How segregationists sold their message on US television

August 31, 2016 – The effective use of national television broadcasts by white segregationists during the civil rights movement could provide valuable insights into the persistence of white nationalism in the United States today in a project by a PhD student from the Universities of Leicester and Nottingham.

Scott Weightman is the recipient of a 2016 International Placement Scheme Fellowship that will allow him access to the internationally renowned Library of Congress and to historic television broadcasts that show how segregationists sought to harness mass media in order to sway public opinion to their advantage.

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Fifty UK researchers are being given access to some of America’s most significant libraries and research institutions later this year as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council International Placement Scheme.  Making research trips for up to six months, they will be examining literature, photography, art, and maps, listening to recordings, and having the chance to examine historical artifacts closely, which could help them uncover new aspects of their current research. The Library of Congress will host 21 fellows this year.

Scott’s project explores how white resisters to the civil rights movement sought to sell segregation and how they attempted to counter the initiatives of civil rights activists. It will examine the strategies adopted by segregationists, how and why their strategies developed, and the specific tactics that were used to appeal to particular audiences.

Scott is a PhD student in the University of Leicester’s School of History and the University of Nottingham’s Department of American and Canadian Studies funded by the AHRC Midlands3Cities Doctoral Training Partnership. He is able to take advantage of the cross-university supervision expertise that Midlands3Cities promotes and is co-supervised by Dr George Lewis and Professor Sharon Monteith.

Scott said about his project: “My research uncovers how some segregationists recognised that national TV enabled them to appeal to a wider demographic. Using their national broadcasts, I plan to illustrate the various ways that segregationists modified pro-segregation arguments in order to garner support from Americans outside the South, compared with those pursued by segregationists on local and state television stations in the South. I examine the breadth and range of the segregationist media strategy and explore whether there was a single or in fact, multiple strategies in operation.

“Given the current political climate in the US – the rise of Donald Trump and the congruent surge in white nationalism, the persistence of inequality, continued injustice against African Americans, and the skewed reporting of conservative American news outlets – it is vital to understand the history of white supremacy in America.

“An understanding of how segregationists developed their strategies and adapted to the changing context of the 1960s can grant historians, and the wider public, historical perspective on issues that continue to plague America today. Acknowledging segregationists’ skilful use of mass media can enhance the appreciation of the civil rights movement’s achievements. The strength and persistence of conservative white resistance to social and racial change emphasises the need for continued study, activism, and political intervention.

“Some segregationists in the 1950s and 1960s understood that if they were to maintain white supremacy in the South in the face of the civil rights movement they would need to attain national support. One key strategy I have identified as a segregationist position was to remove race from the conversation and adopt a supposedly colour-blind approach. By discussing their position in terms of states’ rights, the Constitution, law and order, and a conservative approach to taxes and welfare, segregationists were able to circumvent the issue of race. Having concealed their most explicit racial beliefs, many of these segregationists would be absorbed into the wave of new conservatism in the US in the 1960s that endures to this day.

“We continue to see racial politics coded in this way within the current Presidential election, the media strategies of the Tea Party movement, by members of the Republican Party, and on the panel shows and newscasts produced by conservative news outlets. Certainly, some of the more sophisticated approaches pursued by segregationists fifty years ago, and the discourse they used, can be seen reflected in contemporary America.”

In our increasingly globalised world, there is a need for researchers to build strong international experiences. The Arts and Humanities Research Council International Placement Scheme (IPS) facilitates such experiences by providing funded fellowships at some of the world’s leading research institutions, offering dedicated access to their globally renowned collections, resources, and expertise.

Scott said: “The Library of Congress holds an impressive collection of television broadcasts produced by the national networks NBC and PBS, which feature appearances made by prominent segregationists. The library also holds state and local-level broadcasts within the MacDonald Television Collection and the American Archive of Public Broadcasting digital collection, which is a brand new resource that the Library of Congress is archiving and is set to become available from September 2016.

“I am absolutely delighted to have the opportunity to study at the Library of Congress, the largest library in the world. It is a real honour to be invited to study for three months at such an illustrious institution and to have the chance to make use of its incredible array of unique primary source collections. I cannot wait to arrive and get digging into the archives!

“It is very encouraging that the highly respected Arts and Humanities Research Council considers my research to be important, valuable, and of the quality to receive such a prestigious award.”