50 Years After Little Rock: The Media and the Movement
Black Ink on White Pages Sheds Light on Struggle for Civil Rights
By Emily Hedges, Newseum assistant editor
- Dorothy Gilliam, first female African-American journalist at The Washington Post
- Gene Roberts, professor of journalism at the University of Maryland and former managing editor of The New York Times
- Frank Bond, Newseum producer, moderator
On Sept. 4, 1957, Elizabeth Eckford, the member of the Little Rock Nine who tried to enter Central High School alone, was surrounded by angry people shouting racial epithets and threats. TV news coverage of her rescue from the mob “had a major impact on America,” a former New York Times editor and author says.
“For the first time, America was seeing racial conflict brought into the home, at the dinner table,” said Gene Roberts, who worked as chief Southern and civil rights correspondent for The New York Times and wrote The Race Beat, a book about the press coverage of the civil rights movement. “The first instance of that was the Elizabeth Eckford story.”
Roberts, along with Dorothy Gilliam, who covered the Little Rock integration for Memphis’ Tri-State Defender, discussed the impact of the media on the civil rights movement at a program sponsored by the Newseum and the National Archives. Newseum producer Frank Bond moderated the discussion.
Although the coverage of large newspapers and network TV news helped bring the issue to the forefront, Gilliam said that the efforts of the black press can’t be underestimated.
“There had been such a long period of exclusion of blacks by the white press,” Gilliam said. “This story was so big — bigger than TV, bigger than the black press, bigger than the white press.
“The civil rights movement could not have occurred with the ferocity that it did without the black press.”
On Sept. 24, President Dwight Eisenhower put the Arkansas National Guard troops under federal control and sent U.S. Army Airborne troops to Little Rock to enforce integration as ordered by a Supreme Court decision three years earlier. The Arkansas troops stayed at the high school for the entire school year. The governor closed all of Little Rock’s high schools for the 1958–1959 school year.
Newseum visitors will learn more about the pivotal role journalists played in the civil rights movement in the News History gallery and the Internet, TV and Radio gallery.