American Reporters on the Civil Rights Beat
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.
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.
Resources (click here)
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?
it to the Streets!
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.
Editors and Researchers:
Web Designer: William Weems
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