2007, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 49, spring 2007
History as motivation:
Mississippi, memory, and Movement
by Shannon Gore
Stephen Classen, Watching Jim Crow: The Struggles Over Mississippi TV, 1955-1969 (Chapel Hill NC: Duke Univ. Press, 2004, 248 pp.
When media scholars focus on the relationship between television history and the civil rights movement, the WLBT case stands out as a watershed moment in efforts to increase quality media representations of African Americans at a time when civil rights struggles were escalating throughout the United States. WLBT, a television station in Jackson, Mississippi, was founded in 1953. The station gained a reputation for showcasing the local segregationist platform and for censoring NBC network programming featuring African Americans as well as shows presenting integrationist ideology. WLBT eventually lost its station license in1969 as a result of pressure from civil rights organizations as well as grassroots groups. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) tired of WLBT’s continued allegiance with the Citizen’s Council of Mississippi, a group that attempted to control the presentation of racial issues on the airwaves and in print in order to promote segregationist aims.
In Stephen Classen’s book Watching Jim Crow: The Struggles Over Mississippi TV, 1955-1969, Classen breathes new life into a subject that has been discussed and analyzed in many texts relaying media history. By focusing on the plight of Medgar Evers, an often overlooked civil rights leader, along with the boycotting strategies of Tougaloo College students during the height of the WLBT controversy, Classen highlights the connection between media representation and civil rights advancement. The WLBT case, through Classen’s study, can be seen as a model for linking the reform of media practices to larger social and political movements. This is an important task for activists in search of transformation, and scholars seeking to appreciate media history. Finally, Classen illuminates the lessons to be learned from the WLBT case when addressing the subject of modern deregulation of the airwaves, and the efforts of crusaders aiming to prevent the corporate consolidation of the media. At the end of the day, Classen wants his readers to understand that television is more than a medium run by faceless corporations; it is an activity people engage in, something people do (195).
In the introduction of Watching Jim Crow, Classen briefly discusses the resources that he used to inform his study. Although Classen relies on archival documents, including FCC papers, newspaper interviews, and notes from civil rights organizations, he emphasizes the importance of oral history and privileges this information in his account of the WLBT case. He gives a voice to the citizens of Jackson as they reflect on life in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement as well as media images that circulated during the movement. Classen recognizes and embraces the ambiguities and problems presented when piecing together a story that came to a climax over thirty years ago. Classen references scholars Hayden White and Nancy Partner as well as a number of critical race theorists in order to explain to the reader the complexities of writing about history. There are politics involved when creating a panoramic picture of the past using oral accounts and written documents. Classen, in his introduction, details his attempts to resist categorization and chronological organization. And he prepares the reader for a historical account that complicates the WLBT story and creates more questions about media regulation, race representation, and the significance of memory in historiography (14-16).
When Classen speaks with Jackson residents who recall the civil rights movement and television during the 50s and 60s, the discussion at times turns to current living conditions for poor blacks in Mississippi and news representations of African Americans past and present. Classen includes interviews discussing current programming on WLBT, black television viewership during the 1960s, and local activism unrelated to the WLBT case. These additions support Classen’s claims about the convolutions and frustrations a historian faces when dealing with memory.
Watching Jim Crow, however, is most interesting when Classen details the struggles of grassroots organizers who were aiming to draw attention to the civil rights issue in Jackson and beyond. Classen writes about Medgar Evers, field secretary for the Mississippi branch of the NAACP in the late 1950s. Evers, as he is depicted in Classen’s study, saw the importance of African American representation on television and lobbied for time on television to express and discuss the concerns of Jackson’s black residents, plagued by poverty and experiencing discrimination on a daily basis. Classen’s focus on Evers is invigorating, considering the fact that civil rights activists of the 1950s are often overshadowed by the charismatic leaders of the 1960s. By the mid-1960s, the movement was finally being seen as something of national and global significance. Civil rights leaders in the 1950s relentlessly tried to gain media attention for civil rights struggles, recognizing the importance of exposure and the growing prominence of television in U.S. culture. Medgar Evers pushed for legal action against WLBT and some of Jackson’s most popular radio stations, who often ignored the rules of the FCC and shouted intolerant propaganda.
In the hopes of censoring national programming championing civil rights, and controlling the amount of local civil rights information that reached the air, those in charge at WLBT went to great lengths. Classen focuses specifically on the segregationist group the Citizen’s Council, who first appeared on WLBT in 1955. The show Citizen’s Council Forum promoted states rights, prejudice logic, and the aims of Mississippi’s state government. The show featured authors and politicians who supported the Council’s way of seeing the world, particularly Mississippi (37). Evers protested the incendiary content of Citizen’s Council Forum and lobbied to receive equal time on WLBT in order to respond to the Council. He would have to wait several years. Much like civil rights activist, segregationists coveted access to the public sphere through television, newspapers, and radio. Classen does an excellent job when trying to project the tension created over the control of Jackson’s media.
Before Evers assassination in 1963, he actually appeared on WLBT campaigning for desegregation in Jackson. Classen describes this event as the culmination of Evers continuous activism. This is a pivotal moment in Watching Jim Crow. The major themes of the book come to light through Classen’s description and subsequent analysis of the significance of this event. Medgar Evers increased the visibility of African Americans in Jackson by appearing on television at a time when very few blacks were represented on the small screen across the country. At the same time, Evers appearance was an act of defiance, as he challenged previous representations of Jackson’s black citizens as illiterate and incapable. He took on the segregationist tradition of Mississippi and called for an end to inequality in the state. Classen is wise to focus on Evers struggles, even though his life was cut short, and other civil rights accounts do not focus on his FCC lobbying. The NAACP in the midst of fighting for the desegregation of buses, lunch counters, and schoolhouses, was not unaware or unconcerned with the power of media representation. Equality was desired on all fronts; activists concerned themselves with television in order to advance the movement, and increase visibility as well as shape the nature of visibility.
Watching Jim Crow fits well with current civil rights scholarship and media scholarship. Speaking of the former, Classen is in conversation with recent scholars trying to establish the unique roots of the civil rights movement. Seeking to move beyond monumental events like the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington, scholars like Azza Layton and Timothy Tyson have created accounts focusing on local level organizing, regional struggles, and the global implications of racial issues in the United States. The middle of the book focuses on a small number of Tougaloo College students attempting to desegregate public entertainment in Jackson by disrupting appearances from the cast of Original Hootenanny, USA and Bonanza. Tougaloo students employed tactics such as sit-ins, alerting liberal newspapers like the Mississippi Free Press to their plan of action, and entering locations that were restricted due to segregation (86). Classen does well at reflecting the passion of a small group of students, and contrasting it with his depiction of the FCC as rigid and hindered by a distinct privileging of written and documented accounts. Instead of listening to the complaints of Jackson’s black community regarding WLBT’s dubious practices, the FCC renewed the station’s license year after year (129). However, since the WLBT case is familiar territory, Watching Jim Crow is more about the context of this historic case, extensions of activist’s efforts. WLBT’s questionable practices were indicative of the unpleasant, often hostile, cultural climate of Jackson, Mississippi. Remnants of this cultural climate, according to Classen’s research, can be seen in present day Mississippi.
Steven Classen’s Watching Jim Crow: The Struggles Over Mississippi TV, 1955-1969 benefits from the legacy of the civil rights struggle, captured in scholarly/popular accounts, documentaries, and dramatic films. These depictions highlight the determination, organization, and vigor of those involved in the movement. Likewise, Classen’s book focuses on effective local campaigns seeking to change programming practices in Jackson. Classen takes time to present the contribution of the student movement. Like the depiction of student activists in the award-winning documentary Eyes on the Prize, Classen celebrates the enthusiasm and energy of student-led movements. In Watching Jim Crow, grassroots movements seem to challenge the manipulation and control of larger organizations like the federal government or station owners. At the end of the book, Classen confesses to invoking the past, partly because he wants to find a way of changing the trend toward the corporate consolidation of national and global media. He constantly frames television as a tool for underscoring social ills, and a medium that has the power to alter preconceived notions of race, class, and gender. Classen seems to be suggesting we take advantage of television’s revolutionary potential. We must look to the past.
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