Televising Black Politics in the Black Power Era: Black Journal and Soul!
"Televising Black Politics in the Black Power Era: Black Journal and Soul!" was launched in 2020 and curated by Christine Acham, Chair & Professor, Academy for Creative Media, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa; and Ashley Young, Ph.D. Candidate, Cinema and Media Studies, University of Southern California.
Televising Black Politics in the Black Power Era
“Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white- separate and unequal."1
Televised images of the Civil Rights Movement have been ingrained into the U.S. collective memory. Black people attacked by dogs, protestors assaulted at lunch counters, fire hoses turned on children — non-violent protest and repressive violence garnered the sympathy of much of the nation. Martin Luther King Jr. was well aware of the power of television and used cameras within his protest strategy, at times cancelling events if he knew that the press would not be there. These images compelled both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to intercede on behalf of African Americans, confronting the violence and repression they experienced daily.2
On the other hand, the Black Power Movement — in its many forms, interpretations and practices — and the urban revolts sparked in major cities across the US in the mid- to late 1960s, for example, Watts (1965), Chicago (1966), and the uprisings during the “long hot summer” of 1967 — were generally met with fear from the mainstream public and misunderstanding from the majority of television news outlets. Yet the riots were the direct result of the racism, police brutality, limited opportunity and general lack of change that many organizations in both the Civil Rights and Black Power movements sought to address.3
In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson established the National Advisory Committee on Civil Disorders, often referred to as the Kerner Commission, to explore the cause of the riots and determine what could be done to prevent them from happening again. The commission was specifically asked to explore the effects of the mass media on the riots. It judged riot reporting to be sensationalized and indicated that it “failed to analyze and report adequately on racial problems in the United States.” The commission further argued that “media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world.”4 The commission’s report stated that the media did not explore the problems that Blacks faced in the country or even acknowledge Black history and culture. In considering the media’s role in contributing “to the black-white schism in this country,” the commission suggested the need for increased hiring of Blacks not only as news reporters, but also in positions of influence such as writers and editors.5
At the time of the uprisings in 1968 that followed the assassination of King, National Educational Television (NET) was more willing and more prepared than commercial network television to distribute content that engaged with issues pertaining to Black America. For example, under the banner of NET Journal, it had already aired “Midsummer 1967” (8/1967), an on-location moderated conversation between the white and Black citizens of Newark, New Jersey, about the conditions that led to the uprisings. The show concluded with an in-studio summary of the event. NET Journal also had released Where Is Prejudice? (11/12/1967), a multi-ethnic and multi-religious experiment that brought together African American, Asian American, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant students to discuss the question of prejudice in the country. The experiment elicited honest and sometimes disturbing responses from the participants. NET also had several other documentaries in production and released them in the weeks following King’s assassination.
Civil Rights: What Next? (4/11/68) was a moderated panel discussion between African American political leaders James Forman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and Floyd McKissick of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), who were located in New York, and white commentators John Field of the US Conference of Mayors, James Kilpatrick, a journalist from Virginia, and Rep. Charles Mathias (R-MD), located in Washington. The contentious conversation was an attempt to show different points of view on the causes of racism in the United States; however, the conversation became so argumentative that at one point the producers cut off the microphones on the New York panel. The discussion led to no concrete solutions and the moderator concluded by saying, “I’m afraid the lesson of this hour is strongly that to expose racial problems in the United States in 1968 is to exacerbate them rather than to help solve them.”
Still a Brother: Inside the Negro Middle Class (4/29/1968) was produced, edited, and directed by African American filmmaker William Greaves. Narrated by Ossie Davis, the documentary follows the lives of wealthy Black Americans from a variety of occupations — higher education, publishing, and politics — who discuss their lives within primarily white circles. Through imagery and interviews, the film contrasts their lives with those of working class Black people, some engaging in a discussion on the current state of Black affairs.
Color Us Black (5/6/1968) interrogates conflicts at Howard University, which led to the four-day occupation of the administration building. The students discuss their dissatisfaction with their education, which they see as molding them to imitate white society or to accept a place as second-class citizens. They also contemplate different ways of achieving Black liberation. The second half of the documentary is a fictional film created by Howard student Benjamin Land. NET provided the technical equipment to create the film, which explores notions of Black identity in an interracial world.
While NET Journal offered space for Black voices, filmmakers, and subjects, the shows often sought to create a “balance” in perspectives, as suggested by the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine. Midsummer 1967 and Civil Rights: What Next? are two such examples. In striving for this level of fairness, the shows provide little context for the introduction of new viewpoints on Blackness.
The need for shows created from a Black perspective was essential if public television was to truly fulfill the mandate of the Kerner Commission and fully integrate African Americans into all aspects of news production. Local public television stations established Black public affairs programs in major cities across the US, including Say Brother (Boston), New Mood, New Breed (Philadelphia), Like It Is (New York), Colored People’s Time renamed American Black Journal (Detroit), Our People (Chicago), Minority Matters (Kansas City) and Harambee (Washington). However, while public television stations were willing to target Black audiences, programming often was created under the editorial control of established white producers. Black journalists, filmmakers, and producers had to advocate to shift control of these programs into the hands of African Americans.
A few of these programs such as Black Journal (NET, New York) and Soul! (WNDT, New York) and the aforementioned Say Brother (WGBH, Boston) became national shows and were broadcast across a wide range of public television stations. The appearance of African American- produced public affairs programming at such a critical moment in US political history opened the door for a discussion of a variety of African American political viewpoints outside the integrationist politics espoused by Civil Rights activists.
Since Stokely Carmichael had called for Black Power during his June 16, 1966, speech in Greenwood, Mississippi, the concept of Black Power was largely depicted by mainstream media as radical and potentially dangerous. 6 African American produced public and cultural affairs programming, however, gave voice to the changing political tide evident in the Black Power ethos of the time. These shows expressed a variety of political viewpoints and were often not tethered to the FCC’s “Fairness Doctrine” that required television shows to exhibit a balanced view on controversial topics. The producers of these shows, such as Black Journal producer William Greaves and Ellis Haizlip of Soul!, believed that for far too long television had excluded Black viewpoints all together. Black produced public affairs programs allowed for multiple perspectives on strategies for Black empowerment to be seen across national airwaves for the very first time in US history.