Wednesday 28 August 2013

In the Glaring Light of Television

"We are here to say to the white men that we no longer will let them use clubs on us in dark corners.  We're going to make them do it in the glaring light of television." (Martin Luther King Jr. upon a sheriff's posse's beating of peaceful protesters marching from Selma to Montgomery in 1965)

Time coverage of Selma to Montgomery March courtesy

In the modern novel The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, white housewives shielded their black domestics from the television coverage of the Civil Rights Movement.  Upon further inspection, I discovered that some Southern networks blacked out these news telecasts to keep Blacks in the dark.  In the era before television, it was much easier to pull the wool over America's eyes.

The Help courtesy

Newspapers often only reached a local audience.  Magazines were also limited in their scope, although the picture magazines Life and Look had a national audience.  But it was the advent of television in the late 1940's and the proliference of television sets in American homes (90%) in the early 1960's, that brought the Civil Rights Movement into America's living rooms.  Now, not only would Southern Blacks be informed, but also Northern Whites.  Television brought graphic evidence of the violence perpetrated by Whites against Blacks (and sometimes White protesters) to an international audience.  Even the citizens of Europe were privy to what was going on in the Deep South.

Photo taken by Charles Moore, Life Magazine, courtesy

Decisions in the courts like Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 angered racist Whites.  The images of empty busses in Montgomery made Whites scratch their heads.  The lunch counter sit-ins made their blood boil.  Citizens' Councils were on the rise.  And with them, the rise of violence. With every stride made by Blacks, racist Whites dug their heals in deeper and deeper.

Lunch counter sit-in courtesy

Television was at the front and centre fifty years ago today when 200,000 protesters converged at the Washington Monument, lining both sides of the Reflecting Pool, as Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream Speech".

March on Washington, August 28, 1963 courtesy

Television helped America wake up to the inequality in its midst.  In fact, while ABC was airing the movie "Judgment at Nuremburg" about the trials of several Nazi leaders who murdered Jews, they decided to interrupt the showing with a news bulletin showing the nightsticks and tear gas aimed at peaceful protesters on the Selma to Montgomery March.  According to one writer, the contrast between the two stories "struck like psychological lightning in American homes".

Former Freedom Rider John Lewis being beaten by a State Trooper on Bloody Sunday, during the Selma to Montgomery March circa 1965 courtesy

Television not only informed America about the Civil Rights Movement, but it also united Black communities, making them more determined than ever to break the chains of segregation.  No longer relegated to the "dark corners" of America, they were now on television screens for all the world to see.  Whites could no longer deny what was happening.  President Kennedy, initially on the fence but embarrassed at the airing of his country's dirty laundry, was now forced to confront the problem head on.

JFK's Civil Rights speech on June 11, 1963, courtesy

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