Civil Rights Era Press Helped Rocked the Boat: New School of Global Journalism & Communication Hosts National Symposium on “Tumultuous” 1963

SPOKESMANMorgan’s new School of Global Journalism & Communication ended a full day of speeches, opening ceremonies and ribbon-cutting Thursday with a national symposium on the press. Students, faculty, and visitors eagerly gathered to listen to a group of panelist discuss the role media played during a pivotal year in the Civil Rights Movement.

Titled “1963: The Civil Rights Movement’s Most Tumultuous Year,” the talk took place in the Ruth Sheffey Lecture Hall of the SGJC building, following the ceremonial ribbon cutting for the new school.

For the distinguished panelist of civil rights reporters and activists, it was a walk down memory lane, as they retold stories of sit-ins, marches, and controversial trials during 1963.

For Jasmin Jones, a junior majoring in print journalism, it was an inspirational event. “Lately I’ve been wondering if journalism is the path for me,” she said afterwards. “I can say this symposium helped me to realize my passion. No one said it would be easy but I’m up for the challenge.”

It was moderated by ABC News anchor, chief national correspondent, and Baltimore native, Byron Pitts. Among the esteemed panelist were Taylor Branch, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years; Paul Delaney, reporter during the Civil Rights Movement; Helena Hicks, Morgan State University alum and local Civil Rights activist; Ray Jenkins, retired editor for various news media including the Baltimore Evening Sun; and Clarence Page, a  columnist and Pulizter Prize winner for Commentary.

Also in attendance was award winning journalist Simeon Booker, who Pitts referred to as “a giant in the industry.” Booker covered the civil rights movement for over 50 years and covered the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till for Jet. While he was only a part of the audience and not on the panel–he is 95–Morganites were encouraged to read about his experience in his them in his new book, Shocking the Conscience: A Reporter’s Account of the Civil Rights Movement.

The first question posed to the panel was, how important was the black press to the movement? Pitts then quoted John Lewis, “The Civil Rights movement would have been a bird without wings if not for the black media.”

The journalists agreed that black media outlets were important because they displayed images of abuse and injustices to the world. “The black press was carrying a heavy load,” said Branch. “Jet was lonely but gave the inside perspective of the community.”

Reporting during the Civil Rights Movement was a challenging task in many ways. Discussion swirled around the question, “How do you remain objective as a journalist when you feel so strongly about what is going on around you?”

For panelist Helena Hicks, an activists, the issues were different. Hicks recounted stories of picketing Ford’s Theater to admit blacks and executing a student sit-in at Read’s Drug Store in 1955. “If you don’t stand up against injustice, it will never change,” said Hicks to the budding young journalist in the audience. “Don’t get angry; get active!”

Delaney talked about his experience working at the Atlanta Daily World and how this outlet started out as a non-supporter of the movement. The paper had made a pact with the local government that they would “keep everything quiet.” This pact didn’t last long and the paper eventually became the headquarters for the Civil Rights Movement.

Jenkins discussed the irony in coverage of the movement. Most of the reporting was done by native bor,n southern white men, because blacks couldn’t get jobs as reporters. He also talked about the trial against Martin Luther King for state tax evasion, “If he would have been convicted, he would have gone to jail, and very few people would have remembered his name today.”

The discussion was not only about the past. It touched on how young journalists can use their voices to make a difference.

Morgan State professor Dr. Jared Ball asked the panel, “What environment are young journalists walking into?

“Formal journalism has been downgraded,” Delaney said. “A lot of stuff that is irrelevant seems to be important. These young journalists must be able to decipher what is news and what is not news.”

Hicks and Page advised young journalists to be optimistic and open to opportunities. The best practice for any journalist is to write, they said.

Are we still in a civil rights movement? Issues like the Trayvon Martin case suggests that there is still a need for a black press, Hicks said. “All injustice is related to bad policy. Look at the policy carrying these injustices and ask why,” she urged.

The symposium highlighted the importance of media to the movement. With tools like social media and the internet, anybody can be a journalist right? Jenkins says that he would like to see journalisms schools concentrate on the question, what is a journalist? “If you ask what is a lawyer or what is a doctor, you get a clear answer. It requires a certain amount of training. It requires a license to practice. It has an enforceable code of ethics… We don’t have any of these things.”

It will be up to the new School of Global Journalism and Communication to participate in shaping what it means to be a journalist in this new age. Perhaps, this could be a topic for a symposium in the future., panelists suggested.

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