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White American Reporters on the Civil Rights Beat

Jim Whipkey, a white American journalist for WSB-TV in the early 1970s, frequently reported on the Civil Rights Movement in Augusta, Macon, Columbus, and Atlanta. His reportage documents the turmoil, violence, and racial conflict these southern cities faced. It also reveals Whipkey's use of dismissive and condescending language, thereby exposing the subjective nature of the news media.

On May 13, 1970 in the wake of racially motivated acts of violence in Augusta, Whipkey highlighted the economic costs to the city rather than concentrating on long-standing grievances presented by the African American community. Whipkey portrays black activists as nuisances to law enforcement officials’ efforts to shield Augusta from the conflicts that often erupted when civil rights demonstrators faced massive resistance from white southerners. Whipkey’s descriptions of the protestors provide evidence of his biases toward civil rights demonstrators. By describing the demonstrators simply as “rioters, burners, and looters,” he criminalizes their behavior and ignores the denial of basic civil rights that led African Americans in Augusta to react violently.  

Whipkey continues to explain how the popular black performer James Brown visited Augusta to help alleviate the tension and violence in the community. In an interview within the WSB clip, Brown encourages blacks and whites to respect and listen to one another to reach an agreement. When a reporter asks him what message he wants to send to the participants in the riots, Brown clarifies that his “advice goes to the administration as well as the ones who participated.” Whipkey reports that “Negro entertainer James Brown. . . went on television to tell black people to cool it.” While Brown clearly states that he is asking for respect and communication between blacks and whites, protesters and administrators, Whipkey sounds doubtful about Brown's effectiveness, nor does he mention the six dead blacks, five of whom were killed by police on May 12, 1970. He concludes derisively that either the threat of the Armed National Guard quieted the crowd or “perhaps there was just nothing else they wanted to burn.”                                   

On July 31, 1971 in Columbus, Georgia, over a year since the Augusta riot, Jim Whipkey again reports for WSB-TV after ninety-one political demonstrators are arrested and jailed. Whipkey reports on the cost the city must endure for the demonstrations and riots which occurred. With the city “paying overtime policemen. . .feeding and housing prisoners and state patrol” and maintaining the “gigantic armed guard,” Whipkey expresses concern as to whether Columbus can bear the cost, which is approaching two million dollars. He suggests that the calm which preceded the riots is the successful result of “enough manpower and gun power to say it loud and clear,” this time borrowing a phrase from the Black Panther movement to ironically illustrate the white authority’s subjugation of the black dissidents. Again, Whipkey ignores the activists’ motivation, depicting them as criminal and insubordinate, and identifying the conflict as one between white authority and rowdy blacks.

Eight days before the Augusta riot, the National Guard killed four students and protesters at Kent State University in Ohio, and two days after Augusta, on May 14, 1970, police officers kill two more students in a racial conflict at Mississippi’s Jackson State University. Discussion of these significant historical events would have placed the unrest in Columbus and Augusta within a national context, to help viewers begin to understand the sources of tension between black protesters and white city officials. The reportage in these clips identifies the conflict as one between white authority and rowdy blacks, ignoring the plea for social justice which motivated the Movement and its activists.                                                    

Investigate reportage by other WSB journalists.

Suggested Resources (click here)

Discussion Questions            

1. Many of these riots and demonstrations coincided with the nation-wide student strike against the Vietnam War. Explain how the anti-war campaign may have positively or negatively impacted the efforts of protesters and demonstrators working for social justice in the South.                                       
2.  Consider Jim Whipkey’s role in relation to WSB programming. Is he representing his own politics or those of WSB or the viewing audience?                 
3.  The incident in Augusta where six people were killed is referred to as the Augusta Riots, while the deaths in Ohio are remembered as the Kent State Massacre. How do these names affect a society’s interpretation of tragedies?                       
                                     Take it to the Streets!                                                                                                           

Find two recent articles or news clips which cover the same political or social rebellion. Analyze the language, paying particular attention to the ways in which protesters are described. What seems to be the journalist’s primary concern in each article? Is the conflict between protesters and authority clear or implied?

Writer: Erin Cork in Professor Barbara McCaskill's ENGL 4860 (The Civil Rights Movement in American Literature), Fall 2007.

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Web Designer: William Weems

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