Civil Rights in Retrospect: Julian Bond Speaks on the Movement and the Media

Julian Bond

Julian Bond giving a speech, undated (Maurice Sorrell/ Ebony Collection)

Introduction: “The Movement and the Media”

On April 17, 1990, the late Civil Rights leader and scholar, Julian Bond delivered a speech in Washington D.C. that sought to reexamine the usage of television, journals, and the media more generally during the 1950’s and 60’s as it related to the ongoing Civil Rights movement. Bond was a first-hand participant in the Atlanta movement as an early leader in SNCC—the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee—and he continued Civil Rights work as a member of the Georgia House of Representatives. In his speech titled, “The Movement and the Media: An Analysis of Media Coverage of the Southern Civil Rights Movement,” Bond delivers a nuanced analysis of the relationship between the Civil Rights movement and “the media,” broadly defined. Bond outlines the relationship as it developed over the course of the Civil Rights movement by dividing the movement into overlapping periods. At times, Bond maintains, the media drew sympathy and support for the activists; yet at other times, the media undermined the goals of the movement. As a continued participant in the struggle for expanded Civil Rights, Bond’s retrospective commentary points to lasting effects of the relationship between the media and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s.

The first period (1950s and Early 60s)

In his April 1990 speech, Bond divides the media’s role in the Civil Rights movement into two overlapping periods:

“The first period, roughly between the middle 1950s and the late 1960s, is distinguished by the personnel active in the field. If civil rights had yet to become a beat, there was a corps of print reporters, all white, many Southern-born, who knew the region and its politics and who grew to know the movement’s makers well.”

In the first period, young reporters looking for action produced coverage of Civil Rights protests and formed relationships with the participants in the movement.

Bond explains that the second period followed the Montgomery Bus Boycotts with the popular media becoming increasingly interested in the Civil Rights movement. As the movement grew, the numbers of reporters grew, which in turn expanded the movement’s national coverage. Bond remembers young reporters such as Laurens Pierce who began their careers by covering the Civil Rights movement as it progressed from a local to a national phenomenon.

Television became instrumental in capturing the nation’s attention to Civil Rights. At a time when television viewership was on a sharp increase, national media coverage, especially filmed coverage, influenced the movement heavily. Through this new technology, people across the country could see the demonstrations in Montgomery and Georgia. The large amount of media coverage and the ease with which images could be transmitted across the country delivered the brutality in the Deep South to the rest of the nation. Bond notes the sympathy that the media helped to capture in the first period, but he also underscores the media’s transition into what he identifies as the second period of media in the Civil Rights movement—a relationship characterized by a more critical approach toward Civil Rights activists and aggressors alike rather than broad sympathy for the struggle. 

The Second Period (the Late 1960s onward)

While media journalists reporting on the early Civil Rights Movement were focused primarily on the brutality inflicted on the participants, Bond notes:

“In later stories, the Advertiser’s reporters, guided by journalistic imperatives of today, might have inquired into the drinking and sexual habits of the young Dr. King, but yesterday’s ethics precluded prurient peeks into the private life of public figures”

According to Bond, as the Movement developed, so too did the reporting methods:

“If journalists in the first group saw the movement as a morality play pitting black saints against white devils, those in the second generation saw devils on each side.”

The media was not always widely used to bolster the efforts of the movement. In his speech, Bond points out various ways in which the media turned a critical lens on the movement over time. Perhaps the result of a personal agenda, or simply trying to articulate the movement beyond the “good” and “evil” representations put forth in the first period, the media’s coverage of the movement departed from a more sympathetic stance. Bond urges his audience to see that the media coverage was for more complex than being completely sympathetic and supportive. He recognizes that “there were always attempts to subvert the movement, and to use a sometimes willing press to do so.”

At times, the media was even used as a tool to negatively impact the image of the movement. Based on his personal political agenda, J. Edgar Hoover participated in this campaign to discredit the movement:

“The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s program of disruption aimed at civil rights and human rights organizations is well known. Less well known is the FBI’s long history of using journalists to discredit targets of FBI director Edgar J. Hoover’s racial and sexual paranoia.”

Whether influenced by the FBI or not, there were several attempts to project the media in a negative light for the sake of stymieing sympathy for the movement.

The journalists’ attempts to demonize protestors stands in dramatic opposition to the sympathetic journalists who conveyed the images of “black angels” and “white devils.” Bond’s emphasis on Hoover, specifically urges his audience to evaluate the personal biases that journalists bring to their portrayal of the movement. Each journalist had his or her own perception and relationship to the movement, so it is important to understand the way in which the media can either participate in alleviating or serve to fuel racial tensions in the national imagination.

Bloody Sunday

On March 7, 1965, Alabama state troopers beat civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama (AP)

Freedom Riders

Freedom Riders Bus Burned near Anniston, Alabama, 1961 (Public Domain)

Agenda Setting and the Meredith March of 1966: Favorable or Unfavorable

Another, often overlooked, dynamic in the relationship between the Civil Rights movement and the media is the lasting ability of the media industry to set public agenda and discourse. The Civil Rights movement established a precedent of the media industry substantially influencing national political discourse. James Meredith hoped to leverage this budding practice by conducting a “march against fear” from Memphis, Tennessee to Jackson, Mississippi in 1966 (Freeman).However, the journalistic sympathy characteristic of the early Civil Rights movement did not meeting Meredith on his march. Bond characterizes the journalists who followed the march as hungry for a story:

I once saw them shoot from the truck like flushed quail when two marchers almost came to blows. Dissension was a sought-after theme.

The journalists following the Meredith March focused primarily on capturing tension within the ranks of the protestors. Whereas in the preceding years of the movement, the media had helped to focus the national lens on the brutality inflicted on the nonviolent protestors, in this situation journalist’s coverage altered national perceptions and the ensuing political agenda. Bond continues,

The astigmatic press could overlook fieldhand trucks loaded with Negro choppers heading for the $3 day-in-the-sun, serfs in a cotton industry receiving a billion a year in federal subsidies. It would not bother to investigate the poverty program. Most of the press could see dissension and miss needs, point up confusion and stare straight ahead through realities of a deep South that was changing grudgingly and only when pressure grew too great to bear (Good, 1975)

As Bond points out, the coverage turned away from the systematic issues that fueled protestors to capture images of tension and violence. As a result of the press changing their focus from the complex conditions for grassroots organizers to more sensationalized stories, their cause fell from the national spotlight. Instead, journalists sought dramatic stories while overlooking the stark disparities in living conditions and deep structural issues that prompted the protests in the first place. Due to the varying agendas of journalists and news outlets, Bond urges to view the media in more of a mutual relationship with the movement rather than in a purely sympathetic role. Bond’s quote also shows the limitations of the media to confront the structures of power and their impotency in enacting policy changes. The front-page journalism that helped build sympathy for the movement through dramatic images soon became ineffectual in capturing the non-spectacular hard work of grassroots organizing at the foundations of enacting change.

Frank McGee

Frank McGee

While it is true that the media had a profound impact by drawing support for the movement, Bond encourages his audience to look at the relationship between the movement and the media as more of a two-way street in that journalists covering the movement also gained national acclaim for their work.

The late Frank McGee was anchorman at WBAF, an NBC affiliate, and one of two television stations in Montgomery. McGee’s coverage of the Montgomery bus boycott won him a job at the network. He was the first of many journalists whose careers ascended with the movement for civil rights.

In 1987, at a conference of journalists who had covered civil rights in the South, not a few asserted that they had made the movement; it could be argued as surely that the movement made many of them.

The 1987 Ole Miss symposium included 11 Pulitzer Prize winners and three Emmy awardees.

When reflecting on the Civil Rights movement and the myriad of factors that either helped or harmed the cause, it can be easy to see the media as a positive agent. However, Bond emphasizes that the media provided more than a simple influence. According to Bond, in the ideal situation the journalists had a relationship with the movement and the benefits were an exchange rather than a gift; yet, as James Meredith and the media coverage in the second period show, the relationship was not always one of mutual exchange.

Black Panthers

Black Panther Party Members on the Steps of the Capitol Building, Olympia, Washington, February 1969 (Public Domain)

Lasting Effects

The Civil Rights movement set major precedents for political efforts and grassroots organizing to come. The movement gained national sympathy because of its primarily nonviolent nature. The media captured images of peaceful protesters being attacked and beaten, which garnered national support. Bond explains how the media captured images that were unequivocally sympathetic to the movement:

One example of the movement’s ability to win sympathy from unlikely allies is found in a widely reprinted column from the segregationist editor of the Richmond News Leader, James J. Kilpatrick. James J. Kilpatrick contrasts the black students "in coats, white shirts, ties’" and their white attackers—a "ragtail rabble, slack jawed, black jacketed, grinning fit to kill and some of them…waving the proud and honored flag of the Southern states in the last war fought by gentlemen. Ehue!" (Kilpatrick, 1960)

Bond uses a quotation from James Kilpatrick, editor of the Richmond News Leader and a major proponent for school segregation, to demonstrate just how moving the images were. It was impossible not to see the dichotomies between the black and white crowds in the sympathetic images.

“The movement’s next campaign was the Freedom Rides in 1961. Again, the media carried the message of nonviolent blacks and whites being beaten senseless by roaming bands of ignorant red-necks while police stood idly by.”

Respectability politics has grown since its usage in the Civil Rights movement’s Freedom Rides. The protesters, knowing the media would capture the protests on film, dressed formally in suits and ties. Contrasted with the “rabble” attackers, the propriety of the protesters could not be ignored. The usage of nonviolent, respectful protest, captured and disseminated by the media garnered wide support for the movement, but it also established a standard for a successful movement.

As Nicholas Von Hoffman noted in 1964, “…the political position of the freedom movement is such that Negroes only win public sympathy when they are the beaten, not the beating, party” (Von Hoffman, 14)

While the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s made major strides toward equality in civil rights for all people, especially black people, the movement also left a legacy of nonviolent struggle. However, the nonviolent, politically respectable movement may have been too successful. Bond quotes Hoffman to say that black protestors were forced to replicate the contrast between “good” and “bad” that was popularly displayed by the media during the movement. In this way, the media can be seen as hindering future civil rights movements by creating such a powerful portrayal of “Black Saints” and “White Devils.”

While it is true that some media outlets and particular journalists drew sympathy and support for the Civil Right movement, Bond notes that future black empowerment movements would be confined to the narrative that was successful in the 50’s and 60’s. One can look to the LGBTQ movement’s use of a similar respectability politics to advocate for gay marriage rights. One can also see the reaction to Bond’s observations in the Black Panther movement, which asserted a radical militancy at odds with the mainstream Civil Right movement’s portrayals of non-violence.  Even though the primary goal of empowerment is the same, the public points to the canonical, non-violent images of Civil Rights protests as the “proper” way to conduct a movement because of its successful outcome, which Bond sees as a potential hindrance to future movements.

Ultimately, Bond’s writing in “the Movement and the Media” as well as elsewhere advocates for listeners to learn from the legacies of the Civil Rights movement and devise new strategies for enacting social change. While Bond makes clear that a relationship with the media industry can be a productive tool in building social movements, he emphasizes the representational effects of such a choice and recommends caution. In other words, Bond shows that the media is but one important influence among many. At times, the media was a tool to garner sympathy and support for the movement, but at other times the journalists’ personal agendas did not align with the agenda of the movement, oversimplying the struggle and making invisible the rigorous grassroots work that did not fit within the conventional narrative. More importantly, Bond suggests that listeners should focus on doing the work first, acknowledging and navigating the machinations of the public sphere, instead of publishing the headline before the story’s written.

References:

Bond, Julian. “The Movement and the Media,” April 17, 1990.

Freeman, Jo. “The Meredith Mississippi March-June 1966.” http://www.jofreeman.com/photos/meredith.html

Good, The Trouble I've Seen. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1975. 

Kilpatrick, James. Richmond News Leader. February 22, 1960.

Mack, Dwyane. "Freedom Riders (1961)." Black Past.org. 2007. http://www.blackpast.org/aah/freedom-rides-1961

Von Hoffman, Nicholas. Mississippi Notebook. New York: David White Company, 1964, p. 14 

"Visual: The Work of Julian Bond" Jet Magazine, 2015 http://www.jetmag.com/galleries/visual-work-julian-bond/3/

Civil Rights in Retrospect: Julian Bond Speaks on the Movement and the Media