The media is perhaps the most important tool in society. Today, media represents the social fabric of any society. In the past, the media has taken a pivotal role in expressing matters affecting the people. In civil rights movement, media coverage has performed three major functions. It has sensitised the society about the ills facing its people, then the media took to win the hearts of people towards changing this terrible state of the society. Finally, the media has ensured that society has changed to accept a humane kind of society. This paper investigates how the media has impacted civil rights movement.
Civil-rights refer to the freedoms and rights that an individual is entitled to as member of a society or country. These rights include freedom of association, of speech, of religion, to education and press. It refers to the right to equal and fair treatment from public authority and government. These rights are usually granted by a country’s constitution or other laws and statutes while the courts are mandated to determine whether the rights of an individual have been violated (Hampton, 12)
The United States of America has clearly defined the right of individuals in its constitution as well as each state having a bill of rights in their own constitutions. Many sections of the constitution further insist on fair and just treatment of all citizens. The bill of rights has been enshrined in the constitution by the First Amendment, which prohibits the Congress from making any legislation that restrict freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of the press, freedom to religion and freedom of speech.
However, after the formation of the union, several civil rights violations came to the fold. Before the civil rights reforms of the late 19th and 20th century, African-Americans were not allowed to vote and in some states, not to own property (MacDonald, 8). Furthermore, African-Americans were segregated in the society in several aspects. They attended different schools, used different modes of transport and even lived in their own suburbs. This prompted a people-led movement to try and reverse the racial discrimination in the country. This movement is referred to as the civil rights movement.
Hampton argues that the media has the power to chronicle the events of the society with far reaching implication (13). He asserts that, the moral fabric of the society is well maintained and demonstrated by what appears in the media. Nothing demonstrates this more than the civil rights movements of 1950s and 1960s. It is the television coverage of the ugly scenes in the civil rights movement that dramatically changed the direction of the society (21).
Some cases of the 1950s which the media was involved in civil movements were the 1955 Montgomery bus boycotts. This was a boycott of the African Americans of the public transport to complain about the rule requiring blacks to give up their seats to whites in public buses. A major case that received exceptional media coverage was the brutal murder of Emmet Till in 1954. Till was a 15 year African American boy who was brutally murdered in Mississippi. In the case two white men were accused of murdering the young boy and caused a lot of media attention . The case was aired in all media channels from print media to radio and television. Such unprecedented media coverage swelled public membership and support of civil rights movement country wide. In addition to the two cases is the landmark Supreme Court ruling in the Brown vs Board of Education case that made racial segregation in public schools illegal. The two cases looked to end racial discrimination in the south of the country.
In retaliating to this black progress, white segregationist took offences and stated violent attacks against the black community. Residences and churches belonging to the black community were bombed or set on fire. Two black activists were assassinated. These events appeared on several media broadcasts in an effort to dampen morale of civil rights movement. However, these violent acts had the exact opposite result. Several citizens ended up joining civil rights movements in support of black activists murdered in the south of the country (Kellner, 28).
The impact of media on civil rights movement was prominent in the 1950s. This is due to the fact that, it was during this period that television sets and electronic media secured its place in American society. According to Kellner, the percentage of home ownership of a TV set jumped from around 50% to about 92% homes (29). The mode of news delivery was also taking shape. Media companies were expanding their networks to national coverage and broadened the mode of news delivery for national relevance. Eventually, news and electronic media such as radio took the responsibility as arbiter of public opinion. Media corporations changed how t hey viewed civil rights movements.
At the beginning of civil rights movement coverage, media houses were only seeking stories that would make news interesting. Much concern was not given to the issues on the news but seen a reporter standing in the middle of the violence perplexed several viewers. Rarely did nay black persons appear on the news to explain the violence or address the viewers. However, this television exposure of civil struggle helped set the stage for a nationwide movement. By the 1960s, civil rights movement was a national agenda in American society thanks to the media coverage.
Two cases took center stage in civil rights movement and the immense impact of media coverage in mid 1960s. One of such vital events was the speech by Fanny Lou Hamer during the 1964 Democratic Convention held at Atlantic City. In her speech ‘Is this America?’ she put all that infuriated that black society and outlined the rotten fabric of America’s society (Mills, 23). The speech was enthralling and all the media networks covered it live. This did not sit well with the then President Johnson that he directed all live media coverage to be shut down. However, some media companies realized the magnitude of the speech and replayed the entire speech in the evening. This was the first time that an African American woman addresses the nation.
Perhaps the most important event of civil rights movement was the great speech of 1963 by the young, eloquent and charismatic church minister, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. He had emerged to be the leader of civil movements and servant for the rights of black people. In his speech ‘I Have a Dream’, King outlines the need for the American society to recognize black people as fellow humans. The speech was also televised live reaching nearly 300,000 Americans .
Even in death, king played a major role in civil rights movements. His assassination was the turning point for the freedom movement. The media covered King’s death in an unprecedented scale winning nearly all Americans towards a complete civil rights reform. White citizens stated to appear at the fore front of reform calls and the eventual ratification of basic human rights for all Americans.
Even today, the media continues to play the role of civil rights ambassador. In the current world, media is not only in a single state rather, the globe is now a small community. Internet and social media take center stage in determining futures of nations and countries. Nothing illustrates this better than the Arab Spring. Citizens of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt overthrew decades-old regimes only through social media.
Hampton, Henry. Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950s through the 1980s. New York: Bantam, 1990.
Hill, George,. Black Women in Television. . New York: Garland, 1990.
Kellner, Douglas. Television and the Crisis of Democracy. Colorado: Westview, 1990.
MacDonald, J. Fred. Blacks and White TV- Afro-Americans in Television Since 1948. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1992.
Mills, Kay. This Little Light of mine.- The Life of Annie Lou Hamer. New York: Penguin, 1993.