The Fight to Televise the Revolution

Article excerpt

The Fight to Televise the Revolution Changing Channels: The Civil Rights case that Transformed Television By Kay Mills (University Press of Mississippi, $24.95)

Watching Jim Crow: The Struggles Over Mississippi TV By Steven D. Classen C; (Duke University Press, $21.95 paper)

Decades before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began determining how many broadcast properties media conglomerates such as Viacom and News Corp. could own without monopolizing local markets, or whether Howard Stern's remarks and Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" should be considered indecent, it addressed racist programming practices in Mississippi.

While the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education was the nation's first legal step toward abolishing the doctrine of "separate but equal" in public services, for years segregation continued to flourish in key areas, including television airwaves. The struggle to integrate television began as early as 1955, when Medgar Evers and the NAACP unsuccessfully urged two Mississippi television stations to provide fair coverage of Black civil rights activities. But it wasn't until 1964 that African Americans in Jackson, Miss., sought formal action against WLBT. The NBC affiliate regularly aired inaccurate and unbalanced programming about the Black community, if it covered its issues at all. The station also openly resisted airing national programs that were contrary to segregationist views. In addition, Fred Beard, a member of the segregationist Citizen's Council, served as WLBT's general manager.

WLBT was notorious for its blatant "Sorry, Cable Trouble" signal that frequently appeared on television screens when national programs about African Americans aired, such as a 1955 interview with Thurgood Marshall. Like many other television stations in the South, WLBT editorialized against the 1962 enrollment of Black student James Meredith at the University of Mississippi. Another issue was the absence of identifying courtesy titles on the rare occasions when African Americans did appeal' on programs.

Two new books, Steven D. Classen's Watching Jim Crow: The Struggles over Mississippi TV, 1955-1969 and Changing Channels: The Civil Rights case that Transformed Television by Kay Mills, examine the legal action that challenged WLBT's practices and would eventually reform American broadcasting.

Both works detail the brave efforts of local civil rights leaders, including Aaron Henry, president of the Mississippi NAACP; Reverend R.L.T. Smith, prominent Methodist minister and Jackson businessman; and Reverend Everett Parker of the Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ, and their lawyers, who filed a petition with the FCC to intervene in WLBT's license renewal in 1964. Drawing on testimony of Black residents who represented 40 percent of Jackson's population, the petitioners learned the specific nature of WLBT's programming and presented its racist practices to the FCC.

In 1965, the FCC, with its pro-industry disposition, granted the renewal of WLBT's broadcasting license and rejected the petitioners' claims. The plaintiffs took their case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which reversed the FCC's findings and ordered the commission to rehear the claim by holding an evidentiary hearing in Jackson.

In 1968, after one year of hearing testimony from both sides, the FCC once again renewed WLBT's license. …