A project of the Manship School of Mass Communication, LSU
By Dorothy Bland,
Media Diversity Forum
(August 3, 2020) - In reflecting on the summer of 2020, the songs “Unforgettable” by Nat “King” Cole and Bebe and Marvin Winans’ “Good Trouble” bring comfort. Our world is struggling with two pandemics – the novel coronavirus and reckoning with systemic racism given the wave of protests around the globe in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing by police in Minnesota.
While some have compared the summer of 2020 to 1968 after riots broke out in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, it is important to acknowledge that the protestors are more diverse and so are the frontline journalists in major cities in the 21st century. However, replay the videotape of CNN’s Omar Jimenez, a Black journalist, being arrested on live TV while covering the protests in Minneapolis on May 29, 2020. Take note that Josh Campbell, a white CNN reporter nearby was not arrested, and Jimenez and his crew were released shortly after CNN’s President Jeff Zucker intervened with Minnesota Governor Tim Walz. Read New York University Journalism Professor Pam Newkirk’s Diversity, Inc., and author Wanda Lloyd’s Coming Full Circle: From Jim Crow to Journalism, and one can see there is still much more work to do. A major gap remains between inclusive rhetoric and representation reality in the 21st century media workforce, leadership and ownership ranks.
While 1960s protestors endured beatings from armed law enforcement officers and angry folks who spit on them in some cases, no one had to deal with the vicious COVID-19 virus. John Hopkins University officials report the novel coronavirus has infected more than 17.6 million people around the globe, killed more than 681,000 people by Aug. 1, 2020, and the numbers continue to rise. The pandemic’s health and economic crises of 2020 are unforgettable, unprecedented, and there remains much uncertainty about the long-term consequences.
Since the mindset remains “if it bleeds, it leads” in many broadcast TV markets, much 2020 media coverage associated with the Black Lives Matter Movement has focused on civil unrest with some deaths, major injuries, looting and burning of buildings in cities such as Minneapolis, Atlanta and New York City. Let’s be clear: death and property destruction are not condoned. The truth is many of the Black Lives Matter protests have been peaceful over the summer. The protests span from small towns such as Mountain Home, Arkansas and Waxahachie, Texas to urban cities such as Los Angeles and Tokyo.
As for “good trouble,” that phrase was often used by the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, and the Winans sang their song during the non-violent civil rights icon’s funeral in Atlanta. That phrase also is part of the title for a documentary celebrating Lewis’ legacy and quest for racial equality. Lewis, the son of Alabama sharecroppers, served 33 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and died July 17 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
One solemn photo widely circulated over the last week was Lewis standing on Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House in Washington, DC, as a sign of solidarity with BLM. The 80-year-old masked Lewis at BLM Plaza was a sharp contrast to the photo of him being beaten at age 25 when his skull was fractured, and he almost lost his life on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on Bloody Sunday in 1965. He was arrested more than 40 times in protests, became a champion for human and LGBTQ rights. His peers often described him as the “conscience” of Congress.
In an essay published in The New York Times on the day of his Atlanta funeral, Lewis wrote, “When you see something is not right, you must say something. You must do something.” In that essay he added, “When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war.”
As the TV cameras captured the Lewis funeral procession rolling through the streets of the nation’s capital, landmarks such as the Lincoln Memorial, the Martin L. King Jr. Memorial and the National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) were historical evidence of the congressman’s impact. At the age of 23, he was the youngest speaker on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for the 1963 March on Washington, when he said, “We don’t want our freedom gradually, but we want our freedom now.” He and other foot soldiers of the civil rights movement lobbied to ensure the Voting Rights Act became law in 1965. Lewis also was a champion for the MLK Jr. holiday, the MLK Jr. monument and the NMAAH.
Three former U.S. presidents (George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) spoke at his homegoing service in Atlanta. During the eulogy, Obama urged people to vote, and Congress to renew the Voting Rights Act. However, President Donald Trump skipped the funeral and suggested the November election be delayed the same day of Lewis’ funeral in Atlanta. In 2017, Lewis skipped Trump’s inauguration after calling Trump not a “legitimate president,” and blamed Trump for Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
As for media coverage of Lewis’ funerals, it is notable that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution produced at 12-page special section, posted numerous videos, social media feeds and encouraged readers to share tributes to Lewis on their website. USA Today ran a 40-page special section about Lewis that was headlined “Last of the Lions,” and BET collaborated with CBS for a special on Lewis. Richard Prince, author of Journal-isms, provided a roundup of tributes by nationally-known Black journalists such as Eugene Scott of the Washington Post, syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts, White House correspondent for American Urban Radio networks April Ryan, and many credited the work of Lewis and other civil rights leaders for paving the way for more journalism jobs among people of color. Prince also pointed out that many of the Black news weeklies and BlackPressUSA lagged in getting the “breaking news” out on Lewis’ death. The Atlanta Daily World, Chicago Defender and others provided digital links to the Lewis homegoing celebration broadcast on C-SPAN. Tributes have poured in on digital platforms such as Black Enterprise and Blavity in the last week, and even Town & Country magazine’s website ran a photo gallery with 50 images from the services held in Alabama, Georgia and Washington, DC, for Lewis.
TV Newser ran a roundup of broadcast networks’ including ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC and Fox news coverage of the Lewis’ funeral services spanning a six-day window, but there was no mention of the Black News Channel. It was disappointing to see the Black News Channel had only a few Associated Press stories posted on its website related to the funerals by Aug. 1. TV One, CNN, CSPAN and other mainstream broadcast outlets provided live feeds of Lewis’ funeral in Atlanta. Several major news organizations including NBC News, Fox News, The New York Times, Miami Herald published stories about two U.S. Republican Senators Rubio of Florida and running brief tributes on Twitter and Facebook with a photo of the late U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, before the senators apologized and the images were updated with Lewis pictures.
A high school in Springfield, Virginia, formerly named in honor of Robert E. Lee was renamed the John. R. Lewis High School, and there is a push to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge to honor Lewis. While symbolic gestures are important, Obama stressed it is crucial that people vote. The Chicago Crusader reported 155 civil rights organizations have called on the U.S. Senate to pass the proposed Voting Rights Advancement Act, which was renamed the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and the proposed HEROES Act, which would provide $3.6 billion to states to assist with actions that would make voting easier such as online accessibility and same-day voter registration.
No matter one’s political preference, never forget voting is a privilege in the United States and central to democracy. Everyone can learn about the profound power of perseverance from the life of Lewis. For more teachable moments, see the abbreviated resource lists that follow.
- CBS Special "John Lewis: Celebrating a Hero," hosted by Oprah Winfrey, Tyler Perry, Gayle King and Brad Pitt, will air on Tuesday, August 4 at 10 p.m ET/PT. on the CBS Television Network.
- Fox's ratings dropped during John Lewis funeral
Suggested Videos and Audio Interviews:
- Minnesota police arrest CNN team on live television (CNN)
- BET News Special Special: John Lewis: In His Own Words (BET and CBS)
- CBSNews live feed of John Lewis’ service in Atlanta on July 30, 2020
- Walking with the Wind (June 1, 1998, C-SPAN)
- John Lewis: Get in the Way (PBS Special on Feb. 10, 2017)
- John Lewis: Good Trouble (Documentary)
- 'Fresh Air' Remembers Civil Rights Leader Rep. John Lewis (NPR, July 20, 2020)
- The Honorable John Lewis: Biography (HistoryMakers.Org)
Suggested Books and Additional Readings:
- Kendi, I.X. (2019). How to be an antiracist. One World.
- Lewis, J. (2020, July 30). Together, You can redeem the soul. The New York Times.
- Lewis, J. (2012). Across that bridge: Life lessons and a vision for change. Hachette UK.
- Lewis, J., & D'orso, M. (2015). Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement. Simon and Schuster.
- Lloyd, W. S. (2019). Coming Full Circle: From Jim Crow to Journalism.
- Mettler, K. (2016). ‘Good Trouble’: How John Lewis Fuses New and Old Tactics to Teach about Civil Disobedience. Washington Post.
- Newkirk, P. (2019) Diversity, Inc. Bold Type Books
- Prince, R. (2020, July 18). Journalists cite debt to John Lewis.
- Wolf, B. (2019). Good Trouble: How Deviants, Criminals, Heretics, and Outsiders Have Changed the World for the Better. Lexington Books.