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The Past, Prologue,[1] and Publicity in the Civil Rights Struggle

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The struggle for Civil Rights in the United States began when the first Africans fought, resisted, or rebelled against the enslavement of their people. Their quest for civil rights was a mission to pursue for themselves the prevailing human rights of equality and democracy. This was a driving force for the work of Harriet Tubman who abetted enslaved Africans in their effort to free themselves via the Underground Railroad to John Brown’s role in “Bloody Kansas” and the raid on Harper’s Ferry. Early civil rights struggle includes Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass who perceptibly understood the mass media, and used the power of the press, through newspapers like The North Star, to advance the cause of freedom.


“Come Let’s Make Modern History.”[2]

The Abolitionist and modern Civil Rights movements represent one trajectory, interconnected in countless ways. While they are part of the same African liberatory theme, one of the most important examples is the use of the media. The mass media of the 1800s included Abolitionist literature, produced by organizations (anti-slavery societies) or individuals (David Walker, The Appeal…), was comprised of tracts, pamphlets, books, novels, educational texts, poetry and prose, speeches, philosophical treatises, petitions, letters and legal papers. Abolitionist writings also included newspaper articles, editorials and organizational documents (agenda, announcements, by-laws, etc.). These materials influenced and impacted the decisions of government leaders and fueled legislative debates. The abolitionist writings gave support and encouragement to those already dedicated to the cause. The materials produced a discussion between northerners and southerners that caused politics and government leaders to critically consider, clearly define, and make known their positions. For southerners in particular, the abolitionist literature, which was considered controversial and incendiary, caused them to react to the issue of slavery, forcing them to “take the defensive” position in support of the American system of slavery. These materials challenged state policies, and in compelling the revelation of proslavery ideology, revealed the flaws in their argument; and publically situated them as amoral, unethical, and insensitive to the rights of African humanity, and against the democratic ideals the nation was founded upon.

American Apartheid and the Signs to Conquer

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U.S. efforts towards Reconstruction (1865-1877), including the seminal constitutional amendments (13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments), failed to make progress toward racial equality. The slave codes had evolved into black codes, which morphed into Jim Crow. The Supreme Court, in Plessy vs. Ferguson (163 U.S. 537 [1896]) adopted the racial segregationist policy of “separate but equal” institutions which further eroded established laws protecting Blacks and solidified the Jim Crow laws and social customs upholding racial discrimination. Among other mechanisms to support these laws was racist signage (a small example of segregationist publicity) that informed individuals and communities that Black rights were restricted: i.e. “Theatre For Colored People,” public bathrooms and water fountains marked “colored” and “white,” “colored waiting rooms,” and “No Dogs, Negros, Mexicans.” Decades later, images of racist signage would be available for national and worldwide display. Images of Racist signage, now a part of Americana and Black Americana collectibles, can be found at the “Photographs of Signs Enforcing Racial Discrimination: Documentation by Farm Security Administration (The Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/list/085_disc.html). However, the separatist idea persists; there are also several reports of contemporary “colored only” signs publically posted, particularly at college campuses (see http://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/Colored-Only-Sign-Posted-Over-NY-College-Drinking-Fountain-134028098.html).

“Conscious Of The Critical Juncture Of History…”[3]

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The strategies that informed the success of the modern Civil Rights movement in the late 1950s through the 1960s included several approaches—especially the NAACP’s legal strategy (through Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and many others), that resulted in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas in 1954; and the nonviolent Civil Disobedience inspired by SCLC and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Like their ancestors before them in the Abolitionist cause, African Americans risked their lives to bring about equality and they were joined by many white citizens as well. People organized, boycotted, carpooled, sat-in, educated (freedom schools), marched (en masse), and were arrested with great force (tear gas, batons, water hoses, dogs, etc.); fully aware that the press was watching, recording, and reporting (through television, radio, newspapers and magazines). Photographers and videographers captured the activities of protestors and the actions of anti-integrationists at Selma, Birmingham, and the March on Washington.

The national mass media documented large numbers of armed federal and state troops, marshals, as well as FBI agents, sent to protect small numbers of Black youths attempting to integrate southern schools (prominent examples include James Meredith, The Little Rock Nine, etc.). They were also dispatched to contain large gatherings of white citizens in their effort to harass and halt Black students. We also have media images of voting rights workers who also risked arrest, violence—and even death in their attempts to register Blacks for participation at the polls. Representing nearly half the population of Mississippi, African Americans could not register to vote (more than 90% unregistered). This public exposure, similar to that of their abolitionist forbears, caused impassioned discussions and debates, inspired people to join the cause, and gave hope and inspiration to those who had been in the struggle all of their lives. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 1965 and 1968, and the 24th amendment to the constitution outlawing poll taxes, were in part, a result of the heightened pressure emanating from the intensive media coverage. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were particularly concerned about the outlets broadcasting the violence meted out against, sometimes resulting in the murders of, Civil Rights workers (i.e. the KKK murders of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney in Mississippi, Medgar Evers). The use of national mass media exposed the truth about the lives of Blacks, and placed the old South “on the wrong side of history.” In today’s Occupy America movement we are particularly reminded that “What’s past is prologue,” and that historical consciousness is most needed at times when justice is ephemeral.

Dr. Katherine Bankole-Medina


[1] The English playwright William Shakespeare crafted the phrase “What’s past is prologue,”( which is widely used in modern discourse), in The Tempest, (Act 2, Scene I, “Whereof what’s past is prologue; what to come, In yours and my discharge.” ) The Tempest, like other works of Shakespeare has considerable import to colonization, with racial connotations, and issues of enslavement.

[2] Eveline Marius from “Let’s make History,” quoted in The Black Woman’s Gumbo Ya-Ya edited by Terri L. Jewell, California: The Crossing Press, 1993 (p.83).

[3] From “The Million Man March/Day of Absence Mission Statement,” by Maulana Karenga, in Molefi Kete Asante and Abu Abarry’s, The African Intellectual Heritage A Book of Sources. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996 (p. 781).