The Selling of Civil Rights: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Use of Public Relations

By Durham, Frank | Journalism History, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

The Selling of Civil Rights: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Use of Public Relations


Durham, Frank, Journalism History


Murphree, Vanessa. The Selling of Civil Rights: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Use of Public Relations. New York: Roudege, 2006. 144 pp. $95.

Opening a new discussion of the civil rights movement is difficult, given the extensive and prominent coverage of the era to date. After all, the record might seem complete in light of dominant mainstream histories by David Garrow, Taylor Branch, John Egerton, and Adam Fairclough among others. But understanding how these historians have staked out their positions on this ground can show us how Vanessa Murphree has made her mark among them with this smaller but important volume. Each of these historians has made decisions in defining the period, focus, and narrative structure of his work. Garrow focused on Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Branch's epic trilogy took movement history in epic stages, and Fairclough and Egerton opted for more specific frames. In the former case, the movement's definition came from the study of its interactions with Louisiana, a level of legal oversight that showed how state laws, as much as regional actions, defined the movement. In turn, Egerton addressed the subject by researching the generation that preceded the actual movement. In each case, the definition and location of the subject offers a place for a new and important history of the movement.

By engaging the historical study of media studies-here the study of public relations as it was applied in a grassroots political action organization-Murphree's The Selling of Civil Rights has found its place within the extant mainstream literature by constructing an interesting, if highly specific, intersection between media studies and mainstream history. Albeit from the place of an allied media practice, public relations, this fruitful space answers Jim Carey's call for mainstream and journalism histories to pay more attention to each other. As such, this case study addresses the application of public relations within the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In this way, she offers the reader a lens for interpreting how it "came to pass," as J.H Hexter would say, that SNCC could get its message out while holding itself together long enough to succeed.

The author's attention to history is firm. The names raised in the case reflect the pantheon of movement history: Ella Jo Baker of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), who gave the student group its start; Julian Bond, an early media relations director for SNCC; James Lawson, Jr., and Bayard Rustin, both advisors from SCLC, which acted as a parent organization; and Marion Barry, SNCC's first chairman. …

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