In Sullivan's Shadow: The Use and Abuse of Libel Law Arising from the Civil Rights Movement, 1960-89

By Edmondson, Aimee | Journalism History, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

In Sullivan's Shadow: The Use and Abuse of Libel Law Arising from the Civil Rights Movement, 1960-89


Edmondson, Aimee, Journalism History


This article examines the use of libel in the shadow of the landmark New York Times v. Sullivan case in 1964. By exploring lesser-known cases, scholars can better understand the impact that libel had on the fight for civil rights in the South. Legal historians agree Sullivan stopped what would have been an onslaught of libel suits for civil rights coverage, but research has been scarce on similar, lesser-known suits and their impact on delaying coverage of the movement. The Supreme Court's decision opened the doors for the press to cover demonstrations and activities in the South, but this study shows that Sullivan was only one such libel case that offered consequences for coverage of the movement. Sullivan-like cases took much longer to move through the courts than scholars have realized and played an integral role in shaping coverage of the issue.

In the hours before the bloody race riots at the University of Mississippi in 1962, highway patrolmen from around the state descended upon the campus to back up federal officers.' African-American James Meredith was attempting to desegregate the university by court order, and a white mob with shotguns and Molotov cocktails was aiming to stop him. Protesters flooded the Oxford campus, spurred by Governor Ross Barnett's rebellious threats to defy a federal court order to admit him.2 As violence erupted on September 30, 1962, the Mississippi Highway Patrol melted quietly into the crowd and left the roiling campus to federal officers, a cobbled-together pack of 536 deputy marshals, border patrolmen, and prison guards who were scarcely prepared to deal with the chaos. Forbidden to use their side arms, the officers had only tear gas to keep hundreds of rioters and anarchy at bay. By dawn, two people were dead and 160 federal marshals were injured, some with gunshot wounds, stretched out on a blood-covered administration building floor.3

After an article on the riot, "What Next in Mississippi?" ran November 10, 1962, in die Saturday Evening Post, the head of the Mississippi Highway Patrol, T.B. Birdsong, filed a libel suit against the magazine, seeking $1 million for himself and $1 million for each of his 220 patrolmen.4 He said he and his men were libeled in two sentences about their failure to take control of the deteriorating situation: "A sizable portion of blame must go to the grayuniformed men of the Mississippi Highway Patrol. "Those bastards just walked off and left us,' said one top official of the Department of Justice."5 He said the words "those bastards" were "obscene and fighting words" that reflected on his personal reputation and that of his officers.6

This is a study of libel cases filed by southern public officials, primarily in the 1960s, relating to African Americans' escalating fight for equal rights.7 The focus is on little-known lawsuits, such as Birdsong, which were filed in the shadow of the famous New York Times, v. Sullivan case in Alabama in 1960, through its adjudication in 1964, and even as late as 1989.8 This article will expand upon the evidence and argument that southern leaders used existing libel laws to craft what amounted to a sedition law to stop the press from covering the civil rights struggle.9 It has been well established that had the Supreme Court failed to overturn Sullivan, the case's impact on the civil rights movement would have been staggering.10 Without the world looking at the South through the lens of the national press, southern officials and other segregationists would have been free to continue to squelch activism in their own way.11 "The last desperate reaction of a clinging regime was to try to suppress the message itself," wrote legal scholar Rodney A. Smolla in 1986. "If one could not stop the marches, one might at least keep the marches off television and out of the newspapers."12

Shattering precedent, the nation's high court constitutionalized libel law with the Sullivan decision, creating a new standard that required public officials to prove actual malice and insured that citizens were free to exercise their First Amendment right to criticize the government. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

In Sullivan's Shadow: The Use and Abuse of Libel Law Arising from the Civil Rights Movement, 1960-89
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.