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

You suggest that the news media made “common cause” with the civil rights movement in bringing some of their concerns to the American public. What motivated the national news media to embrace this story? What were the limits of their commitment to the cause?  

It was a limited common cause. Around issues such as integration of schools and public spaces, along with voting rights, the media was largely supportive.  But Presidents Kennedy and Johnson also embraced those goals.  The news media, television in particular, tended to be very positively inclined to JFK and was as well to LBJ in the early period of his administration when he appeared to be trying to carry out the Kennedy agenda, particularly the Civil Rights Act that passes in 1964.  The legislative goals of the movement were “legitimated” by the fact that there was significant support among both Democratic and Republican officials outside the South. These were somewhat less partisan times, certainly in media coverage.  Television news deferred quite a bit to the president.

But one thing surprised me as I examined TV news coverage.  Reporters tended to become far more critical of civil rights activists and civil rights campaigns when things turned violent.  In reading transcripts of NBC coverage of the sit-in movement, I was surprised to discover that the reporter refused to identify who was being violent.  The reporter kept using the passive voice so it wasn’t clear that white segregationists were the ones pummeling sit-in demonstrators.

At other times, however, when the violence was so clearly marked between victim and aggressor, there was less criticism of the civil rights activists.  When voting rights marchers in Selma were brutally gassed and beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in full view of a battery of cameras, there was no attempt to suggest that the marchers were participating in creating the mayhem.  However, in another news story from Selma that I viewed, the CBS reporter was somewhat critical of very youthful demonstrators who, unlike their elders, did not present docile bodies, but ranged around the streets and back alleys during their march.  In general, there appeared to be more anxiety about the activities and potential threat of black youths (who were, of course, fundamentally important to the success of civil rights campaigns, particularly those of direct action and civil disobedience).

It’s a weird paradox: TV news was drawn to the civil rights story to some extent because it provided dramatic visuals of violence and a powerful good versus evil narrative, but reporters tended to criticize the violence that drew them to the story in the first place.

You write in the book about “a moment [in the 1960s] of non-stereotypical, respectable middle-class blacks” on fictional television. What factors gave rise to this moment and which led to its decline? How do these fictional black characters relate to the idealized civil rights subject that you suggest was constructed through the evening news?

It seems that every era of media representation of African Americans is attempting to respond differently to the era that precedes it.  I open the book with a consideration of The Beulah Show and Amos ‘n’ Andy, the early 1950s shows featuring blacks in starring roles.  We tend to consider them to be stereotyped and degrading images of blacks.  At the time, however, the thinking about these representations was somewhat more complicated.  Beulah, the black housekeeper to a white family, was seen by some (including some in the black press) as equal to her employers, middle-class in deportment, not using dialect, and in general a good role model.  In developing Amos ‘n’ Andy for television, CBS very deliberately elevated them and the Kingfish to middle class status presumably to make them appear less disrespectable and buffoonish.  Nevertheless, both shows, and especially Amos ‘n’ Andy, were subject to high profile protest by the NAACP, and were off the air by 1953.

Prime time becomes a very “white-washed” world from then on till the early-mid 1960s.  Network programming philosophy was: appeal to the most, offend the least.  Black performers tended to cause controversy – witness the case of Nat King Cole and his 1957 variety show which couldn’t secure a sponsor.  The “integrating” of prime time entertainment programming is, of course, a direct result of the civil rights movement.  It was becoming more of a problem to not show at least occasional black performers or black characters.

Herman Gray came up with the concept “civil rights subject” when he was writing about how television tended to remember civil rights.  The civil rights subject in his original formulation is the latter-day beneficiary of the movement: an exemplary figure signified by hard work, individualism, middle-class status.  The Huxtable family of The Cosby Show is the quintessential example of this concept.  What I argue in my book is that this “civil rights subject” is also evident in television representations (both in news coverage and in prime time entertainment) during the civil rights era.  The most notable early example in prime time drama is Bill Cosby again!  In 1965 he’s paired with a white partner in the Cold War espionage series, I Spy.  Cosby’s character can’t just be a spy, though: he’s a Rhodes scholar who speaks eleven languages and is clearly superior to everyone around him (except that his white buddy gets all the girls).  I Spy gives us a colour-blind, post-integrationist world where our two heroes can range around the world to Cold War hot spots (typically in Asian countries that look “exotic”) and represent a black-and-white America that doesn’t have anything to do with racism.

Bill Cosby’s character is the opposite of a victim, but another form of early 1960s programming did focus on blacks-as-victims – the “social problem” dramas that appeared in direct response to both the idealism of the Kennedy New Frontier and also industry anxiety about tougher regulation by the new FCC chairman, Newton Minow who castigated television as “a vast wasteland.”  One show I look at, East Side/West Side, focuses on the crusades of an idealistic white social worker in New York City.  One very high profile episode examines the plight of a young Harlem couple dealing with the lack of jobs for black men and horrendous ghetto housing conditions (their baby dies after begin bitten by a rat).  Even though the couple is obviously poor and living in degraded conditions, they are presented to us as middle-class seeming, dignified, hard-working, eminently respectable – although James Earl Jones, as the husband, portrays a barely contained rage against his oppression.  The characters, nevertheless, are presented to white viewers as ones deserving of help – the only thing standing in the way of their achieving middle-class status and integration into the white world is employment discrimination and slum housing.  So there’s that similar appeal that we see in news and photojournalism coverage: helpless but worthy blacks, enlightened, caring whites as potential rescuers.

But shows like East Side/West Side were a bit grim for prime time Nielsen families.  The quintessential civil rights subject after Bill Cosby in I Spy was Diahann Carroll in Julia, which came on air in 1968 and was the first TV series to star an African American since the days of Amos ‘n’ Andy and Beulah.  Julia was colour-blind integration fully achieved.  She’s a nurse with white co-workers and she lives in a LA apartment building with white neighbours.  Except for mostly humourous instances of “prejudice,” Julia and her adorable young son personify a world of interracial harmony.  The show was controversial because as network television’s first high profile attempt to center a show around African Americans, it ran up against the rapid shifts in the black empowerment movement and what was going on with race in the US at that point.  By 1968 with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts having passed, the attention shifted North and there’s more of a focus on economic oppression and “de facto” segregation and the situation with black inner city “ghettos.”  The movement also shifts into more confrontational directions that are more discomforting to liberal and moderate whites.  Julia was a popular show but arguments swirled around it suggesting that the show was out of touch with what was really going on: the show wasn’t “telling it like it is.”


You see the book as seeking to correct some common misunderstandings about the role of television during the civil rights era. What do you see as the most widespread misinterpretations of this period?


I think it’s similar to the misunderstanding about television and the Vietnam War.  Television did not embrace the cause of the anti-war movement and thereby lead the US population to demand the war’s end.  (See Daniel Hallin’s The “Uncensored War.”)  Similarly television didn’t cause the success of the civil rights movement.  Television was not a mouthpiece for the movement; news coverage did not transmit or reflect the positions, perspectives, and arguments of the movement in some simple, one-directional sort of way.  I see this over and over again in histories of the civil rights era: the nation saw it on television and the nation acted.  This reifies the medium, gives us television as a neutral mirror reflecting what’s in front of the camera.   No attention to television as an institution and industry, or to textual construction, or to reception practices – all the issues that we as media scholars explore.  This is preaching to the choir when I say this to fellow media studies folks, but I’m hoping my book gets read by non-media scholars, too!

Was network television in general sympathetic to the legislative goals of the movement?  Yes.  But as I’ve already noted, so were powerful political players.  Was the movement sympathetic to many of the movement’s strategies, including demonstrations, direct action, civil disobedience?  In general, no.  For instance, in the run-up to the March on Washington, the media (and not just television) was very critical of the prospect of a hundred thousand and more black people converging on the nation’s capital.  The recurring news peg was “violence is inevitable” and “mass marches won’t sway congressional votes anyway.”  When violence didn’t occur on the day of the march, the live coverage became largely celebratory with images mostly focused on dignified, middle-class-looking marchers – ideal “civil rights subjects” – who presented docile, smiling, and unthreatening images.  But newsmen covering the event continued to insist that the quarter of a million marchers wouldn’t sway votes, so what was the point of the march.

So I really want to undercut and question a certain amount of technological utopianism and determinism that I see in civil rights historiography and also in popular memory.  Television coverage was crucial to the movement, of course; the movement did not, however, fundamentally control either the medium or its messages.  The medium and the movement were not one and the same; that fact tends to get lost.

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, Televisionand 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.