What happens when you compress all the news coverage of Black History Month into one week, and put it on steroids? This week’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Don’t get me wrong. It is absolutely fitting to mark this event, and to pay homage to the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech ought to be remembered. We should honor the years of struggle that African-Americans endured to galvanize a nation. Their nonviolent protests were met with beatings, imprisonment and death, and those horrendous events were broadcast across the nation. Television journalism helped inform the conscience of a nation.
But what was lacking in the commemoration was the acknowledgment that the strides in racial equality also demanded political power. As dramatic and moving as the civil rights protests were, the prospects for legislative reform 50 years ago seemed dim, at least until the Southern Democrats’ hold on the Senate was broken.
Ignoring that fact meant that this week’s events were more about emotion than strategy and leadership. The reading and viewing public got a big dose of memories, leavened with cogent analysis of the continuing legacy of racism. It was in large part, about sharing memories. NPR’s “The Race Card Project,” offered us an intriguing glimpse into the feelings of average Americans about black-white relations.
Watching the broadcast coverage of the event, one was struck by the tens of thousands of people who gathered on a rain-soaked day, the speeches, and the songs.
But here’s one concern about all that coverage. The March was framed as the one event that changed the course of history, prompting the passage of landmark civil rights and voting rights laws.
No one wants to diminish the March’s impact. It was crucial to the advance of civil rights. But the media ill serves the civil rights movement and history when it implies that speeches and marches alone change history. King, and his colleagues sowed the seeds for reform, as did the hundreds of thousands of civil rights activists throughout the country. And civil rights leaders were acutely aware of the obstacles that stood in their way in Congress, and used the media as a vital tool to overcome some of those obstacles.