Media's Role During the Civil Rights Movement

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  • 0:05 The Power of the Media
  • 1:24 Montgomery Bus Boycott
  • 3:05 1963 Birmingham Demonstrations
  • 4:14 Selma to Montgomery Marches
  • 5:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

The media played a powerful role during the Civil Rights Movement. We will examine the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Selma to Montgomery Marches, and the 1963 Birmingham Demonstrations, and see how the media was instrumental in drawing attention to the plight of African-Americans during this time.

The Power of the Media

Maybe you've watched the news recently and have learned of a terrorist attack, a murder, or some other horrific event. We know that bad things have always happened since the beginning of mankind, but somehow for us living in the 21st century, the fact that horrific events can be recorded on video and watched on television or online makes it so much more real and awful. The media plays a powerful role in our lives and has throughout history. To varying degrees, the media shapes how we think about issues.

The media also played a powerful role in the Civil Rights Movement for African Americans during the 1950s and 1960s. But whereas before this time, people only had radio and newspapers to turn to, to learn what was happening in their country and in the world, suddenly most people had televisions in their homes. All they had to do was turn on the TV to see live images of what was happening. Print media also covered the events with news journalism and photos, and taken altogether, the images and media coverage of these events that appeared before the public for the first time had a profound emotional effect on people. In this way, the media actually became an ally of the Civil Rights Movement.

Let's learn about some of the key events of the Civil Rights Movement and how the media shaped the opinions of everyday Americans and even of politicians.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott

The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States, but that doesn't mean African-Americans were necessarily treated fairly or equally. Even well into the 20th century, various types of 'Jim Crow' Laws restricted the freedom of African-Americans. One of these laws provided for segregated public facilities for whites and African-Americans. There were separate drinking fountains, restrooms, public transportation seating, etc.

The city of Montgomery, Alabama (like many cities in the Deep South) had rigid segregation laws concerning public transportation: African-Americans were forced to sit in the backs of city buses. On December 1, 1955, an African-American woman named Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in order to give up her seat to a white man who had boarded the bus. She was arrested for this act of civil disobedience. Local civil rights leaders immediately organized and enrolled the support of Martin Luther King, Jr., the de facto leader of the Civil Rights Movement, whose name alone would lend national attention. On the night Parks was arrested, civil rights leaders distributed a flyer indicating Montgomery buses should be boycotted.

The boycott proved a success. In the process of boycott, King was arrested and thrown into jail. This act only drew further media attention to the boycott. Violence against African-Americans also gripped the city. Sympathy for King and African-Americans in Montgomery spread as Americans witnessed the cruel realities of racism on television. After just over a year, the boycott ended when a federal district court declared Montgomery's bus segregation unconstitutional.

1963 Birmingham Demonstrations

Civil Rights leaders recognized the ally the media could be and were exceptionally successful in using it to help their cause. In 1963, Birmingham, Alabama was the center of heated race relations. Led again by Martin Luther King, Jr., African Americans in this city staged widespread marches, sit-ins, and other acts of non-violent civil disobedience.

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