TV Transformed the Nation

Cable television did more than entertain; it kept the public informed about civil rights movements throughout the US.

The civil rights struggle continues.

Near the end of World War II, broadcast television was on the rise in medium-to-large cities. But those in small towns and rural areas couldn’t watch it due to signal loss and other technical difficulties. Then, in the late 1940s and early 50s, former military technicians who had worked with radio technology during World War II began to examine the problem: how to extend broadcast signals over a distance.

Eventually, several pioneers built massive receiving antennas (often atop mountains or tall buildings) and wired them to people’s homes for excellent reception. Thus, community antenna television (CATV) began, later becoming cable television.

Between broadcast television and the soon-to-emerge cable networks, Americans nationwide were increasingly watching news events that would revolutionize society. Among these was the burgeoning civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.


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Civil Rights at the Forefront

During World War II, most African Americans worked for meager wages as farmers, factory workers, and domestic help. By the early 1940s, war-related work was in high gear, but most Black Americans weren’t allowed better-paying jobs. So, after thousands of Black Americans threatened to march on Washington to demand equal employment, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 in June of 1941, opening defense and other government jobs to every American regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin.

The 1950s and Before

As the Cold War began, President Truman initiated a civil rights agenda and, in 1948, issued Executive Order 9981 to end discrimination in the military. These events set the stage for grassroots initiatives to institute legislation for racial equality while also bringing energy to the civil rights movement. And they did— with the help of Black citizens like Rosa Parks (1955) and the Little Rock Nine (1957).

On September 9, 1957, President Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 into law. It was the first significant civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. It allowed federal prosecution of anyone who tried to prevent someone from voting. It also created a commission to investigate voter fraud.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 would take the issue one step further to authorize federal law enforcement to ensure that citizens of all subcultures, US states, faiths, and other statuses were allowed to vote.

Into the 1960s

The early 1960s saw the famous Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in, a boycott following the protests of the previous decade. The Freedom Riders were an interracial group defending equal rights. And by this time, other cultural groups were fighting for their rights — not just African Americans. For example, there was the Vietnam “police action” and the accompanying war protests, women’s rights, and the ongoing Cold War.

White male property owners aged twenty-one and above were given the right to vote in 1776. The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution later lifted racial barriers to voting in 1870. Still, states continued to practice voter discrimination, denying Black voters the right to election participation.

Yes, the right to vote was extended to white women in 1920. But it wasn’t until 1965, after years of intimidation, that President Johnson signed and Congress passed the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Act ensured that no federal, state, or local government could impede people from voting because of their race or ethnicity.

President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2. Around the same time, Martin Luther King, Jr. formed a peaceful civil rights march in Selma, Alabama. Then, on March 7, 1965, the civil rights movement in Alabama took a particularly violent turn as six hundred peaceful demonstrators participated in the Selma to Montgomery march to protest the killing of Black civil rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson by a white police officer and encourage legislation to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment.

Many feel that national television news coverage of the civil rights movement helped transform the United States by portraying the violence of segregation and the dignity of African American’s pursuit of equal rights. In the Southern US, local television news coverage had immediate and significant effects, with local television news broadcasts in Virginia in the 50s beginning to address segregation in ways substantially more balanced than the print media. Contrastingly, a popular television station in Jackson, Mississippi, pushed hard to defend segregation and deny access to opposing voices, local and national. There was still a long way to go.


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The Role of Black Entertainment Television (BET)

BET launched on January 25, 1980, joining a small handful of fledgling cable networks, including Home Box Office (HBO), Showtime, C-SPAN, ESPN, Nickelodeon, CNN (Cable News Network), TNT (Turner Network Television), and others. That same month, Robert L. Johnson left his position at NCTA (National Cable Television Association) and, with his wife, Sheila Johnson, launched the first TV network “that allowed Black people to see themselves, their stories, and their culture on television,” according to BET President Scott Mills.

In the forty years that followed, BET successfully led in elevating Black voices and experiences and inspiring generations of writers, actors, and creatives to tell their stories.

“For forty years, BET has been a unifying space for Black people to be seen, heard, showcased, and celebrated,” stated BET President Scott Mills. “Content for Change” symbolically launched on Juneteenth 2020 — a day that traditionally marks the end of slavery in the United States.

When cable giant Viacom bought Black Entertainment Television for $2.34 billion at the turn of the millennium, it made BET founder Robert L. Johnson the first Black billionaire in the United States. Since then, cable TV’s fortunes have diminished considerably. Viewers have abandoned traditional television in droves, and Black-owned media organizations in the United States, which were already scarce, have dwindled.

“When BET started, its mission was to entertain and create an opportunity for Black stories and voices on television. Fast-forward 40 years, and, for one, the world has massively changed since BET’s creation, but the reality is the condition of the African American community is not great. Whether social justice, education, income, or healthcare, by most metrics, the African American community is poorly situated compared to other communities. (Still) we believe BET can play an essential role in altering the trajectory of the African American community.”

In television, syndicated reruns are often a mix of popular old-time shows — unlike cable networks, like BET, that focus on a historically underserved population.


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Archival Documentation and Other Resources

Many university libraries and government collections have recorded items about civil rights — digital and non-digital. We can’t list them all, but we have chosen a nice variety, some with other archives and their materials included.

Search online to find other repositories.



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