Media, Culture, and the Modern African American Freedom Struggle

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Media, Culture, and the Modern African American Freedom Struggle. Brian Ward, ed. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2001. 320 pp. $55 hbk.

The inside cover reads, "Stimulating and insightful, these essays on the relationship among the media, popular culture, and the postwar African-American freedom struggle offer new perspectives on the nature of the Civil Rights Movements and its legacies." It is an assessment that is on target, although it would be more accurate to say the perspectives are under-exposed to the broader audience rather than new.

The book is a collection of papers derived from the second Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Conference on Civil Rights and Race Relations, held at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in May 1998. Essentially, the essays argue that the contemporary media covering the freedom struggle and much of the subsequent histories and literature, in part because of their reliance on media reports, present a distorted "master narrative" that deifies King and portrays the adherents of his nonviolent campaign as saints.

"Indeed, in many ways the master narrative tends to run counter to, almost in proud defiance of, the thrust of much of the specialist literature on the freedom struggle which has emerged during the past twenty years or so," editor Brian Ward writes. "At the heart of that story are simple parables of good and evil, unequivocal rights and incontrovertible wrongs, unimpeachable heroes and unspeakable villains."

The book's essays challenge the master narrative in an effort to create a more accurate history and a fuller understanding of the period. It begins with Julian Bond's excellent inside account of how the Movement and the press worked together to create the myth that "a largely unlettered and unorganized population, which had previously meekly succumbed to racial oppression, suddenly rallied to the nonviolent leadership of Martin Luther King Jr." starting with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. "With minor nuances, this myth still survives in popular memory of the Movement's origins."

Jenny Walker's critical analysis of the media and historiography of the Movement assigns error to the media for ignoring the violence of the nonviolent participants. She writes, "the historiography of the Movement still turns largely around a media-inspired, but historically flawed contrast between a southern, church-based nonviolent civil rights movement and a secular, violent black power era centered on the cities of the North. …

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