By AUDREY FISCHER
Journalists looked back five decades at media coverage of the Brown v. Board case and the civil rights movement that the decision helped spark in a program sponsored jointly by the Library of Congress and the Newseum. The program was presented on May 17 in conjunction with the opening of the Library's exhibition "'With an Even Hand': Brown v. Board at Fifty."
"Media had one of its finest days," said former Washington Post reporter Dorothy Gilliam, referring to May 17, 1954, the day the Brown decision was handed down. Gilliam was the first black woman journalist at the Washington Post when she joined the staff in 1961.
"The Brown case was the first story about the black community that the white press covered," said Gilliam, "with the exception of crime reporting." She continued, "It was not benign neglect but conscious denigration."
Gilliam credits the black press for covering events and issues of interest to the black community for centuries. According to Gilliam, the civil rights movement would not have had the power it had if not for coverage by the black press, particularly in the period 1910-1950. She also credits television news coverage for igniting the movement, recalling the images of fire hoses and barking dogs being unleashed on protesters.
George Collins, former reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American, recalled the climate of the newsroom on the day the Brown decision was handed down.
"We knew it was coming down," said Collins, "so we were gearing up to get the reaction from official Baltimore and official Maryland."
Collins credits "progressive and enlightened leadership in City Hall and Annapolis" for containing the threat of violence. "Maryland prided itself on being a law-abiding state," he said.
William Taylor, a former member of Thurgood Marshall's legal team, had a bird's-eye view of the Brown case.
"It was the luckiest professional day of my life," Collins said, speaking of his one-year internship that led to a permanent job working for Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc.
"He had almost a religious faith in the law," recalled Collins, speaking of the man who would one day be appointed to the Supreme Court.
"The Brown case was about ending the racial caste system that had existed in America since the end of slavery," observed Collins.
Legal historian Mary Dudziak brought an international perspective to the discussion. Unlike the mainstream press in the United States, the international press offered extensive coverage of the race issue in America. During the period of the Cold War, when America was touting its model form of government, the foreign press reported on the apparent contradiction in its unequal treatment of its black citizens.
"The Soviets seized on the practice of racial segregation as a tool against the U.S.," observed Dudziak. However, according to Dudziak, U.S. allies as well as enemies reported on race in America.
"U.S. diplomats tried hard to ‘spin' the story," said Dudziak, "pointing out the level of change that occurred between 1865 and 1955, using the Brown case to reinforce the story."
According to Dudziak, some in the highest levels of the federal government, including President John F. Kennedy, knew that the Brown case was essential to the success of the Cold War.
"The leader of the free world couldn't just talk about change but had to demonstrate actual progress," said Dudziak.
Dudziak noted the chilling parallels to today's headlines about U.S. treatment of Iraqi prisoners. "What's in America's heart and soul can be seen everywhere American power is exercised."
In a heated discussion, the panel debated the long-term impact of the Brown decision.
"This should be a period of lamentation, not celebration," said Collins, referring to the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision. "What happened to the glorious promise of Brown?" he asked, voicing his concern about a preponderance in Congress of "those who are diametrically opposed to the goals of Brown."
Taylor vehemently disagreed. "Anyone who thinks the world isn't greatly changed hasn't been paying attention," he said.
Collins countered by inviting Taylor to visit small towns in the South. "Until all folks are enjoying economic privilege, then the promise of Brown has not been fulfilled," he said.
In his concluding remarks, panel moderator Frank Bond, producer and announcer for the Newseum, observed: "The Brown decision obviously can still spark serious debate 50 years later."
Audrey Fischer is a public affairs specialist in the Library's Public Affairs Office. The Library's Brown v. Board exhibition and its programming were made possible by the support of AARP, Anthony and Beatrice Welters, and AmeriChoice, a UnitedHealth Group Company.