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The Civil Rights Movement and American Television in the 1960s

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The Civil Rights Movement and American Television in the 1960s
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  The Civil Rights Movement and American Television in the 1960s  Nadeem Fayaz  The 1960s saw rising protests and a string of law reforms as the civil rights movement gainedmomentum. During the 1960s, America was also at war in Vietnam against the communists and “Civilrights, antipoverty, and antiwar activists joined a cacophony of protest for social change.” 1  The rise of countercultures and the civil rights movement in particular, meant that African-American “strugglesreceived voluminous attention in news,” 2 but, Boyd explains thatin prime-time entertainment programming, […] American audiences saw a mostlywhitewashed world, with the dramas and sitcoms of the mid-50s and the mid-60s rarelyfeaturing non-white characters. 3 With the backdrop of protests for social change and the increasingly prominent civil rights movement,this essay intends to analyse the gradual appearance of black characters in prime-time entertainmentduring the 1960s and how, through their inclusion, television negotiated the demands and anxietiesassociated with the civil rights movement.“Heightened national consciousness, and media attention to the question of African-Americanrace relations and the place of African-Americans in American society” 4 was initiated by “Mediasavvy civil rights leaders” 5 who “effectively coordinated movement protests with television programming schedules to secure the widest coverage." 6 Consequently, television exposed police brutality against African-American children to the masses and segregation was turned into a nationalissue. Initially, television reflected this segregated society and the show,  Amos 'n' Andy (1951-53), 1BOYD, T. 2008. African Americans and Popular Culture: Theater, Film, and Television. ABC-CLIO. p.239.2BOYD, T. 2008. African Americans and Popular Culture: Theater, Film, and Television. ABC-CLIO. p.141.3Ibid.4Ibid.5BREAUX, R.M. 2004. Black, White, and in Color: Television and Black Civil Rights.  Journal of African American History, 89(1). p.89.6Ibid.   became the first program with an all black cast. Another notable show was  Beullah (1950-53), thefirst sitcom to star an African-American actress. However, these shows, as Acham explains:motivated African Americans, [...] to confront the television industry, because they believedthese programs harkened back to stereotypical notions of blackness and would have anegative impact on the black community seeking full integration. 7 The black community was indeed seeking full integration and a series of student sit-in protests,followed by an event in Mississippi where President Kennedy ordered in federal troops as riots brokeout because “James Meredith attempted to enroll as the first African-American to attend the state'sflagship campus” 8, ensured that their plight was in the national consciousness and not just treated as aregional issue. However, Boyd states:The Civil Rights Movement achieved one of its greatest moments – and its most significanttelevision moment – when all three networks pre-empted programming […] to carry live theMarch on Washington. 9 250,000 marched on Washington in 1963 and heard Martin Luther King, Jr's famous “I have adream...” speech, the event was significant not least because it was the first time that the networks“devoted so much time, effort, manpower, technology, and forfeited advertising revenue to such anevent” 10.  The news media's exposure of these events made it all the more warranted that the demandsand anxieties associated with the civil rights movement were a relevant enough theme to benegotiated in prime time television sitcoms in a more accurate way than the portrayals of African-American life in  Amos 'n' Andy and  Beullah of the 1950s. 7ACHAM, C. 2004. Revolution Televised: Prime Time and the Struggle for Black Power. University of MinnesotaPress. p.6.8BOYD, T. 2008. African Americans and Popular Culture: Theater, Film, and Television. ABC-CLIO. p.144.9BOYD, T. 2008. African Americans and Popular Culture: Theater, Film, and Television. ABC-CLIO. p.147.10Ibid.  Indicative of the success of the civil rights movement in making their voices heard, Boydexplains that by 1963 the twin force of the Civil Rights Movement and the now fully committed KennedyAdministration managed to convince the networks that they could no longer afford to ignorewhat was fast becoming the nation's number one domestic sociopolitical preoccupation. 11 To prevent further escalation, perhaps Kennedy encouraged networks to present African-Americans ina more positive light before the problem attracts more international attention. Thus, integration rather than segregation could be promoted on television and relayed into society. Indeed, In July 1963 “CBSinstructed program producers and creators that "Negroes should be adequately and accurately" portrayed.” 12 In 1965, NBC introduced  I Spy , a show using the 'bi-racial buddy' formula through the partnership of two spies, Robert Culp as Kelly Robinson and Bill Cosby as Alexander Scott. Shot inforeign locations, the double-act keep a close eye against global communist influence. Contrary to thestereotypical portrayals of African-Americans in  Amos 'n' Andy , 'Scotty' is represented assophisticated and equally as capable an agent as Kelly. Kelly's interactions and experiences withScotty show no signs of racial or cultural difference. The show is silent on the racial conflict taking place during the mid-60s when "A landmark civil rights bill was passed by Congress in 1964 andsigned into law, only to be followed by urban rioting that set cities ablaze" 13 .Although the CivilRights Act was passed, "Nothing approaching the sums and institutions necessary to eradicate povertyand racism was ever committed by the government." 14 The fact that  I Spy was set in foreign locationsand used mild humour, perhaps enabled the show to present this utopian fantasy of integrationoblivious to events such as the violent Watts riots taking place at home. On the other hand, perhaps it 11BOYD, T. 2008. African Americans and Popular Culture: Theater, Film, and Television. ABC-CLIO. p.150.12Ibid.13MONACO, P. 2001. History of the American cinema: 1960-1969. The sixties, 8(1). University of California Press. p.5.14SALES, W. 1994. From Civil Rights to Black Liberation: Malcolm X and the Organization of Afro-American Unity.South End Press. p.9.  was these very riots that motivated the shows producers to portray a reassuring image of whatAmerica stands for and what it can be, racially equal and united in its fight against the communists.However, racially equal it was not. Dudziak states: In addressing civil rights reform from 1946 through the mid-1960s, the federal governmentengaged in a sustained effort to tell a particular story about race and American democracy: astory of progress, a story of triumph of good over evil, a story of U.S. moral superiority. 15 This 'story' fits in well with the narrative and with the setting of   I Spy. It works, to some extent, to justify their fight against the communists and to defend the West's 'superior' way of life. It wasimportant to address America's image overseas because the racial conflict at home was drawingcriticisms from prominent black figures abroad. This, perhaps partly due to the formation of theOrganisation of Afro-American Unity headed by Malcolm X who after leaving the Nation of 'Islam',urged for the civil rights movement to be considered more as a human rights movement in order togain international support, “If the OAU could work, Africa and its diaspora would have anorganisational link.” 16 Malcolm X's desire to appeal to the international community was perhaps anindication that “The monopoly of the nation's attention enjoyed by the Civil Rights movementdisappeared as rival movements emerged around opposition to the war” 17 . This opposition was aconcern for the civil rights movement because the Vietnam war made “policymakers doubt that theycould afford racial democracy at home while funding major military efforts abroad.” 18  With this beingthe context that surrounded  I Spy , it is evident that the show rejects African inspired alternatives for  building a sense of identity because racial equality is fused with patriotism, this is demonstrated whenScotty scolds black athlete Patrick Henry in the episode, 'So Long, Patrick Henry', for turning his 15DUDZIAK, M.L. 2002. Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. Princeton UniversityPress. p.13.16SALES, W. 1994. From Civil Rights to Black Liberation: Malcolm X and the Organization of Afro-American Unity.South End Press. p.102.17SALES, W. 1994. From Civil Rights to Black Liberation: Malcolm X and the Organization of Afro-American Unity.South End Press. p.44.18Ibid.   back on his country. Scotty argues for America, “Holding the world together with one hand and tryingto clean their own house with the other.” Scotty is a scholar fluent in seven languages. The show promotes the ideology of individualism enabling one to achieve success in life whilst rejectingstructural inequality and institutional racism because race is not portrayed as a barrier to self achievement.  I Spy, then, takes the liberal pluralist approach backed by Martin Luther King, Jr thatwould use the system's own rules to correct it. Boyd claims that the show presented audiences with “arepresentation of blackness that was so superior and so accomplished that it could not possibly offendanyone” 19 , perhaps ignoring the ongoing suffering of African-Americans at home and projecting afantastical image on screen was offensive in itself. On the other hand, perhaps the show negotiated thedemands and anxieties associated with the civil rights movement by presenting an image of anAfrican-American that was not seen before on television. Promoting ideas that African-Americanshave the same capabilities and deserve the same rights as white America.In 1968, NBC aired  Julia. “  Julia was the first situation comedy to place a black character inthe sole starring role since  Amos 'n' Andy and  Beulah had both been cancelled in 1953.” 20 The arrivalof the show “was a watershed moment in television history.” 21 The starring role was played byDiahann Carroll, “an active supporter of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.” 22 In the sameyear that  Julia was broadcast, Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated and to some extent, the civilrights movement was reinvigorated after beginning to falter. Born out of this renewed determination,  Julia “dealt with issues of discrimination and prejudice on a regular basis in a way that  I Spy didnot.” 23 The character, Julia, is a widowed nurse living in a suburban apartment with her child son,Corey. The 1968 Fair Housing Act perhaps alluded to, here. Julia's husband was slain in the U.S.assault on Vietnam. In 'Revolution Not Televised', Acham quotes Diahann Carroll as saying: “To 19BOYD, T. 2008. African Americans and Popular Culture: Theater, Film, and Television. ABC-CLIO. p.152.20ACHAM, C. 2004. Revolution Televised: Prime Time and the Struggle for Black Power. University of MinnesotaPress. p.114.21Ibid.22ACHAM, C. 2004. Revolution Televised: Prime Time and the Struggle for Black Power. University of MinnesotaPress. p.117.23BOYD, T. 2008. African Americans and Popular Culture: Theater, Film, and Television. ABC-CLIO. p.158.
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