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MLK, Civil Rights & The Power of Video

Posted January 18, 2016
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Today is Martin Luther King day in the United States.

It is a federal holiday created to commemorate both the life of Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement in America.

The rise of the Civil Rights movement and Dr. King's work took place concurrently with the arrival of television.  There is a reason for this, and one that speaks volumes about the power of video, television and the visual media, both in the 60s, and today.

I am in the process of reading The Quartet by Joseph Ellis. It is the history of the drafting of the US Constititution in 1787, some 11 years after the beginning of the American Revolution in 1776.  The government we have now is actually the second post-revolution government, the first, the Articles of Confederation having proven unworkable.

What is interesting (among the many interesting things in the book) is the failure of the delegates to deal with the issue of slavery.  How could a nation founded on the lofty principle that All Men Are Created Equal also be a nation founded on a slave economy?  

In 1787, one fifth of the popuation of America were slaves.  Even Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and those noble sentiments owned 100 slaves.  Washington was a slave owner.  At the Constitutional Convention, when the idea of ending slavery by 1800 was raised, the delegates from South Carolina threatened to walk out on the new Union.  Slavery, they said, was the very foundation of South Carolina. And so it was. It was intrinsic to the economy of the new nation - particularly to the agrarian south.

The great compromise that was reached was that slaves would 'count' as 3/5ths of a person.  Thus was institutional racism woven in the very fabric of the nation from its birth.

That inherent racism was not ended by the Civil War nor by Emancipation.  It simply changed.  Jim Crow laws and institutionalized 'separate but equal' became the law of the land.

There were many attempts to initiate change in America's inherent racist character, but none of them were successful until the early 1960s.  Taylor Branch has written an outstanding book on this: Parting The Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, which I greatly recommend.

What made the early 60s so different.

The successful Civil Rights movement came at the same moment as the arrival of television in American homes. 

For the first time, (indeed the first time in history), the brutal and repressive actions of local law enforcement officials like Bull Connor were both filmed and broadcast to the nation. The unleashing of attack dogs, fire hoses, beatings and worse inflicted in public on people doing little more than exercising their rights changed the nation, almost overnight. 

Kennedy, in the White House, had to react.  What had once been carried out in relative secrecy was now being broadcast to the world nightly.  It made it untenable.

The arrival of television actually had two immediate effects:  First, the nation was revolted by what they saw.  They might have known that these kinds of things were carried out, but now it was undeniable.  More significantly perhaps, there was a kind of multiplier effect. Others whose rights were being trampled upon could see that their brethren had risen up, and thus it gave them the courage to rise up as well. What might have been confined to a local event became defacto a national movement.

Dr. King was the right person at the right time with the right technology.  There had been other civil rights advocates, but none had been broadcast to the world on a regular basis.  Thus, Dr. King became the symbol of a movement.

In the 1960s, creating and broadcasting television images was both complex and expensive. You had to send crews. You had to own a TV network.  There just were not that many cameras in play.  

When we run our video bootcamps we always say, 'if you don't shoot it, it didn't happen'.  When you look at the footage above from the 1960s, you have to ask yourself how many other 'events' were happening across the nation that never got filmed?  What do we see here, perhaps .001% of the reality?  But that was enough.  It was enough to initiate great change - a national movement. A national kind of education through images.

Today, video cameras are ubiquitous.

Everyone who owns a smart phone (and who does not?) is also carrying with them a broadcast quality video camera and a means of instant global transmission.

Little happens today that is NOT captured live.  This is an entirely new event in human experience, but one that will also have an impact.  From Ferguson to Chicago to Baltimore we have seen video after video of police shootings of young black men.  This is something doubtless was happening all the time, but now, thanks to video, the world sees it and responds.

But this power of video, which we all now have, and a great power it is, with great potential for change, need not be limited to simply capturing malfeasance as it happend before us. This is like shooting the tornado as it hits your house. It is powerful, but it does not begin to touch on what you can do with the medium you now posess.

Video, television and visual images have the power to change the world.  You can use that same camera to capture more subtle injustices, to transmit ideas, to tell stories or to communicate greater concepts.  And you can share them with the world at will.

Video is powerful. Remarkably powerful. 

We are only at the very beginning.

Embrace the tool. 


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