WLBT-TV and Civil Rights

WLBT-TV in Jackson was the first television station ever to lose its Federal Communication Commission (FCC) license—primarily for its racist defense of segregation. Individual activists and the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had pressured WLBT for years to allow black Mississippians’ response time under the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, which required local stations to offer airtime for opposing views on controversial issues.

WLBT’s transgressions were many. In the fall of 1955 Thurgood Marshall, NAACP lawyer and future US Supreme Court justice, appeared on an NBC news program to discuss the implications of the Court’s 1954 and 1955 Brown v. Board of Education decisions, which declared segregated schools unconstitutional. Marshall had argued the cases before the Court. WLBT interrupted the broadcast and instead aired a slide that read, “Sorry, Cable Trouble from New York.” General manager Fred Beard explained that he had broken off the program “because the TV networks were overloading the circuits with Negro propaganda.” WLBT’s reporters frequently used the terms nigger and nigra on air, and the station interrupted the evening news, the Huntley-Brinkley Report, when the program turned to the civil rights movement. The station routinely voiced opposition to desegregation through news commentaries or by granting airtime to segregation’s advocates and ran ads from the Citizens’ Councils, a bastion of Deep South massive resistance. Year after year, the station refused African Americans’ requests for equal time to respond. WLBT’s exclusion of black Mississippians from local television was nearly total during the 1950s, but during the following decade, the civil rights movement’s national visibility and influence meant change.

Local black pressure and FCC warnings had two positive effects in 1962–63. When African American minister Robert L. T. Smith ran for Congress against segregationist representative John Bell Williams, WLBT sold Smith thirty minutes of airtime. An even more dramatic exception to the station’s routine occurred in May 1963, when Medgar Evers, field secretary of the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP, appeared on air after formally requesting time to respond to Jackson mayor Allen Thompson’s rejection of desegregation. Speaking calmly, and eloquently, Evers declared, “Whether Jackson and the state choose change or not, the years of change are upon us. In the racial picture things will never be as they once were. History has reached a turning point.” Three weeks later, Byron De La Beckwith assassinated Evers.

Evers’s sense that change was in the air was widely shared. In 1963 national media covered the civil rights movement’s protests in Birmingham, Alabama, and the March on Washington. NBC preempted regular programming for a groundbreaking three-hour documentary, The American Revolution of 1963, which detailed civil rights activism. When the network coverage turned to white violence against peaceful civil rights protesters at a Jackson lunch counter, WLBT ran “Sorry, Cable Trouble” across its screen. Ironically, it had filmed the incident.

WLBT was in many ways typical of southern stations. The owners and managers of southern network affiliates resented network news programs’ sympathetic portrayal of the civil rights movement and presented protesters in a negative light. However, the depth of WLBT’s commitment to massive resistance made it extreme. WLBT did not carry network news magazines because they might occasionally cover the civil rights movement, instead running syndicated shows that equated the civil rights movement with communism. WLBT also carried the Citizens’ Council Forum, a syndicated series of fifteen-minute interviews with segregationists.

The Fairness Doctrine made a station’s obligation to serve the local community explicit. About half of WLBT’s viewing area was black, making it an excellent test case. Could African Americans force evenhanded treatment under the Fairness Doctrine? WLBT’s license had been renewed in 1959 with only perfunctory consideration of local concerns. In 1963 the Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ (UCC) offered help to local activists who sought to challenge WLBT’s violations of the Fairness Doctrine. Rev. Everett Parker, who had left behind a career in radio and advertising to attend the University of Chicago’s divinity school, headed the church’s effort. He met with Aaron Henry, state NAACP president, and A. D. Beittel, president of Tougaloo College. With the threat of violent reprisal hanging over their heads, they gathered local complaints regarding WLBT for a formal petition to the FCC opposing the renewal of WLBT’s license.

When WLBT sought to renew its license in 1964, the UCC and local activists submitted their petition. A divided FCC stuck to a narrow bureaucratic interpretation of the Fairness Doctrine, granting WLBT a one-year conditional renewal without holding a hearing. Dissatisfied, the UCC and its Mississippi allies took the case to the Court of Appeals, which ruled against WLBT. The court declared that the FCC had to allow local viewers to make their case against the license renewal because viewers had “standing” based on their interests as consumers.

The hearing did not occur until 1968. WLBT hired as its lawyer Paul Porter, a former chair of the FCC. Acknowledging some faults, Porter argued that WLBT had mended its ways by hiring a new general manager and allowing black ministers to broadcast devotional services. He insisted that the most egregious accusations were “unsubstantiated.” The FCC agreed, awarding a three-year license renewal. The UCC and its local allies again challenged the decision, and in 1971 the court reversed the FCC’s license renewal, forcing the sale of the station. These court decisions meant that citizens who had previously been excluded from the process could pressure local stations to deal fairly with their community. The national shift toward a conservative mood, however, meant deregulation in the 1980s and abandonment of this pressure to serve the public interest.

Further Reading

  • Steven Classen, Watching Jim Crow: The Struggles over Mississippi TV, 1955–1969 (2004)
  • Myrlie Evers-Williams and Manning Marable, eds., The Autobiography of Medgar Evers: A Hero’s Life and Legacy Revealed through His Writings, Letters, and Speeches (2005)
  • Fred W. Friendly, The Good Guys, the Bad Guys, and the First Amendment: Free Speech vs. Fairness in Broadcasting (1975)
  • Kay Mills, Changing Channels: The Civil Rights Case That Transformed Television (2004)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title WLBT-TV and Civil Rights
  • Author
  • Keywords WLBT-TV and Civil Rights
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date June 7, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 15, 2018