How have the media influenced protest movements ?

The Civil Rights Movement and Television  –  E-Notes  Website – 

During the 1950s the struggle for civil rights came to a head at the same time television began to appear in most Americans’ homes.  At the beginning of the decade, television was a novelty owned by very few people. By 1960 ninety percent of American homes had television. Television became a catalyst for change on a massive scale. People in the northern states could see what was happening in Selma, Birmingham, and Memphis and vice versa. In addition, television helped Southern blacks unify, for while local Southern media rarely covered news involving racial issues, they now had access to national newscasts that were witnessing and documenting this revolution.


Who Speaks for Birmingham, broadcast during the tumultuous rise in visibility of the civil rights movement in the media, reported on the racial divide between the white and black communities of Birmingham, Alabama. Residents testify to their conflicted feelings about how racial integration will affect their lives, with very differing portraits offered from both the white and black community. Although Howard K. Smith reports for this program, an uncredited Edward R. Murrow developed the topic and got it approved by CBS management. (1961; 55 minutes)

Mrs. George Bridges, a cultural leader in the highly segregated South, discusses her feelings about the role prejudice plays in the lives of the white Birmingham elite.

Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, civil rights activist, describes the 1957 attempt on his life by a mob of Klansmen, which occurred when he and his wife attempted to enroll their children in a previously all-white public school in Birmingham.

How did the media influence the civil rights movement?  

Television gave a lot of coverage to the Civil Rights Movement. For example, the media covered events ranging from the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott to the 1964 Democratic National Convention. When 15 year Emmitt Till was murdered there was also a lot of media coverage. All of these events were occurring while the number of American families that had television sets jumped from 56% to 92%. Television gave Americans a visual of what was occurring in our country.

Here are some other events that television covered:

1955-shots of numerous boycotted buses driving down deserted Alabama streets; 1957-angry white mobs of segregationists squaring-off against black students escorted by a phalanx of Federal Troops in front of Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi; 1965-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., leads a mass of black protesters across a bridge in Selma, Alabama; 1963 attack on young civil rights protesters by the Birmingham, Alabama, police and their dogs, and the fire department’s decision to turn on fire hydrants to disperse the young black demonstrators, most of whom were children.

The media influenced the civil rights movement in key ways, and it is important to understand that the leaders of the movement understood this fact very clearly. First, the media tended to anoint leaders of the movement, particularly Martin Luther King. This had the effect of portraying King’s vision of the movement, which was non-violent and essentially political (the media for a time tended to efface his statements about economic equality) as if it represented a consensus.

The other influence the media had on the movement was to televise its key events to a nationwide, and even worldwide audience. The entire nation was shocked by the shocking scenes from places like Birmingham and Selma. Not only did this lead to popular support for civil rights legislation everywhere but the South, but in a Cold War context, it created a major propaganda opportunity for the Soviet Union to portray US rhetoric about freedom as hollow and meaningless.

The media played a vital role in being able to galvanize more Americans into witnessing for themselves the atrocious violations of individual rights that were taking place in the South. The media showing the horrendous conditions, or the pain that protesters had to endure from others helped to bring more people into the movement.  This galvanizing of emotion into action was facilitated by the media.  Individuals in the North who might not have been moved to action were done so through the media.  When Dr. King gives his « I have a dream » speech, the broadcasts of this moment helps to give voice to the movement.  It was the media that would have preempted its own programming to show the atrocities happening in America.  For example, interrupting its own broadcast of « Judgment at Nuremberg, » ABC News showed protesters being beaten in the South.

Without the media, the civil rights movement would not have been possible in my opinion.  The whole strategy of the movement was based on getting media coverage.

The movement was really trying to persuade whites outside the South to support the cause of civil rights.  These whites would not have been able to hear much about the movement without the media.

In addition, they would have been less likely to support blacks even if they had heard about it.  The media coverage made support more likely because it showed things like protestors getting attacked by police dogs.  This made the Southern whites look bad and got a lot of support for the movement.

On protest movements

There are many types of demonstrations, including a variety of elements. These may include:

  • Marches, in which a paradedemonstrate while moving along a set route.
  • Rallies, in which people gather to listen to speakers or musicians.
  • Picketing, in which people surround an area (normally an employer).
  • Sit-ins, in which demonstrators occupy an area, sometimes for a stated period but sometimes indefinitely, until they feel their issue has been addressed, or they are otherwise convinced or forced to leave.
  • Nudity, in which they protest naked – here the antagonist may give in before the demonstration happens to avoid embarrassment.

The protest movements, inspired by the so-called Arab Spring and the initial protests in Spain earlier in 2011, have spread globally. Many have been nicknamed as “Occupy” movements such as Occupy Wall Street, in reference to how Egyptians occupied the famous Tahrir Square during their uprising.


How have the media contributed to empower people ?

Would the Civil Rights movement have been possible without the media?

(see my previous post ¨Power and Counter Power¨ to find more documents to illustrate the role of the media in shaping public opinion ie: Greenpeace, Wikileaks, We are the 99 percent)