Watching Jim Crow

The Struggles over Mississippi TV, 1955–1969

Watching Jim Crow

Console-ing Passions: Television and Cultural Power

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Book Pages: 288 Illustrations: 8 illus. Published: March 2004

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, American Studies, Media Studies > TV

In the early 1960s, whenever the Today Show discussed integration, wlbt-tv, the nbc affiliate in Jackson, Mississippi, cut away to local news after announcing that the Today Show content was “network news . . . represent[ing] the views of the northern press.” This was only one part of a larger effort by wlbt and other local stations to keep African Americans and integrationists off Jackson’s television screens. Watching Jim Crow presents the vivid story of the successful struggles of African Americans to achieve representation in the tv programming of Jackson, a city many considered one of the strongest bastions of Jim Crow segregation. Steven D. Classen provides a detailed social history of media activism and communications policy during the civil rights era. He focuses on the years between 1955—when Medgar Evers and the naacp began urging the two local stations, wlbt and wjtv, to stop censoring African Americans and discussions of integration—and 1969, when the U.S. Court of Appeals issued a landmark decision denying wlbt renewal of its operating license.

During the 1990s, Classen conducted extensive interviews with more than two dozen African Americans living in Jackson, several of whom, decades earlier, had fought to integrate television programming. He draws on these interviews not only to illuminate their perceptions—of the civil rights movement, what they accomplished, and the present as compared with the past—but also to reveal the inadequate representation of their viewpoints in the legal proceedings surrounding wlbt’s licensing. The story told in Watching Jim Crow has significant implications today, not least because the Telecommunications Act of 1996 effectively undid many of the hard-won reforms achieved by activists—including those whose stories Classen relates here.


Watching Jim Crow provides a clear demonstration of the power of television, and its ability to both reinforce and challenge existing power structures.” — M/C Reviews

“Classen breathes new life into a subject that has been discussed and analyzed in many texts relaying media history.” — Shannon Gore , Jump Cut

“Classen provides a thorough, engaging, and lively history that clearly demonstrates American television’s social and political relevance throughout its relatively short history. His text provides a potent illustration of the manner in which television is discursively constituted, and it tells a memorable story of Jackson’s struggle for integration within and beyond broadcast media.” — Travis Vogan, Film & History

“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. . . . Watching Jim Crow provides new perspectives on media and civil rights.” — Stephanie R. Rolp, H-Net Reviews

“Overall, [Classen’s] book is engaging and provocative, and its conclusions provide important insights that are applicable to the Mississippi phase of the civil rights movement and beyond.” — Cynthia Griggs Fleming , American Historical Review

"Watching Jim Crow adds another perspective on the role of the media during the civil rights era and encourages students of the movement to continue to record the influence of television on American behavior. As such, it is a worthwhile addition to the literature in this field." — William P. Hustwit , H-1960s, H-Net Reviews

"Watching Jim Crow is a work that students of the Civil Rights Movement, and those interested in the social and political role of the media, should have in their personal libraries. It documents how local residents confronted federal and local institutions that were clearly on the wrong side of civil rights issues; and more importantly, it demonstrates how subjective and duplicitous television broadcasting can be. This lesson should not be lost on today's viewers." — Stefan Bradley , Journal of African American History

"[A] fascinating study that takes the Southern battle for civil rights into the arena of television and public entertainment. . . . [A] compelling narrative. . . ." — Jane Rhodes , Journal of American Ethnic History

"[A]n original, important work. . . . [W]ell-documented and insightful. . . . [T]his book should be of interest to students of the media as well as historians and others focusing on the civil rights era. . . . I applaud the extensive effort and additional research [Classen] has done to flesh out the full story of media activism in the context of the civil rights era. He provides readers interested in this volatile time a comprehensive, detailed account of the stations, their policies, the struggle to change programming, and the fight to integrate both of them. . . . Watching Jim Crow vividly reminds scholars that the study of television presents ways to understand society and ourselves. I heartily recommend this book for those who want a dynamic look at civil rights, television, and American culture." — Louise Benjamin and Janice Hume, Journalism History

"[Classen's] account and his extracts from interviews work close to the ground and provide a rich background. . . ." — James Boylan , Columbia Journalism Review

"[E]nlightening. . . . Classen tells a multidimensional story about conflicting discourses that various actors played out on in the realms of culture and law. . . ." — James C. Foster , Law and Politics Book Review

"[F]ascinating. . . . Classen . . . does a magnificently interdisciplinary job of focusing on the issues of voice and voicelessness so crucial to the case and its historical context. . . . Classen also makes innovative use of oral history. [The book] does much to uncover the ongoing significance of mass media in history and politics." — Rachel Ida Buff , Journal of Southern History

"[Y]ields fresh insights into the methods of both protestors and such defenders of segregation as the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. . . . Recommended."

— M. J. Birkner , Choice

"Classen's use of interviews is one of the strengths of the book. . . . [T]horough and insightful. . . . [H]ighly recommended." — Calvin L. Hall , Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly

"Through his use of candid interviews and other fieldwork, Classen resurrects the memories of African Americans who survived the violent era in which Whites terrorized African Americans for reporting the racial intolerance being fed to the public by WLBT and other stations. . . .Classen highlights the bravery and perseverance of Mississippi civil rights activists, including many women and students, to change WLBT and other stations outside of the courtroom. . . . [This study] demonstrate[s] the manner in which regular people were able to use the law to create a powerful voice on broadcast issues." — Carrie Solages, Crisis

Watching Jim Crow is a highly original, sophisticated, and important piece of scholarship that will undoubtedly influence a variety of fields ranging from legal theory to cultural studies. One of the most striking things about this work is the compelling way it crosses barriers that have blinkered both scholarly and commonsense thinking about law, media, and culture.” — Thomas Streeter, author of Selling the Air: A Critique of the Policy of Commercial Broadcasting in the United States

“Watching Jim Crow is a powerful blend of memory, history, and careful analysis. For those who lived through the days and years chronicled here, especially those of us who lived in the places Steven D. Classen studies, the memories are painful, the history is precise, the analysis essential. Classen’s strong recognition that television is something people do is a challenge not only for scholars, but for policymakers and citizens who recognize how much remains to be done.” — Horace Newcomb, director of the George Foster Peabody Awards at the University of Georgia


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Steven D. Classen is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at California State University, Los Angeles.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Reconstruction 1

1: Broadcast Foundations 31

2: Consuming Civil Rights

3: Trouble around the Ponderosa 75

4: Programming/Regulating Whiteness 107

5: Blacking out: Remembering TV and the Sixties

6: Not Forgetting 174

Appendix: Chronology 197

Notes 205

Bibliography 245

Index 263
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Winner, 2004 McGannon Research Award

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3341-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3329-6
Publicity material