By June 1963, the Civil Rights Movement was all over network television, and Sen. Strom Thurmond had seen just about enough. Now he was going to say something about it, two months ahead of what would become perhaps the Civil Rights era’s signature television moment, the March On Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
When the Senate held a hearing June 26-28 to consider legislation that would suspend, for the 1964 election cycle, Section 315 of the 1934 Communications Act, which called for equal time on radio (and later television) for all political parties who requested it, CBS President Frank Stanton testified in favor of such a suspension, as it would make it easier to have televised presidential debates between President John F. Kennedy and the GOP standard-bearer, Barry Goldwater. 1Thurmond (D-South Carolina), then 60, saw a chance to confront CBS, and by extension, all three of the New York-based TV networks that had the audacity to devote so much time and energy to the Negro cause.
A ‘Crucial Summer’
The Movement was by any definition a “hot” story, even if it was partly because many viewers were fearful of, or at least intrigued by, the thought of violence on the part of black militants — even when most of the race-based violence was coming from the other side. Covering the developing situation with anything approaching accuracy carried political risks, however, as the networks would be reminded by Thurmond.
By the time Birmingham, Ala. police bombed the home of A.D. King, Dr. Martin Luther King’s brother, on May 11, the networks had been paying particularly close attention to the Birmingham situation for weeks. For a year, activists had been working to improve economic opportunities and desegregate schools, lunch counters, and other areas of the city, staging sit-ins and boycotting downtown businesses. Bull Connor, the bigot’s bigot who held the job of Commissioner of Public Safety, came up with an injunction barring these actions. When Martin Luther King decided to ignore the injunction, he was imprisoned on April 12. Rather than pay his bail, the SCLC took the opportunity to raise public awareness of King’s incarceration. NBC’s “Huntley-Brinkley Report” and the other evening news shows made nightly references to Birmingham, and after King was released on April 20, he specifically bolstered the confidence of fellow activists by telling them that their efforts were being seen across the nation on “Huntley-Brinkley.”
Television also found an ideal scenario in the Birmingham “Children’s Crusade.” More than 1,000 students stayed out of school and went to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the local movement’s headquarters. More than 600 students were arrested as they marched downtown. The situation could easily have backfired. Malcolm X derided the SCLC’s James Bevel and other organizers of the children’s participation, and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy questioned the wisdom of the tactic. All of this made for scintillating TV viewing, encouraging the networks to go further in their coverage of the Movement. The most despicable horror of Birmingham was still a few months away.
On June 11, Kennedy called out National Guard troops to the University of Alabama to provide safety for Vivian Malone and James Hood, young African Americans who wanted to enroll at the university. Malone and Hood had received death threats from segregationists, and of course, Alabama Governor George Wallace stood at the door of the university in physical defiance of the two students. That night, the president made a speech that was televised on all three networks, in which he called for legislation that would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.2
When Medgar Evers, a Mississippi field secretary for the NAACP, was gunned down that night by white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith, the networks followed up with extensive coverage.
Other specials followed during the month, including the June 17 CBS special “Summer of Discontent” about the racial crisis in Harlem, and a June 24 program on the same network about the Harlem situation. CBS, among the three networks, seemed most determined to point out that racial strife was not just a Southern phenomenon, airing yet another Harlem-related “CBS Reports” in December.
Thurmond accused the television and radio networks of “following the NAACP line.”
“CBS and other networks slant news to favor Negroes, otherwise they’d have given some major play to [the] slaying of a white man in Lexington, N. C., as given to [the] assassination of Medger[sic] Evers, Negro NAACP agent in Mississippi, [the] senator said,” reported Broadcasting magazine in its July 1 edition. “Dr. Stanton replied that CBS strives for [the] highest level of objectivity by hiring [the] finest professional newsmen, giving them [a] set of policies and [an] obligation to be fair, honest and accurate.”‘3
At one point, Thurmond inquired of Stanton: “Don’t you care about white people?”4
The networks were undaunted. They pressed on with coverage of the racial violence in Birmingham, Ala., where, despite an agreement to end segregation in that city, unrest continued throughout the summer. In July, ABC announced that it would air a five-part series that would air on Sunday nights, “Crucial Summer: The 1963 Civil Rights Crisis,” from Aug. 11 through Sept. 8, at 10:30 p.m. Eastern time.
On the first “Crucial Summer” installment, Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, William Hartsfield, former mayor of Atlanta, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gov. Orville Faubus of Arkansas were featured. Later shows included Rosa Parks; U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy; Autherine Lucy, an African American woman who enrolled at the University of Alabama for three days in 1956 before being forced to withdraw; Daisy Bates, activist, newspaper publisher and mentor to the Little Rock Nine, the students who integrated the Arkansas city’s Central High School in 1957; and William Simmons of the white supremacist Citizen’s Council of Jackson, Miss.
CBS would offer an hour-long program on Aug. 21 called “The Press and The Race Issue,” in which it would try to directly confront the allegations made by Sen. Thurmond.
NBC News announced perhaps the biggest project of all — “The American Revolution of ’63,” which would preempt the network’s entire primetime lineup on Sept. 2, just days after the march.
Shows not seen that Monday night would include the highly lucrative “NBC Monday Night At the Movies,” “The Art Linkletter Show” and “David Brinkley’s Journal,” costing NBC ad sales worth an estimated $500,000 [equivalent to $3.82 million in 2013, according to the CPI Inflation Calculator]. The Chicago Tribune reported: “The program … will offer an analysis of how the civil rights issue has affected the American public. There also will be reports on foreign reaction to the issue and events in this country. The program will include discussion periods in which leaders of civil rights movements and their critics, the administration, congress, labor…will participate.”5
But the Sept. 2 special, and other programs slated for the 1963-64 season, would have to wait. The complaints of Thurmond, George Wallace and others were pushed aside as the networks prepared to cover the March On Washington.
— David B. Wilkerson