The actual impact of media on society is widely examined, particularly as technology has so greatly expanded the presence of media in modern life. Regarding the news, there is the ongoing debate as to reporting versus influence, and whether such influence is deliberate. What is certain, however, is that the news does play an active role in how society evolves, and this is evident going back to the mid-20th century and the Civil Rights movement. As the movement greatly engaged the nation, the Press coverage then took on a quality beyond reporting because the nature of the movement was enhanced by exposure. As the following will support, the American Press played a leadership role in the Civil Rights activism of the era, a reality evident in its insistent and pervasive coverage of the march on Washington, D.C., as well as in the legacies existing today.

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Did The Press Play A Leadership Role In The Civil Rights Movement?

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To understand how the Press exhibited leadership in the Civil Rights movement in general, it is necessary to see how the presence of the movement itself was very much enhanced by reporting. This in turn led to the Press as influencing the movement in a leadership capacity.
For example, Martin Luther King appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press in 1957, and this was a dramatic and unprecedented exposure of the most influential figure in the movement (Murray 54). The Press as playing a leadership role, here as elsewhere, is then reinforced by the simple fact that such exposure advanced Civil Rights by engaging in debate and generating interest. Those fighting for Civil Rights then embraced the Press for increasing awareness and generating support; leaders of the movement, assessing media impact years later, describe the Press as “sympathetic referees” in the movement (Treadwell). As the movement gained momentum, it was served to an inestimable degree by the simple fact of coverage.

Local Press coverage, however, could go any number of ways. For example, powerful segregationists in the South used the Press, as in the case of former Mississippi Governor James Coleman. Firmly opposed to the Johnson administration’s efforts for Civil Rights, Coleman created the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, essentially a white supremacist agency in place to defy federal authority. More to the point, Coleman’s influence was such that the local Press were virtually recruited to support the Commission (Hall 19). This in turn connects to another aspect of Press coverage in these years. Blacks in the South, fighting for Civil Rights, made great efforts to engage newspapers and television reporters. They wanted as much exposure as possible, to reveal the injustices of the region, and that so much discrimination was expressed violently attracted the Press (Austin). This was also critical in another way; television had virtually exploded in the 1950s and, by 1960s, 90 percent of American homes had TVs. For the first time, Americans in the North could actually see realities occurring in the South (PCM). Both of these agendas, that of undue influence and desires to expose injustice, then affirm how the Press was an active agent in the evolution of Civil Rights, which translates to actual leadership. Through exposure, and contrasting view notwithstanding, the Press was clearly enhancing the idea of Civil Rights, and Civil Rights was a movement very much based on expanding awareness.

Regarding the 1963 march on Washington, it may be seen that the news media was committed to providing unprecedented coverage. The new technology of television was used by the Press in ways clearly demonstrating an intent to report so strong, the medium took on a leadership aspect. More than 500 cameramen, technicians, and reporters were in place for the event, and vast efforts were made to interview participants and government officials. That the Press saw this as an opportunity to promote the cause is evident by the sheer effort involved, as well as by the commitment expressed by leading members of the Press. For example, Jack Gould of The New York Times stated that: “Television was proving an indispensable force in the Negro’s pursuit of human rights” (Thomas). Then, there was intense interest in capturing and profiling the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Dr. King, whom the Press seized upon as essential in both supporting the cause and as commanding public attention. Jackson was clearly as influential as King in this event, generating immense interest through a charismatic presence perfect for the new technology. In Jackson, personal charm and committed values combined to present a leadership model fueling the leadership role of the Press. This translated to plain Press support, as in the 1963 Associated Press report of the event: “Gathering around the Washington Monument, the great sea of humanity moved toward the Lincoln Memorial, which enshrines the marble statue of the man who freed the slaves 100 years ago” (AP). All of this is reinforced by the reality that Jackson’s legacy, in terms of equality, is paralleled by the ongoing commitment of the Press to report on Civil Rights issues of all kinds. With Jackson, the legacy is intact through his documented inspiring of black leaders in later generations, from Al Sharpton to ACLU Washington Director Laura W. Murphy (Curry). It is a legacy mirrored by the modern Press emphasis on struggles for rights for blacks, immigrants, gays, and other marginalized groups.

When the Civil Rights movement is recalled, it seems an exponential relationship of vast proportions was then evolving. Important leaders like King and Jesse Jackson inspired those around them, and the Press, expanding through the new technology of television, literally broadcast these processes to millions. What occurred then was dual leadership; some Press was partisan and opposed to Civil Rights, but the greater tide went to coverage so immense, support was expressed and leadership generated in the Press itself. Moreover, Jackson’s presence would go on to motivate others, just as the new media would go on to consistently cover and support struggles for rights of many kinds. Ultimately, the American Press clearly played a leadership role in the Civil Rights activism of the mid-20th century, a reality evident in its insistent and pervasive coverage of the march on Washington, D.C., as well as in the legacies of both leaders and the Press existing today.

  • Associated Press (AP). Original AP story on the 1963 March on Washington. 28 Aug. 2013, Web. 16 Nov. 2014.
  • Austin, Curtis J. On Violence and Nonviolence: The Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. Mississippi History Now, 2014. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.
  • Curry, George E. The Legacy of Jesse Jackson. 14 Nov. 2011, Web. 16 Nov. 2014.
  • Hall, Simon. Peace and Freedom: The Civil Rights and Antiwar Movements in the 1960s. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. Print.
  • Murray, Michael D. Encyclopedia of Television News. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999. Print.
  • Paley Center for Media. The Civil Rights Movement and Television. 2014, Web. 16 Nov. 2014.
  • Thomas, Wilson G. Television News and the Civil Rights Struggle. Southern Spaces, 2004. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.
  • Treadwell, David. “Journalists Discuss Coverage of Movement: Media Role in Civil Rights Era Reviewed.” Los Angeles Times, 5 April 1987. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.