Steven D. Classen. Watching Jim Crow: The Struggles over Mississippi TV, 1955-1969. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 195 pp. $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8223-3341-8.
Reviewed by Stephanie R. Rolph (Mississippi State University)
Published on Jhistory (May, 2007)
Scholarship on the actions of the southern media in relation to the black freedom struggle in the South has recently begun to bloom. David R. Davies's The Press and Race: Mississippi Journalists Confront the Movement (2001), Kay Mills's recent work, Changing Channels: The Civil Rights Case That Transformed Television (2004), and Brian Ward's acclaimed Radio and the Struggle for Civil Rights in the South (2004) have all investigated the importance of southern media outlets both supportive of and opposed to the civil rights movement. Steven D. Classen's Watching Jim Crow: The Struggles Over Mississippi TV, 1955-1969 is a welcome addition to this field. While other scholarship has focused on media production, reception, or regulation, Classen's work integrates all three, effectively recognizing the interaction of media, culture, and public policy as a more appropriate "holistic" approach to our understanding of this dynamic period of social change and media effectiveness.
Watching Jim Crow details the relationship between the civil rights movement and TV in the South through the history of Jackson, Mississippi's NBC affiliate, WLBT, during the most crucial years of the civil rights struggle, 1955-69. As the second-oldest television station in the state, WLBT aired its first broadcast in December 1955, emerging as a powerbase for white privilege and resistance to the civil rights movement. Known for "blacking out" national coverage of civil rights demonstrations with claims of "technical difficulties" as well as refusing to carry network programs with black guests, WLBT often featured pro-segregationist platforms through such venues as the Citizens' Council "Forum," a weekly program featuring interviews with prominent segregationist leaders from around the South. In addition, the station also provided time on its local news broadcasts for editorials promoting the segregationist message. Classen's research examines the programming choices leading up to the eventual licensing battle, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) review of the station. Indeed, it details the nuts and bolts involved in organizing complaints against WLBT and the actions of both the FCC and U.S. Court of Appeals that eventually resulted in the station's loss of its license renewal application in June 1969. Such complaints involved frequent interruptions in the "Today Show" whenever national news segments appeared that covered regional civil rights activity. WLBT also refused to broadcast episodes of the TV shows "Bonanza" or "The Rifleman" when episodes featured black guest stars. Racial epithets or intentional mispronunciations of "Negro" on the station's news programs were common, while integrationist points of view likely to counter the station's frequent segregationist editorials were nonexistent.
While Kay Mills's Changing Channels looks at the legal history of the landmark 1966 decision Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ v. FCC, Classen's work focuses on the interactive process of media, culture, and policymaking. In addition to his attention to the legal process, Classen includes numerous oral histories, devoting an entire chapter to interviews he conducted with members of Jackson's black community who witnessed the transformation of the station. The inclusion of these interviews provides the reader with an opportunity to see the changes through a much more localized and individual point of view, moving us beyond issues of policy and regulation and into actual human reaction to these changes. Contextualizing the role of local media, these interviews appropriately draw out the lived experiences of local black residents and fill in the blanks of a history that has little or no paper trail. Classen's interview with Barbara Barber and her niece Jeanne Middleton, both longtime Jackson residents, is revelatory of the richness of these memories. After being questioned about the "Nat King Cole Show," Barber notes that the station was unlikely to play anything like that show and describes the frequent technical difficulties that occurred when blacks appeared on a program or news show:
"Barber: Whenever a black person would come on in any kind of a positive role…
Middleton: Anything about black people.
Classen: Like in a network news program?
Middleton: Yes, something would happen to the television.... And it just used to happen, so it was like a little in-house joke: 'Oh, it must have been something about black people, because they're messing up the TV'" (pp. 150-151).
Classen's third chapter, "Trouble around the Ponderosa," is perhaps his most effective, however. In it, he moves away from chronicling the slanted news coverage that eventually made up a bulk of the complaints brought to the FCC and details what he deems the more significant part of the civil rights activity in Jackson: attacks on public entertainment venues. Classen argues that while the campaign against WLBT and the legal process through which it meandered were protracted and uncertain, chipping away at local spaces of entertainment for whites was a much more effective and controversial way to expose the lack of cohesiveness within the segregationist power structure. Protesting the segregated nature of entertainment venues in Jackson, local blacks faithfully executed letter-writing campaigns and set up private meetings between local civil rights activists and television executives, resulting in both the "Hootenany" and "Bonanza" casts canceling Jackson performances at the last minute, an action that enraged the white community. In other words, deprived of access to the air waves, civil rights activists brought the movement to their white neighbors through spaces of popular culture. This aspect of the movement is one that has rarely been addressed adequately and opens up a number of new sources through which media historians can examine the intersection of society and culture, between those with power and those without.
Classen's final chapter is a reflective assessment of Jackson television in the post-civil rights years. In June 1969, the U.S. Court of Appeals denied WLBT's license and the station soon went through an interim period under the management of Communications Improvement Incorporated; then, in 1979, it came under the permanent management of a group of local Jacksonians, with 51 percent of the control belonging to black individuals. Classen's interviews with WLBT employees who witnessed the transformation of those years reveal an unfortunate nostalgia that comes from those who fear they will never see such triumphs again. For the first time, the station hired minorities and featured programs that represented the interests of the black citizens in its market. As Classen reveals, however, WLBT went the way of a number of other locally owned stations and eventually became a part of a larger media corporation, resulting in a reversal of many of its gains. Interviews with local black citizens detail the disappointment this most recent transition has caused, leaving many to claim that WLBT does not adequately represent black interests within the Jackson community.
Classen's contribution to the field provides a new model in media history. His attention to sources is detailed and comprehensive, satisfying to both historians and theoreticians, as he effectively uses media theory, legal documents, station records, and oral accounts to provide the most integrative approach to such a complex study.While his language is at times highly theoretical, his decision to alternate treatments of culture and policy provides readers with an appreciation of the intersection between individuals and the institutions under which they are expected to act. Widening WLBT's licensing battle beyond legal jargon and FCC regluations gives the reader a sense of the full scope of organized resistance to institutions of white privilege, facilitating our understanding of the relationship between news media and popular culture.
Watching Jim Crow provides new perspectives on media and civil rights. Classen's contention that media concerns fell relatively low on the priority list of black activists in Jackson, Mississippi, actually makes his work all the more provocative in that it promotes the idea of the "big picture" in our understanding of social change and those who foment or oppose it. He gives voice to those who, unfortunately, still travel along the margins of our accounts of this period, placing them firmly within the push/pull of race and privilege.
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Stephanie R. Rolph. Review of Classen, Steven D., Watching Jim Crow: The Struggles over Mississippi TV, 1955-1969.
Jhistory, H-Net Reviews.
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