1969 in Public Media: The Civil Rights Movement

This year marks the 50th anniversary of 1969. Here to highlight the role of public media in covering the events of this turbulent year, we welcome back Christopher Brown, Archives Engagement Intern at the AAPB who is publishing a series of articles about this fascinating topic. Christopher is currently pursuing a Masters in History with a focus in Archives.

The third installment of our series on public broadcasting in 1969 focuses on coverage of the civil rights movement. Click here to read the prior article in our series, which explores the student protest movement.


In the 1960s, discrimination, segregation, and the threat of violence continued to be experienced by minority groups. By the 50’s and 60’s, the civil rights movement took on greater urgency and renewed strength, resulting in significant changes throughout society and the passage of important legislation such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968. These Acts ended segregation; integrated schools; and prohibited discrimination in the realms of employment, housing, voting, and others.

The movement was largely non-violent and involved acts of civil disobedience such as boycotts, marches and sit-ins. An example of the latter was the 1960 Woolworth lunch counter protest in Greensboro, North Carolina, where African American students were denied service at a “whites only” establishment but refused to leave. These acts inspired others throughout the country, most notably in the South where segregation and discrimination were the most severe. To some, a more forceful approach was needed, leading to the Black Power movement of the mid-1960s which included prominent groups such as the Black Panthers.

Public broadcasting played an important role in covering these events, as well as exploring African American culture and life. For example, WGBH’s Say Brother, produced in Boston from 1968 to present (currently titled Basic Black) is the longest running public affairs program created by and for African Americans, while WNET’s Black Journal produced monthly episodes from 1968 to 1977 about the African American experience. In this clip from Black Journal, a panel expresses the ineffectual nature of voting and the need for more radical changes. Among those commenting is Black Panther member Kathleen Cleaver, wife of the group’s founder Eldridge Cleaver.

Black Journal: 8 (WNET, 1969)

Along with its successes, the movement experienced profound tragedies, such as the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. In this episode of Black Journal which aired shortly after, a woman discusses the anger and grief she experienced upon learning of King’s death.

Black Journal: 7 (WNET, 1968)

Another prominent civil rights leader to be tragically assassinated was Malcolm X in 1965. Offering the perspective of a family member, WGBH’s Say Brother conducted an interview with Ella Collins, sister of Malcolm X, in 1969. In this clip, she discusses her involvement in his upbringing.

Say Brother: Malcolm X (WGBH, 1969)

African Americans were not the only group fighting for racial equality during this time. In April of 1969, the series Public Broadcast Library aired an episode entitled “Mexican Americans: The Invisible Minority” on National Educational Television, exploring the plight of Hispanic Americans and their struggle for civil rights.

PBL: Mexican Americans – The Invisible Minority (NET, 1969)

Coverage of the civil rights movement also explored the youth of the 1960s being raised in a time of societal change. For example, an episode of the series NET Journal entitled, Black and White Together? aired on National Educational Television in April 1969. The program explored Project WILL, an attempt at creating interracial understanding between high school students during a time when school desegregation remained a contentious issue. During the project, 80 high students of different races lived and studied together for twelve weeks. As depicted in the program, the experience was often a difficult one. In this clip, the students arrive and later engage in a brutally honest discussion about racial matters, while one of the teachers separately admits that the kids have taken on the values and problems of the adults in their lives.

NET Journal: Black and White Together? (NET, 1969)

The civil rights movement of the 1960’s was a significant event in American history. Despite the positive social changes that occurred, minorities have continued to experience prejudice and racism. However, the fight for equality and peace continues. To explore additional coverage of this topic in prior and subsequent years and to view the episodes above in full, visit the AAPB at https://americanarchive.org/.

Stay tuned for the next installment of our series about 1969 in public broadcasting.

The American Archive of Public Broadcasting (AAPB) is a national effort to preserve at-risk public media and provide a central web portal for access to the programming that public stations and producers have created over the past 70 years. To date, over 50,000 hours of television and radio programming contributed by more than 100 public media organizations and archives across the United States have been digitized, and the Archive aims to grow by up to 25,000 additional hours per year. The entire collection is available for research on location at WGBH and the Library, and currently more than 30,000 programs are available in the AAPB’s Online Reading Room at americanarchive.org to anyone in the United States.

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