BY JOHN KELSEY
In many regards, the civil disobedience and unrest of the Civil Rights era parallels today’s headlines. One big difference between now and then, however, is information was much easier to control than it is today.
Now, anyone with a smartphone can be a “citizen journalist.” While the media’s coverage of race relations in this country can be traced back centuries, there was a sense of urgency with the Civil Rights movement where the issue was paramount.
Take Martin Luther King Jr., for example, the most iconic of figures from the movement. A March 12, 1965, editorial published by the Mobile Press-Register just a few days after Selma’s Bloody Sunday carried the headline, “King Acts Like King And Gets Away With It.”
It begins: We have said in effect before now that troublemaking racial agitator Martin Luther King fancied himself king of the United States of America.
“They certainly did view him as the villain of the story,” said Frye Gaillard, a local writer, regarding how a large portion of the media portrayed King.
The entirety of March 1965, the Press-Register was pretty relentless and made no question of its disdain for King, with editorials titled “Tell King to Pipe Down” and “King Now Tries to Hide Behind State Troopers.” It wasn’t just Southern newspapers; most publications during the time seemed to either support the demonstrators or scorn them.
“The editorials against him [King], the rationales, just seemed more and more contorted and angry and sometimes even hate filled as time went by,” Gaillard added.
John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and pretty much any set of demonstrators were fair game for a conservative media. Not all papers reflected this attitude, however, and some knew they were writing for a different audience.
The Mobile Beacon, a much smaller news publication covering the African-American community, was more sympathetic. A March 13, 1965, editorial with the headline “Alabama Senators Dead Wrong About Selma” told a different story.
The senators, Lister Hill and John Sparkman, had enjoyed varying success with African-Americans but lost ground after instances like Black Sunday in Selma.
Our two senators should know that in trying to blame the struggle for the right to vote in Dallas County (Selma) on so-called ‘outside agitators’ they are not affording a true picture of the protest happenings there.
This is not to say there weren’t more moderate arguments. Before many of the mass demonstrations occurred, a March 1957 editorial featured in the Lee County (Alabama) Bulletin pointed its finger at the media for sensationalizing some events:
The appearance of Senator John Sparkman before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee to discuss the Eisenhower administration’s civil rights legislation was barely noted in the press.
It blamed the media for only reporting the “fiery arguments presented by several other Southern members of Congress.”
Sparkman had pleaded for economic development before the subcommittee to help with race relations. He believed doing so would benefit whites and blacks in the state — a sentiment still echoed 58 years later.
Many people, both inside and outside the industry, began to worry the message might become distorted, which resulted in a wave of independent print publications. At the same time, some journalists were subjected to the same violence as demonstrators — often finding themselves at odds with authority.
There was an incident when a cross was burned at the residence of Hamner Cobb, editor of The Greensboro Watchman, in retaliation, some say, for an editorial he wrote about John Patterson. Patterson, Alabama’s Attorney General at the time, was running for governor against George Wallace. Cobb accused him of having ties to the Ku Klux Klan. A May 26, 1958, news article published in the Selma-Times Journal detailed the events.
Mobile City Councilman Fred Richardson was involved with the activist organization Neighborhood Organized Workers (NOW), and says what attention they received was often embellished.
“We were a bunch of radicals. We were outlaws. We were firebombers. We were militants,” Richardson said, referring to the perception many had about NOW. “The media painted us into a corner.”
A May 16, 1968, news article featured in The Birmingham News said about a NOW march in Mobile:
Seven marchers, mostly leaders of militant groups, were jailed on multiple charges, and in the end, it was the release of these six men and one woman from city jail that ended the three-hour march and demonstration.
But it was the boycott, not the march, Richardson explained, that was NOW’s main tactic.
“If it had not been for the movement,” Richardson said, “people probably would’ve thought we were ignorant because we would have been unable to demonstrate our abilities.”
People and groups demonstrated in various ways and some of these alternative news sources can be considered the predecessors of today’s citizen journalists. Michael Lottman told of a stabbing incident in Montgomery and an arrest being made after he investigated and published an article.
“That would have never occurred,” Lottman said. “There were a lot of things like that that just happened because we found out about something then they had to do something about it.”
Lottman left his post at the Chicago Daily News to become editor of Southern Courier, an independent newspaper published from 1965-1968.
The press got blamed for a number of problems with how the movement was covered and its effects. There was even the controversial “Kerner Commission,” an 11-member panel created by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the cause of race riots. The commission’s report placed a lot of blame on the mainstream media as well as the economic system. The findings, rejected by many, were published about one month before the assassination of Dr. King.
Gaillard said he remembers an editor in 1968 saying to him that the papers policy on covering these events was to “let sleeping dogs lie.”
John Kelsey contributed this article as a candidate for the Master of Arts in Communication program at the University of South Alabama in spring 2015. Interviews were conducted earlier this year.
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