Public opinion and media coverage of the civil rights Movement

Abstract

Despite immense popular support and the legitimacy of its objectives, it cannot be denied that the civil rights movement was very much dependent on national media coverage for its growth. Critics, however, pointed out that the manner in which mass media covered particular civil rights events was shallow and erratic. Too much focus was given on dramatic, unusual and violent occurrences, while complex issues were largely ignored. As a result, some accounts of the movement were inaccurate, if not misleading.

Public Opinion and Media Coverage of the Civil Rights Movement

The civil rights movement is a milestone in the history of the United States. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, black Americans engaged in a political, legal and social struggle to attain full citizenship rights and racial equality. Individuals and civil rights organizations conducted activities such as demonstrations and boycotts in order to protest segregation and discrimination. The civil rights movement is likewise referred to as the Second Reconstruction, the Black Freedom Movement and the Negro Revolution (MSN Encarta, 2008).

Despite immense popular support and the legitimacy of its objectives, it cannot be denied that the movement was very much dependent on national media coverage for its growth. By the early 1960s, about 90% of all African-American families owned a television set – they could therefore easily watch black leaders, as well as scuffles between black activists, white racists and the police. In the process, information about the movement spread widely and rapidly throughout the black community (Young, 1977).

“Black Power:” The Politics of Race

Critics, however, pointed out that the manner in which mass media covered particular civil rights events was shallow and erratic. Too much focus was given on dramatic, unusual and violent occurrences, while complex issues were largely ignored. Although the American public was bombarded with images of violent dispersals, the underlying causes of these conflicts were unexplained. The civil rights movement was therefore reduced to “a kind of drama to be followed and described, (rather than as a) severe social maladjustment (that the media had to discuss thoroughly)” (Larson, 2005).

Public Truth

Under the guise of objectivity, mass media often comes up with what is known as “public truth.” “Public truth” refers to opinions, beliefs or information that, while not necessarily accurate, is considered acceptable and functions as if it were a rationally demonstrated truth. In order to generate a “public truth,” the media usually resort to commission and omission. Politically incorrect views are suppressed, while ideas that do not challenge a dominant pattern of thinking are encouraged (Larson, 2005).

While creating “public truths” may appear to be a safe way of discussing controversial issues, it is not without negative consequences. The idea of “public truth” entails the withholding of important but inconvenient information. This lack of information may result in the perpetuation of certain stereotypes, if not the creation of new ones (Schram, Soss and Fording, 2003).

The article 200 Negroes End Atlanta Sit-in Truce (1960), for instance, merely reported that a month-long truce between black sit-in demonstrators and white merchants in Atlanta abruptly ended. It did not even specify what triggered the conflict to begin with and what led to the sudden halt of the truce. The article, however, was quick to note that black students were already setting up picket lines around seven stores in downtown Atlanta. Such a distorted manner of reporting is dangerous, as it promoted the centuries-old stereotype of blacks as lazy and undisciplined individuals.

Roy Reed’s article Alabama Police Use Gas and Clubs to Rout Negroes (1965) likewise failed to report adequately on the causes and effects of racial inequality. The report merely relied on emotional appeal by providing moving accounts of casualties:

Negroes lay on the floors and chairs, many weeping and moaning. A girl in red slacks was carried from the house screaming. Mrs. Boynton lay semi-conscious on a table.          Doctors and nurses threaded feverishly through the crowd administering first aid and         daubing a solution of water and baking soda on the eyes of those who had been in the             worst of the gas. (p. 1)

It is true that images of helpless civilians being beaten up by armed police officials may shock ordinary Americans into supporting the civil rights movement. But such misinformation could likewise result in the illusion that the movement is violent and therefore deserves to face the full force of the law. Deeper issues such as police brutality and discrimination are ignored. In the process, hatred towards blacks may further intensify.

M.S. Handler’s article Farmer Says Mood of Negroes Is One of Growing Militancy (1966) is much worse. The author interviewed James Farmer, the writer of the book Freedom – When? (n.d.) Below is Farmer’s view on the civil rights movement:

Demonstrations in the last few years have provided literally millions of Negroes with    their first taste of self-determination and political self-expression. We might think of   the demonstration as a rite of initiation through which the black man is mustered into       the sacred order of freedom. (p. 41)

Handler, in turn, wrote: “Mr. Farmer attributed the new revolutionary mood of the Negro people who wish to win their freedom instead of receiving it as a gift from the white man to a number of factors” (Handler, 1966). Given this opinion of his, Handler portrayed black leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X as responsible for the violence that black activists experience during protest marches.

Because King and Malcolm X urged black Americans to fight for their rights, Handler assumed that they are sending black activists to their deaths in violent dispersals. What Handler conveniently forgot was that protests marches are supposed to be peaceful because the US Constitution guarantees every American citizen the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. If civil rights demonstrations end up in bloody dispersals, it is because of police brutality and institutional violence of the US government (Bove, Kaplan and Concerned Philosophers for Peace, 1995).

Conclusion

Mass media is indeed a very powerful social institution. Its ability to rapidly transmit information allowed it to play an important role in the growth of the civil rights movement. However, much of the news coverage of particular civil rights events ignored, criticized and even demonized black activists. As a result, some accounts of the movement were inaccurate, if not misleading.

References

 (1960). 200 Negroes End Atlanta Sit-in Truce. The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973), C17. Retrieved February 13, 2009, from ProQuest Historical            Newspapers.Bove, L.F., Kaplan, L.D., & Concerned Philosophers for Peace. (1995). From the Eye of the Storm: Regional Conflicts and the Philosophy of Peace. Amsterdam: Rodopi. Handler, M.S. (1966). Farmer Says Mood of Negroes Is One of Growing Militancy.New York Times (1857-Current Files), 41. Retrieved February 13, 2009, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

Larson, S.G. (2005). Media & Minorities: The Politics of Race in News and Entertainment. New York: Rowman & Littlefield. MSN Encarta. (2008). Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Retrieved February 13, 2009, from http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761580647/Civil_Rights_Movement_in_the_United_States.html Reed, R. (1965). Alabama Police Use Gas and Clubs to Rout Negroes. New York Times (1857-Current File), 1. Retrieved February 13, 2009, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

Schram, S., Soss, J., & Fording, R.C. (Ed.). (2003). Race and the Politics of Welfare Reform.       Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.