Influence of Media and Television in the Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964


The civil rights movement in the United States was the concerted efforts that begun in the south to counter the oppression of the African Americans by the whites. The movement that took root in the 1050s ended in 1964 with the success of the civil rights struggle (Purdum 7). While the segregationists were using the media to advance their policies, the supporters also took advantage of the power of the media to gain success. Therefore, to understand the critical role played by media and television, it is imperative to discuss the position taken by those platforms in the passage of the civil rights act of 1964.

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The Role of Media

Besides the possibility of reaching the masses, the media provided a powerful tool to set whatever agenda the newsmakers wanted to fix. Since the beginning stages in the development of media, including the radio and print media, the politicians realized the potential in the airtime they could provide. In fact, the politicians recognized the importance of the media and did not waste any time using it. For instance, in 1948, when the executive order was issued by President Harry S. Truman aimed at desegregating the armed services, he was accused of using the media only for the primary purpose of getting votes from the black community (Purdum 15). The Richmond News Leader was used in the campaign to influence the decision of the black community. Commentators, historians, together with the participants of the civil rights movement have recognized the connection between the media and the civil rights movement’s trajectory.

Only little is known about what the local southern stations were airing, and there is little about the reception of the region’s broadcasts, but the media’s power was well understood. At the time, the influence of the media on the local communities was not well known. However, politicians, local officials, reporters, and commentators had an adequate understanding of the power and use of the media in shaping public opinion. During the 1950s, while radio and print media had developed and become popular with the people even in the southern region, the television was still new (Coomes 16). However, it emerged at the right time when the civil rights movement was getting started. History scholars have established an important link between the freedom struggle in the South and the use of media. Understanding this link is the basis for realizing how the movement preceded and the factors that played a role in its success.


While other media channels played a role in the course of the civil rights movement and the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the television received the most focus. The reason behind this is the fact that television is the most influential to the audience and widely used by the other interested parties. The rise to prominence of the television within the American culture played a role in ensuring that the people were in the right place, time, and space to get the message of the civil rights struggle (Chappell 27). Unlike other media outlets, the television rose to prominence very fast. The players in the struggle for civil rights and the blacks’ freedom appeared to understand its power and influence. Demonstrators, politicians, litigators, news reporters, and other players made considerable efforts to capture and shape public opinion, and there was no other effective channel to use than the television. As a result, many used the new media to send their message.

Media as a Tool for Segregation

The increased segregation of the black population in the south is one of the factors that increased the resentment of the blacks and the major efforts to liberate themselves, efforts that resulted in the civil rights movement, conflict and the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Badger 73). Histories from the recent past have revealed the important difference that exists between the local and international media. In fact, the homegrown media and television played a critical role in helping to perpetuate segregation. In some instances, particularly in Mississippi, managers of local TV channels provided the grounds for the segregationist agencies like the White Citizen’s Council to set and expound their agendas (Kellstedt 18). In essence, for the managers and owners of media organizations, economic interests and the need to make profits has allowed them to be used by politicians and other elite members of the society for their agendas.

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White businesspersons controlled television across the south, as they were the main owners and controllers of the media organizations. These individuals were also local and state power brokers who ran and controlled insurance firms, banks, and newspaper companies. They hoped to get revenue from advertisers, most of whom were automobile dealers and local businesspeople, mainly whites. Traditionally, the media got its income from publicizing and only by being right with the advertisers could the media companies get the revenue (Chappell 34). Major political players in the South made use of the television in the efforts to pump life into segregationist policies as well as to be able to maintain the status quo. It was only by maintaining the blacks in the lower place that they could get the labor they required and the business interests they hoped to maintain the status quo.

The governors in the south were the majority users of the media in perpetuating segregation of the African American community. Examples of the governors included Alabama’s George Wallace, Georgia’s Ross Barnett, Arkansas’ Orval Faubus, and Virginia’s J. Lindsay Almond. These political leaders used TV interviews, news, and statements to express their views on segregation (Purdum 29). Most of the media outlets spent a lot of time airing segregationist issues. For instance, Bill Monroe of NBC, when the stations in the South did not air national documentaries on racial matters, commented that besides a few newspapers in the south and the television and radio stations, others aired minimal news concerning the blacks. In addition, very little attention was given to the issues surrounding race. Clearly, the media in the south had another agenda besides addressing the issues affecting the minority members of the society.

Political use of the Television

Civil rights supporters, as well as dedicated individuals, realized the opportunity offered by news aired through the television to pass their message. During the time, TV offered the potential to reach a vast number of audiences. Thus, this media channel provided the opportunity for upsetting the inaction which prevailed within the segregated society (Kellstedt 49). While Truman had used a newspaper to appeal to the blacks, it was suggested that his main opponent, Henry Wallace, would use television appearance to trump him. By 1950s, there was developing a new crop of politicians who realized TV’s influence on politics and in convincing the audience to operate towards a particular goal. The decade was also characterized by major efforts to understand the media and use its effectiveness within the political context and in achieving social transformation following the Second World War (Coomes 37). Under those premises, the governors from the South sought to make use of the TV to reach their constituents and reinforce within the southern information and spaces.

Media and Success of Civil Rights Struggle

Television news emerged as a strong force in influencing change. The images that were aired on the television had a major influence on the viewers. Indeed, there were pictures of police dogs and fire hoses directed towards those who were demonstrating. The fact that these images were aired on the television for the masses to see, they played a major role in influencing the outcomes of the demonstrations as more people ended up joining the movement. Americans could not stay back and watch passively the violence that was directed towards the demonstrators in Birmingham and the aggression in Selma’s Pettus Bridge. Without the television, it was not have been possible for the Americans to witness the repression, violence, and the hatred that the black community in the country faced in the period ended in the passage of the Civil Rights Act (Kellstedt 97). In essence, the images led to the change of minds of the Americans regarding the south and the segregation of the society.

The power of the television allowed for the massive airing of the violence that was taking place in the south, hence, motivating action in the country and beyond. The images of violence were aired by the national television and were viewed across the world using the media that had become global at the time. The images were also published in the influential pages of the national newspaper, allowing the pictures to remain for a long time. The process allowed the people to have access to the information for days, weeks, and even months. Due to the influence of the media, President Kennedy was shocked into action (Jacobs 93). The information could not have achieved the magnitude of impact as it had based on media use. Possibly, the violence could have continued in the south without necessarily getting the information out to the rest of America and the world. With the information in the media, the greatest past of the American population, especially those who lived outside the south, were able to receive the news. 

America had a huge population who would have supported the civil rights movement. However, these people were against the slave institution and were outside the South. Being away from the center of action, the people on the north could have remained behind the civil rights movement. However, because of the influence of the media, the people from the north were able to join the fight towards the liberation of the blacks and their inclusion within the mainstream society. The North did not have such a huge population of blacks as the south (Kellstedt 127). Indeed, these people required the influence of the media to get the real picture of the situation in the south. With the news aired on the television and printed in the front pages of influential newspapers, the information reached the conscious of the right-thinking peoples in the United States and the world over.

Media in the Wake of the Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

With time, the media allowed the message of the efforts in the south to reach the rest of the United States and the world. By the close of the 1950s, the support for the civil rights movement was all over the country and beyond. The increase in supporters also increased the chances for the success of the movement, with the result becoming evident in the first few years of the 1960s. During this time, the television has become a major subject of scrutiny alongside the civil rights movement’s politics. An expert in media, by 1963, suggested that the South was too late in any efforts to reverse the effects of the media in the process (Eskew 82). The idea was that it was too late for the politicians and other segregationists in the south to reverse the impact of the media, especially the television news. It was no longer possible to extend segregation to the new media as the environment was no longer suitable for the segregationist policies and efforts.

During the 1950s, the segregationists started using the media to advance their efforts. However, while the media gave them airtime, it also provided a chance for their efforts to be countered by the southerners and other interested parties in the rest of the country and abroad. The television can put an end to segregation, provide freedom for the African Americans, and, most importantly, ensure the civil rights for the African Americans in the South and the rest of America (Carter 91). There were important factors inherent in the television, unlike other media outlets, which countered the efforts of the segregationists in the south and helped set the agenda towards the achievement of civil rights for the minority in the south. The new medium allowed a convergence of technological, social, governmental, and political forces, all working together towards the success that culminated in 1964. The licensing process of the FCC, the dramatic and visual effect of the media, the television news’ linear narrative demands, together with the national and global programming, played a role in making it the most important tool for change at the time.


The media emerges a very powerful tool in many social and political processes in the history of its emergence. Among the important processes that were enabled by the media were the civil rights movement and the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Various players used the media, especially the television in the struggle, both for and against the civil rights movement. However, the movement prevailed because of its nature, such as the ability to set the agenda and broadcast to the masses. In essence, the media got the ball rolling within the area of legislation and the efforts that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


Works Cited

Badger, Tony. “Fatalism Not Gradualism: Race and the Crisis of Southern Liberalism, 1945-1965,” Ward, Brian and Tony Badger, eds. in The Making of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, New York: New York University Press, 1996.

Carter, Dan T. The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of New Conservativism, and the Transformation of American Politics. Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Chappell, David L. Inside Agitators: White Southerners in the Civil Rights Movement. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Coomes, Michael D. “Understanding the historical and cultural influences that shape generations.” New Directions for Student Services, vol10, no. 6, 2004, pp.17-31.

Eskew, Glenn. But For Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle. University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Jacobs, Ronald N. Race, Media and the Crisis of Civil Society: From Watts to Rodney King. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Kellstedt, Paul M. “Media framing and the dynamics of racial policy preferences.” American Journal of Political Science, 2000, pp. 245-260.

Purdum, Todd S. An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Henry Holt and Company, 2014.

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