Civil rights was on the air

Photo by Daniel R. Burke

World War II was a two-front battle of a different sort for African Americans. Like the rest of the country, they fought Nazism and fascism abroad, but at home, they also fought for the basic privileges of citizenship that were still denied them decades after emancipation.

While the story of the postwar civil rights movement that won that fight is well known, the work of the foot soldiers who prepared the battlefield remains obscure. A new book by Assistant Professor of History Barbara Diane Savage, “Broadcasting Freedom: Radio, War and the Politics of Race, 1938-1948” (North Carolina, 1999), brings some of those warriors and their tactics out of the shadows.

These warriors were African-American scholars and activists who wrote, consulted on, produced and appeared on radio programs that highlighted black contributions to American society and culture and put the “race question” on the national agenda as World War II progressed.

Some of these programs, such as “Americans All, Immigrants All” and “Freedom’s People,” were the result of government efforts to build national unity as war approached and to get black Americans to wholeheartedly back the war effort. Others were national talk shows such as “University of Chicago Round Table” and “America’s Town Meeting of the Air,” which at first gingerly, then more aggressively, addressed the question of racial equality in their broadcasts. Still others were independently produced shows on local radio stations that posed more direct challenges to the racial status quo.

In collecting the source material for her book, Savage was surprised by two things: how well-documented the programs were — NBC left extensive files with the Library of Congress and the University of Wisconsin — and how thoroughly they had disappeared from our historical memory.

“These shows had some of the leading intellectuals of the day, people like Alain Locke and W.E.B. DuBois, preparing scripts. They were well-written and well-produced. They drew large audiences and enthusiastic responses. But they were lost to the history of radio and to African-American history.”

That some of these programs even aired at all is testimony to the depth and intensity of both African Americans’ grievances and the government’s concern. The government saw a threat to national unity in black efforts to highlight the contradiction between America’s fight against fascism abroad and its treatment of black citizens at home, but its efforts to encourage the national radio networks to address the issue met with resistance from network executives who used their Southern audiences as an excuse to avoid the topic.

In illustrating this tension, Savage in her book put a human face on what are often described as impersonal corporate actions. For example, a single NBC executive’s reluctance to touch the subjects of race and ethnicity at all for fear of offending some whites led the network to pass on “Americans All,” which aired on rival CBS to wide acclaim.

“It’s important to have access to these records, for otherwise, we’d be writing about ‘the media’ as this single organization,” she said. “But the documents show that ‘NBC’ turned out to be these four or five individuals making decisions about these shows.”

Originally published on November 11, 1999