Rod Dreher recently wrote about Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson’s comments about, essentially, how happy he believed Black Southerners were in the 1950s before the civil rights movement. To Dreher, Robertson’s comments demonstrate the power of narrative, of the stories we tell ourselves and how they affect how we see the “truth” of our own situations, even when we don’t see the whole truth:
You can tell a lot about who has the power in a particular culture by what you are not allowed to talk about without drawing harsh censure. And in turn, the thoughts you are not allowed to have become internalized, such that you train yourself not to see things that violate those taboos. In the 1950s rural South, a white man was not allowed to speak out against the injustices inflicted on blacks; is it any wonder that he wouldn’t “see” them?
This is a very insightful way at contextualizing Robertson’s ignorant and hurtful comments. Dreher spotlights Alan Ehrenhalt’s (excellent) book The Lost City to add further context to Robertson’s remarks, but I’m finding just as much relevant background and insight in my current read: The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff.
This amazing book takes an angle I’d never considered before when thinking about and studying the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s: that of the journalists, publishers, and other press figures who were instrumental in wrestling the civil rights struggle to the front page as the movement simmered after World War II to its boiling point in the ’60s.
In newsreels and history books we’ve seen a great deal of the figures directly involved in the decades-long civil rights fight: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, the Little Rock Nine, Bull Connor, George Wallace, and many others. But what of the people behind the cameras, the ones braving the fire hoses of Birmingham and angry mobs in Greensboro right along with activists to capture the moment for print, radio, or the nascent television news?
For a thesis statement of sorts, Roberts and Klibanoff go back to what they view as the foundational work from which all academic and journalistic interpretations of the postwar civil rights movement emerged: An American Dilemma, a comprehensive study of race in America underwritten by the Carnegie Foundation and spearheaded by Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish economist and sociologist.
The study found the central problem to be an overwhelming ignorance among Whites (in the North and South alike) about the lives and living conditions of Black Americans. It was easy for Whites to ignore the discrimination Blacks faced every day because they didn’t see it. White newspapers completely ignored the Black community and the Black press along with it. Myrdal believed that to overcome “the opportunistic desire of the whites for ignorance,” the Black community needed one thing: publicity. “There is no doubt,” he wrote, “that a great majority of white people in America would be prepared to give the Negro a substantially better deal if they knew the facts.”
Facts, they say, are stubborn things. But so were the segregationists. And the thought of high-minded out-of-towners coming into the South to tell good Christian people what’s wrong with them and upend generations of tradition didn’t sit well with angry sheriffs and townspeople, who would have every judge and jury (all white, of course) on their side should they decide to teach someone a lesson, or worse.
As a Mississippi attorney put it to Freedom Summer volunteers venturing into the South: “a dark highway at midnight was no place to lecture a Mississippi deputy sheriff with a second-grade education on the niceties of constitutional law.”
Still, the whole point of the civil rights movement, and one that Martin Luther King understood deeply, was to shine a light into the dark places. To walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and bring reporters along for the walk. King knew, as did the other movement leaders in SNCC, CORE, and NAACP, what Myrdal knew: publicity meant power. The more White America would be exposed to the everyday injustices Black Americans faced, the more likely they would be to sympathize and inspire positive action.
The Emmett Till trial was the catalyst. That gruesome murder and clear miscarriage of justice coupled with the earth-shattering Brown v. Board of Education decision to start the movement snowballing toward bus boycotts and Little Rock, through the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins and Ole Miss, each encounter seeming to attract more attention than the last.
While the Freedom Riders and marchers were enduring fire hoses and batons and angry mobs, journalists were close by to report on it. They understood as much as their subjects the power of the pen and camera, and had to wield that power in unexpected ways.
Peter Kihss, a New York Times reporter who was reporting the Autherine Lucy saga at the University of Alabama, decided to abandon traditional journalistic remove and intervene when an elderly Black man became surrounded by an unruly mob. “If anybody wants to start something, let’s go,” he told the crowd. “I’m a reporter for The New York Times and I have gotten a wonderful impression of the University of Alabama. Now I’ll be glad to take on the whole student body, two at a time.”
A similar situation involved John Chancellor, newspaperman turned NBC broadcaster, in the infancy of television news. Chancellor was gathering reactions in Mississippi after the Till trial when “a flying wedge of white toughs” descended on him and a Black woman he was interviewing:
Chancellor squared off against them and held up the only object he could find to defend himself, an object whose power he had not, until that moment, truly fathomed. Thrusting his tiny microphone toward the men, Chancellor blurted out, “I don’t care what you’re going to do to me, but the whole world is going to know it.”
He later called his microphone “the technological equivalent of a crucifix.” The microphone and the newspaper and the camera collectively became a tool and a weapon. They performed the basic service of documenting reality, ugly and unvarnished as it was, while also fighting back against the South’s deeply entrenched culture of silence and racial hegemony.
Their power seemed to coalesce in the fall of 1963 when they broadcasted Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech and then the news of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four Black children. Having the nation witness events like those up close, according to Jack Gould of the New York Times, was a major hurdle overcome for the Negro race as a whole, because until then its biggest challenge had been “communicating and dramatizing” its struggle: “Not to the integrationists, not to the unyieldingly prejudiced, but to the indifferent white millions for whom integration or segregation was of scant personal concern.”
In other words, to the Phil Robertsons of the day. The story White Southerners like him had been telling themselves (and anyone else who had dared to disrupt the narrative) about race and their culture disagreed with the reality of being Black in America. It took over a decade of protests and violence and struggle and political hand-wringing, but finally, Myrdal’s prescription for publicity was working. It wasn’t a panacea, but it was progress.
However, when hit with the reality of someone else’s story, some, like Gov. George Wallace, ignored the cognitive dissonance and dug in their heels. While Phil Robertson is no George Wallace, their shared inability to see beyond the stories they told themselves left them blind to what the cameras were showing in bright lights.
It’s easy to judge from afar in situations like this without thinking about the blind spots we’ve self-imposed today. Racism isn’t over, nor discrimination writ large. The press is different today, as is its power. We’re not so enthralled by television or newspaper editorials anymore. Publicity itself seems an inadequate solution for dealing with the problems we face today when all people do in our selfie-obsessed world is publicize. Simply getting a hashtag trending on Twitter won’t solve homelessness or end abortion.
In that way, our problem is the same as that of generations before us: we need the courage to hear new stories, to not wait for tragedy to spur us to action, and to follow the Atticus Finch model of walking (or marching?) a mile in someone else’s shoes.
The Race Beat goes into great detail about the individuals and institutions involved in this decade-long story. Courage, cowardice, and great copy abound on every side of the tales told that, all together, paint a lush picture of how the movement and its press worked together to change the country forever.
(photo via NYT)