John Fiske and Lynn Spigel. She received an MFA in Film from Columbia University in New York, and a BA High Honours from the Department of Film Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. Prof. Bodroghkozy’s first book, Groove Tube: Sixties Television and the Youth Rebellion was published by Duke University Press in 2001. She has published numerous articles on American cinema and television and the social change movements of the postwar era. Her work has appeared in scholarly journals such as Cinema Journal, Screen, Television and New Media, and the online TV Studies journal Flow. Her current book project, Black Weekend: Television News and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy is a narrative history exploring the four days of network coverage surrounding the death of JFK.  She is also editing the forthcoming Blackwell Companion to the History of American Broadcasting.