During the fight for racial equality, several groups emerged as what the media portrayed as the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement: the Civil Rights Subject, the Worthy Black Victim, and the White Moderate. Many news programs and documentaries portrayed these figures as individuals who proved themselves as ideal American citizens during and after the Civil Rights Movement.
The Civil Rights Subject and Worthy Black Victim are very similar in that they were the literate, well dressed, and hardworking African Americans who were deemed and portrayed by the media as worthy of Civil Rights and equality. These types of citizens were seen in NBC’s documentary “Sit-In” in an interview with a very articulate black preacher wearing a nice suit and in the news coverage of The March on Washington. The latter example proved particularly important to this image of the Worthy Black Victim as it showed an enormous group of African American people, not rioting or engaging in violence, but rather peacefully marching in their “Sunday’s best” right alongside white people. The major news networks’ coverage of this “Racial Utopia” of sophisticated black and white people marching and singing together in peace showed that these worthy subjects would be able to easily integrate themselves into white culture and, therefore, were worthy of receiving Civil Rights and equality. Years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the networks continued this tradition of portraying ideal African American citizens as those who had successfully integrated themselves into white society; thus, the Civil Rights Subject became a very prominent representation. Television shows such as Julia were filled with these types of representations showing those were deemed worthy of civil rights completely immersing themselves in white culture and acting like white citizens. Once again, these types of representations suggest that only those African American citizens who buy into white ideals are the ideal citizens.
The networks also worked to portray the White Moderates of the South as heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. Many southerners during the time of the Movement were extremely opposed to integration and civil rights for African Americans; the networks always portrayed these “deviants” as rioting, violent crowds or as uneducated “hicks” who were just outright racists. In direct contrast to these white, uneducated Southerners, the networks televised interviews with the White Moderates of the South as the ideal white citizens of the Civil Rights Movement. These moderates were normal, relatable, everyday people who were in local leadership positions. The crisis at “Ole Miss” in September and October of 1962, when James Meredithdecided to attend the University of Mississippi as the first African American student, sparked a number of other news stories about African American students integrating into predominantly white schools. The CBS Reports interviewed the captain of the football team and the school principal of Clinton High School, one of the integrating schools, about their views of the integration effort. Both took a very moderate stance, explaining that they felt that integration and allowing black students to attend the school was necessary, not for the sake of social justice or because they were advocates for integration and the civil rights of African Americans, but because they believed that they should abide by the law. Because the principal and other white moderates received threats and violence for this kind of stance on integration, these individuals were victimized and made to look like heroes of the Movement.
By choosing to frame educated, middle-class African American people who sought non-violent means of working toward civil rights and white moderates who advocated simply for following the law (regardless of their own personal beliefs) as heroes of the fight for civil rights, the television networks always cast other groups as either deviants or “unworthy black victims.” This “othering”, especially of the unworthy black victims in comparison to the worthy black victims, suggests that not all African Americans are deserving of civil rights; in other words, poor, uneducated, or radical Civil Rights leaders did not fit into the image of ideal citizens who could easily integrate themselves into a white society. This subtle discrimination leads to the very important question of whether television networks truly helped the Movement at all, or if they were simply just trying to push their own agenda and gain viewership by posing as advocates for the acquisition of civil rights for all.