Pushing Civil Rights onto the National Agenda

By the 50s, Slavery had been outlawed in the U.S., but the south had created their own ways to keep black people “in their place”.  The South followed the concept of “separate but equal” which would deprive African Americans access to public facilities and decent educations.

The decision of Brown vs. the Board of  Education inspired the African American community to fight against unjust laws and discrimination, which strengthened the Civil Rights Movement.  News anchors followed the various events closely, which was then broadcasted for the American people to see. This propelled the Civil Rights Movement into the national agenda.

However, the South did not want network journalists to report on it. When racists saw that reporters were “disrupting their system” and saw them as outside agitators.  Correspondents would be injured while covering the movement,  which would be seen as warning signs from Southern racists.

Huge events including  The Little Rock Nine, the Freedom Riders, power struggles in Birmingham, marching on Washington (which featured Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream speech)  and Selma received an abundance of media coverage. Americans on T.V. would see African Americans taunted with slurs, mauled by dogs, beaten by police, and also the calming and moving words of Dr. King.

John Lewis, who led the Voting Rights March in Selma and is a member of the U.S.  Congress today is quoted as saying, “If it hadn’t been for television on that day, we wouldn’t have gotten the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Civil Rights Movement in this Country owes a great deal to television.”


 In this Sept. 4, 1957, file photo, students of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., including Hazel Bryan, shout insults at Elizabeth Eckford as she calmly walks toward a line of National Guardsmen. Shot by Will Counts for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Key Terms/ People:

  • Brown vs. Board of Education: 1954 Supreme Court case in which the justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional.
  • Civil Rights Movement: Took place mainly during the 1950s and 1960s for African Americans to gain equal rights under the law in the United States.
  • Little Rock Nine: A group of nine African American students enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in 1957. Their enrollment caused much white discomfort and they only were able to continue to attend after President Eisenhower intervened.
  • Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter: Two African American students who were admitted to the University of Georgia. The attention centered on  Hunter, who because she was female was forced to dorm, while Holmes could live off campus. She appeared nightly on T.V. receiving abuse from her white peers.
  • Freedom Riders: Were groups of white and African American Civil Rights activists who participated in Freedom Rides, bus trips through the American South in 1961 to protest segregated bus terminals.   When the buses got to Montgomery, Alabama, they were attacked by 2,000 whites resulting in severe injuries.
  • Moe Levy:  An NBC cameraman who was present on one of the buses and captured much of the action on film. When the attacks began, Levy’s camera was smashed.
  • March on Washington:  A massive protest march that occurred in August 1963, where thousands of people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. It was there where Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
  • The American Revolution ’63: A news special described as the “magnum opus” of the Civil Rights Movement. Even though every sponsor pulled out of the broadcast,  NBC still aired the special without commercials, losing  $500,000 that night.
  • March on Selma: In an effort to register black voters in the South, protesters marched from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery and were confronted with deadly violence from authorities and white people.


  • Television and Broadcasting played a huge role in the Civil Rights Movement—what forms of communication have played pivotal roles in the movements of today?
  •  Do you think the media also played a negative role in the Civil Rights movement?

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