MEMPHIS — The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose legacy has been celebrated this weekend in Memphis by National Conference for Media Reform speakers such as Bill Moyers, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Vermont Senator Bernie Sander, actor Danny Glover and Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, often prodded the U.S. media to do a better job of covering the civil rights movement that he championed in the 195Os and 196Os.
King recognized that, while ending segregation and creating opportunities for African Americans was his first goal, getting the media to do its job had to be on the agenda.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner knew that organizing, marching and protesting in a vacuum would not bring change. The American people and their elected representatives needed to know that demands were being made for the redress of grievances.
As Jodie Allen, a veteran journalist with U.S. News and World Report, has noted, “Martin Luther King presciently saw that the pictures were worth a thousand words in showing this and that segregation could not persist in the face of illumination when the spotlights were on it.”
King believed that the generally favorable coverage of the 1963 March on Washington represented a breakthrough, writing in his autobiography that, “If anyone had questioned how deeply the summer’s activities had penetrated the consciousness of white America, the answer was evident in the treatment accorded the March on Washington by all the media of communication. Normally Negro activities are the object of attention in the press only when they are likely to lead to some dramatic outbreak, or possess some bizarre quality. The march was the first organized Negro operation that was accorded respect and coverage commensurate with its importance. The millions who viewed it on television were seeing an event historic not only because of the subject but because it was being brought into their homes.”
“Millions or white Americans, for the first time, had a clear, long look at Negroes engaged in a serious occupation,” King continued. “For the first time millions listened to the informed and thoughtful words of Negro spokesmen, from all walks of life. The stereotype of the Negro suffered a heavy blow. This was evident in some of the comments which reflected surprise at the dignity, the organization, and even the wearing apparel and friendly spirit of the participants. If the press had expected something akin to a minstrel show, or a brawl, or a comic display of odd clothes and bad manners, they were disappointed. A great deal has been said about a dialogue between Negro and white. Genuinely to achieve it requires that all the media of communications open their channels wide as they did on that radiant August day.”