UF Researcher: Black Radio Played Strong Role In Shaping Civil Rights

July 14, 2004

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Like Radio Free Europe was to those behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, black radio stations and disc jockeys often were as important as ministers and politicians in mobilizing support for the civil rights movement of the 1960s, says a University of Florida researcher.

Not only did black DJs encourage a sense of common identity, pride and purpose, they also passed along strategies on how to combat racial discrimination, defeat police roadblocks and counter disinformation from segregationist authorities, said Brian Ward, a UF history professor who explores the themes for the first time in his book “Radio and the Struggle for Civil Rights in the South,” published this month, 40 years to the month after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.

“The images of police unleashing snarling dogs on peaceful protesters in Birmingham, Ala., were very influential in shaping white support for the civil rights movement,” Ward said. “But within the African-American community, radio was much more important and widespread than either television or the print media.”

Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Baltimore, said the book is an important contribution to a little-known aspect of blacks’ struggle for equality. “Brian Ward has given often-ignored radio its proper place as a motivator, organizer and message board for the Southern civil rights movement,” said Bond, who was active in protests and voter registration campaigns throughout the South in the ‘60s as a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

In the book, published by University Press of Florida, Ward talks about how black-oriented radio stations offered valuable tactical guidance in the nation’s great civil rights battles. During the1963 Birmingham protests, for example, DJs at several black radio stations moved black residents around the city by sending coded messages in their broadcasts revealing times and locations where marches would occur while also alerting participants of any obstacles they may encounter, he said.

“One station, WENN, hired one of the first traffic helicopters and broadcast traffic reports to the African-American community, which had little to do with the volume of traffic and a lot to do with where police roadblocks were,” said Ward, who used newspapers, trade journals and magazines; dozens of interviews with DJs, station executives and civil rights activists; and thousands of archival documents from the Federal Communications Commission, the FBI, local and state law enforcement agencies, and local and national civil rights organizations and leaders.

Blacks gathered in dozens of Birmingham churches with radios turned up, waiting to hear a particular gospel song, which was their signal to leave the congregation halls and begin marching downtown, Ward said.

“If the DJ said don’t take 16th Street because of a real bottleneck, it indicated a police roadblock and that another route would be needed to get downtown,” he said. “And broadcasts about a big party at Kelly Ingram Park actually referred to a large demonstration. If the DJ said, ‘Be sure to bring your toothbrush,’ it meant you were probably going to jail.”

The DJs commanded so much respect that their credibility sometimes superseded that of black ministers, stalwarts of the civil rights movement, Ward said. In one case, a DJ saved the residents from misleading propaganda. Hoping to undermine the mid-1950s bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., white authorities co-opted a few black ministers into telling their congregations they no longer needed to boycott because an agreement was being reached, he said.

In a 1956 interview with a sociologist that Ward found in documents, one black woman recalled how her church pastor told her the boycott was winding down and that she could start riding the buses again. But when she heard a DJ warn that misinformation was being spread and that the black community should stay off the buses, she listened to the DJ, he said. “This was a God-fearing woman who heard her minister tell her something, but the DJ’s authority trumped the minister’s,” he said.

Radio had an effect even in places that have received little attention from civil rights scholars. A white New Yorker who bought black station WOKS in Columbus, Ga., was able to use the airways to get civil rights protesters off the street in exchange for brokering a deal with the mayor to integrate city facilities, Ward said. And WGIV, a Charlotte, N.C., station, hired an integrated staff and introduced a black-and-white handshake for its logo in the mid-’50s, years before integration, he said.

One reason radio was so pivotal to the civil rights movement is that blacks in the South, and arguably nationally, used it far more consistently than television, which many could not afford, or newspapers, which they often did not have the education to read, Ward said.

For that reason, radio often was used in voter registration drives, literally to talk blacks through procedures they would encounter in the voting booth, Ward said. “It was all very well to have the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on the books, but it was intimidating for people who had been told for many years they had no right to vote to suddenly have to show up and be expected to know what to do,” he said.

And as whites began listening to popular rhythm and blues artists on black radio stations, they became better acquainted with black culture and some grew to be supportive of eliminating Jim Crow, he said.

“Music and radio could actually transcend formal and legal barriers – especially in the South where racial barriers were so strict – because you cannot segregate the airways,” he said. “In this way, radio helped to undermine segregation from within the South.”