Sixty years ago this week, in May 1961, Freedom Riders rolled into Montgomery, Alabama, in an effort to end racial segregation in a South still fighting the Civil War.
And as in every other major social issue from war to peace, reporters were there to chronicle the problem, and to show the whole world what racial injustice was really like.
But until the news media really got involved in the story, the lynchings, beatings and police dogs were merely small local stories, unconnected with each other. Brutality was seen only in the abstract and in a kind of disembodied body count, “14 students were injured today in what was supposed to be a nonviolent demonstration.”
But then, day after day on the evening news, the nation, and world, saw real people, black and white, being clubbed and attacked.
Of course, not all media or reporters favored integration.
On WLBT, of Jackson, Mississippi, every time a civil rights story was run on the network news, the station mysteriously experienced “technical difficulties” that lasted until the story was over. But WLBT eventually lost its license for being unresponsive to the community, so even those racist actions had a positive outcome.
It is illustrative of the impact the reporters were having when we see they themselves became targets of police brutality. “Get the camera” became almost a first-strike necessity before proceeding with “normal” head-bashing taking place.
Police officers were seen removing their badges so they could not be identified on camera. Reporters were seen by officials as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.
The Freedom Riders, and all of the coverage of the civil rights movement, vividly showed the importance of a free and responsible press in promoting social justice and welfare.
But of course, this is a two-edged sword. The same media that covered the Freedom Riders, are the same media that must be allowed to show the human failures of social icons and those we, and the media, make into temporary heroes.
Reporters are supposed to give us the whole story, both the good and the bad. Without that freedom, the gains won by the Freedom Riders are made null and void.
I’m Larry Burriss