Review: The Race Beat

The Race Beat: the Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff tells the story of the role and influence of the media in covering the black civil rights from its beginnings to 1965. Essentially, as their subtitle suggests, the authors make a convincing argument that that national (white) media’s coverage of the Southern struggle was essential to the passage of the landmark legislation of 1964 and 1965 (that’s the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act for those keeping score at home).

The book begins with a summary of the work of now infamous sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, a Swede studying race in the South for the Carnegie Foundation in 1940s. In An America Dilemma, which was effectively the first and most influential study of America’s race problems, Myrdal sought to understand, “How had the South’s certifiable, pathological inhumanity toward Negroes been allowed to exist for so long into the twentieth century?”

Myrdal’s conclusion, which is effectively Roberts and Klibanoff’s thesis, is that the problem was not one of malicious hatred for Negros from all white, but rather a fundamental misunderstanding of their disposition and social position in the South and the country at large. Myrdal argued that once attention was focused on racial issues in the South, the tide would inevitably have to turn in favor of equal rights for Negroes, something they weren’t getting in 1944.

Roberts and Klibanoff tell that story. The story of how White northerners learned better, how they learned of the ugly reality of the Southern system. They begin with the lead up and aftermath of the landmark Brown v. Board decision. Telling how, slowly, efforts to integrate southern school both garnered more support within the black South, more opposition from segregationist whites, and garnered more attention from outside observers.

The book covers the gambit, from segregationist local papers, large bodies like the Times, Newsweek and NBC, and smaller struggling black newspapers and their reporters. Though their focus is undeniably on the papers and reporters covering the race beat, Roberts and Klibanoff manage to tell the story of the early successes and struggles of civil rights organizers as well.

They seem to have, with understandable reason, ended their narrative in 1965, devoting only 13 pages to the story after that. This is it likely because of the declining role of the press as a central concern of the movement. But one cannot ignore the rapidly increasing factionalism and militancy among the movements many groups, not least of all after the ascension of Stokely Charmichael at the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

Regardless, the story is a compelling one, worthy of a Pulitzer Prize. Its essential lesson is, as Congressman John Lewis told the authors, “If it hadn’t been for the media… the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings, a choir without a song.” The lesson is the possibility for media to have a role in uplifting the most destitute and denigrated in society.

For though it contradicts the traditional narrative, civil rights advances in the 1960s were not won when those protesters who sat-in at cafes, when they marched under threat of violent retribution; the changes were won when the world at large saw, in stark visuals, that these things could happen. The will to change the status quo, Roberts and Kiliboff tell their readers, must be preceded by knowledge of the harsh injustice inherent in the status quo.

It is that which the civil rights movements, and The Race Beat, have to teach. And if we learn better the contours of the movement and it’s observers in the process, all the better.

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