Journalists providing coverage during the Civil Rights Movement were susceptible to mob violence, death, and emotional reactions, according to a panel composed of two Black media reporters and a publisher for alocal Black media publication that covered the era. “A lot of deaths occurred through lynching deaths [and] murders that led the nation to pass this 1964 Civil Rights law,” Sheila Bryant, a staff member of the Cultural Transformation Division at USDA said Aug. 12. “Media played a role in leading the nation to look at the brutality specifically against African Americans, because they were treated less than citizens.”
As part of its commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, signed into law in 1964, the USDA held a panel discussion Aug. 7, titled “Civil Rights Activists – The Movement and the Media.” The panel was created to educate USDA employees on the Civil Rights Movement. “The Afro American was the Rosetta Stone of the Civil Rights Movement,” Dr. Joe Leonard Jr., assistant secretary for Civil Rights at the USDA said. “I don’t think people understood the importance of the media during that era.”
Panelists included Paul Delaney, veteran print journalist with the New York Times; Dorothy Butler Gilliam, the first African-American woman reporter for the Washington Post; and John “Jake” Oliver Jr., publisher of the Afro American Newspapers in Baltimore and D.C.
“Journalism opens doors, it lifts the veil of secrecy about what happens in the South . . .I learned to see and hear their stories, because Black reporters were subject to the same discrimination as everyone else,” Gilliam said.
All three panelists recounted their experiences during the civil rights movement, admitting that they encountered some extreme events and situations, but through it all, in order to tell the story, they had to remain objective.
Delaney spoke about being caught in the middle of a gunfight with the police and Black Panthers in New Orleans.
Gilliam spoke of her early years as a young reporter, watching her boss being beaten on t.v. by an angry White mob during the desegregation of Arkansas public schools and then having to travel to Arkansas to write the story. “I think in general we Black reporters covering the Civil Rights Movement, took it like we were going to war, you just did what you could, but you knew anything [could] happen,” she said.
Gilliam also reflected on her experience meeting Medgar Evers months before he was killed. “Those are moments that make me emotional, but I can step back from those emotions, and realize that we had been injected with really wanting to make a difference, wanting to make America better, and in doing that we had to be strong,” she said.
Oliver spoke of the AFRO’s investigative coverage of Emmett Till’s murder. “The reporters were told, ‘don’t get caught, because you won’t come back,’” he said.
After the accounts of what the Black media experienced during the Civil Rights Movement, the panel answered questions from the audience on more contemporary issues for African Americans, including the current atmosphere of society and ways to inspire younger Black Americans to become interested in their history and Civil Rights.
One audience member raised the question of whether the U.S. was now a post racial society. The phrase was immediately negated by all three panelists. “When I first heard that term, I thought it was ridicules,” Delaney said. “There is nothing post racial about America and probably won’t be for my lifetime.”