Constitution Day
ATT: Dinah Zeiger
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II. Reporting the Civil Rights Movement

The commitment to publish the truth required courage, not only from reporters but also the newspapers and broadcasters that paid them and carried their messages. The Library of America (a non-profit publisher) has compiled a website with reminiscences by a variety of people involved in the movement, with a timeline. Reporting Civil Rights

Mostly, we study white journalists’ reporting about the civil rights movement, but a vibrant black press played a key role in mobilizing the non-violent push for civil rights. As a film about their efforts points out, African American newspapers were among the strongest institutions in Black America for more than 150 years. “They helped to create and stabilize communities. They spoke forcefully to the political and economic interests of their readers while employing thousands. Black newspapers provided a forum for debate among African Americans and gave voice to a people who were voiceless. With a pen as their weapon, they were Soldiers Without Swords” (excerpt from the film, Soldiers Without Swords). The complete 90-minute video/DVD is available from California Newsreel ( for a reasonable price. PBS also has excerpts as well as the full script and links to a variety of other materials, including the texts of interviews, recounting the key role of African American newspapers and journalists in 19th and 20th century struggles for equality. PBS: The Black Press

William Raspberry, an African American columnist, recounts his experiences during the civil rights movement in a speech at Syracuse University. Transcript

Short clips from two 1961 TV documentaries feature interviews that shed light on civil rights events from various perspectives. The CBS clip includes link to New York Times obituary, which might form the basis for a research project for students regarding the reporting careers of some of the journalists who covered the Civil Rights movement. Paley Center for Television

Further Reading
"The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation," Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff (2007). Read a review of the book.

Congressional Record: Rep. John Lewis recognizing the press’s contribution to the civil rights movement.

Remarks by former CBS News anchor Dan Rather to the Forum on Press Coverage of the American Civil Rights Movement at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library in Boston on March 24, 1998.

Activity 1

From the Soldiers Without Swords site on PBS, have students read the histories of the four newspapers available. Then, ask them to choose two of the journalists profiled and read the interview transcripts available on the site. PBS: The Black Press

In small groups, pose the following questions for discussion.

Discussion Questions

  • How did black-owned newspapers serve their readers?
  • How did they differ from the way white-owned newspapers reported issues of concern in African American communities?
  • What were the primary issues of concern to members of African American communities after World War II? Were those issues different from white communities?
  • Why did white-owned media begin reporting on the civil rights movement in the south?

These questions also can form the basis for in-class essays or research projects resulting in short research papers.

Activity 2

From the Alabama Department of Archives and Records site, go to the lesson and documents related to “The Opinions of the Public” (letters to Gov. George Wallace of Alabama), which can provide the basis for discussion, essays, debates over how media coverage shaped public responses. (
The activity outlined involves reading and analyzing primary documents, which are provided, and which provide a particularly vivid view of the nature of the debate in the 1960s south.

Have students download (or hand out photocopies) of the NARA document analysis worksheet.