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A Look Back At How Newspapers Covered The Civil Rights Movement


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish in Birmingham, Alabama. It's been half a century since Birmingham was at the center of the Civil Rights struggle. Back in May of 1963, images of fire hoses and German shepherds turned on young protesters pretty much shocked the world. And if you're visiting downtown Birmingham this summer, 50 years later, you would see a big banner that reads: Birmingham, 50 Years Forward, hanging from the public library.

That's the slogan that's part of this year-long branding effort to both honor and tell the past, and show how the city has progressed. And we wanted to get a sense of what life was like and what stories were being told in Birmingham then. So we're going inside the public library, into the Linn-Henley Research Center.

I can't help but tiptoe and also whisper 'cause it's a library.


CORNISH: And it's actually a beautiful one. It's got like all wood paneling and this really ornately painted ceiling. It's painted with gold and red, and red velvet ropes up here on the second floor. We're going up to the third floor, which is where the microfilm is and that's where we're hoping to find front pages.

OK, fun. I haven't used a microfilm machine I don't know since when - college. OK, so we've got this cranked to the right.


CORNISH: OK, Birmingham News, June 18th, 1963. Let's see, so on the front page of the paper you've got a big story, big type about Governor Wallace, governor of Alabama, and a Senate filibuster in the State Senate. There's also a story datelined Moscow about cosmonauts breaking some record for space orbits. Top of the page in large font it says: Jackson Mayor's Faith Unshaken. And it's basically a story talking about the city's reaction after the assassination of Medgar Evers, which had only happened a few days before.

What you don't see on the cover of the paper is very much about Birmingham's own troubles. So, looking at these papers, looking at the Birmingham News during this week in 1963, you get the sense that you're not getting the whole story.

And to talk about what the pages weren't saying, we turn to Hank Klibanoff. He is a native of Alabama who grew up to be a newspaper editor at places like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Philadelphia Inquirer. So we asked him to take a look at some copies of these front pages and tell us what he sees in the coverage.

HANK KLIBANOFF: What stands out for me now is something that stood out for me - but I'd have to say less dramatically - in 1963, as a 14-year-old looking at those newspapers every day. And that is a newspaper that was either afraid of the Civil Rights story or sort of paralyzed by it. You had a temptation that they succumbed to, to put the news stories on the inside - the most dramatic news stories about the Civil Rights on the inside of the paper.

So that in May of 1963, when Police Commissioner Bull Connor has pulled out the dogs and the hoses against the Children's Crusade and Dr. King's and Reverend Shuttleworth's teams of demonstrators - the Birmingham Post-Herald and the Birmingham News both committed not to put in those stories on Page One.

CORNISH: And also, comparing this to the national papers at the time, we have covers here from The New York Times on that day, where above the bold headline: Violence Explodes At Racial Protests In Alabama, with a picture of a police officer gripping a black protester with one hand and basically ordering a dog to lunge at him with the other hand. Then also, this L.A. Times story, with huge headline in huge font: New Alabama Riot, Police Dogs, Fire Hoses Halt March. Totally different kind of approach.

KLIBANOFF: And, I mean, how many times you see The New York Times, then or now, using three photographs from a single incident of the front page?

CORNISH: So put us in the mind of an editor of a major Southern daily at the time. What is the reason they say that they are keeping articles about this growing movement off the front page?

KLIBANOFF: Well, what they say is one thing and what they are, in fact, thinking may be another. I think publicly they would tend to say, what do you want to do, blow the lid off this town? We can't have that. We can't be putting in a lot of, you know, stories of ruffians on the street provoking violence. And they were not always talking African-Americans. They may have been talking about white people. They knew the sentiments on the street pretty well.

What I think they also were trying to say and acknowledge without being able to say it, was they really didn't know how to cover the story. Most news reporters at the time would not have had in their Rolodexes or address books, or any of those things, the names of any African-Americans in town. They wouldn't know who to call, by and large.

And you see a lot of officials and a lot of leaders being quoted but you never see people. And certainly what you never see is a reflection of what it was like to be on the other side, to be an African-American in Alabama; to be someone who is tired of being insulted every time they went to register to vote, or every time they walked on the streets of a town. There's no sense, let's live the lives of our readers.

CORNISH: When you look back at that summer of 1963, specifically, what strikes you about how transformative the coverage was, either from within the community or from outside of it?

KLIBANOFF: Well, I think we see that by 1963, particularly as television has come on with such force - and I say this both from having researched it but also from having lived in it at the time - the South cannot help, over time, but see itself in the coverage. And no one likes to see themselves yelling and screaming and looking hideous and squaring off, you know, as a mob against one black person.

And I'm not saying that everyone was ashamed of that. I think many people were heartened by it. But I think many, many people felt ashamed of it. And there were enough voices of sanity and better angels in the South that, over time, those who had a more progressive attitude could feel some sense of unity and solidarity with a larger group, and give hope to those outside the South that it could change.

CORNISH: Well, Hank Klibanoff, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KLIBANOFF: Well, thank you so much for your time.

CORNISH: That's Hank Klibanoff. He's co-author of "The Race Beat: The Press, The Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation."

And this week, we're going to bring you more stories from Birmingham and the summer of '63.


SIEGEL: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Audie Cornish
Audie Cornish is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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