During the 1950s and 1960s, in the United States the civil rights struggle coincided with the era when television sets became more common in homes around the country. Initially, in the early 1950s it was more of a rarity for average households to own a TV, but at the end of that decade, they had become more of a fixture for American families. That made it possible for more Americans than ever to become aware of the civil rights struggles and movement by watching it live in real time. This paper will support the thesis that the advent of television had a direct impact on the civil rights struggle and fight for equal rights for African-Americans.

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At the beginning of the 1950s, owning a television was relatively unusual for many American households, but when the decade ended, 90% of American homes owned televisions (Paley Center for Media, 2017). Television plays a major role in becoming a catalyst for social change on a tremendous scale. People living in the north had the ability to witness all of the struggles that were occurring in Memphis, Selma, and Birmingham while at the same time, people in those states were able to understand what was occurring in the top half of the country. Additionally, television played a big part in helping to unify blacks living in the South because media there infrequently covered news regarding racial matters, and they now had the ability to cover newscasts from the national networks that were documenting the struggle.

Because televisions became so popular in the 1950s and 1960s, it has a significant role in influencing self perception of the public as well as spreading information, shaping norms and standards, and framing social dialogue (Govedar, 2015). African-American activists were very aware of the power of television at the time, and tried to find increased access to, and participation in television and other media. They knew that it was clear that showing police violence in response to peaceful demonstrations was likely to influence the American public in a sympathetic way. This became a significant strategy for the African-American demonstrators; for example, Martin Luther King sometimes canceled marches and protests if he found out that television stations were not going to cover them.

An example of the power of TV occurred in response to the Birmingham protests in 1960. African-Americans were participating in nonviolent peaceful protests and sit ins, followed by white people harassing and attacking them (Govedar, 2015). The mayor of Birmingham had become impatient with the protesters and ordered that the police use fire hoses and physical assaults on the crowd. When that was not effective, the mayor ordered police dogs to attack the demonstrators, allowing the American people to witness a previously unknown degree of police brutality. One of the images in particular became an iconic moment in the civil rights struggle: a young African-American boy being held down by several police officers, who were physically beating him and keeping him in a position that allowed a police dog to maul him. The significance of television in influencing the Civil Rights Movement was clear when President Kennedy witnessed the brutality of the Birmingham police. He ordered more actions by the federal government as well as putting pressure on Congress to act. The coverage allowed a direct connection to be made between the civil rights movement, its representation on television, and the national attention that followed (Thomas, 2004).

Television played a significant role in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s because it allowed average Americans to witness the horrific events associated with that struggle. More American homes than ever had televisions by the end of the 1960s, and so the civil rights movement became more real for them because they were able to witness black people involved in nonviolent protests being beaten by police. Because television allowed the American public to view first-hand what was happening in the struggle, public opinion changed dramatically and forced change in the nation.

  • Govedar, D. (2015, December 2). The role of television in the 1960s US civil rights movement. Retrieved from Online Mind.org: https://onlinemind.org/2015/12/02/the-role-of-the-television-in-the-1960s-us-civil-rights-movement/
  • Paley Center for Media. (2017). The civil rights movement in television. Retrieved from Paley Center for Media.org: https://www.paleycenter.org/the-civil-rights-movement-and-television
  • Thomas, W. (2004). Television news and the civil rights struggle: the views in Virginia and Mississippi. Retrieved from Southern Spaces.org: https://southernspaces.org/2004/television-news-and-civil-rights-struggle-views-virginia-and-mississippi