The NBC Learn series, "Finishing the Dream" continues in Jackson, Mississippi, as panelists and students talk about the uneven coverage of civil rights issues at NBC television station WLBT in the 1960s, and the efforts to end discrimination against African Americans in the workplace.
Finishing the Dream: Learning from the Civil Rights Era – Jackson Town Hall (part 6)
Does the media promote diversity?
MAGGIE WADE, Anchor: In 1971 the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, DC, made a ruling that became a first in our nation's broadcasting history. They revoked the FCC license for WLBT, a, then, all-white local television station here in Jackson, Mississippi. The court claimed the NBC affiliate was not adequately serving its minority viewers, citing the station’s decision to omit all NBC network coverage of the Civil Rights Movement from its air.
HOWARD BALLOU, WLBT NEWS: [IN CLIP] Civil Rights and the events that brought them to light were a problem for this station in the 1960s. The United Church of Christ claimed that WLBT did not serve all its viewers, only the white ones.
BERT CASE, WLBT NEWS: [IN CLIP] These monitor’s brought here by the United Church of Christ and the Reverend Everett C. Parker documented this station’s broadcasts around the clock. And they were able to show that this station did not serve the minority community.
BALLOU: [IN CLIP] Lamar Life did make an effort to diversify once its practices were called into question. In 1969 they hired Nehemiah Flowers to work in the production department, the first minority in such a prominent position.
NEHEMIAH FLOWERS: [IN CLIP] Growing up in Mississippi, uh, you became acclimated to the way things were. Blacks traditionally were not on television.
CASE: [IN CLIP] I covered the hearing in 1967, which the FCC held here in Jackson to determine whether this license should be given back to the Lamar Life Insurance Company. And the Commission ruled after that hearing that it should be given back to them. It was an appeal of that decision to the United States Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia that eventually resulted in the loss of the license in June of 1971.
MAGGIE WADE, WLBT NEWS: [IN CLIP] With that, WLBT became the first station in history to lose its license for not adequately serving its audience. For nine years WLBT operated as a non-profit entity under a bi-racial group that brought in a black general manager, William Dilday.
CASE: [IN CLIP] They did a very good job of making that transition from it being an all-white television station to one that was inclusive of minorities.
WADE: Let's begin with a student in our audience.
JOY POWELL: Hello, I’m Joy Powell, and I'm a student at Mississippi State University. As a broadcasting major, in my opinion, WLBT leads the way in meeting the expectations of its viewership in terms of the diversity of its newsroom. How do you see the development of diversity in our media affecting the continued success of the movement?
WADE: Mr. Dean, would you like to start?
Reverend KENNETH DEAN, Former Director, Mississippi Human Relations Council: Well, yes, I’d like to say something. When we at WLBT had to let our general manager go because he wouldn't cooperate with us on diversity, we also had a policy that we wouldn’t hire any more whites until we reached parity with the racial distribution in our service area. So, when I let the general manager go I had to hire a black general manager, follow my own regulations, okay?
Well, in the meantime, I got called by NBC to come to Rockefeller Center in New York City for a conversation. I spent an hour and a half with NBC telling me that they had gotten wind that I was thinking about hiring a black general manager and that I must not do that. And they lectured me for over an hour about not hiring a black general manager for this station. The South wasn't ready fort it. It's in Jackson, Mississippi. You can't do it; you’re an interim operator; you’re not television professionals; you don’t know what you're doing. And I felt like a fool because I'd already hired him two weeks earlier.
I just want you to know that whatever else you want to say about race, that on that issue, it was a local group of black and white people, men and women, most of them from the church and the Jewish community, that decided to put a black general manager for the first time in the history of the industry in charge of a network station in Jackson, Mississippi; and it was the most successful thing we ever did. And it didn’t happen because the network or anybody else outside of Mississippi told us to do it. It was Mississippi owned; it was Mississippi made, and it was Mississippi bred, and it was Mississippi successful.
BALLOU: Let’s take our next questioner. Thank you, Reverend Dean. Our last question.
ANDREW: Hello, my name is Andrew (unintelligible) here at Jackson State University. I’m a sophomore Mass Communications major. My question is to all the panel, how do you envision the future of race relations based on our past civil rights history?
WADE: Jerry, would you like to begin?
JERRY MITCHELL, Investigative Journalist, The Clarion Ledger: I’ll start. I hope Dr. Perkins’ll weigh in on this, too. I mean, I think it’s very important. Obviously, hopefully we work toward reconciliation. I mean, that’s really what it’s all about – is beginning to work together. And that’s what has to happen. And it doesn’t happen without a dedicated effort. And I know Dr. Perkins, that’s been – your life’s work. So feel free to chime in about it.
Dr. JOHN M. PERKINS, Founder, John M. Perkins Foundation for Reconciliation and Development: It’s gonna be more difficult in the days ahead, because the children who are being born in an environment of none racism is not automatically racist as they was before. But there’s not many white people in the black school and there’s not many black people in the white schools in Jackson.
If racism comes from prejudice we got to not prejudge people and get together with them and love them. It’s a very difficult deal and the institution that is ordained to do that, commissioned to do that by Jesus who said, “By this may all mankind know you’re my disciples, because of your love one for another,” we still have a black church and a white church.
Mr. MITCHELL: I know for whites, you know, that I hear—that talk to me about race and racism and stuff like that, some of it’s fear, you know that? Some of it’s actually fear. And so it’s a matter of breaking down those kind of barriers as well.
HOWARD BALLOU, Anchor: Thank you very much. We certainly want to thank our panelists, and you in the audience, for your involvement in this program. Also, a very special thanks to NBC, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Hamer Institute.
WADE: And for more historical clips on the civil rights movement, log on to NBC Learn.com.
BALLOU: Thank you very much.