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Civil rights made news, and vice versa

By April Davis
and Alicia Benjamin-Samuels
freedomforum.org

05.31.01

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John Seigenthaler, left, David Halberstam and Ken Paulson.

Television news thrives on startling and arresting images — and by capturing the turmoil of the 1960s, TV helped the civil rights movement thrive, author and journalist David Halberstam said at the First Amendment Center in New York on May 29.

"There was a lot of control of the press in the Deep South. What changed it was the coming of national and local television because television wanted this story. It was good film and they were going to run with it," Halberstam said.

Halberstam and First Amendment Center founder John Seigenthaler joined the center's executive director, Ken Paulson, for a discussion of "Protest and Public Opinion in the Civil Rights and Vietnam Era," which was taped for "Speaking Freely," the center's weekly television show.

"Are you saying that it was really television that empowered the movement? Would it have happened without the power of television?" Paulson asked Halberstam.

"Television brought a national sensibility to a story that local authorities and editors had suppressed for so long," Halberstam replied. "The constellations are aligned. Brown [Brown v. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling against school segregation] is making its way up. Television is coming here as an instrument. All these things are coming together to create this orbital force, which will do in 10 years, really 11 years, more than gets done in the previous 100."

Seigenthaler agreed, telling a gripping story about the riots in Montgomery, Ala., on May 14, 1961, when the Freedom Riders — one of the most visible actions of the civil rights movement — showed up during their quest to reach New Orleans.

"The mob was given full access for 25 minutes by the police. The mob focused first on the national television cameras and the photographers and crushed the cameras and then turned on the Freedom Riders," Seigenthaler recalled. "Not only did the Freedom Riders understand the power (of the media), those people in that mob knew that if the camera caught them they were going to be exposed as monsters, as brutes. The role of the media was understood not only by the students, but by the thugs who were trying to carry on this evil."

Halberstam gave it an added context. "Places like Mississippi and Alabama in those days were soft police states. If you were a politician or an editor or a minister who went against the regular attitude on race ... they would drive you out of state. In effect they snuffed out freedom of speech," he said.

Halberstam, whom Seigenthaler called the "premier journalist of this country," wrote The Children, a thick volume published in 1999 that traces the civil rights movement while chronicling the lives of a group of African-American college students in Nashville, Tenn., who led others into action.

Seigenthaler, who spent 43 years as a reporter, editor and publisher of Nashville's The Tennessean, had left the newspaper briefly in the early '60s to work in the U.S. Justice Department as an administrative assistant to U.S. attorney general Robert Kennedy. He recalled the fortuitous meeting between the 25-year-old Halberstam, then a Tennessean reporter, and the not-much-younger student leaders in Nashville.

"David found them and they found him and the dynamic on [The Tennessean] that gave voice and coverage to the movement," Seigenthaler said. "It was an electric moment when David Halberstam began to report on the sit-in movement that had its genesis in that city."

The students, who would go on to great success, included civil rights activist John Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia; Gloria Johnson, the first black female tenured full professor at Harvard Medical School, and activist Diane Nash. They were led by James Lawson, a young divinity student who was a follower of Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolent tactics for civil disobedience.

For Halberstam, the fight for civil rights was truly a "children's movement."

"With all due respect to Martin Luther King and many of the other extraordinary ministers in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, that was really, to no small degree, a children's movement," he said. "The infantrymen, the people who took the risk in dreadful venue after dreadful venue, whether it was in Selma or all those terrifying places in Mississippi, they were young. They were the ones risking their lives."

In an earlier program about the Freedom Rides, in Nashville on May 25, Seigenthaler also had said that the real heroes of the 1961 Freedom Rides were the students who risked their lives to break down the barriers of racial segregation.

In that program at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, Seigenthaler joined John Doar, former deputy chief of the U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, in discussing the pivotal 1961 events.

Before the conversation, the audience was shown a premiere segment from "Freedom Rides Revisited," a Freedom Forum Newseum documentary. The film's producer, Frank Bond, of The Freedom Forum and Newseum, moderated the discussion.

The film tells the story of the Freedom Riders and how they were attacked by racists when they rode integrated buses in May 1961 from Washington, D.C., through Southern cities to help dismantle segregation in interstate transportation. The Freedom Riders left Washington on May 4 and traveled through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. They never made it by bus to Louisiana, their final destination — they had to fly there.

Seigenthaler's path crossed that of the student Freedom Riders when the Kennedy administration sent him to escort some of them to New Orleans.

On Mother's Day, May 14, the riders split up into two groups and traveled through Alabama. The first bus was firebombed near Anniston. The second group was attacked by a mob in Birmingham.

The riders tried unsuccessfully to find another bus to continue their trip to New Orleans but were unsuccessful. Fearing for their safety, they flew on a plane to New Orleans on May 15.

But in Nashville, a group of students, led by Diane Nash, decided to go to Birmingham on May 17 to continue the Freedom Ride. Seigenthaler said Nash laughed at him when he tried to warn her of the dangers they would face on their journey.

When Seigenthaler told Nash that the students might be killed if they went to Alabama, Nash told him that they had signed their wills the previous night, he said. "They knew that they were risking their lives."

Birmingham police arrested the Nashville riders on May 17, then released activists and drove them to the Tennessee line. But the riders soon drove back to Birmingham. Seigenthaler met with Alabama state high patrol officer Floyd Mann who agreed to protect the riders. On May 20 the group drove to Montgomery.

The night before they arrived in Montgomery, Doar, who was working in the city on voting-rights issues, said he saw "men sitting around the bus station who seemed to waiting." The next day, he said he realized the men were there to confront the activists.

In Montgomery, the altercation between the Freedom Riders and the angry mob was dramatic, said Doar. "One of the whites leaned over and slugged one of the freedom riders and everything just all broke loose," he said.

Doar said he saw several brutal attacks. "A black freedom fighter was on the ground and a white man was reaching over to try to pummel him with a bat or similar instrument," Doar said. "The people crowded in and I was terribly afraid that the young man was going to be killed."

When Seigenthaler saw two women running to escape the fray, he offered them shelter in his car. Someone then hit him in the head with a pipe. "I was out for 25 minutes," he said. From an upstairs window in a Montgomery federal building, Doar saw the mob attack Seigenthaler.

Although the Freedom Riders never made it to New Orleans by bus, because of their efforts, the Interstate Commerce Commission banned segregation and discrimination in interstate transportation, Doar said.

In the film "Freedom Rides Revisited," former Freedom Rider John Lewis and Seigenthaler emphasized that the news media played a major role in helping the civil rights movement succeed.

"Without the press, the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings," Lewis says in the documentary.

Doar added on the panel, "We learned from Montgomery the value of the camera and the value of the press.

"We asked the FBI to come out and take pictures, and we became friendly with a number of reporters from the North," he said. "This combination allowed us to continue our work steadily without very many people getting killed."

Related

'Speaking Freely' — new season begins
Program description for a First Amendment Center television series on free expression and the arts.  09.17.02

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