Television Spurred Civil Rights Struggle

The history books are not quit accurate when credit is given to who or what was most responsible for the gains in civil rights for African-Americans during the nineteen-sixties or what is commonly called the civil-rights era. True enough, Rev. Martin Luther King, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Rosa Parks and others were powerful voices for change and President Lyndon B. Johnson played a pivotal role in the passage of landmark civil rights legislation. But in my estimation Television, more exactly, TV news, was the most influential factor during that crucial era.

If we examine history carefully we see that before TV, Dr. King was another in a long line of learned black men who gave voice to the struggle for equal rights. Up until that point, President Johnson was just another president who paid lip service to the American creed of justice for all. Other institutions, churches, universities and corporations as well as most white americans just went along to get along and observed the status quo.

Then came Television! Suddenly white America was confronted with the visceral ugliness of racism and what it took to maintain segregation, in living color. They witnessed black Americans, in peaceful assembly to protest unfair treatment and second class citizenship, set upon by white members of law enforcement and white civilians. They saw the rabid hatred and viciousness that was until then only a black and white headline in their local newspaper or a faceless radio news item. They witnesed, almost first-hand, black men, women and children attacked with high pressure water hoses, billy clubs, tear gas, sticks and stones, snarling German Sheppard police dogs and at times, live ammunition. The aftermath of lynchings, unlawful prosecutions and imprisonments, church bombings, Nazi-like medical procedures like the Tuskegee Experiment, and white terrorist groups like the Klan running wild in the streets, was brought home to the heartland of America. White Americans, by the millions, had to look in the mirror and ask themselves; is that us?

No longer could the President stand before the world and proclaim the United States to be the bastion of freedom and human justice. Television had shined a bright light on the hypocrisy of America and shamed the "leader" of the free world before the world. The implications were serious in light of the cold war struggle with the Communist Block for the hearts and minds of third world populations, the strategic natural resources they controlled and the foreign markets for manufactured goods we needed to maintain the US economy.

President Johnson, Rev. King, and others have a revered place in history and rightfully so. Their contributions to the goal of equal justice for all are great indeed but television brought the civil rights struggle into the living rooms of white America and forced them to ask if this is really us, the US, the U.S. of A. Sadly the answered was yes. At that point millions of white Americans, including many elected officials, whose sense of self-worth was not predicated on demeaning blacks and other minorities had to do something and that hastened the constitutional amendments, the dismantling of Jim Crow Laws in the south and other changes in American government and society. The progress it brought to American culture culminated in the election of Barak Obama, an African-American, to the presidency of the United States of America.