Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Changing Channels

Changing Channels: The Civil Rights Case that Transformed Television

Kay Mills
Copyright Date: 2004
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Changing Channels
    Book Description:

    In the years before the civil rights era, American broadcasting reflected the interests of the white mainstream, especially in the South. Today, the face of local television throughout the nation mirrors the diversity of the local populations.

    The impetus for change began in 1964, when the Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ and two black Mississippians, Aaron Henry and Reverend R. L. T. Smith, challenged the broadcasting license of WLBT, an NBC affiliate in Jackson, Mississippi. The lawsuit was the catalyst that would bring social reform to American broadcasting.

    This station in a city whose population was 40 percent black was charged with failure to give fair coverage to civil rights and to integration issues that were dominating the news. Among offenses cited by the black population were the cancellation of a network interview with the civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall and editorializing against the integration of the University of Mississippi.

    However, muscle, money, and a powerhouse Washington, D.C., law firm were on the side of the station. Despite the charges, the Federal Communications Commission twice renewed the station's license. Twice the challengers won appeals to the federal courts. Warren Burger, then a federal appeals court judge, wrote decisions on both challenges. The first ordered the FCC to allow public participation in its proceedings. The second, an unprecedented move, took the license from WLBT.

    This well-told, deeply researched history of the case covers the legal battles over their more than fifteen years and reports the ultimate victory for civil rights. Aaron Henry, a black civil rights leader and one of the plaintiffs, became the station's chairman of the board. WLBT's new manager, William Dilday, was the first black person in the South to hold such a position.

    Burger's decision on this Mississippi case had widescale repercussions, for it allowed community groups in other regions to challenge their stations and to negotiate for improved services and for the employment of minorities.

    Kay Mills is the author ofA Place in the News: From the Women's Pages to the Front Page,This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer,From Pocahontas to Power Suits: Everything You Need to Know about Women's History in America, andSomething Better for My Children: The History and People of Head Start. She lives in Santa Monica, California.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-604-5
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-2)
    (pp. 3-13)

    Young Willie Pinkston and his friends often gathered on Saturday afternoons around the black-and-white television set at a neighbor’s house to watchTeen Tempoon Channel 3, NBC affiliate WLBT. It was the mid-1950s, and Elvis was the rage. All the kids onTeen Tempowere white, and, frankly, they couldn’t dance. Or at least not dance the way the older girls in Willie’s group thought was cool. The girls knew all the dances, and they read the fan magazines. Willie was only six or seven at the time, and he and his young friends giggled at the dancers. “We’d...

    (pp. 14-57)

    WLBT-TV was a symbol. To many white people in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1950s and early 1960s, it was a sign of their progress. They had entered the world of television with a network-affiliated station that broadcast bandleader Mitch Miller’s show and other entertainment as well as news to much of the state. A major institution in town, Lamar Life Insurance Company, once run by writer Eudora Welty’s father, owned the station. To many black people in Jackson, WLBT was a sign of how little progress they had made. This new medium in town had no black staff members on...

    (pp. 58-83)

    Television was coming of age as America’s prime source of entertainment and news in the 1950s and early 1960s. But black actors could play only limited roles in television series—usually maids or chauffeurs. When they appeared on other programs, it was frequently as singers, dancers, or musicians. Local or network broadcasters rarely covered news about the black community until civil rights protests began.¹ The 1968Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorderschastened the media for failing to communicate “to a majority of their audience—which is white … a feeling for the difficulties and frustrations of...

    (pp. 84-106)

    WLBT won the first round. The challengers lost at the Federal Communications Commission on a 4-2 vote on May 19, 1965. The FCC renewed WLBT’s license, albeit for only one year. Although the commission found that WLBT had violated the Fairness Doctrine and had ignored the needs of its black audience, it would not go as far as revoking its license.¹ The station was still in business.

    No one should have expected otherwise. The commission was emerging from an era in which it had been “notorious for being the handmaiden of the industry,” as E. William “Bill” Henry, then chairman...

    (pp. 107-139)

    The Reverend Everett Parker and attorney Earle K. Moore met a mixed reaction when they arrived in Jackson in May 1967 for the hearing the appeals court had ordered. A white federal judge refused to allow use of his courtroom. At first, only challenger R. L. T. Smith had the nerve to sit at the table with Moore and his associates. Gradually, more blacks attended the hearing. But when black elevator operators at Parker’s and Moore’s hotel saw the pair lugging briefcases bulging with legal files, they whisked them to their floors.¹

    Political and social change had started to occur...

    (pp. 140-170)

    The South was not alone in facing racial tensions. By the summer of 1967 dozens of American cities had already seen pent-up frustrations erupt into riots in poor black neighborhoods. Early in July 1967 it was Newark, New Jersey’s turn. Forty-three people died later that month in rioting in Detroit. Roger Wilkins, a nephew of NAACP leader Roy Wilkins and at the time a Justice Department official, described the rioting as “an extension of the civil rights movement, not something different.” It was a jagged plea to the government, he said, from people whose lives of poverty had not changed...

    (pp. 171-199)

    One Sunday morning early in 1973, five young black men and women arrived at the First Baptist Church in downtown Jackson to attend worship services. Church deacons turned the young people away at the door—only whites attended First Baptist. Unbeknownst to the deacons, a camera crew from WLBT, acting on a tip, was hiding in nearby shrubbery, and the station aired the confrontation on its 6 p.m. news that evening.¹ This aggressive coverage of an issue involving race marked a major transformation at WLBT following its hiring of the nation’s first black station manager. It also marked change for...

    (pp. 200-240)

    No matter how sweeping, the changes at WLBT in the 1970s could have become only a footnote, albeit a historic one. Maintaining the station’s new look was by no means assured. That depended on who won the fight over the permanent license.

    In the early 1970s when the new licensing effort began, Jackson was still divided racially. Groups that had the money to assemble experienced broadcasters and pay attorneys in order to apply for the license at the Federal Communications Commission often were not racially integrated. Groups that might maintain the station’s integrated management and programming might not have had...

    (pp. 241-264)

    The WLBT case was a landmark in communications law. In the end, almost sixteen years of fighting yielded results that affected not only Jackson but also the entire nation. The challenge and the subsequent court decisions helped change the face of television and its regulation. At a critical time in U.S. history, federal regulators had to listen to citizens, not just to broadcasters. What Warren Burger had seen as the need for “audience participation” led to a new approach to regulation—one that allowed public pressure on the Federal Communications Commission and on broadcasters to improve content and reduce commercials...

    (pp. 265-268)

    By the beginning of the twenty-first century, WLBT remained the market leader in Jackson, especially dominating news broadcasting with forty-seven half hours a week. But the universe of television had changed, just as Jackson and Mississippi had changed. No longer were there just two channels serving the Mississippi capital. Cable stations abounded. To be sure, there were more roles for blacks on national television—but they seemed to be in situation comedies with only a few starring roles in dramas.¹ At WLBT, the staff was about 40 percent minority. Jackson had a black mayor and a black police chief. The...

    (pp. 269-272)
    (pp. 273-274)
  15. NOTES
    (pp. 275-300)
    (pp. 301-302)
  17. Index
    (pp. 303-313)