A History of the American Civil Rights Movement Through Newspaper Coverage

The Race Agenda, Volume 1

by Steve Hallock (Author)
©2018 Monographs XX, 352 Pages
Open Access
Series: Mediating American History, Volume 15


From the cardinal Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that desegregated U.S. public education to the demonstrations, marches, and violence of the civil rights movement, A History of the American Civil Rights Movement Through Newspaper Coverage: The Race Agenda, Volume 1 traces the crusade for justice through the lens of major newspaper coverage to reveal the combating sectional press attitudes of the era. The book details attempts, blatant and subtle, to frame the major events of the movement in themes that have resonated from before, during, and since the Civil War. States’ rights versus constitutional guarantees of freedom and equality, nullification versus federal authority, and regional social and cultural mores that buttressed the prejudices and political arguments of segregation and desegregation across the nation are some of the issues covered. This analysis of the press coverage of events and issues of that tumultuous period of U.S. history—by newspapers in the North, South, Midwest, and West—exposes perspectives and press routines that remain ingrained and thus relevant today, when journalistic treatment of political debate, ranging from traditional newspapers and broadcast platforms to those of cable, social media, and the Internet, continues to set an often volatile and oppositional political agenda.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for the First Volume of A History of the American Civil Rights Movement Through Newspaper Coverage
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • Foreword
  • Introduction
  • Echoes of History
  • Theoretical Components
  • Method
  • Notes
  • Chapter 1: The Brown Decision: Separate Not Equal
  • ‘All God’s Chillun’
  • Notes
  • Chapter 2: The Lynching of Emmett Till; A Bus Seat Denied
  • ‘Murder Most Foul’
  • ‘Harmful Agitation’
  • Notes
  • Chapter 3: Brown’s First Test: Riots in Little Rock
  • ‘The Face of Democracy’
  • Notes
  • Chapter 4: Activists Set the Table at Lunch Counters
  • ‘Laws and Folkways’
  • Notes
  • Chapter 5: Taking Freedom on the Road
  • ‘Nothing to Lose’
  • Notes
  • Chapter 6: Civil War II in Oxford
  • ‘Sophocles in Mississippi’
  • Notes
  • Chapter 7: Martin Luther King, Jr., Orchestrates Protest Model
  • ‘The Meaning of Birmingham’
  • Notes
  • Chapter 8: Wallace Makes a Stand; Assassination in Mississippi
  • ‘Spotlight on Tuscaloosa’
  • ‘When The Killing Begins’
  • Notes
  • Chapter 9: On the Capital Stage; Some Afterthoughts
  • ‘Equality Is Their Right’
  • Words Matter
  • Some Concluding Remarks and Observations
  • Notes
  • Index
  • Series index

| xi →


Back in the sixties, we rapped, to use the vernacular of the time, about vibes, auras, astrological signs—mystical jargon, conversation we labeled as heavy, cosmic, sometimes meaningful. Peter, Paul and Mary had a hit song, “The Great Mandela,” about the notion of fate, or coincidence, or what-goes-around-comes-around. This particular tune arises in this sentence because as I type this preface to my book about the civil rights movement of the sixties, my computer has randomly and coincidentally selected from my songs library Billie Holiday’s rendition of Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit,” a dirge to the lynchings of the Jim Crow era—the fruit being the dead bodies of African-Americans hanging from trees. Nostalgia of the sixties—the Beatles, Stones, Joni and Dylan, free love, tooling the mountain highways in muraled VW vans, Jimi and Janis, body paint, mind-altering drugs—has become a popular and commercial pastime: Ah, what a strange trip it’s been, we of that era like to muse. And so much fun.

But nostalgia has this habit of coloring the past through rose-tinted granny spectacles, especially considering those who experienced the most brutal, ugly part of that decade—the lynchings, the beatings, the snarling dogs, the high-pressure fire hoses, the police clubs, the jammed jail cells, the promises of justice that were lies, the lofty language of law-and-order that was 1984 doublespeak for the white man’s law to keep the black man in order—the fear and courage of living a black life. The sixties were ugly times for those who marched in 100-degree humidity ← xi | xii → down asphalt highways under a glaring sun toward an elusive goal, equality, that remained always just beyond the horizon.

I remember the news reports of those marches and riots, the flickering black-and-white television images in our west-side Denver house, the screen beaming footage of cops shoving and clubbing what we then called Negroes—“colored,” in my lower-middle-class neighborhood where an African-American company emptied our trash barrels in our alley each week. It was like watching events in another country, the goings-on in this Southern nation of America. Wise, white, male television reporters objectively reported the vicious battles taking place on the campuses and streets of Alabama and Mississippi as their cameramen captured the bloody scenery accompanying the monologues.

As I conducted the research for this book—hours in Northern and Southern and Western libraries scanning microfilm images of newspapers that were the primary purveyors of information then—I traveled my own youth. It was an era without live, on-the-scene reports—the footage was filmed with video cameras and the film then sent to labs for development and editing for the nightly news programs. Newspaper and wire dispatches were dictated over expensive, long-distance land lines. No Internet. No cell phones—no phones at all, in many of these poor, Southern ghettos. The daily newspaper provided the tidings of the day, which were discussed, not in chat rooms or on Facebook, but in taverns, barbershops, cafes, beauty salons, as the television networks followed the newspapers’ cues. The media’s race agenda then was one reported on and set by print journalists and editors.

Poring over these microfilm images of those newspapers, I was struck by how much was going on then, and how the world was changing. Competing for front-page news space were stories of space exploration, the Cold War, McCarthyism and communism, war in Vietnam and anti-war war protests in the streets and on college campuses. Be-ins and love-ins. Looking at these old news pages, I relived my high school and college days, when I developed my passion for journalism; glancing at the ads for the nightclubs and movies of the era, the fashions and hairdos, the baseball races—Cardinals and Yankees, forever, it seems—and college football powerhouses—Nebraska, Alabama—I remembered many things I thought I’d forgotten. Reading the headlines about the marriages and divorces—Happy and Nelson Rockefeller, John and Yoko—and the music and arts festivals: Woodstock!—I remembered, as so many kin and children and friends must still remember.

And all the while, the civil-rights activists plodded through this happy nostalgia of ours, relentlessly demanding the right to sit in a diner for a cup of coffee, to bathe in a public swimming pool, to ride a public bus—and yes, to be properly ← xii | xiii → educated and have the right to walk into a voting booth and to safely stroll a neighborhood sidewalk on a summer evening.

So, while this book is the story of an era that many of us shared and remember fondly, it is, more importantly, a revisitation of a dark and stormy niche of American history, significant for the lessons it teaches us about what, today, seems like a replay of the same old arguments and passions on our national and cultural landscape as pundit debates and legal battles are fought yet again over voting rights, educational and work opportunity, criminal justice, economic and class inequality. As Sonny and Cher sang back then, the beat goes on.

The political landscape, though, has changed significantly over the past half century. The civil rights drama of the era covered by the research for this book and its next volume—the late 1950s through the 1960s—played out in a political system in which conservative, segregationist Democrats in the South split with their Northern party colleagues. Those conservative Democrats are now Republicans in a South swimming in political red, but the Grand Old Party, like the Democratic Party then, is split between moderates and alt-right, Tea Party Republicans. Yet questions of race and opportunity have not changed, raising the suggestion, posed by Santayana, that we are doomed to repeat the refrains of that dark past.

That proposition drove my interest in this research and this particular history. But Santayana’s inference had a condition attached to it—that learning about the past might help us avoid repeating it. With signs of repetition abundant today—police beating and shooting African-American citizens giving rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, the U.S. Supreme Court partially nullifying the Voting Rights Act, voter-suppression across the South and parts of the North, the rise of white supremacy in the wake of and as a reaction to the election of this nation’s first African-American president—I wanted to first learn about the intricacies of the civil rights movement of my youth and, second, as a journalist and now a teacher of journalism, to analyze the role that the press played in covering the movement. Through my research, I discovered not only how some of the nation’s newspapers reported the movement; it also scrutinized the process of how the press helped shape it. I hope this writing project may play some small role in the learning process—to perhaps help deter a replay of past abuses and to combat the racist attitudes based in ignorance and inherited abhorrent cultural norms.

I want to thank Point Park University, particularly Provost John Pearson for his support and belief in this project, my editors Kathryn Harrison and David Copeland for their enthusiasm and counsel—with a special shout-out to Point Park University Library staffers Melanie Kirchartz, Margie Stampahar, Dev Albarelli, Brenton Wilson, Robert Stancampiano, Lauren Irvin, Phill Harrity, and Director ← xiii | xiv → Liz Evans for their assistance in obtaining the research data I needed for this book. They, and the librarians at public libraries I visited across and up and down the nation, represent the best of the valuable access to archives and research sources found in private and public libraries. And finally, my wife, Joanne, encouraged me along the way and put up with extended absences while I traveled the South, West and North and worked on this book in my university office, primarily on weekends and early-morning hours so as not to detract from my university responsibilities. Any errors, faults or omissions in this book are mine alone.

| xv →


For those of us who became adults in the 1950s and the 1960s, the civil rights era remains a memorable and troubling time. I never saw nor was involved in the brutal ugliness of the period, which included snarling police dogs, water cannons, beatings and shootings of blacks on marches and bus rides, killings, and riots in cities, all of which I read about in newspapers and magazines and watched on television. But I still remember vividly various personal incidents with racial connotations that I experienced; they are like small slides of old snapshots that are quick-flashed from an internal projector in my brain onto a screen in my mind. They never fade away.

My oldest memory is from the early 1950s in Dallas, Texas, when I was about ten years old. I got on a city bus and noticed a black line, about an inch wide, that was painted on the roof about two-thirds of the way back. I asked my mother what it was, and she explained that blacks had to be behind it—in other words, at the back of the bus—or they would be thrown off. I recall thinking that was strange, but I sensed that I should not ask her any more about it. Then, in 1959, I entered Baylor University, the country’s largest Southern Baptist institution, and was surprised to learn that there were no black students. The only blacks allowed to take classes were ministers, who could only go to religion classes at night, but they did not count toward a degree. Meanwhile, I had classmates who were Asians and Spanish-Americans (the term at the time for Latinos); somehow they were ← xv | xvi → acceptable and blacks were not. That quickly changed in the mid-1960s, however, when Southwest Conference universities decided they needed blacks if they were going to compete successfully in football on a national basis.

From 1964 to 1966, I was a sportswriter on the Charlottesville (Virginia) Progress. Previously I had a similar job for sixteen months on the Big Spring (Texas) Herald, which was in another former Confederate state, and I do not recall any racial issues surfacing, but that was not the case in Virginia. One day I laid out the sports section and used an Associated Press photograph of three blacks celebrating after a big win in the NCAA basketball tournament. The publisher called me into his office and informed me politely but firmly that he wanted no more pictures of blacks unless they were taken during a game. Meanwhile, while I worked there, the women’s page editor was fired because she ran a story on a local black woman, who was widely known and loved in the black community, along with a large photo of her. She was immediately fired because that was viewed as too much publicity on a black person. And then there was the racial viewpoint of a white woman, who rented me a bedroom in her house because she did not want to live alone following the death of her husband. She belonged to a local country club, where she liked to play golf, and was incensed that it might admit its first black member. She told me that she could never be on a course when a black was playing at the same time, even if he was on a hole on the other side of the course and she could not see him. But she had no problem with black caddies. That amazed me.

From 1966 to 1967, I was a sportswriter on the Atlanta Journal. It was the only time that I have ever lived in the deep South, and I was unprepared for the invisible fog of racism that hung over the city and was far worse than in Virginia. While I saw no racism creep into the paper (other than the fact that every person in the sports department was white), I was stunned to see the reaction of readers when a story appeared about it. Baseball’s Milwaukee Braves, which had some outstanding black players including Hank Aaron, who broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974, moved to Atlanta for the 1966 season. The paper had a sportswriter ask the Braves’ players how the blacks and whites got along; the answer was that they had no problems playing together as a team, but when they left the stadium, the blacks and whites went their separate ways and did not get together again until the next game. All of us in the sports department read the story before it appeared in the paper and thought it was fine, but an immediate and unexpected tsunami of complaints was hurled at the paper by white readers. They claimed it was not like that in Atlanta—instead, they said the two races constantly did things together. I knew that was wrong from what I saw every day, and it helped reinforce my feeling about the city’s extreme racism. ← xvi | xvii →

Then, in December 1970, I traveled as the sports information director with the University of Louisville’s basketball team to a game at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. On the day after we arrived, a white sportswriter from the Louisville Courier-Journal and I took a cab to eat lunch. The white driver immediately told us that another driver had had problems with several black Louisville players the night before and said angrily, “If those niggers get in my cab and cause trouble, I will take care of them!” And he reached under his seat and pulled out a pistol. We did not say anything, much less admit that we were with the Louisville team, and were pleased to get out of the cab when it reached the restaurant.

Such memories are indicative of the racial climate in the South during the civil rights era and are useful in helping those born in the 1970s and afterward to better appreciate the period. Dark though that time was, I feel fortunate to have experienced it in a small way because it reinforced in my mind the ridiculousness of considering blacks second-class citizens because of the color of their skin. That view played a part later when I became one of the leading historians of the black press. My first book dealt with how the black press was critical of black inequalities during World War II, which resulted in some of those at the highest levels of the government considering an indictment of the press under the Espionage Act for hurting the war effort. When the book was published, my editor told me that she was astonished that I had been so non-biased given the racial nature of the subject. I still consider that one of the highest compliments that I have ever received, and my success at being fair was partially due to what I had experienced from the early 1950s until the early 1970s.

To truly understand the civil rights era, however, it is necessary to look at the press coverage of that period. The broadcast videos of the hatred and the violence, and the photographs of it in magazines and newspapers, were striking and sobering. You found yourself asking, “How can this happen in America? How did it come to this?”

But it was the newspapers that provided the most extensive and exhaustive coverage. Grinding on day after day, sometimes in highly dangerous situations, the reporters did their jobs admirably in an explosive atmosphere that mesmerized readers. Standing as a memorial to their work is the 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner for history, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. Relying on what reporters and historians had written about the civil rights era, and incorporating a large number of interviews, they discussed how the press covered that time period and the struggles it faced, some of which were extraordinary. For anyone wanting to understand the press coverage, this highly interesting book is essential. And because it was written by two former reporters, one of whom had covered the civil rights era, it opens up the intriguing world of newspaper reporting to those who have never experienced ← xvii | xviii → it and helps them understand the decisions that were made and the actions that were taken before the stories appeared in print.

Now, Steve Hallock, in the first of what will be two volumes, has significantly extended the scope of their study by doing the most thorough examination to date of what newspapers wrote about the civil rights struggle. And not just what appeared in large northern papers, such as The New York Times, and in their southern counterparts. Making his book particularly noteworthy is that it closely analyzes civil rights stories in papers in every region of the country. This results in interesting comparisons, and it makes the point that this was a national story with important national ramifications.

The book also is valuable because of what it says about the press fifty to sixty years ago and today. Newspapers, magazines, and broadcast outlets in both time periods have operated with ethical codes that have determined their conduct and what they print and air. Bias, much of the time subtle, has always been present in news stories, but most of the mainstream press has been aware of it and tried to keep it to a minimum. Contrast that with today’s social media revolution, which was not around in the civil rights era and which a number of people today primarily use for learning the news. The digital age has spawned a multitude of amateur journalists and publishers, who have no ethical codes governing what they write or say beyond maybe the realization that it is illegal to commit libel or slander. And as for bias, they frequently tell listeners what they think, as if someone would care, and routinely mix their “news” with personal beliefs and gossip. Some people have called this bloviating. The bottom line is that the mainstream press is responsible for breaking the news in periods of national importance, whether it was the civil rights era or the divisive presidential campaign of Donald Trump and his first year in office. While the mainstream press occasionally makes errors, which are almost never deserving of the derisive and sneering term “fake news,” it keeps plugging along doggedly despite the efforts of demagogues to stop it. If it did not do this, Americans would be largely uninformed, and democracy as we know it might very well disappear.

So, enjoy Hallock’s book and enjoy what it tells you about the civil rights era and the importance of a free press. You may not like what the mainstream press prints and broadcasts or says in editorials, but thank God that we have it.

Patrick S. Washburn is Professor Emeritus at the E. W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University and author of A Question of Sedition: The Federal Government’s Investigation of the Black Press during World War II (Oxford, 1986) and The African American Newspaper: Voice of Freedom (Northwestern University Press 2006).

| 1 →


James Kilpatrick’s warning to the U.S. Supreme Court chief justice and the U.S. attorney general was dire.

“Two things may be said today to the Earl Warrens and Herbert Brownells of this world, and to all their associates in high places,” wrote Kilpatrick, editor of The Richmond News Leader and a future nationally syndicated conservative columnist and CBS television’s “60 Minutes” pundit, in a September, 1957 editorial published after angry white mobs greeted African-American students attempting to integrate a public school in Little Rock, Arkansas, addressed to Chief Justice Warren and Attorney General Brownell. Both men were integral to President Dwight Eisenhower’s decision to use federal force to integrate the public schools in Little Rock that month, and to other policies considered anathema to the pro-segregationist movement in the American South during that era.

“The first is said in no sense of pleasure at prophecy fulfilled,” the editorial continued. “It is this: We told you so.

“And the second is said as no threat of specific ugliness ahead. It is this: The violence of September, 1957, is only the beginning.”

The event referenced specifically by the editorial was the September 9, 1957 dynamiting of an integrated public school in Nashville; but the primary larger target of the editorial was the U.S. Supreme Court’s May, 1954 public school desegregation ruling, Brown v. Board of Education—a ruling promulgated by the Warren Court and enforced by Brownell and Eisenhower. ← 1 | 2 →

“Mr. Warren, Mr. Brownell, the Northern liberals of House and Senate, have not understood these things,” the editorial argued in an eloquent, lengthy diatribe that proclaimed a manifesto of the South and segregationists’ intent to serve notice to the rest of the nation that the South would not willingly comply with federal mandates designed to bring Negroes, as African-Americans were then called, into the American mainstream.

Sounding themes reminiscent of the debates preceding the Civil War, the editorial continued:

Thus, in one editorial, this newspaper revisited long-argued themes, such as states’ rights and nullification, common in the once raging national argument over slavery while also advancing legalistic precepts, such as deviance from constitutional mandates and the spirit of the document in deference to popular mood and personal beliefs, that continue to spice discussion of court rulings and judicial confirmation hearings today.


XX, 352
ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2018 (September)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XX, 352 pp.

Biographical notes

Steve Hallock (Author)

Steve Hallock holds a Ph.D. in journalism from Ohio University and is the director of graduate studies at the School of Communication at Point Park University in Pittsburgh. He is the author of seven previous books, including The Press March to War (Peter Lang, 2012).


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