For the journalists who covered it, the tumultuous civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was a difficult and challenging story. This weekend, more than 60 of them gathered here to look at the role of the press in that dramatic struggle.
Along with civil rights activists and U.S. Justice Department officials from that era, they met for three days in a conference titled “Covering the South: A National Symposium on the Media and the Civil Rights Movement,” at the University of Mississippi, site of a bloody riot over school desegregation 25 years ago.
The conference was the first large-scale review of the part the news media played in events ranging from the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., to the urban riots and disorder that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Referring to the confrontation over enrollment of the first black student here, Jack Nelson, the Los Angeles Times’ Washington Bureau chief and symposium chairman, said: “Even though we meet here a quarter-century after ‘Ole Miss,’ we are on unplowed ground when we begin to examine the impact of the news media on the most dramatic and important domestic revolution of our lifetimes.”
Permanent Images Formed
Newspapers and television brought the civil rights conflict into American living rooms and dinner conversations in dramatic fashion. Scenes of blacks in Birmingham, Ala., being attacked by police with dogs and fire hoses, and of voting rights marchers being bludgeoned and tear-gassed by state troopers and sheriff’s deputies in Selma, Ala., have become indelible symbols of those years.
“The civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings if it hadn’t been for the news media,” said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who led the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma in 1965 and was hospitalized with a fractured skull.
He said that civil rights workers looked upon the media as “sympathetic referees” in their struggle to topple the South’s system of racial segregation.
Among conference participants were author David Halberstam, NBC commentator John Chancellor, Philadelphia Inquirer Executive Editor Eugene Roberts, Atlanta Journal and Constitution Editor William Kovach and Washington Post reporters Haynes Johnson and Dorothy Gilliam.
Memories of Mississippi
Karl Fleming, Newsweek’s chief civil rights correspondent during the 1960s and now editor-in-chief of California Business magazine in Los Angeles, recalled how he and another reporter once sought refuge in a furniture store from a white mob in Philadelphia, Miss. Fleming and his colleague had gone to the town to investigate reports that three civil rights workers had been murdered there.
Fleming said that the furniture store owner told them: “I wouldn’t participate in that mob. On the other hand, I wouldn’t lift a damn finger to help you, so you better beat a hasty retreat.”
The local press in Dixie was not spared the wrath of segregationists, either--especially if the reporting seemed too sympathetic to the black cause.
“Our newspaper offices were shot at,” Charles Dunagin, editor of the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Miss., recalled. “A stink bomb was thrown into the building.” One night, the Ku Klux Klan tossed a firebomb into his home as he and his family were sleeping, he said, but the bomb was unlit.
Dunagin said the biggest failure of the Mississippi press during the civil rights struggle was in not getting the “behind-the-scenes” story of what was happening. But, he added, “most of us didn’t know what was happening ourselves.”
Criticism of Television
Harry Ashmore, who was executive editor of the Arkansas Gazette during the Little Rock school integration crisis, made a similar accusation against network television:
“Television didn’t have the capacity to tell the underlying story of what happened. This story didn’t begin at Central High School, it began a long time before World War II with a series of lawsuits by the NAACP . . . that changed the whole balance (of Southern society) and wiped out states’ rights. Little Rock was just the first showdown.”
Chester Higgins, who worked for various black newspapers and magazines during the period, said the black press made crucial contributions to the coverage. He cited as an example a Jet magazine photo showing the mutilated body of Emmett Till, a black youth from Chicago who was murdered by white racists while visiting Mississippi in 1955. Publication of that picture galvanized support all over the country for the plight of blacks in the South.
The symposium was the brainchild of a handful of journalists in Washington three years ago.
‘Swapping War Stories’
“This was going to be just a bunch of us swapping war stories,” said Nelson, who headed the planning committee.
It evolved, however, into a project that received the support of the University of Mississippi and its Center for the Study of Southern Culture.
“This conference provides a personal and moving portrait of a period which opened the doors of understanding and communication that we in the South now enjoy,” said William Ferris, center director. “I think this will probably be the largest and most significant academic gathering we’ve ever had here.”
As the meeting began Friday, teams from Ole Miss and Baylor University conducted oral-history interviews with the participants that will be incorporated into a forthcoming book.