Freedom Song: Interviews from Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965

Media and the Press

Media and the press profoundly shaped civil rights history. For activists, coverage of the movement—or, more specifically, coverage of segregationist law enforcement's violent response to the movement—helped win them supporters outside the South. For State Department officials, international news reports on racial inequality and violence threatened the U.S. image abroad, jeopardizing efforts to secure international alliances in the fight against communism.64 And for reporters, news outlets, and radio and TV networks, the conflict in the South raised questions about the limits of journalistic neutrality.

Civil rights activists understood the power of media coverage of the struggle. They hoped that images of police siccing dogs on peaceful protesters and stories of hateful white mobs spewing invective at Black students would appeal to the nation's conscience.65 By gaining support outside the South, activists sought to increase pressure on government officials to take decisive action in support of desegregation.

As a correspondent for NBC News covering the civil rights movement, journalist Richard Valeriani sustained serious injuries at a demonstration in Marion, Alabama, in 1965—the same demonstration where a state trooper fatally shot Jimmie Lee Jackson. In his interview with Callie Crossley, Valeriani agrees with her that in choosing where to campaign, march, or protest, activists considered how local law enforcement would respond and how the media would portray that response: "The movement leaders decided to go to Birmingham because Bull Connor was there, and they decided to go to Selma because Jim Clark was there. And they knew how Bull Connor would react, and they knew how Jim Clark would react, and they knew how that would affect the rest of the nation."

Civil rights activists exploited media coverage of the strongarm strategies of segregationist law enforcement like Connor and Clark. Their aggression toward peaceful protesters garnered the movement sympathy from liberal whites. It also provoked anxiety among U.S. officials concerned about the country’s reputation abroad. In episode four, "No Easy Walk," narrator Julian Bond describes the impact of the news of Bull Connor’s use of fire hoses and attack dogs against protesters: "Photographs appeared in newspapers throughout the world, and the Birmingham story was told in many languages. The Russian newspaper Pravda ran a cartoon of police intimidating a Black child. The federal government worried about America's image in other parts of the world."

Not everyone in the movement supported the strategy of using media to win sympathy, however. For Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), doing so "played into the hands of racism." This is because, according to Carmichael, white-dominated media outlets and the white public paid little attention to the murders of Black activists but responded with outrage when white activists were killed. In his interview, Orloff Miller, a minister active in the Selma campaign, affirms Carmichael’s point. Discussing the death of James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister, Miller says: "It's a terrible thing to have to say, but for some reason, it took the death of a white clergyman to turn things around. […] Because when Jim Reeb was killed in Selma, Alabama, a white clergyman from the North, people suddenly sat up and took notice, and from then on, things changed in the movement."

Fig. 10. Right to Left: Memorials for Viola Liuzzo, Jimmie Lee Jackson, and James Reeb. In his interview, Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) says the deaths of white activists like Liuzzo and Reeb garnered more national press attention than the murders of Black activists. (Images courtesy of Library of Congress and Wikimedia.)
Right to Left: Viola Liuzzo, Jimmie Lee Jackson, and James Reeb. Image courtesy

James Hicks and the Black Press

In The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, Gene Roberts and Hank Kilbanoff argue that press coverage of the civil rights movement forced white America to confront the brutalities of Jim Crow. This was necessary for the civil rights protests to succeed, they claim: by appealing to their consciences, the mainstream press stirred whites to demand change.66

It wasn’t just white owned-and-operated media outlets, however, that covered the movement, and it wasn’t only whites who followed the news. Black reporters from publications like the Baltimore Afro-American, the New York Amsterdam News, and Jet Magazine reported the story for a Black readership that spanned the country. "The critical role of the black press in the civil rights movement has not received the attention it deserves," writes veteran reporter Dorothy Butler Gilliam, who covered the integration of Little Rock Central High School and the University of Mississippi. For Gilliam, Black reporters did more than tell the story of civil rights; they "put their bodies in danger so the sacrifices of activists would not go unnoticed."67 In this way, they not only reported the movement; they were a part of it.

One reporter who put his life on the line to tell the civil rights story was James Hicks. Hicks served as the Washington, DC, Bureau Chief of the National Negro Press and is today regarded as one of the era's best investigative reporters.

Fig. 11. James Hicks during his interview for Eyes on the Prize.
Image of James Hicks during his interview for Eyes on the Prize.

Hicks’s interview frames Eyes I’s account of the Emmett Till murder trial. The coverage of the trial was a turning point in civil rights reporting. While it was rare for white reporters from northern papers to write about racial violence in the Jim Crow South, at least fifty reporters from across the country descended on the tiny town of Sumner, Mississippi (population 550) to cover the story. "White and Negro reporters worked in the same room covering the same story with virtually the same amount of access and opportunity," write Roberts and Kilbanoff.68 Hicks, however, that the Black press was relegated to a bridge table in the back of the courtroom while white reporters sat at the front. And as both Hicks’s interview and the stories he recounts in his investigative reporting on the Till trial make clear, Black journalists faced dangers that white journalists did not in covering the case.

Hicks also discusses media coverage of the integration of Little Rock Central High School. A white mob attacked Hicks, L. Alex Wilson of the Tri-State Defender, and Moses Newson with the Baltimore Afro-American while they reported from Little Rock. "The white press did not pick up on the fact that Faubus would not let the Black press into his press conferences," Hicks recalls. "The three of us represented the Black press. That was all. And we were kicked around by the mob; my clothes were torn off." Hicks says television failed to capture the brutality of events that day in Little Rock.

The Interviews

The Blackside film crew interviewed the following journalists, broadcasters, and media professionals:

Joseph Azbell: City editor at the Montgomery Advertiser during the Montgomery bus boycott

Hodding Carter III: Reporter and editor who advocated for civil rights through his work at the Delta-Democrat Times in Greenville, Mississippi

Carl Daniels: Birmingham, Alabama, radio and television journalist

James Forman: Covered the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School for the Chicago Defender

Wendell Harris: Worked for WAPI radio and television networks in Birmingham, Alabama

James Hicks: Washington Bureau Chief for the National Negro Press; editor of the New York Amsterdam News

William Bradford Huie: Interviewed Emmett Till’s killers for Look magazine after they were acquitted; in their interview, they confessed, but because of double-jeopardy, they could not be retried

Erle Johnston: Public Relations Director, Missouri State Sovereignty Commission

John Seigenthaler: Reporter and editor of the Tennessean in Nashville from 1949 to 1972

William J. Simmons: Editor and publisher of The Citizen, a Citizens’ Council publication; also served as the white supremacist group’s spokesperson on local and national television

Richard Valeriani: Correspondent with NBC News

Thomas R. Waring: Editor of the News and Courier, a newspaper in Charleston, South Carolina; author of the article, "The Southern Case against Desegregation"

Robert Williams: Hosted a radio program, "Radio Free Dixie," in Cuba from 1961 to 1965, published the newsletter The Crusader beginning in 1962, and wrote the book Negroes with Guns, published in 1965

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