"A National Disgrace": Newspaper Coverage of the 1963 Birmingham Campaign in the South and Beyond

By Friedman, Barbara G.; Richardson, John D. | Journalism History, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

"A National Disgrace": Newspaper Coverage of the 1963 Birmingham Campaign in the South and Beyond


Friedman, Barbara G., Richardson, John D., Journalism History


Because of a series of editorial apologies for neglecting coverage of the civil rights movement, this article examines coverage of the 1963 Birmingham campaign in five prestige dailies to explore the social construction of news and the relationship between news organizations, their subjects, and their audiences. This study considers survey data that indicated regional attitudes toward civil rights and found coverage did not always reflect the views of a paper's readers. Southern newspapers tended to discredit movement leaders and their agenda, as well as to emphasize law enforcement's preparedness, while northern and western papers were sympathetic to the movement. The study specifically considers why a midwest paper was hostile to the movement in contradiction to its readers' pro-integration attitude.

The civil rights campaign known as "Project C" (for confrontation) was a critical turning point in the national movement to abolish racial discrimination. The series of demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, and others from April 3 to May 10, 1963, protested segregation in public facilities and employment discrimination by downtown businesses. The campaign included an economic boycott of businesses, sit-ins, church kneel-ins, picketing, mass marches, defiance of court injunctions, and mass arrests of demonstrators, which filled local jails.1

Many scholars have argued the Birmingham campaign also was a significant episode in mass media history because news coverage of police brutality against peaceful protesters rallied public opinion and forced President John Kennedy to finally take action on civil rights.2 After an earlier campaign to end segregation in Albany, Georgia, had failed, the national media had been especially harsh, calling the effort a "major defeat" and questioning King's commitment to the civil rights struggle.3 Thus, fostering sympathy and understanding among the national media was part of the Birmingham campaign's overall strategy.

In fact, winning over distant news organizations was an important counterbalance to an antagonistic southern press. In Why We Can't Wait, King explained, "It is terribly difficult to wage such a battle without the moral support of the national press to counteract the hostility of local editors."4 When media interest in the Birmingham action waned, he told followers in an April 29 meeting, "We've got to get something going. The press is leaving; we've got to get going."5

The remedy was to mobilize thousands of school-age children for street demonstrations. In a single day of the "Children's Crusade," more than 1,000 children were jailed, and the press was there en masse to witness the event. Journalists representing about 250 national and international news organizations were on hand to document the violence unleashed by Eugene "Bull" Connor's police force.6 Images of the officers attacking children with clubs, fire hoses, and dogs were conveyed worldwide, transfixing audiences in a way that no prior civil rights action had.7 As one legal scholar wrote, "[T] he national publicity surrounding the massive confrontation in Birmingham awakened the middleclass conscience."8

Media coverage of the clash between authorities and demonstrators helped transform public policy, too. Kennedy was said to have been sickened by images of police brutality and fearful that without federal legislation the events of Birmingham would be repeated across the volatile south. Some scholars have attributed the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the Birmingham campaign and the attendant negative publicity.9

Yet, editors at more than one newspaper since then have reexamined their civil rights-era coverage and found it sorely lacking. In 1988, the Birmingham News admitted its coverage of race relations in the 1960s was characterized "by mistakes and embarrassment." In 2006, the paper reported that a photo intern had found a cardboard box of 5,000 images, which were taken at the height of the civil rights struggle but never published. …

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