Teaching About Race and the Media
During the Civil Rights Movement, the media often worked to portray events happening across the country through a lens of white supremacy, ignoring or misreporting tales of state sponsored terrorism. The objective of this lesson is to introduce students to the struggle of African-American in combating the slanted reporting of the era.
In this lesson, participants are given readings related to the reporting in the 1950s and 60s in regards to the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi. The readings are from News for All the People:The Epic Story of Race and the American Media by Joseph Torres and Juan Gonzalez and an article from the Washington Post titled The Man from Jet.
Reading #1 describes the bias in newspapers throughout Mississippi in the reporting of murders of voting rights activists. For example, the murder of Rev. George Washington Lee is described in the headline as “Negro Leader Dies in Odd Accident.” Lamar Smith’s murder was described in a similar manner.
Reading #2 describes the media coverage of racist attacks on African Americans that attempted to air campaign ads for political office or enroll in institutions of higher learning. When Robert L. Smith decided to run for Congress, he was initially denied airtime on local television stations. Later that same year James Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi was met with newspaper headlines such as, “Never, No, Never.”
Tonight the Negro knows from his radio and television what happened today all over the world. He knows what black people are doing and he knows what white people are doing….He knows about the new free nations in Africa and knows that a Congo native can be a locomotive engineer, but in Jackson he can’t even drive a garbage truck.
The Negro has been in America since 1619, a total of 344 years. He is not going anywhere else; this country is his home.
It also describes charges brought by Rev. Everett Parker against media outlets for their biased coverage of the voting rights struggle following the riots at the University of Mississippi and murder of Evers.
Reading #4 describes the life of Ebony and Jet reporter about Simeon Booker. Booker covered events that occurred in the south during the Civil Rights Movement including the funeral and murder trial of Emmett Till. This article is by journalist Wil Haygood.
To facilitate group discussion of the articles, use the Save the Last Word for ME protocol from the National School Reform Faculty/Harmony Education Center. This protocol gives each participant an equal time when sharing their thoughts about a text.
Here is a summary of the instructions for the protocol.
- Separate the class into groups of four.
- Participants read through the text, highlighting the most significant idea.
- Once everyone has finished reading, a volunteer in each group will read out the part that was the most meaningful to them.
- The other three participants have one minute to respond to what has been said. Once each person has spoken, the initial volunteer has three minutes to say why they chose that passage.
- The same process is followed until each person has been able to have the last word.
When each group member has had a chance to speak, ask a representative to summarize the main points that were discussed during the protocol.
When this lesson was introduced at Murrah High School in Jackson, Mississippi, students were amazed at the amount of energy that was used to block media access by African Americans. Their comments included:
I didn’t know they took all those steps to stop them from being on TV.
They still do this today.
This activity could be followed by an examination of corporate media today and/or the role of the Black press during the Civil Rights Movement.
Here are some materials we recommend for follow up lessons:
The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords: This documentary film chronicles the history of the Black press, including the risks Black journalists took to report on the violence against African Americans and the Civil Rights Movement.
Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR): FAIR critiques the corporate media by contrasting mainstream news press stories with what actually happened.
Changing Channels: The Civil Rights Case That Transformed Television: This book tells the story of the Office of Communication of the United, Aaron Henry, and Reverend R. L. T. Smith’s challenge of the broadcasting license of WLBT, an NBC affiliate in Jackson, Mississippi which only reflected the interested of the white mainstream.
Primary documents: These primary documents are from the battle by African-Americans for equal airtime on local television stations. They include a signed letter from Medgar Evers.