"Their Rising Voices": A Study of Civil Rights, Social Movements, and Advertising in the New York Times

Article excerpt

This content analysis of the New York Times and review of NAACP records documents strategic use of advertising in the New York Times by the civil rights movement between 1955 and 1961. The advertisements are scrutinized in light of theories of social movements, communication, and sociology, and the history of the civil rights movement. The ads framed the civil rights movement to prime the audience to receive radical messages from marginalized speakers, to encourage media legitimization of the movement, to popularize movement goals, and to mobilize support and resources beyond the South.

More than three decades after the full-page "Heed Their Rising Voices" advertisement appeared in the New York Times and sparked New York Times v. Sullivan1 no academic study has scrutinized the purpose of the advertisement or the impact it and other civil rights advertisements had on the civil rights movement and on public policy. In fact, to the knowledge of this researcher, no research has collected, quantified, or analyzed civil rights advertising during the height of the movement - between 1955 and 1968. Indeed, as historian Charles Eagles noted in 1986, with few and narrow exceptions, no studies have examined even the broader question of how media covered the civil rights movement.2 Thus, in 1993 Paul Murray could still assert in his expansive bibliography of the civil rights movement that "one critical area that has barely been touched is the impact of the mass media on the movement."3

The question examined here is whether advertising in the New York Times was part of a deliberate media-use strategy to expand membership in and contributions to the civil rights movement and to popularize and legitimize the movement. More specifically, this study attempts to place the advertisement that spawned the Supreme Court's landmark ruling, New York Times v. Sullivan, into an historical and theoretical context. This study focuses on advertising in the New York Times between 1955 and 1961, the first half of the peak years of the civil rights movement.4 Before proceeding, however, it will be useful to develop a shared meaning of the civil rights movement and to review the contributions of a variety of disciplines to current understanding of that movement.

Scholarly Context of this Research

The civil rights movement is "the social movement that operated primarily in the southern United States between 1955 and 1968 using the tactics of nonviolent direct action and community organizing to seek the elimination of legalized segregation and racial discrimination and the full political participation of African Americans."5 As such, the actions and effects of the civil rights movement are best understood within the context of social movements.

In general, social movements have been understood to originate because of (1) a spontaneous collective response to rising expectations, (2) efforts to mobilize resources, (3) the effects of changes in social structure and political processes, or (4) charismatic leadership. While collective behavior theory assumes that social movements are unplanned, spontaneous, and disconnected from previous behavior and organizations,6 the unstructured, emotional, and innovative nature of social movements is only the initial stage in the development of social movements. As movements mature, they gain structure and organize around a central goal of communicating core messages to disparate groups.7 The success of social movements is directly related to the ability of movements to use a variety of framing techniques to link their message(s) to the existing interests, values, and meanings of potential supporters.8 Thus, successful movements effect cultural change by "assimilation into the general political culture of new frames of meaning from collective action."9 Clearly then, the media may play a vital role by filtering or reframing the messages of social movements from participants to outsiders. …