Civil Rights Era Almost Split CBS News Operation

Walter Cronkite recalls CBS-TV coverage of civil rights in the 1950s, and how it threatened to divide the news department from network management.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

Tonight, ABC's "Nightline" will devote its program to reading the names of US servicemen and women who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last year. When "Nightline" did the same thing last year, several independent affiliates refused to carry the broadcast. That conflict between local stations and network news operations resonated with veteran newsman Walter Cronkite. He recalls a similar situation at CBS during the early days of the civil rights movement.

WALTER CRONKITE reporting:

Early in 1943, I reported a bombing raid over Germany. In my lead, I wrote that I had just come back from an assignment of hell. But no one attacked our stories because they lacked objectivity. If neutrality is the test of integrity in journalism, then we failed in our duty to accord the Nazis fair and balanced coverage. Ten years later, it was not so simple. As CBS began to cover the challenge to legally enforce segregation in the South, no reporter would have described the dateline from Alabama as an assignment from hell. This was a story that sharply split the audience on which CBS depended. During my career, probably no story challenged my ethics of journalism more than the civil rights story.

It began in May 1954 from the bench of the US Supreme Court and was reported by, among others, Ed Murrow.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Mr. ED MURROW (Reporter): The unanimous ruling against racial segregation in the public schools by the Supreme Court yesterday will have an impact which cannot, at this time, be calculated. It counts substantially in the great conflict of ideas which now divides and dominates the world.

CRONKITE: If Murrow viewed the impact of desegregation with uncertainty, CBS executives sensed a more immediate concern. Their job was to gather an audience and sell it to advertisers, few of whom made distinctions over where their customers' money came from. In the 1950s, CBS chairman William Paley didn't want to alienate his Southern affiliates whose defection could weaken CBS ratings and revenues. Those of us who would do the reporting would feel caught in a rare dilemma between commerce and journalism.

(Soundbite of "See It Now")

Unidentified Man #1: Now speaking to you from the actual control room of Studio 41 is the editor of "See It Now," Edward R. Murrow.

Mr. MURROW: Good evening.

CRONKITE: The opening skirmishes were legalist and sedate; the coverage measured. A week after the decision, CBS' "See It Now" took the first important sounding of Southern reaction. But with federal marshals still in the future, the argument was courteous and dispassionate. The real adversary was the law itself. It loomed declared and imminent but not yet mobilized, so the South was respectfully heard. Whites expressed regret over the decision, but not hostility.

(Soundbite of "See It Now")

Mr. MURROW: We start with Dave Gillespie of the Gaston Citizen.

Mr. DAVE GILLESPIE (Gaston Citizen): Our greatest need at the moment is levelheadedness. Whites of the South should not panic. The matter of educating the Negro is only one facet of the question, but the manner in which we handle it, under the principles of the Constitution, will set the pace for the solution of other phases of the so-called Negro problem.

CRONKITE: Murrow's camera went into white classrooms as teachers explained the decision and asked their students for reactions.

(Soundbite of "See It Now")

Unidentified Woman #1: Our court has said that the doctrine of equal but separate public school education has no place. What do you think about this decision?

Unidentified Boy #1: Well, I feel as the majority of the Southerners do that this decision is like a cloud coming over our South land.

Unidentified Girl #1: And I'm against the Negroes and the whites going to school together. I think that we, as white people, have developed an air of superiority over their race. And I think it would cause for a split in both races if they mix and mingle because some of them couldn't come up to meet our standards.

CRONKITE: Black teachers asked their students the same question.

(Soundbite of "See It Now")

Unidentified Man #2: On Monday, May the 17th, Chief Justice Warren ruled out segregation. Well now, we hear what ideas you have on the Supreme Court decision.

Unidentified Girl #2: I think that we, as Negroes, can get a broader education and can advance farther than we have in the past.

Unidentified Boy #2: In my opinion, I think that decision is one of the most wonderfulest things that happened in America, and especially in the South, in the last 50 years.

CRONKITE: "See It Now" visited a town meeting in Louisiana. It was attended by whites and blacks in segregated seating.

(Soundbite of "See It Now")

Unidentified Woman #2: And I believe these people, our colored people, will agree that Louisiana has done all they could to give equal opportunities to all people regardless of color, race or creed. But I don't believe they want to go to our white schools. They want to have their own schools and not mix in with the whites.

CRONKITE: A notion that enforced segregation nurtured equal opportunity may a seem a clear contradiction today, but it would have been impolite to point that out so early. Those to whom it was obvious didn't need to be reminded. Those who saw no contradiction didn't need to be angered. That would come soon enough in Clinton, Tennessee.

(Soundbite of "See It Now")

Mr. MURROW: 9:00 on the morning of December 4, 1956, was conceivably the darkest hour of the worst day in Clinton's history. The Reverend Paul Turner, a Baptist, was beaten up after escorting six Negro youths to school. There were witnesses.

CRONKITE: As the infant civil rights movement took its first blood, CBS took another look at segregation. In "Clinton and the Law," Murrow described a town divided between compliance and increasingly active resistance. Tempers were hotter and the language noticeably less guarded.

(Soundbite of "Clinton and the Law")

Unidentified Man #3: This minister, he went up on the hill to bring the niggers down to school, and then my understanding was that the niggers wasn't supposed to come to school that morning.

CRONKITE: Desegregation was still a relatively minor story in 1956, but CBS management was so sensitive to Southern reaction, it reportedly offered Southern affiliates an opportunity to prescreen the program prior to air. Through much of the South, court orders were being obeyed without incident or television coverage. It was the exceptions that became the news. In a review of the year's events, I noted that there was steady progress...

(Soundbite of news report)

CRONKITE: (From vintage tape) ...toward integration. Most of it was accomplished quietly, soberly and without fanfare. But as in the years past, there was violent objection to mixing the races, and it can be said the issue is hardened. Howard K. Smith reports.

CRONKITE: Howard K. Smith had been born and raised in Louisiana, became a Rhodes scholar at Oxford and spent 20 years in Europe for United Press and CBS. But he understood the South as only an insider could. In 1957, Smith's reporting from Little Rock, Arkansas, helped turn that city into the first global symbol of racist resistance and violence in the United States. My duties at CBS then were confined to New York, anchoring the Sunday news and a documentary series, "The 20th Century." I regret that I saw few of the early desegregation battles firsthand, but on the "CBS Evening News," Smith began to show America a face of the South it had never before seen. In September, Governor Orville Faubus' open defiance of the courts became a siren call to the mob.

(Soundbite of news report)

Mr. HOWARD K. SMITH (Reporter): Little Rock waited through a tense weekend to see what would happen on Monday when classes resumed and nine Negroes tried to enter Central High. The worst happened.

Unidentified Man #4: Come on, man.

Unidentified Man #5: There you go!

Unidentified Man #4: Chickenhearted!

Unidentified Man #5: What's the matter with you?

Unidentified Man #4: Come on, let's go!

Unidentified Man #6: Let's go! Let's go!

Mr. SMITH: Encouraged by the stand taken by Governor Faubus, the anti-integration forces rioted outside the school. Some even enjoyed what they saw.

(Soundbite of cheers)

Unidentified Man #7: Well, I just saw the cars as they was passing here and the rocks flying. I don't know who was throwing them, but some of them was hitting the new automobiles, hitting people. Everybody was having a good time.

Unidentified Boy #3: We destroyed about seven new car windshields and bust windows and everything, hitting niggers on the heads with sticks.

Unidentified Boy #4: Everybody was hitting niggers with rocks.

Mr. SMITH: The prejudices and fears of the parents were transmitted to the children.

Unidentified Boy #3: I am not going to school as long as they--the niggers go to white schools. 'Cause the niggers, when they go, they might have some dangerous weapons put on them.

CRONKITE: Images like these ended all rational debate about race in the United States. Moderates seemed to vanish and zealots became the symbols of Southern resistance. Network television began to draw Southern fire. It became another one of the so-called outside agitators, stirring up discontent and telling Southern secrets. Correspondents and their crews sometimes felt like soldiers behind enemy lines. Some became open targets. Angry demonstrators taunted them and Southern CBS affiliates complained to New York of biased reporting favoring blacks. During breaking stories, mysterious technical troubles conveniently sabotaged reporters' communications with their networks. CBS executives in New York grew nervous for another reason: Threats by Southern affiliates to leave the network sent tremors through management. But basic human decency was making editorial neutrality futile. Not since World War II had right and wrong seemed so clear cut. Howard K. Smith.

(Soundbite of news report)

Mr. SMITH: So as 1958 ends, the issue is still the same: Is the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court the law of the land, or may a small vocal and sometimes violent segment of the country be allowed to deny some citizens their basic right to freedom and equality?

CRONKITE: Smith soon clashed directly with CBS Chairman Paley. Paley viewed the dilemma from a business perspective. All the journalism awards in the world would not save CBS if it lost its Southern stations. Smith left the network shortly thereafter, taking many of his awards with him. But no amount of editorial neutrality could now rescue the South from itself. By 1962, the resistance had sunk to flat-out terrorism, and Southern principles of states' rights were stripped of their last political and moral cover. Even Southern affiliate stations lost their stomach for attacking network coverage. Some began to vent their anger over our Vietnam stories.

In March, I took over the "CBS Evening News" as anchor and managing editor. CBS management may have continued to worry, but during the climatic events of the civil rights movement ahead, there would never be the slightest interference with our coverage of them. Ironically, it was the fiercest enemies of integration who would ensure its triumph. For NPR News, this is Walter Cronkite.

BLOCK: What will this summer sound like? We'll get picks for the songs of the season next on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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