Say Brother: Televising Black Power in Boston

Devorah Heitner | December 22, 2009

Say Brother was WGBH-Boston’s answer to America’s racial crisis. On April 4, 1968, as the news of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s, murder touched off major unrest in other cities, Boston Mayor Kevin White considered a dilemma: White feared that a concert scheduled for the following day, April 5, by R&B icon James Brown would, by gathering thousands of young African-Americans in the city center, create a potentially-explosive situation.

But canceling the concert risked angering Boston’s black citizens anew. City officials approached the leadership of Boston’s educational television station, WGBH, with a proposal to broadcast the concert live on television, and encourage fans to stay home. WGBH’s executives readily agreed, and the vast majority of fans did choose to stay home and watch the broadcast. The streets of Boston saw little of the violence that raged elsewhere, and city officials–and national media–gave credit for the city’s relative calm to the broadcast and, of course, to Brown’s considerable influence.

Ultimately, the recognition given to WGBH for televising the concert spurred the production of Boston’s first Black public affairs television program, Say Brother.

WGBH was far from the only public or commercial station to launch a black-oriented program in the aftermath of the assassination. Here are other Black-produced programs that launched.

A Black man with beard seen in profile. He wears long sleeve button-down work shirt over a dark t-shirt.

Stan Lathan.

Initially, Say Brother’s African-American staff was able to set an editorial agenda with little input from the station about the program’s message and style. In an interview, Stan Lathan, Say Brother‘s first director, surmised that their free reign came from a mix of white fears about black militancy and liberal hopes about the potential for black self-expression:

…we had absolute freedom for the first year; I think there was a tolerance that came about because of the time at that time we were able to say “You don’t get it because you’re not black.” (Lathan 2005)

At a loss to find African Americans with media experience, the station took Lathan’s suggestion to recruit from the ranks of Boston’s vibrant theater scene and from local colleges. Ray Richardson, the first permanent producer, was hired, like Lathan, from Boston University’s cooperative work-study program. In addition, the station recruited college students from Northeastern University. Other staff members were drawn from filmmaking and the black press. Henry Hampton, whose production company Blackside Productions later created the landmark civil rights documentary television series Eyes on the Prize, appeared regularly in the early years as a commentator.

Say Brother‘s staff resisted creating a stark division between “hard news” and reporting on cultural happenings. For example, in the early episodes, Stewart Thomas, Say Brother‘s “teen reporter,” was a regular on-air presence, offering insights and disseminating information on new cultural practices in Boston’s black community. In one episode, Thomas invited a friend onto the program to discuss an African-themed wedding the pair had recently attended together. Thomas described in rich detail the Nehru jackets of the ushers, the African headdress of the bride, and the music of Hugh Masekela that served as the wedding march. These kinds of reports emphasized that cultural transformation was an important part of black liberation—as important as the political protest and legal victories of the Civil Rights era.

The program’s original theme song, “Say Brother,” accompanied a film montage that celebrated Black Boston as a fashionable and lively scene, in stark contrast with prevailing media images of African Americans. The song itself, strident and upbeat, reflected the sense of urgency many felt at the time, addressing the transition in African American politics from civil rights themes to a new militancy. It also offered a vision of Black power in which men and women have mutually-supportive roles, with a call and response between male and female singers. (Women: “You’re looking outta sight.” Men: “Your natural looks are tight.” Together: “‘Cause Black is beautiful you know.”) [ed Note: the theme on the program was performed by the group The Crowd on the Street; it was written by an group with both black and white members, the Stark Reality–you can hear the intro here:]

In the second season, Say Brother‘s producers did not limit their biting criticism to the outside world; they also challenged WGBH directly for what the staffers considered to be their token status. Their escalating assertiveness came to a peak in July 1970 when the staff produced a ninety-minute special covering a week-long uprising in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Richardson’s narration critiqued the news media for focusing on “incidents” instead of probing deeper to explore “the real issues” behind the events, saying sarcastically: “We all know how it sounded—Black folks have gone wild again, you know, like we do every summer?”

To create the episode, the Say Brother staff spent six days in New Bedford filming interviews with groups of men, women, and young people in the street. It was a tense situation: groups of people were clustered in the streets in New Bedford’s two segregated Black neighborhoods, the south end and west end. While the small Say Brother staff was overwhelmed, and at times frightened, they were galvanized by the extent of the economic and social oppression that they saw and heard about. And the black residents of New Bedford, who had never had an audience for their experience before, had a lot to say. Everywhere the TV crew went, people gathered around the cameras to share their perspective, and the ninety-minute episode was packed with forceful critiques of racial conditions in New Bedford, as residents described wasted federal aid money, overt discrimination, stunted employment opportunities, broken promises, and third-world living conditions.

This kind of analysis offered by “rioters” was unlike the way other news shows represented riots and rioters—typically as chaotic scenes of inarticulate rage. Ultimately, Say Brother’s special episode on New Bedford delivered exactly what the Kerner Commission Report had called for in the wake of the mid-sixties uprising: African American points of view during civil unrest. For those living in the abysmal conditions of Black New Bedford, the episode offered their first public hearing. For those claiming to be mystified by Black frustration and despair in this era, the episode offered some very clear answers.

While some New Bedford residents tried to speak to Say Brother’s staff without using profanity, most people were unable to contain their rage into language “appropriate” for television. Richardson chose to air the program unedited, despite direct instruction from WGBH not to do so. This choice to broadcast the comments with profanity was in flagrant violation of FCC regulations that kept such language off the air.

After the episode aired the program director of the station, Michael Rice, and the general manager, Stanford Calderwood decided to cancel Say Brother. Immediately after the cancellation was announced, sixty protesters converged on the station. On August 12, 1970, Say Brother staff members released an open protest letter, which was published in the Bay State Banner, criticizing the cancellation. In the letter, the staff members charge the station with using the profanity in the New Bedford special as a subterfuge; they claim the program was canceled because of its content. After continuous and vocal protest from prominent community groups, the program was reinstated–without Richardson, who had been tragically killed in a swimming accident. Most of the original staff chose not to return, and the program took on a more national approach to covering African-American issues for a time, which were less controversial locally.

After the New Bedford episode, it was the strength of community response that brought about the reinstatement of the program. In 1969, Black audiences could still accomplish this, in no small part because governments and business owners were still terrified of Black rebellion. The workers who created the show were aware that the license they had been given to represent Black interests was a unique window of opportunity. Audience letters and protest shows that audience understood that local television could address their interests when national networks often ignored them. In its initial years, Say Brother sought to create an entirely new representation of Black Boston, a city with a white, liberal self-image that would shortly become known for its violent resistance to school integration. Without the “national spasm of remorse” provoked by King’s death, and the Black uprisings throughout the sixties a show like Say Brother never would have come about. Its legacy offers a powerful example of the cultural and political transformations of the Black Power era.