The Press and the Civil Rights Movement

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Explore: Civil rights, free press, First Amendment, watchdog press, media manipulation, media bias, U.S. history, segregation, Martin Luther King Jr., protest.

Civil rights leaders understood the value of having a media spotlight focused on their cause and effectively used the First Amendment and the press to expose the injustices of racial segregation. Reporters who covered the civil rights struggle — Chet Huntley, Gene Roberts and Claude Sitton — give up close and personal accounts of one of the greatest human rights issues of the 20th century.


This video and viewing guide explore the interplay between the free press and the civil rights movement's fight for equality. The civil rights movement was a decades-long effort to achieve equal rights for black Americans. It was rooted in the southern United States, where a system of "Jim Crow" laws historically segregated the races, and reached its height in the 1950s and 1960s under the leadership of savvy and impassioned organizers, including Martin Luther King Jr. These leaders gained national attention for the cause with marches, boycotts and other dramatic forms of protest. Dr. King promoted nonviolent protest methods, but the movement's peaceful demonstrations often faced violent reactions by police and angry white citizens. Throughout the height of the movement, print and broadcast news media reported on protests both peaceful and violent, and the impact of their coverage resonated locally and nationwide.

Learn more about the First Amendment's power to bring about profound social change and the role and challenges a free press embraces when tackling controversial issues.

Recommended grade levels: High school; college (Note: This video contains strong language and violence.)

Essential Questions:

  • How did the First Amendment, and specifically freedom of the press, contribute to the success of the civil rights movement?
  • How did Martin Luther King Jr. utilize the media as part of his strategy for achieving change?
  • How did different news media cover the civil rights movement? Why is it important to get news from multiple sources?
  • How has the media landscape — the technologies we use to communicate and ways we get information — changed since the time featured in this video? How have interactions between social movements and the media changed?
  • What is the role of the press in politics and social movements?
  • How does the First Amendment function in today's society and throughout 20th century history?