Media Coverage Of Big-City Northern School Integration Efforts Was Deeply Flawed, Says New Book

Above: Black teenager talks to ABC News reporter asking if there is going to be violence during the NYC School boycott of February 1964. (There wasn’t any.)

One of the most interesting things about my recent phone interview with historian Matt Delmont (whose second book comes out next month) was learning about the role that he says mainstream media coverage played in the lack of widespread public understanding of the civil rights movement as it played out in the northern states.

Delmont’s book, WHY BUSING FAILED: Race, Media, and the National Resistance to School Desegregation, is coming out from the University of California Press on March 29, 2016. You can find him on Twitter at @mattdelmont.

No time to read this whole post? No problem. What all this suggests for present-day education journalists boils down to three basic things:

(1) Don’t be the reporter or outlet that misses out on the modern-day equivalent of the massive 1964 school segregation protest (or covers it without enough sensitivity);

(2) Think and write carefully about ideas such as “neighborhood schools” and “local control” that may have a deeper and more complicated history than is being presented by advocates; and

(3) You might not know the Boston busing story as well as you think you know it (especially if you know it mostly through the book Common Ground).

As you may recall from the recent WNYC story based in part on his research, Delmont believes that the civil rights movement in the North has gone unappreciated and misunderstood compared to its Southern counterpart.

According to Delmont, school segregation in the North is just as intentional and structural as it was in the South. But the movement to end it wasn’t understood as broadly as it was in regards to the South, and didn’t go as far.

What didn’t make it into the WNYC segment, though, was how the media treatment of civil rights protests in the North shaped public understanding of what was taking place.

One of the main reasons that the school segregation protests in New York City didn’t have the effect or even the notoriety of Southern protests, according to Delmont, is that the way the media covered it at the time “didn’t have the moral urgency of the Southern coverage.”

As the ASU assistant professor wrote in a recent Salon.com account, “The New York Times, which insisted that there was “no official segregation in the city,” criticized the boycott as “violent, illegal approach of adult-encouraged truancy” and dismissed the civil rights demands as “unreasonable and unjustified.”

It’s an editorial not a news account, but still: Yikes.

Segregated schooling and protests against its continuation were “always happening somewhere else,” according to Delmont, who attributes this discrepancy to media outlets being “much more scared of covering these stories when they were in their own back yards.”

“It was both about how television networks and newspapers chose to allocated resources and how they framed the stories” that made the difference, he says, pointing to a chapter from his book focusing on media coverage.

“One of the reasons the southern civil rights movement resonated so powerfully through television and photojournalism was that it presented a stark distinction between good and evil….Virtuous black demonstrators withstood verbal harassment and physical violence from nasty white segregationists… These structural dimensions of racial segregation often worked subtly and developed over decades [in the north], which made them difficult to capture and make visible in a photograph or television broadcast.”

“Whereas news media helped underscore the urgency of the black civil rights movement in the South in the 1950s and 1960s, by the mid-1960s and 1970s white “antibusing” protestors received the vast bulk of media attention. Television and print news helped establish “busing” as the common-sense way of discussing school desegregation. By overemphasizing white parents’ and politicians’ resistance to “busing,” news media contributed to the perspective that desegregation was moving too fast and was unrealistic.”

“As historian Nathan Irvin Huggins noted in 1978, television cameras “broadcast the sentiments of the white, Pontiac, Michigan, housewife [Irene McCabe] protesting ‘forced busing’ as earnestly as they had the achievement of Mrs. Rosa Parks in the Montgomery bus boycott.” 

Above: Rev. Milton Galamison is interviewed by ABC News in the aftermath of the big February 1964 protest, calling for the resignation of the NYC Board of Education and immediate implementation of a school integration plan.

In his book, Delmont goes on to describe how staffing, transmission costs, and and emphasis on visuals shaped TV coverage: “For a time, these production dynamics favored civil rights stories that developed at a safe distance from the North.” A decade later, writes Delmont, they favored a northern antibusing narrative that was “sure to deliver compelling visuals, connect to establish story lines, and resonate with national audiences.”

Because so little of the TV coverage of the time has been digitized and published online, Delmont has paid to have some of it published online out of his own funds. You can find it here.

Now I’m sure there are some historians and journalists who would dispute this account, either in terms of its effect on the development of the school integration movement in northern cities or the production of journalism covering these events.

And I haven’t gone back and read the accounts in the major dailies and watched the broadcasts to verify if Delmont’s narrative is as compelling as it sounds. The video footage Delmont provides of the TV coverage of the 1964 protest seems inconclusive to me — perhaps because, while enormous in size, it was a single-day event that seems to have taken place without dramatic incidents that made some of the Southern protests so memorable and demanded greater media coverage.

And to be sure, the snail-paced progress wasn’t entirely due to in adequate or misleading media coverage, according to Delmont. The 1964 Civil Rights Act included a specific provision that prevented the desegregation of schools outside the South. “Senators pushed for provisions that only apply to South, so the Federal government had no stick to take into Chicago or Boston.

However, Delmont isn’t entirely alone in raising concerns about how school integration (and busing in particular) became the narrow focus of a much broader set of issues. The United States Commission on Civil Rights complained in 1972 that “somehow the busing-for-desegregation debate has become clouded in its own language and expressions, in which the word ‘busing’ almost always follows such labels as ‘massive’ and ‘forced.’ . . . “

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Indeed, perhaps the only impression that most of the public has about Northern integration efforts is the image of fearful white Bostonians hurling epithets and rocks at school buses of African American kids being bused into their neighborhoods.

But there, too, public understanding of events may be limited or incorrect, according to Delmont. Left out of the story of how forced busing failed in Boston is the understanding that Boston had more than a decade to take steps to integrate the schools before court orders came into play.

At every instance, the school board put up roadblocks, refused to allow the word “segregation” to be mentioned in meetings, and according to Delmont mounted “a decade of organized political resistance” against integration before the forced busing took place.

Delmont’s book even takes on the most famous account of the Boston busing crisis, J. Anthony Lukas’s Common Ground: “Civil rights activists in Boston greeted Common Ground with anger and frustration akin to Mississippi civil rights activists’ criticisms of Mississippi Burning (1988) (a film that ignored the role of black activists while glorifying the FBI’s role in the civil rights movement in Mississippi).”

One major implication of this lack of widespread public understanding of Northern school segregation is that it lets the idea of the “neighborhood school” exist as an unchallenged mom-and-apple-pie kind of idea, rather than a way of talking about housing-based school assignment that became popularized in response to school integration proposals.

“That language is really powerful, and it emerges at the moment that these northern school boards are talking about integration,” says Delmont. In reality, school boundary lines had not previously been sacrosanct and had been revised repeatedly. “They [integration opponents] turned to this language of neighborhood schools… It’s an attractive framing, then as today… [But] it elides a larger set of issues.”

One more video, this one from ABC News of NYC students chanting “Jim Crow must go.”

For present-day education journalists, Delmont’s history suggests that it will take careful thinking and reporting to make sure to capture what’s really going on instead of what’s most visual or most easily fits a narrative rut (or matches up with what competitors are doing). Staffing and assignment practices within news outlets play an important role. It will take some measure of bravery for national outlets to cover what’s going on in their own back yards as unblinkingly as what’s going on somewhere else. 

Related posts: WNYC: School Segregation In The North – Then & Now.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.