A History of the American Civil Rights Movement Through Newspaper Coverage

The Race Agenda, Volume 2

by Steve Hallock (Author)
©2020 Monographs XVI, 494 Pages
Series: Mediating American History, Volume 17


As the first volume of this two-part study established, major newspapers across the United States used framing and gatekeeping to shape the narratives of the tumultuous civil rights movement. Beginning with the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision and the subsequent battle over desegregating a Little Rock high school, and continuing through the 1960 lunch-counter sit-ins, the next year’s freedom rides, and the 1963 Birmingham demonstrations, these newspapers helped set the agenda in their reportage of the movement. This second volume opens with the deadly September 1963 terrorist bombing of an African-American church in Birmingham, which crushed the euphoria that civil-rights crusaders had experienced after the 1963 March on Washington. What followed—including the mob violence and police brutality at Selma, the migration of race riots northward and westward, the rise of the Black Panther Party, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.—confirms the findings of the first volume. Major newspapers, in their coverage, painted starkly differing versions of the same incidents and events. The book contrasts a Northern and Western press more sympathetic to the civil rights crusade with Southern newspapers that depicted a South victimized by violent outside agitators bent on tearing down Southern culture and norms. Amid the current volatile climate of our politics, this study underscores the power of language in constructing our immediate and distant reality.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for the Second Volume of A History of the American Civil Rights Movement Through Newspaper Coverage
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Foreword by David R. Davies
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: Terrorism in Alabama But Legislative Hope in Washington
  • Chapter Two: Murder in Mississippi
  • Chapter Three: Marching to Vote in Selma
  • Chapter Four: Voting Rights for All; Racial Riots Migrate North and West; Supreme Court Lands New Justice
  • Chapter Five: A Summer of Riots
  • Chapter Six: A Study on Racism; Assassination in Memphis
  • Chapter Seven: A More Militant Advocacy
  • Chapter Eight: The Supreme Court and School Desegregation Redux; Some Concluding Remarks
  • Index
  • Series Index

← x | xi →


Professor Steven Hallock’s exploration of press coverage of the civil rights movement and its aftermath arrives at a crossroads in the modern history of American journalism.

As the Fourth Estate endures unprecedented questions into its legitimacy on the national stage, this study underscores the critically important role of a robust press in a democracy. Moreover, Professor Hallock’s analysis adds a nuance and depth to the study of the interaction between the press and the movement, substantially advancing the historical study of this era. This book, then, performs remarkable double duty in shedding light on both the past and the present of the American press.

First, this two-volume history adds significantly to the growing historiography of the intersection of the civil rights movement and the American press. In the earliest years after the movement ended, scholars focused foremost on the stories of the press’ heroes. Textbooks of the American press, and indeed the earliest historical accounts of press coverage of the movement, understandably centered on the moderate editors and newspapers who pushed back against the tide of Southern resistance to Brown v. Board of Education, focusing on journalists such as Harry Ashmore of the Arkansas Gazette. The Gazette and its owner, J.N. Heiskell, held firm for law and order in the Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis of 1957, earning Ashmore a Pulitzer Prize the following year for his measured editorials.1 ← xi | xii →

Historians of this first wave of scholarship focused on other editorial heroes, often Southern editors who, like Ashmore, helped to lead their communities peacefully through a time of profound societal change. These editors stood apart from their Southern journalistic peers, often winning Pulitzer Prizes for editorial writing in the process. This group included Hodding Carter, Jr., of the Greenville, Mississippi, Delta Democrat-Times (Pulitzer Prize, 1946); Buford Boone of the Tuscaloosa, Alabama, News (1957); Lenoir Chambers of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot (1960); Ira B. Harkey, Jr., of the Pascagoula, Mississippi, Chronicle (1963); and Hazel Brannon Smith of the Lexington, Mississippi, Advertiser (1964).2

Other scholars looked at the press of a particular state, such as Tennessee or Mississippi, during this period, considering a cross-section of editorial opinion, placing the era’s journalism in the context of a state’s politics, history, and geography. Hank Klibanoff and Gene Roberts took a broader approach in The Race Beat, their Pulitzer Prize-winning examination of the reporters who covered the movement.3

Professor Hallock nudges the story of the press and its coverage of civil rights in a different direction. By examining the news coverage and the editorial opinion of so many newspapers, representing a cross-section of the country’s most important journals, he demonstrates the range of opinions these newspapers advanced, sometimes consistent, sometimes contradictory, in ways that reflected each region’s accommodation with the Second Reconstruction. It is a wide-ranging and nuanced approach that builds on previous scholarship.

Implicit in Professor Hallock’s analysis is the realization of the importance of local newspapers both to cover and to give context to local events. So there is irony that his work arrives in an unprecedented era of American journalism, when American newspapers—and the services these local institutions provide—and the news media more generally are under unprecedented assault from outside forces.

First, the internet has fundamentally undermined the economics of newspapers to the detriment not just to the newspapers themselves but to the consumers who rely upon them. Readers continue to turn to the nation’s newspapers for news, but they are abandoning paid print subscriptions to read free news on the web. The loss of subscriptions along with the substantial decline in advertising has left newspapers hard-pressed to pay the bills, and newspapers employ far fewer reporters and editors than they did just 20 years ago. Today’s newspapers are mere shells of their former selves; their print and web versions are far smaller with less news, and they employ far smaller staffs to cover the day’s events. They are important but small players in an internet age that showers readers and viewers with information from all directions.4

Moreover, the news media themselves are under attack from a political environment in which critical news coverage is derided as “fake news,” and the press’ credibility with the public is at historic lows. Its authority is under attack at the ← xii | xiii → same time its economic base is crumbling, and the news media’s future is uncertain. And, it’s uncertain where we will be getting our news in the future.

Professor Hallock’s research, then, invites not just a broader interpretation of the past but also troubling questions about the future. To cite just a few:

Who will cover the future social movements with the range and depth of the newspapers studied here? Who will provide editorial comment to offer perspective on these movements, and the upheaval that will result from them, particularly in the nation’s “news deserts?” Will accusations of “fake news,” hurled at a weakened institution, further threaten robust journalism at the local and national levels? In sum, will strong editorial voices survive the internet long enough to lead us through the next wave of social change? These questions don’t present easy answers.

In addition, this book’s central thesis—that news organizations’ framing of issues creates a distinct reality for news consumers—resonates in today’s media environment dominated by a heavily politicized broadcast news. This framing can have serious consequences, as this volume will show. “False or inaccurate representations of reality, deliberate deception through the use of framing and gatekeeping, not only are able to affect political and policy decisions,” Professor Hallock observes. “They also can spark fear, anger, hatred, rioting.”

This book’s study of framing and its consequences, then, offers insights into the practice of American journalism of the past while offering us a lens through which to understand today’s rapidly shifting political and journalistic landscape. It is an important book arriving at a critical time.

David R. Davies is professor of journalism in the School of Communication at the University of Southern Mississippi. He is the author of The Press and Race: Mississippi Journalists Confront the Movement (University Press of Mississippi, 2001) and The Postwar Decline of American Newspapers (Praeger, 2006).


1. Harry S. Ashmore, Civil Rights and Wrongs: A Memoir of Race and Politics 1944–1996 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997).

2. See, for example, Ann Waldron, Hodding Carter: The Reconstruction of a Racist (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 1993); Alexander Leidholdt, Standing Before the Shouting Mob: Lenoir Chambers and Virginia’s Massive Resistance to Public School Integration (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1997); and John A. Whalen, Maverick Among the Magnolias: The Hazel Brannon Smith Story (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris Corp., 2000).

3. See Graham Hugh Davis, Crisis in Print: Desegregation and the Press in Tennessee (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 1967); Susan Weill, In a Madhouse’s Din: Civil Rights Coverage by Mississippi’s Daily Press, 1948–1968 (Santa Barbara, CA; Denver, CO; Oxford: ← xiii | xiv → Praeger, 2002); and Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation (New York: Knopf, 2006).

4. Analyses of the decline of the newspaper industry are plentiful. In particular, the Pew Research Center has published numerous studies documenting the decline of newspaper circulation and advertising and the precipitous drops in newspaper employment. For a recent recap of these statistics, see Douglas McLennan and Jack Miles, “A once unimaginable scenario: No more newspapers,” Washington Post, March 21, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/theworldpost/wp/2018/03/21/newspapers/?utm_term=.27a42ac38e06 (accessed April 23, 2019).

← xiv | 1 →


The terrorist bombing of a church in Birmingham that killed four young African-American girls preparing for church services on a Sunday morning in 1963 dashed the euphoria that followed the successful March on Washington that ended the first volume of this newspaper analysis of the civil rights movement. That bombing, which begins this second volume, and the demonstrations and events that followed it are the subjects of analyses that continue an exploration of the framing themes that emerged in the first volume—from the states’–rights arguments of the Southern press and the federal-authority defense put forth by the Northern newspapers in their respective coverage of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court ruling and the ensuing attempt to desegregate a high school in Little Rock three years later, through the lunch counter sit-ins and freedom rides, to the 1963 Birmingham children’s march. The Southern newspapers analyzed here depicted these events as invasions of outside agitators while the Northern organs framed them as peaceful demonstrations by martyrs on behalf of constitutional freedoms. But the demonstrations and violence chronicled in this second volume—including the 1964 murder of three Northern civil-rights volunteers in Mississippi, the Bloody Sunday carnage of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, the migration of race riots to the North and West, and the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.—would be bloodier and deadlier than ever. ← 1 | 2 →

The exploration of media theories of the first volume continues here, as analysis of the same major regional newspapers (see below) will consider the framing, gatekeeping, and agenda-setting routines used by the newspapers to engage in their formation of the mediated reality of the civil-rights crusade. The most powerful of these concepts is framing. As defined by Robert M. Entman in his 2004 book Projections of Power: Framing News, Public Opinion, and U.S. Foreign Policy, framing involves “selecting and highlighting some facets of events or issues, and making connections among them so as to promote a particular interpretation, evaluation, and/or solution.”1 Gatekeeping—the process whereby media owners and managers, along with reporters and editors, decide what information is offered readers and what is omitted—plays a key role in the process of framing. Other framing elements employed by print journalists include choice of language and placement of story—in short, how the narrative is presented overall in tone and nuance. The interpretation referenced by Entman is part of the process of what media theorists term constructing reality for an audience that relies almost exclusively on second-hand, mediated reports of events and issues. Thus, reality for these consumers of news and commentary is the world shown to them—and thus shaped for them—by the media messengers. As Dan Berkowitz observed in his 1997 book Social Meanings of News, “journalists’ routine methods for producing news—that is, the very process of ‘newsgathering’—constructs an image of reality. In this view, news is neither a reflection nor a distortion of reality because either of these characterizations implies that news can record what is ‘out there.’ News stories, if they reflect anything, reflect the practices of the workers in the organizations that produce news.”2 Later in the same volume he notes that “Like news, history and anthropology narrate real events, and their practitioners are finding that to understand their narratives, they must examine how they are constructed, including the story-telling devices that are an integral part of that construction.” To contextualize news, he argues, “we must put aside the important/interesting dichotomy and look at news stories as a whole—both as a body of work that is a continuing story of human activity, and as individual stories that contribute to that continuing one. … The facts, names, and details change almost daily, but the framework into which they fit—the symbolic system—is more enduring.”3 That framework, or framing, also is more powerful than the actual facts, names, and details that become part of a constructed reality depending not only on which ones are used—and which are omitted—but how they are arranged and spun. Perception—how information is understood—becomes reality for those who rely on mediated messages. One last word on gatekeeping: An important facet of this phenomenon is absence. Often, newspaper owners or editors deliberately withheld stories, or they chose not to editorialize on a subject. Such decisions in themselves ← 2 | 3 → indicate a form of agenda-setting. Keeping this information from their readers—or burying it inside—helps to create a false reality that omits or limits information that might, if included, shape a more thorough and honest narrative.

Story placement, seemingly a minor component of the framing process, actually is a key element of this dynamic. A real-estate analogy is appropriate: What’s important is location, location, location. Stories placed on the front page are deemed by the editors, as part of the framing and agenda-setting procedures, to be the most important stories of the day, and the readers likewise view page-one stories as more important than those placed inside. Editors therefore place a hierarchical, prioritized value on news and photographs by the mere decision of where to put them, along with other gatekeeping/framing methods that include length of story and volume of coverage. As for page one, the observation by media analyst Howard Kurtz in the 2007 “Bill Moyers Journal” documentary titled “Buying the War” bears noting. “The front page of The Washington Post or any newspaper is a billboard of what the editors are telling you, these are the most important stories of the day. And stories that don’t run on the front page, the reader sort of gets that, well, these are of secondary importance.”4

So, as it was in the first volume, framing analysis will be employed dominantly here to explore how publishers, editors, and reporters consciously conceptualized information to shape their narratives. Frames that emerged as the primary motifs in the first volume continue in this one. They range from the most obvious—constitutional themes taking in the Tenth and Fourteenth Amendments, states’ rights versus federal authority, and concepts of justice and equality—to others: evocation of the Civil War and the political and philosophical debates of that era; militaristic language that includes the use of words such as “invasion” and “march;” foreign image—how the U.S. presents itself to the world; personification themes, in which major figures of the era (political leaders such as senators, Alabama Governor George C. Wallace, President Lyndon Johnson, civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., all of whom evoke certain sentiments and passions just in the mention of their names) become symbolic; and law-and-order evocations, in which the interpretation of which laws, federal or state/local, are the legitimate ones, and which order, the old, segregationist South or that of the integrationist North, is to be upheld. Along that line, one of the more prominent themes of this second volume is dubbed Southern folkways, a culture of long-standing segregationist rule in an agrarian society that, it was argued, the African-American citizens accepted and in fact supported, and that needed to be preserved, but that the Northern press and politicians, along with civil-rights activists, saw as repressive, subversive, and even exotic, like a foreign society. Tied to this was a frame of Southern victimization, coupled with conspiracy theory, in which the politicians and press of the South ← 3 | 4 → saw their culture and way of life as under attack by a Northern society that considered itself superior to the South.

To be sure, the sentiment of Southerners that they were looked down upon by elitist Northerners had merit. Long-time New York Times reporter and columnist Anthony Lewis observed in the 1964 reprinting of his 1953 book, Portrait of a Decade: The Second American Revolution, that as the “racial revolution” played out in the South, “there was a certain amount of sanctimoniousness in the North. That northerners should feel morally superior on the racial issue was understandable, for they did not live in a society which was officially, legally dedicated to treatment of the Negro as a separate and inferior being—a society like the old South. The legal premise in the North was the opposite: Government was pledged against racial discrimination. And the political remedy was open to the northern Negro; he could vote, and in many places he had political power.” But, Lewis argued, this supposed power and freedom enjoyed by the Northern African-American “was unimportant to so many Negroes in New York and Chicago and Boston and Philadelphia and the other great cities of the Northeast. Reality was life in a slum, education in ancient schools, a job as a bus boy—or no job at all. And so northern righteousness had a hollow ring to it.”5 Indeed, the social and economic conditions alluded to by Lewis would play out in the North as we will see, in this second volume analyzing press coverage of the civil-rights movement, with racial rioting in major Northern and Western cities that would include Chicago, Los Angeles, and Detroit. These riots would underscore the irony of what Lewis had termed the “smugness” of some Northern whites.6 One other frame in this North-South duality, one used most frequently in the Southern newspapers, was that of false equivalency, in which unrelated information is cited by a reporter or editorialist to present an erroneous comparison.

The concept of agenda-setting—the manner of deciding what sort of issue or information will be put into the public sphere, and how it will be presented, for the purpose of generating public discussion and opinion—will be the other dominant theoretical element of this volume’s analysis. As observed in Volume 1, the driving forces of agenda-setting are three-fold: the civil-rights leaders who staged protests, demonstrations, and marches to bring the attention of the public and political leaders to the plight of the African-American citizen; the government officials and political leaders who proposed legislation, made speeches, ordered law-enforcement and legal processes into motion, and took stands to shine the public light on an issue or stance; and finally, the newspapers, which for the most part were largely reactive to others’ agendas but often set their own agendas through gate-keeping and framing devices, and story assignment. For example, some newspapers showed greater agenda-setting priorities by sending reporters to the civil-rights arenas for special, in-depth reports; by opening up news space for numerous and voluminous ← 4 | 5 → stories and photo packages; by maintaining a constant front-page presence for developing and continuing civil-rights narratives; and by devoting editorial commentary to the issues and topics. Publishers and editors used such opinion statements to clarify, underscore and buttress their agendas. Considerable attention will be given to editorial framing in this analysis. It is important to remember here that in this role of opinion-shaping, as opposed to reality constructing, the publishers, editors, and commentators were considered, in this era when most readers learned of the world from their community newspapers, as authority figures in their own right. They held considerable sway in this tumultuous period of American history, and they used it to shape opinion, thinking, and reality.

These publishers, editors, and their reporters and photographers play important roles in one other theoretical element of this analysis: the process not of how media content is determined, but by whom. As detailed in the introduction to the first volume of this press analysis, various influences determine media content and thus affect how the media create, or distort, reality. The first level of influence, as put forth by media scholars Pamela J. Shoemaker and Stephen D. Reese in their landmark 1996 book Mediating the Message: Theories of Influences on Mass Media Content, is at the individual or, in our case, reporter level. It is the reporters and photographers in the field who make the initial contacts for the story, who are on the scene reporting the events and issues as eyewitnesses or, in crisis-management terms, first-responders. These folks help determine the story’s framing through determinations that include what information is most and least important, how to structure a story (i.e., using a straight summary lead to begin the story, or to set the scene with a more featurish anecdotal lead), all the way down to word choice (e.g., identifying a civil-rights marcher as a “civil-rights volunteer” or as a “civil-rights invader”). But other, more powerful forces shape media content, beginning with media routines that reporters and editors follow to obtain information. This would include determining what sources to pursue (government officials, event participants, witnesses, official documents, designated spokespeople, personal observation, and use of unnamed sources, or whistleblowers). It also takes in assignments. Calling on staff reporters to cover certain events, or sending them to other states or regions for first-hand accounts, as opposed to relying on wire service coverage, is a significant element of agenda-setting, signaling a heightened level of interest in a story and lending it greater importance in the eyes of the readers. The third most powerful component of media content influences is the organizational level of the media company. This would include, at a newspaper, the editors and publisher, along with the owners. These are the final gatekeepers, setting agendas by determining what stories will be published, where they will be placed (front page versus inside, top of the page or bottom), how long the stories will be—and whether ← 5 | 6 → some stories will even be assigned to a reporter or used. A decision not to publish a story or to comment editorially has a meaning all of its own, messaging the readers, and the organization’s news-gatherers, that a subject or event is irrelevant or of minor importance. This level also can include decisions inside the media organization to set its own agenda through assignment of in-depth investigative and enterprise reporting that raises new topics or ones that previously had not been fully explored. This is another signal to readers—by those at the executive level of a news organization, who wear the robes of authority figures in a community—of a story’s or topic’s importance.

The next sphere of content determination is the extramedia level—influences beyond the control of the media organization that play significant roles in determining informational content. This would include such agenda-setters as government and agency officials, judicial and law-enforcement and military officers, events such as trials, press conferences, and policy decisions and announcements. Advertisers can be influential influences on content. Outside influences also would be the citizens and movement participants and organizers, who set agendas through such events as protest marches, demonstrations and riots. This latter sphere—social agitation through marches and protests—was largely responsible for sparking local and national news organization agendas during the civil-rights movement. The most powerful determinant of media content, though, is ideology. This sphere, in the United States, would include the capitalistic, free-market economic system, and the democratic form of government that stresses participation and elected representation charged with offering and protection of such constitutional norms as fair opportunity and equality—forces behind the laws and norms that maintain the nation’s cultural beliefs and practices. The arguments and battles over such issues as segregation, voter and citizen participation, and other areas of constitutional governance and guarantees are waged in the ideological realm.7

The newspapers analyzed in this volume are the same as in the first one: In the North, The New York Times, The Detroit Free Press, The Pittsburgh Press, and the Chicago Tribune. The Southern newspapers are The Richmond News Leader in Virginia, The News and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, The Birmingham News and The Houston Chronicle. Three Western newspapers were analyzed: The Denver Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The Seattle Times. As will be seen, many of the home cities of these newspapers were the stages of some of the events and activities that were the subjects of these newspapers’ reporting.

Chapter one will analyze press coverage of the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, and of the 1964 Civil Rights Act passage and its signing by President Lyndon Johnson. Chapter two explores coverage of the murder of three ← 6 | 7 → voting-rights volunteer workers in Mississippi, along with the arrest of the suspects and the subsequent 1967 trial and conviction. Chapter three details the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march demonstrations on behalf of voting rights. Chapter four analyzes the 1965 passage and signing of the Voting Rights Act that came out of the Selma marches; the race riots in Chicago and Los Angeles that same year; and the 1967 appointment of the nation’s first African-American member of the U.S. Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall. Chapter five takes up more race riots, led by the 1967 disturbances in Detroit. The federally commissioned 1968 Kerner Commission report on those riots, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., are the subjects of Chapter six. Chapter seven takes a detailed, city-by-city look at the Black Panther movement. Chapter eight ends the volume on the same subject that opened volume 1, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, nearly seventeen years after the 1954 Brown decision desegregating public schools in the South, endorsing busing as a remedy to bring about the public school desegregation of the Brown ruling. This will be followed by some afterthoughts by this author.


1. Robert M. Entman, Projections of Power: Framing News, Public Opinion, and U.S. Foreign Policy (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004), 5.

2. Dan Berkowitz, Social Meanings of News: A Text-Reader (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 1997), 211.

3. Ibid, 334–335.

4. Bill Moyers, “Buying the War,” Bill Moyers Journal, PBS, https://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/btw/transcript1.html (accessed February 16, 2019).

5. Anthony Lewis, Portrait of a Decade: The Second American Revolution: A first-hand account of the struggle for Civil Rights from 1954–1964 (New York: Random House, 1964), 238.

6. Ibid.

7. Pamela J. Shoemaker and Stephen D. Reese, Mediating the Message: Theories of Influences on Mass Media Content (White Plains, NY: Longman, 1996). ← 7 | 8 →

← 8 | 9 →


Terrorism in Alabama But Legislative Hope in Washington

‘New Outrage in Birmingham’

The weather was mild that Sunday, September 15, 1963, with temperatures in the lower 70s as five young African-American girls, two of them sisters, dressed in their Sunday best, gabbed about the new school year in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, shortly before Sunday services would start. “It was Youth Day, and excitement filled the air, they were going to take part in the Sunday adult service,” according to a National Park Service website. “Just before 11 o’clock, instead of rising to begin prayers, the congregation was knocked to the ground. As a bomb exploded under the steps of the church, they sought safety under the pews and shielded each other from falling debris. In the basement, four little girls, 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and 11-year-old Cynthia Wesley, were killed. Addie’s sister Susan survived, but was permanently blinded.”1

The Birmingham church bombing was the twenty-first bombing in the city during an eight-year period; and there had been fifty bombings of property belonging to African-Americans since World War II. None had been solved; twenty people had been injured.2 The church bombing, reported The New York Times on September 16, had been the first to cause fatalities. “Since the bombings began in 1955, the main targets have been churches, the home of the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth, integration leader, and homes of Negroes moving into a white section that came to ← 9 | 10 → be known as ‘Dynamite Hill.’ The last previous bombing occurred 11 days ago at the home of Arthur Shores, Negro attorney, on Dynamite Hill, while repair work was still in progress from a bombing at the home two weeks earlier.”3 By the time of the 1963 church bombing, according to History.com, “homemade bombs set off in Birmingham’s black homes and churches were such common occurrences that the city had earned the name ‘Bombingham.’”4

This particular bombing, though, didn’t target a specific human being so much; its intention was to take down a symbol. Not only was this edifice a large and prominent downtown church only blocks from City Hall and the city’s commercial district, since its construction “the church had served as the centerpiece of the city’s African American community, functioning as a meeting place, social center, and lecture hall,” according to the U.S. National Park Service. The church, a part of the Birmingham Civil Rights District that was proclaimed a national monument by President Barack Obama in January of 2017, “became a departure point for many of the demonstrations that took place in the city,” including the children’s march of May 1963 that was part of the Project C Birmingham protests. “The church came to be viewed by many as a symbol and a rallying place for civil rights activists; and it became the focal point for racial tensions and white hostility towards the civil rights movement in Birmingham,” according to the National Park Service’s website.5

The bombing, reported The New York Times on its September 16 front page, sparked “racial rioting and other violence in which two Negro boys were shot to death. Fourteen Negroes were injured in the explosion. One Negro and five whites were hurt in the disorders that followed.” The newspaper reported that five-hundred National Guardsmen stood by at armories in Birmingham, joined by three-hundred state troopers, along with Birmingham police and Jefferson County sheriff’s deputies. “Sporadic gunfire sounded in Negro neighborhoods,” wrote Claude Sitton, on the scene, “and small bands of residents roamed the streets. Aside from the patrols that cruised the city armed with riot guns, carbines and shotguns, few whites were seen.” At one point, Sitton wrote, “three fires burned simultaneously in Negro sections, one at a broom and mop factory, one at a roofing company and a third in another building. An incendiary bomb was tossed into a supermarket, but the flames were extinguished.” The explosion, he wrote, “brought hundreds of angry Negroes pouring into the streets. Some attacked the police with stones. The police dispersed them by firing shotguns over their heads.” A male African-American teenager was shot in the back and killed by a policeman with a shotgun, Sitton wrote. “Officers said the victim was among a group that had hurled stones at white youths driving through the area in cars flying Confederate battle flags.” A thirteen-year-old African-American was shot to death just outside Birmingham “while riding a bicycle,” Sitton wrote. “The Jefferson County sheriff’s office said ‘there ← 10 | 11 → apparently was no reason at all’ for the killing, but indicated that it was related to the general racial disorders.” Governor George Wallace, “at the request of city officials, offered a $5,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the bombers,” Sitton reported of what had been the fourth such incident in less than a month.6


XVI, 494
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XVI, 494 pp.

Biographical notes

Steve Hallock (Author)

Steve Hallock is director of the graduate program for the School of Communication at Pittsburgh’s Point Park University. He earned a Ph.D. in journalism from Ohio University in 2005 after a nearly 30-year newspaper career and is the author of eight books, the most recent being the 2018 A History of the American Civil Rights Movement Through Newspaper Coverage: The Race Agenda, Volume I. He has published commentaries in newspapers that include The New York Times, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Philadelphia Inquirer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The Denver Post.


Title: A History of the American Civil Rights Movement Through Newspaper Coverage
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