The journey of the liberation of African Americans was very long. With the abolishment of slavery in 1865 under the 13th Amendment of the constitution, a new hope had dawned on African Americans since they would now receive equal treatment as citizens. Subsequent 14th and 15th Amendment provided for fair treatment of blacks and outlawed racial discrimination in voting. However, this new legislation did not mean that African Americans received equal treatment. In the south especially, rigid Jim Crow segregation rules were enforced, and vigilante white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) lynched, raped and castrated African American men, women and even children (Dierenfield 9).
The Civil Rights movement in America gained ground mainly between 1954 and 1964 with the aim of obtaining equality, ending racial segregation, gaining legal recognition and government protection. Some of its primary tools were boycotts, civil disobedience, peaceful demonstrations and marches intended to force a dialogue between the activists and the then government. Modern America owes its policies of equality to the movement. However, in the eyes of newsrooms and newspaper, at least from what they reported on the movement was slightly different and this essay will briefly discuss.
The media is a potent tool that can immensely influence people's perceptions, attitudes, and even reactions. Many people rely heavily on the press for information and in most cases always believe what they see, read or hear from the media sources. Because of this, the media may tailor their stories to be perceived in a precise manner and may make situations appear significant or not. Most historians and analysts agree that the media played a crucial role during the Civil Rights Movement as it made known both nationally and internationally the suffering and oppression of blacks living in the South. This did not imply that racism was not occurring in the Northern liberal states, but the events in the South instigated more considerable media attention. Newspapers and news broadcasts showed images of nonviolent activists being harassed by law enforcement officers, and even being attacked by police dogs. These photos instigated empathy from a broader population, and the pressure was laid upon the government to act appropriately. Were it not for the media; maybe the liberation struggle would have taken much longer. Activists comprehended the significance of media coverage and used it as a platform address their concerns predicaments (Berger 10).
There are critics however who argue that the media really did not focus on covering the very critical issues during the movement. The question the way the newspapers and magazines brought out the stories to the public. Photojournalism was a technique vastly employed during the civil rights movement where stories were told using photos. Skeptics contend that the goal of many newspapers and magazines is to attain financial ends and may hardly think of public good or interest when providing news (Stuart 1-8). On March 7th, 1965, the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) under the leadership of Martin Luther King Junior organized a march in Selma, Alabama for advocating for voting reforms. The protestors were confronted by law enforcement officers and white vigilantes at Edmund Bridge who ascended on them with clubs, tear gas and bullwhips injuring many demonstrators. The Bloody Sunday' as it was covered in almost all the newspapers outside the South which showed gruesome frontpage pictures of the mayhem that had occurred (Berger 1-3). The media was flourishing on this negativity that the articles accompanying the images didn't stress the goals of the movement itself.
The media had a critical role to play in bringing forth the empowerment of the blacks, but instead, it had diminished their significance to mere narratives of white brutality against non-violent blacks. The news articles portrayed pictures depicting white supremacy over defenseless, unarmed black protestors. These images indeed were against the goals of the civil rights movement of attaining equality as they still portrayed African Americans as weak and defenseless as opposed to the white law enforcers who were exercising force or power over them. For instance, The New York Times article of the Selma March in 1965 titled the Alabama Police Use Gas and Clubs to Rout Negros's article further provided a dramatic account of the event indicating how black protestors were sweeping to the ground and their arms flying high. Readers missed seeing the numerous achievements of the civil rights society where African Americans had risen to overcome white oppression (Berger 3-5). Instead, various media outlets brought it as though the whites were attacking and were on the verge of subduing the movement. The newly birthed narrative by the media was replicated by the coverage of the protesters by the Saturday Night Post, the popular magazine and the Sun.
It is important to note that the white media coverage from the North was also aiming at encouraging more purchases of newspapers and magazines and thus graphics of violence would more likely attract clients. The press agencies aimed at retaining and extending their client-base. Therefore, considering that their audience was primarily white, they posed a picture of a non-threatening civil rights movement. Images of empowered blacks on the streets demanding for equal rights would have threatened the position of the whites and thus media coverage aimed at ensuring that it was preserved. Berger argues that portraying an aggressive civil rights movement would not have garnered much sympathy from the target audience instead it would have increased anxiety because it would have symbolized undermined white power. The media made light of the objectives of the movement and emphasized on the violence of the whites against blacks which served as a considerable drawback.
The media is an integral part of the society, and it is essential in times of crisis, conflict or uncertainty because people look up to it for information (Stuart 2-3). The Jim Crow system in the reconstructed South put in place oppressive, discriminatory policies for the blacks. African Americans did not have a right to own property, testify in a court, go to white schools, go to libraries (they were exclusively white only zones), go to public recreational facilities designated for whites and even go to washrooms designated for whites only. These stereotypes depicting prejudice made mistreatment of blacks seem very reasonable (Dierenfield 10). Alabama was indeed a remarkable center for the civil rights movement with many significant events that shaped the resistance, and it was at the core of the campaign. Events like the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Rosa Parks which is said to be the galvanizing point of the civil rights movement. The Selma-Montgomery March, the Marion March, the Birmingham Sit-ins of April 1963 and the May 2nd Birmingham protests were some of the occasions that captured great media attention.
The Birmingham protests of 2nd May 1963 were a significant turning point. They put the town on national news. Adults and children form even middle and elementary school participated in the protests. This was one factor that attracted significant media attention. Commissioner Bill Connor called for the dispersion of the protestors, and many were arrested. However, the protest did not stop, he further ordered for the unleashing of government dogs and use of high-pressure fire hose pipes to disperse the crowds. Images of dogs attacking nonviolent protestors gripped the attention of many readers nationally and internationally. The photographic evidence would awaken the consciousness of the black agency, and their oppression could no longer be assumed to be a minor issue. It could have compelled the whites in the North to embrace more racially progressive views (Berger 12)
The dailies in Birmingham trivialized the activities of the movement mainly denying them relevance. In some magazines directed to white readers, it is notable that not a single article about the movement was covered. This story made headlines in many newspapers around the country but Birmingham. The news was reported shallowly. It is no disbelief that when Harrison Salisbury went to Birmingham and spoke openly of the oppression faced by the movement many were shocked because that was not what they had seen in their newspapers or magazines. Birmingham media houses bowed down to pressure from sponsors, advertisers, and the authority and therefore had to bite the bullet. A move that not only frustrated the efforts of the movement but also represented it in a way that did not help to get their intentions across to the public.
Detractors have also described the media as being a manipulator of political images and ideological messages. Most people do not have the time, intelligence and patience to think through political issues after a careful reading of news reports and analysis. The media has a strong power to shape public opinion, and it may engage in manipulation of situations to tell a story in a certain way, even though it may be biased or untrue. The media of the time must plead guilty to editing photographic images. In this case, various media outlets have been portraying images from the civil rights movement in a way that called for sympathy. This method was used to score profit from many readers. A photo taken by United Press after the bombing of the Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church by KKK showing an African American man on his knees was edited and printed on the New York World-Telegram and Sun. The edited image fitted a narrative of the African American community being brought to its knees which was not the case (Berger 22). The original picture was a black man kneeling and praying and standing behind him were four other African Americans, which the New York World-Telegram failed to capture. Thus, the media in a way was promoting the same evil that the movement was fighting.
The media has a crucial task of portraying the image of a strong African American community, but they let the civil rights society down by continuously depicting the civil rights society as a weak community. In Mississippi, all radio, Tv, and Newspaper agencies did not address racial issues but promoted segregation. The local television managers worked with segregationist organizations like the White Citizens' Council. Moreover, all the media outlets in the South were owned and controlled by white businessmen who did not give any relevance to racial issues in the region. This worked as an impediment to the spread of information concerning the civil rights movement in the South where the greatest challenge of racial discrimination was experienced. The media should always be objective, and this was not exercised by Southern media outlets which were subjective.
Martin Luther King, one of the renowned activists of the day advocated for non-violent means of civil activism. Some activists within the civil rights movement felt that he was more of a visionary leader assuring the civil rights society of the future changes as he thought that the key to their liberation would be through same-willed white men. Whereas, others like, John Lewis, the Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) who appeared to be more radical. The activists recognized the incredible role the media plays in gaining publicity, which is what they sought. In all the protests that they partook, they ensured the presence of media coverage that would help them achieve a higher audience in the North which would, in turn, provide them with immense support in pressurizing for reform change. Proper media presentation was, therefore, a crucial facto...
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