Civil Rights and the Media

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Updated: Jan 18, 2020
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Civil Rights and the Media essay

The media played a vital role in bringing to light the trials of the people who fought for civil rights of the African American right into the living rooms and offices of thousands of people. Some examples of media use are television, newspaper, and radio. Several interest groups used the aforementioned media as forms of promotion. One of the major groups that used the media in all forms was the NAACP with the circumstances of the Little Rock High School incident, the Birmingham conflict, to include the death of a fourteen-year-old boy – Emmett Till

Interest groups like NAACP influence the government by using the media to spread incidents of fear during the Civil Rights movement. Such is the case of the “Bloody Sunday” incident on March 7, 1965, as 600 protesters started to walk from Selma to Montgomery Alabama protesting the murder of Jimmy Lee Jackson by a white highway patrolman. When the protestors of the Selma march refused to disperse, law enforcement charged on horseback with billy clubs and tear gas. The Selma demonstration violence was captured in pictures by the national news media and capturing the nation’s interest which provided an immediate spark for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

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In witnessing the suffering of American civil rights demonstrators, and elevating the issues above simple violence in order to contemplate democratic paths to cultural evolution, the press came to be regarded as a vital element in the long and difficult process of national reconciliation. It was (and is) a process that, despite its many imperfections, stands as an example of the value of a free press and its contribution to long-term social stability.

Interest groups used the media such as magazines, newspapers, and the movies, to spread the desire for equality for all for a long time. The various publications for African American press had been used since early 1800 when the Emancipator was initially published in 1819 during the abolitionist movement to gain universal negro emancipation. As stated in the article from Media History, “changes in American media reflected changes in the American culture. … villains and buffoons were the only possible depictions of black American actors” until the middle 1900s when black character parts became more dignified. Slowly the black American actors have been offered roles in Hollywood movie productions such as To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962 and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner with Sidney Poitier in 1967, and many others since then. American filmmakers began producing movies depicting the African American in an equal role to the white American. Viewing movies with equality for the black and white helped the American culture gradually begin to change attitudes toward accepting equalization of the black society as a whole.

Other interest groups used the media to spread the news of the conflicts.

A better known Mississippi organization called the COFO or Council of Federated Organizations, challenged the Mississippi Democratic party, under the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), for recognition at the National Convention in Atlantic City. They were initially refused a seat a seat at the convention. After the incident had been brought to light by the media, the national politicians could not deny African American demands to full citizenship any longer.

A political cartoon from the Library of Congress depicts a large “Selma Alabama Special Storm Trooper” washing off his billy club in the sink and boasting “I got one of ‘em just as she almost made it back to the church.”

Pictures were shown on television’s nightly news and in print that came across daily to the American public changing the perspective of many over the 1964 Civil Rights movement. The use of an image is a powerful tool of communication conveying the physical realities as well as societies political and social values. Photos taken by journalists that depict the violence in Selma, Alabama, the march on Washington DC, the Little Rock Nine incident, Rosa Parks refusal to give up her seat on the bus, and Martin Luther King, Jr being arrested for loitering in Montgomery helped to make the Civil rights movement larger than life and change American society’s attitude towards equality for all.

The interest groups heavily influenced presidents and members of Congress.

Virginia’s Democratic Rep. Howard W. Smith was a staunch segregationist and strongly opposed the Civil Rights Act. Smith, who was chairman of the House Rules Committee, came up with many tactics to discourage the passage of the bill’s Title VII, which would outlaw employment discrimination because of race, color, religion or national origin. When Smith added the word “”sex,”” the House reportedly laughed out loud. The ploy was Smith’s attempt to quash support among the chamber’s male chauvinists on the grounds that the bill would protect women’s rights in the workplace, according to Clay Risen in his book “”The Bill of the Century.”” Despite resistance, and complex motives, the act eventually passed, laying the groundwork for legal battles to ensure equal employment opportunities for women and whether he intended to or not, Smith ended up helping to set the stage for modern feminism.

The media as an influence on lawmakers and society has led to the formulation and passages of Civil Rights laws. Black men were granted the right to vote in 1870 under the 15th Amendment (women followed 50 years later). Yet many obstacles — including literacy tests and poll taxes — prevented most blacks in the South from casting ballots. Just a few months before the Voting Rights Act, the 24th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified to remove poll taxes as a condition for voting in federal elections. The 1964 Civil Rights Act mandated the same voting rules for everyone was to be nationwide. It wasn’t until the following year that the 1965 Voting Rights Act would suspend the use of literacy tests.

As a result of the media’s ability to witness and produce the events that corresponded with the Civil Rights movement was a great success. As civil rights leader, John Lewis, stated in 2005, “If it hadn’t been for the media, the print media, and the television the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings, a choir without a song,” Eventually, even conservative editors like James Kilpatrick admitted that they had been wrong about civil rights, and the South is continuing to change.

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Civil Rights and the Media. (2020, Jan 18). Retrieved from