Freedom for All? Blacks, Jews, and the Political Censorship of White Racists in the Civil Rights Era

Article excerpt

It lasted only a minute, but elicited a more impassioned public reaction than any other political broadcast aired in the South during the early 1970s. During the first days of August 1972, television audiences across Georgia witnessed the sight of a man in a dark suit and bow tie sitting at a desk with a large Confederate battle flag hanging behind him and a smaller version folded in the front pocket of his jacket. The heavy-lidded eyes that stared intently into the camera lens lent him a reptilian appearance and his heavily accented voice was slow and deliberate. "I am J. B. Stoner," he announced. "I am the only candidate for U.S. Senator who is for the white people. I am the only candidate who is against integration. All of the other candidates are race mixers to one degree or another." Stoner identified the policies of the moderate incumbent, Senator David H. Gambrell, as a particular threat to the racial purity of white voters. Then the aspirant for public office uttered the words that precipitated a political shockwave. "The main reason why niggers want integration is because the niggers want our white women. I am for law and order with the knowledge that you cannot have law and order and niggers too. Vote white." (1)

The commercial was the centerpiece of a radically racist campaign by Stoner, a man described by one scholar as "the patriarch of the white supremacist movement." (2) His manifesto pledged that if elected he would "STOP RACE MIXING INSANITY" by cutting off funds for busing and other federal initiatives to facilitate school desegregation, restricting the access of "lazy drunken Blacks" to public housing and welfare, and campaigning for the repeal of civil rights legislation. Stoner also committed himself to secure a federal law for the forcible repatriation of blacks to Africa, a controversial policy even a century earlier. (3)

Stoner's campaign commercial posed liberals with an ethical dilemma. The debate about how best to respond to its broadcast raged not only among local activists but across the country. In order to protect the constitutional rights of all citizens, was it appropriate to defend the freedom of speech of every individual, even those who used that right to preach hatred and intolerance? Some concluded that it was. In their opinion, no matter how abhorrent the statements made by Stoner, he had as much right as any other citizen to freedom of speech under the First Amendment. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), whose libertarian philosophy had led it to defend the constitutional rights of white racists throughout the civil rights struggle, issued a statement supporting Stoner's right to unrestricted freedom of speech. (4)

However, black and Jewish activists reacted with particular indignation to the race-baiting language used in the commercial. Access to television and radio was of crucial strategic importance to an extremist candidate like Stoner. In contrast to mainstream political and civic leaders, he possessed limited resources and relied on the publicity provided by media coverage to reach out to the electorate. Civil rights organizations well understood that restricting his access to the airwaves promised to curtail his campaign. Accordingly, black and Jewish civil rights activists launched a collective campaign to silence Stoner. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith (ADL) filed a joint complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), arguing that Stoner's public address was not only offensive, but also intended to incite violence against African Americans. The organizations asked that the FCC prohibit further broadcasts by Stoner in the interests of public decency and safety.

Pressure on the FCC mounted as other civil rights groups added their voices to the chorus of protest against the Stoner campaign commercial. The Georgia Council on Human Relations and the Atlanta Community Coalition on Broadcasting both issued statements supporting the petition of the NAACP and ADL. …