A History and Overview of Black-Identity Public Affairs TV

Black public affairs television began in the late sixties as African-Americans took control of the streets — and the airwaves. After decades of unfair representation in the media, a new generation of African-American producers, writers, and editors brought their news and views to programs like Black Journal, Soul!, Say Brother, and many others.

Black public affairs television was born of turbulent times, a product of America’s great societal upheaval in the 1960s. The passage of federal legislation to prohibit discrimination at the lunch counter and the voting booth (the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, respectively) did little to address the everyday indignities of economic and racial discrimination for most African-Americans. Urban schools remained woefully underfunded and overcrowded. Banks made it nearly impossible for black families to purchase homes and businesses, so African-Americans were segregated into low-cost, low-quality housing in urban ghettos. Poverty, powerlessness, and police brutality became the norm for many urban African-Americans. From 1964 on, in cities as far-flung as Watts, New York, Baltimore and Chicago, African-Americans took to the streets to violently protest racial and economic inequality.

ENTER THE KERNER COMMISSION
In response to race riots in Newark, Milwaukee, Buffalo, Minneapolis and Detroit during the “long, hot summer” of 1967, President Lyndon Johnson created the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission. The Kerner Commission was tasked with finding out why the riots happened, and what could be done to prevent future “civil disorders”. The commission concluded that

“Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.

What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain, and white society condones it.”

The Kerner Commission recommended an overhaul of the educational, employment and law enforcement systems in America’s cities. In particular, the Kerner Commission took the news media to task for its portrayal of African-Americans, claiming that the media

“failed to report adequately on the causes and consequences of civil disorders and on the underlying problems of race relations. They have not communicated to the majority of their audience–which is white—a sense of the degradation, misery and hopelessness of life in the ghetto.”

The Commission recommended that the news media recruit and train African-American journalists in print and television media, and that the media should provide better coverage of African-Americans and issues in their communities.

ASSASSINATION AND AFTERMATH
In 1968, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. set America’s cities ablaze once more. Race riots ravaged Washington DC, Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore and more than 100 other American cities in April of 1968. This new wave of unrest, coupled with the Kerner Commission’s report, spurred the news media to act. Local and national television stations began recruiting and training African-American journalists and created black-themed shows like Soul!, Say Brother, and Black Journal. But instead of merely accepting assignments, these new African-American journalists demanded more editorial control, increased funding, better broadcast times and a distinctly “Black” aesthetic for their programs.

These shows marked a turning point in the portrayal of African Americans in the media. For the first time, black producers, editors, writers and on-air talent took control of the way blacks were portrayed on TV. Here’s a look at some of the groundbreaking programs that changed the representation of African-Americans –- and the face of television –- forever.

SOUL!

Ad for Soul! in Jet magazine, March 1970

Soul! aired on WNET (Thirteen) in New York from 1968-1973. The show was the brainchild of Ellis P. Haizlip, at the time the sole African-American producer working at WNET (then NET, National Educational Television). After Dr. King’s assassination in 1968 and the subsequent riots, Haizlip was approached by station management to consider the creation of a new arts program, along the lines of a black ‘Tonight Show’.

Instead, Haizlip created a black arts showcase more akin to Showtime at the Apollo, featuring both mainstream and avant-garde acts – from Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and Patti LaBelle to Max Roach, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Haizlip orchestrated charged interviews with Louis Farrakhan, Stokely Carmichael, James Baldwin and more. As a producer, he juxtaposed artists like singer Bill Withers with poet Mae Jackson; author Toni Morrison with Junior Walker and His All-Stars; and singer Jerry Butler with Muhammad Ali. Soul! stepped away from the “minstrel show” portrayal of African-American artists, instead creating a sense of black ownership and community. As Haizlip himself said on the show in 1972:

“We’re trying to create programs of black love, of black encouragement … hope that you agree with what’s going down.”

Say Brother
After Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4th, 1968, riots swept through more than 100 cities across the country. But one major city remained relatively calm – Boston. Public television station WGBH teamed up with the legendary James Brown to broadcast the soul singer’s concert live from Boston Garden on the evening of April 5th. And instead of rioting, Bostonians stayed at home, glued to their TV sets. (see WGBH’s documentary on the event, “The Politics of Soul” and listen to entire 1968 James Brown concert)

The huge success of the James Brown concert at keeping the peace in Boston prompted WGBH to hastily put together their Black public affairs television program Say Brother. The show debuted on July 15, 1968, and is still aired on WGBH today as Basic Black. The African-American staff of Say Brother was younger than other shows like NET’s Black Journal; every staffer, even the show’s director, Stan Lathan, was an African-American in their teens or early twenties. Consequently, Say Brother took on controversial issues like Black Power, school integration, youth uprising and police brutality. As Ray Richardson, one of the Say Brother’s first producers, said on the show’s first anniversary in 1969:

“We attempted to create an outlet for many of the viewpoints that exist in our community and to deal with political, educational, and cultural activities relevant to black people. We have had successes, occasional failures, and many memorable incidents.”

Clip: Intro to Say Brother, from 1968, theme by The Crowd on The Street

For even more clips from Say Brother, check out:
Muhammad Ali
Ron O’Neal from “Superfly”
Bobby Seale

Black Journal
Black Journal was produced by NET in New York, beginning in 1968. The program was initially helmed by white professionals, but after African-American staff members went on strike in protest, NET hired filmmaker William Greaves to produce the show. This hour-long program was distributed nationally, featuring coverage of African-American news, arts, and editorial commentary.

Watch the first episode of Black Journal

Unlike NET’s Soul!, which brought together artists in the studio in New York, Black Journal had the operational budget to send out film crews to cover African-American communities in Atlanta, Detroit, New Orleans, and Los Angeles, and even Ethiopia. By 1970, the show won an Emmy, Peabody and Russwurm awards.

Black Journal struggled financially at WNET for years before moving to commercial television in 1977, with the controversial Tony Brown as producer and host. Brown moved the show back to public television in 1982, where it aired until 2008 as Tony Brown’s Journal.

Colored People’s Time (CPT)
Detroit was especially hard-hit by racial violence in 1967 – a riot that summer lasted five days, claimed forty-three lives and resulted in over 7,200 arrests and 2,000 burned buildings. In 1968, Detroit public television station WTVS started production on an African-American news and public affairs show called Colored People’s Time. The show’s original mission was to build more community involvement among Detroit’s largely African-American urban population.

CPT was originally hosted by Tony Brown, who went on to host WNET’s Black Journal. The program covered local and national news and events pertinent to Detroit’s African-American community, as well as the arts, fashion and culture. Sample topics from early episodes of the program included the controversial Black Power salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics and the lack of African-American representation among Detroit’s politicians. The show is still airing today on WTVS as American Black Journal.

Watch a “public service announcement” from “Colored People’s Time”.

© Detroit Public Television; courtesy Michigan State University / MATRIX

Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant
On April 4, 1968 – the same day as the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – New York commercial TV station WNEW announced the creation of Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant. At the time, the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn was one of the largest African-American communities in the country – 400,000 strong. Despite its size, however, the neighborhood was virtually ignored by the mainstream media – and if Bed-Stuy was in the news, it was only in reference to crime and poverty.

That all changed when Robert Kennedy’s Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, the first community development corporation in the United States, conceived of Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant. BSRC brought in Charles Hobson to produce the show with an initial budget of $45,000. In contrast to the in-studio production style of programs like Soul! and Black Journal, Hobson and his crew went out into the streets to film the real Bed-Stuy, good and bad. Hosted by Roxie Roker and Jim Lowry, celebrities like Harry Belafonte, Eubie Blake, and Cleon Jones came on the program, but most of the show’s “stars” were simply people from the neighborhood, and, with the exception of only a few episodes, the entire show was filmed outdoors. Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant ran for 52 episodes from 1968-1970 before sponsorship money dried up, but the show painted an indelible portrait of a time and a place long forgotten.

Watch Leroi Jones Young Spirit House Movers and Players put on a spoken-word performance on “Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant”.


Sources:

* Report Of The National Advisory Commission On Civil Disorders (1967) (pdf)
* Devorah Heitner, “Black Power TV: A Cultural History of Black Public Affairs Television 1968-1980″ (2007)
* Gayle Wald, “‘It’s Been Beautiful”: Recovering Soul!”
* Sarah-Ann Shaw, “The History of Say Brother”
* American Black Journal online archive
* Jim Yardley, “Black America Made Visible: TV Show Illuminated Culture Through Lens of Bed-Stuy” (New York Times, 1998)
* Jake Austen, TV a Go Go (Chicago Review Press, 2005)
* Christine Acham, Revolution Televised: Prime Time and the Struggle for Black Power(U. of Minn. Press, 2004)