Amanda Philley

Read the first page below or click here to read the full essay: Amanda Philley – The Civil Rights Movement: The Power of Television

“I am not a nigger” (Thomas). These five words seared through American television screens in May of 1963. James Baldwin, a preacher and novelist, declared his freedom from the chains of discrimination in an interview with Kenneth Clark and forever changed the conscience of black and white television owners. When asked if he was optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the nation, Baldwin made one thing clear: the fate of America lies within the ability to answer the question, why was the ‘nigger’ created? Born in Harlem in 1924, Baldwin grew up following in his father’s footsteps as a preacher, then went on to work on a railroad in New Jersey and eventually became a freelance writer and moved to Europe. Despite spending the majority of his adult life in Paris, Baldwin demonstrated the power of media by never ceasing to tell the story of his life as black man living in America, the influence of brotherhood, and the power of voice (Reference.com).

Moments similar to Baldwin’s interview validate the reign of television and the impact of media on the Civil Rights Movement. During the interview, all the personal challenges that James Baldwin faced become apparent in his mannerisms, his gestures, and in every one of those five words. Baldwin’s unique and articulate comments, combined with access to the majority of American citizens via television media, left an impression that would span across states and decades. Commonly heard legal and moral arguments on injustices such as segregation and discrimination paled in comparison to Baldwin’s interview. It must be noted that the impact media had on the Civil Rights Movement was not unintentional by organizational leaders. For that reason, this paper will examine the use of television as a means to build momentum towards change, the implications of peaceful demonstrations on public consciences, the Church and its role in sustaining the movement via media, and the ability of unbiased television to shatter stereotypes. Despite the prominence of racially biased television and media during the Civil Rights Movement, coverage of demonstrations and interviews of protestors sparked national interest and quickened the pace towards racial equality. By employing understanding I have gained from documentaries, footage of demonstrations, online encyclopedias, journal articles, essays, and personal perspectives given by journalists who themselves covered the Civil Rights Movement, I intend to inform my reader about the implications of media coverage during the Civil Rights Movement.

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