Vietnam wasn’t television’s first living-room war.
Long before the Tet Offensive, TV went to war right here at home--in Selma, Ala.; Little Rock, Ark.; Oxford, Miss. and Albany, Ga.
Ed Turner, now executive vice president of Cable News Network, spent eight years on the front lines, covering the civil rights movement for KWTV, a CBS affiliate in Oklahoma City. In 1962, as a boyish-looking 27-year-old reporter, Turner found himself ducking lead pipes, Molotov cocktails and sniper fire in Oxford, where mob riots broke out during the forced integration of the University of Mississippi.
“Geez, we were so young then,” Turner recalled the other day. “I can’t begin to tell what it was like covering that story. As a reporter, you weren’t trusted by anyone . The only place you could find solace was among your fellow journalists. I can remember us all holed up in these cheap hotels, drinking bootleg booze and listening for the sounds of rocks or bottles smashing against our windows.”
Turner’s striking TV footage of the Ole Miss riots is on display in “The Glaring Light: TV Coverage of Civil Rights,” which screens today through Sunday at the eighth annual American Film Institute Video Festival. The rarely seen footage of this pivotal chapter in TV history, drawn from the Peabody Collection archives, is airing in six-hour blocks each day, supplemented by screenings of “Eyes on the Prize,” the award-winning 1987 PBS series.
The documentary programs, most preserved on grainy black-and-white kinescopes, provide a compelling history lesson. But what makes much of the footage so fascinating is the way it takes us behind the familiar images of white hatred and police brutality.
In “St. Augustine: Fountain of Dissent,” a 1965 documentary about the battle to integrate Florida’s oldest city, we see the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s movement chieftains, led by now-Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, planning sit-in tactics. The movement didn’t just have its eyes on the prize, but on the camera. Anyone who didn’t get hauled off to jail was assigned picket-line duty, with the protest route mapped out to achieve maximum media exposure.
Young knew his enemy. Armed with a scouting report on a local merchant whose lunch counter was a prime target, Young warned his cadres: “I understand Mr. McCartney doesn’t call the police--he takes a broom to ‘em or something.”
He also knew his allies. Buoyed by word that several dozen Northern religious leaders had volunteered to be arrested, Young said, “The only hitch is that the rabbis want to get out in time to go back for the weekend.”
What Turner’s reportage from Ole Miss lacked in insider’s perspective, it made up for with dramatic footage. A mob sets fire to rows of cars, bayonet-fixed troops hurl tear gas at angry students while wounded federal marshals slump in school corridors, waiting for reinforcements.
Actually, Turner’s cameraman wasn’t on hand for the onset of the furor. State Highway Patrol officers had sealed off the campus to reporters, so the enterprising young reporter bribed a student to smuggle him in the trunk of a car. Robbed of his visuals, Turner relates much of the dramatic action on camera, displaying such breezy storytelling ease that we forget we’re missing the explosive on-location action.
TV’s attitude toward the civil rights movement shifted, almost imperceptibly, both as the struggle became more violent and as the black leadership became more militant. Many of the early shows, particularly “Corner of the Carpet,” a 1956 Montgomery, Ala., documentary about local slums (hosted by future NBC star Frank McGee) seem oddly naive and paternalistic today.
It was apparently such a radical notion to point out that Montgomery was teeming with wood-frame hovels, without electricity or running water, that McGee managed to get through a half-hour program without ever mentioning the words Negro, discrimination or segregation.
McGee is also the host of a bizarre 1956 interview with two rabid white supremacists--John Kasper, a Northern racist later arrested for masterminding violence against demonstrators, and Sam Engelhardt, an Alabama state senator and White Citizens Council leader.
Folksy but dim, Englehardt bad-mouths blacks and Jews, but draws the line with Nazis--"Nah, I don’t think I can endorse brother Hitler’s views.” For perhaps the first time, we see TV’s immutable law--image counts more than reality--in action. Englehardt boasts: “In the long run, we’re gonna out-think the Negro,” but seeing him, painfully puzzling over the simplest of queries, we sense just the opposite.
In the 1960s, a new generation of reporters hit the picket lines, voicing almost as much impatience with the sluggish rate of racial progress as the protesters they covered. If this footage teaches us anything, it’s that TV was once a medium of advocacy, not objectivity.
“Today, by the time you get through saying ‘on the one hand’ and ‘on the other hand’ it’s hard to focus on the issue anymore,” acknowledged Turner. “Back then, we were filming shots being fired, people being knocked by water hoses. The point of view was obvious. It’s pretty black and white who’s in the right when people are getting beat up left and right.”
The news footage also reveals a lot about the medium itself. “Bell & Howell Close-Up: Cast the First Stone,” a sometimes ugly 1960 examination of racism in the North, is filled with the kind of investigative detail, historical context and lengthy interviews that are almost completely missing from today’s news specials.
(It’s also the first time you see network footage of the emerging black urban culture. The cameras capture a newly politicized Dick Gregory, performing at a South Side Chicago nightclub, joking: “Up here you stand on a corner three hours, waiting on a bus, wondering where you’re gonna sit. Back home, you know where you gonna sit!”)
As the ‘60s wore on and urban violence escalated, you begin to see more modern, jittery-paced TV coverage. Zap! Pow! Bang-Bang! It’s hard to imagine a grimmer drama than WXYZ’s 1967 “Detroit Riot Coverage,” which unfolds virtually unedited. Call it stream-of-consciousness video.
Riding atop an Army truck, news cameramen capture noisy scenes of turmoil and confusion. In one stunning tracking shot that spans a dozen city blocks, we see nothing but burning buildings and swarms of looters--hearing only the sizzle of fires, the crash of broken glass and the angry cry, “Burn, baby, burn!”
Ed Turner admits TV used to tell a story with more depth and perspective, but he contends that it was the very potency of this imagery that fueled the civil rights movement.
“It was new,” he recalled. “And it was nightly, night after night. And it was TV that drove the message home. It’s always a matter of hearts and minds. And I think the TV coverage changed a lot of minds up in the halls of Congress. Now maybe it’s the hearts that need a little more work.”
Festival screenings begin each day at 10 a.m. on the AFI campus, 2021 N. Western Ave., Hollywood. (213) 856-7787.