Media and the Movements

By Mariah Bensley, Hope College

The Power of Media

From the first television segment to latest Twitter post, media outlets have been playing a crucial role in keeping American citizens informed of current events throughout history. In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement capitalized on the media by displaying their cause on the screens of millions of television sets and headlining in newspapers across the United States. More recently the Black Lives Matter Movement takes advantage of the accessibility of social media and the internet to reach its supporters. Without media broadcasting incidents to the public, millions of Americans would remain in the dark. Public support is crucial. There are not enough civil rights workers who hold enough power to make changes on their own.[1]

In the 1960s, Americans who resided in the Southern United States lived in the center of the movement’s action. While there were some social movements taking place in the North, they did little to compare to the severity or brutality of those in the South. Even though not everyone was directly affected by the Civil Rights Movement geographically, both sides of the movement understood that the movement extended beyond the South, and that Northern acceptance and approval was crucial.[2] Media was the tool they used to connect images of the Negro oppression to the oblivious citizen. Martin Luther King Jr. realized that the South was so deeply rooted in their beliefs against their black citizens, that the only way forward was to focus on those not so blinded by prejudices.

Like Martin Luther King, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was very aware of the role that media could play for their cause. Positive media influence would progress their cause so in hope of having more control on the media response they received, SNCC added the Communication Section to their group. By 1965 SNCC had even hired five staffers for full time work in this section. SNCC also ran its own printing press to promote propaganda for their cause, and they even produced their own Newsletter, The Student Voice.[3]

Images from the Civil Rights Movement

Walter Gadsden being terrorized by a police officer at the Birmingham Marches in 1963 (Courtesy of CBS News)

During the Civil Rights Movement, a famous photograph by Bill Hudson in Birmingham Alabama, shows a black boy being viscously ripped in to by a police dog while a white police office holds on to his shirt to keep him from getting away. Gruesome photos of police brutality such as this against nonviolent protestors had the ability to recruit people who were originally unconnected to the movement by appealing to their humanity. Once the American people, mainly in the northern states, saw and learned of all the violence, they demanded more action from their government.

According to historian Martin Berger, upon seeing the photograph, Northern citizens characterized the officer as, “a grinning cop setting his savage dog at the throat of a frail Negro.”[4] In reality, the boy in the photo, Walter Gadsden, was not a protester but a bystander, and judging by his hand on the officer’s wrist, he was retaliating and attempting to defend himself. Retaliation was a tactic that trained Civil Rights Activists were warned against using. A popular national black periodical of the time, Jet, reported on this same photo. However, where the white press made this man out to be a peaceful martyr fighting for social justice, Jet reported the facts. Gadsden was just a fifteen-year-old boy who wanted to observe the Civil Rights Movement in action. The white press was unable to distinguish him, a bystander, and trained protestors. Martin Luther King Jr. who lead the Birmingham campaign and one of his chief aids in Birmingham, Wyatt Walker capitalized on the white press’s false reporting by planning demonstrations when they knew the would be black bystanders. Wyatt addressed the misinterpretation of the white press saying, “All they know is Negroes, and most of the spectacular pictures printed in Life and in television had the commentary ‘Negro demonstrators’ when they weren’t that at all.”[5] When black bystanders were assumed to be activists, it made the movement look as if it had more support and people willing to fight for their cause.

The Changing Shots

A drawback from the 1960s media platforms was the duration of time it required to report on incidents. Especially compared to today, the reporting in the 1960s was anything but instant. Newspapers and photos had to wait at least until the next morning for them to be published and even television programs had to be written and recorded. “The thing about King is that he could not just wake up and sit at the breakfast table and talk to a million people,”[6] said DeRay McKesson, a Black Lives Matter activist who controls part of the social media for the movement. Today, we still have television and newspapers covering events, but we also have many new social medias. The internet to provide easy access to those social medias, and new technology phones and cameras so video’s taken by random phones on the street that capture racial injustices can be easily posted to sites and seen by millions in just a few minutes.[7]

I can't breathe
Eric Garner, “I can’t breathe” protester (Courtesy of International Business Times)

Take Eric Garner for example: Garner was a forty-three-year-old black man who was killed by a police officer in Staten Island, New York. Unarmed, a police officer placed Garner in a choke hold until he was suffocated to death. Before the grip became too tight, he tried to plea with the officer that he was loosing air. Within thirty seconds, he was dead.[8] An onlooker filmed the entire interaction between Garner and the police officer and uploaded it online. Black Lives Matter saw the video of Eric Garner’s murder and capitalized on the reality that many African Americans feel unprotected from their law enforcement, the same law enforcement that is meant to be here to protect each and every citizen. We depend on it. Soon “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry. When the statement gained traction and grew it even caught the attention of national celebrities. LeBron James proudly wore a shirt sporting the phrase, ‘I can’t breath’, to which President Obama praised him for the act.[9]

Beginning of the New Movement

In 2013 Alicia Garza started the movement using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. In the article “#BlackLivesMatter: The Birth of a New Civil Rights Movement” the author, Elizabeth Day interviewed Garza about the creation of this modern movement. In it, Garza said:

The new movement is powerful yet diffuse, linked not by physical closeness or even necessarily by political consensus, but by the mobilizing force of social media. A hashtag on Twitter can link the disparate fates of unarmed black men shot down by white police in a way that transcends geographical boundaries and time zones.[10]

Because of our technology and media opportunities, movements today can grow and excel at a must faster pace. Radical groups and violent protests are televised or shared on Facebook and then discussed over the dinner table.

Though the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Lives Matter Movement took place decades apart, they both fought against similar social injustices. To do this, they both understood how vital people in numbers are when if comes to making a change in the United States. Connecting the movement to the people is what makes the media so key. As Martin Luther King said, “We will no longer let them use their clubs on us in the dark corners We’re going to do it in the glaring light of the television.”[11]


Black Lives Matter Photo
Black Lives Matter protesters take to the streets after the death of Eric Garner (Courtesy of The Society Pages)

[1] Martin Oppenheimer and George Lakey, A Manual for Direct Action (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1964), 50

[2] Martin A. Berger, “Race, Visuality, and History” American Art 24 (Summer, 2010): 98

[3] Mark Joseph Walmsley, “Tell It Like It Isn’t: SNCC and the Media, 1960-1965,” Journal of American Studies (2014): 293.

[4] Berger, Race, Visuality, and History, 95.

[5] Berger, “Race, Visuality, and History,” 96.

[6]  “Social Media Helps Black Lives Matter Fight the Power,” Wired, last modified November 2015

[7] “Social Media Helps Black Lives Matter Fight the Power.”

[8] “#BlackLivesMatter: The Birth of a New Civil Rights Movement: How a Generation of Tech-Savvy Activists made Violence against African Americans into Global Headlines News,” Last Modified July 19th, 2015

[9] “#BlackLivesMatter”

[10] “#BlackLivesMatter”

[11] Montgomery, “How Black Lives Matter Uses Social Media to Fight the Power.”